This article is the first in a series about the U.S. military’s new embrace of smart growth planning.
“The largest redevelopment opportunity in the world is at the Department of Defense.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer wasn’t exaggerating when he uttered those words to an audience of smart-growth developers earlier this month. While U.S. DOT, the EPA, and HUD get all the glory as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities – which celebrated its fourth anniversary this week – it may be the Defense Department that has the most potential to reinvent the way land is used in the U.S. and abroad. The Pentagon is now using smart growth planning models to re-design the vast amounts of land it controls at its bases. And the military chain of command is bringing its full authority to bear on the matter: Livability is mandatory.
Even before a 2009 executive order mandating sustainability practices within the federal government and a 2008 report that sounded the alarm about the military’s dangerous reliance on oil, the Pentagon was making big changes. One of the largest institutional energy consumers in the world, DoD started increasing its investment in clean energy in 2006 and then set about taking a long, hard look at how it uses land.
It was inspired, in part, by former Air Force architect and planner Mark Gillem, now a professor of urban design at the University of Oregon. Gillem wrote a book in 2007 about the Pentagon’s practice of exporting inefficient suburban development to its bases abroad. U.S. military bases, in this country and elsewhere, are often entire cities unto themselves, and they’re often cities that suffer from auto-centric sprawl that limits connectivity and makes for unappealing living environment. It’s the kind of development the free market is rejecting wholesale these days — but the military is no free market.
It wasn’t always this way.
“The military, back in the 20s and 30s, led the way in creating compact, walkable communities,” Gillem told Streetsblog. “Our historic army posts – Fort Sill, for example, in Oklahoma; F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming; Randolph Air Force base in San Antonio — these all follow the principles that have great sustainability benefits, and they just abandoned it, like most of America abandoned it.”
In order to be a better neighbor overseas and to use resources more wisely, Gillem counseled the military to stop wasting valuable land. He recommended a shift away from low-density, auto-oriented development on military bases toward a more compact, walkable, urbanist model.
So the military hired him to rewrite its planning rules.