Kaid Benfield Archive


Faith-based environmentalism: an interview with Michael Abbaté (Part 2)

Kaid Benfield

Posted May 20, 2009 at 1:34PM

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Michael Abbaté is director of urban planning and design for Gresham, Oregon, a suburb on Portland's MAX light rail line.  His new book is Gardening Eden: How Creation Care Will Change Your Faith, Your Life and Our World, published by WaterBrook/Random House.  

Mike believes that our society has created a false division between faith and science, and that environmentalism can bridge the gap between the two worlds.  His publisher's agent sent me a copy of Gardening Eden, which prompted me to ask Mike some questions.  Part 1 is here.  Today, we continue and conclude:

Q:  Portland is world-renowned for its progressive land-use practices, and Fairview Village has won all sorts of acclaim as an embodiment of some of them.  homes in Fairview Village (by: Jason Miller, tndhomes.com)Are you pleased with the progress that metro Portland has made in revitalization, transit-oriented development, containment of sprawl and so on?  Do you believe these practices are of value to people of faith?  What are the challenges to the prospects for these practices becoming more widespread?

A:  As a landscape architect and Urban Design & Planning for a city in the Portland Metro area, I have mixed feelings.  On many levels, Oregon's landmark land-use rules have prevented much of the sprawl evident in other metropolitan areas.  It has led to innovative developments such as Fairview Village, where I live, Orenco Station in Hillsboro, and others have served as an example of smart growth.  Consequently, many people who live in these types of developments are able to walk to work and to nearby shopping.  This benefits the environment and serves as an example that environmental stewardship does not mean "stop building", but rather "build smart and sensitively".

However, for those of us who live here, we have a long list of ways our community could be improved.  I am working to promote more intense development in Gresham's historic downtown, promoting the benefits of living in a more dense urban situation than the suburban homes on large lots that many of us grew up in.  The current real estate crash has shown that we have definitely overbuilt this type of house.  Many experts predict that when the housing cycle comes back, what will lead the way are condos and apartments in downtowns that offer an exciting, dynamic neighborhood with shopping, jobs and entertainment within walking distance.  There are some experts that believe that the once-prized distant suburban neighborhoods, will become undesirable places to live for new first-time home buyers.

transit-oriented development in downtown Gresham (by: Myhre Group Architects, vis Envision Utah)The net effect of this trend will be beneficial to the environment, as we live more densely and then can protect farm, forest and natural lands around and within our communities.

Q:  When I first became aware of environmental issues, in the early 1970s, the environment was not a partisan issue.  The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Environmental Policy Act were both adopted under president Nixon.  So were the launchings of modern air and water pollution legislation.  What happened?

A:  Hmmm...great question.  During the Reagan Administration, a few notable strides were made on behalf of the environment.   However, the greatest impact was probably made by James Watt, the Secretary of the Interior. His combative, attacking style tended to polarize the discussion.   With Watt, individual property rights were seen as trumping the needs of the collective.  In 1968, Hardin had described the results of this mindset as the "Tragedy of the Commons".  When the environment and personal property rights were linked with abortion and other socially conservative issues, it became almost exclusively partisan, and impossible to discuss the alliance between "conservative" and "conservation".  By the way, this is true on both the right and left.   We tend to like to label things in our two party system as one or the other, then dismiss the camp opposite from us. This is why many Americans are frustrated with the two party system, and why thinkers such as Jim Wallis (God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It) are increasing in their influence.

Michael Abbate's backyard Eden (courtesy of Michael Abbate)Q:  Many visible Christian leaders who embrace progressive politics are African-American; many visible Christian rightists are white southerners.  As someone who grew up in a white southern Christian context but whose political values are liberal, I often wonder why faith didn't lead more of us in a direction of compassionate, inclusive politics.  Do you have a sense of how this occurred, and whether faith might become a more unifying factor?

A:  There are many pastors from around the country who are leading the effort to reestablish the church's responsibility to protect the planet.  As I sit here in an Atlanta hotel writing this, I am preparing for this afternoon's opening of Flourish 2009, the first national conference on creation care for pastors and church leaders.  Speaking will be Leroy Barber, an African American pastor here in Atlanta, and Joel Hunter pastor of Northland outside Orlando.  Many of the vocal pastors who signed the Evangelical Climate Care Initiative are southerners. 

I believe some great alliances have been formed between African-American and white Christian pastors in the past 20 years. There have been many inter-church movements that have built bridges across racial differences.  One of the most prominent ones has been Promise Keepers. Here, African Americans played a very prominent role.

Q:  I think the gardening metaphor really works, and your writing projects how well it works for yourself, as a landscape architect.  The Center for the Arts Plaza in Gresham (by: GreenWorks)Apart from the implications for your faith, what have you personally enjoyed the most in your professional career?

A:  Thank you for the compliment. One of my most fulfilling labors of love will be the grand opening (June 6) of the new Center for the Arts Plaza [rendering on right] in Gresham, Oregon for whom I now work.  I oversaw the design of this plaza when I was with GreenWorks, a private Landscape Architectural firm.  I also continue to enjoy going back to the Oregon Zoo to see the habitat areas I designed 23 years ago.  I am also very excited about how we have paved the future for redevelopment in downtown Gresham.  Oh, and I am very proud of my home raised garden planters [photo above] that I designed and built!  You should see them.