Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Land use conference to examine urgency of sustainable living

If you think the global climate and energy crisis is “out there” and not “right here,” James van Hemert has about 80 experts ready to say you’re wrong.

Martin Hoffert, a physicist from New York University, is one. Hoffert says research into new energy technologies is so far behind that the nation will have to get after it at a Manhattan Project-like breakneck pace to have any impact.

“He’s a scientist, he’s a realist, he’s a truth-teller, and he’s going to irritate a lot of people no matter which side of the spectrum you sit,” says van Hemert, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute, whose 17th annual conference is March 5–7 at the Sturm College of Law.

To complement Hoffert’s keynote address, van Hemert has enlisted other experts, including Arthur “Chris” Nelson of Virginia Tech University. Nelson will talk about America’s next 100 million people and how their arrival could blow the doors off the way Americans are used to living.

Both experts emphasize urgency and action.

“The fossil fuel party’s over,” van Hemert says. “We’re in for some momentous changes in the next decade.”

Much of that change will focus on where people live and work and how they will get back and forth. In the next 20 years, he says, an estimated 16 million people will be living in proximity to mass transit lines. The problem is the other 84 million new Americans will be living elsewhere.

“If you think you’re doing the world a big favor by buying a Prius hybrid and commuting from Castle Rock to work in downtown Denver, you’re making no difference whatsoever,” van Hemert says.

Survey results reported recently in The Wall Street Journal may bear him out. A study by the National Association of Home Builders indicates that 72 percent of home buyers are willing to spend significantly more on “energy-efficient features” in a house than they were in 2004. But 28 percent of buyers still want rural homes, and 35 percent want to live in outlying suburbs. Only 7 percent say they want homes in central cities.

“In the end,” the Journal asks, “will the money homebuyers save on energy-efficient homes be lost in gas-guzzling commutes to the office?”

A land-use conference presentation titled “The Train is Leaving the Station: Commuter Rail in the Rocky Mountain West,” featuring RTD general manager Cal Marsella, may help answer that question.

“If we’re going to make it over the next 10–20 years, there has to be a fundamental change to our transportation sector,” van Hemert warns. “You will have far more impact on the planet if you live close to work and walk to work than any amount of plastic bags you save.”

Van Hemert says he is cheered that people are increasingly paying attention to sustainability, a change he’s noticed in the last two years. And he is proud that the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute conference — the largest of its kind in the nation — is making people more aware.

But he’s dismayed at the number of people who believe “a little bit of this and a little bit of that is all it’s going to take.” There’s a bigger picture, he cautions, and it’s now.

“The advice I would give to the person who says ‘I want to do something’ is ‘Do Something!’ Pick one thing that turns your crank, whether it’s growing your own food or getting rid of one of your cars or insulating the attic in your roof.”

At the same time, take action — political activism or professional engagement — “within your own profession.”

The reason is simple, he says: “The issue is more urgent than it’s ever been.”

For information about the land-use conference and a schedule of speakers, go to

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