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Interview: Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute Executive Director James van Hemert

Q: What does your institute do to promote sustainability?

We address fundamental land use, transportation policy and regulatory matters on a regional and national scale. We tackle issues that truly will have a long-term impact on sustainability. We also work to oppose “greenwashing” — a veneer placed on an unsustainable practice that makes it appear green.

"We've got to advocate for less automobile-dependent new development," says sustainable land-use expert James van Hemert.

"We've got to advocate for less automobile-dependent new development," says sustainable land-use expert James van Hemert. Photo: Wayne Armstrong


Q: The history of the West is rich with stories of independence and ruggedness. Yet, sustainability is about compromise and cooperation. Does this pose special problems?

A: The history of the West actually is as much about compromise and cooperation as it is about independence and ruggedness. Case in point: FasTracks, the expansion of regional light rail in Denver. Fifteen years ago people were saying we would never ride trains here because we’re rugged individualists and don’t travel this way. Look what’s happening! It’s the largest expansion of light rail in the country.


Q: It’s been said that Americans favor sustainable practices for everyone but themselves. Is this true?

A: It’s true for many of us. We’re willing to do a few convenient things, such as buying a hybrid car, recycling, using reusable grocery bags and using public transit for some trips. What we need to do is to make wasteful or unsustainable ways socially unacceptable. Second, change the underlying structures, institutions and financial incentives to work in a way that supports sustainable living. We need to make the green choice the easy choice. One example is Denver’s upgraded recycling program. They made the containers bigger and learned to sort the items, and the amount they collected doubled.


Q: What are the three most important sustainable practices that people should adopt?

No. 1 is to lower vehicle miles traveled. Instead of making all those trips by car, use a bike, walk, ride a bus or combine errands so that you don’t make separate trips. No. 2 is to buy less stuff. No. 3 is to live in an urban environment with mobility options and mixed land uses so you can leave your car in the garage and walk and bike to places in your neighborhood.. Also, support higher-density zoning and backyard “carriage houses” — the kind of things that make a city more urban.


Q: What are the most important changes in housing and employment that people of the West must embrace?

The smaller your house, the smaller your carbon and ecological footprint. And those houses should be near transit. Unfortunately, the middle class likes the idea more than the practice. People will choose a neighborhood because it has light rail nearby, but they won’t take that rail. Also, we need to make housing-use more flexible. Our view of what you can do with your property is far too rigid.


Q: America has built a society that is auto-dependent. How do we fix that?

We’ve got to advocate for less automobile-dependent new development and more retrofitting and in-fill development within cities. We have to double our urban densities. That doesn’t mean high-rise living. Amsterdam has a very comfortable density, and there’s hardly a building in Amsterdam that’s more than five stories. It’s one of the most beautiful, comfortable cities, and it doesn’t feel crowded or cramped.


Q: How do we overcome resistance to changes that are at the heart of the sustainability movement?

Social marketing. We need to craft messages rather than just preach and pound on the podium. We need to change our systems and be really clever so people think they’re doing it the easy, convenient way.

The Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute at DU’s Sturm College of Law was created in 1992 to conduct research and educational programs on legal and public policy issues related to land use and development. Audio and visual media of more than 30 panels and lectures from the institute’s 2009 conference are available at

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