Early in NEPA’s development many of its formative judicial precedents involved the making and remaking of our contemporary urban environments: major “urban renewal” projects, major urban destruction (highway) projects, etc. Not so much anymore. What has this done to the statute — and to our urban environments?
For example, a common understanding of NEPA’s basic routines is that they fall into a sort of hierarchy of project or decision intensity, scope, etc. The little categorical exclusion (CATX) is for projects utterly unlike those that merit a full-dress environmental impact statement (EIS).
But urban design decisions–like building a light rail line, converting one into an urban park, or expanding a highway–defy such hierarchies. What might seem like a “small” project at one stage (and thus meriting an environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact (EA/FONSI)) can easily become a much bigger project. In terms of effects on “the environment,” urban design and alterations are highly unpredictable. As people and capital around it begin to respond, a project of seemingly modest ambitions can take off. The natural environment is like this, too, but not as often will its interactivity be as visible to untrained eyes.