Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Peter Calthorpe: Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change

Dateline: 10:09 am April 1, 2011 Filed under:

Reading the first chapter of Peter Calthorpe’s important new book, “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change,” I could not help but think to myself, “sounds great Peter, but how in the hell are we going to accomplish this?” I was skeptical to be sure. But given the growing nuclear disaster in Japan and this week’s feeble attempt at energy policy by President Obama, there isn’t much choice. I now believe decision-makers everywhere should consider Mr. Calthorpe’s approach.

At first blush, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change sets some audacious goals. By 2050 each American must reduce their carbon footprint by nearly 90%. That is not a typo – we must consume 10% of what we do today. But he points out that we can nearly get there, through energy savings in our dwellings and our transportation, by trading our suburban large-home/car-dependent lifestyle for an urban condo in a walkable environment with transit options.

Although not nearly as aggressive as Mr. Calthorpe would propose, at least Obama is right about the starting point for energy policy: gas prices are trending up in the long-term, and we need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. The problem is, Nixon was saying that before I was born and before Peter Calthorpe started talking about sustainability in the 1970s. And the solutions proposed are far from sufficient – cutting oil imports by one-third in the next decade? Increased offshore drilling, more use of natural gas, and biofuels? All of Obama’s solutions (and those posed by many presidents since Nixon) seem to be to grow our way out of this problem, which is surpisingly tame considering his efforts to get HUD, the EPA and DOT to begin working together to create greener urbanism. His energy policy speeches should focus on that! It isn’t as important for us to fear $5 per gallon gas, but to change our lifestyle so as to not be as dependent on it.

The lesson in Japan is we cannot tame nature. Continuing to try and be more sustainable by doing more will not work – we need to actually reduce our demand. Whether or not you are for or against nuclear power, you have to admit that, overall, there is a reduced chance of a radioactive calamity if we have a lower appetite for energy and build fewer nuclear plants as a result, right?

The inconvenient truth in all of these plans by presidents (and like Al Gore, those who were oh so close to becoming president) is there is no mention of land use. The fundamental difference with Mr. Calthorpe’s approach is to reduce our way out of this problem by more responsible use of land coupled with more efficient buildings. Only through more efficient land use patterns can we reduce energy consumption in a meaningful way and maybe, just maybe, arrest the effects of climate change.

Mr. Calthorpe suggests mixed-use places replacing single-use zoning, which reduces trips by car. Those buildings should be energy efficient and in fact generate their own power when possible. He also advocates what he calls the Urban Network, a system of interconnected streets that allow for a range of transportation options, including cars, transit, bikes and pedestrians, with the densest development clustered around high-traffic rail stations. Coupled with energy-efficient buildings, he eschews a “silver-bullet” approach – indeed the solution is complex but interconnected. Land use and buildings cannot be divorced in policy decisions any longer.

It boils down to two rather simple but interconnected policies – energy efficiency and more efficient land use patterns. We need to drive less and occupy spaces that are smaller and more efficient. It is elegant in its simplicity, and we essentially have all the technology we need to accomplish this.

Call it what you will: green urbanism, sustainable urbanism, socialism, you name it. But if it’s so easy, how do we get there? There is the problem – green urbanism is illegal in most jurisdictions and will be difficult to implement, not just politically but practically. But the rewards are great – green urbanism does not just lower carbon emissions, but also produces significant cost savings versus the current trends towards suburban sprawl. Conservatives like Ed Glaeser understand this. As it it currently illegal in most places, legalizing green urbanism also creates an option in the marketplace. Indeed, Mr. Calthorpe argues the market will naturally push in this direction in the coming years, and is showing evidence of already doing so.

The thing to remember about “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change is the goals are for the year 2050. Where will you be then? Certainly most of us will move at least once before that time, some of us many times. And many of us will move on! It is the job of we Americans to encourage elected officials – from the local zoning level up to the federal transportation officials – to encourage us to do the right thing when the time comes to move. Giving us the legal option and financial incentive to be greener and the vast majory of us will do so when the time comes.

Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change should be the basis for any energy policy or climate change discussion. Perhaps Mr. Calthorpe’s goals are unrealistic, but if we are to get anywhere near them, his ideas are worth pursuing.

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