Climate Change and City Planning

LRT in DresdenAn impressive environmental movement has been building lately concerned about the warming of earth’s climate and what we should do about it. A major force in it has been the passions of activists, especially college students. The recent Powershift 2007 conference at our campus brought together students from around the country to consider what should be done about climate change.

What has been primarily discussed is the adoption of cleaner, renewable energy sources such as wind, solar-thermal panels, photovoltaic solar cells, or hydroelectric power. Or, they stress the need to develop alternative fuel technologies that reduce our demand for finite fossil fuels such as hydrogen or biofuels. However, I would like to bring attention to another major factor in the climate change debate: the carbon emissions brought about by Americans who continue to support wasteful, unsustainable lifestyle habits that lead to greater sprawl, greater congestion, and greater pollution.

Recently, the study “Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change” was released by the Urban Land Institute and Smart Growth America, in conjunction with the National Center for Smart Growth on the University of Maryland campus. The study found that vehicle-miles traveled (Or, “VMT”) in America are steadily increasing at a startling rate, three times the rate of population growth and at a faster rate than carbon emissions. VMT is scheduled to continue rising 60% over the next 30 years; all the while CO2 emissions would be 40% above 1990 levels even under a best case scenario with new Senate CAFE standards. Transportation CO2 emissions account for a third of total emissions in the US, and while policy initiatives have striven to improving fuel efficiency and carbon fuel content, precious little has been done to reduce the amount of driving that is being done.

Our communities have principally been designed for automobiles, where multi-lane freeways, spread-out subdivisions and expansive strip malls are the norm. Our attitudes have been cultivated from this way of living, with an increased prevalence in people moving farther away from work and eschewing public transit for time spent alone in their cars. These unplanned subdivisions encourage low-density zoning in areas that receive little to no benefit from mass transit, thus forcing everyone to drive to get around anywhere.

Portland Streetcar PlazaMost frustrating has been the lack of attention from environmental activists, especially students, on this topic. While policy initiatives on emissions caps are necessary and welcome, it takes a concerted emphasis on persuading the general public that global warming is real and is impacted by the decisions we make every day. Collective pressure on planning policymaking could bring about real change to the problem. While many “activists” are in tune with the more glamorous topics, such as the headline-grabbing “gloomsday” scenarios, they may be overlooking other aspects of the problem.

So here are the solutions. The best way to discourage driving is to reduce urban sprawl, which pushes communities further out from cities and increases vehicle travel distances that increase fossil fuel consumption and emissions released. These conditions lead to greater traffic congestion, which directly threatens the livelihood of our cities. Higher-density, mixed-use development around transportation centers (termed as “smart growth”), extensively implementing “green” building design features and promoting rural conservation efforts to control sprawl can have a pronounced effect on development patterns.

Environmental activist Mike Tidwell believes that it’ll be “very hard” to wean Americans off their unsustainable suburban existence, but it must happen eventually. We can start by giving citizens realistic alternative options to commuting in automobiles. Currently, the Federal Transit Administration appropriates 30 times less funding towards public transit projects than highway projects yearly, which reflects severe lack of foresight by this administration. The 2009 surface transportation bill (Transportation Equity Act) will decide the allocation of federal funding for the following 5 years and can set a tremendous precedent in reducing the amount of transportation greenhouse gases emitted. Further, cheap gasoline makes driving more financially viable to many compared to transit. Let’s fix that by instituting dramatically higher gas and displacement taxes that not only encourage people to drive less frivolously and carpool, but to use the extra proceeds to fund mass transit projects such as the Purple Line and reintroducing streetcar services. Antiquated zoning codes that worked to separate residential, commercial and retail spaces now work against achieving smart growth and must be reformed to encourage mixed-use development that puts everything within walkable distances. Local governments should also refuse to give sweetheart deals to private developers whose objective is to build over every last inch of open space.

And it’s important to note that I don’t believe that mass transit is the panacea to solve all of our traffic problems. Road improvements are long-overdue and even more necessary than before due to exploding population growth that has overburdened our transportation infrastructure networks. But diminishing the need for long travel distances by conveying changes in public attitudes and the way we plan cities is the vision that we need to start embracing. Promoting responsible planning and development is necessary to foster compact communities that can support lifestyles in the new age of conservation and sustainability. Curbing global warming takes more than just a signature. It requires a real, fundamental revolution in the way we live.

7 thoughts on “Climate Change and City Planning”

  1. Great piece. You are correct that transit won’t be enough for major metro areas. Telecommuting will need to play a prominent role. If there was a public policy in support of people working from home (in certain types of jobs) even 20% of the work week the pressure on our road and transit systems would be reduced considerably.

  2. Great post Michael. It’s important to note that, at least at the beginning, we don’t have to do anything to make people leave their cars or quit building suburbs. All we have to do in the beginning is meet the latent, unmet demand for walkable, compact places with access to different types of housing and transportation options, close to job centers, etc…

    There will come a time when we have to consider our urban form as a complete whole, but the crux of Growing Cooler is that simply meeting this demand could do more than proposed mileage standards, due to the the reductions in VMT of residents in compact neighborhoods.

    Thanks for helping to get the word out.

  3. I concur. Excellent job Mr. Farhoodi. Another aspect of the coming decades in terms of urban transportation is the continued aging of the baby boomers. While the boomers took lots of pleasure in buying up Levitt houses, they won’t be so pleased with the ‘burbs once they become less able to drive. An urban transport system that is not reliant on cars will help them as well.

  4. to add on to Matt’s comments…..no one will be too pleased with the ‘burbs (and their Hummers and Escalades) when oil reaches $5 a gallon – and before you laugh, it will happen well before the purple line’s inagural run. its coming folks….

  5. I agree with the author of this column. This article is similar to The Long Emergency: surviving the converging catastrophes of the 21st century by James Howard Kunstler, but the Farhoodi takes a more practical approach to the issue. Kunstler has an almost apocalyptic view on the energy and global warming crisis caused buy suburban America, while Farhoodi takes a more realistic approach to the issue. Either way that you choose to look at it, it is clear that there needs to be a serious shift from the current suburban lifestyle to a more efficient city lifestyle. Cities are more efficient and environmentally friendly because most city residents do not even bother with owning a car, if they want to go somewhere they walk a few blocks or take the metro. Mass transport and self-transport are obviously environmentally friendly because they save gas and reduce harmful emissions.
    In his documentary “Radiant City”, Kunstler provides more arguments against suburban America. He argues that our gas chugging SUV’s and 2000+ square foot homes are what is leading to our energy crisis. With national average gas prices about to go upwards of 4$ per gallon, many Americans will not be able to afford this lifestyle, but will sadly continue to live it until the last possible moment. Think of how these things are affecting our environment. If we are clearing rural land to trees and building huge, inefficient homes and driving huge inefficient cars, how much are we polluting our environment? Unless we are driving hybrid cars and using solar energy to heat our homes, we are not doing enough to save energy and help the environment.
    However, it is very unlikely that the migration from cities to suburbia will change without some sort of stimulus. In fact, more and more people are settling rural areas such as the vast open spaces in Kentucky, creating new suburbs and therefore continuing the process of the suburbanization of America. Something needs to be done to compel the average, short-sighted American to move into, or at least closer to the major cities of the United States.
    It will probably be hard to convince Americans to move from the suburbs into urban areas. First off, most people are quite happy with their home and have no reason to move. The second major obstacle is simply the culture shock. Most people enjoy the typical suburban culture and may not like the constant buzz of the city. The presumption is that we need to move everyone into the city. I argue that the government should target the youth of America. This could be done by providing some kind of incentive for those who live in the city, something like the tax break that applies to traditionally green things like appliances and hybrid cars. I do not have many other suggestions for incentives, but I’ll leave that part up to the politicians. The point is that we need to make a population shift from suburban areas to the city- and fast. This will help ease the current energy crisis and will benefit the environment, two things that have been neglected for too long and are beginning to rear their collectively ugly heads.

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