Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change

Image © Peter Calthorpe & Marianna Leuschel
Image © Peter Calthorpe & Marianna Leuschel

Editor’s note: Today we are very pleased to begin a five-part series of excerpts from Peter Calthorpe’s book, “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change.” Keep reading this week and next to learn how you can win a copy of the book from Island Press.

I take as a given that climate change is an imminent threat and potentially catastrophic—the science is now clear that we are day by day contributing to our own demise. In addition, I believe that an increase in fuel costs due to declining oil reserves is also inevitable. The combination of these two global threats presents an economic and environmental challenge of unparalleled proportions—and, lacking a response, the potential for dire consequences. These challenges will in turn bring into urgent focus the way our buildings, towns, cities, and regions shape our lives and our environmental footprint. Beyond a transition to clean energy sources, I believe that urbanism—compact, diverse, and walkable communities—will play a central role in addressing these twin threats. In fact, responding to climate change and our coming energy challenge without a more sustainable form of urbanism will be impossible.

Many deny either the timing or the reality of these challenges. They argue that global demand for oil will not outstrip production and that climate change is overstated, nonexistent, or somehow not related to our actions. Setting aside such debates, my book, “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change,” accepts the premise that both climate change and peak oil are pressing realities that need aggressive solutions.

Responding to climate change and our coming energy challenge without a more sustainable form of urbanism will be impossible.

The two challenges are deeply linked. The science tells us that if we are to arrest climate change, our goal for carbon emissions should be just 20 percent of our 1990 level by 2050. That, combined with a projected U.S. population increase of 130 million people,1 means each person in 2050 would need to be emitting on average just 12 percent of his or her current greenhouse gases (GHG)—what I will call here the “12% Solution.”2 If we can achieve the 12% Solution to offset climate change, we will simultaneously reduce our fossil-fuel dependence and demonstrate a sustainable model of prosperity. Such a low-carbon future will inherently reduce oil demands at rates that will allow a smoother transition to alternative fuels—and the next economy.

In addition to these twin environmental challenges, the United States has two other systemic forces to reckon with in the next generation: an aging population and a more diverse middle class with less wealth. We are now a country in which a third of the population are baby boomers or older and less than a quarter are traditional families with kids. And for the past decade, median income has actually fallen; in fact, “the typical American household saw its inflation-adjusted income decline by more than $2,000 between 1999 and 2008.”3 So, at the same time that we must respond to climate change and rising energy costs, we must also adjust our housing stock to fit a changing demographic and find a more frugal form of prosperity.

Such a transformation will require deep change, not just in energy sources, technology, and conservation measures but also in urban design, culture, and lifestyles. More than just deploying green technologies and adjusting our thermostats, it will involve rethinking the way we live and the underlying form of our communities. The good news is that our environmental, social, and economic challenges have a shared solution in urbanism. Shaping regions that reduce oil dependence simultaneously reduces carbon emissions, costs less for the average household, and creates healthy, integrated places for our seniors: one solution for multiple challenges.

The urban solution involves both technology and design. For example, we will need to dramatically reduce the number of miles we drive as well as develop less carbon intensive vehicles. It will mean living and working in buildings that demand significantly less energy as well as powering them with renewable sources. It will involve the kinds of food we eat, the kinds of homes we build, the ways we travel, and the kinds of communities we inhabit. It will certainly involve giving up the idea of any single “silver bullet” solution (whether solar or nuclear, conservation or carbon capture, adaptation or mitigation) and understanding that such a transformation will involve all of the above—and, perhaps most important, that they are all interdependent.

In fact, the viability of new technologies and clean energy sources will depend on the success of our conservation efforts at the regional, community, and building scales, which in turn will be determined by our basic lifestyles and the urban forms that support our changing demographics. The key will be designing the right mix of strategies, a “whole systems” rather than a “checklist” approach to climate change, energy, and economics.

There are three interdependent approaches to these nested challenges: lifestyle, conservation, and clean energy. Lifestyle involves how we live—the way we get around, the size of our homes, the foods we eat, and the quantity of goods we consume. These depend in turn on the type of communities we build and the culture we inhabit—degrees of urbanism. Conservation revolves around technical efficiencies—in our buildings, cars, appliances, utilities, and industrial systems—as well as preserving the natural resources that support us all, our global forests, ocean ecologies, and farmlands. These conservation measures are simple, they save money, and they are possible now. The third fix, clean energy, is what we have been most focused on: new technologies for solar, wind, wave, geothermal, biomass, and even a new generation of nuclear power or fusion. These energy sources are sexy, they are relatively expensive, and they will be available sometime soon. All three approaches will be essential, but here I focus on the first two—lifestyle and conservation—because they are, in the end, our most cost effective and easily available tools.

Perhaps just as important as greenhouse gas reductions and oil savings is the fact that urbanism generates a fortuitous web of co-benefits—it is our most potent weapon against climate change because it does so much more.

The intersection of lifestyle and conservation is urbanism. Consider that in the United States industry represents 29 percent of our GHG emissions; agriculture and other non-energy-related activities, just 9 percent; and freight and planes, another 9 percent. This 47 percent total represents the GHG emissions of the products we buy, the food we eat, the embodied energy of all our possessions, and all the shipping involved in getting them to us. The remaining 53 percent depends on the nature of our buildings and personal transportation system—the realm of urbanism.4As a result, urbanism, along with a simple combination of transit and more efficient buildings and cars, can deliver much of our needed GHG reductions.

Perhaps just as important as greenhouse gas reductions and oil savings is the fact that urbanism generates a fortuitous web of co-benefits—it is our most potent weapon against climate change because it does so much more. Urbanism’s compact forms lead to less land consumed and more farmland, parks, habitat, and open space preserved. A smaller urban footprint results in less development costs and fewer miles of roads, utilities, and services to build and maintain, which then leads to fewer impervious surfaces, less polluted storm runoff, and more water directed back into aquifers.

More compact development leads to lower housing costs as lower land and infrastructure costs affect sales prices and taxes. Urban development means a different mix of housing types—fewer large single-family lots; more bungalows and townhomes—but in the end provides more housing choices for a more diverse population. It means less private space but more shared community places—more efficient and less expensive overall. Urbanism is more suited to an aging population, for whom driving and yard maintenance are a growing burden, and for working families seeking lower utility bills and less time spent commuting.

Urbanism leads to fewer miles driven, which then leads to less gas consumed and less dependence on foreign oil supplies, less air pollution, less carbon emissions. Fewer miles also leads to less congestion, lower emissions, lower road construction and maintenance costs, and fewer auto accidents. This then leads to lower health costs because of fewer accidents and cleaner air, which is reinforced by more walking, bicycling, and exercising, which in turn contributes to lower obesity rates. And more walking leads to more people on the streets, safer neighborhoods, and perhaps stronger communities.

The feedback loops go on. More urban development means more compact buildings— less energy needed to heat and cool, lower utility bills, less irrigation water, and, once again, less carbon in the atmosphere. This then leads to lower demands on electric utilities and fewer new power plants, which again results in less carbon and fewer costs. As Bucky Fuller exhorted us, urbanism is inherently “doing more with less.” Or, as Mies van der Rohe famously asserted, “Less is more.”

But for the past fifty years, our economy and society have been operating on the premise that “more is more” and “bigger is better”: bigger homes, bigger yards, bigger cars with bigger engines, bigger budgets, bigger institutions, and, finally, bigger energy sources. In contrast, urbanism naturally tends toward a “small is beautiful” philosophy. This then involves trade-offs: less private space but perhaps a richer public realm; less private security but perhaps a safer community; less auto mobility but more convenient transit. Compact development does mean smaller yards, fewer cars, and less private space for some. On the other hand, it can dramatically reduce everyday costs and leave more time for family and community. The question is not which is right and which is wrong or that it must be all one way or the other—urbanism works best with blends. The question is how such trade-offs fit with our emerging demographics, our desires, our needs, our economic means—and perhaps our sense of what a good life really is.

From Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change, Chapter 1, by Peter Calthorpe. Copyright © 2011 Peter Calthorpe. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Notes:

1. U.S. Census Bureau Population Division, “2008 National Population Projections: Summary Table 1,” U.S. Census Bureau. (accessed February 10, 2010).
2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2007” (Washington, DC: EPA, 2009), ES-17.
3. The State of Metropolitan America, Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. (accessed June 22, 2010).
4. Author’s analysis of data from the World Resources Institute, “US GHG Emissions Flow Chart.” (accessed April 1, 2010).

  • Great piece! I think many people assume that small lifestyle choices will change climate chaos. And then there’s the other group that assumes industries and politicians can change it. We as involved citizens need to make the lifestyle changes necessary to foster environmental progress, but also push the politicians and business owners around us to do the same.

    I will be back next week to read another excerpt!

  • garyg

    Last year, the Transportation Research Board issued a report, “Driving and the Built Environment: The Effects of Compact Development on Motorized Travel, Energy Use, and CO Emissions”.

    In the report’s most optimistic scenario, requiring a dramatic change from current development practises (a doubling of the current density for 75% of new housing and development) household VMT and associated fuel use and CO2 emissions are projected by fall by only between 8 and 11 per cent after 40 years. Transportation accounts for only about a third of total energy use and emissions in the United States. And passenger transportation accounts for only part of total transportation emissions. So in terms of total energy savings and total CO2 emissions, you’re talking about savings of just a few percentage points. Again, that’s for the most optimistic scenario. The “moderate” scenario projects reductions in household VMT, energy use and emissions of just 1.3% to 1.7% by 2050. Which would mean a reduction in total emissions of only a fraction of one per cent. How is this a meaningful way to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions? Even dramatic changes from current land use practises would yield only trivial savings in consumption and emissions.

  • “the Transportation Research Board” a.k.a. Big Oil and the Car Manufacturers.

  • garyg

    Er, the Transportation Research Board is part of the United States National Academy of Sciences, probably the most prestigious scientific organization in the world. It has nothing to do with “Big Oil and the Car Manufacturers.”

  • J:Lai

    garyg,

    I seem to recall that the report you refer to was based on some rather simple assumptions about the response of household VMT to average density. For instance, it did not account for the fact that a shift to denser, mixed use communities would result in some people substituting public transit, walking, or biking for car miles.

    It also focused exclusively on the impact on transportation, ignoring things like the reduction in energy use for heating and air-conditioning achievable by higher densities.

    I may be mis-remembering as it has been a while since I saw that report.

    Anyway, I think the real answer is that we can’t make accurate quantitative predictions about multi-decade changes in population patterns. The relationships are likely to be very non-linear.

  • garyg

    I seem to recall that the report you refer to was based on some rather simple assumptions about the response of household VMT to average density. For instance, it did not account for the fact that a shift to denser, mixed use communities would result in some people substituting public transit, walking, or biking for car miles.

    No, it did account for that. In fact, the scenarios involved very optimistic assumptions about shifts from driving to transit.

  • TrueFreedom

    You lost me with the “less private space but more shared community places.” I’m all for hugging my neighbor, but the fact is that most areas of LA have an unacceptably high percentage of people with no consideration for others, social dirtbags if you will.
    So, I’ll just keep going for walks in my nice single family neighborhood, having friends over to my quarter acre lot, riding my bike to work … and leave the pocket parks to y’all.

  • TrueFreedom

    @garyg: additionally, I assert that VMT is not the appropriate metric to optimize, and doing so will likely lead to poor solutions that may actually increase emissions due to these “non-linearities” that J:Lai alludes to.

    VMT is a poor metric, because not all miles are created equal. Three miles in dense, congested, downtown urban traffic creates much more emissions than three miles driving on an open road with no stops. Additionally, emissions are not a simple linear function of congestion, either. At some point, you get gridlock and emissions go through the roof. Not only that, but when you look at local concentration levels of emissions… walking along an urban road filled with congested stop and go traffic subjects the pedestrian to extreme levels of pollution. What’s the point in saving the planet if we’ll all be dead from local pollution?

    From an emissions standpoint, we should focus on the real goal: reducing emissons. This is a different optimization problem than reducing VMT. Reducing emissions will have many drivers, pardon the pun, VMT being just one. Others include alternate transport (better walkability, bikability, rail, etc), reduced vehicle emissions (better technology, like fuel cell), congestion reduction (roads that flow more freely, fewer stops), increased parking (less wasted vulturing for spots), etc.
    Now, looking at living density.. it will positively influence some of these “driver” and negatively impact others. Taking a simplistic view of this optimization problem will surely yield grossly suboptimal results.

  • “Three miles in dense, congested, downtown urban traffic creates much more emissions than three miles driving on an open road with no stops. Additionally, emissions are not a simple linear function of congestion, either. At some point, you get gridlock and emissions go through the roof.”

    Not true of CO2 emissions. You are confusing greenhouse gas emissions with urban air pollution.

    Cars get better gas mileage and so emit less CO2 at 30mph than on open roads where they drive 60mph. To give the most extreme example, if there were literally gridlock and all the drivers were stuck in traffic with their engines idling, they would create lots of urban air pollution but would burn much less gasoline and emit much less co2 than cars driving at freeway speed.

  • garyg, you always cite studies that look only at the United States and that look no further ahead than 2050.

    GM now sells more cars in China than in the US. What would it do to global ghg emissions if the China, India, and the other developing nations took your advice and decided that, because driving is not an important source of ghg emissions, they can bring their per capita VMT up to American levels?

    If we want a sustainable global economy over the next several centuries, we will have to begin to consume a bit more modestly than Americans now do. Everyone in the world can ultimately have a comfortable, middle-class standard of living, but in the long run, the world’s environment cannot tolerate everyone having the extreme, consumerist standard of living that you seem to support.

    And you are not going to get very far by telling the developing nations that we superior peoples will keep consuming at levels that they can never attain.

    Even more important, there is no benefit to that extreme consumerism. International comparisons show that increased income makes people happier until they reach about half of the US’s current per capita GDP, and beyond that, increased income does nothing to increase self-reported happiness.

    Cities provide the obvious example of this failure of growth: sprawl suburbs where everyone has to drive are no more livable than streetcar suburbs where you can walk to the local store, though they do cost much more money.

    Even if there were no environmental considerations, we would be better off shifting from sprawl to streetcar suburbs, because it is a better way to live. Take a look at the picture of a streetcar suburb at http://www.planetizen.com/node/44299, and you will see that sprawl suburbs are less livable, despite their huge added costs – both financial costs and environmental costs.

  • garyg

    garyg, you always cite studies that look only at the United States and that look no further ahead than 2050. GM now sells more cars in China than in the US. What would it do to global ghg emissions if the China, India, and the other developing nations took your advice and decided that, because driving is not an important source of ghg emissions, they can bring their per capita VMT up to American levels?

    Huh? I never said driving is not an important source of GHG emissions. I’m saying that compact development and mode shifting to mass transit cannot realistically produce more than small reductions in emissions. The key to reducing emissions from passenger transportation is cleaner automobiles. The key to reducing residential emissions is cleaner electricity and more energy-efficient buildings, appliances and consumer products. Consideration of developing countries further illustrates how hopeless it is to expect to make a dent in global warming by focusing on urbanism instead of on cleaner cars, because China and India and other developing nations are going to be adding hundreds of millions of cars over the next few decades.

    And you are not going to get very far by telling the developing nations that we superior peoples will keep consuming at levels that they can never attain.

    I’m not advocating telling the developing nations that they can never attain our level of consumption. I hope and expect that the standard of living in developing countries will rise to that of the developed world.

    International comparisons show that increased income makes people happier until they reach about half of the US’s current per capita GDP, and beyond that, increased income does nothing to increase self-reported happiness.

    I seriously doubt that. If you want live on half of the US’s current per capita GDP, go ahead. That’s about $23,000 a year.

    Even if there were no environmental considerations, we would be better off shifting from sprawl to streetcar suburbs, because it is a better way to live.

    Well, you may think streetcar suburbs are a better way to live, but most people don’t seem to agree with you. I doubt that’s going to change.

  • True Freedom

    @CharlesSiegel: RE: “the drivers were stuck in traffic with their engines idling, they would create lots of urban air pollution but would burn much less gasoline and emit much less co2 than cars driving at freeway speed.”

    You are correct when measuring consumption per unit time, but not per unit trip. If I’m traveling from point A to B in free-flowing unobstructed traffic at 30mph, I will use less gas and create fewer emissions than traveling from point A to B in gridlock.

  • Transportation and big factories in the areas increasing the urbanization…
    Very informative blog..Thanks

  • Jason Herring

    When I was growing up living in surburban Wisconsin I knew most of the kids on my block so I felt I had some community.

    When I lived in Europe I knew all my neighbors, and there was a real sense of community with everyone around me – the neighbors, local shop keepers, etc.

    Now I live in LA and know only a few of my neighbors. My community is mostly those chosen friends who come to my house for dinner parties or backyard barbecues – the neighbors are not really involved. We have a strange sense of community here. Maybe I feel nostalgically of my youth so my memories are skewed, but the concept of community in Europe was not so long ago and is one I wish we had ingrained in us here. How much of that lack of community comes from our chosen isolation? How much of it from our singular commutes to/from work in our one-occupant automobiles, our private back yards and our unwalkable and sometimes walled communities?

  • @so-called TrueFreedom, the distance that people drive depends on their average speed. Studies (eg, by Zahavi) have shown that people have a time-budget for transportation, and if they can drive faster, they will drive further. That is why it is invalid to compare emissions per trip of a given length, as you do.

    Also, your comparison used 30 mph vs stop-and-go. Don’t you spend much of your time driving at more than 30 mph? If you were honestly concerned about traffic flow that minimizes emissions, you would slow all your driving to 30 mph.

    “the fact is that most areas of LA have an unacceptably high percentage of people with no consideration for others, social dirtbags if you will.”

    There, I agree with you completely – but there are many different types of people with no consideration for others. People who make excuses for their own environmentally destructive behavior and who don’t care about the harm they are doing to our children and grandchildren are also what you call “social dirtbags.” Yes, there are lots of them in LA.

  • TrueFreedom

    @Charles: Though I wrote “per unit trip” in my post #11, I’m not advocating that as a metric. My post #7 more accurately reflects my opinion.

    And, don’t get all hung up on the “30mph” thing. The point is, if you are trying to get from point A to point B, that free flowing movement will create fewer emissions than stop-and-go traffic. As far as driving faster creating more emissions… well, of course. Energy consumption increases roughly as the square of speed (driving twice as fast uses four times as much energy), but you spend less time.. so the net is a linear increase in energy usage (roughly). So, yes, it would be better (in terms of energy usage) to drive a constant 30mph than a constant 60mph.

    Again, my point is that using VMT as a metric to optimize is too simplistic and will lead to poor decisions/ solutions. We really want to reduce TOTAL emissions… solutions here will be multi-faceted, by improving things like viability of alternate modes of transport (walk, bike, bus, rail, etc), by better urban/ suburban planning, by reducing auto/truck emissions, etc.

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