Cities as a climate and energy solution

BusinessWeek published a special report on Green Design and Innovation this week, and one of their top stories highlights the core message of Growing Cooler: meeting the demand for the walkable neighborhoods and cities that result in less driving is one of the best solutions for reducing emissions.

Alex Steffen reworked his longer essay that appeared two weeks ago on WorldChanging into a fantastic short essay for BW Magazine.

Many Americans with varying levels of awareness about the climate and energy crisis tend to have a bit of blind trust in the technological powers-that-be. While perhaps wringing our hands about the problem, there’s a latent belief that the “smart people” somewhere will figure out a way to get 100 miles-per-gallon, get fuel from switchgrass, or finally run our cars with banana peels, beer cans, and trash poured into a “Mr. Fusion” like Doc Brown and Marty in “Back to the Future.”

Alex Steffen points out the simple truth about the hopes pinned on automotive technology:

“The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car but to eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go. In the U.S,, we need to stop sprawl and build well-designed compact communities. The land-use patterns in our communities dictate not only how much we drive, but how sustainable we can be on all sorts of fronts. And sprawled-out land uses generate enormous amounts of automotive greenhouse gases.”

It’s worth noting that while shifting our development patterns to meet the demand for walkable places between now and 2030, we should still be committed to researching and implementing vehicle efficiency. As we’re fond of saying here, it is a three-legged stool. But the cars of today will be the cars of tomorrow, for the most part. Steffen explains why:

“In comparison, it takes at least 16 years to replace 90% of our automotive fleet, and since it takes years to move a car design from prototype to production, it looks likely that the cars most people in the U.S. have available to drive in 2030 will not be all that different from the more efficient cars today. I’m optimistic that at least some radically engineered, nontoxic, fully recyclable electric cars will be on the road by then, but it’s extremely unlikely that (barring massive government intervention) they’ll be anything like the norm. We should not wait for automobile design to fix this problem.”

An important point that Alex also makes is the positive impact of putting housing, jobs, school, and retail closer together: transportation costs go down.

As we head into an era of increasingly expensive energy, combined with a housing crunch and possible recession, the cost of transportation is going to be like the side of a vise, squeezing many Americans into a difficult place. Because, as I heard Frank McArdle say on a podcast yesterday, “People still have to get to work.”

The affordable housing far out from everything, becomes much less affordable when energy prices hit the roof.

Imagine a solution where we meet the extant demand for more compact, walkable, accessible places, reduce our dependency on oil, cut down on emissions, and end up with cities and towns with a higher quality of life, security, and prosperity.

Alex’s full essay from BusinessWeek is here. It’s exciting to see a very mainstream media outlet picking up on the key message. Email it to everyone you know on the BusinessWeek site and let’s see if we can get it into the top 5 stories for the day.