Bright green suburbs

There’s been a lot of press attention lately around the “green cities” theme, especially in regards to climate (which, of course, I’ve been writing about for years). Much of the attention has been heartening but sometimes it’s brought out some of the usual misconceptions.

Alex Steffens, who can be reliably counted on for wordy strokes of brilliance over at WorldChanging, posted a draft article (to be delivered to auto-design students, no less!) titled My Other Car is a Bright Green City. (A version appeared this week in BusinessWeek.) One of the more interesting gems: car ownership (and particularly SUV ownership) appears to be wholly incompatible with the notion of “one planet living”:

Teresa Zhang of UC Berkeley, in a recent environmental analysis of the average American car (PDF), found that the tailpipe emissions from the average car alone equal 50% of a one-planet footprint. “The actual footprint,” she notes, “may range from 30% to over 100% of one’s ecological budget, corresponding to fuel efficiencies between 55 mpg and 12 mpg.”

The response I posted.

I’d like to echo the praise and the caution: changing our settlement patterns requires collective action — which 20+ years of the Reagan/Thatcher Revolution has taught us to not just distrust, but to deny. You’ve written eloquently before about how environmental solutions inherently cannot rely solely on individual choices, and borrowing some of that language might help here. Similarly, it’s a challenge to juxtapose different potential solutions against one another; when faced with a crisis of global warming’s proportions, our society will need to learn to speak of “both/and” rather than “either/or.”

Thank you in particular for pointing out the rate at which our built environment changes. Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived in fast-growing places for most of my life, but the cities I’ve seen have changed immensely in the past decade. In fact, our built environment will probably change more, 2008-2030, than our electric generating mix over the same time period — and although everyone has ideas for future inventions to revolutionize “the other people” who run the oligarchic electricity sector, we are overlooking a proven and cost-effective technology that we the people can use to effect similar change in the broadly-held building industry.

Density by itself is a necessary, but insufficient, part of a “bright green city.” I like to sum up the New Urbanist vision as “compact, diverse, and walkable,” and more alliterative sorts say “compact, connected, and complete.” Even I won’t walk if I have nowhere to walk to, nor a pleasant way to walk there. A thriving, resilient human ecosystem (err, community) must house a full range of people and a complete array of activities, all arrayed along streets designed to make walking enjoyable — both traits of which require density beforehand, but which do not necessarily follow from it.

I hope that those who understand this message, and perhaps who further understand that such communities do a superior job of fulfilling the triple bottom line, will help to fight NIMBYism on the ground. With some prodding from the citizenry, the vast machinery that churns out conventional suburban sprawl with breathtaking efficiency can be re-trained. However, even in the tiny slice of America where a developer can legally “do the right thing”, the political and social realities (from block-club politics to municipal infrastructure decisions) can still make doing so nearly impossible.

@Donald Jackson, the lower housing costs in far suburbia typically balance out against higher transportation costs, especially as fuel prices increase. Many residents of sprawling suburbs spend more on their cars than their houses, and those of us living closer in can ditch that money-pit of a car and spend more on housing instead.

@Brave New Leaf, yes, indeed, the American landscape is littered with dead malls, dead subdivisions, dead office parks, dead towns, dead cities, the works. Detroit is but the largest example of a city that’s been left to the dogs, but hardly alone; I’ve seen long stretches of abandonment and decay even in several Sunbelt boomtowns. If you thought disposable plastic bottles exact an immense environmental toll, how about throwaway cities?

Steffens’ post was referenced in Andrew Revkin’s NYT blog earlier this week, which (since it reaches a somewhat broader audience) drew some less favorable responses. Mine:

No torch-wielding mobs of Deep Greens are roaming the exurbs, setting fire to wastrels’ McMansions and forcing their occupants at knifepoint into dingy cement high-rises. However, from some comments here, you’d think that simply altering the immense social constructs that drive suburban growth would be tantamount to violence. For decades, government policies (or the lack thereof) have made low-density living seductively cheap and easy, partly by ignoring the plumes of pollution it created: most of America’s carbon dioxide emissions either come from buildings, or from people moving between buildings.

Sunday’s article by Alex Williams closes by noting that “the eco-friendly, futuristic, post-automobile suburb” interestingly resembles the old-fashioned city. I applaud Mr. D’Souza for recognizing that we don’t need to wait around for future technological breakthroughs to start fighting global warming. Instead of pondering a fuel cell car powered by cellulosic ethanol, he’s already largely switched to a clean, renewable (and tasty) fuel source: food, which powers walking. And instead of waiting for a fully automated personal rapid transit train to be built to his front door, he moved his door close to the existing, mostly-automated rapid transit. Amazing, huh?

Interestingly, this gradual re-urbanizing of the suburbs — with mixed uses, more transportation choices, and higher densities — is something championed by not only New Urbanist architects and planners, but also by many of their best-known critics. Joel Kotkin calls his version “New Suburbanism,” but it’s still the same.

Meanwhile, Trevor Boddy of the G&M sees Vancouver’s future as a walking-biking city tied to new crosstown transit corridors featuring a balanced mix of uses and an even more diverse array of housing types than downtown’s towers & townhouses. (One of EcoDensity’s most interesting features is its focus on dense low-rise housing.) The most obvious location for a first test seems to be the False Creek Flats, which is about as well transit-served as downtown.

“we have seriously erred in balancing job with living spaces downtown – with space running out there, arterials are where we can set things right. Copenhagen demands a fifty-fifty split of work and living spaces in its redeveloped zones, and putting both close together makes the walking and biking city so much easier, reducing costly transit investments.”

Many European and Asian cities have a form of dispersed, low/mid-rise style development which doesn’t focus all employment into a single core. It would be interesting to try such an approach on a corridor basis in North America.