Solving Cities

Why cities are on the 'cutting edge of environmentalism'

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Earth Day Special Feature 2011: Peter Calthorpe, one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism, talks with SmartPlanet about how cities are leading the fight against climate change.

If we're going to curb climate change, urbanism -- developing sustainable cities and metro regions -- will have to lead the way.

So says Peter Calthorpe, an architect, urban planner, and one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

In his latest book, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change, he argues that green technology and alternative energy alone won't mitigate climate change, but that they will need to integrate with smart urban planning and development to really make a difference. I talked with Calthorpe about what that looks like in practical terms, how urbanism is the cutting edge of environmentalism, why sustainable cities are more than just a fad, and more.

SmartPlanet: You say in your book that Americans must reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions to 12 percent of their current output. Briefly paint the picture of a city that is designed to reach that goal?

Peter Calthorpe: It's not a simple – either you live in the suburbs or you live in the city. We used to have things called streetcar suburbs that were very walkable, in California they were built around bungalows, and people walked more and they biked more and they used transit more in those areas.

You basically have to get to a situation where you reduced your dependence on the automobile, and your car is very efficient – 55 mpg. But perhaps more important, you're only driving it 5,000 miles a year instead of 30,000.

You're getting around otherwise by walking to local destinations, using you bike, and using local transit networks. You're probably also living in a townhouse or an apartment where the building is very efficiently built, and demands very small amounts of energy. There's not a lot of water being used because you don't have a big yard, but there's a really cool park nearby. And you tend to eat a little more organic, a little more local, and a little less meat. And the power grid for your region is based at least 60 percent on renewables.

It's a combination of all those things. But at its foundation is the more compact, walkable, urban environment, because it is what reduces demand. It reduces demand so much that you then begin to satisfy the demand with renewables.

SP: You're saying that the question shouldn't be, "do you live in a city or not?" but if you live in a community with these qualities?

PC: Right. And we almost had a perfect system before World War II in the U.S. We had great cities, people loved to live in them, and they were very walkable and transit oriented.

But we had suburbs that were also walkable and transit oriented, they were called streetcar suburbs. There were massive streetcar systems all around the United States. They were torn up after WWII by a consortium of GM, Standard Oil, and Firestone, and they were all replaced with buses, which became less and less desirable as they got stuck in the same traffic as cars. We transitioned away from a pattern that was pretty healthy.

The two compliment each other: the city center, in its higher urban forms, and the streetcar suburbs – what we now call transit-oriented development – really help each other.

Part of the mistake that the right-wing makes here is that they think in order to be ecological, everybody has to be forced into the same lifestyle, and that's just not true.

More and more we live a regional life. Not just a life in a city or a town. Our economic opportunities, our social and cultural lives are regional and almost all of our environmental issues are regional: air quality, water quality, transportation. All these things are regional issues that can't be dealt with by a single city or town.

SP: Is the urbanism that you described -- sustainable cities -- is the most plausible solution to climate change?

PC: I call it the foundation. If you don't get the lifestyles to a healthier place, the amount of technology that you're going to have to deploy is going to be really problematic. It's conservation first. Reducing demands before you start talking about supplies. Too much of the discussion around climate change and carbon seems to focus on technology before it even begins to think about how people's lifestyles can change.

Of course a more urban lifestyle, whether it's a streetcar suburb or city, is just healthier and more affordable. It's a win in many dimensions.

For example, we have an obesity crisis in the United States. Part of that is driven by the fact that we're too sedentary, we don't walk. Our communities have less of that natural policing that happens when people live more in the public domain. And more time in the streets and cafes, and less time in their cars. Safety gets in there, air quality is impacted, the household economics.

You can forget about saving the environment, what about just living affordable lifestyles? In America today it costs $5,600 a year to own a car. If you want to own a new one it's like $8,000. So in American where the median household makes $50,000, and half of that is spent on transportation and housing, you can see how two cars immediately eats into a pretty big chunk of the household budget.

We've been able to demonstrate, here in California, as part of our implementation of AB 32, that you not only save the environment, but you save your pocketbook, and you create healthier people and stronger communities.

SP: You make a convincing argument that urbanism has a positive impact on health, economics, safety, and has other co-benefits. Are you saying you can be an urbanist without necessarily being an environmentalist?

PC: People like to live in cities not just because they're environmentalists, but by living in cities and walkable towns they're at the cutting edge of environmentalism. That's the good news.

It should never be a single issue movement. Trying to design healthy sustainable communities impacts so many dimensions of our society that you should never just look at carbon or oil or even land consumption. But it succeeds on all those levels.

In California we looked at a more compact future that only had 30 percent of the new housing in apartments and 55 percent in townhouses and bungalows, with the end result still being over 50 percent of the housing in California being single family. Yet, the difference in land consumption was monumental. It went from something like 5,000 square miles down to 1,800 square miles.

That huge urban footprint, that savings there of 3,500 square miles of building over farmland, and habitats, that’s a very important component to many people, not just environmentalists.

SP: You talk about the history of urbanism with the rise of the suburbs in the 1950s and now a return to the city in the 2000s. Is urbanism and talk of sustainable cities just a fad or do you think there is a paradigm shift taking place?

PC: It’s a fundamental fact of demographics. When we gave birth to the suburbs we were pushing towards 50 percent of households were a married couple with kids. Now only 23 percent of households are married with kids. The other 75 percent have other needs, other priorities other than a big yard on a cul-de-sac. Whether it’s young single people or older empty-nesters or single moms struggling to make ends meet, there’s a whole different set of needs that revolve more around costs and a lot of issues.

When you get to a point where you either don’t want to drive a lot because you’re older and/or you can’t afford to drive a lot, you need places that work for those parts of the population. So this change isn’t just about a fad or a sentiment, it’s fundamental demographics and economics.

And the good news is that it helps us with our environmental challenge.

SP: In the book you say that we need more interconnected whole system fixes, where engineers are working with urban planners, and vice versa, to design a successful communities. What are some examples of this that you have seen successfully play out?

PC: Well, urbanism came along in the early 90s and has now demonstrated a huge number of successes in trying to think holistically about the design of neighborhoods and communities. They range from really large projects -- like we did the reuse of the old airport in Denver, Stapleton. There are 10,000 units of housing there; it’s walkable, it’s mixed-use, and it’s very mixed-income.

One of the most radical things that happened there is that we ended up being able to put in one neighborhood the very high-end housing and the most affordable housing a block and a half apart. Whereas the development community had been operating for decades on the notion that you have to segregate income groups.

I think that there’s a lot [of benefits] for the society, for the strength and coherence and the basic sensibility and investment we have in each other to not live in isolated enclaves.

At the other end of the spectrum, the New Urbanists helped Henry Cisneros, when he was head of HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] to execute the Hope VI program, which was to tear down the worst of the public housing projects and build in their place mixed-use, mixed-income communities that really fit with their surroundings. They were no longer a stigma dragging huge sections of the city down.

There are a lot of success stories out there and a lot of good examples. So much so that the development community, and its leadership – for example the Urban Land Institute – has completely signed on to all of these precepts.

The models, the paradigms are there and once we come out of this great recession I think we're going to be able to move in a much healthier direction.

SP: Do you think when we come out of the recession that there will be less single family home development and sprawl?

PC: The interesting thing is that the development community understands that the marketplace that's going to come next is much more compact, walkable communities. The question is: are they going to be allowed to build it? Therein lies the big problem.

All of our zoning codes are still focused back into the hindsight, into single-use homes and low density. So all zoning needs to change, which of course is a huge political hurdle.

Then you have the problem of NIMBYs [not in my backyard], and a bunch of them actually use environmental alibis. They're people who just don't want infill, they don't want density, they don't want townhouses near their large lot, they don't want commercial in the neighborhood, even if they could walk to it. Because fundamentally they don't want change.

That creates a very perverse situation where even when the developers want to build the right thing, they don't get the chance.

SP: Is that the biggest hurdle for building more walkable, dense communities?

PC: Absolutely. NIMBYs – it's interesting to watch how many of them use environmental issues as alibis – are the biggest problem. Of course there's infill parcel-by-parcel along an arterial, and there are also big infill sites which really scare people: old army bases, large industrial areas, and things like that that can be converted. People are frightened by the scale of change. But what they have to realize is that the end result is that development gets pushed farther and farther to the regional periphery where there's less transit and fewer jobs.

[Along with zoning codes] there's a third leg here, and that's that our departments of transportation have a real strong addiction to building roads rather than transit. There are really three shifts [that need to take place]. We have to reframe the infrastructure and put more money into transit than roads, we need to redo the zoning codes, and we need to find a way to overcome local opposition to infill.

The problem is always that infill does cause local impacts, there's no question. But when you're looking at it holistically, it's a much more environmentally benign way to grow. But on someone's block it doesn't look that way.

I live here in Berkeley, California. And I think downtown Berkeley is a prime example of this. We have BART, we have the university, we have jobs, we should be building high-rise residential right there, right at a transit node, right at the doorstep of a great university. But there are a lot of environmentalists here who just say, "no that's not the right thing to do." In the end what it means is people get pushed farther and farther out to the suburbs and commute greater and greater distances because there just isn't enough housing close to the jobs.

SP: Most of your book is from a US perspective. But climate change is a global problem. Are there places around the world that are getting urban design right? Is the rest of the world going in the right direction?

PC: There are many northern European countries that are really getting it right. The Scandinavian countries are doing a fabulous job of putting the brakes on autos and really orienting towards biking and walking. Copenhagen is a great example of that. And in Sweden over 50 percent of all trips are on foot or bike, and it is a cold, wet climate. And they have, on a per-capita basis, higher incomes than we do. They could afford to drive everywhere, but they don't. It's the cityscape and it's the culture. Those are good models.

I'm doing a lot of work now in China where they've got three of the four things you need to make good urbanism. They have density, traditionally they have very mixed-use environments – they have small shops everywhere. And they invest heavily in transit.

But they're getting their street network all wrong, and they're building super blocks that really defy the pedestrian and the biker. So you find these huge drop offs in pedestrian and bike mobility in China. What they need to do is reconfigure the way they design their street networks back to small blocks and human-scale streets. And if they do that they'll really be a model.

More from SmartPlanet's Earth Day Special Feature 2011:

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure