After working on issues of urban development and cooperative housing for close to a decade in Boulder, I’ve gotten the sense that the organizational tools and public polices we are familiar with in the US are not up to the task of creating equitable, accessible, evolving, sustainable cities. We don’t seem to have any model for what urban success is supposed to look like. Either that, or our model of success is horribly inequitable and exclusive, and we’re okay with that. By default, the financing, land use, transportation, and property rights policy regimes in the US turn any successful city into a socioeconomic sorting machine — poorer residents are expelled, as land prices are bid up and the city is socially and potentially physically transformed.
There have to be other, better ways for cities to succeed — for change to happen, and new residents to be accommodated without this kind of exclusion and erasure. But much of the urban development and housing discussion in the US seems to center on giving less wealthy residents the same powers of exclusion enjoyed by richer property owners. This might be more equitable, but it’s still a bad model of urban success. Cities are powerful economic engines, and also perhaps the best available platform and scale we have for creating an ecologically sustainable civilization. We need to allow more people into our thriving cities, and somehow use this demand to facilitate their transformation into places where a high quality of life can be had — by anyone — with very low energy and material resource requirements, without destroying the social and community structures that already exist.
Continue reading We Need Better Models of Urban Success
The Long Now has a good post on their blog summarizing the fate of Paul Romer’s Charter City initiative in Honduras. In short, it’s gone down in flames. Especially with the ideas and capital coming from N. America, this really shouldn’t surprise anyone. There’s a good core idea in Romer’s Charter City pitch, but it has to be more like an organic autonomous region and less like a maquiladora or a colonial outpost.
Share Everything: Why the Way We Consume Has Changed Forever. Sharing material goods makes it cheaper to use high quality, durable, well designed things, and the higher utilization factor means that many fewer things need to exist to satisfy everyone’s needs. It works especially well in urban areas where the geographic transactional overhead is small. This is a big piece of the dematerialization of our economy, and one of the most underappreciated reasons cities are a core climate solution.
A good hour-long podcast discussion between Alex Steffen and Angie Coiro about the future of cities. Skip the first 8 minutes or so to get to the meat of it.
Adam Greenfield has 100 short thoughts from his upcoming book, The City Is Here For You To Use. He’s somewhere between an urbanist and a science fiction writer… exploring the near future, or unseen present, of cities. How do networks change cities? Their structure, purpose. Is that good, bad, unavoidable?
The NY Times has an OpEd on how we need to enlist the suburbs in the fight against climate change: How Green Was My Lawn (not very). The author notes that the environmentalist movement of the 1970s arose largely from within the ranks of the suburbanites, and that the modern climate movement does itself no favors, politically, by consistently pointing its many fingers at the sprawling, car and oil dependent developments in which many to most Americans live today. No doubt. Unfortunately, the persistence and proliferation of suburbia precludes so many cheap and effective means of reducing emissions that it’s insane to take it as a given. It’s not just oil for the cars. It’s the need to go far, and go fast, in a large private vehicle, regardless of what it runs on. It’s the expense of making suburban homes a factor of 10 more energy efficient compared to doing the same with row-houses that share walls. It’s the inability to share almost anything in a suburban context — the per-capita need for stuff is enormous when you have to own it all instead of accessing it as a service. It’s the unnecessarily vast amounts of concrete, steel, asphalt and copper in all the infrastructure required to support those dispersed dwellings.
And all for what? To support a transient cultural expectation. A particular ephemeral vision of affluence, which is itself largely born of government subsidies of and mandates for the creation of sprawl over the last 60 years. A century from now, if we successfully meet the climate challenge, we’ll look back at how we made a fetish of the single family home with the three car garage, and lump it in with the widespread use of DDT that inspired Rachel Carson, or the cancer-causing X-ray machines we used to have in shoe stores, or the way Victorian women would wear corsets so tight they couldn’t breathe, even sometimes having a couple of ribs removed to enhance their narrow waists. Suburbia is a fad, a phase, a peculiar addiction with very serious side effects that we can no longer ignore. It may be politically inconvenient, but the imperatives of the suburbs are almost entirely at odds with the imperatives of addressing climate change, and you cannot argue with the sky.
An informal study looking at the urban farming yields, by Mara Gittleman. 67 gardens, with a total area of 1.7 acres in NYC generated 87,000 lbs of food, with a market value of roughly $200k in 2010. This is equivalent to about $3/square foot. Just looking at the financial aspect, if we’re talking about land which could be developed, the net present value, discounting at 5%, of $3/sq ft, is (even if we go out 100 years) only about $60/sq ft. If you build a 5 story building, then property values need only be greater than $12/sq ft for the urban farming not to make (economic) sense, and I’m going to go out on a limb, and guess that property values in most of NYC are, um, substantially higher than $12/sq ft.
With this year’s expiration of the Kyoto Protocol and our Climate Action Plan (CAP) tax, the city of Boulder is looking to the future, trying to come up with an appropriate longer term climate action framework, and the necessary funding to support it. To this end there’s going to be a measure on the ballot this fall to extend the CAP tax. I’m glad that we’re talking about this within the city (and county), because at the state and national level, the issue seems to have faded into the background. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. This year’s wildfires, the continuing drought that’s decimating the corn and soybean harvests, and the phenomenal 2012 arctic melt season are just appetizers. If the last decade’s trend holds true, we’ll have an ice-free arctic ocean some September between 2015 and 2020.
The major sources of emissions, broadly, are electricity generation, transportation, the built environment (space heating, cooling, hot water, lighting), agriculture, and industry (the embodied energy of all the stuff we buy, use, and then frequently discard). The extent to which local government can impact these areas varies. We interface with embodied energy most directly when it comes to disposal and at that point, the materials have already been made. Similarly, most of our food comes from outside the region. Our most ambitious project so far has been the exploration of creating a low-carbon municipal utility. We’ve also potentially got significant leverage when it comes to transportation, land use, and the built environment, since cities and counties are largely responsible for regulating those domains in the US.
Continue reading Energy Intensity and Boulder’s Climate Action Framework
Where the Next Wave of Urban Growth Will Come From, the Harvard Business Review looks at a study from McKinsey, detailing the economic centrality of cities, vs. national economies. Large cities and modest countries are now of the same scale, and cities are growing much much faster, economically. If you’re going where the market is, most likely, it’s in a bunch of towns you’ve never heard of, each with a population of several million. Mad change.
Essess is doing drive-by thermal imaging in high density urban areas across the US, hoping to target possible building energy efficiency opportunities. Another company is using urban satellite imagery to choose the best rooftops for solar energy siting. Big Brother may be watching you… but at least occasionally he’s got the right idea.