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.
It’s the relative attractiveness of different modes of transportation that shapes our choices, and American cities are still terrified of making driving less attractive. This really puts a cap on what fraction of trips we can get over to biking, walking and mass transit. Partly because driving is such an ingrained cultural norm (even if it’s just as easy to drive as to bike, the default behavior amongst most people will be to drive), and partly because accommodating cars well means degrading the walking, biking and transit amenities. In a place like Boulder where people actually have alternatives to driving — no, not everyone, and not for every trip, but many people for many trips — we have to start putting some downward pressure on driving, or we’re never going to get much past our current bike/ped/transit shares. And it’s not like this has to be punitive — a lot of it is just removing historical crutches that have been provided to cars, like free parking. Cities like Bern and Freiburg and Zürich have 70% or more of their trips being done outside of personal motorized vehicles. It’s doable (in the fullness of time). Let’s do it!
Setting aside large parcels of land in the center of a city for agricultural purposes is bad for sustainability and not in line with the mission of Boulder’s Open Space program. I am referring in particular to the proposal to purchase a permanent agricultural easement on the property known as Long’s Garden, immediately East of Broadway in N. Boulder, as discussed in this Daily Camera Op-Ed, and proposed in this 2011 Boulder City Council memo. This proposal is contrary to Boulder’s sustainability and open space preservation goals for several reasons.
A bizarre account of the NIMBYs fighting against tiny apartments in Seattle. They fear that small living spaces must necessarily end up filled with sketchy-ass meth-heads. But it turns out they’re more often young professionals, retirees, and other completely normal folk who either don’t want or can’t afford the canonical American Dream of yesteryear… and would rather live downtown and have access to the city.
A good short profile of the city of Freiburg, Germany, and their many sustainability initiatives. Freiburg is a little more than double Boulder’s size — both in population and area, so it has a similar average population density. It’s also a university town with a strong tech sector locally. The whole city was re-built post WWII, but they chose to build it along the same lines as the old city, with a dense core, and well defined boundaries. Today about half of daily trips are done by foot or on bike, with another 20% on public transit. They have a local energy efficiency finance program, on top of the national one administered by KfW, and higher building efficiency standards than Germany as a whole. Half their electricity comes from combined heat and power facilities that also provide district heating and hot water. It seems like they’d be a good model city to compare Boulder to, and learn from.
A fun little musing from the Atlantic Cities on the difficulty of envisioning a very different world, even when we all know that big changes do take place over time. Old technologies slowly decay, and fade into the background, as a new normalcy takes over. We will see Jane Jacobs’ attrition of cars by cities eventually.
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.
Last week I taught a class at the University of Colorado for a friend. The class is entitled Another City is Possible: Re-Imagining Detroit. She wanted me to talk about the link between cars and climate change. As usual, I didn’t finish putting the talk together until a couple of hours before the class, but it seemed like it worked out pretty well anyway. In fact, I actually got feedback forms from the class just today, and they were almost uniformly awesome to read. As if I might have actually influenced someone’s thinking on how cars and cities interact, and how cities could really be built for people. It makes me want to figure out a way to teach on a regular basis. Here’s an outline of what I said, and some further reading for anyone interested.
What is a car?
For the purposes of this discussion, when I say “car” I mean a machine capable of moving at least 4 people at a speed of greater than 80 km/hr (50 mi/hr). This means cars are big (they take up a lot of space) and cars want to go fast (though in reality they go at about biking speed on average, door-to-door, in urban areas). Cars as we know them today are also heavy, usually in excess of 500 kg (1000 lbs) and numerous, because they’re overwhelmingly privately owned. These four characteristics in combination makes widespread everyday use of automobiles utterly incompatible with cities that are good for people. Big, fast, heavy, numerous machines are intrinsically space and energy intensive, and intrinsically dangerous to small, slow, fragile human beings.
Tailpipe emissions are just the tip of the iceberg — the vast majority of the sustainability problems that cars create have nothing to do with what fuel they use, or how efficiently they use it. Amory Lovins’ carbon-fiber hypercars could run on clean, green unicorn farts, and they’d still be a sustainability disaster.
The real problems that come from cars are the land use patterns they demand, and the fact that streets and cities built for cars are intrinsically hostile to human beings. In combination, sprawling, low-density land use and unlivable, dangerous streets functionally preclude the use of transit, walking, and biking as mainstream transportation options. In a city built for cars, you have no choice but to drive.
The good news is that another city is not only possible, it already exists. Very modest density (about 50 people per hectare or 10 dwelling units per acre) is enough to drastically reduce car use, and make low energy transportation commonplace. In combination with good traditional urban design, these cities are extremely livable, healthier, cheaper to maintain, much more sustainable, and much safer than our cities.
The bad news is Peak Oil is not going to save us. There are a whole lot of unconventional hydrocarbons out there in the oil shale of the Dakotas, the tar sands of Alberta, the ultra-heavy crude of Venezuela’s Orinoco basin, and the ultra-deep water reservoirs off the coast of Brazil, etc. We’d be crazy to burn them all, but hey, maybe we’re crazy. And even if we did run out of oil, it’s entirely possible to electrify our cars for everyday urban use, even with today’s mediocre battery technology. If we want a different kind of city, we’re going to have to choose to build it.