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Global Warming and the Elephant in the Living Room

The discussion of global warming is heating up to a withering temperature in the press, at conferences and in diplomatic circles. So too for impending peak oil production to be followed by the eternal slide in availability down into oblivion ­ for so it is with any finite resource that can be used only once, in the case of oil, burned.

The temperature of both these controversies, global warming and "peak oil", isn't going to go down any time soon, either. That's because, so far, people are talking band-aid, not solution. The offerings to date simply don't fit the scale of the impending disasters that will come if we don¹t do more rigorous thinking.

Striking in its omission is debate about the largest creations of our species: cities. Could it be the most basic solution is redesigning them for people instead of cars? Presto, both problems solved in the same stroke and in a more fundamental way than by just trying to tune up the same old infrastructure, always trying to get a little more juice out of the planet, a little more sprawl-inducing mileage out of our cars.

The gyrations of experts and politicians and the sincere efforts of just plain folks putting solar electric panels on their houses are stunning in their omission of a glance at the built infrastructure. The situation is that the city, town and village have been transformed by cars over the past 100 years. But they can be redesigned, not over night, but steadily and with compounding beneficial interest.

There are people working on this approach from Curitiba, Brazil (former Mayor Jaime Lerner) to Perth, Australia (urban form researcher Jeff Kenworthy), from Beijing, China (Chinese Academy of Science ecologist Rusong Wang) to Oakland, California where my own organization, EcoCity Builders is advocating transformation of cities for radically lower energy use. We plan energy demand so low that transition strategies to environmentally benign renewable sources like solar and wind become not just practical but ample.

It will take more of a vision than we are used to, the sort of vision theorists in the field call "whole systems" or "ecological" thinking.

Several things make sense together, not just the ecological city infrastructure to go with renewable energy systems, but getting better control of over-population and over-consumption on a personal and collective basis. There is plenty of richness in a biologically vital world with urban, town and village cultures redesigned for the long haul. We don't need to continue the addiction to cars and oil and the habit of endless driving around forced on us by the very shape of car dependent cities: flat.

A lot of the challenge is to simply show that conventional tools are all on line now for reshaping cities. There are zoning ordinances that shift development from on top of natural features like urban streams and formerly rich agricultural land to growing pedestrian/transit centers. We don¹t have to merely draw the line at "greenbelts", we can remove development that is particularly automobile dependent.

The architectural features of the ecologically healthy and basically pedestrian city are especially promising and, where they exist now, lend enormously to the enjoyment and financial success of cities, towns and even villages. These include rooftop and terrace gardens, restaurants and shops with great views, multi-story solar greenhouses, bridges between buildings and street level mid-block passages ways that add greatly to the city's "pedestrian permeability" and pleasure. Features such as these are a source of enjoyment and revenue in the rare places around the world where they are employed. Set in car-free areas that are steadily expanding through the next decades they can create the extremely low energy city.

Put these things together, then attach renewable energy systems, and you have a solution to fit the scale of the problem: the civilization redesigned on the measure of the person, not the machine.

Richard Register is the author of books on ecological city design and planning including ECOCITIES ­ BUILDING CITIES IN BALANCE WITH NATURE and a speaker at numerous conferences around the world. He founded the International Ecocity Conference series held in Berkeley, California; Adelaide, Australia; Yoff/Dakar, Senegal; Curitiba, Brazil; Shenzhen, China and next planned for Bangalore, India in 2006.

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Editorial Notes: Richard Register gave an amazing talk at the Community Solutions conference on Peak Oil last year. His slides are available at the conference page. On the right side of that page, click on the link for "Richard Register's Presentation: Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature". -BA

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