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Green Cities and the End of the Age of Oil

Over the past century, our cities have been shaped — literally — for the benefit of the automobile and oil industries. Today, with global oil reserves headed toward irreversible decline, we need to face the challenges of the imminent post-oil reality. Seizing foreign oil fields (then “spinning” the story to make a prophet of Orwell) will not solve our environmental problems. Building Green Cities for people, not cars, will.

In their controversial essay, “The Death of Environmentalism,” Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus claim that the environmental movement has worked its way into historical irrelevance. These writers suggest that “the greatest tragedy of the 1990s is that, in the end, the environmental community had still not come up with an inspiring vision, much less a legislative proposal, that the majority of Americans could get excited about.”

I disagree, not only with these two green movement morticians but also with some of their critics. Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, has rightly scolded Shellenberger and Nordhaus for “failing to offer their own ideas,” a lapse that “rendered their report nihilistic – able to destroy but not create.” But what does Pope offer? The environmental movement, he says, “needs deeper, more robust, more sustained collaborations” and “a new economic order.” His action plan is focused on renewable energy. Does he see any alternative to tacking solar panels onto the past century’s exoskeleton of freeways, automobiles and sprawl? Not in his response. “As early as the Carter Administration,” Pope writes, “the Sierra Club sought an alliance with the United Auto Workers… to preserve and enhance the U.S. auto industry.” In their desire to deliver “what Mainstream America wants,” environmentalists discovered that people wanted cars. So the Sierra Club’s response has been to try and convince the auto industry that the environmental situation could be improved if Detroit simply built a “better” automobile. This won’t work and here’s why.

The ‘Green Car’ Myth

Consider the energy required to move a 130-pound human body by foot as compared to moving that same body the same distance seated behind the wheel of a 4,000-pound SUV. The average human can hit about 5 miles-per-hour in a brisk walk while the typical car averages 40 mph (city and freeway). While it is true that you can move eight times faster inside a two-ton vehicle, accomplishing this feat requires burning around 1,900 times as much energy (and that’s not factoring in friction, which increases with speed). This should tell you something about the fundamental insanity of depending on gas-fueled cars in an oil-starved future.

And, it’s not just the oil. Even if powered by biodiesel, hydrogen or sunbeams, the private automobile is still part of an unsustainable urban system that requires massive networks of streets, freeways, and parking structures to serve congested cities and far-flung suburbs. Driving a Prius hybrid simply makes it easier for people to live farther from the rest of their lives (while seducing them into thinking that they are “doing something for the environment”). We don’t want to face this truth because it implies too much change. Autoworkers want to keep their jobs and Sierra Clubers want to be free to drive 40 miles to experience nature whenever they feel like it.

Raised in a car-worshiping culture, we tend to assume that everyone lives in a world of breezy trips through city streets and top-down forays deep into the country. It’s hard to believe there are worlds without cars. But the startling fact is that, far from being a majority, only one of thirteen people on Earth actually owns a car. Consider this: 92 percent of the world’s people do not own cars — and the 8 percent who do are directly responsible for climate change and the alarming collapse of biodiversity on planet Earth.

If the auto industry is to have any future in a post-oil world, it may have to retrain its workers to build the efficient mass-transit systems that will serve the new ecologically healthy Green Cities, towns and villages of the 21st century. Environmentalists and autoworkers should begin thinking hard about how to rebuild low-energy, car-free cities. Autoworkers should be studying renewable energy systems and lobbying for massive federal investments in those technologies. We need to rebuild our entire civilization (towns and villages, too) on this basis. A proper accounting of the auto-urban paradigm would include the energy needed to draw the oil, cook the asphalt, erect the freeways, mine and mill the steel used to manufacture the cars and, of course, deploy the troops and weaponry to secure America’s access to foreign oil. Add it all up and you begin to get a sense of the enormity of the problem.

Of course, it’s a hard assignment. How could solving a problem as large as preventing the collapse of planetary biodiversity and inventing a new civilization in balance with nature be an easy task?

How Cars Shape Cities

The oil-burning, fume-spewing private automobile is only part of a larger environmentally damaging system — the energy-intensive spawling infrastructure of our cities. When small buildings are scattered over large areas, more energy is required for heating and cooling as well as for transportation. Pedestrian-friendly Green Cities — built for people, bicycles, mass transit and renewable energy — would not only cut air pollution, they also would promote the rebuilding of essential soil and water resources while increasing plant and animal biodiversity.

Knowledgeable environmentalists extol the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards for buildings, but they seldom apply similar standards to cities. Last summer, I was a speaker at a Sustainable Communities Conference in Vermont. The organizers took two busloads of participants to admire a beautiful new LEED platinum-rated factory that produces towers for wind electric generators. Hard to get greener that that.

But there was a problem: it took us 20 minutes on the highway to get there. And, when we arrived, there was no other building in sight on the rolling landscape of broad agricultural fields.

“Wouldn’t it be more fun,” I asked the company tour guide, “if instead of driving way out to this splendid isolation and back every day, you could just walk out the factory door and bike over to a class or back to your residence?” Here was a beautifully designed solar building with state-of-the-art natural lighting and insulation, constructed so the residents would consume almost no energy — except for the hundreds of gallons of gasoline they burned in their cars every day to get there!

The Eco-City Vision

“No wonder the public doesn’t want to hear the truth about global warming,” former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach laments, “Nobody’s offering them a vision for the future that matches the magnitude of the problem.”

Excuse me? Dozens of environmental thinkers have been offering such a vision for 30 years. I’ve co-produced five international Eco-City conferences on five continents, written three books and been invited to speak on every continent.

Like Pope, Werbach calls for renewable energy. Good idea, but not enough. The renewable energy regime needs a physical infrastructure in which to operate — i.e., a city to match. If you install a fleet of clean, solar-powered buses in a typical sprawling low-density city, those “eco-buses” are still going to run practically empty. Rebuilding cities for pedestrians will reverse sprawl by bringing departure points and destinations closer together. City planners call this “mixed use” and “balanced development.” Freeways could slowly be torn down as pedestrian-friendly cities are efficiently — and affordably — connected by train. That’s a vision worth adopting. But, in order for this to happen, environmentalists and developers need to work together.

How to Build Eco-Cities

The first step toward turning today’s Gridlocked Cities into Green Cities is to identify the major commercial and neighborhood centers and map them for higher density. Re-zoning to facilitate higher-density pedestrian transit centers will promote “access by proximity — instead of transportation.” As these centralized pedestrian/transit centers grow in density and diversity, outlying areas would be replaced by natural areas, open spaces, and small farms.

Metropolitan areas now spread over (hundreds of) thousands of acres need to break up into discrete communities — forming archipelagos of smaller, compact Green Cities around what are today’s downtowns. Ecovillages would arise where today’s neighborhood centers now exist. In his classic book, Ecotopia, Berkeley author Ernest Callenbach envisioned the Bay Area metropolis (which includes Oakland, San Jose, Berkeley, Palo Alto and Richmond) transforming into a necklace of separate towns linked by high-speed public transportation — each with its own particular economy, products and character (and all surrounded by resurgent green and edged by the shimmering waters of San Francisco Bay).

A Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) offers one promising tool for facilitating the transitions required by ecological city design. A developer can use a TDR to purchase and remove a building whose crumbling foundation sits atop a buried creek. In return, the developer wins the privilege of erecting a larger building in a pedestrian/transit center. The developer gets a “density bonus” and the city gains new open space for a community garden, public park, or sports field and more housing in transit/pedestrian centers.

But won’t it be oppressive to live in more densely settled core cities? Not if you build them with lots of sun pouring into the interiors, heating and refreshing the air without the use of fossil fuels or nuclear fission. Build rooftop gardens, cafes, promenades, mini-parks, entertainment enclaves and recreation outposts high in the buildings to provide spectacular views overlooking the city’s reviving bioregion. Solar collectors and windmills would glint in the sun. The ecological Green City would be alive with bicycles, solar greenhouses, creeks, plants, animals, and people.

Builders of the new housing units in these evolving Green Cities would recruit renters and condo owners who wished to free themselves from cars. Contrary to legend, there are many such people out there. Businesses would grant hiring preference to people living nearby. Given sufficient diversity, you don’t need to travel far for life’s basics: shelter, job, school, food. Green City buildings could be interlinked by high bridges so that clusters of structures become easily available to pedestrians on many levels. Terraces with communal gardens would provide fresh produce and rooftop parks would provide recreation — all accessible by glass elevators gliding over the outsides of buildings offering stunning views of the new vertical Green City environment.

Facilities needing little natural light (theaters, photolabs, warehouses) would be located in the lower stories, lifting other downtown activities higher into the sun. Covered streets would have the grandeur of cathedrals (, with beams of light falling into quiet interiors bustling with pedestrians). Downtown buildings would provide workplaces for residents. The hundreds of thousands who once poured into the city over miles of freeways, would now quietly zip to work on foot or bicycle leaving a minority of outside workers to arrive by bus and rail.

First we’d create car-free streets, then larger, car-free zones. As any tourist returning from a European vacation can testify, car-free streets and plazas are extremely pleasant community enclaves that bristle with life and are economically self-sustaining.

Eco Cities would promote the restoration of ancient creeks buried under pavement and concrete. Living streams, shorefronts, wetlands, and ridgelines would once again become signature landmarks for Green City residents. Restored urban creeks and wooded groves would provide natural habitat for birds and animals and become beautiful and educational local resources for Green City children who would no longer need to climb into a car and drive 40 miles to “experience nature.” With sufficient care, restored creeks magically reawaken with populations of dragonflies, butterflies, hummingbirds, fish, and crawdads. In California, native salmon and large wading birds like egrets and herons have already returned to some of these reborn watersheds.

Rebuilding our cities to serve people, not cars, will take decades, but the transformation offers lasting solutions for most of our most pressing environmental problems. These solutions will start to appear immediately. They will multiply rapidly as the transformation proceeds.

Richard Register is President of Ecocity Builders in Oakland, California. He is author of Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature and Ecocity Berkeley. Ecocity Builders hosted the Green Cities Conference in Oakland on May 31 as part of the World Environment Day activities hosted by San Francisco. www.ecocitybuilders.org.

Editorial Notes: Global Public Media has a good interview with Register. Register has many articles on his Ecocity Builders website, including some which mention Peak Oil specifically:-BA

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