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Street Smarts
An interview with smart-growth expert and author Anthony Flint

David Roberts, Grist
Few debates in the U.S. are more emotionally charged than the one over sprawl — the exodus, since World War II, of America’s middle class from cities to far-flung residential areas. Environmentalists, small farmers, and social-justice activists deplore sprawl for its unhealthy effects on land and communities. Suburbanites bristle at the attacks on their personal choices — the desire for safety, good schools, and a piece of land.

Into this contentious debate steps unusually cool-headed Anthony Flint, whose book “This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America” is a chronicle of the fledgling smart-growth movement and the challenges it faces from entrenched interests. For 20 years, Flint was a journalist covering urban development, planning, and transportation, primarily for The Boston Globe. Recently he left behind the daily beat: at the end of July, he will move to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank devoted to land issues.

I chatted with Flint in a coffee shop in Seattle. Like his book, he is even-keeled and congenial, utterly devoid of the strident ideological fervor so often characteristic of both sides in the land-use wars. But real passion entered his voice when he talked about offering choices to Americans seeking better lives and better communities.

Q: Do you have any sense of the relationship between the environmental community and the smart-growth community?

A: There is an incredible sea change under way in terms of environmentalists embracing the basic principles of smart growth. Sierra Club is coming out now with the 12 best redevelopment sites in the country. That’s really noteworthy.

Environmentalists — and anybody who’s concerned about global warming — recognize that cities are, per capita, the most energy-efficient human settlements. Manhattan is one of the greenest places on earth. They’re working hand in hand with people concerned about affordable housing, planners, architects, labor, communities of faith — there’s a big coalition behind smart growth and new urbanism.

We’re all realizing we put tons of carbon into the atmosphere, all of us, every year. It’s primarily because of driving. Why do we drive so much? Well, it’s the physical environment and the way it’s dispersed. So let’s address our physical environment. I see a new generation of environmentalists focused on how we’ve arranged our landscape for ourselves.
(7 July 2006)

The next real estate boom

Chris Taylor, CNNMoney
Dense settlements, not sprawling ranch houses, are the future of housing – and could make for a smart real-estate investment.
SAN FRANCISCO (Business 2.0 Magazine) — Picture the scene: it’s 2025, and you and your family are living in a beautiful, leafy-green village that seems more 19th century than 21st, even though it has only been in existence for ten years and is just 20 miles from a major American city.

You know all of the 150 or so souls in the village; you see them at the market where you pick up a box of locally-grown produce once a week. You see half of them in the morning as they board the commuter train for school or work in the city; the other half are the network warriors who work from home or, on warm days, use the free Wi-Fi in the village square.

It all seems a world away from the crumbling old 20th-century suburbs people used to live in, if you could call it living. You shudder to think you could still be living there. Oh, and you see that really nice house just down the bicycle lane? That’s yours, the fruits of your smart move to plunk down a payment on a piece of the hottest new trend in real estate.

Sounds like a far-off future? You can already see such a development opening up in Hercules, Calif., 20 miles northeast of San Francisco. And you can bet on seeing many more across the country if changing consumer desires and economic trends dictate the direction of the housing market.

“New Villages,” as community planner Robert McIntyre dubs them in the latest issue of The Futurist magazine, are compact, pleasantly urban settlements located well away from city centers. They share some of the charms and amenities of cities, thanks to their density, but have the mostly rural surroundings that originally drew people out to the suburbs, as well as the friendly feel of a small town where you know your neighbors.

…Rising oil prices notwithstanding, sprawling car-culture cities and vast suburbs simply do not make economic sense in the long run. As much as 50 percent of the land surface area in any given city or subdivision – we’re talking prime real estate – is taken up by roadways. For developers, less space given over to roads means more space for housing.

Not only are roads a drain on landlords’ potential income, they’re a turnoff for residents — and are only going to become more so as gridlock, road repairs and air pollution increase.

While you might assume that a higher density community would have more traffic, you’d be wrong. When neighborhoods are dense and walkable, studies show, people make fewer car trips. And some may even forgo owning a second car, especially as families realize that living with one less car can save them $6,000 a year on average (and again, that’s not counting price rises at the pump).
(7 July 2006)

Plants, grass on the rooftop? No longer an oddity in Chicato.

Amanda Paulson, Christian Science Monitor
With grants and other incentives, Chicago leads the nation in installing green roofs.
CHICAGO – In the center of downtown Chicago lies an oasis of green.

Monarch butterflies flit past little bluestem. Bees fly from prairie clover to purple coneflowers. A small hawthorn tree rises from a mound.

The expanse of native plants and grasses isn’t a park, but the top of City Hall, the premier green roof in a city that is making green building a civic cornerstone.

Six years ago, when Mayor Richard Daley had the roof installed, it was an oddity. Today, more than 200 green roofs in the city have been constructed or are under way, covering some 2-1/2 million square feet of tar with plants – by far the most of any American city.

Now other cities, hoping to cool and clean their air and help with storm drainage, are beginning to emulate Chicago, and the city is taking key steps to encourage – and in some cases require – private developers to follow City Hall’s example.
(10 July 2006)