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Redesigning civilization after the stress tests

VelibReady.jpgThe BP oil gusher should remind us that our civilization relies on unseen, not very well understood forces, especially energy and the environment, for our day-to-day economies.

Our institutions and communities have recently failed stress tests that pushed system designs beyond intended limits: whether it's toxic exurban real estate assets, climate-altering pollution or deepwater oil drilling.

The Post Carbon Institute just published my report, "The Death of Sprawl: Redesigning Urban Resilience for the Twenty-first Century Resource Crises." Random exurban sprawl and informed urban systems are the opposite ends of a spectrum. In this continuum, the interplay of economics, energy and natural resources management can be optimized (or wasted or ignored) through planning, design, behaviors and technology to yield astonishingly different outcomes.

The chapter will be in a Fall 2010 book being published by The University of California Press and Watershed Media.

We need to understand what stresses will hit before the levees reach their breaking point. When stresses do hit, we will better know how to respond quickly and systemically. Meanwhile, we're stuck with the impacts of scores of towns like Victorville, California, which were overbuilt during the height of 1990s and early 2000s speculation. I examine in detail just how Victorville became a poster child for foreclosures and why it is a harbinger for our economy, resources and oil use. Chances are if you are in the West, Sunbelt or Midwest, there's one of these towns out on the fringes near you.

Boomburgs.jpg
Location of hyper-growth US Boomburbs 2000-2009 (click to enlarge)

Quickly developed and poorly planned exurban communities, called "Boomburbs," require cars for virtually every human activity outside the home, going to school, eating out, shopping, dating, seeing a movie, playing and of course, working. But working actually comprises only about 25 percent of the driving we do as a nation: the national reliance on cars goes far beyond our jobs, and is more based on how our communities and streets are designed.

(If that "Green Home" you see in so many magazines doesn't analyze how people get to and from that home, then it's probably far from being sustainable.) 

The foreclosures started in these exurban areas after gas prices started rising in 2006, impacting local communities, lenders and housing or strip mall developers that formed the points of the triangle, or a pyramid, you might say. A bank, rig or smokestack regulator won't limit the flood of bad paper, crude or carbon emissions if rules can be circumvented in order to make more money. That's the point when stresses build up, exposing failures that at first seem an outlier, then become more commonplace as the very fabric of the system gives way. 

Historically cheap gas was enabled by the federal government and foreign producers, combined with no-holds barred real estate development encouraged by the feds, states, and local communities, and of course the banking industry. Zero down homes are still being offered by developers and their agents in these sprawled communities. To be fair, many low-income individuals wanted to own or invest in their first home, but greed greased the transactions.

Sprawl was one of the major factors requiring more driving and more cars, leading to more time spent commuting, poorer health and ever-greater oil consumption. As a nation we needed to Drill, Baby, Drill in ever-more precarious situations, be it Iraq or the deep waters of the Gulf. 

Meanwhile, the ongoing foreclosure crisis in sprawled California, Arizona, Florida and Texas is undermining a national economic recovery, and will eat away at resources for decades to come: energy, water, time, investment, and security.

washington DC real estate.jpg
Real estate prices in or near transit-served Washington DC (green arrows indicate prices going up) and in car-dependent outlying areas (red arrows mean prices decreasing): Credit: Kaid Benfield, NRDC, 2010

Even before the oil gusher, smart institutional money started to avoid sprawl like the plague for the first time. Now, there is a new wrinkle: will the BP Deepwater Horizon incident change global access to oil and the public's cognitive understanding of what burning gas and driving really mean?

So far the reaction in this nation has been to talk about developing renewable sources of energy, including wind, solar and nuclear energy. None of those forms of energy have been used to power our cars and trucks on a meaningful scale--though they will in 10-20 years--so such talk is premature.

Other nations, such as China in wind and solar, are leading US development in such technology, so we are falling down in preparing for the distant day when cars will be powered mainly by renewable energy and alternative fuels (Brazil has gained dominance in producing non-food based ethanol).

Euro nations have tempered their oil addiction by taxing gas at a higher rate while also building denser communities requiring much less driving, and allowing many people to walk or cycle to their destinations. Besides being more energy efficient for residents, these cities and suburbs are also more attractive to businesses and tourists, with their density and mixed-uses (cheese and wine markets, parks, schools and office buildings) being a big part of the charm.

China and India are embarking on ambitious programs to build new cities and redesign existing cities, which is a necessity, considering their exploding urban populations. While automotive growth is a given in these nations (China just overtook the US in auto sales last year), both nations are weighing innovative metro-area designs. Tianjin, China has an "eco-city" district (one of 40 in the nation) that is planned to have 90 percent of all trips by public transit, bicycle or walking.

Tianjin-China.jpgDenver, meanwhile, passed an innovative update to its zoning codes this week that will make its transit-oriented planning and investments more successful, reducing auto-dependent development and integrating more mixed uses into the city's neighborhoods.

Not everyone wants to or is able to afford living in a city or dense suburbs served by transit. But as "The Death of Sprawl" illustrates, we need to find a way out of the institutional, economic and environmental hangover from the last days of cheap and easy oil.

We can deny there's a problem and continue our delusional ways, or we can put the bottle down, sober up and get to work on seeing what the rest of our lives can really be.    

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active consultancy based in San Anselmo, California. He is a Fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and author of How Green is Your City?: The SustainLane US City Rankings.

Originally published Green Flow blog of Common Currents

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