The Tale of Two Cities –
Dense, cluttered with people, food, arts, culture, or the watered down lawn-scape version with mile upon mile of garage?
By Paul K. Haeder
Reading two news pieces -- “ US Cities May Have to be Bulldozed in Order to Survive”and “Should We Bulldoze the 'Burbs?” -- brings to mind many of the complicated issues of our time tied to sustainability, growth, peak resources and where we need to be heading in the coming decades to reshape and retool not only America, but the world. Bulldozing suburbs and embracing negative population growth in cities are the ultimate demonstration of all the factors that have forced America especially to rethink the suburbs, our car-centric culture, the strip-mall landscapes, the doubling-up of square footage for detached homes (from 1,250 square feet in 1950 for 4 people to 2,500 sq. f. now for 2.3 people), the consumption of goods (see The Story of Stuff) and energy to produce a consumptive society, largely centered around suburbs and exurbs.
What makes our time as sustainability wonks and urban planning aficionados interesting is that we have these conversations in the first place. Movies like “The End of Suburbia” and “Affluenza” looked at this suburban sprawl cancer and unchecked consumption of wants versus needs as tell-tale markers of a culture too tied to transportation and energy consumption. Now we have Flint, Michigan, bulldozing homes because the city is contracting – businesses are failing and sprawl’s victims are leaving. Those 2,500 square-foot energy-gobbling homes tied to paved arterials are albatrosses around the necks of not only the mortgage holders but the local governments.
Urban economist Edward Glaeser is just one of many in urban studies who think many American cities are not going to make the so-called come back, and therefore we should be seeing across the country a focus on social – people – capital rather than infrastructure:
“After all, the job of government is to enrich and empower the lives of its citizens, not to chase the chimera of population growth targets. Just once, I want to hear a Rust Belt mayor say with pride "my city lost 200,000 people during my term, but we've given them the education they need to find a better life elsewhere" (Glaeser).
The country has changed, as we can see how the US was shaped in 1900 -- with the nation’s 20th largest cities establishing themselves on waterways. Compare that to now, with the population quadrupled– 310 million versus 76 million. Add to that the relatively cheap automobile and cheaper gasoline, and we have seen a country reshaped by the building of roads. Migration to the so-called Sun Belt (13 states that also are dependent upon air conditioning and endless sprawl car traffic to maintain some form of human habitation) has allowed for a swath of territory shaped by farmland being bulldozed over, wild land crisscrossed by highways and cul-d-sacs, and cities decentralized into strip mall messes. The industrialized East has changed into brown fields and rust belts. But some cities are seeing a comeback, and in subsequent blogs we’ll discuss the reshaping of urban America, urban Earth.
Additionally, I’ll deal with James Howard Kunstler’s “The Geography of Nowhere” and “The Long Emergency,” through the lens of other writers and their works and organizations – like “Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream “(Andres Duany, Elizbeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck) and The Club of Rome and “The Limits to Growth” and “The First Global Revolution” as well as Bill McKibben’s “Deep Economy” and Paul Hawken’s (with Hunter and Amory Lovins) “Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution” and “The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability.”
We are now seeing more migration out of the South and some Sun Belt areas toward cities, denser places where efficiency in transportation and energy use outshines any suburban tract home development. How technologists, planners, governments and citizens respond to this new migration pattern and these contractions will be telling in the coming few years because it’s obvious that we need the tools to rethink growth and rethink how cities will survive and which ones will be sacrificed because of all the vagaries tied to globalization, shifting industries, and the fall-out of a consumerist society that has too often looked at economic growth as the only engine for improving our quality of life. Technology will be a tool for planners and futurists and architects and engineers and societies in general to reshape the land and the mind.
Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County, which includes Flint, Michigan, is the brainchild of this bulldozing of the suburbs, and he states the underpinning of our growth obsession clearly: "The obsession with growth is sadly a very American thing. Across the US, there's an assumption that all development is good, that if communities are growing they are successful. If they're shrinking, they're failing."
We in the education, planning, engineering, architectural and government sectors need to build our tool boxes to begin retrofitting our urban and rural areas to meet the coming challenges of global climate change and economic disability. While sustainability is driven by the three or five e’s, depending on which school of thought you come from – environment, equity, economy – and energy and education – there is no getting around the fact that the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions is generated by buildings and internal combustion engines and electricity-generating plants, notably coal. Land use and how cities are planned right or not planned at all, as both places of commerce and recreation, as well as Community, is at the heart of all global warming and sustainability development discussions.
In future blogs, I will look at sustainability, peak oil, climate change, global development, bioregionalism and other issues tied to environment, society and economy based on thematic measuring sticks:
1. Climate/Ecosystems (Environment)
2. Innovation in Education/Business/Marketing (Education-Economy)
3. Energy/Engineering/Techno Fixes/Policy (Energy)
5. Planning/Built and Unbuilt environments/ Architecture/Living/Design (all five e’s)
6. Society/Law/United Nations/Social Capital/Culture (Equity)
7. Linking to Climate Change-Peak Everything-Global Solutions-Local Action-A Clear Way to the Future – web site links, video, recommended reading, news on the climate change front
9. Act Locally, Think Global – Local Solutions
10. Inspiration/Think Tanks
11. Banking on Grassroots and Establishment to Join in Solutions
12. Speaking out – weekly musing, comments, perspectives (this is the active blog news type section)
For now, however, the following data on Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the USA – after we look at the three consecutive definitions of Sustainability -- will be part of larger and more focused discussions tied to this blog’s major theme –
Sustainability Revised, Reclaimed, Reinvented, Ramified
This is the most commonly quoted definition of SUSTAINABILITY and it aims to be more comprehensive than most:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their own needs.
It contains within it two key concepts:
The concepts of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given, and:
The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.
IUCN, UNEP, WWF (1991):
Sustainable development, sustainable growth, and sustainable use have been used interchangeably, as if their meanings were the same. They are not. Sustainable growth is a contradiction in terms: nothing physical can grow indefinitely. Sustainable use, is only applicable to renewable resources. Sustainable development is used in this strategy to mean: improving the quality of human life whilst living within the carrying capacity of the ecosystems.
Lack of a precise definition of the term sustainable development is not all bad. It has allowed a considerable consensus to evolve in support of the idea that it is both morally and economically wrong to treat the world as a business in liquidation.
PacifiCAD’s blog will explore these and other forms of sustainability, sustainable development and indicators of Integrated Systems Thinking that is the superstructure holding up all things sustainable.
Lowering Greenhouse Gas Emissions -- The Challenge
· 40% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions stem from the burning of fossil fuels for the purpose of electricity generation. Coal accounts for 93 percent of the emissions from the electric utility industry.
· About 33% of U.S carbon dioxide emissions comes from the burning of gasoline in internal-combustion engines of cars and light trucks (minivans, sport utility vehicles, pick-up trucks, and jeeps).
· Buildings structure account for about 12% of carbon dioxide emissions; however – Data from the US Energy Information Administration illustrates that buildings are responsible for almost half (48%) of all energy consumption and GHG emissions annually; globally the percentage is even greater. Seventy-six percent (76%) of all power plant-generated electricity is used just to operate buildings.
· Credible scientists give us 10 years to be well on our way toward global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. Yet there are hundreds of coal-fired power plants currently on the drawing boards in the US. Seventy-six percent (76%) of the energy produced by these plants will go to operate buildings.
Buildings are the major source of demand for energy and materials that produce by-product greenhouse gases (GHG). Slowing the growth rate of GHG emissions and then reversing it over the next ten years is the key to keeping global warming under one degree centigrade (°C) above today's level. It will require immediate action and a concerted global effort.
· Aviation causes 3.5 percent of global warming, and that figure could rise to 15 percent by 2050.
· Levels of atmospheric methane have risen 145% in the last 100 years. Methane is derived from sources such as rice paddies, bovine flatulence, bacteria in bogs and fossil fuel production. Most of the world’s rice, and all of the rice in the United States, is grown on flooded fields. When fields are flooded, anaerobic conditions develop and the organic matter in the soil decomposes, releasing CH4 to the atmosphere, primarily through the rice plants.
· As the Earth heats up relative humidity is able to increase, allowing the planet's atmosphere to hold more water vapor, causing even more warming, thus a positive feedback scenario. Because the air is warmer, the relative humidity can be higher (in essence, the air is able to 'hold' more water when its warmer), leading to more water vapor in the atmosphere, says the National Climate Data Center. There is much scientific uncertainty as to the degree this feedback loop causes increased warming, inasmuch as the water vapor also causes increased cloud formation, which in turn reflects heat back out into space.
· After carbon emissions caused by humans, deforestation is the second principle cause of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Deforestation is responsible for 20-25% of all carbon emissions entering the atmosphere, by the burning and cutting of about 34 million acres of trees each year. We are losing millions of acres of rainforests each year, the equivalent in area to the size of Italy. The destroying of tropical forests alone is throwing hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. We are also losing temperate forests. The temperate forests of the world account for an absorption rate of 2 billion tons of carbon annually. [ In the temperate forests of Siberia alone, the earth is losing 10 million acres per year.