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Green Cities and the End of the Age of Oil


By Richard Register
Energy Bulletin
May 31, 2005


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.

 

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