Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

New Years post #2: sustainability and energy

When I worked last fiscal year in Baltimore County, I was struck how both there and in Baltimore City, there are big initiatives concerning sustainability, and how at least in the case of Baltimore County, if sustainable transportation wasn't a priority in its own right, it was addressed in part through the Office of Sustainability and the citizen commission guiding it. With the new Kamenetz Administration, the Office of Sustainability is being merged into the agency that had been called DEPRM, the Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management. (It happens that on environmental protection issues at the county level, Baltimore County is a national leader.)

-- Howard County Office of Sustainability (actually, Howard County is a metropolitan leader in the Baltimore area on sustainability issues, which motivated the then County Executive in Baltimore County to take up the issue as well)

In the DC region, Arlington County has a big sustainability initiative, but otherwise I don't see citizens engaged in the same way on sustainability issues in a kind of partnership with government, in the same way, in other local jurisdictions. Mostly it's a top-down effort, and neither the agencies--even if they have ostensible sustainability programs--nor citizens, seem very engaged.

Tomorrow's Neal Peirce column, "Urbanism Triumphant: New Year’s Hope? (the column is syndicated by but not published by the Washington Post and it is the only nationally syndicated column on local and state government and best practice issues), makes the point that, according to Peter Calthorpe, to truly have significant positive environmental impact in terms of reducing oil and coal use, and reducing the production of greenhouse gases, that:

The only answer, he argues, is to start correcting the spread-out, energy-profligate patterns in how we use our land. In other words, a return to true urbanism, the historic patterns of relatively compact, more energy-efficient growth we once practiced in our cities and towns, but lost in the decades following World War II.

Also from the article:

Fighting to reduce our oil and coal burning and combat global warming, much of the buzz surrounds such new “green” technologies as solar and wind power, industrial efficiency, and fuel efficient cars. But add up all the potential carbon savings they promise, argues Calthorpe, and we’ll still fall far short of reducing the United States’ grossly disproportionate use of fossil fuels and contribution to globe-imperiling climate change. ...

It’s as if, Calthorpe alleges, we’d gone on a “fast food, high-carbon diet” that let our metropolitan regions, where most of us live, “become obese” through our heavy dependence on oil — “a high-sugar and high-starch diet,” expanding the urban waistline, ballooning our output of carbon into the global atmosphere “without nourishing strength or resilience.”

The only cure, he argues, must be return to a robust urbanism of efficiently shaped and planned cities and regions.

So what’s urbanism? You can recognize it by what it delivers, suggests Calthorpe. It is places that feature a diversity of uses — homes, shops, libraries, parks, schools — mixed closely so they’re walkable (or easily bikable). It balances cars with public transit. It supports a rich public life. And it’s cities and other urban places that create, on a per capita basis, the least carbon emissions. (New Yorkers, famously, emit a third of the greenhouse gas emissions of the typical American).

Urbanism, Calthorpe insists, can come in many forms, scales, or density. It’s not just a big city model. Many of our traditional small towns, village centers and streetcar suburbs, with their mixed uses and walkability, are as “urban” as historic city centers.

Calthorpe's book on the topic, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Age, has just been published by Island Press.

The trick "locally" is to leverage the interest in the environment and sustainability to better focus local energies on sustainable transportation (walking, biking, transit), and sustainable land use development (compact development), and better resource management (urban agriculture, urban forestry, water sources, watershed).

In DC at least, I joke that big government--the federal government--trickles down and shapes little government--the local municipal government--in its image. So it's top down and not very much focused on civic engagement and participatory democracy, unlike say Arlington County, which is much more citizen-centric.

A new year and a new administration offers opportunity to change, to raise the issues, to take up a different way of doing things.

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