October 2009 Archives


Los Angeles Times photo

Sprawl is dead: That's the takeaway of a new report analyzing how toxic exurban real estate started the US economy on its downward spiral. Metro regions and developers are picking up the pieces and are vowing, "never again."

The unchecked trend of US exurbanization was one of the major factors setting off the beginning of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, according to a new research paper published by the Post Carbon Institute investigating the relationship of sprawled, completely car-dependent communities to real estate risk as well as to climate change and ecosystems.

Besides the inherent threats to climate change and dwindling resources, exurban development during the past decades put the United States in a vulnerable economic position when steadily rising gas prices in 2004-2005 began their march toward $4-5 a gallon in mid 2008. 

The research paper argues that many suburbs and most exurbs, which constitute the vast majority of urbanized areas in the United States, have been building up an infrastructure of complete auto dependence, which threatens the climate through multiple forms of inefficient energy, food and resource use.

Despite the emerging "green" urbanism trend, which can be found in a number of North American cities, unplanned exurban growth must be addressed and managed more efficiently, or the economy will face further severe national real estate shocks as oil prices rise again.

California's Senate Bill 375 is the first statewide anti-sprawl measure, and similar regulation and related regional planning processes will need to occur on a national basis to systemically reduce the combined risks of exurban development and financial speculation. 

The following is an excerpt from my complete paper, a publication pre-release of the "Roadmap for the Transition" series.


In April 2009--just when people thought things couldn't get worse in San Bernardino County, California--bulldozers demolished four perfectly good new houses and a dozen others still under construction in Victorville, 100 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles.

The structures' granite countertops and Jacuzzis were removed first. Then the walls came down and the remains were unceremoniously scrapped. A woman named Candy Sweet came by the site looking for wood and bartered a six-pack of cold Coronas for some of the splintered two-by-fours. For a boomtown in one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States, things were suddenly looking pretty bleak...

The recent decline of Victorville and other "boomburbs" may well prove to be the last gasp of the United States' decades-long suburban/exurban development frenzy. We will be absorbing or trying to erase the unwanted surplus of this end-of-the-twentieth-century building spree for years, if not decades. In the meantime, exurban communities in general--and Victorville in particular--will face a daunting set of short term and long term challenges as the 21st century shapes up to be very different than the world they were built for...

Within the United States, existing metropolitan areas can be retrofitted to take advantage of breakthroughs in sustainability and efficiency technologies, as well as new financial incentives.

The American Recovery and Re-investment Act of 2009 has provided some funding for the energy-efficient redesign of our buildings and our means of transportation. But much more ambitious projects need to be undertaken to retrofit our communities not only for energy efficiency, but to build their overall resilience.

Fortunately, a foundation for this work already exists. Barely ten years ago, "green buildings," downtown streetcars, urban farms, car-sharing companies, high-quality bicycle infrastructure and other physical features now associated with urban sustainability were found only in a handful of North American cities. Today, they are popping up everywhere.

Big cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are actively trying to "out-green" each other, while smaller cities like Boulder, Colorado, and Alexandria, Virginia are rolling out their own localized sustainability solutions.

Some communities have taken early steps toward protecting their surrounding agricultural lands, or "foodsheds," from well-established regional plans and policies in Portland, Oregon to San Francisco's 2009 comprehensive local food policy. Cities are starting to realize that they can't just "grow smarter"--they have to fundamentally remake themselves to be resilient for the unprecedented economic, social, and environmental challenges of the 21st century.

Some metro areas rethinking themselves for resilience have simultaneously become home to "clean tech" centers with significantly high job growth rates. Clean tech clusters are emerging in the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, and Austin, as well as in some less-expected locations; in Toledo, Ohio, for instance, more than 4% of all jobs are now in research, development and manufacturing for solar energy. Other key areas of future job growth are in green building and landscaping, water conservation technologies, low-carbon materials design and advanced transportation...

If the "Great Recession" of 2008-2009 taught us anything, it was that allowing the unrestrained sprawl of energy-inefficient communities and infrastructure is not a sustainable economic development strategy; rather, it is a recipe for continued disaster on every level.

Twentieth century-style sprawl has destroyed valuable farmland, sensitive wildlife habitat, and irreplaceable natural water supply systems at great environmental, economic, and social cost. We can no longer manage and develop our communities with no regard for the natural resources and ecological systems that provide our most basic needs.

What lessons emerge from metropolitan areas that have begun to plan for the future by building their resilience with economic, energy, and environmental uncertainty in mind?

  • Build and re-build denser and smarter. Suburban and urban population densities need to increase so that energy-efficient transportation choices like public transit, bicycling and walking can flourish. Multi-modal mobility cannot succeed at the densities found in most American suburban and urban communities today. Increasing density doesn't have to mean building massive high-rises: adding just a few more stories on existing or new mixed-use buildings can double population density--and well-designed, increased density can also improve community quality of life and economic vitality. Resource-efficient building technologies, as certified by the US Green Building Council's Leadership in Environment and Energy (LEED) or the US EPA's Energy Star rating, can be retrofitted for existing building stock and mandated for all new construction.
  • Focus on food. Gardens (whether in backyards, community parks, or in and on top of buildings) may supplement people's diets with fresh local produce--but urban areas need to think big and plan systemically for significantly increased food production. In many Asian cities and towns--even big cities like Seoul, South Korea, the size of New York--there are thriving small farms interspersed within metro areas. Growing and processing more food for local consumption bolsters regional food security and provides jobs while reducing the energy, packaging and storage needed to transport food to metro regions.
  • Focus on water. Our freshwater supply is one of our the most vulnerable resources in the United States. Water vulnerability is no longer just a problem for Southwestern desert cities--communities in places like Texas, Georgia and even New Jersey have recently had to contend with water shortages. As precipitation patterns become less reliable and underground aquifers and mountain snowpack dry up, more and more communities will need to significantly reduce water demand through conservation, restrictions and "tiered pricing."
  • Think in terms of systems. If we think of our urban areas as living, breathing entities--each with a set of basic and more specialized requirements--we can better understand how to transform our communities from random configurations into dynamic, high-performance systems of resilience. The "metabolism" of urban systems depends largely on how energy, water, food, materials, labor and knowledge are used (and reused, where possible), or metabolized. From these ingredients and processes come products, services, and--if the system is efficient--minimal waste and pollution...
Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, a consultancy based in San Anselmo, California with international projects on urban strategy and metrics. He is a Fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and author of How Green is Your City?: The SustainLane US City Rankings.


Vancouver, Canada's new mayor Gregor Robinson is making good on his campaign promise to make Vancouver "The Greenest City on the Planet." 

Forget trying to be Canada's greenest city as Toronto has aspired to be, or North America's greenest city as Portland, San Francisco and Chicago have vied for. If it succeeds beyond its plans, the Vancouver region will have the makings of the world's first modern Eco City-State.

Mayor Robertson announced ambitious plans Tuesday at this week's Resilient Cities conference.

Whatever the outcome, Vancouver will be transformed by the process in reputation and mindshare. This plan should provide the city of 615,000 with an opening to make significant sustainability improvements to its economic competitiveness, infrastructure and use of resources.

With the 2010 Winter Olympics coming to town next February, Vancouver will be able to use an international media platform that key sponsors such as Coca Cola and General Motors are targeting for launches of new "sustainability" products and messaging. Besides the release of GM's forthcoming Chevy Volt, I've been told that Coca Cola is trying to completely reposition its brand in the face of climate change, bottled water rebellion and anti-soda obesity regulations.

As a result of such marketing, and with Olympic Village plans for operations under the Global Reporting Initiative on sustainability, the 2010 games might make history as the first international event associated with sustainability.

Corn syrupy water and automobiles aside, Vancouver is putting forward some serious plans and goals in its quest. Yesterday, I chatted with Melina Scholefield, Vancouver's Sustainability Group manager, and learned that the city as part of its Greenest City Plan will:

  • Set up a low-carbon economic development zone to attract private equity investment in the green economy, with the goal of creating 20,000 new jobs.
  • Try to increase its walkability, bikability and public transit ridership to more than 50 percent. The city currently has a rate of about 20 percent combined walking and cycling for commuting, one of the highest such rates in North America. Boston, for example, has a combined walking/cycling commute rate of 16 percent, the highest in the US.
  • Develop its own green building standards, which are stricter and more thorough than existing standards such the US Green Building Council's LEED rating system or the US EPA's Energy Star rating system. The goal is to have all construction in Vancouver be carbon neutral by 2020.
  • Reduce the amount of solid waste that goes to landfills or is incinerated by 40 percent.
  • Provide all city residents with easy access to green space, so that by 2020 everyone would be within a five-minute walk of a park, beach or greenway.
  • Reduce the per capita consumption of water by 33 percent.
  • Reduce the carbon footprint of food production by 33 percent.
  • The big one: reduce the ecological footprint of Vancouver by 33 percent. This means reducing the amount of arable land needed to support each citizen from 7 hectares to 5.7 hectares by 2020.
Eventually Vancouver wants to reduce its "four planet" Ecological Footprint down to "one planet." (Tuesday night, I gave a talk on urban resilience at the conference with the co-founder of the Ecological Footprint, William Rees, a professor at the University of British Columbia: our Post Carbon Institute-sponsored talk will be broadcast on 15 radio stations and available here on an MP3 at the EcoShock radio site.)

Vancouver's performance-based goals are impressive in that they are tangible and measureable. Having measured the sustainability performance, projects and capabilities of the largest 50 US cities in my book, How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings, I am looking forward to seeing how Vancouver will pull off developing transparent and verifiable results.

Already the city claims the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita of any city in North America, at just under 5 metric tons, with New York City being at about 7 metric tons and the US average being close to 25 metric tons. Vancouver claims 90 percent use of renewable energy, with much of it in hydropower, though I was unable to verify whether that hydropower is small-scale enough to qualify for accepted renewable energy standards, such as that used by the state of California.

Now comes the real test. How will Vancouver plan, manage, construct and fashion a more sustainable future so it can complement its already world-famous quality of life with new technology jobs and opportunities in urban agriculture and food production?

Vancouver will have to compete with clean tech clusters emerging in California, Boston, Austin and Toledo, Ohio, creating green job growth in renewables, green building and advanced materials, advanced transportation (beyond its already-leading fuel cell industry cluster), and water/ energy efficiency.

A final challenge surfaced yesterday afternoon during a panel discussion at the Resilient Cities conference with Scholefield and other members of the Greenest City Action Team (including Gordon Price, Robert Safrata, and Moura Quayle).

Vancouver's Greenest City Plan has yet to provide details on the participation of its surrounding metropolitan area, though the leadership of West Vancouver, a suburb of 44,000 appeared to be on board when I discussed the plan with its mayor Pamela Goldsmith-Jones and councillor Trish Panz.

Regional collaboration will be vital to ensuring effective land use and transportation planning, not to mention scaling up regional food and regional energy production, particularly biomass, wind, biofuels and small-scale hydro power.

"We'll start at the core with the hope that action in the core city will move the outer area along" said Price, Director of the SFU City program, in response to a question about the lack of sign-on from Metro Vancouver, a group of 22 communities in the region.

That strategy might work to kick things off. At some point soon, however, Vancouver will need to more fully enlist the metro area and the Cascadia bioregion to take on an active partnership and even select ownership of Greenest City plan elements. Mayor Robinson did meet with Portland, Oregon mayor Sam Adams, who came to Vancouver this week with a contingent to the Resilient Cities event--the two were said to hit it off well and spent much time together privately.

If Vancouver accomplishes its formidable goals, it would within ten years begin to more closely resembles the Eco City-State concept devised by William Rees.

The city would then be at the center of a regional economy capable of producing most of its own energy, along with a significant amount of its goods, services and food, while protecting its water, wildlife, biodiversity and cultural resources. And this would be without contributing further to the acceleration of global climate change.

Call it resilience, sustainability, or just getting ready for what's to come.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an international consultancy focused on  urban sustainability strategy and metrics.



How do we put the pieces together to make our cities and metro areas stronger than they were before climate change, energy volatility and the Great Recession?

(See "*answer" at end of this post...)

That's what I'll be discussing tomorrow (Tuesday) night on a panel, "Urban Resilience in Post-Carbon World," in Vancouver with Bill Rees, of Ecological Footprint fame, and Daniel Lerch, author of Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty.

The panel, sponsored by the Post Carbon Institute, will be open to the public and is part of a larger event on urban resilience bringing together local government leaders from Canada and the United States, as well as academics and practitioners in urban sustainability--er, resiliency--management.

Vancouver has been viewed for a decade as a success story in sustainable planning and programs. From the city's emphasis on increased downtown density, bikability and green buildings, including its sponsorship of a "21 places for the 21st century" contest, to a city farmer program for exchanging surplus fruit, Vancouver is on the vanguard of urban resiliency innovation. It also is one of Canada's most diverse cities, home to significant numbers of Asians from many countries, including India, as well as indigenous North Americans.

The rich offerings of the Resilient Cities event demonstrates that Vancouver is thinking ahead once more. Besides its Mayor Gregor Robertson, minions of regional and local government, non-governmental and business leaders will be putting on events, including:

  • The Vancouver Design Nerds and Open Space Network will be facilitating an urban agriculture ideas jam while another group of food system experts and producers will examine "Planning Metro Vancouver as if Food Matters."
  • A local university campus (BCIT Burnaby Campus) will be having a design charette, led by Ecocities founder Richard Register, to reduce its ecological footprint by a factor of four.
  • City government and groups including TransFair Canada will examine how to invigorate local economic development through fair trade and sustainable purchasing.
  • The city's "Greenest City Action Team" including the manager of the City of Vancouver Sustainability Group will share advice on engaging people in change.
  • BC hydro will lead an interactive session on sustainable community energy.
  • Provincial official will examine convening action throughout British Columbia (Vancouver's province) that achieves settlement in balance with ecology.
  • Real estate experts including David Suzuki Foundation author Nicholas Heap will explain how climate change could impact the region's real estate.
  • Other cities, from New York City, with former Sustainable South Bronx's Majora Carter, (a Fellow at Post Carbon Institute along with Bill Rees and myself) to Berkeley, California, will have case studies presented. AAt in 
Key to a successful event will be how well presenters and activities engage systems approaches for resilient communities, rather than just repackaging siloed sustainability chestnuts under a new label.

Besides regional government organization Metro Vancouver's hosting of a session on "The Politics of Decision-Making for Sustainability," Vancouver is making attempts at coordinating with Seattle and Portland on how to make the Cascadia region a more interconnected and better managed bioregional market. Cascadia forces helped push Amtrak to connect Portland and Vancouver for the first time without border fees, for instance.

Portland Mayor Sam Adams will be at the event with a contingent from that Oregon city, as will Jim Diers, author of Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way.

* The easy answer to my opening question, by the way, includes providing better regional collaboration, particularly in the area of land use, planning and transportation.

Unfettered growth in car-dependent sprawled communities proved during the past few years to be the biggest economic risk factor in real estate, endangering the whole US economy. Exurban Sun Belt homes and entire neighborhoods went from being hot properties to foreclosed or even largely abandoned, as rising gas price rises changed speculative economics from 2006-2009. 

Sprawl also has which has massive implications for higher average water, building and infrastructure energy use, increasing greenhouse gas production beyond tailpipes.

Which means that because of climate change, the issue of how to control and rethink sprawl on the regulatory and policy level should become a leading order of business in metro areas, states, nations and the world.

The unplanned sprawl that already exists will need to be re-engineered or "undone," which means that the alternatives provided by the Vancouvers and Portlands--transit-oriented development, multi-model mobility (including walking and biking), regional energy and food production--will need to be applied at regional levels throughout North America.

The suburbs and exurbs are ground zero for change, particularly in the United States, where though most people live in urban areas (79% in 2000), they do not live in big cities. Only a quarter of US residents live in cities above 100,000 in population, so no matter how green cities become, we must think in terms of metros and their smaller cities if we really want to prepare for the future.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and co-author of a forthcoming book from the Post Carbon Institute on urban and societal resiliency     

union station.jpeg


The boldest move by a US city to remake its transportation system occurred five years ago, when Denver metro area voters in 31 communities committed $4.7 billion in sales tax funding for its FasTracks initiative. 


It turns out not one of the 119 miles of promised light rail have been built yet because of material and land acquisition cost increases, a poor economy and other complications. Through city-wide strategies for making public transit, walkability and bikeability the modes for addressing freeway and city arterial congestion, however, Denver has so-far succeeded despite the snafus.


The city has almost doubled its public transit ridership since FasTracks was passed in 2004. In 2004 about five percent of city commuters used public transit; that figure hit nine percent in 2008, figures recently released by the US Census Bureau's American Community Survey.


So how did the Mile-High City make itself into a case study for how to take a car-dependent Sun Belt metro and move it toward multi-modality?


First, the city created a regional mandate for public transit, combined with tangible, measureable goals. Mayor John Hickenlooper told me in 2006, "We passed the most ambitious transit initiative in the history of the United States. It was because all 31 mayors in the seven-county area unanimously supported it."


Hickenlooper said the city wanted to reach 20 percent ridership by 2020, even 25 or 30 percent if it could. Little did he know at the time that the city would be on its way to hitting its goal without even laying one mile of new rail under the FasTracks. (Denver has recently extended its southern light rail line through a federal funding initiative separate from FasTracks, so that did help boost its ridership to a degree).


Peter Park, Denver's chief city planner, credits a number of approaches with the big gains in transit use. Strategic transit plans laid out in the 2002 Blueprint Denver document are explicit about not adding extra freeway lanes or widening city streets; these acts often occur as a panacea for traffic congestion. Most studies show such isolated approaches only eventually create more congestion.


Instead, Blueprint Denver took the radical tact of not projecting how many vehicles would be needed to get people around the growing city, but instead projected the number of "person trips": driving, transit, walking and riding bikes.


Another strategy was the Living Streets program, created by the public works department in collaboration with a range of civic and commercial organizations, including Kaiser Permanente. "The idea was that roads are for cars: streets are for people," said Park.


A video on Denver's city site has Kaiser's Dr. Eric France discussing how and why cities can be less auto dependent: "The way you build your neighborhoods can influence the way we live," France said. "Incorporating active transportation into our lives is one of the best strategies for keeping people healthy."

Park and others from the city have been working with a new citizen's academy, The New Transit Alliance, to raise awareness about the economic benefits of transit with businesses and community leaders.

Denver's creative approach to transportation, health and the green economy even helped it this summer get selected as one of three US cities in the federal government's new Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities.


All three heads of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency came to Denver earlier this month (others in the program are Philadelphia and Kansas City, Missouri) to figure out ways to collaboratively increase quality of life and reduce automotive reliance in affordable housing and beyond.

I remember working on a charrette for the "greening" of the one of the largest federal housing projects in the West. No matter how green the materials, landscaping and energy systems were, one of residents' biggest concern--besides not getting caught in gang cross-fire--was having to run across a freeway on-ramp to get to the only nearby store.

FasTracks is by no means dead in the water. Under the measure, the city will still be extending its light rail lines through 2018, though some of the plan might get scaled back unless another tax increase is levied. The system expansion should lead to exponential increases in ridership because of the new light rail stations being created--six neighborhood station plans have been completed and 10 are underway, according to Park. Bus service, including Bus Rapid Transit, is also being significantly expanded.


Denver's metro light rail and Bus Rapid Transit system, if FasTracks is built out to the original plan

"Each station will create a portal into new neighborhoods, breathing life into the streets and the economic vitality of businesses," Park said.

Denver has a long way to go before it gets anywhere near the 55 percent transit commute rate of New York City, or even the low to mid 30's commute rates of DC, Boston and San Francisco. But the city is an important model--good and bad--for how newer US urban areas can create a landscape and way of life that will no longer be defined only by the car.  

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and co-author of a forthcoming book from the Post Carbon Institute on urban and societal resiliency. 



About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); United Nations Center for Regional Development (training of mayors from 13 Asian nations on city sustainable economic development and technology); provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong, China (urban sustainability master planning and green city standards); the United States White House and Environmental Protection Agency (Eco-Industrial Park planning and Industrial Ecology primer); the nation of South Korea ("New Cities Green Metrics"); The European Union ("Green and Connected Cities Initiative"); the State of California ("Comprehensive Recycling Communities" and "Sustainable Community Plans"); major cities; and the world's largest corporations developing policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years.

Present and recent clients include the Guangzhou Planning Agency; the Global Forum on Human Settlements; the Shanghai 2010 World Expo Bureau; the US Department of State; the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders; a major mixed-use real estate development corporation; an educational sustainability non-profit; and global corporations. Read more here.

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This page is an archive of entries from October 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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