March 2010 Archives


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Big surprise for me today, as the formidable Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has seconded my analysis of how communities need to prepare for changing conditions related to the economy, climate and resource availability.

Kaid Benfield, NRDC's director of Smart Growth reviewed my recent posts about the urgent need for urban resilience planning in a NRDC blog post today titled "What Cities Should do to Become More Resilient (and It's Not What they are Doing Currently)."  Benfield writes, "NRDC has chosen sustainable communities as one of its strategic priorities for the next five years. Karlenzig's advice seems right on target as we further refine that agenda."

That advice was recently provided for Green Flow readers here in a two-part series. Part 1 was "Urban Resilience Planning for Dummies" and Part 2 was "Urban Resilience Planning for Dummies: Failing the Milk Test."

These posts were teasers for a standalone publication I wrote that is coming out very soon from the Post Carbon Institute (PCI), titled, "The Death of Sprawl: Designing Urban Resilience for the 21st Century Climate and Resource Crises."

A shorter version of "The Death of Sprawl" will also appear in the Post Carbon Reader, which is being published by The University of California Press and Watershed Media this summer, alongside writings from PCI's other 27 fellows.

I'm honored to be profiled and credited by author Kaid Benfield, who besides his affiliation with NRDC, is one of the top thinkers, doers and writers in the urban planning realm.

A few months back when I published an excerpt from a case study on Victorville, California-- where sprawled finished luxury houses were demolished last year after the exurban foreclosure meltdown--I learned that Benfield was one of the first people to write about the incident in his NRDC blog, which includes graphic video footage of what may be a watershed moment in the end of exurbia.

Besides being ever-prescient, Benfield's "almost daily" blogging provides readers a detailed perspective of what's right, what's wrong and what needs to be drastically improved in the way our communities have been planned, developed and operated.

Thanks, Kaid.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.


 



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Last week, a report was put out by a Kuwaiti research institution (chart above) forecasting global peak oil production by 2014. This follows a report last month by a broad-based British industry group that also predicted a global "oil crunch," or shortage of supply, by the same period.

Very few metro regions, cities or businesses are prepared for the impact of these potential global issues on their economies or finances, operating budgets and mobility.

I asked Richard Heinberg, author of numerous books about peak oil and other peaking resources (freshwater, fisheries, soil, etc.), if he agreed with the British industry report, which was partially backed by Richard Branson and the Virgin Group. Heinberg said that it appeared credible, and added that having a billionaire transportation industry CEO assert that we better get ready should make people at least take more notice.

Cities, households and the economy will be impacted, as will industries. Some industries will be hurt (agriculture, retail, petrochemicals) and some sectors could be positively impacted (smart growth planners, alternative transportation providers, "smart city" technology providers, alternative fuel producers, mixed-use and infill developers)

Whether it's bonafide peaking of global oil supplies, or a short- to medium-term "oil crunch," the initial result will be the same. Rapidly rising gas prices and price instability should become evident by 2013, or even earlier if there are any supply shocks because of natural disasters (hurricanes in Gulf), political events, war and terrorists acts.

So let's assume that these two reports, Heinberg, and the CEOs of companies such as Total and Shell oil have been correct--we will be facing at least a temporary oil crunch that drives prices up to or near levels reached in 2008 when oil hit $147 a barrel. What will likely happen and how can regions, cities and business in particular prepare?

Mobility Choices

The most obvious area of impact of rising oil prices is transportation and mobility. During the gas price rises of 2006-2008, U.S. citizens turned to public transportation in record numbers. Light rail ridership was the biggest winner, as was an old and reliable form of gas-free transportation, the bicycle. The biggest losers: SUVs (RIP Hummer) and personal automotive use. Across the nation, people substantially reduced their driving for the first time in decades, particularly in metro areas that had other mobility options.

One of the smartest steps communities can take to prepare for oil price and supply volatility is to maintain public transit service levels. It is especially ill-advised to cut public transit systems to fund highway or automotive-based initiatives: a transit district in suburban San Francisco, for instance, is cutting public transit service to help pay for a $75 million road improvement project.

Getting light rail funded and built by 2014 or 2015 is not likely in areas without pending efforts, so metro areas should also investigate other means of mobility investments, including:

  • Bus Rapid Transit systems or routes
  • Pedestrian-cycling infrastructure
  • Multi-modal transportation hubs
  • Car-sharing programs for city employees, businesses and residents
  • Designated carpooling stops and incentives
  • Technologies enabling transit use, car-sharing and car pooling  

Alternative Transportation

The need for higher-mileage vehicles is a given, with climate change concerns and resource constraints. Hybrids are one solution, as are electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids. One consideration for using electricity to power vehicles, however, is that it puts more demand on grid energy. In large parts of the country primarily using coal to make power (Eastern, Southeastern and upper Plains states) this causes more coal to be burned, exacerbating regional air pollution, global climate change, and coal mining's nasty environmental impacts.

In terms of automobiles or light trucks, the ideal transportation technology is photo-voltaic charged plug-in hybrids. After up-front investments are completed, these vehicles can perform low carbon and pollutant-reduced service over many years, with minimal relative fuel costs.

Biofuels are a promising solution if they are not competing for food supplies, which is the challenge of using corn-based ethanol, for instance. Celluosic biofuels from crop or forest waste products are at least five years off in terms of mass production. Hydrogen fuel cell R&D has been de-emphasized by the current US Department of Energy administration, so don't expect any big advances in that technology in this country during the next decade. 

Real Estate

The biggest winners during 2006-2008 were mixed-used developments near transit, with walkable shopping, jobs, entertainment, and other services. Apartments and townhouses are likely to fare much better than single-family houses unless the houses are in walkable communities served by transit and local amenities. Biggest losers: Exurban sprawl, where car dependency can be near 100% in some communities for jobs, shopping, school, entertainment and socializing. The higher gas prices go, the more isolating and bankrupting this type of living becomes: and the less anyone else will care to pay for it.

Hardest hit exurban areas are in sprawled inland Southern California, Florida and greater Phoenix. Said the March 17 New York Times of Phoenix: "The worst-off of these projects were built in marginal locations on the outskirts of the metropolitan area, and stand completely empty months and even years after completion."

"We've got some see-through shopping centers," said David Wetta, senior vice president and managing director in the Phoenix office of the real estate brokerage Marcus & Millichap.

The Economy

Jobs will need to have access to public transportation, car sharing and walkable or bikeable shopping, versus the isolated exurban corporate office park. Employers or regions that cannot offer these "table stakes" might as well get out of the game, or be prepared to pay ultra high prices or extra costs, whether they are trying to attract employees, companies or industries.

Reducing long-term fuel operating costs in government vehicle fleets can be accomplished with electric, natural-gas powered flex-fueled vehicles, and alternative fuels such as biodiesel, which became more economical than oil-based fuels in certain markets during 2006-2008.

Planning

Alachua County, Florida, is the first county in the nation to begin formally assessing how long range land use and transportation planning can be optimized to address peaking oil. A handful of US cities, including Denver, Oakland and Portland, Oregon have launched peak oil task forces. My colleague at the Post Carbon Institute, Daniel Lerch, has written Post Carbon Cities, the first primer for communities on preparing for peaking oil, and that should be first on any list for recommended reading for government officials.

"Since World War II, our energy 'normal' has been a cheap and stable supply of oil, and we built our economies, cities and suburbs on that assumption." said Lerch. "That era ended in 2008, and the 'new 'normal' is an increasingly expensive and volatile supply of oil. Those cities that recognize this and adjust their planning, infrastructure, and revenue assumptions accordingly are the ones that will succeed in the 21st century."
 
Technology

A variety of information and communications technology advances are being deployed or tested that will be invaluable during the next oil crunch: examples include hand-held transit system alerts and dedicated websites for car-sharing, carpooling, and for group walking or biking to school (safety in numbers). Even Twitter is being used for tweets when people need to, say, share a cab to the city from an airport.

In 2008, when oil reached its historic high, Walkscore began to be used by people who were considering buying a home, renting an apartment, getting a new job or traveling in a different city. Now Walkscore has introduced maps of whole neighborhoods so people know which locations have what types of walkable destinations surrounding them on a district-wide basis.

It's a brave new world out there when it comes to problems that will result from peaking oil. We can either continue to live in complete denial, or we can start the process of adaptation to the post-oil economy.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.


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Last post I covered some guiding principles for urban resilience planning in the face of climate change and diminishing resources (especially fresh water and oil). Considering these guidelines, what aspect of U.S. metro development stands out as the most ill-advised and risky? Short answer: exurban sprawl.

If the "Great Recession" taught us anything, it is that allowing the unrestrained sprawl of energy-inefficient communities and infrastructure is a now-bankrupt economic development strategy and constitutes a recipe for continued disaster on every level.

"Shy away from fringe places in the exurbs and places with long car commutes or where getting a quart of milk takes a 15-minute drive," was the warning the Urban Land Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers gave institutional and commercial real estate investors in their Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2010 report.

I make the further case that the exurban economic model is an outright anachronism in the Post Carbon Institute's Post Carbon Reader, which comes out this summer from the University of California Press and Watershed Media.

Much of US "economic growth" in the 1990s and early 2000s was based on the roaring engine of exurban investment speculation with gas at historic record low prices. That bubble popped on the spike of $4 a gallon; we now are paying the piper with abandoned tract developments, foreclosed strip malls and countless miles of roads to nowhere. Gas prices are forecast to head over $3 this summer, and likely much higher when a forecast global "oil crunch" hits by 2014 or so. 

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

A shining alternative is metropolitan areas that have begun to plan for the future by building their resilience with economic, energy, and environmental uncertainty in mind: top U.S. metro locations include Portland, Oregon, Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Denver, and suburbs such as Davis, California and Alexandria, Virginia. These communities are employing some of the following key strategies that underpin resilient urbanism:

Build and re-build denser and smarter

Most U.S. suburban and urban population or use densities need to be increased 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 communities today. Increasing density doesn't have to mean building massive high-rises: adding just a few 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.


Focus on water use efficiency and conservation

Our freshwater supply is one of our most vulnerable resources in the United States. Drought is no longer just a problem for Southwestern desert cities--communities in places like Texas, Georgia and even New Jersey recently had to contend with water shortages. As precipitation patterns become less reliable and underground aquifers dry up, more communities will need to significantly reduce water demand through efficiency, conservation, restrictions and "tiered pricing," which means a basic amount of water will be available at a lower price; above average use will become increasingly expensive the more that is used.

Global climate change is already thought to be melting mountain snowpack much earlier than average in the spring, causing summer and fall water shortages. This has serious planning and design implications for many metro areas. For example, Lake Mead, which provides 90% of the water used by Las Vegas (above photo) and is a major water source for Phoenix and other Southwestern cities, has a projected 50% chance of drying up for water storage by 2021.

Focus on food

Urban areas need to think much bigger and plan systemically for significantly increased regional and local food production. Growing and processing more food for local consumption bolsters regional food security and provides jobs while generally reducing the energy, packaging and storage needed to transport food to metro regions. In Asia and Latin America--even in big cities like Shanghai, China; Havana, Cuba; and Seoul, South Korea--there are thriving small farms interspersed within metro areas.

Gardens--whether in backyards, community parks, or in and on top of buildings--can supplement our diets with fresh local produce. Denver's suburbs, for instance, have organized to preserve and cultivate unsold tract home lots for community garden food production.

Think in terms of inter-related systems

If we view 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. The "metabolism" of urban systems depends largely on how energy, water, food and materials are acquired, used and, where possible, reused. From these ingredients and processes (labor, use of knowledge) come products, services, and--if the system is efficient--minimal waste and pollution

Communities and regions should decide among themselves which initiatives reduce their risks and provide the greatest "bang for the buck." Like the emergence of Wall Street's financial derivatives crisis in 2007, if we are kept in the dark about the potential consequences of our planning, resource and energy use in light of climate change or energy shortages, future conditions will threaten whole regional economies when they emerge.

Imagine if Las Vegas informed its residents and tourists on one 120-degree summer day that they would not be able to use a swimming pool or shower, let alone golf, because there simply wasn't any water left. Odds are that the days are numbered for having one's own swimming pool and a large, lush ornamental lawn in the desert Southwest, unless new developments and desert cities are planned with water conservation as having the highest design priority. 

By thinking of urban areas as inter-related systems economically dependent on water, energy, food and vital material resources, communities can begin to prepare for a more secure future. Merely developing a list of topics that need to be addressed--the "checklist" approach--will not prepare regional economies for the complexity of new dynamics, such as energy or water supply shortages, rising population, extreme energy price volatility and accelerating changes in regional climate influenced by global climate change.

Next Steps? Time to fold the climate action plan into a resilience action plan, so communities can addresses not only global climate change emissions, but also more urgent economic risks posed by climate change adaptation and resource availability.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

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Just watched a video of the new runaway Prius episode in Southern California from last night. The scene and its aftermath reminded me of the OJ Simpson Ford Bronco chase that was televised live after the former football star was accused in 1994 of murdering his wife and another man.

With the Runaway Prius, according to the news reports, the car accelerated by itself to 90 miles an hour and wouldn't stop, until a California Highway Patrol (CHP) car gave the driver instructions from a loudspeaker and then got in front of the car, helping brake it to a stop.

"I was on the brakes pretty healthy, it wasn't stopping or doing anything, it just kept speeding up," said the driver, James Sikes. The panicked driver called 911, and as a responding CHP pulled alongside him, he said, "I was standing on the brake pedal looking at him."

The power of such a cultural meme, happening on a greater LA freeway, starring CHPs as supporting cast, has all the memorable and dramatic emotional ingredients that can do even greater damage to Toyota, its Prius hybrid, and possibly even the alternative transportation movement.

Toyota has recalled eight and half million vehicles worldwide and six million in the US, because of unexpected acceleration, lack of braking and other safety issues. Other Toyota models are included, including non-hybrids.

In the Prius, though, we have perhaps the most known mass consumer market item that screams "green" to newbies as well as sustainability technology experts. Just a few months ago in picking the top 10 stories of the past decade in sustainability, I chose the rise of the Toyota Prius (from 2001 onward) as the green icon of the era, largely because Hollywood types such as Leonardo DiCaprio adopted the Prius as their leading eco-chic indicator.  

From the OJ chase, one lasting impression was that 24-cable news became a major media force that day, as CNN scored big audiences and even bigger mindshare in its constant coverage of OJ's cruising white Bronco, which remained as a small live inset while the network covered other news. I also recall that was the first instance I had ever heard of the word "cell phone"--they were actually called "cellular" or mobile phones before that--which OJ was talking on with the media, his mother and the police.

What will we collectively remember from the Runaway Prius event? That those newfangled green technologies are inferior to good old, safe 100% internal combustion engines? That Japanese cars are good on gas mileage, but unreliable, or worse, may have potentially fatal defects?

Only time, the whims of the general public and the marketing savvy of Toyota and its auto industry competitors already having or introducing new (Honda, GM, Nissan, Ford) hybrid models will tell. (Update: As of Tuesday night, Toyota placed a video ad claiming that it was "Committed to the Right Fix" directly before the NBC news video of the Runaway Toyota, which demonstrates a well-targeted and timely response)

OJ was eventually acquitted in a trial, but his Bronco chase firmed up the beliefs of many that he was guilty of murder, as charged. The federal government announced late
Tuesday
that they will be investigating Monday night's Runaway Prius incident. 

For those who want to see more fuel-efficient and innovative transportation in this country, they have to hope that others will not categorically see things as James Sikes put it, "I will never drive that car again, period."

***UPDATE March 15, 2010

Toyota Disputes Sikes

Maybe more to the story?

***UPDATE March 17, 2010

CHP Supports Sikes

There are three sides to every story!

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.


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With all the efforts going into urban climate action plans and carbon reduction, will many cities and suburbs be caught unprepared for other sustainability crises, such as acute water or energy shortages?

In carbon reduction management, should efforts such as focusing on renewable energy and energy efficiency deserve the highest priority, when a city such as San Francisco produces 78 percent of its greenhouse gases from transportation and only 17 percent from buildings? 

These are questions that both policy makers and sustainability planners need to consider as we move into an era of climate change compounded by either diminishing resources and/or resources that are expected to continue to have extreme price volatility, such as gasoline.  

My last post reviewed the findings of a UK industry study, partially backed by Richard Branson's Virgin Group, forecasting a major "oil crunch" by 2014-15 that could potentially mean shorter supplies and much higher prices for gasoline. Because US cities do not use oil for electric power generation (Honolulu is the only one that still does), there should be much more focus in US cities on transportation and in other key areas that will be more severely impacted by the high price of oil. Cities should look at everything from citizen and business mobility options, to supplies such as asphalt for street paving, to regional food security.

At no time has effective planning, land use and public transit been so key to ensuring economic vitality, as well as equity (access to jobs and services with transit), environmental sustainability, climate security and health. That doesn't mean that increasing renewable energy and energy efficiency shouldn't be part of every community's planning, projects and budgets. It does mean that cities will need to simultaneously prioritize action plans for carbon reduction, peaking energy and peaking freshwater, which very few are doing, outside of those involved in the Transition Town movement.

To help illustrate the complexities of what I'm getting at, consider the following example. Water use in California accounts for 20 percent of electrical power use. This energy is needed to move water supplies from places with water to those largely without or to treat drinking water and wastewater.

Renewable energy sources such as solar thermal generating plants also require great amounts of water, competing for precious water supplies that can be used for drinking water and growing or processing food.

So where do water, oil or grain shortages fit in your city's or region's sustainability plan? There are no easy answers, and metro regions and cities will want to collectively consider their own energy, water and food sources when trying to assess combined carbon reduction goals and resource depletion risk factors.

I've developed some general urban resiliency rules of thumb for an upcoming chapter in the Post Carbon Institute's Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century's Sustainability Crises, which is coming out this summer from the University of California Press and Watershed Media:

  1. Planning: Enable the development of vibrant mixed-use communities and higher-density regional centers, that create a sense of place, allow for transportation choices (other than private automobiles), and protect regional agricultural, watershed, and wildlife habitat lands.
  2. Mobility: Invest in high-quality pedestrian, bicycle, and public transit infrastructure with easy access, shared connectivity and rich information sources, from signage to cell phone alerts.
  3. Built Environment: Design new buildings and associated landscaping--and retrofit existing buildings--for state-of-the-art energy (smart grid applications), and resource efficiency, integrated with mobility options.
  4. Economy: Support businesses in order to provide quality local jobs and to meet the needs of the new economy with renewable energy and other "green" technologies and services. Support local and regional economic decision-makers in adapting to the new world of rising prices, volatile energy supplies and national demographic shifts.
  5. Food: Develop regional organic food production, processing, and metro-area distribution networks.
  6. Resources: Drastically cut use of water, waste and materials, re-using them whenever possible.
  7. Management: Engage government, businesses and citizens together in resilience planning and implementation; track and communicate the successes, failures, and opportunities of this community-wide effort.

These categories are not meant to be "checklist" items for sustainability or resilience planning, but rather lay out the relevant areas that should comprise planning for integrated metro area systems. Each metro area and every city should be looking at these factors together, in order to model how well they are prepared to collaboratively contend with risks such as:

 

1.      Changing regional or local climate: extreme heat events, floods, droughts and other extreme weather events

2.      Prolonged drought, e.g. loss of mountain snowpacks or aquifers providing water for residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural use

3.      Oil crunches, including extreme price volatility; supply shocks from wars, political events, terrorism, natural disasters

4.      Food security risks from high oil prices, drought, energy-food competition (biofuels), large-scale contamination, etc.

Admittedly, the overlapping and inextricable problems that cities face today can be overwhelming, especially when budgets are tight or non-existent, and people's time is stretched to the breaking point.

Selective problem solving, such as climate action planning if it is done in isolation from resilience planning, however, may lend a false sense of security for cities on the brink of an era that promises to be very different than anything ever experienced in the past.


Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.   


 

 

About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren
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 March 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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