Seems like my chapter "The Death of Sprawl" from The Post Carbon Reader is taking on a life of its own. Friday, Christopher Leinberger had an Op-ed in the New York Times, titled "Death of the Fringe Suburb," which built upon concepts I had published (and sent Leinberger last year) namely, that the US mortgage crisis and Recession were set off by upsidedown economics of sprawl speculation in US exurbs or "Boomburbs" and we can't ever do that again.
What's important here is that the research and the real estate sales figures are becoming ever clearer: people increasingly prefer to live in mixed-use, transit-oriented walkable and bikeable neighborhoods over drive-everywhere bedroom communities. Those preferences will not change and we will not go back, which is affirmed by the abandoned exurban housing and development that are fast becoming the nation's newest slums: for the first time in the nation's history, suburban poverty now outweighs urban poverty.
One need only take a look at the foreclosure heavy areas such as California's Inland Empire: my chapter provided a case study of Victorville, CA, one of the last gasps of the residential car-centered Boomburb economy of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Leinberger's piece hit on the changing real estate taste in demographics (retired Boomers and upcoming Millennials) while my thesis examined how cheap energy fueled nearly 100% car-dependent exurban growth. We both concluded that denser, mixed-use metro areas are the wise investments of the future because: more people want to live that way so that is where investment will occur. Developers know that strip malls, sidewalk-less mini-mansions and business parks that cater to cars only are poison in this economy.
To get where this is going, one need only look at the three cities out of 20 that have had positive real estate sales in the past quarter: Portland (free public transit, leading US city bicycle transit rate), New York (leading US public transit rate, active bikeway development) and Washington, DC (one of highest transit rates behind New York and high walkability).
The national foreclosure capitals, on the other hand, are testimonials to sprawled, exurban, car-dominant development: Las Vegas, Phoenix and California's Inland Empire (San Bernardino and Riverside counties, including Victorville). See map of 2011 US foreclosures below:
Sprawled communities, exurbs, fringe suburbs, whatever you call them, are underwater in terms of money invested and will remain so. Some of these communities will make themselves more resilient with car-free transport, local food production, water and wildlife conservation and other acitviites that restore local resources, jobs and social interaction.
But many will become abandoned slums and will need to be torn down, just as Victorville did with some of its "high-end" residential neighborhoods. Other monuments of sprawl, particularly in desert communities, will remain as stark monuments to the follies of our distant past. Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, author of How Green is Your City? and co-author
oftheUnited Nations Shanghai Manual on global
sustainable city planning and management.
We all need to reinvent urban planning for the 21st
Never has the need been greater for integration across urban management,
systems, experts, policies and technologies.The world is rapidly becoming more urban,
especially in Asia, where hundreds of millions have begun moving to cities.This massive migration, largest
in human history, will produce colossal impacts--including innovation--in energy use, transportation,
housing, water and resource use. Economies will be impacted at every scale, especially beyond burgeoning metro areas in national and global markets.
Add climate change and adaptation issues to the development
of Asian cities, where more than 50 percent of global greenhouse gas emission
increases are expected to occur over the next 15 years,
and we are faced with the urgency--and opportunity--to reinvent urban planning. Planning for the
future of cities needs to now embody a process combining sustainability
strategies with information and communications technologies (ICT), supported by the
sciences (natural + social) in concert with engaged participation: from the
slum to the boardroom to the ivory tower.
Considering such needs, the United Nations is announcing
capacity building for sustainable urbanization, with an initial focus on Asia. On Nov. 7, the UN will release its "Shanghai Manual for Sustainable
Urbanization" (where else but in China's largest city, Shanghai?). The Shanghai
Manual, developed in conjunction with the Shanghai Expo 2010 (photo above), represents not
only the knowledge legacy of dozens of symposia held throughout the Expo, but
also new research, case studies and policy recommendations targeted for mayors
and other urban executive leaders.
My contributions as co-author of the Shanghai Manual
include chapters on "Delivering Effective Urban Management", "Economic
Transformation", and "ICT for Smart Cities". Other chapters are devoted to:
Towards a Harmonious City
Science & Technology
Culture and Sustainable Cities
the Shanghai Manual will be rapidly followed by training for mayors of 20
cities from 15 Asian nations. Invited to this training are Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Fiji, India,
Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka,
Thailand, and Viet Nam: they will meet at the UN Centre For Regional Development in Nagoya, Japan,
where I, along with other experts from the UN, will lead instructional sessions in
November. The United Nations expects the training in Nagoya will influence:
"Enhanced awareness of participants about
feasible and attractive policy options for a green economy for rapidly growing
cities of Asia
Increased exchanges between local and national
levels of government in the participating countries, thus contributing
favorably to the preparation for the (Rio+20) Conference by Member States themselves
Enhanced national capacity to identify common
challenges and opportunities associated with a green economy and sustainable
urban development" (photo by Warren Karlenzig)
Karlenzig is president of Common Current.
He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, and co-author ofthe
forthcoming United Nations Shanghai Manual on global sustainable city planning and
San Francisco's parklets (left, from top to bottom: #1, Valencia Street, #2 and #3 Divisadero, and #4, Castro and 17th, bottom) are a vibrant testimony to the city's Pavement to Parks Program, managed by a non-profit, the Great Streets Program. The city's 15 parklets all started with two to three parking spaces, or other poorly-utilized urban space (the city says 25% of its space is taken up by streets or auto rights of way, while only 20% of the city is parkland--still one of the highest totals in the nation). With the help of architects, artists and landscapers, the asphalt is converted into living, breathing social settings. The parklets do continue to provide parking space for the non-polluting form of transit: bicycles. I took a cycling tour this weekend of the city's parklets, which offer cyclists a safe and convenient place to park their two wheels and take a rest with their steed. In the Valencia parklet (top photo), which included edgy canopy steel structures, I counted 19 people hanging out, and 31 bicycles parked. The space was much livelier, more functional and attractive than any three cars could have ever been in the same space. San Francisco is now analyzing the numbers, behind its parklets, which were started in 2010. The analysis includes the number of users, maintenance costs, and neighborhood economic benefits. The City by the Bay admits it was inspired by New York City's public plazas, just as it confessed using Bogota's Sunday car-free streets Ciclovia concept for its own Sunday Streets program. Imitation is of course the sincerest form of urban innovation these days. The beauty of such experimentation is that it can be adapted for local conditions, including climate, public tastes and zoning. The Pavement to Parks program is one of the most exciting deployments in the trend of enabling reduced urban dependency on cars, while fostering artistic and nature-enhanced community. There are other major trends portending that the future of cities (and suburbs) is beyond cars: the increase in mixed-use zoning, transit-oriented development, car sharing and light rail. To wit: adaptable use of public spaces has become a key indicator of urban resilience. (Photos by Warren Karlenzig: click on each photo for larger format view) Warren
Karlenzig is president of Common
Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, and co-author ofa
forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and
Urban sustainability is
the challenge of the century as more of the world's population becomes urbanized
(50 percent in 2008, 60 percent by 2030), at an ever-faster rate. Global climate change has been caused in large
part by the burning of fossil fuels to generate energy, materials and food for
metro areas. Yet urban culture also constitutes a powerful response capability
by which to cope with the diminishing socio-economic options forced by climate
change, especially in megacities, metro areas of more than 10 million people.
Upon this tableau, I am collaborating with the
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs,
in conjunction with other UN agencies (United Nations Environment Program, UN
Development Program, UN Habitat and UN Center for Regional Development) and the
Shanghai World Expo Bureau on a sourcebook for sustainable urban management in developing
The sourcebook will consider sustainability advantages
to urbanization along with disadvantages. It will cover broad topics including
greening the urban economy, effective management, as well as solution sectors (land
use and planning, water, buildings, transportation, information and
communications technologies). Case studies will be provided to illustrate how
solutions have already overcome a host of urgent challenges, or how they may soon be able to help do so.
During the next ten
years, according to the McKinsey Global Institute (pdf), 90 percent of urban population growth will take place in developing
countries. In India, for example, cities are forecast to garner 85 percent or
the nation's total tax revenue (up from current level of 80 percent), which
will be the primary source for financing economic development on a national
scale. Seventy percent of all new jobs are projected to be created in India's cities by 2030, though cities are expected by that date to represent only 40 percent
of the nation's total population.
Besides the threats and risks that megacity
growth poses to global humanity and regional resources, trends in
developing nation megacities will also strongly define emerging economic
opportunities for large-scale low-carbon and resource-efficient technologies,
services and strategic approaches. Whether in Delhi or Mexico City, megacities
are devising more effective methods of integrated sustainability management using
everything from social networks and crowdsourcing, to paticipatory budgeting and
comprehensive green planning.
Cities are the most powerful economic engines in the world for advances in
information and communications technologies, health care, education and energy
systems. These combined capacities have provided urban areas with
anywhere from 55 percent (developing nations) to 85 percent (developed nations)
of total national income, significantly surpassing per-capita income averages,
and trending even more upward during the next two decades of hyper-urban growth.
Megacities and urbanization, in other words,
should be the cause for global concern that needs to be tempered with concerted
strategy, actions and ultimately, hope for humanity.
The complete United Nations study is expected to be released on
1 May 2011, the first anniversary of the opening of the 2010 Shanghai World
Expo-which has a theme of "Better city, Better life."
Black tarballs and goopy oil are washing up on the summery
white sands of Florida's beaches. The Gulf oil gusher has reached a pivotal moment, not unlike Cleveland's Cuyahoga River catching on fire during the summer of
The burning Cuyahoga River became a symbol for a national ecological
and industrial system so out of kilter anyone living at the time could see things were really
screwed up. News reports and even
songs,including Randy Newman's "Burn On," about the flaming chemical-contaminated water blazed into the public consciousness--I remember as a six year old in Chicago hearing talk about the
burning river over in Cleveland.
Partially because of the talismanic Cuyahoga, the United
States was forced to enact clean water and clean air legislation that helped reform poor corporate and government management practices.Earth Day was also launched within a year
and a potent social moment was hatched.The
Nixon Administration supported the passage of new clean water and clean air legislation
in Congress, and President Nixon even proposed in late 1969 a new oversight
agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, for independent
industry oversight, with stiff penalties for those that violated
regulations. One of the first cities the
agency "went after" when formed in 1970 was Cleveland, precisely because of its
We are facing the nation's worst
environmental disaster, and it is becoming
visceral.Models from the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predict that oil from the Gulf spill
will travel from off Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida's panhandle, toward
South Florida, the Florida Keys and the Atlantic Seaboard by summer (NOAA model image below). So don't be surprised
to see more shots of tarballs, oily birds, turtles and greasy human feet. If you
live in the Southeast or vacation there, expect to smell, see and feel them in
"The smell is the worst thing," said NBC correspondent Anne
"Until you smell it, you haven't
experienced it. It is so vile and it gets in your nose and your throat and your
lungs and just stays there. The consistency is like a combination of molasses
and chocolate syrup and it just stinks."
As Pensacola's famed white beaches are besieged by toxic
fumes, tar balls and oil blobs, the first real audience reviews from average
Americans are coming in, and they're not pretty.
In the world's consciousness, it's one thing to have oil
wash up on a coastal Louisiana "swamp"--though scientists and the fishing
industry know that marine life, along with many bird species, depend on estuary
wetlands for their existence.It's quite
another thing to prohibit Americans from enjoying their summer vacation at the
beach, which endangers the Southeast's tourism and fishing industries, along
with the service industries that rely on summer visitors for all or much of their
What will happen next? I wrote on early April
that the BP oil crisis could become larger in magnitude than the Exxon Valdez
spill in Alaska. How much worse can this get? No one knows, but eventually government policy,
consumer habits, technology adoption, media, and even real estate markets will be
changed as a result of the BP oil gusher.
Stopping the oil from spouting into the ocean is of course
priority number one.Sunday some 10,000
barrels of oil a day were being captured by BP, with cameras showing more oil
Here are urgent needs that should be prioritized:
The Obama Administration must conduct a detailed risk assessment of the regional tourism industry,
the fishing industry and regional services (haircuts, restaurants,
plumbers, etc.)that could be
impacted by this tragedy. The geographic focus should include the Gulf
Coast states, south Florida, Atlantic Coast (north Florida, Georgia, South
Carolina, North Carolina) and the open Atlantic. By my rough
estimate below, there could be an
economic impact to the Southeast US economy of more than $52-78 billion, based on the following:
·Gulf Coast commercial fish products $6.5 billion
Total--$2-3 billion impact?
·Gulf Coast and Southeast Coast share of $42
billion Total US recreational fishing equipment expenditures: $2 billion impact?
Such "full cost" accounting is now
more than ever necessary to examine complete economic, climate, environmental
and societal impacts.
US subsidies to oil
companies--some $15 to $35 billion a year--need to be curtailed, and
transferred to Gulf oil clean-up funds and Gulf economic restoration, and
also redirected to fund alternative transportation fuel and technology research and deployment.
The Mineral Management Service agency needs to go. MMS's
relationship to the oil industry is so incestuous it will be impossible to
reform. "Obviously, we're all part
of the oil industry," one MMS official said to investigators
who were looking into reports of graft, porn and drugs shared by MMS staff
and oil officials. The feds need to create a completely independent
oil and gas regulatory agency, similar to the EPA, but with greater power
as energy is essential to the daily functioning of the overall economy.
The EPA has already said that it might have a hard time penalizing BP
because it is such as large supplier of fuel to the US military, including
being the top supplier of military jet fuel.
Higher-vehicle mileage and
alternative technologies need to gain much faster traction. We need more
miles per gallon (beyond current goals) for conventional engines, more plug-in hybrids, and the
development of more biofuel-burning engines that don't use food as a fuel source.
Can this finally be the time in our history when "recreational"
cars and other joy-ride vrrooom vrrooms--at least oil and gas burning
machines--stop being cool? That goes for jet skiis and race cars. After all, besides demanding all that gasoline, oil and oil-derived
products (tires, hoses, asphalt roads), these machines are
causing global climate change, not to mention regional and global air
pollution, and water pollution from runoff.Measures should be instituted
so individuals using these machines purely for pleasure make the connection between their hobbies and the perilous quest for harder-to-justify oil.
The United States needs to consider less-polluting
domestically produced transitional fossil fuels for transportation, including compressed
Recent discoveries have shown a large supply of domestic natural gas can--if
used for transportation--can offset some of the need for risky deepwater
drilling (though natural gas drilling has been shown to pollute some local
water supplies, and such activities need to be monitored closely).
Here's the most obvious
yet least discussed solution in public or the media.Urban and community planning needs to be instituted that will
reduce automobile dependence. Cars use close to half of the oil used in the United States,
with much of that use resulting from our national migration to poorly planned communities,
which has been condoned and abetted by national, state and local policy. Yes,
plug-in hybrids and electric cars will one day replace many of the
gas-burning cars on the road today, but until then (15-20 years?) transportation including cars and trucks will account for about 70% of oil used in the country, primarily in suburban/ exurban communities that lack public
non-automotive choices for commuting to jobs, schools or for shopping,
entertainment and errands.
It is time to face the sobering truth.
We, or at least all of us that drive or use goods delivered by or that contain oil, are the root of the BP Gulf oil crisis. Until,
we change the way our communities are planned, operated and valued, we will
unfortunately encounter with numbing frequency disasters related to oil that may be even more horrific
than BP's gusher.
Denial and guilt, combined
with entrenched financial interests (Big Oil and the Auto industry), have been powerful
forces chilling media discussion about the need for less-oil dependent
community planning--walkable neighborhoods with mixed uses and good public
It's time to step up the post-oil conversation while
implementing full-cost risk and reparation analyses. The Obama Administration and
our nation have their work cut out for them: there is a need to clean up not just beaches,
Gulf communities and wetlands, but also the dank bureaucratic swamps of institutional corruption.
The burning Cuyahoga River demonstrated that a crisis truly can present numerous opportunities. Let's
link cause and effect to powerful solutions by taking bold national and local actions
that will have lasting impact, long beyond the narrowly framed BP Gulf oil disaster
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.
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.
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
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 PricewaterhouseCoopersgave 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
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
Focus on water use efficiency and
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
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.
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
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.