Planning / Land Use: 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 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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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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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Planning / Land Use category from March 2010.

Planning / Land Use: February 2010 is the previous archive.

Planning / Land Use: June 2010 is the next archive.

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