Monday, March 16, 2015

Thoughtful Planning and Climate Change

Danielson Grove, Seattle, Washington
photograph by Ross Chapin
Hello Everyone:

It seems almost redundant to say that our future and that of succeeding generations is dependent on how we form our communities for this century and beyond.  The United States continues to growth and how civic planners, government officials, other concerned individuals and organizations manage that growth will impact the health of our economy, how well off the people will be, and the future welfare of the planet.  In his post for the Natural Resource Defense Council Staff Blog Switchboard, Kaid Benfield offers "Six Ways that thoughtful community planning can help fight climate change."  Thoughtful planning and management of future land development can make a real difference in reducing carbon emissions and the serious consequences they engender.

"Sustainable Maryland"
Berwyn Department of Public Works
Carbon and global warming

Local temperatures fluctuate naturally, however, in the past fifty years the "average global temperature has increased at the fastest rate in recorded history."  This trend shows no sign of slowing down, case in point the hottest ten years have all been recorded since 1990.  Scientist theorize that unless we mitigate global warming emissions, the average American temperatures could climb three to nine degrees by the end of the century.  The impact of this increase is already being witnessed in the rise of sea levels, flooding, drought, wild fires, and more potent storms as ocean currents heat up as well as threats to human life and welfare.

These are the indisputable facts.  The political debate, mainly centered on what extent of the crises is man-made and what to do about.  Mr. Benfield writes, "The overwhelming scientific consensus is that warming is quite real, caused by man-made carbon dioxide pollution and other greenhouse gas emissions, and requires serious and immediate attention."  Whatever side of the debate you are, the general consensus should be we all need to reduce pollution and find more efficient uses for carbon-emitting fuel, and stop make the problem worse, immediately.

Corn crop drought
Cindy Seigle via creative commons
Now, let us discuss what should be done, not if something should be done.  The United States is a major producer of global warming pollution on an absolute and per capita basis. Yet, much to this country's embarrassment, the United States has moved at a snail's pace in doing something about it.  In late-May 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency to a major step forward in "...addressing the problem by proposing new limits on carbon pollution from electric power plants."  In 2013, the Obama administration implemented new fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks-another primary source of carbon pollution. The Natural Resource Defense Council, Kaid Benfield's employer, applauded these measures.

Cutting carbon pollution with thoughtful 
Suburban sprawl in Georgia
F.K. Benfield
community planning

New fuel emission standards and caps on electric power plant carbon emissions are good starts but we need to keep going.

According to Department of Energy estimates, about 39 percent of America's carbon emissions come from commercial and residential buildings; over 33 percent come from transportation, the majority of the that amount from passenger and freight traffic-moving people and good around and in between our communities.  That's over 70 percent of our carbon emissions directly influenced by our built environment at our peril.

Transportation emissions is particularly acute in cities and suburbs.  Research has shown that Americans "typically use more energy and thus emit more carbon getting to and from office buildings than we do heating, cooling, lighting, and maintaining them."  Why is this the case?  The reason this is the case due to in no small measure to the fact that many new office buildings are located on car-dependent sites on the outskirts of the metropolitan areas.  This is also the situation for suburban residential developments: "data show that transportation energy so dwarfs building energy that even those suburban households with energy-efficient homes and cars use more energy and emit more carbon than ordinary households in urban, transit-served locations."

"Sprawl madness" in Orlando, Florida
The reason for the vast transportation energy use is development has spread itself out across the land, thus forcing commuters to drive longer distance to even the most mundane tasks.  Further, in the late twentieth century, poorly planned or unplanned developments-"sprawling new land development caused us to grow about twice as fast in developed land as we did in population."  One effect was traffic grew three times faster than the population.

There is some good news in all this, growth in sprawl and traffic has slowed down as people rediscover the pleasures of urban living and walkable suburban communities.  Favorable market trends bears this out as developers and planner figure new strategies or reclaim older ones, to make better, healthier, less carbon intensive communities.  With the U.S. population expected to grow by 70 million people, in 2040 an exciting opportunity has presented itself to bring the lessons learned to full fruition, as we can expect to build 50 million new and replacement homes and 78 billion new and replacement commercial space.  Half of these built spaces expected to be on the ground in 2040 is not up yet, but we can do this right and here are Kaid Benfield's suggestions:

CO2 emissions per household from driving
New Haven, Connecticut
Center for Neighborhood Technology
1. Build in the right places

It sounds like a foregone conclusion but surprisingly, it is not a commonly understood fact.  Yet, the location of a development affects how much driving we have to do and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions.  Mr. Benfield writes,

In fact, the most exhaustive research I have on the relationship between land use and household travel behavior indicates that location-how close a home or development is to the people, goods and services its inhabitants need to reach throughout a metropolitan region-is by far the most significant indicator of average driving rates and consequent emissions from and to that home or development.  As a general rule, the more central the location, the lower the rate of driving.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious in Mr. Benfield's statement, central locations shorten average driving distances and have higher rates of walkability and density which facilitates more public transit use.  The net result is that residents closer to the central core drive less, thus producing fewer carbon dioxide emissions, then the residents of the outer rings.

There is extensive data to support this assertion.  Looking at the carbon map of New Haven, Connecticut (above left) courtesy of the Center for Neighborhood Technology's H+T (housing plus transportation) Affordability Index.  The lighter color on the map indicate lower rates of carbon emissions per household from driving.  Pay attention to the central portion of the map-downtown New Haven and the surrounding  area-are lighter in color.  The households in the light beige area average less than 3.3 metric tons per year of carbon dioxide from driving.  Conversely, the households in the dark red areas emit, on average over 8.6 metric tons.  Mr. Benfield writes, "Sadly, the regional average for households in the New Have metro area for greenhouse gas emissions from driving is a fairly high 8.68 metric tons per year, or about what an average household on the border between the darkest red and darkest orange areas emits."  Big difference but there is a glimmer of hope, the map presents the location of room for improvement.

CO2 emissions per household from driving
Chicago, Illinois
Center for Neighborhood Technology
The map of Chicago (left), on the right, presents a larger, more complex metropolis than New Haven, but the same trend hold.  The farther away from the central core, the higher the average household rate of carbon emissions from driving.  However, notice that there are ample areas outside the downtown area with medium tone shading.  These areas show promise for new development, "since all but the darkest two shades have lower rates of greenhouse gas emissions from driving  than Chicago metro average of 7.66 metric ton per year per household."

Kaid Benfield concludes, "Match the lightly shaded areas of the map with a of development of New Have or'll generally find that the lowest rates of emissions occur in places that have concentrations of existing development." He suggests that in order to mitigate carbon emissions, planners should assist developers in finding old abandoned industrial land, vacant lots, and underutilized commercial corridors ready for development.  The benefits of this strategy are: every city has these types of land and existing residential communities are not disturbed.  Blogger agrees with, in part, Mr. Benfield when he writes, I spent a lot of verbiage on the location of development because of its paramount importance to reducing carbon emissions, and because the relationship between location and emissions is so poorly understood."  Blogger needs more education on the connection between location and emissions.

"How street connectivity makes a difference"
Image by Michael Ronkin
Courtesy of Design New Haven

2. Get connected

Get connected via the street grid within our communities and metropolitan regions.  This is a pretty intuitive idea that can be accomplished in two ways.  The first way to improve connectivity is through better street patterns. While location is paramount for determining the average driving rates of any given place, the second most important factor is how the street grid is laid out.  If you look at the Michael Ronkin image on the left and follow the red line, you can see for yourself the path of travel.  A driver following the street grid on the left-hand side must take a circuitous route, thus increasing his/her driving rate and carbon emissions as opposed to the driver following the street grid on the right-hand side who uses the shorter more direct path.  The more connected grid makes the neighborhood more walkable, therefore, making it possible to eliminate automobile use for short distances.  According to Mr. Benfield, "The degree of street connectivity is the single most important indicator of how much walking takes place within a neighborhood."  Given this statement, considerate planning should guide developers to sites with well-connected streets and toward developments large enough to accommodate the construction of new street infrastructure and ensure good street connectivity within and without the development.

San Diego Trolly
Image courtesy of Reconnecting America
The second way to improve connectivity is through the tried and true method of public transit use.  Here, Mr. Benfield simply restates the obvious when he writes, "Another thing we should do to improve connections and reduce emission is to take advantage of and strengthen public transit."  There is a plethora of research on the usefulness of good public transportation in reducing diving and strengthening the economy."  He cites a transportation study, using data gleaned from seventeen different cities which concluded "that, on average, the presence of strong public transit accessible to development reduces car trips by 49 percent in the morning peak period and 48 percent in the evening peak period compared to what would be expected from standard engineering estimates typically used by municipalities." Further data from transit-heavy Arlington, Virginia demonstrates how focusing development "...around transit stations in mixed-use corridors
 not only preserves single-family neighborhoods but also boosts transit usage and walking way above the national averages.

Greenville, South Carolina
Photograph by Dan Burden/PBIC

3. Plan for convenience

Here, planning for convenience means more mixed-use developments as a way to lessen driving time or render it moot by making places such as: commercial, retail, and institutional all within walking distance from our homes.  Again, this is very intuitive.  Mr. Benfield writes, "Research shows that the presence of nearby retail increases walking some 25 percent; data also show that residents of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods weigh as much ten pounds less, on the average, than residents of sprawling, automobile-dependent neighborhoods, apparently because they walk more."  Apparently, indeed.  Of course we are not taking into account  such factors as: age, income, and overall health.  In some communities, planning for convenience can mean real mixed-use buildings-i.e residential and retail in the same building or next door.

In Blogger's case, yours truly lives in Park La Brea where there are commercial, retail, cultural, recreational and institutional enterprises all within walking distance.  Park La Brea is a gated community where children can feel free to ride their bicycles and people can walk their dogs.  The surrounding Miracle Mile community dates back to the 1930s and was built along Wilshire Boulevard, originally intended to be Los Angeles's Champs Elysee.  It is not a perfect community but it does render car trips almost moot.

BedZED London, England
Photograph by Andrea Rota/creative common via
4. Build Green

As previously noted, residential and commercial buildings account for 39 percent of the United States's total carbon emissions. Further, American buildings are solely responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions yearly, other than China.  Most of these emissions area the product of fossil fuel combustion used to generate electricity, for heating, cooling, lighting, appliances, and other electrical equipment.  Commercial and residential buildings consume more the 70 percent of electricity in the United States.

Thus, making buildings more energy-efficient and climate-friendly can play an important part in reducing global warming.  Citing the US Green Building Council, Mr. Benfield writes, "if half of new commercial buildings were built to use 50 percent less energy, it would save over six million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually for the life of the buildings-the equivalent of taking more than million cars off the road every year."  We have a way to accomplish this goal.  Quoting architectural wise man Steve Mouzon, Kaid Benfield writes, "In fact, in many ways traditional 'original green' building practices-common 'before the thermostat age'...can help, even without advanced technology."  This includes attention to solar positions and shading, high ceilings, natural ventilation and daylight, and insulation.  With increased efficiency using the latest building technology, "the Green Building Council also estimates that the average LEED-certified building uses 32 percent  less electricity and saves 350 metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, compared to the conventional building."

One example of building green is London's BedZED (above left) affordable housing development.  BedZED ("Beddington Zero Emissions Development") incorporates both state-of-the-art resource generation and on-site renewable resource generation.  BedZED is on the way to becoming a zero-emission development that will put out no more carbon that it produces via clean technology.

Frederick County farmland, Maryland
Kai Hagen/
5. Incorporate living nature

Now blogger can gone on ad nauseum about the benefits of incorporating living nature as a way to reduce carbon emissions.  Even Jane Jacobs extolled the virtues of trees and parks within the urban landscape, calling them "the lungs of the city."  Suffice it to say that living nature reduces the need for electricity and running the air conditioner during the summer. More parks and urban gardens are but some of the ways we can use in conjunction with the measures already discussed in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

6. Save the countryside

Saving the countryside produces the same benefits as incorporating living nature does at the communal scale.  On a global level, "deforestation is the second leading contributor of carbon emissions after the burning of fossil fuels.  Conserving our forests and farmland help absorbs carbon form the atmosphere."  The extra benefit in saving the wilderness is the opposite of developing in the right places.  Unless we end mindless suburban sprawl, we will never completely reduce our transportation carbon emissions to a reasonable level.

Columbia Heights, Washington D.C.
Photograph by anokarina/creative common via
Already moving in the right direction

The good news here is we can achieve these goal through a more considerate alignment of planning and development practice with emergent market forces.  Specifically, "the latest data show that, since the mid-1990s, the annual increase in developed land in the US has been going down, not up.  Central counties are now growing faster than outlying counties.  Investment is also flowing faster into urban cores than to sprawling suburbs."

More happy news to report, we are driving less: "vehicle miles traveled per household peaked in the US in 2005 and have been going down ever since the end of the Great Recession."  Total miles driven annually in the United States has also begun to decrease.

Say what you want about the Millennial generation (thanks to a Girls marathon, I found myself spouting off like a cranky old person), but they are having a more direct impact on changing lifestyle trends.  Said generation is more urban than the previous generations.  The Millennials seem to prefer a "core city," 31 percent of Millennials according to RCLCO, twice the preceding generation, to be precise.  More succinctly, "two-thirds wish to live in walkable places and town centers, whether in the inner city or in suburbs.  A third will pay more for walkability, and half will trade space for it.

Glenwood Park, Atlanta, Georgia
Photograph by F.K. Benfield
Citing University of Utah professor Arthur C. Nelson, a housing demographer, Kaid Benfield writes, "...contrary to what occurred in previous generations, there will be no growth in the demand for large-lot housing:  half of all new housing demand between now and 2040 will be for attached homes, the other half for small-lot homes."  Even though the demand for large-lot housing will continue, this is not where growth will occur.  Large-lot housing will only account for 25 percent of the demand by 2040.  This number coincide with dwindling number of households with adults of child-bearing age and those living with children.  Professor Nelson estimates that "87 percent of the growth in the housing market through 2040 will comprise households without children."

What does all this mean?  While city living is becoming more expensive and suburban living less: the demand for urban amenities is up and while the demand for automobile-dependent suburbs is down. The average driving miles for Millennials aged 16 to 34 has dropped a stunning 40 percent per capita over the last ten years.  Similarly, bicycle travel has increased 24 percent and walking went up 16 percent.  Twenty-six percent of Americans 16 to 34 do not have a driver's license.

San Francisco street traffic
  The state of California enacted policy that use smarter land use and transportation planning to combat carbon pollution.  This policy is the (in)famous SB375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008.  This law mandates every metropolitan area design and implement a plan to mitigate transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions in line with goals set by the Air Resources Board.  In Los Angeles, planning organization for the Southern California region was finalized in 2012, which would reduce per capita emissions of 9 percent by 2020 and 16 percent by 2035.

As well as meeting the target, Southern California's plan would also invest $246 billion in public transportation. spread out over a 25-year period: "triple funding for programs to support walking and bicycling; place 60 percent more housing in transit-accessible locations; create 4.2 million jobs in the the region, and place 87 percent of all jobs within a half mile of transit service; reduce pollution-caused respiratory problems by 24 percent, resulting in $1.5 billion per year in health care savings; and save over 400 square miles of farmland and other space from development."  This is ambitious, but ambition is what is necessary to achieve the all-important goal of fighting climate change.

The era of unchecked sprawl is over, just in the nick of time, given the alarming need to reduce carbon emissions.  The question is "how to live a sustainable and prosperous lifestyle suited to 21st-century realities."  This can be accomplished through more thoughtful planning.

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