What Would It Take? Carbon Neutral Cities



What would it take to shape a planet on which people, other living things, and the systems that support us can sustainably coexist? For a special issue, Momentum magazine invited experts from around the world to share their thoughts on how we might craft solutions to some of earth’s toughest challenges. Jeremy Faludi spoke with optimist Alex Steffen about what it would take to make a city carbon neutral. 

First, let’s talk about transportation. What are your favorite tools or strategies that cities can use? 

Well, one thing I’ve learned that’s really shocked me is the degree to which transportation planning in the U.S. is really traffic planning. Even progressive cities like Seattle have a sub-department that is about everything else but cars. They don’t have any integrated strategy at all. The traffic modeling software used by the planning commission for the five-county metropolitan area here doesn’t even account for pedestrian trips or bicycle trips, and only does a one-to-one swap for transit and cars, which we know isn’t the way the real world works.

If we’re talking about transportation, the best thing a city can do is densify as quickly as it can. That needs to be said every time this issue comes up, because it’s the only universal strategy that works. That’s the best-documented finding in urban planning—that as density goes up, trip length goes down and transportation energy use goes down. The main question that nearly every city in North America needs to address is how to densify quickly. Once people are grappling with that, though, there are other things people need to do to make that work: making neighborhoods walkable, with green spaces, street life, mixed-use zoning and other qualities that make a place livable. If you have density without that, you just have vertical suburbs.

How you get density is different depending on whether your city is growing or declining. Most cities in the U.S. are growing because the country is having one last population boom. The biggest thing growing cities need to do is minimize barriers to development so that as long as someone is doing good urbanism, they can get permitted quickly and get building quickly. In a lot of places, one of the most expensive parts of building a new building is the delay caused by permitting, public process, etc. Places that have done a really good job, like Vancouver, basically set a high bar for what will get passed, but once you’ve passed you’re good to go, there aren’t delays. I think that’s one of the most important things, because we know there’s already a giant pent-up demand for urban living space. We want to provide that urban living space—but that requires building on a scale we haven't seen in 40 or 50 years.

2/17/2012 8:42:19 PM

Correction: Steffen explicitly includes urban farms and community gardens WHEN he speaks of high density.

2/17/2012 6:59:00 PM

Steffen explicitly INCLUDES urban farms and community gardens which he speaks of high density. The high density relieves the pressure for building on what he calls corridors between the high density. It is the mix of farms and gardens with abutting density that adds benefits. I am extremely skeptical of any kind of change because of the extreme power of money to overwhelm the interests of the people that have to live with what the develops have made and profited from. But I think his ideas might be OK if not subverted by population profiteers.

2/17/2012 4:03:14 PM

So much for urban farms and community gardens. High density negates both, except-- as usual-- for select neighborhoods. As CO2, Greenland melting, and species destruction all keep on their ever-faster course, and subsistence farms that might solve the feeding of billions to come are supplanted by corporate-GMO inefficiencies (courtesy of the Gates Mafia), faux C neutrality is another diversion between the staged scenes that are human life just now.

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