Jeff Speck has a simple prescription for slowing global warming: move to the cities and walk a lot more.
Speck’s article presents some compelling arguments against the idea that we can significantly reduce our carbon emissions by buying better technology:
When we built our new house in Washington… we put in bamboo floors, radiant heating, double-thick insulation, dual-flush toilets, a solar water heater, and a 12-panel, 2.5 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system. A pine log crackling in our high-tech wood-burning stove supposedly contributes less pollution to the atmosphere than if it were left to decompose in the forest.
Yet all these gadgets cumulatively contribute only a fraction of what we save by living in a walkable neighborhood. It turns out that trading all of your incandescent lightbulbs for energy savers conserves as much carbon per year as living in a walkable neighborhood does each week.
Speck is also pretty dismissive of hybrid and electric cars, explaining that they are by no means carbon-free, and that people often make up the difference by driving more than they would have with a conventional car. (Why that should be true, I don’t know — are Nissan Leaf drivers so thrilled by their fuel economy that they just take off from work and drive around in the middle of the afternoon, shouting “I’m electric, chumps!!!” at passersby? Answer: probably.)
The solution, he argues, is for everything to become much more dense:
Back in 1991, the Sierra Club’s John Holtzclaw studied travel habits in 28 California communities of widely varying residential density. He found, as expected, an inverse relationship between urbanity and driving miles….
[I]ncreasing density from two units per acre to 20 units per acre resulted in about the same savings as the increase from 20 to 200. To students of urban form, these outcomes are not that surprising because 10 to 20 units per acre is the density at which drivable suburbanism transitions into walkable urbanism…. [M]ost communities with these densities are also organized as traditional mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, the sort of accommodating environment that entices people out of their cars.
Maybe. But I live in one of those neighborhoods — my street is lined with endless stretches of low-rise apartment buildings, and it’s “walkable.” There are sidewalks, and without too much effort you can reach a public park, a gas station, a McDonald’s a KFC, a supermarket, a drug store, and a Korean barbecue joint. If you’re a sturdy walker, you can get over the bridge to the Trader Joe’s or down to the Fatburger on Venice Boulevard. In theory, it’s perfect.
I hate it.
I don’t like living with other people. I don’t like their noise in the middle of the night. I don’t like having to worry about my own noise. I don’t like the weird smell that wafts in through our window every night at 7 o’clock — apparently the vent-steam of some fellow resident’s illegal dryer. I don’t like the uncertain rules of toy-sharing on the public playground. I don’t like driving in traffic. I don’t like the thousands of tiny little social interactions with strangers that urban living requires of you every day.
I don’t like that I don’t have a garage, or a yard, or anywhere else that I could use power tools or have a barbecue grill or put up a hammock or raise chickens. Our complex, which is very nice and modern and trying really hard, has little vegetable plots. They’re as good as it gets in this kind of environment. But the complex is also going to come through and “spray for weeds” in a few days, and anyway, how many vegetables can you really get out of a three-foot-by-three-foot plot?
Speck notes that this sentiment is characteristically American:
[T]he environmental movement in the United States has historically been anti-city, as has so much American thought. This strain traces its roots back to Thomas Jefferson, who described large cities as “pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.”
Chalk up another one for T.J. Anyway,
The desire to be isolated in nature, adopted en masse, led to the quantities and qualities we now call “sprawl,” which somehow mostly manages to combine the traffic congestion of the city with the intellectual culture of the countryside…. [But] the economist Ed Glaeser, who puts it this way: “We are a destructive species, and if you love nature, stay away from it. The best means of protecting the environment is to live in the heart of a city.”
Yes. Live in a cramped urban shithole, my friends, secure in the knowledge that somewhere out there, a beautiful wilderness exists, full of forested vistas and rolling hills and wildlife of every kind. All of which you will never see, except in brief glimpses on a handful of vacations. But hey — you’ve got sidewalks and liquor stores. That’s the same thing, right?
If Speck’s vision of “walkable” cities included, say, pleasant small cities like Burlington, VT, I might be down. But if what will save us is claustrophobic megalopolises… I’m out. I just can’t do it. Cities, to me, stand for high cost of living, a daily grind of petty aggravation, and the absolute loss of all the things that enable a human being to regain composure, like solitude, quiet, and a varied natural landscape. I’ve lived in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time visiting D.C. and New York. If that’s the future — or if, indeed, the future needs to be something ten times as crammed, like Sao Paulo or Tokyo — then maybe I’m not cut out for the future.
Speck lauds Manhattan as America’s most sustainable city, but insists we can do better:
Sure, New York consumes half the gasoline of Atlanta (326 versus 782 gallons per person per year). But Toronto cuts that number in half, as does Sydney — and most European cities use only half as much as those places. Cut Europe’s number in half, and you end up with Hong Kong.
I’ll bet you do. But who wants to live in Hong Kong?