Cities' "Green Dividend" there for the taking (#CNU17)

The long-held idea that cities are an environmental bane is completely and utterly wrong. Cities are the key to reducing humanity’s contributions to global warming and land despoliation.

Cities pay a “Green Dividend” for the environment and the economy, say Carol Coletta, CEO of CEOs for Cities, and Peter Calthorpe, a Congress for the New Urbanism co-founder and principal at Calthorpe Associates.

Speaking at the Friday morning plenary, their meme is that information demonstrating how cities do this has to be shown clearly to policymakers, financiers, and residents of the very communities urbanism can help.

Coletta noted how corporate interest in cities has grown, citing IBM’s version of a “smart city” as one that includes safe neighborhoods and good schools, but also “traffic that flows.”

“Is it really that central to the new American dream?” Coletta asked, before saying no. Urban-ness is its own reward, but with current zoning codes and national policies, “we keep undermining the city’s natural advantages” of choices, discovery, and opportunities, she added.

By concentrating people and destinations, cities create ideas, opportunities, and economic growth. By making driving optional, they pay a green dividend, and can pay an even bigger one, with a bit of effort. For example, she said, improving cities by a one percentage point increase in talent (the presence of college-educated people) coupled with a one percentage point decrease in poverty rates and a 1-mile per day reduction in vehicle miles traveled would save the U.S. economy $166 billion annually.

“That used to seem like real money, but I want to emphasize that this is $166 billion every year,” Coletta said, adding the VMT reduction alone would save $29 billion annually -- $1.7 billion in Chicago, $1 billion in Houston, and $440 million in Denver.

“Keep multiplying that by the number of miles we could really reduce VMT,” Coletta said.

CEOs for Cities is also looking at the correlation between property, a neighborhood’s Walk Score (which still doesn't account for availability of and proximity to transit in its algorithm), and value. While this study will be released in July, Coletta said “the numbers are very stimulating. It shows that the higher the walk score, the more valuable the property.”

That’s the kind of information that bankers, developers, and municipal officials need to know, Coletta said. Knowing this, she asked, what would they say the next time they’re asked to approve a driving-dependent development?

Calthorpe concentrated on another set of numbers, showing how urbanism can – and may be the only way to keep California from destroying valuable farmland as its population grows between today and 2050.

Peoples’ transportation habits change only at the regional level, when a region changes its travel patterns, and to help affect this, metropolitan planning organizations must make their plans with targeted VMT reductions, and their plans must address land use. Cities, whether conventional or “green,” are better than suburbs, whether conventional or “green,” when it comes to energy efficiency, infrastructure savings, and reduced VMT and greenhouse gas emissions. Density and proper proximity to jobs are key factors in reducing a regional demand for more roads, he said.

“It’s all about transportation, and transportation is all about urban design,” Calthorpe said. “Every house we export out of the Bay Area produces five times the greenhouse gas emissions.”

Ironically, since high-speed rail is touted as an environmental plus, Calthorpe said California environmentalists rightly fear that the state’s high-speed rail plans, which will send trains through the inland Central Valley, will turn the Valley and its productive farmland into a giant, sprawling bedroom community for the coastal cities. Only smart growth planning based on solid numbers can prevent that from happening, he said.

If California builds 80 percent of its new development between today and 2050 along strong urbanist models, it will save 4,600 square miles of land – more than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, Calthorpe said.

He said new urbanists must use not only the Transect, but also a set of factors or assumptions that impact upon, and help describe what urbanism does well, and how it works: Density, Diversity, Design, Destinations, Distance to transit, Development scale, Demographics, and Demand management.

For example: Nationwide, the U.S. is expected to add 32 million new households, of which 28 million will be without children (empty-nesters, singles, couples without children, etc.), which means the demand for large lot, single-family houses will drop.

“We have so overbuilt single-family, large lot in America that we don’t need to build another unit,” Calthorpe said.


Can't wait for that Walkscore study

That research could really have legs, literally.

Calthorpe's contributions to the plenary were good too, in a totally different way — new transportation and planning modeling that really reflects the reduced driving levels (and reduced carbon emissions) that occur in compact, walkable urban neighborhoods served by transit, especially when job centers are on-site or nearby. Go green dividend.


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