May 27, 2009

Upgrading the Urban Model by Emil Kresl.

We cannot expect to sustain ourselves under the current model of urban living.  The problem is not that we do not have enough fuel; the problem is that we are consuming too much.  To stop this we must change the model of how we live.  The hope of replacing oil with some other fuel source is unreasonable.  Filling our oceans and prairies with windmills is overly ambitious, hijacking our food supply so we can fuel our cars is heartless, and building more nuclear power plants is irresponsible.  We need to stop looking for ways we can continue to live our lives as we currently do because the problem is that we are living our lives the way we currently do.

The one true, all-encompassing solution for our ailing cities is to focus our energy and resources on shoring up the urban core and making these areas the most hospitable environments for as many people to comfortably subsist as possible, and do so in a way that is focused on allowing people to enjoy their lives and the time they have to live it.

The planning of a smart region that allows its residents to live locally is a natural process and one that should be inherent in the environment, geography, and culture of the region.  This should not be a complicated process; it should be organic.  An organization named Walkscore.com rates regions on their walkability based on an algorithm it developed that involves points awarded according to distances between amenities.  The organization’s intentions are good, but the truth is that only one criterion is needed to figure out if a region is walkable, and that is whether people in that region are walking.  Just because amenities are nearby does not necessarily mean they are easy to get to.

When we lay out the plans for our cities and towns, we need to look at them whole cloth, a process that was once obvious.  The current method is to only look at individual aspects of planning—residential or commercial or green space or retail.  But the natural process would be to look at how all these aspects interact with each other and how people will use them within the common region.  The reason thinking is clouded on this subject is one red herring—the automobile.  If, when planning the designs of our towns and cities, we minimize use of the automobile, we will find logic is restored.

As we continue to struggle to bail out the U.S. automobile industry, we are actually doing ourselves a disservice.  It is a dilemma because it seems that there are thousands of jobs at stake.  But there will be plenty of new jobs when we make the leap to re-create our cities and towns to run more efficiently.  President Obama spoke of the automobile industry as “the backbone of our economy,” but he misses the point on this issue.  That industry may very well have been the backbone of our economy in the past, but to reverse the natural flow of progress so that the auto industry continues to be the backbone is a perilous mistake. 

Our future cannot depend on the automobile.  In fact, in order to move forward, we must do as much as we can to live without the automobile.  Bailing out the auto industry would be like bailing out the kerosene lantern industry in the last century (an industry that generally adapted on its own).  To put tens of billions of dollars into an effort to sustain the manufacture of a product that has shown such a significant decline in demand is a denial of progress.  If a product is not selling, it is incongruous for the government to pay for the manufacture of more of that product.  And in this case, it is particularly absurd because that product is doing egregious harm to our cities and communities.  That is not to say, of course, that the automobile has not been of tremendous benefit to the foundation of this country, but it has also done harm through overuse.  Now it is time to find a balance.  Reducing the number of cars on the road is a good thing.

The concern about the loss of jobs from a collapse of the auto industry is understandable, but the solution is not to bolster these increasingly outmoded jobs when their ultimate demise is inevitable.  The government may be able to pay the bills to build more cars for a while, but eventually the glut of inventory will bring an end to such a project.  The solution, rather, is to create new jobs that will be around for years to come and work toward a sustainable future.  Thankfully the president has also been working very hard to pass a bill sponsored by Representatives Henry Waxman and Edward Markey that would create millions of green-energy jobs.

Urban agriculture, solar power, wind energy, rainwater recovery systems, off-street pedestrian and bicycle networks, new urban design and development—these are all things that will create more jobs and new industries.  Furthermore, they will be jobs and industries that allow people to lead cleaner, safer, more productive, and happier lives.  Worldwatch Institute reports that 2.3 million people work in the renewable energy industry, with 300,000 jobs in wind power, 170,000 in solar photovoltaics, and 624,000 in solar thermal technology.  In Germany alone, the number of jobs in renewable energy is expected to grow to 500,000 by 2020.

As to whether large profits are to be made in renewable energy, we can look to pioneers like China’s Shi Zhengrong of Suntech Power, who is worth $2.5 billion thanks to his pioneering effort in solar energy.  Germany’s Frank Asbeck is worth around $1.6 billion, and his company Solar World is growing at a rate of about 25 percent per year.  Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens wants to invest billions of dollars in wind energy in the United States.

Then there are the numerous other industries that are only beginning to make themselves known as we learn how to live more wisely.  Like B-Line PDX, delivering freight in downtown Portland on bicycle, e-Scrap Destruction of New York, which is developing a million-dollar business in shredding discarded electronic equipment in preparation for recycling; Suzlon Rotor Corporation in Pipestone, Minnesota, where production of windmill blades has tripled in less than two years, and blades and nose cones for windmills are back-ordered for two years; Colorado’s Solix Biofuels producing algae-based fuel as an alternative to agricultural crop feedstocks; the bicycle industry, where 75 percent of bike shops nationwide have reported an increase in sales; and the countless direct and indirect jobs that will result from redefining and structuring the layout and design of our cities and towns so that we can get around more easily.

Rail transportation, for instance, will be an enormous source of employment, with engineers, manufacturers, laborers, and others.  However, while we must move forward and develop rail systems for our growing cities, we must also be careful not to compound our current problems with this one solution.  Rail must not become yet another crutch for not living more wisely—for not keeping our footprint small and our impact on the environment to a minimum.  The danger is that we will continue to sprawl—that we will see rail as a means toward more development.

For example, in Austin, Texas, where they hope to open the first phase of a commuter rail system this year, they must be careful not to use this means of mass transportation as an excuse for planners and developers to continue sprawl development patters.  Again, we cannot think in terms of how to make the current failed system work.  We need to accept our mistakes, move past them, and move forward toward building a better system.

Our country is finally beginning to see that we can have better lives through redefining how we live.  We are coming to terms with the fact that not depending on the automobile can greatly improve our standard of living.  We are learning how not to waste more, how to conserve—about the convenience of living locally and the economic benefits of sustainability.  Unfortunately, most of us came to this realization when it began to affect us financially, but we cannot allow our ideologies to fluctuate with the vacillation of the oil market and those who control it.  Just because the price of oil is down from what it was earlier last year does not mean we can go back to buying SUVs.

We have been given a powerful warning about the dangers presented by how we have been living, and the lessons we should take away from that is that we need to be cognizant of more than just ourselves and we need to be capable of making the right choice without having our backs up against the wall.  We are growing as a people and a country.  Now is not the time to halt progress, but rather to embrace it.

Emil Kresl is a writer living in Austin, Texas.  Born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he learned to love the structure of a well-planned city and how it can commune with the natural world, he now studies other cities to see where they have succeeded and failed to this end.

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