Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change

Author: 
Review by Philip Langdon
New Urban News, December 2010

By Peter Calthorpe
Island Press, 2011, 152 pp., $49.50 hardcover

“I take it as a given that climate change is an imminent threat and potentially catastrophic,” Peter Calthorpe declares in the first sentence of the first chapter of this short and direct book. “The science is now clear that we are day by day contributing to our own demise.”

To avoid a dismal fate, Calthorpe argues, we will have to realize something that many Americans have yet to understand: “Urbanism is the most cost-effective solution to climate change.” Compact, walkable development, backed up by simple conservation technologies, “can have a major impact in reducing carbon emissions and energy demand.”

Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change is in many respects the summation of the themes that have driven this intense, Berkeley-based architect and planner for nearly 40 years. When I first met Calthorpe in the mid-1980s, he had already made a name for himself by creating buildings that combined energy-efficiency (including passive solar) with careful attention to family and neighborhood well-being.

He went on to become an adept regional planner — working at tying the disparate parts of the American metropolis together in ways that would save land and forge a better transportation network — and to help get the Congress for New Urbanism off the ground. If anyone is qualified to tell Americans what to do about global warming and urban patterns, it is Calthorpe.

I hadn’t realized, until this book, just how daunting is the challenge posed by the combination of a hotter climate and a tightening of conventional energy supplies. By his calculation, by 2050 each person in the US needs to be emitting “on average just 12 percent of his or her current greenhouse gases.” Per capita carbon production must plummet by 88 percent.

It seems impossible to me that Americans will summon the will to achieve such a feat, especially given the nation’s truculent political stalemate. Yet Calthorpe never seems disheartened. He doesn’t depict a society soon to be irretrievably broken-down, as James Howard Kunstler does in World Made by Hand. The Californian vigorously presses on, laying out a detailed strategy to save humanity.

He predicts that sources of clean energy, though “relatively expensive,” will be “available sometime soon.” Those, he says, will have to be teamed up with progress in two areas — lifestyle and conservation — that “are, in the end, our most cost effective and easily available tools.” Declares Calthorpe: “Urbanism, along with a simple combination of transit and more efficient buildings and cars, can deliver much of our needed GHG reductions.”

The virtue of urbanism

A chief virtue of urbanism, he avers, is that it “naturally tends toward a ‘small is beautiful’ philosophy.” “Compact development does mean smaller yards, fewer cars, and less private space for some. On the other hand, it can dramatically reduce everyday costs and leave more time for family and community.”

Having recently produced a framework called “Vision California” for authorities in his state, Calthorpe has a wealth of California facts and figures at his command. A “more compact future” would save “an average of 3.4 million acre-feet of water per year — enough to fill the San Francisco Bay annually or to irrigate 5 million acres of farmland.”

He makes a far more efficient future sound not terribly unsettling. In California, the range of housing choices wouldn’t change dramatically. “Specifically, while large single-family lots would decline from 40 percent of the total today to 30 percent in 2050, small-lot homes and bungalows would increase slightly and townhouses and townhomes would double to 25 percent. … Many would conclude that this would be a reasonable shift, one ultimately making the housing stock more diverse and affordable — not, as some would argue, the end of the American dream.”

Calthorpe is excellent at putting technological fixes — a specialty of the gadget-green crowd — into much-needed perspective. Shifting all our driving to electric cars wouldn’t be practical, he documents. In California alone, “it would take 50,000 acres of high-efficiency solar thermal plants, 130,000 acres of photovoltaic panels, or 860,000 acres of wind farms (nearly thirty times the land area of San Francisco) to power such a transportation system.”

Elegant, conservation-based ideas

“We need to find the simple, elegant solutions that are based on conservation before we introduce complex technology, even if it is green,” Calthorpe insists. An example: “Bringing destinations closer together is a simpler, more elegant solution than assembling a new fleet of electric cars and the acres of solar collectors needed to power them. Call it ‘passive urbanism.’”

Unlike some new urbanists who are comfortable with most traditional ways of doing things, Calthorpe is curious about what goes on in the tech world, and enthusiastic about certain new methods. For example, he advocates, community-scale heat and power systems — local cogeneration plants coupled with district heating and cooling systems. “The point,” he says, “is that all of these community-scale systems — whether power, water, waste, or transit — need urbanism to be effective.”

For Vision California, Calthorpe developed a planning tool called the Urban Footprint, which he says “employs mixed-use place types rather than single-use zones in the land use maps that typically regulate our growth. At the same time that it quantifies the place types, it links them to their key environmental, economic, and social outcomes.” The book contains a number of passages like that — so abstract and heavy with planning lingo that they will stop some readers in their tracks.

At the same time, the text contains a considerable number of concepts that hard-core new urbanists and smart-growthers already know. The book will be terrific for planning students, environmental specialists, and serious followers of policy debates. For others, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change is a book not likely be read from cover to cover.

Calthorpe’s book, 126 pages plus footnotes and other auxiliary matter, is a densely packed, yet concise overview of the troubling situation we all find ourselves in. It captures the essentials of the climate crisis and advances a thoroughly documented argument about how global warming might be held at bay — all while making readers aware of what’s good about urban life. Read it and you’ll understand the big picture.

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