Editor's note:This article is from the December 2012 issue of Better! Cities & Towns.
Hurricane Sandy tore into the East Coast in late October, and North America’s most densely populated island proved resilient. Despite a direct hit from a 14-foot storm surge, Manhattan suffered minimal loss of life. Seven flooded subway tunnels were operating within a week and much of the island never lost power.
The city’s response was inspiring, but even more encouraging was national attention, finally, to climate change. Independent New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg said the destruction caused by Sandy — including 131 US fatalities and more than $50 billion in damage — “should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action” on global warming. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo added that climate change must be a key consideration in infrastructure decisions going forward.
That’s a good idea for the nation as a whole. Maps of per capita carbon emissions in the US reveal the lowest levels always near downtowns and other walkable centers. The highest emissions are in low-density, automobile-dependent suburban areas. Policies that address climate change must therefore include complete streets, walkable communities, and transit.
Despite the brief attention to global warming, I doubt the nation is quite ready to deal with the issue seriously over the long term.
My hunch is that it will take a series of extreme weather incidents and a continuing drumbeat of scientific evidence, over many years, before the US public is willing to accept economic pain in the form of a carbon tax or higher gas taxes.
Fortunately, there are ways to make the nation’s built environment more carbon resilient by addressing other critical issues.
The housing problem
In the six decades leading up to the housing crash, we mostly built single-family housing to meet the needs of two-parent families with children, which dominated the market in the decades following World War II. Government also promoted large-lot housing through zoning codes, finance rules, and highway and infrastructure spending.
But demographics and market preferences have shifted back in favor of compact, mixed-use housing, leaving the nation with an oversupply of automobile-oriented subdivisions in the distant suburbs. Given that real estate represents more than 35 percent of total US economic assets, this market mismatch is holding the nation back, says real estate expert Christopher Leinberger. We need policies to address this imbalance, such as zoning reform and reductions in minimum parking requirements that enable the market to move naturally toward compact development.
Despite talk of US energy independence, oil is a worldwide commodity and gasoline prices remain stubbornly high. Transportation costs for most American families are too high and families need other options. Hybrid and electric cars are fine, but expensive. Mobility-option neighborhoods where families can eliminate one or both cars are a better solution for middle- and working-class families unable to pay after-tax transportation expenditures of $15,000 to $20,000 a year.
The debt issue
The US has been living beyond its means for a long time, and part of that extravagance involves unwise expenditures on spread-out infrastructure that serves sprawling metro areas. We can no longer afford to build roads, sewer and water extensions, and other utility systems on the assumption that sprawl will continue forever. Instead, we should focus on rebuilding infrastructure and encouraging growth in cities, towns, and established suburbs. Vehicle miles traveled have already crested, and the US should cease building new highway capacity.
At some point, US citizens will be ready to directly tackle climate change. Until then, urbanism will succeed because it addresses multiple issues facing America. Dealing with housing, debt, and transportation costs can help the US to take its first bites into carbon emissions as the Big Apple rolls up its sleeves to prepare for the next Sandy.