More than 700 people in Chicago died during an extreme heat wave in July, 1995. Two adjacent neighborhoods, both poor and predominantly black with the same microclimate, demonstrate how social connections can save lives, according to a report in The New Yorker by sociologist Eric Klinenberg. The Englewood death rate was 33/100,000 population, among the highest in the city. In Auburn-Gresham, where a "viable social infrastructure" survives with small commercial establishments that draw the elderly out of their homes into public life, the death rate was 3/100,000 — among the lowest in the city. Public discussion focuses on physical infrastructure to protect us from natural threats like climate change, Klinenberg says, but social systems are just as important in times of crisis and everyday life. The average life expectency is five years higher in Auburn-Gresham than Englewood, which suffered severe abandonment in the latter part of the 20th Century.
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.
Climate change has been back in the news lately due to Hurricane Sandy. Urban designer and former director of the National Endowment for the Arts Jeff Speck, author of the recently published Walkable City, makes the case that smart growth is a key strategy for addressing this issue. In an excerpt published in Salon from his book, Speck explains why compact cities generate far less carbon per person. Although a place like Manhattan generates the fewest carbon emissions per person, communities don't need to build at 200 units per acre to make a difference. Studies show that the maximum benefit is achieved simply by going from low-density suburbia to a walkable neighborhood — about 20 units per acre, he explains. "In each case, increasing density from two units per acre to 20 units per acre resulted in about the same savings as the increase from 20 to 200," Speck says. Such changes can also result in higher quality of life and lower transportation costs, he says.
New Urbanism, though beneficial, is not enough to solve the world's resource problems, suggests Tigran Haas, a professor in Stockholm and Berkeley who has edited a hefty, illustrated collection of essays called Sustainable Urbanism and Beyond. We need "a New Urbanism that stands for a climate-oriented, socially balanced city,” Haas says, to “avoid the looming environmental disaster.” David Owen's 2009 book Green Metropolis extolled the environmental efficiency of cities like New York. Haas warns, however, that poor rural people with low ecological footprints are moving to cities in droves, and urban regions are “the main aggregate source of environmental degradation on the planet.” Urbanist Peter Calthorpe argues for combining efficient buildings, well-located transit-oriented development, and planning at a variety of levels. As he sees it, “only a whole systems approach, with each scale nesting into the other, can deliver the kind of transformation we now need to confront climate change.” The complete review is published in the September issue of Better! Cities & Towns.