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.
China is building the entire country around the automobile — making the same mistakes the US made in the last century only faster, warns urbanist Peter Calthorpe in a startling Foreign Policy article. China will pay in social costs and pollution, and the world will pay in carbon emissions, argues Calthorpe, who completed numerous designs in China, including a low-carbon plan for the nation. "In the last five years, China has built 20,000 miles of expressways, finishing the construction of 12 national highways a whopping 13 years ahead of schedule and at a pace four times faster than the United States built its interstate highway system," he says. Like the US cities of the 1950s and 1960s, he writes, Chinese cities are working to accommodate the explosive growth of automobile travel by building highways, ring roads, and parking lots. Consequently, auto use has risen sixfold in Beijing since 1986, "while bike use has dropped from nearly 60 percent of trips to just 17 percent in 2010." Many high-ranking officials are aware that China needs to move in a more sustainable direction, he says. But because things are moving so fast, "China's leaders have a limited window of opportunity to plan for prosperous, livable, low-carbon cities."
Twenty-two municipalities in the Copenhagen area are teaming up to create 26 of what they unfortunately call bicycle "superhighways"—a term that unwittingly pays homage to the 20th-century roads that made sprawl possible on a gigantic scale. But never mind; the basic idea seems a good one. These will essentially be wide, paved bike paths covering distances of up to 14 miles each. Their aim is to increase cycling in a region where half the residents already bike to work or school. The first route opened in April, connecting Copenhagen to a suburb called Albertslund. The New York Times reports that "thanks to measures like the superhighway, commuters choose bicycles because they are the fastest and most convenient transportation option." The website Copenhagenize points out that "the routes follow existing, separated bicycle infrastructure," like the corridor shown above. Sections of some routes are getting improvements, to function better.