Alex Steffen on carbon-free cities  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

Dave Roberts at Grist has a pointer to a new TED talk from Alex Steffen - Alex Steffen on carbon-free cities.

I hope that everyone will watch this short, excellent presentation on the promise of sustainable cities from Alex Steffen, proprietor of the late, lamented Worldchanging and all-around smart dude. If it sounds reminiscent of my great places series, it's only because I stole most of that from Alex.

U.S. national politics is extraordinarily depressing right now. My refuge right now is keeping in mind the lede of this recent Foreign Policy feature story:
The 21st century will not be dominated by America or China, Brazil or India, but by the city. In an age that appears increasingly unmanageable, cities rather than states are becoming the islands of governance on which the future world order will be built.

If we want to accommodate 10 billion people on this planet and provide them all with some measure of security and dignity, we have to master cities. That is, or should be, a central axiom of 21st century politics, economics, environmentalism, and humanism.

TreeHugger has a post comparing Steffen's vision to that of James Kunstler and Kaid Benfield - Three Views of Urbanism: Alex Steffen, Kaid Benfield and Jim Kunstler.
Three important urban theorists are making the rounds this week, with Alex Steffen delivering a TED talk on the Sharable Future of Cities. He starts of with our "clean energy problem"- that we cannot possibly generate enough to replace the fossil fuels we use in our cars.

Steffen uses the famous UNEP graph to demonstrate that our energy use is predestined by the kind of city we live in, that there is a direct correlation of energy consumption to density. The talk is really a summary of much of what he had written and promoted on Worldchanging, starting with what I think i probably the best post he ever wrote, 2008's My Other Car is a Bright Green City, in which he wrote
The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go.

or, as he puts it in the TED talk,
The most sustainable trip is the one you never had to take in the first place.

It is a terrific summary of everything Alex has been saying, and writing about for years. If you have followed Alex and Worldchanging you will be familiar with it, but it never hurts to hear it again. More at TED.

But the problem with that UNEP graph, and the position developed by David Owen in the Green Metropolis and Edward Glaeser in The Triumph of the City is that while those extremely dense cities like Hong Kong and New York use less energy per capita, they still use a hell of a lot of energy and the back of house required to support it, the food supplies, the water and electricity infrastructure, are all huge and not particularly efficient. Nor are they necessarily terrific places to live.

Kaid Benfield of the NRDC writes in Seeing cities as the environmental solution, not the problem that while Owen and Glaeser
are sometimes excessive in extolling the virtues of urban density without giving attention to the other things that make cities attractive and successful, they are absolutely right that city living reduces energy consumption, carbon emissions and other environmental impacts.

But he doesn't see it all happening in forty storey towers, but in a rebuilding of our existing inner cities and towns.
For our cities and towns to function as successful people habitat, they must be communities where people want to live, work and play. We must make them great, but always within a decidedly urban, nonsprawling form. As it turns out, compact living - in communities of streets, homes, shops, workplaces, schools and the like assembled at a walkable scale - not only helps to save the landscape; it also reduces pollution and consumption of resources. We don't drive as far or as often; we share infrastructure.


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