Durable Growth, Environment

Ooh, ooh, ooh, call on me, Mr. Kotter, I have an answer

Urban corner in Napa, California

Urban corner in Napa, California

I recently sat in a North Bay City Council chambers and watched as the Regional Climate Protection Authority made a presentation on their Climate Action 2020 effort.  The experience left me feeling deflated.

To be clear, I’m happy to live in a part of the country where we can have an honest, fact-based discussion about climate change, unlike Florida where the very words are forbidden.   However, I was underwhelmed by the direction that the Climate Change 2020 initiative was going.

To illustrate my concern, there was a presentation graphic showing that greenhouse gas emissions from housing and transportation make up over 80 percent of all GHG emissions.  As an urbanist, that number gives me a sense of a hope and a sense of mission because it makes the climate change challenge more manageable.  A major thrust of urbanism is reducing transportation energy usage.  And the energy use of buildings could also be reduced through effective urbanism.

I don’t have a citation, but it has been often reported that urban dwellers use up to 70 percent less energy than suburban dwellers.  If we equate energy to fossil fuel use, which is a reasonable approximation, that would also be a 70 percent reduction in GHG emissions.

There may be other factors that currently reduce energy use in urban settings, such as the presence of poor whose lack of resources constrict their consumer behavior and the possibility that the first wave of urban converts had a bent for conservation that subsequent converts won’t, but a 70 percent energy use reduction can be whittled down and still represent a significant GHG reduction.

So, if sizable GHG emissions can be effected through urbanism, that would seemingly make urbanism a key element of the Climate Action 2020 program, right?  Not that I could tell.

I searched the December 2014 Climate Action 2020 on Climate Hazards and Vulnerabilities for the word urbanism.  Not a single mention.  Compact growth?  Nope.  Housing density?  Still nothing.

Mixed-use?  Nada.

Okay, perhaps one can argue that identifying hazards and vulnerabilities is different from identifying solutions.  And perhaps Climate Change 2020 will promote urbanism in an upcoming report on solutions.  But the only mention of urbanism I could find anywhere within the Climate Change 2020 website was deep in an opinion poll on transportation alternatives.  And even then it was buried on a list behind fuel alternatives.

Furthermore, the approach for the next step as described in the presentation was the solicitation of ideas from the public about GHG emission reduction.

I’m absolutely supportive of a public involvement component in any effort like this.  But public involvement must be paired with effective public education.  Without the public education, we’re reduced to something Warren Buffett recently said, “A public-opinion poll is no substitute for thought.”  Or, from a much earlier era, something that Henry Ford supposedly said about the beginning of the automotive age, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses.”

If we don’t educate folks about the climate change benefits that urbanism can bring, we can’t expect them to be aware of the possibility that urbanism might be a good strategy.

I know that what I’m writing here can potentially be understood as “I’m smarter than you, so you must listen to me”, but that’s truly not the message I’m trying to impart.

However, it is true that many of us, whether through vocation or avocation, know more about a subject than those around us.  And that’s a fine thing.  The world needs folks with specialized knowledge.  I know that I’m always willing to learn from folks who know more about a subject than I do.

Let me pose the issue this way.  If I had a transmission that was shifting poorly, I’d go to well-recommended transmission shop for their advice.  If I had a plant on which the leaves were dying for no apparent reason, I’d visit a nursery.  And if I was mired in a sticky contractual situation, I’d talk with a business attorney.  On not one of the those subjects would I solicit public opinion, especially from members of the public who were likely to be as uneducated as me about transmission, plants, or contract law.

And that’s how I feel about climate change.  Some limited use of public opinion may be okay, if we restrict ourselves to the members of the public who have tried to educate themselves about climate change.  But what we really need to be doing is talking to the folks who have studied the subject long and hard, including the role of urbanism as one of the solutions.  And my role in this blog is to point out those people.

But instead, I spent my time in the City Council Chambers, sitting in the back row, listening to a presentation when urbanism wasn’t mentioned even once.

We need to do better.

In my last post, I wrote that assigning infinite value to any element in a decision-making process results in flawed judgments.  I applied the observation to a decision involving traffic versus youth sports in Petaluma, but an even better example can be found in the Mission District of San Francisco.  In my next post, I’ll explain.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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