Minus Oil: Forget Hybrids And Solar Panels, We Need Active, Exciting and Vibrant Cities


Some cities are not only walkable and cycleable, they're skateable!

Matt has noted that almost three quarters of our oil goes for transportation, and concludes that we have to create "more communities where the average person's daily needs are met on foot, on non-motorized vehicle and via public transportation." But is there proof that this actually works? Does it mean that we have to turn all of our cities into Manhattan or Copenhagen?

No, we don't. We don't have to create new communities and put everybody in a passivhaus. Our existing cities and buildings can work just fine; You just have to chose the right place in it.

In Canada, The Urban Archtypes Project looked at 31 neighbourhoods in eight cities. They looked at all of the energy inputs and outputs, and were very thorough:

Data collected from each neighbourhood included land use and physical infrastructure data from the municipality and electricity, natural gas, and oil data from the utilities. Interviews with local residents were also conducted. They were very thorough:

Transportation analysis consisted of calculating average energy consumption, greenhouse gases, and costs associated with gasoline for personal vehicles. Regression analysis was conducted in order to understand which urban form variables influenced the number of vehicle kilometres travelled. Urban form indicators including density, mix of uses and distance to the central business district were identified as being related. Average household energy consumption for lighting and appliances, heat, and hot water were also calculated.

In every case, the walkable neighbourhoods closer to urban centers used a fraction of the energy and created a fraction of the greenhouse gases. It didn't matter if the people lived in leaky old postwar buildings or had an SUV parked in front; the fact is, they tended to live in smaller housing units and drove significantly less.


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In Calgary, two of the communities compared were Lake Bonavista, a sixties-era subdivision of single family houses with a couple of nearby malls. On the other hand, the Mission district is composed of low-rise buildings, a few older single family dwellings. It's main street has trendy restaurants and shops, but New York density it ain't.


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Yet the people who live in Mission burn a third as much gasoline, half as much electricity and generate a third as many tonnes of greenhouse gases.

None of the buildings in either neighbourhood are particularly green or well-built; it all comes down to square footage per person and amount of driving that you have to do.


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In Ottawa, the situation is similar; the suburban houses Bridlewood eat up eat up a lot of energy, as do the big energy hog houses from the 1800s in New Edinburgh.

Of course, the little walkups in Kirkwood use a fraction of the energy for heating and lighting, the units are smaller, the buildings multifamily with far less exposed wall per person. Again, this is not super-insulated passivhaus design we are talking about; the walls are R-9, half the building code minimum level of insulation.

But what happens when you factor in the gasoline, the stuff we really have to cut back on? Suddenly those big houses in Sandy Hill and New Edinburgh look as good as Kirkwood.

No doubt most of those residents of these upscale neighbourhoods have SUVs and many probably slip off to their cottage in the Gatineaus in the summer or to Tremblant in the winter. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said that the nicest thing about Ottawa was the highway to Montreal. None of them are being forced to cut back on automobile use. They are not poor, and probably not many of them vote Green.

It's just the way of life in a walkable community, built at a density that can support local retail. It's what people do when there is decent transit and they live close to where they work. They are not giving anything up, yet they consume a fraction of the oil that their suburban neighbours do.

The study turns a couple of our conventional assumptions on their head. In his book The Green Metropolis, David Owen made the case that we have to live like New Yorkers- at high density and without a car. But not everyone wants to do that; even David Owen doesn't. And it is clear that we don't have to; one can live in smaller cities and even in detached houses very comfortably. What matters is that you live in a neighbourhood where don't need to use your car to get to work or to do your daily shopping.

It also raises questions about the way we are approaching the problem of sustainable living and where we are putting our money and energy, and what we are doing to motivate people. TreeHugger is partnering in the Clif 2 Mile Challenge, which asks participants to give up their cars in exchange for bikes for short trips. In fact, for people who live in walkable, cycleable neighbourhoods it is a moot point; the data show that most of them already are. (I had to personally take a pass on the challenge because I never drive downtown, but I own a car. It's just not as convenient as a fast dedicated right-of-way streetcar line or a bike)

Perhaps money spent insulating buildings and sticking solar panels on roofs is misplaced. Instead, we need to make our Main Streets and downtowns livable again, revitalize our cities and make it attractive and fun to live where the action is, where the jobs are and where it is actually more convenient to walk or bike than to drive. Reduced oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions just naturally follow, no challenge required.


Part of a series on how to get off oil. More:

Want to Kick Our Oil Addiction? Let's Get Our Priorities Straight First
Dense, Walkable Urban Cities Create YIMBY Neighbors

Tags: Cities | longreads | Minus Oil | Urban Life