Peter Calthorpe Explains Urbanism in an Age of Climate Change


Photo credit: Island Press

In Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change, Peter Calthorpe argues that by better understanding urbanism at a regional scale, cities could provide a powerful platform for addressing climate change.

TreeHugger's resident expert on architecture and design, Lloyd Alter, asked Calthorpe about urbanism and Age of Climate Change.

Don't miss a live chat with Peter Calthorpe on March 16 at 3pm EST.BOOK REVIEW: How Urbanism, Building Efficiency, and Cleaner Cars Can Solve Climate Change
TreeHugger: I have been a fan since "the next American Metropolis," but that was 18 years ago. Why do you think there has been so much resistance to urbanism? Why is there still? Can we overcome this visceral fear of the city, this urban/suburban divide?

Peter Calthorpe: Actually, I don't think there is that much resistance to urbanism any more. It really depends on who you are and where you come from. There are many different people with many different goals and a good regional plan should accommodate all of them. When I say urbanism I don't mean just downtown, I mean a form of development that allows people to walk, supports diverse populations, a wide range of activities and is ecological sustainable. It could be out in suburbs--an old streetcar suburb revitalized, or a new a transit dependent development--or infill high-rise downtown. It's really all of the above. Urbanism is no longer the 1960s concrete jungle stereotype, it exists throughout the region at many densities.

As for the fear of the city--most young people don't have a fear of the city, they love the city. They want to be in the city. More often than not, people are priced out of the city. It comes down to whether it's a great city or a dysfunctional city and the same is true of suburbs. There are some examples in my book, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change, about the needs and wants of diverse groups looking for different types of housing, and how a good number of us want a walkable urban environment. As young and old move back to our urban centers, city or town, they revitalize, become safer, and more viable.

TH: Your thesis that "urbanism is our single most potent weapon against climate change, rising energy costs and environmental degradation" is being proven by study after study. Do you feel vindicated?

PC: Yes and no, the numbers are there but the politics aren't. Unfortunately most of the policy discussions going on around climate change, energy, and environmental degradation, still tend to veer toward technology over urbanism and lifestyle. I think a lot of people understand that a more urban lifestyle will allow more people to live more lightly on land even at greater density. But when you get to the policy level, the discussion is all about cap and trade for industry and utilities and solar technologies and wind technologies -- it's all supply side. And just as with good, intelligent, energy efficient buildings, the first step is reducing demand, and then the second is clean energy and new technology. When it comes to urbanism, that first step is about reducing our dependence on the automobile. We can have electric vehicles and high MPG cars but until we reduce total miles that we are driving, I don't think we're going to have the kind of impact on the environment and the economy that we need.

TH: Jimmy Carter was right- putting on a sweater or a Hawaiian shirt as required is a sensible solution to adapting to climate. Yet the mechanical engineers, architects and even building codes demand that our building systems deliver precisely the right temperature at great cost in energy and equipment. Why is the profession so resistant to change? To looking at the traditional low-energy ways of doing things?

PC: I started my career in the passive solar movement. Even in those days we tried to avoid the complicated mechanics of active solar systems. We thought rather than collecting heat remotely and coupling that with a mechanical system, why not just have the sunlight come directly into the house. If you want cooling, rather than a complicated air conditioning system, use cross ventilation. I'm all for efficient light fixtures but the most efficient light fixture in the world is daylight and we ought to design buildings that allow daylight to penetrate with high ceilings and narrow buildings. The whole notion of doing things simply, elegantly, almost effortlessly by being tuned into place and climate has a corollary with urban design. We can deploy really complicated technology and we can apply renewable energy resources to compensate for incredibly inefficient urban forms or we can just design landscapes and urban environments that allow us to need less - less driving, less heating, less water etc.

There is a common saying that the perfect is often the enemy of the good. This speaks to the problem of becoming overly complex and mechanical. Even in ecological design for buildings, you can try to go to zero energy, but the marginal cost of getting that last 10% or 20% in savings goes through the roof. I would rather have a really affordable 80% solution that we can spread a great distance than a 100% solution that can't be replicated economically or in terms of complexity across the globe.

TH: Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

PC: I'm both. I'm pessimistic because a fundamental part of human nature is fear of change and getting to where we need to be really does involve change. But that road block is a matter of time. The next generation will come along and they won't be so wedded to the past. It's already happening.

I'm optimistic because the simple answers are in plain sight and they're backed up by a lot of good data. I'm also optimistic about other parts of the globe. We tend to think the world starts and ends with what we do here in the United States, but in terms of the environment, that's really not the case. Even though we seem to be caught in a real down draft, there's a lot of positive stuff happening around the globe. Even China is stepping up to the plate¬--not only with renewable energy sources but good urban design.

Don't miss a live chat with Peter Calthorpe on March 16 at 3pm EST.

To get the book at a 30% discount, visit Island Press via this link and use the coupon code 2HUG.

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BOOK REVIEW: How Urbanism, Building Efficiency, and Cleaner Cars Can Solve Climate Change

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