Why location matters most
When writing Green sprawl is still sprawl, says Kaid Benfield I wondered why this point has not become obvious to everyone, this simple fact that location matters, and in fact is the single biggest determinant of the amount of energy people use. So just to revisit the point, here is a roundup of some of the posts we have written about the subject.
Alex Wilson at BuildingGreen looked at this back in 2007, describing the phenomenon as Transportation Energy Intensity, which is perhaps not the best phrase, but there was a logic behind it:
I wanted to come up with a metric for the transportation energy use associated with buildings that was parallel to the metric used to measure the energy intensity of a building--for heating, cooling, lighting, computers and other uses....If I could calculate the average energy consumption for commuting using this same metric, I'd be able to show how the commuting energy use compared with the direct building energy use. I called this value "transportation energy intensity."
The results were shocking; Alex found that we use 30% more energy getting to buildings than we actually use in them.
In 2010, TreeHugger did a series of articles about how to live Minus Oil. I looked at a Canadian study that measured all of the inputs and outputs of energy for different communities and concluded:
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.
Here I am picking up a story from Kaid Benfield again:
If you care about green preservation, you also have to take into account that households in centrally located properties and neighborhoods use far less energy and emit far less carbon for transportation than their counterparts in sprawl. And you have to take into account that, for many households and office buildings, carbon emissions from transportation exceed those emitted by operation of the building.
In which I first use the wonderful Abogo tool to look at the energy consumed by moving HSBC from downtown Chicago to a LEED certified office building in the suburbs and conclude that " the evidence, and the tools, are making it clear that where you build is as important as what you build, perhaps even more important.". Kaid also let loose on this one, writing:
God, where to start. What we really have here is yet another high-tech building calling itself "green" but that warrants the label only if you completely discount the sprawling, totally automobile-dependent location. Research proves that buildings in sprawling locations cause far more carbon emissions from employees and visitors driving to and from them than they save with energy-efficient building technology.
Then more American studies start rolling in.
A home's location relative to transportation choices has a large impact on energy consumption. People who live in a more compact, transit-accessible area have more housing and transportation choices compared to those who live in spread-out developments where few or no transportation options exist besides driving.
Have a look at that graph. It shows the breakdown of CO2 generated directly (the blue, mainly motor vehicle fuel) and indirectly (the green, the footprint of everything else like delivery trucks and manufacturing). Like every other graph we have shown, from Lawrence Livermore to Archtypes to EPA/Rose, it shows the same thing: Our biggest problem is our cars and how far we drive them.
This is, for me, The Graph That Explains Everything. We are using a lot more energy getting to and from our houses, stores and offices than we are in them, we are using the energy very inefficiently, and we are getting the energy primarily from burning gasoline, a politically volatile fuel.
The fact is, people are getting in their cars to go from place to place, not drive in circles for fun. We have to make it possible to survive without the car, and that means greater density and local shopping. It does NOT mean everyone has to live in New York and high rise buildings; many of our small towns and cities are eminently walkable.
© Emmet, scanned from The Best Cartoons of Punch, 1952
For Saving Energy, Like Real Estate, The Three Most Important Things Are Location, Location and Location
I rounded this up once before for one of my design students and concluded:
Does this mean that LEED and green building are pointless? Am I saying that seven years of TreeHugger showing green houses, solar panels and and electric cars was a waste of time?
Not at all. But it does mean that common sense and low cost, low-tech solutions can go a long way to reducing demand for fossil fuels, achieving energy independence, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It also shows that slapping solar panels on every roof or putting electric cars in every driveway is not the best approach for everyone; a good dose of Urbanity is faster, cheaper and more effective.