How Urbanism, Building Efficiency, and Cleaner Cars Can Solve Climate Change (Book Review)

peter calthorpe urbanism climate change book island press photo

Photo credit: Island Press

Eighteen years ago, Peter Calthorpe's book The Next American Metropolis was hugely influential among architects and planners. "The old suburban dream is increasingly out of sync with today's culture," Calthorpe wrote in 1993, "our household makeup has changed dramatically, the work place and work force have been transformed, average family wealth is shrinking, and serious environmental concerns have surfaced."

He could be writing that today and not change a word; things have only gotten worse, and perhaps the mother of environmental concerns, climate change, has come to preoccupy us. Calthorpe now addresses it directly in the title of his new book: Urbanism in the age of Climate Change.READ MORE: Peter Calthorpe Explains Urbanism in an Age of Climate Change


Calthorpe is writing in America, where the word "urban" is thought of by many to connote "the American ghetto, crime ridden concrete jungle that simultaneously destroys land, community, and human potential." But for others, "urban means "economic opportunity, culture, vitality, innovation and community."

Urban also does not mean only high density. Many "streetcar suburbs" and smaller cities and towns are urban. It is a matter of how they are designed and used.

traditional urbanism has three essential qualities: 1) a diverse population and range of activities; 2) a rich array of public spaces and institutions and 3) human scale in its buildings, streets and neighbourhoods.

Calthorpe endeared himself to me with his discussion about how urbanism is green, countering the green gizmo school:

The simple attributes of urbanism are typically a more cost efficient environmental strategy than many renewable technologies. For example, in many climates a party wall is more cost effective than a solar collector in reducing a home's energy needs. Well-placed windows and high ceilings offer better lighting than efficient fluorescents in the office. A walk or bike ride is certainly less expensive and is less carbon intensive than a hybrid car even at 50 mpg. A convenient transit line is a better investment than a "smart" highway system. A small cogenerating electrical plant that uses waste heat locally could save more carbon per dollar invested than a distant wind farm. A combination of urbanism and green technology will be necessary, but the efficiency of urbanism should precede the costs of alternative technologies."

He summarizes:

urbanism is, in fact, our single most potent weapon against climate change, rising energy costs, and environmental degradation.

And we are only on Page 17.

Reading the book is like reading the latest news; just last month the Environmental Protection Agency released a report that said pretty much the same thing. Calthorpe notes that the funding of urban schools has dropped along with income levels (see Texas right now) and also the point that most suburban TreeHugger readers just don't believe, that "contrary to the eleven o'clock news, if you combine deaths from traffic with crime rates, living in the city is actually safer on average than living in the suburbs."

Calthorpe proposes a three-pronged approach to dealing with climate change: urbanism, building efficiency, and low carbon autos. He then goes into greater detail of each. He suggests that we have to get away from our American obsession with moving as many cars as fast as possible, "rather than the broader role of providing accessibility for people. He writes one paragraph that should be read out loud in cities like Toronto, where the new Mayor is canceling above grade transit for a short subway line (to keep the roads clear for cars):

Transit should be conceived hierarchically: from walkable and bikeable streets supporting local bus and streetcar lines to trunk transit lines with dedicated rights-of-way. This hierarchy is critical to transit's success. Leave out any element and the system becomes inefficient and inconvenient, resulting in what we now have: transit systems that need more subsidies than necessary and cannot attract a growing ridership. Each element- walkable places, local feeders and convenient trunk lines- is critical.


Calthorpe concludes with four visions of the future:

Trend Sprawl, what we have now where we act like oil reserves will keep expanding and climate change will be solved with some yet unknown technology (or beleive that it doesn't actually exist)

Green Sprawl, as above but with solar panels and hybrid cars;

Simple Urbanism, building compact communities, and

Green Urbanism, with smaller footprints, higher densities, and a solar panel on top.

epa image

Remarkably, those are exactly the four choices that the EPA analyzed in their recent report, shown in this illustration. We need green, dense, transit oriented communities.

In the final chapter, Calthorpe remembers when Jimmy Carter proposed sweaters; I remember when Peter Calthorpe proposed the new urbanism; he and the New Urbanist brigades have been beating their heads against the wall ever since. I wish I could say that the tide had turned in their favour; Instead, a large number of politicians are convinced still that we want everyone, as one Bloomberg correspondent noted, to live in "Soviet-style concrete-block high-rises and be forced to take state-run streetcars to their little jobs at the mill." To read George Will in Newsweek, it is all a plot to "diminish Americans' individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism."

Not so. Instead, Peter proposes:

A strategy that radically reduces carbon emissions while it expands social equity and economic growth; to create communities planning approach that reestablishes the pedestrian and respects our history; and to evolve a design philosophy that is capable of accommodating modern institutions and technology without sacrificing nature, human scale and memorable places.

What's not to love?

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

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

READ MORE: Peter Calthorpe Explains Urbanism in an Age of Climate Change
Read more about urbanism:
Why Is Urban Housing So Expensive? Because People Want To Live There.
Christopher Leinberger Explains Why Washington, DC, is a Model for Walkable Redevelopment
The TH Interview: Andy Kunz, New Urbanist

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