Three Views of Urbanism: Alex Steffen, Kaid Benfield and Jim Kunstler

Three important urban theorists are making the rounds this week, with Alex Steffen delivering a TED talk on the Sharable Future of Cities. He starts of with our "clean energy problem"- that we cannot possibly generate enough to replace the fossil fuels we use in our cars.


Steffen uses the famous UNEP graph to demonstrate that our energy use is predestined by the kind of city we live in, that there is a direct correlation of energy consumption to density. The talk is really a summary of much of what he had written and promoted on Worldchanging, starting with what I think i probably the best post he ever wrote, 2008's My Other Car is a Bright Green City, in which he wrote

The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go.

or, as he puts it in the TED talk,
The most sustainable trip is the one you never had to take in the first place.

It is a terrific summary of everything Alex has been saying, and writing about for years. If you have followed Alex and Worldchanging you will be familiar with it, but it never hurts to hear it again. More at TED.

But the problem with that UNEP graph, and the position developed by David Owen in the Green Metropolis and Edward Glaeser in The Triumph of the City is that while those extremely dense cities like Hong Kong and New York use less energy per capita, they still use a hell of a lot of energy and the back of house required to support it, the food supplies, the water and electricity infrastructure, are all huge and not particularly efficient. Nor are they necessarily terrific places to live.


Kaid Benfield of the NRDC writes in Seeing cities as the environmental solution, not the problem that while Owen and Glaeser

are sometimes excessive in extolling the virtues of urban density without giving attention to the other things that make cities attractive and successful, they are absolutely right that city living reduces energy consumption, carbon emissions and other environmental impacts.

But he doesn't see it all happening in forty storey towers, but in a rebuilding of our existing inner cities and towns.

For our cities and towns to function as successful people habitat, they must be communities where people want to live, work and play. We must make them great, but always within a decidedly urban, nonsprawling form. As it turns out, compact living - in communities of streets, homes, shops, workplaces, schools and the like assembled at a walkable scale - not only helps to save the landscape; it also reduces pollution and consumption of resources. We don't drive as far or as often; we share infrastructure.

More at NRDC Switchboard


James Howard Kunstler has no time for Owen and Glaeser, or skyscrapers, and thinks these utopian visions of the cities of the future are no more realistic that the Popular Science images from 1925. In an important Orion article that, like Steffen's TED Talk, summarizes everything he has been saying for a decade, he writes:

Cities overburdened with skyscrapers will soon discover that these structures are liabilities, not assets. The skyscrapers deemed most "innovative" by today's standards--the ones most dependent on high-tech materials and complex internal systems--will be the greatest failures. This includes many of the new "green buildings."

While I'd agree that tight, dense, and walkable urbanism is crucial for our future happiness, it's a tragic error to suppose that stacking people in skyscrapers is necessary to achieve this. Most of central Paris is under six stories and nobody complains about a lack of cosmopolitan verve there. The infatuation with skyscrapers is just another facet of the technological grandiosity that pervades American culture these days--the dangerous idea that we are unbounded by limits. It is this sort of mentality that's gotten us into deep trouble with extreme car dependency and massive oil imports.

He believes that the places built to survive in a world after oil are going to be much like those designed before oil:

I don't think there's any question that we have to return to traditional ways of occupying the landscape: walkable cities, towns, and villages, located on waterways and, if we are fortunate, connected by rail lines. These urban places will exist on a much smaller scale than what is familiar to us now, built on a much finer grain. They will have to be connected to farming and food-growing places. A return to human scale will surely lead to a restored regard for artistry in building, since the streetscape will be experienced at walking speed.

Fascinating reading in Orion.
Other urban thinkers we have covered recently in TreeHugger:
Peter Calthorpe; How Urbanism, Building Efficiency, and Cleaner Cars Can Solve Climate Change (Book Review):

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."

Ken Greenberg, from Walking Home: Ken Greenberg On How Jane Jacobs Was Right (Book Review):

As we prepare to hit the wall of peak oil, with "peak car" following closely on its heels, we'll have to change ho we get from place to place. Beyond the limit of oil supply, there is simply no more room for cars....the unhealthy consequences of a sedentary, car-dependent lifestyle are clear. Driving to the gym or health club is no substitute for walking as part of a daily routine.

Andrés Duany in New Urbanist Andrés Duany Says LEED is Crashing Over Cost

High-density development in urban locations which entail less reliance on private cars should get a free pass on energy efficiency or energy generation standards. "Don't make apartment dwellers install solar power," he said. "They are doing their part just by living densely and driving less."

Steve Mouzon from The Original Green By Steve Mouzon: A Must-Read If You Care About Sustainable Design

If you are not an architect or a city planner, there is is still much you can do;
Choose it for longer than you'll use it;
Live where you can walk to the grocery;
Live where you can make a living;
Choose smaller stuff with double duty.

And dare I put myself in such august company, from Heritage Is Green: Lessons From The Architectural Conservancy

I think there is yet another form of urbanism: Heritage Urbanism, where we restore the urban fabric and rebuild our communities to work the way they used to. Where we learn from those who designed them before there was oil, about how to live after oil.

Three Views of Urbanism: Alex Steffen, Kaid Benfield and Jim Kunstler

Related Content on