By Faith Cable
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Discussions of sustainable building, clean energy systems, improved transit options and other urban issues are decades old, but the study of how to combine all of those separate elements into one integrated form – the city – is still largely emerging. Last month I traveled to Oslo to speak at the third international Congress hosted by the Council for European Urbanism (CEU), a sister organization of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). The conference theme was "Climate Change and Urban Design," a discussion of the latest in research, policy and design addressing the connection between the way we plan urban development, and the opportunity for cities to offer potent tools for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
It is clear there is plenty of need for pioneering research and debate on this topic. Diana Ürge Vorsatz, lead author of the fourth report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), discussed the limited extent to which urban form has been addressed in the IPCC reports thus far. She announced that her next project, however, will look deeply into the issue of cities. The new report, called the Global Energy Assessment will address measures of how much energy cities consume, and climate-related challenges facing urban environments such as reduced availability of clean water. Vorsatz asserted that any climate change solutions must be city-based because most greenhouse gas emissions originate in cities, and the percentage of the world’s population living in cities – now over half – increases every year. An optimal solution, she said, would be to scale the “cradle-to-cradle” approach up from buildings to cities.
Leading thinkers agree that there is a wealth of potential for well-planned cities to fight climate change on a scale that we cannot achieve from piecemeal solutions. For example, speaker Uwe Brandes from the Urban Land Institute presented on the opportunity to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT). He discussed the Institute's recent book, Growing Cooler: Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change, which argues that even with cleaner cars and cleaner fuel, transportation-related emissions will continue to exceed the target level for global climate stabilization if VMT continue to increase. But compact, dense, mixed-use development in urban environments could result in an estimated 20 to 40 percent reduction in VMT, and a 20 percent decrease in energy use in the United States.
The imperative of climate change requires immediate changes in policies and programs to promote compact development, more transit and less highway expansion, and other land use strategies including urban infill and preservation of the embodied energy in historic buildings. Several emerging innovations to help influence new policy, zoning and other regulation of urban form were discussed throughout the conference.
Speaker Sandy Sorlien presented one solution: the open source SmartCode. This form-based code offers an alternative to outdated zoning codes, which are a major obstacle in the path of compact development. Instead of zoning according to separate uses (and putting commercial development out of walking distrance from most residences), the SmartCode encourages mixed-use development with gradual transitions from neighborhood centers to more residential types of streets. The SmartCode, designed to be calibrated on a case-by-case basis to fit local conditions, can be adopted for part or all of a city. The City of Miami's proposed Miami 21 code, which is now in progress, is based on the SmartCode.
Another high-profile emerging solution was LEED for Neighborhood Development, which I presented alongside Nathan Sandwick, a fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Like previous iterations of the LEED certification system, LEED-ND is a point-based rating system, but it is designed to evaluate the sustainability of an entire neighborhood. Criteria include site location, available transit, walkable streets, compact development, proximity to retail destinations, use of renewable energy, and green construction practices for buildings and infrastructure. In my portion, I compared LEED-ND to the Assessment Matrix, a similar system developed in Germany. Although the two systems were created separately, they covered very similar issues albeit with differing criteria. Looking forward, as more people try to define a “sustainable neighborhood,” I believe we will see an increased use of neighborhood rating systems such as these.
The crowd in Oslo agreed that what we know about the relationship between cities and climate change is only now beginning to be understood. The IPCC's Vorsatz recognized that there is still limited research about the quantified impact of mitigation options through urban design, land use planning, and modal shift in transportation (more people taking transit), and also how these compare with other potential mitigation options.
To promote collaborative study, the CEU and the CNU announced the Oslo-Denver Initiative. This joint initiative will exchange knowledge and experience, initiate new partnerships, and support model projects to explore sustainable regions, transit and compact housing patterns. It is expected to be integrated into the current Climate @ CNU initiative Resulting ideas and actions will be presented at CNU 17 in Denver.
Faith Cable is a Partnership Manager at Smith Partners. She was a 2007-2008 Fulbright Scholar in Berlin, Germany, when she completed an international comparison of sustainable neighborhood rating systems.
Photos by author.
The City of Miami has not approved the Miami 21 code. Suggest you check. It was supposed to be brought back to the City COmmission this month (October 2008), but has not been put on the Agenda. There is consdierable opposition by the local chapter of the AIA, many developers, the legal community and may local residents.
First, I will stand corrected on my use of the word “approved” to describe the final draft of the Miami21 code. Perhaps “in-progress” would be a better term.
Second, I am not surprised that there is opposition to the Miami21 code – new ordinances or new buildings often face opposition in communities across the U.S. There are competing interests of residents, stakeholders and participants in the development process such as architects, developers and attorneys and it is impossible to satisfy every interest perfectly. I have not followed the Miami21 process closely, but from my experience in Minneapolis I realize a proposed building that is taller than the average height in the surrounding area will generate some opposition even though the building meets City of Minneapolis goals of adding density in corridors well served by transit.
Third, I can’t claim the SmartCode or any zoning innovation is perfect, but continuing with the existing zoning codes of many communities which make it difficult to develop anything but big box stores, homes on ½ acre lots and office or condo towers meant to be driven to not walked to (with the first few stories all reserved for parking) – these are not the solutions either. Zoning needs to make compact, transit-oriented, walkable development easier to build and auto-dependant places more difficult to build if American wants to reduce its vehicle miles traveled and correspondingly, its CO2 emissions.
Finally, this is not easy! We, as members of American communities, cannot let ourselves get bogged down in neighborhood politics or try to preserve the status quo (with its large carbon footprint) forever. We must keep our eyes focused on the bigger goal of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, including implementing solutions that change our urban form.
"There is consdierable opposition by the local chapter of the AIA, many developers, the legal community and may local residents."
I live in Miami and have never publicly commented on the Miami21 effort but it's obviously time (in fact, long overdue) to speak up in support of this long delayed effort.
When the mayor kicked off the Miami21 effort he told a reporter that (paraphrasing) "we haven't done a plan for the city of Miami since...well, EVER."
The train-wreck known as downtown Miami that visitors, tourists and residents have bypassed on their way to Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Key West and more attractive, walkable urban destinations in South Florida is the result of decades of uncoordinated and frankly self-indulgent work by SOME (certainly not all) designers and developers who now feel threatened by the effort to plan the city's future. The residents referred to here share little or nothing in common with the concerns of some architects (complete artistic freedom unfettered by community context) and developers & landowners (maximum profit unfettered by anything) - in fact, they would prefer that none of the sleek towers and expensive residential and commercial projects get built anywhere near them...ever. It's a classic mix of special interests and self-interest with civic interest dumped in the trash bin.
Miami21 is about establishing the terrain of civic interest while striking compromises to preserve the artistic freedom of the architect to design in a manner that contributes to (rather than ignores and destroys) a walkable, mixed-use urban context, and maximize the value of properties and development within an envelope of height, massing and density appropriate to different streets, neighborhoods and districts within the city. It is a Solomon-like task to come up with a code capable of striking the proper balance, and Miami21 does this by transitioning the height, mix and intensity of development between skyscrapers and 1-2-story residential neighborhoods while creating a continuous pedestrian fabric of walkable streets and gathering places - a public realm that will raise the livability, attractiveness and value of every corner of the city. Miami21 is the case for collective civic interest over myopic self-interests; the case for establishing an urban framework capable of guiding the future of Miami into a world class urban city that can take its place alongside London, New York, Paris and Chicago instead of Houston and Phoenix.
i feel this is my opinion its just to open the box u all prob know this but if you start a community that is willing to do something thats the first step . of the first ways to start that is ur ownself. alot of people dont even know anything about where to start and what to do so if you r one like me start the circle...teach people for nothing just on ur on self gratification.if we could do it and be one when it started the race why couldnt we do it now with the ease. bucky once said "There is no shortage of energy on this planet. There is, however, a serious shortage of intelligence" we are to busy taking the role when we r the ones that were all waiting for. to make a effiecnent building it is simple....just study whats around you on ur every day life u dont even need to go out of ur way. to get back to design its all about breaking it down to its essentials and what it really wants to be.. some what like what khan say about the rock.. well i dont know if this meant anything to u but it does to me so get on it the time will always be going around but it take 1 to make 2. peace