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Worldchanging Interview: Peter Newman and Timothy Beatley
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Can the United States lead the way to a bright green future for the planet?

Here at Worldchanging, we believe that the answer is yes. As Alex Steffen wrote in our December feature Worldchanging and the American Future:

If the world is going to figure out one-planet prosperity, a bright green way of life that can lift everyone out of poverty while averting catastrophe, to some very serious extent, we Americans will need to invent our own version of it first.

Sustainability experts Peter Newman and Timothy Beatley share a similar view about both the opportunity and responsibility facing the United States. And they believe that the change must take place first in our urban communities.

Newman, Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University in Western Australia, coined the term "car dependence," and has devoted his life's work to helping governments understand the urgent need for improved public transit and land use in the 21st century. Beatley, Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia, believes cities and nations should more freely share solutions for policy and development, to help us face the common challenges of sustainability and combating climate change.

The two colleagues recently co-authored the book Resilient Cities, which describes how intelligent planning and visionary leadership can be strong weapons for cities facing climate change and peak oil. They also collaborated on Green Urbanism Down Under, a book that explores the many strides Australia has taken to encourage renewable energy, compact development, successful public transportation and more, and helps translate those ideas into examples for the United States to follow.

We were able to speak with them when Newman joined Beatley in the D.C. area for the final stop on his speaking tour funded by Parsons Brinckerhoff and groups such as Smart Growth America. Newman had just finished meeting with the Obama Administration Transition Team about the U.S. economic stimulus package, and was feeling encouraged at the time that the plan for recovery was heading in a bright green direction.

Worldchanging: Do you see the new U.S. administration as an opportunity for the world?

Newman: Absolutely. If America can't change, the world is doomed because Americans consume so many resources. Speaking on behalf of the world, we're very happy that Obama is trying to change policy that has consumed too much of the Earth.

And it's not just a matter of saving the Earth, it's a matter of creating an economy that will work. This is where the new jobs are, and the cities that go first down that path will lead the way. America is behind in that race. Most of the best examples are in Europe, Australia and Japan because they've been given the political opportunity.

I do think that change can happen quickly. Since last year in Australia we've seen a dramatic turnaround similar to what you're just starting to experience. The first thing our government did when entering office was to sign Kyoto. Now we have a board that I'm on called Infrastructure Australia, which is working on funding how to recreate our cities.

This transition needs to be led by America, and we will all cheer as you do that and form partnerships with you. If you don't, there will be continued decline in America, because this is the new economy. That's a fundamental decision that will impact the standard of living in this country seriously, and it's an opportunity now for [the U.S.] to exert that leadership. You have a team led by Obama that is committed to this. For me, it was a wonderful thing to be at the inauguration, and to be part of a city that was car-free and totally behind the new President.

Worldchanging: Building resilient cities is not only the smarter choice; it's the only choice. What do you think our timeline is for accomplishing some of these things?

Newman: It's a big task, but there's an enormous commitment. Everyone is now committed to 80 percent reduction by 2050. Copenhagen in 2009 will be the new global convention which will decide on a road map that will make us respond to climate change, and that will work its way through every government.

You've seen a massive change across this country, in the desire to change where government will be seen as part of the solution, versus part of the problem. Markets and governments working together can recreate our cities.

The money's going to be there, and the cities that respond to it quickly will do well, some cities will decline, they're not going to respond quickly enough. Some say you'll never get Americans out of cars, that is historically what has happened, but there have been such transitions in the past and already car use is in decline in American cities. The new green transition is upon us. Some cities are going to make it through and others aren't.

The big cities that were thought to be hopeless like Los Angeles, Denver, Atlanta and Houston, have turned a corner, especially Denver. Atlanta will be the hardest. The areas on the fringe of those urban areas will suffer as that kind of scattered development around the cities is very vulnerable as fuel costs increase.

Beatley: I think that American cities are really poised to take that next step and to dramatically commit to ecological and sustainability principles. It's been helpful to have those pioneers, and to have Mayor Daley in Chicago, and Governor Bloomberg's commitments in New York, and long-term pioneers like Portland and other city leaders. But I think now we're right on the cusp of making this whole agenda, from local food production to bicycle mobility, investments in transit, green building, carbon-neutral developments and neighborhoods, and biophilic urban design.

But we've got to keep showing that this is not necessarily a sacrificial agenda. It's about enhancing prosperity of a different kind, about enhancing quality of life and richness of life, and expanding and extending the assets that are the real assets: the strength of community, the friendships and bonds between people, the commitments to place, reconnecting to environment and place and each other. Those things are on the way, but there's still a lot of work to be done.

Worldchanging: Do you have a vision for what will happen to the suburbs?

Newman: We are very strong about including the suburbs in the vision. I think any attempt to abandon them will fail. Suburbs will survive, but they'll have more options for local employment and services and more options to get into the city quickly and easily.

Most suburbs can have transit linked to them within a 10-year framework, and we'll have enough options then with a renewable energy-based transportation. The suburbs themselves don't need to change much, but they have other options for transportation once you bring in electric rail and more local destinations based around transit oriented developments (TODs). The other transformation is electric vehicles hooked up to smart grids. The car use will be carbon free, but they'll have a good transit link to the rest of the city.

Suburbs will remain, but I think many people will want to live in a transit oriented development or an urban place where they'll have an option to do away with their car altogether.

My city is a very good example of what can happen in the suburbs. There was a strong political movement to build transit out to the suburbs during the fuel crises. The Perth southern rail line now carries 55,000 people a day, where the buses had only 14,000. And it's beginning to shape development around it so instead of being a sprawling, shopping center-based area, the city will build downtown-type centers around the transit stations.

Worldchanging: Tim, your compare progress toward sustainability in Australia to progress in the U.S., since the two cultures share a lot in common. Is there any one main theme you identified that shows how the Australian and U.S. governments differ in their approaches to sustainability, and how that has affected their progress?

Beatley: I think it's less about comparing what has been happening at federal and national levels and more about the differences at the state and local level. Even under a conservative Howard government in Australia, the country was able to establish initiatives to begin making its cities more sustainable. We have some good examples of progressive communities doing some good things in the U.S., but in Australia it's striking how pervasive the interest in and commitment to sustainability really is. Even five years ago, when I was traveling in Australia, there was always a council sustainability officer in each local government, and there was almost always a local sustainability plan in every community that I visited. Virtually every Australian state has developed a very impressive state-level sustainability strategy. Australian premiers (the equivalent of U.S. governors) are winning campaigns based on very progressive sustainability agendas.

Worldchanging: Peter, at the end of Green Urbanism Down Under, you argue that regional planning is needed in the U.S. Can you describe why regional planning is a better strategy than allowing local governments to decide what's best for their constituents?

Newman: Jefferson and the founding fathers believed that local governments should have power of the land use as a way of counterbalancing any centralized power, and there's a lot of value in that limit of power. But they never would have envisioned that our cities would look like they do now. Transit, for example, is a regional facility. You have to have a coordinated package in terms of money and systems planning.

In Australia we do it better because state governments can override the local governments. That has worked in our favor in the big regional cities. Of course local governments have to work with their local communities and provide the local infrastructure. But it's very hard if you do it entirely bottom up, because the regional governments need a regional infrastructure. The common goal for the broad region is really missing in most American cities. You can't get the same from local governments.

This was the discussion we had this morning with the transition team. This is the big story, the reauthorization bill coming in October: you have to reauthorize the transportation funding bill so that it incorporates the revised regional structure. If you're building out transit for the whole of L.A, you should only get federal funding if you're approving a transit system that's part of a total network. You can tie other funding to that as well, like part of the green economy funds, to encourage smart grids. And they ought to be able to tie affordable housing to that also, because these TODs will become eco enclaves if they don't tie in affordable housing.

Worldchanging: What are the biggest barriers to change?

Newman: Mental block is very critical. In the past, it's been essentially accepted that getting by the way we've always done is okay, and that attitude blocked innovation regarding green technologies. That's all swept away with this new government, and there will be a change of understanding that will follow. You can already see it in a number of corporations who are lining up to show how green they are, and many local governments where green policy has been ignited. The money is there now, and politics is enabling it.

But structures need to change. We're making massive investments in rolling out highways and roads. That needs to change and there will be a lot of people who will get very angry as that needs to happen. There are subsidies to fuel companies that need to be removed, and as carbon trading happens they will continue to disappear.

The transition will be painful. We started building cities around the car in the 1930s, and like each economic transition, there is an important new economy that occurs.

The lobby groups will begin to lose their friends if they don’t begin to do the right thing. It's a little like the last gasp: coal-fired power stations and highways are dying everywhere. They're very dumb technologies and they're not going to help the economy of our cities, and the sooner you get rid of them as priorities for funding, the better.

Worldchanging: Tim, your book is a great step in translating ideas from one culture to another culture so that learning and sharing of ideas can take place. Do you envision any other systems for open sharing of ideas between cultures?

Beatley: I suspect we do need to be doing a lot more of that. I've been very impressed with the value of things like the European Sustainable Cities and Towns network and campaign, that has been a huge opportunity for cities to learn from each other. It also fosters an interesting friendly competition between cities. For example, they have this sustainable city award that is coveted by European mayors, and I have often thought we could use something like that in the U.S.

I think we could do more creative things in terms of partnering with cities around the world. I think we need much more extensive and robust city-to-city partner programs. Ecological sister cities is a notion for connecting cities that has a little bit less to do with tourism, and instead is more about mutual problem solving. For example, if New York City has tackled some particular issue that a city in some other country is struggling with, like water, they can partner and share ideas and best practices.

I think that exchange study tours and field studies are terrific, but I think that unfortunately in the U.S. we don't emphasize this enough. We're taking a group of about 12 graduate students to a couple of cities in Spain over our spring break, and my experience has been that those trips are just profoundly life-altering for the students, for the planners and designers who go on them. They look at the world in a completely different way and their whole professional life changes, because they see potential and possibility they didn't see before.

It seems that in the U.S. we need to overcome an American exceptionalism, the idea that we're so different and our problems are so unique that we can't learn from Cairo or Beijing. I think we need to be more interested in harvesting the good ideas that are bubbling up around the world.

Image credit: Flickr/AurelioZen, CC License.

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As an Australian it is great to see this type of article get a mention. Great insight into some of the things that need to be done.

Look forward to reading the books.

Yes here in Australia we have made some inroads as suggested above re renewable energy, public transportation and overall sustainability however plenty more needs to be achieved. A joint Australian/US effort in these areas and learning from each other can only be a good thing provided we stick to the recent targets set.

Posted by: Scott on 19 Feb 09

I have some concern about calling the USA to global leadership on this. I think the USA needs to get out of seeing itself as the leader of the world, and learn humility. America's arrogance has been a major problem in the world. I want the USA to be fully engaged and cooperating with the rest of the world on this, but not to be looking for how it can be in charge of it.

Posted by: Bill Samuel on 22 Feb 09

In addition to the several great ideas and concepts discussed in this article, another imperative part of the picture to create a green and sustainable culture is that of human population control. Great resources and education on this can be found at

Posted by: Mary on 22 Feb 09

I totally second Bill Samuel there. Why does America think that it has been entrusted with the task of salvaging the planet, that the world will just sit on its bum waiting for America to answer the call ("If the world is going to figure out one-planet prosperity....we Americans will need to invent our own version of it first.")
America needs to take action not in order to inspire the world to wake up from its slumber (most of them already are up), but because America really needs to stop causing so much harm to the environment (being the country with the second highest CO2 emissions in the world).
Take action not with the intention of taking charge or leading/inspiring others to take action.
Take action with the intention of cooperating with others and in order to do your bit to save the world.
God Save Our Planet.

Posted by: VeeBee on 23 Feb 09

I am an American and I fully agree that we have been arrogant in our assumption of leadership in environmental and other arenas of global significance. To merit that distinction we Americans are going to have to start living as though we recognize the bounds of our finite planet, and we have already begun by rescinding the global gag rule and the ban on funding of international family planning and population stabilization efforts. The next step will be to bring the population growth rate of Americans to a sustainable level, as each additional human has such an immense environmental footprint in a country so affluent and resource consumptive as ours.

Posted by: Kirsten Stade on 23 Feb 09

This was a goldmine, thanks so much for this interview.

And to the commentators who bemoan American arrogance -- you missed the point. They're appealing to American leadership not because the USA is SO TOTALLY AWESOME, but because we're the biggest and most dangerous consumer of natural resources in the world.

Again: the biggest and most dangerous consumer of natural resources in the world. It HAS to start with the United States otherwise the efforts of other countries will not be nearly as effective.

Restated: they're talking to Obama because the United States is the biggest problem on Earth.

Posted by: Justin Boland on 23 Feb 09

Though this interview has many fuzzy nice sounding ideas that are grounded in implementable actions, proponents of mode shifts and land use shifts ignore the fact that this strategy gets us at best a drop in the bucket when dealing with emissions reductions. These strategies will take decades of urban growth that might produce a small (10% or less according to the most optimistic assumptions employed in the Growing Cooler report) decrease in emissions. We simply don't have the time to wait for a convoluted uncertain approach based on the land use market and some miraculous overnight cultural/behavioural shift...we need to be at 0 emissions by 2050 (never mind the potential for a point of no return tipping point triggered by methane release from the tundra and arctic oceans). The realities are that urban planning would be much wiser to focus on dealing with adaptation. I believe that once everyone wakes up to the reality of accepting that global warming is a real man-made phenomena, the next step will be waking up to the reality that it's too late to practically do anything about it at this point. No doubt there will be a lot of denial of this assertion just like there was about whether climate change is real (probably starting on this post), but it's the reality we're moving toward...accept it and adjust accordingly (and help others who don't have the means to).

Posted by: Realist on 24 Feb 09

I have to say that America is looked at to be the ones to act for a reason. It's not America's fault that this is happening, it's other countries not taking action. That's where America usually acts and gets itself into trouble because other countries are afraid to step up. And I'm not arrogant and George Bush sucked in this area, but the fact is America is looked at for guidance and will play a major part in saving the planet under Obama. I don't like some of his other policies, but hes taking on the environment and we all know America needs to play a big roll. Think about it.

Posted by: Andrew on 24 Feb 09

The US government is in no position to lead. It is bankrupt and it will not be able to change its city structures or transport system in a way that will maintain the life Americans are used to. Its actions speak louder than words; the Obama administration is more intent on propping up failed institutions in order to maintain a sense of normalcy, but this will inevitably fail. It's the last hoorah from the Ponzi scheme that has robbed ordinary citizens for the last century. Efforts toward sustainability are token at best, wasteful and destructive at worst (e.g. carbon geosequestration and ethanol). The leadership on sustainability has actually come from Australia and the UK with Permaculture and the Transition Town movement respectively. I agree with 'Realist': it's time for adaptation, not grandiose government plans that will crash and burn.

Posted by: Tim Auld on 25 Feb 09

It's about positioning for the future in a way that better enables people to have a good quality of life while stepping more lightly on the earth (and not only in terms of CO2). American cities are a key and critical piece to the puzzle.

As we'd say in Australia. "Peter. On ya mate."

Posted by: Aussie Jane on 28 Feb 09

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