Boom A Convenient Truth
posted by April 3 at 13:05 PMon
The wood-paneled conference room in the Grand Hyatt was already filled with 170 developers, design professionals, and land-use officials eating eggs and asparagus when I arrived this morning. In their pantsuits and ties, they had come to save the planet.
At center stage was a book just published by the international development-industry nonprofit Urban Land Institute (ULI), titled Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change. The gist: Compact urban development is good for the environment.
Suburban sprawl, explained ULI’s Uwe Brandes, is the enemy. Longer commutes, errands, and business trips in vehicles there produce more carbon emissions. Dense urban centers, as we know, promote residents and employees to use public transit and walk, averaging fewer and shorter car trips. Brandes noted that even within cities, residents of dense, mixed-use neighborhoods produce, on average, 25 percent less carbon emissions than those who live in more sprawling neighborhoods. Secondarily, energy use in larger developments is 20 percent less than in single-family houses because units share walls, heating, etc.
“We’d like to raise awareness about climate change and the role development has in mitigating climate change,” says Kelly Mann, Executive Director of ULI’s Seattle District Council. The goal, she says, “is changing the approach to development as a whole.”
The message was falling on the right ears. Sitting among the developers was Diane Sigamura, Director of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development. “We’ve got some big steps to take,” she tells me. “The public needs to examine how to travel and how to live. We can’t expect others to take care of global warming.”
The book projects that within 40 years, 90 million new homes will be built in the U.S., including replacing existing homes. If 60 percent of those are compact developments (townhouse density or tighter), vehicle miles traveled could drop by 30 percent, resulting in a 10-14 percent overall reduction of carbon emissions nationwide.
The benefits are more than environmental. The sort of urban design that reduces car trips also requires creating more walkable, more vibrant cities. But to do this, developers must commit to more than density—they must make a point to construct small retail spaces afforded by independent clothing shops, bars, and tiny restaurants (rather than large spaces afforded primarily by corporate franchise stores). Those are the local amenities that keep people from getting in their cars.
Projected growth represents an economic boon for the housing industry, too—Mann expects 1.7 million additional residents in the Seattle region by 2040.
Often, I think, developers are branded at strict profiteers. While some, no doubt, live up to that reputation, ULI, Seattle’s builders and local officials are taking commendable initiative toward better cities and ecologically responsibility. And ULI is already walking its talk: I wanted to keep my nifty press badge, but Mann asked me turn to it in—it will be reused at the next event.