Saturday, April 26, 2008

Sprawl and Carbon Emissions

There's a new report out about development patterns and carbon emissions, Growing Cooler argues:
Meeting the growing demand for conveniently located homes in walkable neighborhoods could significantly reduce the growth in the number of miles Americans drive, shrinking the nation’s carbon footprint while giving people more housing choices, according to a team of leading urban planning researchers.

In a comprehensive review of dozens of studies, published by the Urban Land Institute, the researchers conclude that urban development is both a key contributor to climate change and an essential factor in combating it.

Here's Brad Plummer on the same topic:

A 2003 World Bank study comparing various cities in the United States illustrated the dramatic difference a bit of sprawl can make. Boston, for instance, isn't the most compact city around, but if its population was as spread out as, say, Atlanta's, then Bostonians would be driving about 9 percent more, kicking up a lot more carbon into the air. If Boston had Atlanta's inferior rail system, driving would increase another 5 percent. In fact, if you could somehow wave a magic wand and move the entire population of Boston to a city with all of Atlanta's sprawl-like characteristics, total driving would increase 25 percent.

Now, some amount of sprawl might always be inevitable, since many people don't enjoy living in crowded urban areas and may well want low-density subdivisions and industrial parks and freeways. That's fine. But that doesn't mean it's impossible for urban planners to constrain sprawl. Compare Vancouver and Seattle. Similar cities in similar areas with similar sorts of people. Yet the former has promoted downtown development and limited freeway expansion and, as a result, has considerably less sprawl. As that World Bank study suggests, that can really have a dramatic effect on emissions.

These patterns also seem to adjust pretty quickly to carbon prices. NPR recently reported that, as gas prices climbs, the pace of sprawl in northern Virginia has taken a breather, as people are deciding they don't want to live so far away from urban centers; home prices in the outer suburbs and exurbs have been falling rapidly as a result. (Some people seem to be thinking that maybe it's not cheaper to buy a lower-priced house way out in the suburbs if you end up spending so much extra time and money on transportation costs.) Obviously there are things city governments can do to accelerate this trend—increasing the availability of affordable housing closer to the center, for starters. I'm not sure how much, exactly, all this would contribute to a larger emissions-reduction strategy, but it seems pretty meaningful.

Containing sprawl and increasing public transportation have several great benefits to communities. One of the reasons I love living in Portland is that I do not need to rely on a car to go into the city. This 25% decrease claimed by the second article isn't a drastic change, but it is certainly significant enough for me to feel healthier and better about myself for reducing my contribution to carbon emissions.
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