US needs White House Climate Change Council to protect lives and economy

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With the Zika virus spreading in Florida, it’s timely to consider how we will prepare for our increasing real-time manifestations of climate change. Once thought to be a threat in the distant future, the impacts of climate change are becoming more evident through events such as ongoing drought, extended severe heat waves, coastal and inland flooding and now possibly through what the CDC is calling an unprecedented insect transmission of a birth defect.

The year 2016 is on track to become the earth’s warmest year by a significant margin, with July 2016 being the hottest month ever recorded. Besides experiencing “Black Swan” events that might be tied to climate change (like the spreading of Zika), we have witnessed over the past year record numbers of drought-induced wildfires and deadly 1,000-year inland flood events from “rain bombs” in states such as West Virginia, Maryland and the cities of Houston, Baton Rouge and Columbia, SC.

Our public health and safety institutions, along with infrastructure, already outmoded and in need of repair, simply can’t keep up with the developing threats and pressures. It’s time for a more thorough assessment of climate change’s advancing impacts with a measured response of planning for additional resources, new technologies, public safety protocol, workforce development, as well as international and domestic security.

Without a doubt, the United States needs to further the Obama Administration’s comprehensive climate change mitigation with its national Clean Power Plan and become the world’s first clean-energy superpower. As essential as they are, mitigation actions are only one prong of critical over-arching policy and action needed. The other prong is to concurrently make our society, the economy and public institutions more resilient, and adaptive, to the disruptions and shocks resulting from an unstable climate.

The new president could help the nation better manage climate change risk by creating a cross-agency national Climate Change Security Council or National Resilience Council based in the White House. This council, for which retired US Marine Col. James Seaton and I are advocating, would be similar in structure to the White House National Economic Council or the National Security Council, the NSC. Seaton was an NSC staff member during the Bill Clinton administration.

The new national Climate Change Council would coordinate and prioritize domestic protection as well as foreign humanitarian and national security-related planning for climate change resilience across cabinet-level federal agencies. Key agencies would include Homeland Security and other major departments: particularly Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Education, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Defense, Commerce and Labor. The Department of Energy, which is increasingly being tasked with climate change mitigation, would also participate in adaptation planning, particularly around the vulnerability of the nation’s power grid to climate change.

Because climate change has a delayed impact from carbon emissions, we are only now experiencing the regional and local impacts of global emissions from decades earlier. How would the a White House Office of Climate Change Security start making our cities, regions and industries more able to cope with climate change’s apparent accelerating impacts?

The Obama administration has made a good start on climate change security with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Resilience Toolkit and climate change directives that every federal agency was ordered last month to consider. Canada has already created a Ministry of Climate Change and the Environment and its duties include climate change adaptation.

Looking beyond the Obama legacy, how do major US presidential candidates stack up on this critical issue?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump denies the existence of climate change, a stance taken by no other world leaders after 195 nations formally adopted the Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2015, an agreement that Trump says he will not honor if elected president. This stance would endanger our national and international security.

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has acknowledged the need for climate change mitigation; her campaign’s platform on climate change resilience or security is limited to the following declaration: “Clinton will work to ensure that federal infrastructure investments are resilient to both current and future climate risks, and she will partner with states, cities and rural communities to develop regionally coordinated, resilient infrastructure strategies.”

The incoming administration would be prudent to acknowledge that the nation’s current built environment and institutions were not designed for climate change’s increased stresses. From streets to utility sewer, power and water systems, the world’s increasingly urban population is living in cities and buildings that were designed for an era of greater resource availability, and for more benign, less volatile climate conditions.

Perhaps most critically needed is a massive program to plan metro area green infrastructure, to cool soaring urban temperatures and reduce destructive flash flood damages by capturing rainwater for storage and reuse in engineered, climate resilient landscapes. In urbanized or suburban areas, green infrastructure can include parks, transit and road rights of way, even rooftops, yards and parking lots. Green infrastructure reduces water consumption through stormwater capture and reuse, which can also significantly cut energy consumption.

The new council could champion preserving and restoring the eco-system services carried out by coastal barrier islands, wetlands, and forests. Wetlands and estuaries, for instance, provide habitat for wildlife while buffering coastal storm surges and inland flooding.

As mentioned, the energy sector and particularly our national power grid is unprepared for climate change. An influential 2014 report on the financial risks of climate change in the United States, Risky Business, estimated that the United States will require 95 Gigawatts of more power over the next 5 to 25 years to account for energy demand from climate change—equivalent to 200 more power plants. There’s also the specter of flooding, severe storms and heat waves damaging generation, capacity and transmission.

New more-resilient energy and water systems will need to be “smart”, able to use artificial intelligence, a field of scientific innovation being led by Google and others.

Smart energy systems reduce demand before critical energy generation limits are breached by climate stresses. These systems will require renewable and other energy-powered microgrids combined with battery storage to “island” affected areas from extreme weather precipitated grid failures. A White House-level council could scale these best practices at home through the Department of Labor and abroad through the Department of Commerce.

Climate change security would create positive economic impact. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of jobs could be created through the replacement of aging and outmoded grey infrastructure with smart systems and urban green infrastructure, and through planning and constructing storm barriers and constructed wetlands. Restoration of wetlands, aquatic, riverine and estuarine ecosystems accounted for $3.2 billion in revenues and 40,000 jobs in 2013. Smart microgrids, resilient water systems and energy efficiency improvements are other big domestic job creators that can save lives during the most pressing climate-influenced events.

Numerous isolated examples of climate resilience practices already exist. These best management practices can be adapted to local climate, cultural and economic needs and replicated throughout the nation. Resilience skills and technologies will also be critical to our helping other countries faced with even more daunting climate change precipitated disasters.

Los Angeles is trying to recharge its aquifers by capturing stormwater in parking lots, streets and medians to recharge its drinking water aquifer. The city’s Department of Water and Power has utilized GIS-based 3-D imaging and cost-benefit analyses for its extensive properties, demonstrating how local rainwater can be economically captured to recharge the city’s underground water aquifers. Much of the city now depends almost entirely on faraway mountain range snowmelt that because of ongoing drought is already being reduced by climate change.

New Orleans, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco are reinventing themselves with multi-purpose public recreational-rainwater retention space in order to temper the more severe heat waves, floods and storm surges becoming more common. College campuses like the University of California at San Diego are using advanced innovation like microgrids with renewable energy sources to head off grid failures from climate change stresses while incubating exciting new smart technologies that save money for the campus and state taxpayers.

More fully-realized climate security solutions are being advocated by a number of organizations, including the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program; The Skoll Foundation Global Threats Program; the Natural Resources Defense Council’s push for green infrastructure; and the Post Carbon Institute’s community resilience program, as well as IBM, ESRI and others in the private sector.

But these efforts need to be scaled up and integrated with national planning, financing and job training.

Climate change security’s sphere of influence extends far beyond national policy at home. The World Bank said in a recent report that Asian cities in particular are “dangerously unprepared” for climate change risks like increased flooding and storm damage. Indeed, as the Department of Defense has indicated going back to the early 2000s, climate threats to food and water security—think Syria–are a serious issue for the defense of our allies and the world order (link added after Sept. 14 publication of bi-partisan US military “Climate and Security” report).

Domestic climate change security efforts have bi-partisan support. Moderate Republicans and independents in Florida are now demanding action to protect against climate change, including urban planning and infrastructure to adapt to sea level rise.

Fortunately, we don’t have to make a trade-off with climate mitigation to reduce near-term climate change threats, risks and damages. We can and should continue the push to a Net Zero carbon economy to stave off the worst effects of future climate change. It behooves us as a species and nation to figure out how to adapt to climate change and how to steward the earth in the face of this existential threat.

Timely creation of a White House Climate Change Security Council would provide prioritized and coordinated solutions across federal agencies, as well as state and local government, to help make us better prepared and more secure for an uncertain and vastly different future.

(photo: Midnight in Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy, by Iwean Bain, New York Magazine)


Urban Parklets: The New Front Stoop

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San Francisco’s parklets (left, from top to bottom: #1, Valencia Street, #2 and #3 Divisadero, and #4, Castro and 17th, bottom) are a vibrant testimony to the city’s Pavement to Parks Program, managed by a non-profit, the Great Streets Program. The city’s 15 parklets all started with two to three parking spaces, or other poorly-utilized urban space (the city says 25% of its space is taken up by streets or auto rights of way, while only 20% of the city is parkland–still one of the highest totals in the nation). With the help of architects, artists and landscapers, the asphalt is converted into living, breathing social settings.
The parklets do continue to provide parking space for the non-polluting form of transit: bicycles. I took a cycling tour this weekend of the city’s parklets, which offer cyclists a safe and convenient place to park their two wheels and take a rest with their steed.
In the Valencia parklet (top photo), which included edgy canopy steel structures, I counted 19 people hanging out, and 31 bicycles parked. The space was much livelier, more functional and attractive than any three cars could have ever been in the same space.
San Francisco is now analyzing the numbers, behind its parklets, which were started in 2010. The analysis includes the number of users, maintenance costs, and neighborhood economic benefits.
The City by the Bay admits it was inspired by New York City’s public plazas, just as it confessed using Bogota’s Sunday car-free streets Ciclovia concept for its own Sunday Streets program.
Imitation is of course the sincerest form of urban innovation these days. The beauty of such experimentation is that it can be adapted for local conditions, including climate, public tastes and zoning.
The Pavement to Parks program is one of the most exciting deployments in the trend of enabling reduced urban dependency on cars, while fostering artistic and nature-enhanced community. There are other major trends portending that the future of cities (and suburbs) is beyond cars: the increase in mixed-use zoning, transit-oriented development, car sharing and light rail.
To wit: adaptable use of public spaces has become a key indicator of urban resilience. (Photos by Warren Karlenzig: click on each photo for larger format view)
Karlenzig is president of Common
. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, and co-author of
forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and

Top 10 Green Theme Stories of 2010

Time for my list of the year’s top stories about sustainability news in government, business and beyond. Notice the irrelevance of the United States in positive developments.

1. China goes big time green with new Five Year Plan

You may know that China has overtaken the US, EU nations and other countries in production of solar and wind renewable energy technologies; but may not have heard that China,  which will use 15% renewables by 2020, is committed to greening far more than its energy (note: the US has no goal for renewable energy).

China’s Five Year Plan for 2011-2015 demonstrates that it is serious about tackling its rampant air and water pollution. This recently announced plan also shows that China will be designing scaleable new technologies and approaches for everything from greener urban development to more fuel efficient vehicles, including nationally subsidized electric cars. 

Nowhere was this more evident than at the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, a six-month affair that I attended at its close in October (see photo above). Climate change, sustainability, environmental management and the role of citizens in reducing their impact were major themes in the China Pavilion and in other theme pavilions. The Shanghai Expo featured some of the most creative and engaging exhibits that I have seen on climate change, green technology, waste reduction, urban planning, and air and water pollution.

2. India’s GDP will factor in environmental damages by 2015

Now that more than 30 nations have agreed to some kind of price on carbon emissions, India declared in November that it will go a step further. India said within five years it will factor in environmental damages into its Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. In other words, if the country now has an annual GDP of 8 percent that could be adjusted a few percentages points lower once the damages to air, water and species are analyzed and calculated in the equation. Under such “full-cost accounting,” intensified green economic development would likely become a substantially larger component of the GDP. 

3. US Congress fails to pass climate change legislation

Climate change legislation in 2010 appeared to be dead in the water after passing in the U.S. House in 2009. The Obama Administration is likely to try to enforce greenhouse gas emission reductions using Executive Order, mainly through the Environmental Protection Agency. Lawmakers hunker waiting in revolt.

4. It’s happening: Climate change related flooding in Pakistan, fires engulfing Russia, etc.

Pakistan experienced some of the worst rain and flooding in its recorded history, with the Indus River flooding its banks and occupying more than 30 times its usual width, which covered one-fifth of the country. Russia in 2010 experienced record high temperatures and rampant drought and extreme temperature-related fires, impacting national food crops, health in major cities including Moscow, and commercial aviation. More than 15,000 were likely killed by the Russian 2010 heat wave, cutting more than $15 billion from its GDP. The year 2010, meanwhile, is likely to finish as the planet’s warmest year ever recorded since record keeping began in the late 1800s.

5. Gulf Oil Spill demonstrates future dangers of ever-riskier drilling

The BP Gulf Horizon disaster, the largest US oil “spill” in history (it was more of an uncontrolled gusher than a spill), caught BP, the federal government and the nation at large way off guard. I blogged about the disaster’s potential in April, when estimates of damage were laughingly underplayed by BP through the US government. Who can forget the weird summer with that underwater camera video spewing daily before our eyes? Deep water drilling is not for the timid, especially as such operations will more frequently encounter highly volatile methane gases

6. New electric vehicles released by Chevy and Nissan

Both Chevy and Nissan came out in 2010 with electric cars (though only Nissan’s Leaf is truly an all-electric car.) Now we just have to figure out how to get people to realize that electric cars are a small sliver of a solution. They’re not even part of a solution if people end up feeling justified in driving more and continuing the auto-dominant lifestyle that presents so many other challenges: exurban sprawl; life-cycle energy; peaking oil (see #7) for plastics, asphalt and lubrication; waste and resource impacts; biodiversity and agricultural land destruction; personal health and community societal damages.

7. Oil prices near $100 a barrel. Again.

Oil prices per barrel reached over $91 late this month. The last time oil was at such a price in 2008, the Great Recession was just beginning to wrap its talons around the globe. Now industry analysts see oil prices moving to $100-120 per barrel in 2011. Others, including the US Department of Defense and a UK energy and aviation industry consortium have forecast that the real oil crunch will come in 2014-2015 as global supplies “peak,” “plateau,” “top off,” or “poop out,” depending on who you are reading or talking to. The International Energy Agency even came out with a report in 2010 stating that global oil supplies peaked in 2006. Expect much higher prices for gasoline and higher prices for food and transportation (especially airline flights).  

8. Post Carbon Reader lays out a plan for what’s next

The Post Carbon Institute tapped 29 of its fellows, including yours truly, to write chapters about the major climate, ecological and economic problems faced by the world in 2010. Chapters covered the inter-related challenges of climate change, resource and water scarcity, dwindling “easy” energy supplies, food security, waste, biodiversity, buildings, “growth” economics, cities and local government, exurban sprawl, human health and psychology, education, societal resilience, population and transportation.

Unlike other books that may be easily filed under “Gloom and Doom,” authors in the Post Carbon Reader including Richard Heinberg, Bill McKibben, Erika Allen, David Orr, Stephanie Mills, Wes Jackson, and Sandra Postel
made sure to explore positive paths laden with solution examples.

As Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute (and founder of the Worldwatch Institute) put it, “The Post Carbon Reader is an invaluable primer, resource and textbook. This is what you need to know, period.”  Since its release eight weeks ago, the book is in its second printing from Watershed Media/ University of California Press.

9. Cancun Accord a small step forward

At the Cancun, Mexico, United Nations conference on climate change, representatives from 192 countries pledged to help developing nations mitigate and adapt to climate change with a $100 billion fund announced for 2020. The United Nations and host country Mexico emerged as successful in bringing together the negotiations. Unlike the Copenhagen gathering, Cancun did not attract heads of state. But maybe that’s precisely why it was considered more successful than Copenhagen’s climate conference.

10. ICLEI announces STAR pilot sustainability program for communities

ICLEI USA, part of an international organization that works with cities and counties on sustainability programs, announced in November a 2012 pilot program called the STAR Community Index. The membership local government advocacy organization, which had promoted its STAR Index since 2007-2008 as coming out in 2010, did release 81 sustainability goals and 10 guiding principles for STAR.

ICLEI has made it clear that STAR is a sustainability rating system for communities, not a ranking system. Its delay for releasing the STAR rating system, which it sees as a US Green Building Council LEED-like rating for communities (USGBC is a partner for STAR, along with the National League of Cities and the Center for American Progress), has been attributed to management volatility as well as the incredibly ambitious scope of STAR.

In addition to ranking green buildings, infrastructure and other environmental, quality of life and energy attributes, ICLEI plans on using STAR to measure and rate city or community “poverty prevention and alleviation,” “social cohesion,” “government transparency,”  “industry sector development and revitalization,” “employment opportunity,” “financial literacy,” “arts and culture” and dozens of other categories.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the
Post-Carbon Institute, strategic adviser to the Institute for Strategic Resilience and co-author of
a forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and management. 



Vision for Sustainability, Resiliencey by Post Carbon Institute

What will we do post growth, post cheap energy, post resource abundance and post climate change? The Post Carbon Institute (PCI) convened its first meeting of Fellows this weekend in Berkeley to address these concerns. Many there and elsewhere have argued that these transformational changes are already becoming evident.

PCI Fellow Bill Rees, the co-originator of the Ecological Footprint, captured the mood of the group best when he said, “We have to adapt to the change rather then repress the change.”

The Institute’s Fellows were gathered by PCI from a wide variety of fields: energy, transportation, population, food/ agriculture, building and development, economics, social justice, education, urban issues, health, climate, biodiversity and water. The event marked a maiden face-to-face (and virtual) voyage to examine the brave new waters of the 21st century. About 25 of PCI’s 29 Fellows participated.

PCI Fellows Retreat, David Brower Center, Berkeley (Post Carbon Institute photo)

Asher Miller, PCI’s executive director set the table for the three-day event. “Facing such daunting issues, we can either: 1) pack up and go home; 2) be a witness to history; 3) save what we can, which I call the Noah’s Ark approach; or 4) work as hard as we can, and go as big as can go. Collectively we can come up with one thing, or do lots of things–we don’t know which one will bring the best results.”

The group of Fellows up until this point has been focused on producing a book (cover pictured above) of essays and case studies that will be released by University of California Press with Watershed Media in July, The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises.

The Berkeley retreat focused on developing connective tissue among Fellows through facilitated exercises, planning and presentations. Some highlights–or lowlights–as many of the participants (myself included)  could be accused of being bearers of bad news:

Richard Heinberg, the Senior Fellow whose extensive work (The Party’s Over, Blackout, Peak Everything) has provided a nexus for PCI while helping define “Peak Oil” thinking, has spoken to world leaders from Congress to European Parliament.

“I have nothing to show for all my presentation to political leaders,” Heinberg said. “Anyone who questions the concept of growth is shunted off.”

Erika Allen, Chicago manager for Growing Power, a national land trust that provides access to healthy local food in disadvantaged communities, explored a scenario where food supplies are cut off because of an energy supply disruption or other crisis. “We’ve been preparing around the principles of providing seven days of food for Chicago–what systems are in place to respond? We need to be able to grow food on concrete and on the tops of buildings.”

The issue of sustainable agriculture, both urban and rural, was an overall emergent issue of the weekend, with talismanic Wes Jackson, founder and director of The Land Institute, providing an urgent view into a survival system that has been taken for granted.

“In the long run, soil is more important than oil,” Jackson said, citing research that soil carbon concentrations in US have been halved since non-indigenous settlement, from 6 percent to 3 percent, because of poor conservation and industrial practices.

Grave consequences for climate-change influenced mass migrations were forecast by Brian Schwartz, a Johns Hopkins professor in public health. “Moving populations (because of climate change) will be very bad for society, the environment and health in every aspect.”

Chris Martenson’s The Crash Course presentation examined unsustainable levels of US debt, uncovering shocking new snapshots on the historic level of government and personal debt after a decade with zero job growth.

Martenson, a former corporate executive, later confessed that there are emerging opportunities in certain investments, job sectors and geographic areas. He was also optimistic about the can-do nature of Americans: “Give people something to do, and they’ll put it together with joy and creativity, such as the Burning Man village.”

Similarly, Rob Hopkins, the originator of the Transition Town movement, reported from the UK via Skype video (he gave up flying three years ago) that the effort to form locally organized community resilience around food, energy, construction and culture is rapidly multiplying in global locations. “It’s spreading very, very fast, with new Transition Towns in Chile, Sweden, Canada, Italy and Australia.”

“With resilience, we see an opportunity to take a shock and then make a step by the community in the right direction so it can advance itself,” Hopkins said of the 300-plus transition initiatives. “Our role isn’t to manage a lot of projects, but to support projects as they emerge.”

Other Fellows presenting included author Bill McKibben (The End of Nature and, Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, and Rees, a professor at the University of British Columbia. Joe Brewer, founder and director of communications strategy consultancy Cognitive Policy Works, also led sessions on communications and messaging.

The results of the event included a forthcoming mission statement that was co-authored by nine different groups. My group on cities also consisted of Johns Hopkins professor Schwartz, City University of New York professor (and former New York City green building standard originator) Hillary Brown, and transportation expert Anthony Perl, author of Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil.

We contributed concepts around “bioregionally grounded human communities” based on non-automotive transportation options, human-scaled neighborhoods and regionally produced sustainable food and energy. 

Groups also prepared proposals for collaboration and post-event project action, including a Resiliency Preparedness Kit; a communications strategy and roll-out plan; a regional sustainable agriculture investment model for production, processing and urban distribution; and a PCI-informed community development prototype approach for both domestic (Oberlin, Ohio) and international (most likely India or China) communities.

“We need to foster experimentation, re-localization,and  differentiation in our redundancies and behavior,” said PCI executive director Miller. “Simple living can make us happier and can tap into the long history of humans as a species.”

Warren Karlenzig is president
of Common Current, an
internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author
How Green is Your
City? The SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post Carbon


Post Carbon Institute Uses Expert Network to Take on Climate, Energy and Community Challenges


Tonight the Post Carbon Institute (PCI), a California-based think tank addressing sustainability issues associated with climate change, peaking resources and community resiliency, kicks off a three-day gathering with its Fellows (of which I am one) in Berkeley.

The Institute was founded in 2003, largely around the issue of peaking oil and energy supplies. Author Richard Heinberg (The Party’s Over, Peak Everything) was the group’s first Senior Fellow. Heinberg has been now joined by 28 other Fellows, and this is their first gathering.

From an initial focus on peaking energy resources and their potential impacts, PCI now addresses multiple areas and issues including climate change, consumption/ waste, communities, economies, ecology, education, energy, food/ agriculture, government, health, social justice, population, water, transportation.

Eighteen of those who are coming to Berkeley (five will join in remotely) to address how our government, society, communities and different industry sectors can prepare better for the system-based or “wicked problems” that climate change, peaking energy supplies and global recession present.

Participants will include:

  • David Orr (author and professor Oberlin College)
  • David Fridley (energy efficiency and renewables expert, Lawrence Berkeley National Labs)
  • Chris Martenson (“Crash Course” economist)
  • Josh Kaufmann (US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest Labs)
  • Michael Bomford (food and energy scientist, Kentucky University)
  • Sandra Postel (author, director Global Water Policy Project)
  • Tom Whipple (energy expert, former CIA analyst)
  • Zenobia Barlow (author, director Center for Ecoliteracy)
  • Bill Sheehan (consumption and waste expert, Product and Policy Institute)
  • Gloria Flora (public lands expert, director Sustainable Obtainable Solutions)
  • Erika Allen (urban agriculture expert, manager Growing Power)
  • Anthony Perl (author, transportation expert and professor, Simon Frazier University)
  • Hillary Brown (partner, New Civic Works, founder NYC Office Sustainable Design)
  • Stephanie Mills (author, bio-regionalism expert)
  • Wes Jackson (author, founder/ president The Land Institute)
  • William Ryerson (director Population Media Center)
  • Brian Schwartz (public health expert, professor Johns Hopkins University)
  • Bill Rees (community resilience expert, author, University British Columbia)
  • David Hughes (energy expert, geoscientist for Canadian Geological Survey)
  • Warren Karlenzig (urban expert, author, president Common Current)

Other participants that will join in remotely include authors Michael Shuman, Josh Farley, Bill McKibben and Richard Douthwaite, Transition Town movement originator Rob Hopkins; Johns Hopkins’ Cindy Parker.

Look for my report next week on the outcome of this historic gathering.


Death of Sprawl, Part 2: How Exurban Meltdown helped bring down the US Economy

(photo copyright Los Angeles Times)

Evidence that speculative auto-dependant sprawl was one of the major factors behind the Great Recession is emerging through real estate market studies of major US metro areas, from Washington DC to Southern California.

Note the New York Times on November 6 (p.A13):

New research about the recession has also bolstered one of transit’s
central premises — that highway-driven sprawl is bad for a city’s
economic health. Recent studies at the University of Utah, for example, concluded that foreclosure rates in the Washington area were much lower in counties served by the Metro rail system,
compared with the next ring of counties farther out, and that home
prices in Phoenix had also fallen in direct proportion to the distance
from downtown. 

A new report I wrote for the Post Carbon Institute (link to pdf) includes the case of Victorville, California, a virtually 100 percent auto-dependent city of 107,000 that grew from 64,000 in 2000. Real estate prices started to crash in this Mojave desert community in 2006 when gas hit $2 a gallon. Victorville is now one of the foreclosure capitals of the nation, as home prices fell from an average of well over $325,000 in 2007 to under $125,000 in 2009.

Source: (11/09)

The market was so decimated that large new homes, some might call them
McMansions, were demolished in Victorville (see photo at beginning of post) earlier this year to free
the city from liability resulting from possible vandalism, crime and
fire danger.

As gas prices hit $3 and $4 a gallon, people couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars of extra gas expenses that were required to commute to the Los Angeles area, which is almost 100 miles away. As a result, home prices crashed, foreclosures proliferated, developers went bankrupt, and the city and the region are now suffering. At the same time, San Bernardino County was successfully sued by the California Attorney General’s office for allowing development in its communities, such as Victorville, with disregard for global climate change and regional air pollution.

Similar imploding exurban real estate prices started the 2007-2009 national foreclosure crisis, with these toxic assets setting off the derivatives financial meltdown and, you know the rest…

Victorville is by no means an isolated example. The amount of suburban and exurban development that occurred in the 1990s and early 2000s when fuel prices hit their historic low prices (see graph below) has created a massive expanse of excess houses and infrastructure requiring untold resources to build and maintain.


Largely because of such sprawl, stimulated by inexpensive gas prices and a lack of local government controls, California’s main source of greenhouse gases come from the transportation sector.

Clearly it’s time for the focus on “green cities” to expand outward to greening the suburbs and the exurbs, because that’s where the majority of our nation’s population resides. Though 80 percent of the nation lives in urban (developed) areas, only 20 percent of those “urbanites” live in big cities. About 60 percent of US population lives in metro area ‘burbs of under 100,000. 
During the last three years, outer-suburban or exurban areas lost far more value than real estate in urban or suburban areas served by public transit with walkable, bikeable and mixed-use zoning options as my report and others, such as Prof. Arthur C. Nelson’s at the University of Utah, are demonstrating.

This is the first time in US history that sprawled low-density suburbs or exurbs have fallen faster in average value than city or inner-suburban areas; suddenly “Smart Growth” is more than a niche market or trend–it will be at the core of financially successful planning and development.

Greater density with non-auto mobility options is going to dominate development as long as we have climate change, volatile resource availability (particularly water) and high gas prices. In addition to economics, there are demographics. The nation’s dramatically aging population consists of more single people, retired couples and empty-nesters who want apartments or condos from which they can walk, bike and ride buses or use subways and light rail. 

The redesign of suburbs and exurbs will require some painful Victorville-type actions that may waste resources, such as tearing down certain neighborhoods or homes. There are other options, however. Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson demonstrate design examples in their excellent 2009 book, Retrofitting Suburbia.

Not all future metro areas need to follow the hub-and-spoke format with central cities and their suburbs. Metro areas might consider, for instance, designing growth and transit corridors around multiple regional centers of economic activity, which was the aim of the Los Angeles area’s Compass Blueprint.

California’s anti-sprawl Senate Bill 375 is the nation’s first such statewide measure. It now is being guided by an official strategic growth process, which is being led by a council with modeling tools for preferred scenarios developed by Calthorpe Associates, transit-oriented development champion Peter Calthorpe’s Berkeley, CA firm.   

On a more granular level, cul-de-sacs, which are impediments to non-automotive mobility, can be re-engineered to accommodate more direct walking and biking access.

Some innovative buyers are devising ways to use the glut of unoccupied or unsold large homes for business or residential purposes other than single-family living. Based on major shifts in market demand, home builders are downsizing and are constructing more energy-efficiently.

The days of plowing productive agricultural areas under for suburban home tracts and strip malls may be coming to an end. A Denver suburban home developer is incorporating working agricultural land into unsold tract home land plots in numerous communities, in what is being billed as “Agriburbia.”

Clearly, energy efficiency, greenhouse gas emission reduction and resource conservation are becoming guiding factors for much more than regulatory and environmental compliance, they are beginning to dictate the very economies upon which our metro regions operate.

We must now rethink how to develop our communities so that sprawl does not re-emerge, and relegate it to history, as an oddity from the era when gas was cheap, the climate was forgiving and resources were seemingly endless. 

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current,
a consultancy based in San Anselmo, California with international
projects on urban sustainability strategy and metrics. He is a Fellow at the
Post-Carbon Institute and author of How Green is Your City?: The SustainLane US City Rankings.




Death of Sprawl


Los Angeles Times photo

Sprawl is dead: That’s the takeaway of a new report analyzing how toxic exurban real estate started the US economy on its downward spiral. Metro regions and developers are picking up the pieces and are vowing, “never again.

The unchecked trend of US exurbanization was one of the major factors setting off the beginning of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, according to a new research paper published by the Post Carbon Institute investigating the relationship of sprawled, completely car-dependent communities to real estate risk as well as to climate change and ecosystems.

Besides the inherent threats to climate change and dwindling resources, exurban development during the past decades put the United States in a vulnerable economic position when steadily rising gas prices in 2004-2005 began their march toward $4-5 a gallon in mid 2008. 

The research paper argues that many suburbs and most exurbs, which constitute the vast majority of urbanized areas in the United States, have been building up an infrastructure of complete auto dependence, which threatens the climate through multiple forms of inefficient energy, food and resource use.

Despite the emerging “green” urbanism trend, which can be found in a number of North American cities, unplanned exurban growth must be addressed and managed more efficiently, or the economy will face further severe national real estate shocks as oil prices rise again.

California’s Senate Bill 375 is the first statewide anti-sprawl measure, and similar regulation and related regional planning processes will need to occur on a national basis to systemically reduce the combined risks of exurban development and financial speculation. 

The following is an excerpt from my complete paper, a publication pre-release of the “Roadmap for the Transition” series.


In April 2009–just when people thought things
couldn’t get worse in San Bernardino County, California–bulldozers demolished
four perfectly good new houses and a dozen others still under construction in
Victorville, 100 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles.

The structures’
granite countertops and Jacuzzis were removed first. Then the walls came down
and the remains were unceremoniously scrapped. A woman named Candy Sweet came
by the site looking for wood and bartered a six-pack of cold Coronas for some
of the splintered two-by-fours. For a boomtown in one of the fastest-growing
counties in the United States, things were suddenly looking pretty bleak…

The recent decline of Victorville and other
“boomburbs” may well prove to be the last gasp of the United States’
decades-long suburban/exurban development frenzy. We will be absorbing or
trying to erase the unwanted surplus of this end-of-the-twentieth-century
building spree for years, if not decades. In the meantime, exurban communities
in general–and Victorville in particular–will face a daunting set of short term
and long term challenges as the 21st century shapes up to be very
different than the world they were built for…

Within the United States, existing metropolitan
areas can be retrofitted to take advantage of breakthroughs in sustainability
and efficiency technologies, as well as new financial incentives.

The American
Recovery and Re-investment Act of 2009 has provided some funding for the
energy-efficient redesign of our buildings and our means of transportation. But
much more ambitious projects need to be undertaken to retrofit our communities
not only for energy efficiency, but to build their overall resilience.

Fortunately, a foundation for this work already
exists. Barely ten years ago, “green buildings,” downtown streetcars, urban
farms, car-sharing companies, high-quality bicycle infrastructure and other
physical features now associated with urban sustainability were found only in a
handful of North American cities. Today, they are popping up everywhere.

cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are actively trying to
“out-green” each other, while smaller cities like Boulder, Colorado, and
Alexandria, Virginia are rolling out their own localized sustainability solutions.

Some communities have taken early steps toward protecting their surrounding
agricultural lands, or “foodsheds,” from well-established regional plans and
policies in Portland, Oregon to San Francisco’s 2009 comprehensive local food
. Cities are starting to realize that they can’t just “grow smarter”–they
have to fundamentally remake themselves to be resilient for the unprecedented
economic, social, and environmental challenges of the 21st century.

Some metro areas rethinking themselves for resilience
have simultaneously become home to “clean tech” centers with significantly high
job growth rates. Clean tech clusters are emerging in the San Francisco Bay
Area, Boston, and Austin, as well as in some less-expected locations; in
Toledo, Ohio, for instance, more than 4% of all jobs are now in research,
development and manufacturing for solar energy
. Other key areas of future job
growth are in green building and landscaping, water conservation technologies,
low-carbon materials design and advanced transportation…

If the “Great Recession” of 2008-2009 taught us
anything, it was that allowing the unrestrained sprawl of energy-inefficient
communities and infrastructure is not a sustainable economic development
strategy; rather, it is a recipe for continued disaster on every level.

Twentieth century-style sprawl has destroyed valuable farmland, sensitive
wildlife habitat, and irreplaceable natural water supply systems at great environmental,
economic, and social cost. We can no longer manage and develop our communities
with no regard for the natural resources and ecological systems that provide
our most basic needs.

What lessons emerge from metropolitan areas that
have begun to plan for the future by building their resilience with economic,
energy, and environmental uncertainty in mind?

  • Build
    and re-build denser and smarter.
    Suburban and urban population
    densities need to increase so that energy-efficient transportation choices
    like public transit, bicycling and walking can flourish. Multi-modal
    mobility cannot succeed at the densities found in most American suburban
    and urban communities today. Increasing density doesn’t have to mean
    building massive high-rises: adding just a few more stories on existing or
    new mixed-use buildings can double population density–and well-designed,
    increased density can also improve community quality of life and economic
    vitality. Resource-efficient building technologies, as certified by the US
    Green Building Council’s Leadership in Environment and Energy (LEED) or
    the US EPA’s Energy Star rating, can be retrofitted for existing building
    stock and mandated for all new construction.
  • Focus
    on food.
    (whether in backyards, community parks, or in and on top of buildings) may
    supplement people’s diets with fresh local produce–but urban areas need to
    think big and plan systemically for significantly increased food
    production. In many Asian cities and towns–even big cities like Seoul,
    South Korea, the size of New York–there are thriving small farms
    interspersed within metro areas. Growing and processing more food for
    local consumption bolsters regional food security and provides jobs while
    reducing the energy, packaging and storage needed to transport food to
    metro regions.
  • Focus
    on water.
    freshwater supply is one of our the most vulnerable resources in the
    United States. Water vulnerability is no longer just a problem for
    Southwestern desert cities–communities in places like Texas, Georgia and
    even New Jersey have recently had to contend with water shortages. As
    precipitation patterns become less reliable and underground aquifers and mountain snowpack dry
    up, more and more communities will need to significantly reduce water
    demand through conservation, restrictions and “tiered pricing.”
  • Think
    in terms of systems.
    If we think of our
    urban areas as living, breathing entities–each with a set of basic and
    more specialized requirements–we can better understand how to transform
    our communities from random configurations into dynamic, high-performance
    systems of resilience. The “metabolism” of urban systems depends largely on
    how energy, water, food, materials, labor and knowledge are used (and
    reused, where possible), or metabolized. From these ingredients and
    processes come products, services, and–if the system is efficient–minimal
    waste and pollution…

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, a consultancy based in San Anselmo, California with international projects on urban strategy and metrics. He is a Fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and author of How Green is Your City?: The SustainLane US City Rankings.