Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Intro to Urbanism, Part Six: Energy Matters

After two posts (here and here) of attempting, with only moderate success, to tackle the murky task of explaining the fiscal justifications for urbanism, I’m moving onto the next, and hopefully easier, task of presenting the environmental justifications.  All the posts are part of my New Year’s “Intro to Urbanism”, an effort to provide an expedited education in the underpinnings of urbanism for those interested in following this blog.  (In addition to the two links above, earlier posts in the series were here, here, and here.)

Energy Matters: One could take one of multiple angles on the environmental question.  Greenfield preservation is one such perspective, with the creation of desirable high density residential settings allowing the preservation of adjoining farmland or recreational green space.

But, perhaps because I spent the first decade of my career in the field of energy generation, I’m going to focus on energy conservation.

We understand the concerns with carbon-based fuels.  Perhaps not everyone is fully accepting of the climate change theory, but most of the remaining discussions are about the scale of the change rather than the reality of it.

(Personally, I’m enough of a scientist to believe in the scientific process and the resulting theories on climate change.  It’s a complex subject, among the most complex ever tackled by humans, so the theories will undoubted be tweaked as we learn more, but the general outlines seem clear.  Plus, whenever I read something by a denier, claiming to have found a hidden flaw in the theory, I’m already familiar with the work of others that calmly and clearly rebuts the contentions.  Lastly, it’s hard to watch king tides, for the first time ever, splash over the walls along the Embarcadero in San Francisco and not believe that something has changed.)

But even non-carbon-based fuels have their environmental impacts, whether the mining of rare minerals for solar panels, the visual and avian issues around windmills, or the still uncertain technology needed to shape the output of new generation sources to conform to consumption patterns.

Using less energy is a good thing.  And urbanism uses less energy.

I often use two particular facts to highlight the energy conservation of urbanism.  My recollection is that both come from “Walkable City” by Jeff Speck, although I could be in error on that point.  The first notes that the average resident in an urbanist setting uses 70 percent less energy, including transportation and home use, than the average drivable suburban resident.  The second notes that the average residents of Manhattan in the 21st century uses about the same amount of gasoline per year as the average American did in the 1920s.

In the way of many statistics, both facts can be a little deceiving, leaving the reader with the task of making mental adjustments.  The average use of urban versus suburban consumers should be subject to a demographic adjustment.  It’s not fair to compare a pensioner living in a downtown SRO to a CEO living in a suburban estate.  And the New York statistic should be adjusted for the fact that many New Yorkers rely on transit, which typically doesn’t use gasoline.

But even with those adjustments, the statistics are sufficiently strong that they still establish the energy conservation potential of urbanism.

Energy-Based Definition of Urbanism: The knowledge about energy and urbanism leads to a possible alternative definition of urbanism.

I recently exchanged emails with an East Bay reader who lives in a city that I recall was conceived as a transit-oriented suburb, but gradually became more car-oriented.  It’s a common land-use form for which some have coined the term “first-ring suburb”.

 As the reader describes her lifestyle, she, to her credit, is living a moderately urban lifestyle, accomplishing many daily tasks on foot or by transit, even while her neighbors are living a more suburban, car-dependent life.

In her email, she expressed discomfort that her friends, who live in places like San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, poke fun at her city.  In the hope that she’s reading today, I’ll suggest that she take pride in her urban lifestyle, even if lived in a less urban place.  (She might even ask to compare incremental odometer readings with her “urban” friends.)

In her email, she posed the question of what makes a place a city.  I halfway ducked the question, noting that city is a legal entity, a subdivision of the state.  Besides, many cities, even metropolises, don't function as good urban places, with Atlanta as a prime example.

However, I suggested that her underlying concern was more about what makes an "effective urban place".  Trying to respond to the question caused me to formulate a different definition of urbanism, this one cast in terms of energy.  I suggest that an effective urban place was a place where the average resident uses less than half the energy, including home and transportation uses and adjusted for demographics, compared to an average resident in a drivable suburban setting.

By that definition, large areas of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, but not all, can be described as urban.  But it’s also possible, and highly desirable, for smaller cities, such as the correspondent’s first-ring suburb or my town of Petaluma, to create neighborhoods that are effective urban places.  Looking at Petaluma in particular, the Station Area and the Fairgrounds are places that could, with the right nurturing, become fine urban places.

I like the energy-based definition, perhaps better than the one I offered a few posts back.  But I’ll continue to ponder it.

When I next return to this Intro to Urbanism, I’ll turn my attention to the physical elements of an effective urban setting.  But that post will be the post after next, as I take my weekly break from the Intro.  Instead, the next post will return to my holiday great streets theme, looking at Yountville and Napa.  I’ll also give an update on the Petaluma Urban Chat conceptual design effort for the possible re-use of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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