Toward more sustainable cities, part one

Published Tuesday, November 13, 2013 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

When asked how we can break our society’s addiction to the oil, coal and natural gas that are driving climate change, most people typically think of things like renewable energy or efficient light bulbs.  But there’s an understated strategy in our midst that can greatly reduce the amount of energy we consume and the amount of emissions we generate.  It’s the way we design, build and live in our communities.

Urban efficiency

Today, over half of the people on the planet live in cities, and the UN estimates that that percentage will rise to two-thirds by 2050.  Urbanization is one of the massive demographic shifts of our time.

From an environmental perspective, that’s potentially a good thing, because the carbon footprint of urbanites is typically much smaller than that of ruralites.  The average Torontonian generates half the greenhouse gas emissions of the average Canadian.

But cities hold vast potential for much greater energy savings.  They will be critical players if global emissions are to be reduced enough to stave off runaway climate change. 

Here are some key characteristics of the sustainable, efficient and very liveable city of the future.

Infilled downtowns 

It’s a common perception that today’s urban areas consist of buildings nestled together brick to brick.  In fact, most cities are full of vacant lots and underutilized land like parking lots.  

Infilling, the practice of identifying and developing such spaces, makes sense for several reasons.  First, it nearly eliminates the need for costly new infrastructure because new buildings can tap into water pipes, sewer systems and power lines that already exist.  Secondly, it helps prevent sprawl, where more and more land at the outskirts of a community is permanently lost under concrete, asphalt and lawn.  More and more cities – including Saint John – are recognizing the wisdom of infilling.  

Transit oriented

Public transit is by far the most efficient way to move people in urban areas, and traffic congestion is one of the most egregious examples of our society’s waste – of precious fuel, money, time and human energy.  One in four Canadians spends 90 minutes in a car every day – the equivalent of almost one workday every week.  Just last week Vancouver was named the most traffic congested city in North America.

Unfortunately, most of us choose cars over transit because of barriers like routes, schedules and timelines that don’t match ours, or other factors of convenience.  

In the sustainable city of the future, transit will be the preferred way to get around, because right-sized buses will travel with greater frequency through well planned, high density neighbourhoods.  The buses will be equipped with wireless internet and television screens so riders can turn down time into productive time.  Pickup and dropoff points will better match ours, and transfers will be faster and more convenient.  Buses will ping our smartphone a few minutes before they arrive at our stop so that we can be there and ready to go.  

Most importantly, transit vehicles will have special, exclusive lanes so they can speed past cars stopped in traffic and get us where we are going much faster than a car.  (Probably the single biggest appeal of Saint John Transit’s Comex service in the Kennebecasis Valley is that it gets riders downtown as fast as a car would.)

And beyond all those carrots, sustainable cities would also have a few sticks to promote transit use: fewer parking spaces, higher parking rates and even car-free places.  Already today, many cities around the world have streets, blocks or even zones where cars are not permitted: for example, Sparks Street in Ottawa, parts of Old Quebec and most of Venice, Italy.

For decades, urban design and development have catered to our love of cars, and changing that philosophy won’t be easy – but transit-friendliness is an essential element of any truly sustainable city.

There are many more elements and features of sustainable cities – to be covered in Part Two.