Earth Day 2014 - The Time for Livable Cities is NOW!

By Kai Bates – IMCL Urban Design Consultant

In April 1990, there was a global resurgence of environmentalism around the events of Earth Day 1990. There was a great deal of positive energy, youthful enthusiasm and passion about the environment at that time, which transformed many (including myself) into environmentalists. Many of us became strong advocates for recycling; water, energy, and natural conservation; and trying to figure out ways to reduce the harm that we as a species have been causing to the Earth.

John Denver performing at the Earth Day 1990 concert in Washington, DC. Photo: John Platt

Fast forward 20 years, we have all suffered through the Great Recession and seen firsthand how suburban development led to economic collapse (I, too, lost my suburban home), and we have come to realize that the system was even more broken than we thought. Now, we know we have to do something about it.

There is a growing movement of environmental awareness through organizations such as 350.org and the Natural Resources Defense Council, increasing warnings from more frequent and more powerful natural disasters, and urgent calls to action from numerous books and movies. We realize that we need to act NOW and we need to act decisively!

On March 30th of this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a powerful report that calls upon all of humanity to act now or risk irreversible damage to the planet and the human species. The IPCC report confirmed that the effects of climate change are already occurring globally, that they are caused by human activity, and that they will continue to get worse unless significant reductions are made to greenhouse gas emissions.

Several weeks later, the IPCC followed up with a report on the measures that need to be taken to avoid climate catastrophe. The report calls for emissions cuts of 40% to 70% by 2050 to address the climate change problem and to prevent it from becoming unmanageable. The report describes numerous actions that need to be taken immediately in the areas of energy, transportation, development, policy, and many more. Since I am coming from an urban planning/urban design perspective, I want to focus on what can be done in the areas of development and transportation.

Share of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by End-Use Sector. Source: EPA

When it comes to development, we know that commercial and residential buildings contribute to 34% of greenhouse gas emissions. And, we have known for some time now (check out studies from Smart Growth America and the Transportation Research Board) that compact, mixed-use development leads to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, we know that transportation is the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., making up 27% of emissions, just slightly behind industry which constitutes 28%. We also know that public transportation, bicycling, and, of course, walking lead to dramatically lower emissions.

However, while we generally know what needs to be done, we need to make sure people are aware of the urgent need to act, that we don’t go in the wrong direction, and that the changes we implement in our cities focus on improving quality of life and livability for people while simultaneously addressing climate change.

With all of that in mind on this Earth Day, let us encourage cities to do the following:

In terms of urban development, in addition to creating compact, mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhoods, make sure that we are also maintaining a human scale and that we are building places that are livable, beautiful, lovable, comfortable, affordable, green, and healthy and that contribute to a high quality of life for everyone, particularly children and the elderly. It is also vital that urban development includes thriving parks and public spaces where people can interact. And, while we’re at it, let’s add some color like this and this, too!

Vibrant public space and human-scale, mixed-use development in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: Kai Bates

When it comes to transportation, we must focus on creating transportation networks that emphasize public transportation, bicycling, and walking and that provide safe, affordable, easy to use access to places where people want to go. Transportation needs to be thought of and developed in terms of networks and mobility hubs that weave throughout the city and interact, integrate, and function in a way that is as convenient and people-friendly as possible. Just as with urban development, transportation needs to work for everyone – young and old alike – and not just those who use automobiles. Since automotive transportation has such an enormous impact on the city in terms of air quality and noise pollution, it is crucial that cities use strategies such as low-emission zones, congestion pricing, and anti-idling laws to further enhance urban quality of life. And, let’s not forget that public transportation needs to be powered by clean renewable energy.

Streetcars, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and human-scale development in Freiburg, Germany. Photo: Kai Bates

If our efforts to mitigate climate change are done properly, cities of all sizes can not only be leaders in doing so, they can also become places of great joy, excitement, innovation, culture, and beauty that everyone can benefit from!

Let’s make NOW the time for livable cities!