Post-Peak Land Use Part 1: Ecocities

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By Josh Dolan

[This is the first part of a two-part series. Post-Peak Land Use Part 2: The Country will appear in two weeks. As usual, we invite your comments. A Land use glossary explains some of the terms used in these articles.]

As we build, so shall we live. — Richard Register

As we look for answers to the twin crises of peak oil and climate change, as well as the widespread symptoms of social decay and collapse such as elevated crime, degraded communities, and broken families, urban design and land use must be one of the central ways that we reform our way of life if we hope to survive. Carbon-neutral cities and towns have the potential to heal our broken culture and create a more desirable, more comfortable, more creative, more healthy, and less stressful civilization. By rethinking and redeveloping our cities, towns, and villages, we can put more people back in touch with the land while freeing them from the shackles of car culture.

Ecocity Principles

The ecocity concept is changing the dialog between the social justice and environmental movements; one ideal must not necessarily be sacrificed for the other. The ecocity movement offers many tools and formulations which can serve to drastically reduce our physical footprint on the earth and thus our carbon footprint. In both the rural setting and the urban, these concepts can be used to create a more fulfilling life for people of all means and backgrounds and greater flexibility in terms of lifestyle choices, residential choices, occupational choices, and transportation choices. Three key principles underlie this shift.

Principle 1: Reversal of the transportation infrastructure hierarchy



In order to fully take responsibility for energy security, we must look at one of our major uses of energy: transportation. Private automobiles are the primary means of transportation and by far the most inefficient. By creating conditions in our built environment favorable to walking, biking, and public transportation and by restricting access to private autos, we can take back our public space and reduce our energy consumption significantly.

Auto restrictions have successfully transformed many cities into healthier and wealthier communities. Limited auto access neighborhoods use barriers, parking restrictions, traffic calming, and slow streets to reduce car travel. Narrower streets save money and resources used in their upkeep, are safer by slowing traffic, use less land that could be used as public space or for growing food, reduce runoff, hold less heat and thereby reduce air conditioning, and allow for a greater sense of community ownership. An initiative to reduce paving and parking can facilitate this transition, and tradable depaving credits for private businesses and residents are a useful tool to further this change.

A citywide 20mph speed limit both saves fuel and creates safer conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists. Pedestrian areas can demarcate neighborhood centers and can be used as a tool to strengthen the local economy. This will become necessary for continued access to essential goods and services as the failed big box-model of business breaks down. Car-free housing can save residents money and further reduce the total number of cars in the city, also reducing the need for on-street parking. As fuel prices rise, Ithaca residents will continue to seek formal and informal car-sharing arrangements. Minibuses, delivery vehicles, car co-ops, and electric cars and trucks allow flexibility in moving materials and in the transportation of elders and car-free residents. Tax breaks for car-free living and car sharing make economic sense, especially if the city is able to receive carbon credits for these practices.

As much as we reduce car use, we need to increase access to other ways of getting around. Non-motorized modes such as walking, biking, skating, pedicabs, and cargo bikes should get the priority. Where bike facilities are improved, ridership increases greatly, so every effort should be made to allow access to both urban and rural residents to these facilities. Next comes fixed rail transit powered by renewable energy; personal rapid transit, trolleys, light rail, and traditional heavy rail are all forms that this change could take.

Every effort should be made to restrict the use of private cars in the city. More ways to reduce downtown auto traffic include car/van pools and park-and-riders, which should receive credits from the city. Public transit is subsidized enough to make it more affordable than private cars. Idealy, cars would be taxed if they choose to enter the city center.

Principle 2: Increasing density in walkable centers linked by transit

As the emphasis of our city moves away from car culture, the opportunity arises to change the face of our neighborhoods for the better. The first step is to identify neighborhood and municipal centers that will serve as the nuclei for redevelopment. We can then create specific area plans via a consensus-based planning process. Most medium density areas can be preserved while increasing population in the two to three blocks around centers. Centers themselves can be much denser and more diverse than current neighborhood centers. Clustered businesses and services would line the streets, and essential services would also be easily accessible at street level. Dwelling clusters on the upper floors would put many more people within the new center itself. The public spaces of the center, including the street, would create a maximum of usable, flexible space for neighborhood residents. These neighborhood enhancements demonstrate access by proximity; being there versus getting there.

State Street.
Car-Free State Street. (Drawing by Rob Morache.) A car-free corridor would create a backbone of pedestrian and bycicle connections through the center of the city, melding the West End and Commons into a unified whole. Notice the overhead rail of the PRT (personal rapid transit) system, one possible form that a fixed transit network could take. Infill development in current parking lots as well as added stories would work together to create a much more densly populated downtown within easy walking, biking, and transit distance from anywhere in the city, filling the current need for more affordable housing downtown.

All of these developments would be centered around a transit stop, which would connect the neighborhood with the rest of the city without the need for automobiles. This type of nodal development can only be effective when linked by fixed transit lines. Transit would run throughout the city and connect rural areas along major transit corridors. Although questions exist about how to pay for such a transportation system, we should consider how much we spend collectively on private automobiles, auto infrastructure, repairing the damage done to our bodies and our communities by an auto-centric culture — not to mention oil wars, accounting for cross-cultural costs that can only be estimated.

These improvements can be created mostly by infilling where parking lots currently exist and by enhancing public and semi-public spaces such as front lawns, back yards, and alleys. Existing structures can also be remodeled to accommodate one or two extra floors for commercial spaces, apartments, workshops, etc. Spaces between buildings can be infilled to allow even more diversity of smaller spaces for apartments, studios, offices, etc. Rooftop gardens, cafes, and social spaces can use utilize space that is normally inaccessible and create a more three-dimensional usable space. All of this would be constructed to harmonize with the current built environment.

As the city becomes denser, the amount of walking and cycling to work increases, people are able to work much closer to where they live, and transit ridership increases. Along with the reduced reliance on private cars, air quality in the city will be greatly improved and street congestion will decrease. The dense neighborhood centers can be designed to conserve energy, allow easier recycling and waste management, and allow urban agricultural space. Tools such as the city's comprehensive plan, specific area plans, and neighborhood vision statements can all be used to great effect in shifting development into neighborhood centers. Transfer of Development Rights, or TDR, has also been used effectivly to encourage private developers to build where and what residents want. For more on TDR, see

Principle 3: Urban cooperative blocks, eco-hoods, and village clusters

The last key principle of ecocity and energy descent crosses from the physical sphere into the social. Urban cooperative blocks, or eco-hoods, are the reconfigured neighborhoods of a low-energy future. Some of the main features of the cooperative block are the common house, common yards and gardens, common parking, common cooking and eating areas, and toolshares. Through resource sharing, cooperative neighborhoods are able to reduce energy consumption while maintaining their relative level of comfort, creating and deepening community structures. There are many models for achieving more cooperation and thus energy savings in neighborhoods, including condominium corporations, non-profit groups, mutual housing associations, limited equity cooperatives, community land trusts, and more anarchic and informal cooperative living situations.

Other ways exist to increase cooperation in neighborhoods. One significant way to build community is to take down fences in backyards to free up more area for other uses. Much wasted space that could be used for growing food and community uses is locked away in the back yards of our cities and largely forgotten. By removing these physical barriers, we also remove some of the psychological barriers that prevent neighbors from approaching each other. Traditional urban design elements that focus on the community, including the zocolo or the piazza, can be forged from the newly freed spaces and allow for natural cooperation and togetherness. Vacant and underused lots can also be transformed into community spaces such as playgrounds and gardens. It must be shown that these changes will benefit residents, encouraging them to take part in the transformation. Tax breaks for urban gardens, city monies for new public spaces, and neighborhood-based celebrations are just some of the possible incentives to induce these changes. We must create sites that demonstrate these innovations now so that people can see the advantages and learn to create them in their own back yards.

Here are some other ideas for creating deeper community connections and energy savings:

Eco parks. Parks can be transformed with the addition of multi-use buildings, community gardens, edible landscaping, bike street and transit connections, and natural wastewater treatment and drainage. In addition, underused public and private spaces can be converted to pocket parks. These should be as diverse as the neighborhoods which they inhabit and should include BBQs, playgrounds, smaller community gardens, basketball courts, and other multi-use facilities. Major parks, such as Stewart Park, the City Golf Course, Washington Park, Cascadilla Gorge, etc., could each have their own theme.

Neighborhood consultas. Neighborhood grassroots governance, planning, and education. Facilitation training, consensus planning, charrette-style development planning, classes and internships for teens and low-income residents, eco-hood programs.

Intersection repairs. Piazzas can be created to calm traffic and create community space. Using natural building and public art, intersections become community spaces that knit together the physical space of a neighborhood. Each neighborhood designs and builds its own piazzas.

Green clubs. Building community and greening the neighborhood; stream stewards, tree-lawn gardeners, community garden co-ops, sew green, mutual aid networks, green workers co-ops, bike clubs, food preservation groups, social clubs, reading and learning circles.

Greenstreets and bikestreets. A network of pedestrian-only greenstreets can take advantage of underused inter-block areas. The greenstreets should connect neighborhood commercial centers, ecoparks, pocket parks, and community gardens. Bikestreets can network between all neighborhoods and parks, providing a sustainable and easy transit mode within reach of all residents. Bikeways should spread out in all directions from the city. All transit connections should have bicycle lockups, bike racks, and special service for bikers to surrounding towns. Example: Cascadilla greenway.

Neighborhood CSAs. To produce a maximum amount of food, open areas should be managed by a neighborhood CSA: a loose coalition of gardeners, urban farmers, and youth program participants. Fruit and nut trees, berry-producing shrubs and canes, and other produce can be planted on every block, in every tree lawn, and in all parks. Connections can also be made with land outside of town that is within walking distance of bus routes and bikeways. Modest housing facilities can enable part-time land access to a wide spectrum of neighborhood residents. Some examples of the neighborhood CSA would be a neighborhood farm at the Ithaca Community Gardens and a neighborhood orchard at the Ithaca Farmer's Market.

Coming next: The Country.

Land use glossary

Land use bibliography

Land use resources




Andy said:

I like your thoughts but I had one thing I disagreed with. "Private automobiles are the primary means of transportation and by far the most inefficient." While automobiles are never going to be a solution since they use too much energy to ever be truly sustainable, they don't have to be nearly as bad as they are now. The typical single-occupancy 20 mile commuter is obviously a bad way to use a car, but pack a more efficient vehicle with 5 people and it becomes a much better use. It can go from 25 people-miles-per-gallon (in a single-occupancy typical American car getting 25mpg) to 250 pmpg (5 people in an efficient 50mpg car) that way, which is an amazing increase. I've always wanted to see highways mandate HOV for the entire highway, not just one lane. That way the people commuting the farthest who are using the highways will either need to put 3+ people in their car or find a closer job.

Andrejs Ozolins said:

Regarding the same passage ("Private automobiles are the primary means of transportation and by far the most inefficient."): At present this is actually not true. I think it's important to recognize that, in the past 60 years, the US has adapted to a private-car world and optimized its role to the point that it actually is the most efficient means of transportation for a large portion of the population. That is, for the millions who live in the American sprawl, public transit is impossibly inefficient; and the distances and loads involved in sustaining a household/employment transportation needs make bicycles and walking impractical. Private cars only become an inefficient choice when people live in proximity to the things and places they need access to; and when they live in sufficient density that public transportation becomes an efficient mode.

Planning for Energy Descent

Some time in the next 30 years, life will start to become very different from what it is now. By mid-century we will use much less energy; we will live every aspect of our life much closer to home; and we will be much poorer in material terms, because energy and wealth are basically the same thing in an industrial society.

Energy descent β€” a radical reduction in our use of energy β€” is certain, but it’s not clear yet which of several factors will cause it to begin. Perhaps we will decide to do the right thing about climate change and reduce our CO2 emissions 80 or 90 percent, which would require changes almost that large in our actual consumption of energy. And there are other ways we might experience a radical reduction in our use of energy; for example, economic collapse, or an expanded war in the middle east. But the factor that makes energy descent a sure thing and sets the theme for this century is "peak oil" β€” the leveling off of global oil production and then its eventual and inexorable decline.

The timing of the peak is debatable, with forecasts ranging from 2005 (that is, already here) to 2030. But most credible estimates agree with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which concluded in a recent study that "world oil production is at or near its peak," and with the director of research at OPEC, who said recently that "we are at, or near, the production peak of world oil, if not on the downward slope."

After the peak, the growing gap between falling world oil production and ever-increasing global demand will send prices skyward, with economic results that can only be imagined but will certainly include greatly restricted mobility due to the high cost of fuel and much higher prices for most goods, including food. The result will be less disposable income, a life lived closer to home, and a greater reliance on the goods and services that can be provided locally. Since the supply of oil and other fossil fuels is finite, this outcome is guaranteed. The only question is, Shall we plan for what we can see coming, or just let it happen to us?

A group of area citizens, TCLocal, has begun planning now. TCLocal contributors are committed to researching various aspects of energy descent in Tompkins County and writing up a preliminary plan for each aspect based on purely local challenges and resources. This is one such plan.

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This page contains a single entry by Simon St.Laurent published on July 15, 2008 9:50 PM.

Water treatment, water power was the previous entry in this blog.

Post-Peak Land Use Part 2: The Country is the next entry in this blog.

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