For Release Sunday, November 16, 2008
Timing is everything.
As architects, planners, journalists, and city and nonprofit leaders gathered at the University of Philadelphia last week for the conference “Re-Imagining Cities: Urban Design after the Age of Oil,” the staggering challenges of our time prompted a subdued mood.
The gathering marked the 50th anniversary of the same conference attended by Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford and many others to chart a course of the urban future; this time around, Elizabeth Kolbert, Robert Socolow, Andrew Revkin, Alex Steffen, William J. Mitchell, David Orr, Harrison Fraker and many others, including Neal Peirce, sought to piece together what was needed to get us out of climate-change, peak-oil, financial-meltdown mess.
They could take comfort in the fact that a leader is about to take office who says he is serious about all these issues. President-elect Barack Obama has vowed to act on climate change, bringing the U.S. in from the sidelines after eight long years. He has promised to end dependence on oil and support renewable energy. And he seems to recognize that cities and metropolitan regions will play a crucial role, in these challenges but also as centers of innovation, economic activity, and housing opportunities, and that they deserve support.
But everyone at this conference and all environmentalists and urbanists everywhere have the same question shared by so many Americans: how in the world is he going to do it all?
The crisis in the financial markets, big business tailspins, the downturn in the economy and rising unemployment are all clearly the first priority. He’s got a budget, a deficit, national debt and two wars to worry about, to say nothing of health care and Social Security.
It’s clear the new president and his team intend to walk and chew gum at the same time. Any economic stimulus plan will include investments in cities and infrastructure and the new energy economy that is envisioned in our post cheap-oil, post-carbon future–the so-called “green New Deal.” For example, a bailout of the automakers could include a fundamental re-engineering of the business plan to include full emphasis on hybrids, electrics, hydrogen.
The brightest light on the horizon may be the promised White House Office of Urban Policy, which takes a cue from the smart growth movement of coordinating multiple themes–housing, transportation, energy, environment–under one roof. Cities represent a big part of America’s green and economic future: dense, walkable, compact, and based around transit. But managing big cities is increasingly difficult, as New York, Philadelphia, and others make dramatic budget cuts. Cities are looking to Washington for a coherent metropolitan policy, something that has also been missing for the last eight years. They crave cooperation on things like green-building retrofits.
Transportation and infrastructure will be key. One of the first tests for the new administration will be to confront the highway lobby and push for transit in the upcoming SAFETEA-LU reauthorization. Transportation is the lynchpin for the post-carbon future of American cities, like the Interstate Highway Act 50 years ago, as the group Transportation for America is trying to make clear.
Many groups, including the Regional Plan Association and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, have been posing the question of whether we need a national plan for infrastructure, organized around megaregions like the Boston-to-Washington corridor. There’s no doubt a $150 billion plan for 21st century infrastructure–rail, energy, water, repairing roads but not building new ones–would translate into jobs and serious investment.
But it’s also the point where one has to ask: where is the money going to come from?
The issue of money raises troubling questions about the president-elect’s climate policy as well. The Warner-Lieberman cap-and-trade legislation, the first step towards a new regulatory regime over greenhouse gas emissions and putting a price on carbon, will be reconsidered in 2009. But it means higher energy prices, as the energy system in the US evolves from coal and oil to renewable energy sources like solar and wind. That’s a hard thing to ask of middle-class Americans in this economy.
The planet’s big GHG emissions culprits need to stabilize emissions within five years and then do the hard work to get the trend line heading down–and even then many parts of the world will suffer from inevitable warming.
I’m a big believer in the “silver buckshot” theory on climate change–that it is no one policy but a bunch of them, integrated, that will make a difference. A new day on transportation, infrastructure, energy and urban policy will be welcome. But most believe there’s no way to reduce emissions without putting a price on carbon.
Politicians like to talk about going in to “clean up the mess” in Washington. In this case, the wreckage and debris is everywhere. The climate and energy challenge requires a paradigm shift and a fundamental systems change–and quickly. It will be expensive and painful. It may be too much to ask for the first 100 days, the first year, and perhaps even the new president’s entire first term.
Anthony Flint is a Boston-based writer at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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