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Urban Planning and Climate Change
Urban Planning and Climate Change

AIR DATE: August 14, 2012

Climate scientists say that last month was the hottest July on record. Some urban developers see this as a cue not only to adopt sustainable practices to avoid global warming, but as an opportunity to completely re-evaluate the way cities are designed.

Urban planners are considering how to build city infrastructures that would run on limited resources.  Arizona State University design professor John Meunier suggests that planners of the future look to lessons of the past, including adopting simple strategies like planting more shade trees and building smaller roads that don’t absorb as much solar energy.

Meunier also suggests that civic leaders in Las Vegas and elsewhere resist the urge to copy other cities.

“Developers on the whole tend to look at success modeled in other cities and then import them rather than trying to figure out something fresh that makes sense for their particular situation,” says Meunier. “You really have to look at the local conditions and ask what makes sense in terms of quality of life.”

Matthew Kahn of the Institute of the Environment at UCLA wonders if America’s urban sprawl model will spread to other countries, even as planners in this country tout the environmental and economic value of high-density land use.

“When I visit China I wonder if they will embrace our American dream as they get richer, with all the environmental consequences,” says Kahn. “I’m an optimist that there is diversity in the U.S. Some people embrace the barbeque suburban life, but there are many other people who are flexible in their conception of the good life and adopt low carbon living, and there are many people who will embrace that.”

Lloyd Alter is the editor for Architecture and Design at He agrees with Meunier that we should imitate the way we lived in the past, with walkable streets and smaller houses.

“We don’t need new technology,” says Alter. “We can learn from the people who were there before us.”

Alter thinks that city dwellers of the future won’t resist the downsizing that must occur for communities to run more efficiently.

“People do like their big houses,” says Alter. “People used to like smoking in restaurants too. But things change.”


    comments powered by Disqus
    Of course, sensible design as discussed, is laudable. Extra insulation is cheap for normal homes, and even underground houses should be allowed. That said, let's not make the mistake of getting "planners" involved with mandating what our cities will look like, for *all* planners by definition suffer from what economists call "the pretense of knowledge", i.e. they *think* they know how things should be, but in reality they do not and can not because they are not all-seeing. Free markets and individuals make, on average, much better decisions than central planners. Indeed, central planning is the main failing of socialism.
    Tom HurstAug 14, 2012 14:18:45 PM
    If the city fathers in our city could organize and delegate a north south and east west artery in our not so heavily traveled streets where we could close them to automotive traffic and encourage people to walk, run, bike, moped or any other creative way to travel by horse or even donkeys/ mules and automated andicap wheels, and cover the streets where people have shade and cover from the rain and snow on the cold day, maybe the people would be encouraged to start walking and biking and exercising more, since we do not have an efficient public transportation system, it can set an example for the rest of the country. After all the majority of tourists in our town now like to stroll up and down the nicely populated area of the strip, specially at night but even during the heat of the day. So that means maybe if you build it they will come. The streets are already built now we organize it so we can walk here and there if we wanted to. A street like Alta, or Hacienda, East and West and MLK, Tenaya and Pecos North and South, for example. Worth a try and save on Auto pollution and gas consuption.
    LydiaAug 14, 2012 00:02:48 AM
    One simple observation, Lydia. Every street in this city has sidewalks, and many have some sort of bike lane. If walking, biking or riding a horse were really that convenient, cost- and time-effective, and/or enjoyable, people would already be doing it. But, by and large, they choose not to.
    Tom HurstAug 14, 2012 14:12:49 PM
    Very interesting commentary but startling in that 1)it completely ignored the issue of drought and decreasing supplies of water in the Southwest and 2) it followed the line of the oil companies that we can easily "adapt" to climate change. Yes, we could change the way we build our cities but this will have no effect on the overall effects of climate change, which include droughts, increasing numbers of wildfires, the acidification of the ocean with consequent harm to fish, decreasing food production in the Midwest and globally, more extreme storms, rising sea levels, and the loss of habit for animal life. Even if some of these effects will have no immediate direct effect on Las Vegas, they will have long-term indirect effects as US food production declines and as Las Vegas runs out of water.
    Elspeth WhitneyAug 13, 2012 16:09:25 PM
    Whoa! You cry wolf with one James Hansen non-peer-reviewed paper claiming we're all broiling?

    The summer I moved here in 1994, the temp was 117 on more than a few days. Loughlin went to 125.

    "There's a lot of blowback against James Hansen's recent (non tested) PNAS paper, trying to link weather and climate, covered here on WUWT. Even NOAA scientist Dr. Martin Hoerling is panning it. This from The NYT:

    Dr. Hoerling contended that Dr. Hansen's new paper confuses drought, caused primarily by a lack of rainfall, with heat waves.

    "This isn't a serious science paper, Dr. Hoerling said. "It's mainly about perception, as indicated by the paper's title. Perception is not a science."

    The NYT article

    P.S. I like the guy talking about the European lifestyle.

    JanieAug 13, 2012 09:43:20 AM
    You might want to balance the NYT article with this assessment of Hansen's report:

    Elspeth WhitneyAug 14, 2012 09:11:58 AM
    We need to get past whether climate change is happening or not, and whether it is man-caused or not. Both questions are largely irrelevant in the context of some good work by economist Bjorn Lomborg indicating that to stop it would likely cost 1000x times what it would cost to instead just adapt ourselves to whatever happens. So, yes, even if society could afford to stop it, there is a lot to be said for appropriate architecture, geo-engineering solutions, etc.
    Tom HurstAug 10, 2012 22:30:21 PM
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