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Rebuilding Our Neighborhoods, Rewiring Our Brains: The Carbon-Free ‘Hood

You have a car—why not use it? It’s fast, cheap, easy, and convenient. And, after all, if a retail store or a coffee shop is ten minutes away by car, imagine how long it would take to walk there! If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain. Right?

Well, there’s your answer right there, urban planners. If we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, fight climate change, and end our dependence on foreign (and, heck, domestic) oil, the mountain must come to Muhammad. In other words, get that independent café, anarchist bookstore, and mom and pop hardware store to set up shop right in the heart of your own neighborhood. And then shop there, so they don’t shut their doors within the first year. If you must leave your neighborhood, bike. Use public transportation. These are the solutions we’ll need to start implementing soon to create local resilience and end the culture of the car.

The following is an excerpt from The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit by Stephen and Rebekah Hren. It has been adapted for the Web.

You may be thinking it’s too late for any discussion of urban planning. We’ve thrown in our lot with the automobile and we’ll just have to sink or swim with that decision. The problem, of course, is that cars are very heavy and sink very fast.

Society is ever in flux, and even though we must either wean ourselves from fossil fuels to keep the planet from burning or be forcibly removed from that malevolent teat through depletion, we will not simply watch as everything rots (or tries to, at least, since so much of it is made of nonbiodegradable plastic). In many cases, especially with the vast suburban tracts around many of our cities, we need to use our dynamism to make the most of a bad situation.

Can the situation be rectified? If so, we need to figure out in which direction we want to head. To a large extent, much of the problem is one of regulation and zoning. The dominance of the automobile has created a society that measures access to necessities— shopping, work, and play—in the minutes driven in an automobile rather than the historical norm of in minutes by foot. Almost always it’s the case that when you ask someone how far away something is they will answer with something like, “Oh, about 10 minutes.” Implicit in this answer is that the route is traveled by car. This assumption has allowed neighborhoods developed since the autonomy of the automobile to gauge access to conveniences in miles rather than in yards.

The first reaction to the intertwining problems of global climate disruption and peak fossil energy, then, should be to extirpate the assumption, deeply embedded in almost all of our psyches, that the car is the default mode of transportation. It will immediately follow that all the zoning laws that enshrine that mentality must go. They will need to be rewritten to allow neighborhoods to have a mix of activities on each block: retail, entertainment, restaurants, small farms and manufacturing, childcare, et cetera. If the zoning entanglements that stipulate that retail must all be in this square mile, housing in this other square mile, and work in this other square mile are removed, then individuals, working on their own initiative, will begin disassembling the car-dependent culture that many of us inhabit without the mass razing of tract homes or the destruction of the freeways. Instead, the car culture will be disassembled by reconfiguring our existing infrastructure to provide these amenities closer to our homes, where they are needed and wanted.

Ultimately, we need to focus on (re)creating cities and towns where having an automobile is not a necessity and where our streets give priority to walking, biking, and mass transit before the car. We need to get our political leaders to join us in this effort as soon as possible, so send that e-mail or make that phone call right now. We have seen over the course of the past 60 years that once the necessity of the car is established, it feeds on itself. Once you have a car, why would you not use it? The answer now, of course, is obvious: the destruction of the planet and our enslavement to a diminishing supply of energy owned and managed by other nations, many of whom are not particularly fond of us (oftentimes with good reason). The answers to car dependency are relatively straightforward if not exactly easy.

We need denser populations that can be effectively served by mass transit. Urban dwellers typically use less than half the energy of their suburban counterparts. Creating denser populations means rehabbing the existing housing in our cities to be carbon free, filling in the empty spaces with low-energy housing and shops, and massively upgrading our bicycling and bus infrastructure, including in the longer term dedicated covered bikeways and the redevelopment of lightrail streetcars. Rather than abandon the tract housing on the periphery, we should deregulate its zoning and, where necessary, move isolated homes onto lots further in town. Beyond this are the farms and forests that should supply us not only with our food, fiber, and fuel but also the wildlands that provide us with recreation and our fellow earth-dwellers with a place to call home. Many of the people that will inhabit the rezoned and reconfigured ring of tract homes will find work either in their neighborhoods or in the farms and manufacturing facilities that are already sprouting up again around our cities. They will have the opportunity and the space for large gardens and orchards and other small manufacturing businesses that can serve the urban population. The business professionals, many of whom now occupy these suburban tract homes, will need to either move into the city where they once lived or telecommute if possible, working and shopping in their existing neighborhoods.

These are all changes that can happen relatively quickly, in less than a decade if we so will it. We must rehab our existing infrastructure rather than trying to start from scratch, as this latter option is far too energy intensive to be achieved this late in the day. While in the ideal we would have used our one-time fossil-fuel bounty to have developed a socially and environmentally just, renewable-energy-powered civilization once we realized the inherent limitations of our earth’s sources and sinks some three or four decades ago, we must now content ourselves with working with what we’ve got.

Hopefully, the brief survey of transportation and urban planning options we’ve outlined here can convince you such a transformation is not only possible but also desirable. It will, without a doubt, be a huge amount of work. The alternative of killing off much of the planet and allowing the wonderful achievements of our civilization to collapse and die should be a pretty good motivator. And if there’s one thing the past century has proven, it’s that we know how to get some work done! We just need to refocus our effort on building a sustainable society in harmony with the millions of other species on the globe. Success is achievable, but not without the requisite effort. Time to get cracking!

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