Sunday, April 01, 2007

"Carbon emissions are declining precipitously . . .

and no, it's not magic."

Project for Public Spaces published an article with the above title in today's Making Places Newsletter. This edition of the newsletter is so thought provoking...I encourage everyone to visit their site and read some of the other articles. I promise you will find them educational and even a little bit funny. You see, carbon emissions aren't really declining, rather this headline is part of the PPS's annual April Fools edition of Making Places (jovially titled Faking Places).

I originally wanted to post a few excerpts from this article, but I just couldn't decide where to split it up. So, I'm posting the whole thing. The following is reprinted from Faking Places, April 1, 2017:

Last week, the EPA released its annual data on US greenhouse gas emissions. For the fifth time in a row, they announced a substantial reduction--to levels not seen since the population stood at half its current size. This represents a remarkable turnaround, one that has confounded all predictions of how catastrophic climate change would be averted.

Technology has not been the main solution--most cars still run on internal combustion. Nor have emissions declined because of widespread economic hardship--real median income has never been higher. Instead, the threat of global climate change has been met by an even more powerful force: a seismic shift in the American Dream.

As recently as seven years ago, American settlement patterns were best described as "sprawling," and nations including China and India seemed poised to follow our lead. The status and material wealth supposedly conferred by big cars and behemoth homes were still viewed as universal desires, leading to ever-more-extravagant private lifestyles. Then, quite rapidly, these trends lost their aura of inevitability.

Americans began driving less and living closer together. The ideal of a ranch home with a two-car garage and a spacious lawn gave way to something more sociable and intimate. More and more people began settling in places with a strong sense of community, where daily amenities could be found within walking distance. Somehow, the public realm had been elevated over private luxury.

As a result, many cities and towns are virtually unrecognizable compared to their former selves. Houston, to name a widely-cited example, is now served by more track-miles of light rail than lane-miles of highway infrastructure. Once known for its reflective skyscrapers financed by fossil fuel profits, it is now most famous for Discovery Green--a public square in the heart of downtown--and the dozens of smaller public spaces that have cropped up throughout its neighborhoods.

Detroit has managed a similar turnaround despite the continuing decline of the automobile industry. Small-scale businesses there have flourished in a tide of re-investment flowing to areas around Campus Martius Park and the city's new network of bike and transit boulevards.

Neighborhoods where poverty and hopelessness prevailed at the outset of the century are now growing in population and economic output, without a significant rate of residential turnover. These changes are taking place from the inside out.

Small towns and rural areas have completely defied dire predictions at the turn of the century that they were destined for abandonment. Instead we find small growers, many of them recent immigrants, becoming more numerous every year, supported by the continuing boom of local farmers markets.

Even suburbs are being transformed with infill development and new transit systems. For the first time since the (Bill) Clinton Administration, Americans feel more optimistic about the prospects of their children's generation than they do about their own.

Many theories have been proposed seeking to explain how both global climate change and a crippling energy crisis were averted. The favorite among most commentators is to point out federal legislation such as the Healthy Places Act of 2013, or President Richardson's mandate to reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) by 50 percent in 25 years, which introduced new incentives that directed resources away from sprawl-making and towards Placemaking. But how then to explain the near-simultaneous change in direction that swept China, India, and mega-cities throughout Africa and South America?

Indeed, the conventional narrative of top-down action tells only part of the story. If you talk to the people who actually drafted the laws, they will tell you the credit belongs elsewhere. That, as important as their efforts have been, they were merely latching on to a social movement already in progress.

"My constituents were trying so hard to mold their communities into better places to live, I just wanted to make it easier for them," says Congresswoman Donna Jacobsen (D-Texas), who represents the state's 18th Congressional District in Houston. "They were heading in this direction whether we greased the wheels or not."

Those in the know cite the release of The Value of Place in 2011 as a watershed moment. This document, the result of years of painstaking research compiled by teams of planners, architects, economists, and sociologists, was widely influential in transforming how local and state governments planned new development and invested in public institutions.

The report summarized the effects of demonstration projects that took shape in five metropolitan areas simultaneously: New York, Dallas, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Tallahassee, Florida, and Bend, Oregon. Multiple sites were selected in each, carefully chosen to provide a comprehensive baseline of data. The selected places ranged from centrally located downtown squares to small parks to commercial main streets, in neighborhoods that fully represented the nation's cultural and economic makeup. Each professional discipline brought their skills to bear at each place, working side-by-side with local stakeholders.

Factors including vehicle miles traveled, pedestrian activity, local economic growth, obesity rates, and depression rates were measured obsessively before, during, and after implementation. Because the demonstrations were conducted gradually, and involved no big names or outsized projects, they attracted relatively little attention in the press at the time. But the evidence that emerged--which showed strong correlations between public space improvements and the positive outcomes observed--left a strong impression in many minds.

"When that report came out, it really grabbed the attention of local governments," recalls Senator Joe Riley (D-South Carolina), the former longtime mayor of Charleston. Indeed, soon many municipal governments were completely transforming the internal operations of their agencies. The boundaries that had kept different professions operating in isolation from each other started to buckle and fall.

"I think we were aware that this project could have a profound impact on climate change, but that was never our primary goal," says Meg Walker, co-chair of Project for Public Spaces, one of the organizations that spearheaded the research. "We were asking how cities and towns could foster more social interaction, a greater sense of connectedness between people. Depression and isolation were epidemics in this country at the time, and we attributed a lot of that to the fact that people didn't have much choice but to live in physical environments that limited their options—what to do, how to get around. We knew if people could free themselves from that situation then a lot of the rest would follow."

The success of the first experiments attracted funders who were interested in replicating the results in other cities and other nations. "People saw that this work had very broad applications," says Manuela Garcia, a program officer at the Gates Foundation. "Government reform, public health policy, economic development, you name it."

She ticked off a list on her fingers: "Your street network, your public institutions, your retail businesses, your waterfront, your parks and greenways--none of these exist in a vacuum, and they all converge at physical places. So once you change the frame of reference and start thinking about interconnected places instead of separate systems, then you can start shaping cities in ways that very tangibly improve many different aspects of people's lives. And once you've shown people what that looks and feels like, they want more of it; they want to become part of the process."

The widespread appeal of this approach to building neighborhoods, towns, and cities is quickly apparent in maps of settlement patterns around the world. The unmistakable trend for the past five years has been the growth of population centers and the decline of spread out development. Not all of these new concentrations are mega-cities. In fact, most are small towns and suburbs that have shifted away from the old sprawling forms and towards something more city-like, where walking and transit are the preferred modes of transportation. You can credit new laws and regulations for bringing this change about, but the truth is it never would have happened if most people didn't want it to happen.

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