Tuesday, January 27, 2015

City redesign—the cost and necessity

The other day, I was informed that a housing unit I produced with great effort (pdf version) for less than $55,000 in the late 1970s had just sold for $415,000.  Since incomes have barely risen since then, any explanation for this factoid is necessarily complex and includes a bunch of factors ranging from the increased popularity of the neighborhood to the obvious fact that I did not charge nearly enough for my work.

My project was a restoration in an historical neighborhood that was almost 50% abandoned and boarded up—including ours.  So in addition to the complex problems of rebuilding a vacant building, we got to deal with the sociological problems that had caused the neighborhood to decline so far in the first place (yes, the value of real estate also goes down.)  It's a long story but in short, this was an anti-suburban-sprawl project and though time has proven the essential validity of our efforts, we didn't put even a minor dent in the crazy real estate developments that spread over some of the finest farmland on planet earth during that same time.

Needless to say, I am highly skeptical of plans to produce large amounts of high density housing that do not include plans for how these schemes will appeal to people who seem to need elbow room.  We have heard such plans before.  Urban Planning in USA has never quite recovered from the Pruitt-Igoe public housing fiasco in St. Louis and the global guru of urban planning, Le Corbusier, designed buildings that the unfortunate souls who lived in them grew to loathe.

Even so, the idea that we should spend 90 $trillion to rebuild our cities to get by without cars is certainly interesting.  As my brother, the licensed energy inspector, and I, the guy still recovering from the discovery that I live in an essentially uninsulated house, have concluded—there is VERY little of the existing housing stock worth fixing / saving when it comes to energy efficiency.  So there are obvious reasons to rebuild our cities.  And maybe, just maybe, we could get it right this time around.  But like most things in life, this will be a LOT harder than it looks.

There's A Plan Floating Around Davos To Spend $90 Trillion Redesigning All The Cities So They Don't Need Cars


Here's one way to solve global warming: Spend $90 trillion (£59 trillion) over the next few years to redesign all the cities — as in all the cities on Earth — so people live in more densely packed neighbourhoods and don't need cars.

That is one of the more ambitious (and possibly outlandish) ideas knocking around the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, this morning. The Davos meeting is the annual conclave of the world's ruling class: presidents and prime ministers, CEOs, and religious figures (and the thousands of journalists who follow them, hoping for a soundbite or two).

The $90 trillion cities proposal came from former vice president Al Gore and former president of Mexico Felipe Calderon, and their colleagues on the The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. That group hopes to persuade the world's leaders to do something about humanity's suicidal effort to heat the Earth's climate.

Part of fighting climate change will mean redesigning, or building anew, towns and cities without cars, Calderon says.

"We cannot have these cities with low density, designed for the use of cars," he said. "We recommend those cities should have more density and more mass transportation." Together with a programme for reforming land use, and bringing deforestation to zero, the total cost of this plan would likely be $90 trillion in future investment, Calderon said.

Business Insider spoke briefly with Calderon after the panel, to ask him to explain where this $90 trillion was going to come from, and how exactly one might persuade every city on earth to go along with it.

Turns out the $90 trillion is the total of infrastructure investment that is likely to be spent anyway building and upgrading cities. Gore and Calderon are arguing that it be spent more wisely, to produce cities that don't incentivize people to burn fossil fuels just to get from A to B.

The key will be to persuade the mayors — again, all the mayors on Earth — that designing new cities this way will be vastly preferable to the old way, in terms of efficiency and prosperity for their residents. "The mistake we made in Mexico was to let cities develop however they want, and it's a mess," Calderon told Business Insider. "It's in their [the mayors] best interests" not to repeat that "mistake," Calderon said.

The main problem is that mayors are not widely aware that the cost of designing cities sustainably in the future may be cheaper than the cost of letting development run unhindered and car-focused. more


  1. Bear in mind that all this green infrastructure stuff, while saving energy in the long run, takes energy to build in the first place. If we went on a green infrastructure building spree, carbon emissions would go up in the short run because it takes energy to build stuff.

    I feel like I am standing on the deck of the Titanic and Al Gore is saying that if only we would upgrade the Titanic, then it could handle that iceberg up ahead.

    1. I know about the energy it requires to build green. But if we want the sustainable society, we are going to have to use those declining fossil fuel stocks to build it. And of course, building the green society beats the hell out of marching in the streets demanding one.