THR Web Features   /   January 14, 2016

Confronting Climate Change

Rethinking the City

Stephen Assink

J.D. Irving Smoke Stacks. Tony Webster via Flickr.

With the dust settling on the Paris climate talks and the difficult process of international negotiation over, the even harder process of confronting climate change begins. Unsurprisingly, transitioning to a less carbon-dependent economy and society will require sacrifice, hard work, open dialogue, and strict accountability—not to mention overcoming tremendously powerful economic structures and political opposition. Yet, tackling climate change is not only about conjuring up herculean strength or unleashing torrents of technological innovation. Rather, overcoming our carbon dependence should be seen as an opportunity to rethink for the better an institution largely shaped by and for fossil fuel: our cities.

For the past 100 years, urban life has been indelibly shaped by the ample consumption of carbon. Our dependence on the automobile can be traced back in part to Eisenhower’s 1956 Federal Highway Act, in which the American government at all levels—city, state, and federal— transformed the American urban landscape into one entirely dominated by concrete. Decades later, it is no surprise that the vast majority of the CO2 emitted by cities is caused by automobile use.

Around the same time as the Federal Highway Act, new land use policies were put in place that zoned cities into sections separated by their uses and densities. With federally backed mortgages making home ownership easy, the combination of these trends led to the exponential growth of suburbs, and along with it the demand for gasoline. Once compact, dense, and walkable, the American city today is sprawling and dispersed—and more dependent than ever on fossil fuel to sustain its infrastructure.

Increased use of CO2 in today’s dispersed city has not only had negative environmental implications, but has also had significant repercussions for the social fabric of urban life. The ossification of the city into large homogenous enclaves of wealthy and poor communities creates undesirable neighborhood effects associated with concentrated poverty. This intense and dispersed spatial inequality within cities hinders our ability to know and care for those who are different. All the while, extreme gridlock associated with urban sprawl contributes to poorer health outcomes, decreased productivity, and an overall lower quality of life.

Critically addressing the spatial logics inherent within contemporary urbanism will require us to rethink the way we zone, build infrastructure, and organize community life. Developing mixed-use communities, as modeled in New Urbanism, is an important step in overcoming the social and environmental challenges of the dispersed city. Incorporating forms of multi-modal transportation infrastructure is another. Done thoughtfully, urban development that incorporates a diversity of uses, people, and modes of transportation is a vital way of reinvigorating urban life while decreasing our carbon footprint.

Another sector that many people in cities are critically engaging is our food system. Although many may not be surprised by the connection between farming and fossil fuel consumption, industrial agriculture accounts for 9% of all greenhouse gases produced in the U.S.. The growth of mechanized farming over the last century, known as the Green Revolution, has certainly brought many benefits to society. For many critics, however, this revolution has also had negative implications in the form of degraded soils, uprooted communities, and the explosion of food-related chronic diseases. Other detractors lament the subsequent cultural transition that transformed eating into a lonely solitary act.

In response, an environmental consciousness around organic farming and home gardening has emerged into a full fledge movement across the country—particularly in cities. Urban gardening and farming has been praised for its social, ecological, and health benefits. Indeed, reconnecting people with nature in the urban environment primes our imagination to think deeper about the intimate connection between us and the natural world.

The subsequent growth of local agriculture helps to reincorporate the rural and the urban back into a healthy symbiosis. In turn, this creates a much-needed civic space for both urban liberals and rural conservatives to find common ground. By confronting the way our food system works, advocates hope to create new vistas for feeding our cities in ways that are not only ecologically responsible but also community focused.

Though much of the current discussion around climate change centers on developing new forms of green energy (and rightly so), preventing it will at the same time require new iterations of city living. And as some urbanists already have pointed out, city living has the potential to be extremely energy efficient.

Reimagining our cities provides us an important opportunity to reconsider the various structures of urban life—transportation, food, and community—both environmentally and socially. The slow and necessary steps of eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels will certainly be difficult, yet we should see it as an occasion to remake our places that are humane, convivial, and sustainable.

This blog post originally appeared on THR’s Common Place blog and is crossposted from Thriving Cities.