Opinion and Urban Design column

RACE: City, state planning must account for climate change

August 31, 2013

Thirty-eight states have climate action plans, but the real leadership in searching for a low-carbon, healthy and prosperous future has been coming from cities. More than 1,000 U.S. mayors, including Greg Ballard, have signed onto the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Hundreds of U.S. cities, though not Indianapolis, have prepared greenhouse gas emissions inventories to better understand their CO2 sources so they can identify reduction targets and strategies.

In the spring of 2012, I conducted a national survey—co-sponsored by Ball State University and the American Planning Association—of cities that have prepared climate action plans. The survey population included about 200 cities.

These cities represent the first 1 percent of the 20,000 “incorporated places” in the 2010 U.S. Census to prepare a climate action plan. Their experience offers an early glimpse of how the nation’s urban regions could evolve over time as more cities consider how they will curb their greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate.

About 87 percent of the cities surveyed have comprehensive plans, and to no surprise, only a third have a tradition of leading on the issue. About two-thirds of cities credit local political leadership in motivating the preparation of their plan; only 9 percent cited state policies. Forty-two percent of surveyed cities have populations larger than 100,000 and the cities with populations of more than 250,000 are most likely to coordinate their efforts regionally. Twenty percent of the cities are from the Upper Midwest and Ohio Valley regions.

The most popular land use strategies for reducing emissions emphasize centered, compact and connected development.

• Centered development. Cities are employing strategies that are reinforcing and influencing commitments to developing in and adjacent to downtowns. This traditional smart-growth concept is being pushed even further in Chicago, Portland, Boston, Austin, and other larger U.S. cities. These cities are implementing eco-districts in their downtowns that integrate design and management strategies that increase their environmental and economic performance.

• Compact development. Most of the cities in the survey are focusing on reducing the need to drive. Eighty-four percent reported that their plan includes walking and biking strategies. Cities in the West and Northwest, where transportation represents 40 percent or more of their emissions (compared with 28 percent nationally) are especially focused on “complete neighborhoods” (Seattle) and “20-minute neighborhoods” (Portland). These cities are making it possible to walk to all your daily needs.

Upper Midwestern cities are pursuing higher densities while reducing outward expansion and impacts on watersheds—even more than cities in the West and Northwest. The Ohio Valley cities are reducing outward expansion and impacts on watersheds more than cities in any other region.

• Connected development. About half of the surveyed cities include actions that increase infill densities near transit, reduce parking requirements, and expand transit services. Cities with populations over 250,000 and cities with high amounts of CO2 in their power supply from coal plants, like Indianapolis, are emphasizing increasing density and transit-oriented development. Sixty-five percent of cities are investing in new walking and biking infrastructure.

The top sources of CO2 in the United States are energy generation and transportation. This is particularly true in Indiana, where we drive more than other Midwestern states and rely on coal for generation of 95 percent of our electrical power. So we need to take the lead in reducing the demand for energy, increasing the supply of renewable sources, and providing alternatives to driving. The centered, compact and connected smart-growth strategies used by cities with climate action plans are an important down payment and will result in a more competitive and livable city and region.

Indianapolis’ aspirations to be part of a contemporary global economy will require innovation and leveraging our competitive advantages in the context of ecological realities. Climate change is real and so is the need for rethinking how we invest in our city and region.

As the climate warms and weather events become more extreme, we could just burn more fossil fuel to adapt. After all, coal and natural gas are cheap if you do not consider the environmental costs. However, the summer of 2012 will seem downright wonderful compared to what will happen if we don’t join the other 38 U.S. states and 191 international jurisdictions in accepting responsibility for the future of our children’s atmosphere.

I am willing to bet that most Hoosiers want cooler summers with normal rainfall; lower food prices and successful farms; and cold winters that kill the pests destroying our trees and giving us West Nile virus. It’s no accident that a more walkable city aligns nicely with those goals.•

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Bruce Race, FAIA, FAICP, is an award-winning architect and urban planner, owner of RaceStudio, and recipient of the Indiana Sagamore Planning Award. He lives in a historic Indianapolis neighborhood and teaches urban design at Ball State University’s Downtown Indianapolis Center. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at br@racestudio.com.
 

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