Book Review: Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change

Written by Peter Calthorpe and published in 2011, this relatively small book sets out a new (to North America) approach to the planning of large scale urban settlements. 
These include 
– building settlements close to public transport
– expanding public transport availability to match demand, in whatever way makes sense locally
– building a diverse range of housing to cater for the smaller family sizes of modern populations
– avoid creating car-dominated infrastructure
– create walkable neighbourhoods where people can work and live within walking distance
– use a tripartite planning structure cascading down from national to regional and local policies, plans and standards
– have an integrated trasnport and development policy

Underpinning all of these is his contention, which I agree with, than urbanism on its own is an inherently sustainable way of living, and that suburban sprawl is not. Even without the addition of high quality homes that produce little or no CO2 emissions, living at densities of 50 dwellings per hectare and above in an environment where public tranport is available and where work can be within a walking distance. 
He points out in a compelling and very clear set of graphics that if North America was to adopt what he calls an Urban-Green scenario for its new housing it could save
-12,000 miles of car journeys per household per year
-reduce air pollution by 43%
-save $15,000 per household per year in transport and heating fuel costs
– save 25,700 square miles of land from development by 2050
– save 75% of potable water use
– save 80% of an individuals CO2 emissions compared to a 1990 baseline, without doing anything else

Some of this may seem obvious to a UK audience, long used to hearing these views expressed in planning policy in various ways over a long period. But when you examine our current direction of travel it is not immediately obvious that we are going to hit these levels of performance in the UK.

– We had a PPG that mandated 50 dwellings per hectare, and it was removed by the current government.
– We had regional development agencies tasked with coordinating development at a regional level, now we do not.
– The same government has recently announced a major road building programme to reduce congestion, when we are all pretty sure that building new roads has almost no impact on congestion.
– Low carbon homes are on the agenda in the UK, but somewhat unwillingly and the level of ambition has been downgraded many times.
– New Garden cities are regularly touted as a great idea despite generally being proposed in places with poor transport, and envisaged as being constructed at low densities.

So while we pride ourselves on being much greener in general than North America, the gap between us and them may not be as great as we think. If we are planning a future that is less green than parts of North America, it may be time to think again.

I strongly recommend this book, it is well written and the ideas are strong and clearly expressed. The graphics are well illustrated and paint a very complex picture in a very clear way. It should find a place on every urban designers bookshelf and It should be recommended reading for every housing minister.

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