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Need new energy-efficient, new land-use policies

Friday May 25, 2001


The definitive book on urban layout and its relationship to transit, bicycling, pedestrian environments and health and availability of nearby natural environments is “Sustainability and Cities - Overcoming Automobile Dependence” by Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy. 

If we are interested in solving our energy problems, take a close look at page 101. Two graphs there show the results of studies of 45 cities around the world. The most important variable in relation to energy consumption - and the graphs illustrate this dramatically - is the degree of sprawl of cities.  

Low density urban development means massive flows of energy, not just for cars, but for climate modification in buildings (heating and cooling) and manufacturing of all the sprawl related material stuff society generates. The very structure of flat city requires cars and enormous energy consumption for any meaningful participation in city life. Low-density development means more metals and concrete in longer pipelines and more wires, as well as more streets and roads, more energy required to pump water and fuels, more line losses in electricity distribution. Even lighting energy figures in that our cities light up millions of acres of the country every night so that cars drivers can feel comfortable wandering the surface of dear Mother Earth burning fuel. We loose the very stars above to sprawl and the glare of street lighting on air pollution from burning transport fuels and firing up power plants. 

Back to the graphs. We see American cities average the lowest density and highest energy consumption. Australian and Canadian cities are a little more dense and use less energy. European cities: more dense and using less energy yet. And finally Asian cities: most dense and most energy conserving of all the 45 cities studied by Kenworthy and Newman. 

The proportions knock your socks off. European cities are about 3.5 times more energy efficient than American Cities. Asian cities range from about 6 to 20 times more energy efficient! This I think is amazing information that should be taken very seriously. It is even more impressive when we see that many European cities are wealthier than American cities and when we realize that even the least automobile dependent of European and Asian cities are still nonetheless ringed with significant sprawl development preventing the efficiency ratios from being even more dramatic. 

When we begin to see how fundamental city structure is in relation to energy consumption we begin to see just how far off base some of the best, most conscientious students of energy alternatives can be.  

The “energy efficient car,” for example: it helps create the energy squandering sprawl that grows as people drive farther for less money per mile - and feel good about doing something for the environment! Thus the energy efficient car creates the energy inefficient city. Paradox? No, we just are not paying attention to the structure of cities, the largest of all human creations. 

Big oversight! Some of us are trying to wake people up to this reality. In Berkeley Ecocity Builders, the organization of which I am President, has gathered more than 50 local non-profits and businesses that feel the time has come to begin rethinking how we shape or own city. We call our package of four policies for the General Plan the “Ecocity Amendment.” Citizens concerned about energy should be considering such changes that allow us to reshape our land uses and actually begin removing buildings in automobile-dependent, low density areas, especially where conflicting with agriculture and natural environment restoration.  

Development should be transferred instead, and steadily into the future, toward gradually increasingly dense and diverse pedestrian and transit centers. We need to “infill” in centers and “unfill” in low density areas. If that happens we will be building a foundation for a sane and healthy energy policy - at last!  



Richard Register