Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Anger Rises

One thing I can say for this BP oil spill is that it is finally creating the very urgent, critical national conversation about what our oil addiction really means to us and the world we live in. It's not just the anger, wrathfully portrayed in Stephen Colbert's skit, but the utter destruction and terrible risks to people, their livelihood and the environment that oil drilling and coal mining create. The difference here is that it's not off happening in some jungle in Ecuador, it's right here in our own front yard with the whole world as witness. Kind of an I-told-you-so moment for the environmental groups.

The excellent dialogue this has engendered about how we live and how we build sustainable habitations are taking place among the conservation orgs and the planning and design professions. What kinds of cities should we build? How do we manage traffic and people and the connections from place to place so that we cut way back on our energy demands? The form of the city, and its interconnectedness, is key to solving this problem. And interestingly, it looks like the old township grids that were laid out over 100 years ago at walkable scale, before the automobile forced a dystopian network of highways. These small-scaled blocks and alleys allow even dense city centers to be delightfully habitable. Venice, Italy is always a talked-about example because everyone walks when they're not using the water taxis down the river.

Research with traditional density diagrams shows how the scale of connections is critical for making a place walkable and accessible.

Right now many of our suburban edges and cities sprawling out into the inland empire are nothing but tract homes packed along highways, with no local stores or places to interact, they simply connect to malls with arterials. As this article shows, the scale is far too large for people to walk or even commute with bicycles; they're effectively trapped on huge, isolated expanses of asphalt that absorb and re-radiate heat. This is an utter failure of planning and a lack of understanding of what creates habitable places. There's ways to deal with this that are an intervention of scale and design on these degraded landscapes: break down the scale, unpave the asphalt, integrate the small projects that serve local populations. I remember walking in Venice, to go back to that example, it's a rabbit warren with incredibly interesting architecture and plazas and, of course, the bridges. Up and down, around corners and zigging along the canal pathways. Paris has much the same feel in places, all the small shops and short blocks with trees and landscaping all over the city. Some of our older suburbs here in Los Angeles have the small township style layouts, and they're delightful neighborhoods once you get out of the sea of flat, featureless asphalt. The smaller scale and interesting, sustainable landscapes are the way out of this energy nightmare.

The impact of oil and coal is not only environmental, of course. There's a long-term destructive impact on the economy because of the way that the resulting costs and risks are allocated into financial instruments that poison the markets with toxic assets decades into the future. And this one is Exxon-Valdez on steroids.