Q: What is a sustainable community?
A: A community that has zero impact on the planet, where there is no pollution created. That's my definition.
Q: To achieve this, do we have to build new communities or retrofit existing ones for sustainability?
A: We have to do both. Buildings wear out, and they have to be repaired and updated, so we're going to have ample opportunity to retrofit. And then there's population growth, so we'll need new development. The environmental solution has two sides, and, unfortunately, we mostly focus on the least important one—the “efficient supply” side of green communities, such as added insulation, low consumption appliances, tighter homes, etc. The numbers just don’t add up if you base achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 on improving supply efficiency alone—in fact, it can make things worse. We have to shift our focus to the other side, toward demand mitigation.
Q: You mean changing human nature?
A: When our cars and homes became more efficient in the past, we drove farther and left multiple computers on all day. Supply side efficiency can push the goal of lowering consumption further away; it evades us like a mirage. This is referred to as the Jevons paradox, after the mid-19th century economist; as we become more efficient, we ironically use more energy since we find more ways to use it. This is not to say supply efficiency is a bad thing, it is just not the entire answer.
Fortunately, change on the demand mitigation side has already started. Since 2005, Americans have started driving less for the first time and not because of rising fuel costs; the drop in vehicle miles driven began before the recent oil shocks. The most likely source for this decline are structural social changes, such as the knowledge economy, which means more people work from home, e-commerce, and software products shipped over Wi-Fi, but in particular, the renewed demand for the dense, public-transportation-rich, culturally rich, walkable urban development.
Nowadays buyers will pay a premium for walkable urban living; until just 10 years ago they paid a premium for drivable fringe suburban living. Recent research shows that when you move a household from the distant suburbs to a more walkable, urban location you achieve a 50% to 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions. These are the kinds of numbers we need to reach meaningful greenhouse gas reductions.
Q: What's the role of government, if any?
A: Government sets the rules. They mark the boundaries of what’s allowed. Within those boundaries anything goes; the free market finds the solutions. California policy mandates that by 2050 the state has to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below a 1990 baseline. At the same time, the state mandates all metro areas must engage in scenario-based regional planning, looking at future transportation and land use patterns to find alternatives that achieve the state emission goals, the carrot and stick come with the city transportation dollars they depend on. California metros are getting creative in meeting those goals, each unique to their economy and environment.
Q: Are there any examples of sustainable, regional success stories?
A: Utah. It’s a conservative state engaged in a large ongoing regional planning effort that started in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics. The plan, Envision Utah, laid out three options: Continue the old pattern of low-density, drivable suburbs; build suburbs and modest-density cities; or create very high-density cities and suburbs. The latter two options included significant increases in rail transit. After crunching the numbers, they opted for option two, the Goldilocks choice. In part, they concluded that building in the traditional, low-density way they had been building for years made no environmental sense; the predominantly Mormon state takes land stewardship seriously. Plus the second option of higher-density, self-contained hubs connected by rail, was financially cheaper than a highway-based alternative. True conservatism is not just fiscal, it also entails environmental conservation. Destroying the environment is anathema to the ideals of many religious conservatives.
Q: I note you have written for The American Conservative magazine. Are you a Republican pundit?
A: I am not a conservative, but I have a lot of respect for true conservatives. I am also the only Brookings Institution scholar to have written for The American Conservative. I am a capitalist and believe the market solution is generally the best solution. The drive-everywhere lifestyle of the past half century was and continues to be implemented and heavily subsidized by the federal government, and that’s anything but a conservative approach to transportation. If you want to paraphrase an ideologue like Glenn Beck, you might even call our automobile culture the results of a “totalitarian” federal mandate.
About 100 years ago, we had the greatest rail transit system in the world, and the crowning jewel of that system was Los Angeles, mostly paid for by real estate developers. LA had the longest rail system in the world, until the federal government decided to put it out of business with a one-size- fits-all approach to transportation: cars and more cars. Paul Weyrich, who co-founded The Heritage Foundation promoted rail transit and made this very argument about the federal role in destroying the private sector rail transit system. That's why The American Conservative magazine asked me to write for them—I'm all about choice.
Until recently, in most American metropolitan areas, you could buy any house that you wanted, as long as it was a drive-to single-family house, and you could shop anywhere, as long as you drove to a strip mall. The market is no longer satisfied with this very limited offering. That is why there's a new demand equation to factor in, the demand for walkable urbanism, and that’s where most of the required environmental solutions will come from—the demand side.