How-to books have generally focused on DIY-sized projects, or a custom home at most. But as the futility of a little green upgrade here and there or even house by house becomes apparent in the scope of our vision for 2020, it also becomes apparent that the smallest effective module for required level of change is the neighborhood.

So it’s good to see a few authors coming forth with ambitious how-to guides that tackle ecological problems from a larger perspective. In February, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., announced the publication of Jeffrey Tumlin’s book Sustainable Transportation Planning: Tools for Creating Vibrant, Healthy, and Resilient Communities (Feb. 13, 2012). I spoke with Tumlin to find out how his ideas might impact regional and local planning, and what even small cities and developers can do to line up their efforts with the far-reaching goals of Vision 2020.

Tumlin’s book starts with a provocative chapter on recent research into brain chemistry, noting how excessive driving makes us anti-social and stupid. Conversely, more walking and biking contribute to making us happier, sexier, and smarter.

“Human societies and human habitats operated the same way for hundreds of thousands of years until the third quarter of the 20th century. Some things got better, others did not. Now that we know, it’s time to start sorting things out; keeping the positive aspects of technology while pushing back on the ways we have thwarted basic humanity,” he said. “For example, we need to walk a lot, our bodies break down unless we get out 10,000 steps a day. Walking and public health are related. Obesity, cardiovascular disease, and even cognitive decline relate to lack of movement. Great cities start with walking because we’re biological creatures. We’re also social primates, and we need a certain level of social contact to be happy; when we don’t get the right level of contact we become very unhappy. ”Along these lines, one metric Tumlin would like to introduce to the evaluation of successful urban environments is the “flirtation index.” Successful cities are all about flirtation, said Tumlin. “A city needs a minimum number of flirtations per day to attract and retain a talented core of youthful residents. Cities operate and succeed or fail on the quality and quantity of flirtation. And again, it’s all about our biological needs. It’s about sex, but what is more, it says we are valuable people and part of a social network. Someone has noticed you and said, ‘Hey you’re OK.’ There’s nothing more sustainable than places that [make] people feel good.”

Tumlin is working on a Top 10 list of successful cities. After browsing the list and noticing mass transit stalwarts such as San Francisco and New York on top, I asked Tumlin how his urban argument would play in Peoria, the all-American, small-to-midsized, Midwestern, Southern, and Northeastern cities that may not embrace public transportation and higher density as desirable. And does it matter anyway?

To my surprise, Tumlin said this was the first crowd target he hoped to sway.

“It’s far more important for the typical, midsized cities in America to start thinking about sustainability than the established centers of innovation like San Francisco and New York, which already do. The conventional approach has failed the second-tier cities, saddling them with the highest social and economic costs. Look at Kansas City, Mo. Over the last decades, they have spent a fortune on freeways, now with more freeway miles per capita than any city in the United States. It’s struggling financially and socially, but it used to be one of the most vibrant cities in America."