"We are on the edge of a carbon revolution. Everything is going to change. This will matter to you. … There is no high-carbon future."
–Peter Mandelson, British Secretary of State for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
In many ways, the future is an intensely personal thing. Every person, family, neighborhood, community and region is unique. A one-size-fits all plan for progress would be profoundly unsatisfying. It would impoverish us culturally by stifling invention and ignoring the richness of our diversity.
But what if the many communities engaged in envisioning America’s future, and the many organizations helping them, rallied around a common set of criteria for the society we must build for the 21st century? Not a common blueprint, mind you, but common goals that must be met society-wide if we are to successfully survive the economic, climate and energy crises?
Individuals and communities would invent their own ways to achieve the goals, but common goals would help us achieve necessary national and global objectives. They would guide local investments, including the new infusions of stimulus money going to states and communities for work on energy and climate.
In the bargain, each participating community would become a laboratory and demonstration project for all the others.
What would that common set of goals look like? One list is being considered by the U.S. Green Building Council in its new LEED for Neighborhoods rating system. Neighborhoods win points by fulfilling as many as possible of these criteria:
- Proximity to water and water infrastructure
- Protecting imperiled species
- Conserving water and wetlands
- Conserving farmland
- Avoiding development in floodplains
- Redeveloping brownfields
- Reducing dependence on automobiles
- Creating bicycle networks
- Designing so that housing is near jobs and schools
- Avoiding steep slopes
- Restoring wildlife habitat
- Compact development
- Diversity in uses, housing types and housing affordability
- Walkable streets
- Reducing footprints for parking
- Providing good access to public spaces
- Ensuring accessibility for people of all abilities
- Local food production
- Involving the community in neighborhood development
- Preventing pollution, waste and site disturbance during construction
- Achieving high levels of energy efficiency, water and materials efficiency in buildings
- Reusing historic buildings
- Reducing in urban heat islands
- Achieving good wastewater management and comprehensive waste management
Smart Growth America proposes 10 principles for community development:
- Provide a Variety of Transportation Choices
- Mix Land Uses
- Create a Range of Housing Opportunities and Choices
- Create Walkable Neighborhoods
- Encourage Community and Stakeholder Collaboration
- Foster Distinctive, Attractive Communities with a Strong Sense of Place
- Make Development Decisions Predictable, Fair and Cost Effective
- Preserve Open Space, Farmland, Natural Beauty and Critical Environmental Areas
- Strengthen and Direct Development Towards Existing Communities
- Take Advantage of Compact Building Design and Efficient Infrastructure Design
If I were chief advisor to all the architects of our future, my list would be similar in many ways, and tougher in others. It would include these goals:
- Beauty, a goal too often neglected as we talk about new technologies;
- Levels of resource efficiency so high that waste becomes an obsolete concept;
- Designs, zoning, and building codes that minimize the use of nonrenewable and carbon-rich energy resources;
- Use of distributed renewable energy systems wherever possible – for example, building integrated and community-scale solar, wind and geothermal systems;
- A community-wide goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions, with regular performance measurement and reporting;
- Equal and abundant opportunities, manifesting not only as diverse employment, education, cultural and housing opportunities, but also as diverse mobility options that allow all residents – including those who are too young, too old or physically unable to drive — easy access to vital services and opportunities;
- Local business climates that attract and nurture the goods, services and industries essential to a green economy;
- Development patterns that maintain each building’s access to sunlight;
- An emphasis on environmental restoration as well as conservation – for example, natural corridors to accommodate wildlife forced northward by climate change and creation of “urban forests”;
- Features that enable communities to cope with the effects of climate change that already are likely. An example would be community shelters for those who need them during natural disasters and heat waves;
- Changes in behavior as well as technology – for example, community agriculture and food production;
- Ample social gathering places;
- Additional measures to reduce vehicle miles traveled, including incentives for location-efficient development, progressive parking policies and facilities for e-government, remote learning and telecommuting;
- The use of natural systems for infrastructure – for example, replanting watersheds for flood control, using swales to guide storm drainage, and constructed wetlands for water treatment;
- Features that maintain the connection between human beings and nature;
- Ample recreational and cultural opportunities for all ages;
Some will argue that specific goals such as these would stifle local initiative and creativity. I don’t think so. These are goals important to national and global well-being, in effect a responsibility of citizenship, and they leave enormous room for innovation and localization. But if you believe this list is too detailed and prescriptive, what would you subtract?
Others will judge these lists to be woefully inadequate to achieve desirable communities and quality of life in a time of energy insecurity and climate change. If you’re in that category, what would you add?
Some will argue that any list is bogus and that there is no climate crisis or energy crisis ahead. But as I’ve argued before, solutions to climate change are beneficial whether or not you believe in global warming. You need only believe that wasting money, childhood asthma, mercury poisoning, traffic jams, skyrocketing gasoline prices and seeing your energy dollars go to terrorist organizations are bad things.
Whether the list gets longer or shorter, it would be a good thing to “imagineer” around a common set of basic goals that are sufficiently bold to meet the challenges of this time. With your help, perhaps we can construct a list that meets the test.