Better city planning can curb carbon emissions

Wed, 2014-06-18 06:00 -- Doug Cooley

Sure, the Environmental Protection Agency continues to push America to reduce its carbon emissions. But at the local level, your city planning commission may have more clout than the EPA.

That’s what F. Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council (a Smart Cities Council Advisor) argues in his recent Huffington Post piece "Fighting Climate Change With Sensible City Planning."

“Being thoughtful about managing future land development can make a significant difference in helping to curb carbon emissions and their very serious consequences,” writes Benfield, the council’s special counsel for urban solutions.

He cites Department of Energy statistics that estimate that 39% of America’s carbon emissions come from commercial and residential buildings and over 33% come from transporting people and goods around and in between our communities.  “That’s over 70% of our carbon emissions directly influenced by the built environment,” says Benfield.  “We ignore the character and future of our built environment at our peril.”

He advocates cities pay attention to the following when establishing land development policies:

  • Encourage building in central locations. Centralized development generally makes driving distances shorter, transit operations available and walking an option. This tactic more than anything else will help curb local vehicle emissions.
  • Establish connectivity between and within neighborhoods.  “Well-connected streets, generally characterized by more intersections and shorter blocks, shorten travel distances,” writes Benfield.  “This not only further reduces driving distances, it also makes neighborhoods more walkable, enabling some people to avoid car trips altogether for some purposes. “
  • Promote mixed-used development. Conveniently locating schools, worship spaces, shopping centers and restaurants closer to each other and housing areas cuts down on vehicle travel. 
  • Ensure buildings are energy efficient.  The author asserts that U.S. buildings are currently responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions annually than those of any other country except China.  Most of these emissions come from the combustion of fossil fuels to provide electricity for heating, cooling and lighting, and to power appliances and other electrical equipment.
  • Encourage urban planting. “Living greenery absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” Benfield writes. “It also has a cooling effect, reducing urban “heat islands” and thus reducing electricity needs for summertime air conditioning.
  • Conserve forests and farmland. This idea parallels the previous one. Preserving existing green space helps absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

The good news, Benfield notes, is that since the mid-1990s, the annual increase in developed land in the U.S. has been going down. And we’re driving less, too.  Vehicle miles traveled per household have been going down ever since 2005.