Planning Cities for the Future
Only moments after President Trump’s announcement last June that the United States would exit the Paris Climate Agreement, states and cities announced their intentions to adhere to the goals of the agreement. Some states have already implemented policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; California, for example, introduced stricter fuel emissions standards and a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. Despite Scott Pruitt’s EPA currently targeting California’s higher fuel emission standards, the 10th Amendment seems to give the state the authority to enforce its own regulations. It seems evident that states should have the right to pass their own environmental policies, just as they are allowed to do in any other realm of policy given a proposal does not contradict federal legislation or gets struck down in court. On the other hand, as cities have much less space to create and enforce climate legislation, the pathway for their promised greenhouse gas emissions reductions is much less clear.
When we consider that cities consume 80 percent of energy production worldwide and account for a similar figure when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, we must ask exactly how cities can reduce these harmful effects. Your local city councilperson probably won’t like the answer, because it’s not easy and it won’t do them any favors when they are seeking to get reelected.
The answer is this: through smarter city planning, U.S. cities can lead the charge against climate change. This isn’t going to be through adding a few bike lanes, a few new bus routes, or one new high-rise building in the center city. Instead, it must encompass rewriting zoning laws to remove burdensome regulation, encouraging higher density living in center cities, and allowing for new and creative ideas within the city core.
Increasing urban density is a proven way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions stemming from household and transportation uses. Madrid, whose density is ten times that of sprawling Atlanta, has carbon dioxide emissions that are four times lower per capita. It’s not just these two locations, either. In cities across the world, denser cities prove themselves to be more efficient, less-car dependent, and smaller producers of greenhouse gases.
Increasing urban density is not nearly as effective when it is not paired with substantially improved public transportation. Once again, I don’t mean a few more bus routes - I mean radically changing our cities to prioritize quick, reliable public transit, where pedestrians and cyclists are given more rights than cars. I’m talking about creating a city that encourages people to live densely (which is proven to be significantly less carbon-intensive than sprawl), while feeling they don’t need to own a private automobile at all because everything they need is within a 10-minute bike ride.
Mayors and city councilors across the country fear of being too forward, too radical, and most of all - too anti-car. To them, I say: do you want to truly do your part to help slow climate change? Or do you only wish to recommit yourselves to a piece of paper which will actually change nothing? If the answer is the first choice, the only clear path forward is a radical redesign of our urban centers.
Hoornweg, D. (2010). Part III: Cities’ Contribution to Climate Change. Cities and Climate
Change: An Urgent Agenda, 10, 14–32. Retrieved from
Montgomery, C. (2013). Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. New
York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.