Survival Depends on Smart Urban Designs that are Sustainable


Guest column by Melissa McCullough

Climate change is THE survival issue of our time. We need to make significant adjustments in how we live and use resources – and it needs to be done yesterday.

Local officials have joined a nationwide pact to address greenhouse-gas emissions within their areas of authority.

But for the survival of future generations, we must create communities that are sustainable and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that overall community design and the associated infrastructure have a huge influence on greenhouse-gas emissions.

But some people in Chapel Hill think that the height of buildings is the determining factor in sustainability. Research shows that the influence of any given building is much less important than how buildings are set into the urban fabric.

That fabric locks in patterns of driving, utilities, transit and walkability for a century or more. Whether these patterns are efficient or wasteful, preserve green space or exacerbate sprawl, will determine if we do our part to change the tide in the climate crisis.

Transportation now accounts for the largest fraction, 29%, of greenhouse-gas emissions in the U.S.,, and local decisions largely drive the number of vehicle-miles traveled (VMT). Simply put, we must significantly reduce VMT in our communities.

The IPCC notes that the key factors that reduce VMT are density, land-use mix, connectivity and accessibility, and that they “… are interrelated and interdependent. Pursuing one of them in isolation is insufficient for lower emissions.”

The U.S. Green Building Council recognizes that building efficiency is a vital concept, but we must look beyond that. They developed an integrated framework for creating sustainable places in their LEED for Cities and Communities (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, with specific criteria for:

  • Natural systems and ecology
  • Transportation and land use
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy and greenhouse gases
  • Materials and resources
  • Quality of life

As we write land-use plans, pass transit bonds or even permit individual developments, we must create places where people want – and can afford – to live, or it cannot be sustained.

Young people increasingly want affordable, vibrant, walkable, creative spaces that have public transit, greenways and coffee shops or pubs for visiting with friends on a walk home.

We need to address our whole system of living and the urban fabric that we have created – not just the height of individual buildings – if we are going to make progress on climate issues.

Sustainable communities with a sense of place and a sustainable urban fabric-model are what local decision makers can and must create.

Melissa McCullough is the Associate National Program Director, US EPA Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program (opinions my own); Vice Chair, OCG Sierra Club Executive Committee; Vice Chair, Orange County Climate Council; Chair, Orange County Climate Action Coalition

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3 Comments on "Survival Depends on Smart Urban Designs that are Sustainable"

  1. Excellent description of the need for wholistic, systems thinking about land use, development, and the climate crisis.

  2. Deborah Fulghieri | February 18, 2020 at 12:23 am | Reply

    Ron Sutherland (Save Hoffman Forest) has extraordinary satellite time lapse videos showing what mankind is doing to the Triangle region, the NC coast, and other municipalities 1985-present. All the clear-cut/building we see in Chapel Hill is part of a larger ongoing destruction of habitat. It happens because it is profitable, to loggers, builders, chain stores, road authorities, municipalities, and others, but must accelerate to maintain profitability.

  3. Sustainable communities that are compatible with our natural environment and use energy, land and water efficiently are critical for our survival. To complement these strategies we need to transition our energy generation from fossil fuels to carbon-free sources. That transition requires converting vehicles from internal combustion engines to electric motors, de-carbonizing electricity, and replacing the use of natural gas with electricity in our homes, businesses and industry.

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