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., https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions, 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