From Utne Reader: Alex Steffen on what it would take to make a city carbon neutral.

… the best thing a city can do is densify as quickly as it can. That needs to be  said every time this issue comes up, because it’s the only universal strategy  that works. That’s the best-documented finding in urban planning—that as density  goes up, trip length goes down and transportation energy use goes down.

The main  question that nearly every city in North America needs to address is how to densify quickly. Once people are grappling with that, though, there are other  things people need to do to make that work: making neighborhoods walkable, with  green spaces, street life, mixed-use zoning and other qualities that make a  place livable. If you have density without that, you just have vertical suburbs.

If you live in a single-family neighbourhood and find that sentiment repellent, Steffen has a response:

(Melbourne is) growing quickly, needs to add a million people over the next decade  or two, but they don’t want that to be sprawl. So they took a digital map of the  city and blocked off everything that’s currently single-family residences,  everything that’s a historical building, everything that’s green space, working  industrial land, and other things people are vociferous about valuing.

That left  a fairly small percentage of land. But they showed that if they concentrated  density in those corridors, they could add a million people without expanding  the city at all, and it would add all these benefits, like better public transit  and such.

You can dramatically increase the density of places without taking  away things people want—and actually adding things they want but couldn’t afford  today—because the average suburb isn’t dense enough to financially support a  tram or the like. But if you add a dense core that can support that, suddenly  even the people around it, in their single-family homes, get the benefit, too.

I  call that “tent-pole density,” where extremely high density in a small area  brings up the average for a whole neighborhood, even when the rest of the  neighborhood doesn’t change. I think it’s a really important concept, one that  most people don’t get.


And speaking of ideas, why reinvent the wheel when you can borrow someone else’s?  That’s the idea of a Living Labs Global who are sponsoring a kind of crowdsourcing for cities, where municipal governments put out an open call for solutions.

More here.


  1. Try telling that to the Mount Pleasant Rizephobes.

    On the first sentiment of general densification, I recently learned from a Geller comment over on Bulablog that the single-story arterials that infuriate me so much (main, cambie, kingsway etc.) are in fact already all zoned for four stories. The return from rental apparently doesn’t make redevelopment worthwhile (maybe uncertain DCCs and obligatory non-market components were a factor there too).

  2. I’m afraid just whacking up the density is not going to make cities carbon neutral anytime soon, even in cities experiencing a fair amount of growth like Vancouver. Although transportation produces a big chunk of the carbon load, another major chunk comes from the building stock from basic heating and cooling, and most of that building stock is going to be old stuff, energy inefficient buildings not tied to renewable fueled district heating/cooling schemes and other low carbon emitting climate control systems. In the absence of strict regulations mandating building upgrades (don’t see our provincial or federal government heading down that road anytime soon), local governments would run the cupboards bare trying to put together sufficiently extensive and deep incentive programs to do anything meaningful about the existing building stock within even a 30 year time frame. Higher urban densities are part of the necessary shift, but we need to remember that most of what we will see a generation in the future, is already on the ground now, running on systems that are already in place.

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