After Cheap Oil
12 Dec, 2007 10:56 am
This is a short article follow-up to my earlier article "Peak Oil and Climate Change: A Call to Peaceful Arms". Although I do revisit a few issues from the earlier article, I hoped to convey a more comprehensive prescription for changes in land use, that includes relocalization of commerce, agriculture, as well as changes in our urban habitiat. I also hoped to convey a sense of urgency associated with restructuring our educational system immediately, in order to adress those pressing issues.
Some of the guiding principles of “New Urbanism” and “Smart Growth” provide a useful template in preparing for a post-cheap oil world while simultaneously taking the first baby steps towards combating global warming.
By encouraging redevelopment of older urban and suburban centers, through a combination of tax incentives, investment in public transportation, and public-private financial partnerships, the seeds can be planted to release the centrifugal dispersal of our cities and metropolitan areas that has been the hallmark of our society for the past fifty years.
These incentives would explicitly reward real-estate developers who target their major projects in locations that are located in close proximity to heavy and light rail stations as well as bus routes. This relatively new concept of real-estate development is already being successfully marketed in such disparate locations as Jersey City, New Jersey, Portland, Oregon, and Dallas, Texas. All of these areas have one thing in common: they have built (or expanded upon their existing) systems, in tandem, with careful spatial land-use planning. Many of these new projects are located in close proximity to the new stations, and have been zoned for mixed-use retail, residential, and commercial construction. Hence, developers, who would have considered inner city, or even urban development of any kind, as poison, as recently as 15 years ago, are enjoying the profits of these carefully targeted ventures.
Just in time too – oil per barrel prices seem locked in the $80-$100 territory, and may continue this upward trajectory. Additional benefits associated with “Smart Growth” or “New Urbanism”, is the useful redirection of development into areas where infrastructure already exists, but is frequently underutilized. As the delicate hydrogeology of watersheds, located on the periphery of our major metropolitan areas are paved over, the rainwater is discharged immediately into the storm sewers, tributaries, and finally the rivers, where the rain run-off is carried directly into the ocean. The excessive pavement prevented the essential migration of rain water, into its intended final destination- underground water aquifers. Without this crucial and essential lwatershed replenishment, our society could not function – indeed survive.
Many states are beginning to recognize and indeed accept that their lifelines are becoming endangered. Every person, regardless of their class or occupation needs water to survive. By coordinating redirection of development patterns into areas where infrastructure already exists, the fragile watersheds can be protected from some of the more damaging encroachments upon these essential repositories of regenerated and abundant clean water.
Energy conservation and amelioration of global warming can and should be addressed, beginning at the most rudimentary socially organized levels. A new generation of trade schools and community colleges can instruct their students in the administrative, architectural design and logistical imperatives, associated with rebuilding our communities incrementally. Students will also learn to establish and maintain localized farms and cultivation methods that require less energy inputs. Perhaps active Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) farmers can partner with Life Science Professors to facilitate this important new curriculum. Rooftop gardens (as ably proposed by Richard Register of Ecocity Builders in Oakland, California), are another possibility and can be gradually retrofitted into existing and new structures as a practical local food source as well as a tool to combat the urban heat that frequently reflects off roof-tops. These are only a few suggestions that involve a proactive response to the myriad problems that we face, and it is a task that will fall disproportionately on our younger generation. This is a clarion call to a new generation of young students (or older career changers for that matter) that prioritizes any education and practical training efforts associated with transforming our society into more localized and workable economic patterns. We simply need to begin planning for myriad changes in the way that we grow our food, conduct our commerce, build our habitats, and travel to different destinations. The curtain is coming down on the age of seemingly endless available cheap oil.
However, these challenges also open up the possibility for potentially remunerative employment, which coincides with a truly noble contribution to the betterment and indeed preservation of our society. By integrating a comprehensive approach to intelligent building design, our buildings can be improved and retrofitted when structurally sound in such a manner that energy retention is maximized, energy utilization is minimized, and the artistic sensibilities associated with Historic Preservation are honored. Transportation consultants and engineers will be encouraged to join in a collegial dialogue with architectural and design professionals, who themselves are consulting with zoning professionals in various city and municipal offices.
Of course these comprehensive changes will most effectively be implemented in incremental steps. Politically, “pay as you go” seems to be the “modus operandi” of our age. However, once the public recognizes the practical, economic and aesthetic benefits associated with a transformed society where community is reinvigorated and where walkable towns and cities are attractive and affordable, they will also recognize the benefits of an easier non-automobile centered civilization.
As pedestrian and bicycle transportation replaces auto-centered local trips and reinvigorated rail transportation obviates the need for longer distance automobile trips, our city streets will be safer, with most of the remaining traffic being dedicated to commercial delivery, emergency and various public safety vehicles. Light- and Heavy-Rail construction usually involve a minimal amount of property condemnation because they take up relatively narrow swaths of land. Portions of existing rail freight carrier lines, highway median strips and even public utility easement corridors can be utilized for property acquisition and subsequent rail corridor construction.
Bus route improvements, of course, would require no property dislocation. Buses are flexible and can be utilized most effectively as a “bridge” or “feeder” between pedestrians and bicycles onto the rail corridors.
Then, there is the “two tier” multiplier effect. The first and most obvious of these tiers are the talents, services and products that are brought to bear by the professionals, manufacturers, construction companies and their various support services and vendors. More money (wealth) is brought into the community; more money remains in the community. The community cannot be outsourced.
The “second tier” multiplier effect is the eventual realization that our society has succeeded, after a quilt-like incremental beginning, into transforming itself into a more energy efficient, community oriented, sustainable, and stable model of a functioning and workable democracy. People will eventually walk and bicycle naturally and simply for the fun of it. They will lose weight and maintain that weight.
It will gradually dawn upon us that we can still succeed at great things. We can improve our society. We will be better prepared to weather future energy fluctuations and shortages. We will be proud of our communities and in our individual and collective contribution towards those ends. We will admire the rooftop restaurants and gardens that used to be the exclusive domains of large urban centers. We will be contributing to the amelioration of global warming. Most importantly, we will have set in motion the continuation of our civilization and will not burden future generations with responsibilities that we should have discharged.