Developing Livable Urban Areas
The opening panel at the workshop discussed various dimensions of “livable” urban areas—the term has come into use in different federal agencies though participants noted there is no precise definition. Thus, panelists commented on what they viewed as aspects of a “livable” urban area, focusing specifically on research activities that attempt to link public health, environmental management, and urban development goals.
From a social and political perspective, the key issue driving discussions at the workshop was this: Cities in the United States have been growing in an unsustainable fashion for the past half century—and this trend cannot continue. As Adolfo Carrion, appointed by President Obama as the first Director of the nation’s Office of Urban Affairs, noted in his talk: “The United States is becoming more urbanized and the current trend is unsustainable.” He went on to caution that: “Our sprawl, the way we continue to spread over the land, the amount of pollution that we create, the inefficiencies that we support, how we have allowed development to take place, doesn’t make sense any more.”
But knowing that we cannot continue to develop the way we have over the past five decades is not the same as knowing what to do about it. And that is where the discussions become both difficult and complicated. According to Carrion, a critical question is this: "Will we leave future generations a planet and a country that will support human growth and development and sustain our democracy?"
As an urban nation, such a critical question applies directly to America's cities and suburbs, which have grown in ways that are having "a devastating impact on our environment.” Carrion advised that we need "to start looking at how we are going to grow our country"—in essence, to begin a "conversation on how we plan to live" in a more sustainable fashion.
This suggests that urban sustainability is more of a process than a goal, and that policies must be adapted to meet the evolving challenges of cities that both policy makers and the public hope to address. There are also economic aspects to the definition and applications of a sustainable city (for example, nothing is sustainable if poverty and
hunger persist [NRC, 1999]; economic insecurity will always trump sustainability); social aspects (sustainability requires a healthy and well educated population as well as security and a collective sense of optimism); and, of course, ecological aspects (much of a nation’s wealth is derived from its natural capital and its ability to efficiently conserve, sustain, and use ecosystem services).
There are temporal aspects as well (sustainability takes place in the short- and long-term, and regardless of our efforts to focus on the long term, the short term will almost always take precedence when it comes to political considerations). Indeed politics represents another key aspect of sustainability, especially when considering the concept as a potential instrument for change.
And, finally and perhaps most importantly, there are spatial aspects of urban sustainability. How cities develop—where the roads, houses, parklands, retail stores and factories are built largely determines how sustainable cities are now and will be in the future. The dense populations and economies of scale make cities a potential source of viable solutions to global ecological challenges over the long term. Yet, cities are also daunting parts of the problem in the short and long term.
How we get from here to there—by maximizing the benefits of cities’ economies of scale while minimizing their environmental impacts—will be a major challenge in transitioning to urban sustainability. So where does this leave efforts to make sustainability the aim of fundamental reform in urban development? It may, in fact, place us on shaky ground because, as Bruce Jones, Chief Scientist for the Biology at the US Geological Survey (USGS), asserted, “The sustainability agenda can cover almost everything.”
The key may lie in turning sustainability from a goal into an effective strategic tool for long-term growth. As Amy Glasmeier, Head of the Department of Urban Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology inquired in her talk: “How do we go about looking at something as grand as sustainability when we are trying to take into account multiple actors, multiple locations, multiple drivers and unexpected events?”
The concept itself is fuzzy and, as the definition of urban sustainability gains sharper focus and acquires the attributes of an operational tool of change, it needs to be considered in the context of many traditional American political and cultural values deeply rooted in idealized notions of individualism and the value of limited, localized government—notions that have gained even greater currency during the post World War II period of suburbanization. While we can change the terminology, as many participants did when they referred to the need to promote “smart growth,” the same difficulties will remain. Needless to say, effectively addressing this problem will be far more difficult than assessing the urban situation today. As Briggs advised in his address, “It’s not enough to deconstruct the old way. You actually have to build something.”
Placing People at the Center
Our understanding of both urban trends and effective policy frameworks for “smart growth" and "urban sustainability" do not, of course, depend solely on research and theory. As many participants at the workshop noted, what is happening on the ground often drives scholarly discussions among researchers, rather than the other way around. Researchers, more often than not, find themselves responding to developments unfolding
on the ground—developments that are beyond their control. They are, in a sense, offering insightful suggestions on how to develop solutions to problems that may develop.
Michael Freedberg, Director of Affordable Housing, Research and Technology at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), noted that federal agencies are taking significant steps to work more closely on urban issues. He cited an initiative between HUD, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) to create a joint agency task force on urban issues that, since January 2009, has been meeting weekly to discuss issues of common concern and, equally important, to devise collective strategies for action.
Freedberg asserted that the “fundamental building blocks” of sustainable urban growth are housing and transportation. “Together, these two critical issues have a decisive influence over the way a community looks, feels and functions.” In his view, housing and transportation constitute the elemental ingredients of land use. As a result, they lie at the center of sustainability both as a concept and an operational tool for reform. Build transport and housing at “cross purposes,” and you will likely create dysfunctional, unhealthy communities that diminish the quality of life, deny people opportunities and raise household and community costs.
Freedberg cited six specific sustainability or “livability” principles that the multi-agency partnership between HUD, DOT, and EPA believes are destined to shape urban sustainability efforts—both now and in the future. First, efforts to increase sustainability must provide more transportation options. In the U.S.’s automobile-dominated society, that means first and foremost expanding access to public transportation—especially in cities where traffic congestion adversely impacts the economy, local environment, and quality of life (and there are few American cities where this is not the case). As population density increases, public transit options become more viable.
Second, such efforts must promote not only affordable housing but also housing that meets the needs of diverse demographic groups—for example, families of modest incomes, those living alone (more than a quarter of the nation's households are now single person households), the elderly (senior citizens are the most rapidly growing demographic group in the United States.) and minority populations (many cities now have “minority majority” populations).
Third, livability means enhancing economic competitiveness. That necessitates providing greater access to quality education and jobs. As jobs migrated to the suburbs during the second half of the 20th century, many American cities found themselves saddled with declining economies that provided too few jobs for their citizens and too little tax revenues for their municipal coffers. For these cities, economic revitalization is the first principle of sustainability.
Fourth, it calls for supporting neighborhoods that are successfully engaging in sustainable practices and so can serve as models for others. The success of urban sustainability will depend, in part, on effectively conveying information about what works and how successful projects can be adapted to the specific circumstances of other cities.
Fifth, it requires measures that facilitate the coordination of federal policies and that effectively leverage federal investments with other sources of funding. Urban sustainability may have to be “place-based” to succeed, but progress will require the active involvement of the federal government. Washington, D.C., for better and worse, is
the one irreplaceable partner if sustainable urban development is to become a national phenomenon that reaches beyond the local and regional pockets of hope that now exist. We are indeed an urban nation and it will take both individual cities and the entire nation to chart a successful path for urban sustainability.
And sixth, it calls for valuing communities, by investing in healthy, safe, and walkable neighborhoods. Such a goal—the creation, in effect of “walkable cities”—has profound land use implications.
Discussions concerning sustainability, both during this workshop and in general, have largely focused on issues related to effective resource management and, more specifically, on strategies to ensure the long-term well being (or, in economic terms, the reliability or conservation) of ecosystem services. Yet, it is also true that proponents of sustainability are ultimately interested in creating environments that promote healthier, happier and more productive lives. As Howard Frumkin, Director, National Center for Environment and Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, declared: Land use decisions have public health implications and that, in turn, makes public health “intrinsic to sustainability.”
This effort, moreover, has implications for all other components of sustainability. Frumkin noted that unless the United States finds a way to rein in escalating health-care costs, all other aspects of the sustainability agenda will be starved for a lack of funds. Health considerations are important, Frumkin asserted, not merely because a healthy population is a fundamental goal of sustainability, but also because policies that make public health a priority offer an effective way “to put sustainable principles into practice.” They do so, he contended, by “placing people at the center of sustainability.”
Like Carrion and Briggs, Frumkin observed that we have created “car-culture landscapes,” especially in our suburbs, and this has adversely impacted the nation’s health. Build it right, Frumkin seemed to be saying, and we will become a healthier nation. As one example, Frumkin cited the construction of Hubbard Lake Elementary School in Hubbard Lake, Michigan, on a 35-acre site more than seven miles from the home of the nearest student. The school’s motto, he wryly noted, is “outstanding in its field.”
Obviously, no child can walk to school there—a situation that is mirrored in low-density and sparsely-populated communities across the United States. Every child in Hubbard Lake must instead travel to and from school in motor transport. This not only increases fuel consumption and raises air pollution levels, it also means less interaction with the environment and less social exchange with classmates before and after school hours. Taking his call for "walkable" schools one step farther, Frumkin cited recent statistics indicating that the 5 percent reduction in driving that accompanied the spike in gas prices in the summer 2008 led to a 20 percent reduction in auto-related fatalities (Sivak, 2008). A less-car oriented society, he noted, would be a safer society.
Cities as a Focal Point for Research
Echoing a growing number of researchers, Nancy Grimm, Co-Director of the Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research Project and Professor of Ecology at the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, contended that cities are “extremely open ecosystems” that “interact with other ecosystems both near and far”— comments that paralleled those of Bartuska. Solutions to the nation's urban problems, she
emphasized, lie in “allowing ecosystems to do the work rather than opting for technological solutions.” Furthermore, she observed that “cookie cutter” responses will not succeed. What are needed are policy adaptations on a city-by-city basis.
Efforts to enhance urban sustainability, she added, will require place-based solutions because every city is somewhat different in both its makeup and the problems that it faces. Grimm cited climate studies in Phoenix indicating that night time temperatures in the center city are 5 degrees Centigrade (C) higher on average than 100 years ago. That compares to 1 degree C higher in the adjacent region. Moreover, the number of days in downtown Phoenix in which temperatures have exceeded 38 degrees C (100 degrees Fahrenheit) has doubled in the past 50 years ago. Even more revealing from a place-based perspective, average summer temperatures in downtown Phoenix are often 5 degrees C warmer than the less densely populated surrounding areas.
While all cities are experiencing the effects of climate change, the desert city of Phoenix shows a trend towards warmer temperatures in its own unique way: Overall temperatures are rising faster and differences in temperatures between the city and suburbs are growing more extreme than in many other places.
Yet, the experience of Phoenix, despite its uniqueness, holds lessons for all cities. Climate change is increasing average global temperatures. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) estimates that temperatures have risen 0.6 degrees C over the past four decades and it projects that temperatures could rise another 1.1 to 6.4 degrees C by the end of this century. But, as Grimm showed, city centers, where the nation’s poorest people often live, are already experiencing a heat island effect, which increases some of the risks (e.g., higher incidences of ozone formation and heat-related illnesses) posed by climate change.
Rising temperatures and heat-related stress, she said, “varies dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood in Phoenix.” In fact, Phoenix has placed-based micro-climates. And, like so many other urban attributes, the impact and risk of these micro-climates are closely associated with such factors as family income, population density, race, ethnicity and age. There are, in short, "high heat areas" just as there are "high crime areas," she observed. This example showcases the spatial dimensions and complexity underlying discussions of sustainability.
Several participants noted that in our globalized economy, rural environments are often as dramatically impacted by urban growth as the urban environments themselves. As Ann Bartuska, acting Under Secretary for Natural Resources ad Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Forest Service, observed: “It goes without saying that America’s cities, and more broadly cities around the world, do not exist in isolation. Constant exchange takes place between the urban core, which is often the focal point of the analysis, and the urban periphery, which often allows the city to grow and, in fact, serves as a primary source of its sustainability.”
As Glasmeier noted, “Urban sustainability requires an examination of the distributive consequences of urbanization.” She went on to caution that unless urban sustainability starts from such a perspective, it will fail to address this critical question: “What quality of life or way of living is being obtained or preserved?” The fact is that what may be sustainable over the short term and at the micro-level may not be so over the long term and at the macro-level.
This presents a compelling challenge for those engaged in efforts to create long-term, comprehensive solutions designed to reverse the unsustainable patterns of growth that America’s cities have experienced over the past five decades. What incentives can be created to encourage sustainable behavior? Conversely, how can we ask those living in impoverished conditions today not to seek to replicate the lifestyles of those living in more upscale, “greener” neighborhoods, thus placing even greater stress on fragile and finite ecosystem services? Under such circumstances, should researchers—and particularly scientists—assume advocacy roles, or is it their job to simply present the data and facts and to leave it at that, especially when the data and facts indicate that there is no clear cut strategy for addressing the competing problems that are being faced?
The truth is that science can help address this dilemma, but it simply cannot begin to resolve problems of choice, circumstance and lifestyle. That’s because the challenges involving the temporal and spatial aspects of sustainability (which is where the broad, often abstract, principles of sustainability are turned into concrete measures) are ultimately political and social issues, and not scientific ones—unless, of course, nature intervenes to transform time-bound and place-based challenges into existential risks that necessitate a truly global response.