When most people consider ways to fight climate change, their minds tend to go to expected places: how do we ensure electricity generation is cleaner? How do we switch transportation systems from fossil fuels to electricity? Green Development LLC, a large-scale renewable energy developer in the Northeastern United States, recognizes that a holistic, systems-based perspective may help to accelerate sustainability innovations across industries and geographies.
Specifically, in part one of a two-part series, Green Development LLC explores how existing systems can be rethought for sustainability. Urban planning and design are crucial to establishing these systems. If we assume everyone must drive their cars to work in a given city, of course, the only solution will be to make those cars electric. In turn, utility-scale operations outside the city will meet those electricity needs, but as a result, municipalities will miss the opportunity to build in urban-based distributed generation. However, suppose we start by exploring residents’ and businesses’ needs and daily habits in a given city while suspending preconceived notions. In that case, we are more likely to experience design breakthroughs that contribute to sustainability goals.
Historical Context in the United States
U.S. urban design ties directly into not-too-distant historical trends. After World War II, urban development centered around sprawling suburban areas that have evolved to exceed many big cities in terms of population and businesses. The late author and professor, Robert E. Lang, popularized the term “Boomburb” to describe these newer urban areas. In contrast to older core cities, like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston, these newer U.S. metropolitan areas, such as Anaheim, California, Aurora, CO, and Mesa, Arizona, arose after cars were well-established across households. Urban designers, assuming the availability of such mobility, built drive-only sprawl.
As America’s highways and interstate roads fully developed, urban designers further prioritized a drive-first landscape, resulting in daily commutes of an hour or more. Today, Bloomberg reports that Americans drive further than their global counterparts. European cities boast greater levels of everyday amenities within walking distance and recognition as some of the most walkable cities in the world. In contrast, American suburbs regularly earn Walk Scores of under 40.
Projecting Urban Growth in the Coming Century
The term “accidental cities” is often used as a synonym for “Boomburbs,” but that’s not to imply that they lacked planning. Most of these areas consist of several master-planned communities that have merged to surround vast cities, most of which are in the Western Sunbelt. Unlike metropolitan areas designed as cities from the start, these Boomburbs lack large central downtown areas. Access to most amenities and employment requires a car due to the scarcity of public transportation options.
Experts expect more such metro areas to grow in the near future. The United Nations projects, for example, that 68% of the world will live in urban areas by 2050 (up from 55% today), with 90% of this growth occurring in newfound cities in Asia and Africa.
Such rising cities don’t always accommodate decarbonization and climate solutions as easily as cities built with walkability, bicycle travel, and public transportation in mind. Instead, these rapidly built cities often prioritize fitting new populations at all costs. If these new urban environments lazily evolve into the same suburban trend that plagued the United States, incorporating sustainability best practices may be more challenging.
Billions of people living in these urban areas represent the best opportunity to think holistically about climate action. Extrapolating even further, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecasts that 85% of the world’s population will be urban by 2100. For that reason, it’s important to incorporate sustainability-focused design into long-term urban growth plans as soon as possible to avoid costly redesign projects in the future.
Compelling Urban Design’s Evolution: New Cities
Urban developers must heed these lessons and design future cities intentionally, thoughtfully, and in a forward-looking way. Further, government leaders should notice and implement sustainable and climate-proof urban design.
Stakeholders in each new city must evaluate the region for its unique climate vulnerabilities (e.g., drought vs. flooding, wildfires vs. hurricanes, rising sea levels vs. heat islands). Those risks help identify suitable designs that help prevent climate impacts. For example, homebuilders on the coast may consider building infrastructure on stilts or further away from the sea. Urban designers may instead focus on proper drainage and green spaces in a more landlocked city.
Moving from adaptation to prescription, new cities should incorporate design elements that reduce carbon emissions. Transportation designers must ensure an urban environment is safely walkable, and transportation leaders must prioritize intelligently planned public transit in areas where citizens can’t avoid traveling further distances. Similarly, designs for new cities can include microgrids with distributed energy generation and battery storage. Solar developers can build on brownfields and commercial roofs, district heating systems can tap into industrial waste heat, parking lots can include solar carports, buildings can include solar panels on south-facing exterior walls, and smart grid technology should be prioritized.
Leaders must adopt a long-term view because today’s decisions will impact citizens for more than 50 years. Investments made today will transform what’s possible in the future.
Compelling Urban Design’s Evolution: Existing Cities
Pre-existing cities can still prioritize climate adaption and mitigation. Urban designers and city leaders can lean into opportunities to retrofit existing infrastructure and systems, including the following areas of focus:
- Neighborhood density: A key area to get the most out of a city space without contributing greater amounts to climate change is to maximize neighborhood density. The more people are spread out, the longer they travel to get to stores, offices, and restaurants.
- Ease of multimodal transit: Urban designers who want cleaner options to be used must design a city that makes doing so easier (e.g., via electric vehicle infrastructure, bike lanes, autonomous vehicles, micromobility, and more). They must also design a city-wide transportation system that allows a single trip to tap into multiple modes. A citizen who recognizes the affordability and quickness of biking to their nearest bus station and taking the bus to their final destination will be more likely to remove a car from the roads.
- The layout of infrastructure: Overall, the layout of infrastructure across the city defines how its citizens interact with the city. If presented with abundant free parking, people will be more likely to drive unnecessarily. If parking spaces are removed, you suddenly have more room for bike lanes or green spaces that can act as a carbon sink.
- Pollution tracking and enforcement: In the climate fight, action only follows accountability. Creating and enforcing tailpipe emissions requirements within a city, for example, helps reduce smog. Further, a policy may be necessary to aid municipalities in requiring carbon-intensive coal plants to close and replace their generation with cleaner, renewable sources like wind and solar energy.
- Cooling technologies: Building owners can adopt critical cooling technologies, whether they’re new buildings or retrofit existing buildings. By improving insulation, installing more efficient heating and cooling systems, and using high-performance windows, the energy footprint of a building will drop. Further, rooftops can transform into climate tools when outfitted as a white cool roof or a green roof using permeable pavement and green space.
- Harnessing Data & Intelligence: In the end, the city of tomorrow must be thoughtful and track progress. Using data and intelligence tools, such as sensors and smart meters, can help city leaders collect information on performance and where improvements are needed. Leaders can then study traffic patterns, monitor emissions, and make further urban development decisions based on available facts.
More About Green Development
Green Development LLC is the leading developer of large-scale renewable energy projects in Rhode Island, specializing in wind, solar, and battery storage. The company delivers significant energy savings to municipalities, quasi-public entities, nonprofits, and other qualified entities through the virtual net metering program while providing long-term lease payments to landowners and farmers.
Since 2009, Green Development has been instrumental in transforming the energy mix in Rhode Island to clean, reliable energy. The company has developed 135 MW in solar and wind capacity, with plans to bring additional projects online in 2022. Green Development is devoted to preserving farmland, reducing water and air pollution, increasing energy security, and creating local jobs. Current wind and solar sites reduce carbon emissions equivalent to using 16,252,010 gallons of gas each year.