February 01, 2006

Principles of the State of the Union Address

I hadn't intended to join the cacaphony of bloggers and pundits who are Monday-morning-quarterbacking the State of the Union address. But NEW's all-star board member, Laura Retzler, asked a great question last night that I've been puzzling over since: what's NEW's take on Bush's plan to end the nation's addiction to oil?

It later occurred to me--too late to answer Laura--that my reply should have been rather obvious to me. NEW is developing a concise statement of values and principles, that will orient and unify our research. Among these values are two that are especially germane to energy security: "make prices tell the truth" and "build complete, compact communities."

In his speech Bush called out technological innovation as the primary way to break the addiction. Certainly he's right that technology should play an important part in diversifying our energy portfolio--especially certain types of biofuels, new clean energy sources, and lighter-weight vehicles, for just a few examples that NEW promotes. Yet technological solutions may not be the surest path to ending our addiction.

That's where NEW's principles come into the picture.

"Making prices tell the truth" is especially important. The price of gasoline does reflects only the direct costs of extracting, refining, and distributing it, not the full costs that are externalized to society, such as air pollution, climate change, and even entanglement in unstable regions. By the same token, "free" parking often carries with it high costs, similarly externalized. With a smart restructuring of parking incentives, including parking taxes, there's reason to believe we can achieve substantial gains in both energy efficiency and conservation.

Another of the principles, "build complete, compact communities," would improve home energy consumption and render driving, which has high energy demands, optional or even irrelevant for many people. We already know that compact urban development with good transit and pedestrian alternatives yields dramatic reductions in energy need, even while it boosts health for residents.

NEW's principles may not point to flashy promises of zero-pollution cars or safe nuclear energy. (And they may not come with strings attached to big subsidies.) But they point to hidden levers in our economy and society--small tweaks that can yield outsize results for energy security.

So that's may belated reply, Laura. Thanks for setting me to thinking about this.

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By the way, here's the full text of Bush's remarks on energy last night:

Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.

The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, more reliable alternative energy sources, and we are on the threshold of incredible advances. So tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative, a 22 percent increase in clean-energy research at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy.

We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips, stalks or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years. Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 10, 2006

Sprawl, Health, Place: Notes from Buckley, WA

Buckley_rainier I recently attended a conference in Seattle for promoting physical activity in urban environments. Alliances between the public health and planning communities are moving out of academia and are being forged on the ground. And it was encouraging to see that what we’re trying to do in my small town in Washington with respect to walkability is what you’re supposed to be doing. 

But walkability by itself is a tough sell. First, many people in suburbs like ours don’t have the time to walk. Suburban dwellers choose to live far from the city, which makes for long commutes that reduce exercise time [another (pdfs)], Second, not everyone cares about walkability or other single-issue items. So, we’re talking about the walkability amenity as one component of a larger small-town, outdoor-recreation, and natural-environment quality-of -life ethic. This softens the impact of rapid change, allows people to see how placemaking (making spaces more attractive and compatible for human uses) benefits them, and it takes away the fear that this is some big-city scheme brought out to the country.

Another example of a tough sell: stopping sprawl. We know that wealthy societies sprawl more [pdf, pg 8] than poor societies--it’s what they do. We enable sprawl by considering land as a commodity that can be bought and sold, rather than as a place that delivers ecosystem services ( e.g. stormwater reduction, air pollution filtration, heat island mitigation, etc)[also 1, 2, 3]. It’s easy enough for property-rights proponents to argue that market forces drive big-lot subdivisions and should drive choices. Well, market forces make traffic congestion too, but never mind that. Ecosystem services--by not being counted in our economics--can’t even enter into the lot-size argument.

But out here in Buckley, people like their large lots--it’s why they live here in the first place; you won’t catch exurbanites dreaming of dense neighborhoods close to transit. But interestingly, folks living on big lots can tell you why small lots have positive qualities: commuters to downtown don’t have three hours a week to mow, weeding a half-acre garden isn’t realistic for a busy household or for seniors, houses are less expensive, etc. Our new senior housing project--to be completed in 2007--will be cottage-style, a good example.

So we’ve tried to emphasize the benefits while gently pointing out no one is asking current residents to move to smaller lots--there are still larger lots in town. When we did zoning changes in Buckley last year, people seemed to respond to the idea that small lots are to diversify our economic base and to provide affordable and senior housing (that is: housing for mom or dad), not to repudiate their life choices.

I’m finding that we stop making unhealthy communities the same way we stop sprawl: not by attacking it directly but by multiple approaches, the most important of which is pointing out sprawl is economically unfeasible to continue. Businesses like walkable neighborhoods because loyal, local customers have something to walk to. Smaller lots--a component of walkable neighborhoods--allow seniors to age in place and create opportunities for young couples to build a family. Cities (especially in Washington where you can’t even tax to keep up with inflation) can deliver services more efficiently when they are compact. Lastly, making your city attractive to a wider range of society allows you to avoid placing all your economic eggs in one basket.

And it may make your city healthier as well (.pdf).

Posted by Dan Staley | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack