Peter Newman, Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University in Western Australia, coined the term "car dependence," and has devoted his life's work to helping governments understand the urgent need for improved public transit and land use in the 21st century. Timothy Beatley, Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia, believes cities and nations should more freely share solutions for policy and development, to help us face the common challenges of sustainability and combating climate change.
The two colleagues recently co-authored the book Resilient Cities, which describes how intelligent planning and visionary leadership can be strong weapons for cities facing climate change and peak oil. They also collaborated on Green Urbanism Down Under, a book that explores the many strides Australia has taken to encourage renewable energy, compact development, successful public transportation and more, and helps translate those ideas into examples for the United States to follow.
We were able to speak with them when Newman joined Beatley in the D.C. area for the final stop on his speaking tour funded by Parsons Brinckerhoff and groups such as Smart Growth America. Newman had just finished meeting with the Obama Administration Transition Team about the U.S. economic stimulus package, and was feeling encouraged at the time that the plan for recovery was heading in a bright green direction.
Worldchanging: Do you see the new U.S. administration as an opportunity for the world?
Newman: Absolutely. If America can't change, the world is doomed because Americans consume so many resources. Speaking on behalf of the world, we're very happy that Obama is trying to change policy that has consumed too much of the Earth.
And it's not just a matter of saving the Earth, it's a matter of creating an economy that will work. This is where the new jobs are, and the cities that go first down that path will lead the way. America is behind in that race. Most of the best examples are in Europe, Australia and Japan because they've been given the political opportunity.
I do think that change can happen quickly. Since last year in Australia we've seen a dramatic turnaround similar to what you're just starting to experience. The first thing our government did when entering office was to sign Kyoto. Now we have a board that I'm on called Infrastructure Australia, which is working on funding how to recreate our cities.
This transition needs to be led by America, and we will all cheer as you do that and form partnerships with you. If you don't, there will be continued decline in America, because this is the new economy. That's a fundamental decision that will impact the standard of living in this country seriously, and it's an opportunity now for [the U.S.] to exert that leadership. You have a team led by Obama that is committed to this. For me, it was a wonderful thing to be at the inauguration, and to be part of a city that was car-free and totally behind the new President.
Worldchanging: Building resilient cities is not only the smarter choice; it's the only choice. What do you think our timeline is for accomplishing some of these things?
Newman: It's a big task, but there's an enormous commitment. Everyone is now committed to 80 percent reduction by 2050. Copenhagen in 2009 will be the new global convention which will decide on a road map that will make us respond to climate change, and that will work its way through every government.
You've seen a massive change across this country, in the desire to change where government will be seen as part of the solution, versus part of the problem. Markets and governments working together can recreate our cities.
The money's going to be there, and the cities that respond to it quickly will do well, some cities will decline, they're not going to respond quickly enough. Some say you'll never get Americans out of cars, that is historically what has happened, but there have been such transitions in the past and already car use is in decline in American cities. The new green transition is upon us. Some cities are going to make it through and others aren't.
The big cities that were thought to be hopeless like Los Angeles, Denver, Atlanta and Houston, have turned a corner, especially Denver. Atlanta will be the hardest. The areas on the fringe of those urban areas will suffer as that kind of scattered development around the cities is very vulnerable as fuel costs increase.
Beatley: I think that American cities are really poised to take that next step and to dramatically commit to ecological and sustainability principles. It's been helpful to have those pioneers, and to have Mayor Daley in Chicago, and Governor Bloomberg's commitments in New York, and long-term pioneers like Portland and other city leaders. But I think now we're right on the cusp of making this whole agenda, from local food production to bicycle mobility, investments in transit, green building, carbon-neutral developments and neighborhoods, and biophilic urban design.
But we've got to keep showing that this is not necessarily a sacrificial agenda. It's about enhancing prosperity of a different kind, about enhancing quality of life and richness of life, and expanding and extending the assets that are the real assets: the strength of community, the friendships and bonds between people, the commitments to place, reconnecting to environment and place and each other. Those things are on the way, but there's still a lot of work to be done.
Worldchanging: Do you have a vision for what will happen to the suburbs?
Newman: We are very strong about including the suburbs in the vision. I think any attempt to abandon them will fail. Suburbs will survive, but they'll have more options for local employment and services and more options to get into the city quickly and easily.
Most suburbs can have transit linked to them within a 10-year framework, and we'll have enough options then with a renewable energy-based transportation. The suburbs themselves don't need to change much, but they have other options for transportation once you bring in electric rail and more local destinations based around transit oriented developments (TODs). The other transformation is electric vehicles hooked up to smart grids. The car use will be carbon free, but they'll have a good transit link to the rest of the city.
Suburbs will remain, but I think many people will want to live in a transit oriented development or an urban place where they'll have an option to do away with their car altogether.
My city is a very good example of what can happen in the suburbs. There was a strong political movement to build transit out to the suburbs during the fuel crises. The Perth southern rail line now carries 55,000 people a day, where the buses had only 14,000. And it's beginning to shape development around it so instead of being a sprawling, shopping center-based area, the city will build downtown-type centers around the transit stations.
Worldchanging: Tim, your compare progress toward sustainability in Australia to progress in the U.S., since the two cultures share a lot in common. Is there any one main theme you identified that shows how the Australian and U.S. governments differ in their approaches to sustainability, and how that has affected their progress?
Beatley: I think it's less about comparing what has been happening at federal and national levels and more about the differences at the state and local level. Even under a conservative Howard government in Australia, the country was able to establish initiatives to begin making its cities more sustainable. We have some good examples of progressive communities doing some good things in the U.S., but in Australia it's striking how pervasive the interest in and commitment to sustainability really is. Even five years ago, when I was traveling in Australia, there was always a council sustainability officer in each local government, and there was almost always a local sustainability plan in every community that I visited. Virtually every Australian state has developed a very impressive state-level sustainability strategy. Australian premiers (the equivalent of U.S. governors) are winning campaigns based on very progressive sustainability agendas.
Worldchanging: Peter, at the end of Green Urbanism Down Under, you argue that regional planning is needed in the U.S. Can you describe why regional planning is a better strategy than allowing local governments to decide what's best for their constituents?
Newman: Jefferson and the founding fathers believed that local governments should have power of the land use as a way of counterbalancing any centralized power, and there's a lot of value in that limit of power. But they never would have envisioned that our cities would look like they do now. Transit, for example, is a regional facility. You have to have a coordinated package in terms of money and systems planning.
In Australia we do it better because state governments can override the local governments. That has worked in our favor in the big regional cities. Of course local governments have to work with their local communities and provide the local infrastructure. But it's very hard if you do it entirely bottom up, because the regional governments need a regional infrastructure. The common goal for the broad region is really missing in most American cities. You can't get the same from local governments.
This was the discussion we had this morning with the transition team. This is the big story, the reauthorization bill coming in October: you have to reauthorize the transportation funding bill so that it incorporates the revised regional structure. If you're building out transit for the whole of L.A, you should only get federal funding if you're approving a transit system that's part of a total network. You can tie other funding to that as well, like part of the green economy funds, to encourage smart grids. And they ought to be able to tie affordable housing to that also, because these TODs will become eco enclaves if they don't tie in affordable housing.
Worldchanging: What are the biggest barriers to change?
Newman: Mental block is very critical. In the past, it's been essentially accepted that getting by the way we've always done is okay, and that attitude blocked innovation regarding green technologies. That's all swept away with this new government, and there will be a change of understanding that will follow. You can already see it in a number of corporations who are lining up to show how green they are, and many local governments where green policy has been ignited. The money is there now, and politics is enabling it.
But structures need to change. We're making massive investments in rolling out highways and roads. That needs to change and there will be a lot of people who will get very angry as that needs to happen. There are subsidies to fuel companies that need to be removed, and as carbon trading happens they will continue to disappear.
The transition will be painful. We started building cities around the car in the 1930s, and like each economic transition, there is an important new economy that occurs.
The lobby groups will begin to lose their friends if they don’t begin to do the right thing. It's a little like the last gasp: coal-fired power stations and highways are dying everywhere. They're very dumb technologies and they're not going to help the economy of our cities, and the sooner you get rid of them as priorities for funding, the better.
Worldchanging: Tim, your book is a great step in translating ideas from one culture to another culture so that learning and sharing of ideas can take place. Do you envision any other systems for open sharing of ideas between cultures?
Beatley: I suspect we do need to be doing a lot more of that. I've been very impressed with the value of things like the European Sustainable Cities and Towns network and campaign, that has been a huge opportunity for cities to learn from each other. It also fosters an interesting friendly competition between cities. For example, they have this sustainable city award that is coveted by European mayors, and I have often thought we could use something like that in the U.S.
I think we could do more creative things in terms of partnering with cities around the world. I think we need much more extensive and robust city-to-city partner programs. Ecological sister cities is a notion for connecting cities that has a little bit less to do with tourism, and instead is more about mutual problem solving. For example, if New York City has tackled some particular issue that a city in some other country is struggling with, like water, they can partner and share ideas and best practices.
I think that exchange study tours and field studies are terrific, but I think that unfortunately in the U.S. we don't emphasize this enough. We're taking a group of about 12 graduate students to a couple of cities in Spain over our spring break, and my experience has been that those trips are just profoundly life-altering for the students, for the planners and designers who go on them. They look at the world in a completely different way and their whole professional life changes, because they see potential and possibility they didn't see before.
It seems that in the U.S. we need to overcome an American exceptionalism, the idea that we're so different and our problems are so unique that we can't learn from Cairo or Beijing. I think we need to be more interested in harvesting the good ideas that are bubbling up around the world.