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Island Press
Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post Carbon World

Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post Carbon World

by Patrick M. Condon, Robert Yaro
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781597266505
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 04/23/2010
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 10.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Patrick M. Condon is a Professor at the University of British Columbia, affiliated with the James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Liveable Environments. He is the author of numerous books including Design Charrettes for Sustainable Communities (Island Press).

Read an Excerpt

Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities

Design Strategies for the Post Carbon World

By Patrick M. Condon


Copyright © 2010 Patrick M. Condon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-820-2



In 2002, scientists sounded the alarm about the loss of ice on the Arctic Ocean. Global warming was affecting the arctic climate more rapidly than anyone had previously thought possible. They predicted that if nothing was done to curb the level of greenhouse gas (GHG) pouring into the atmosphere there might be no summer ice covering the North Pole by 2050. Early in 2009, they updated their projection. Given the rate of ice loss, the new date by which the Arctic Circle will be ice free could be as soon as 2012. The loss of ice triggers other effects, none of them good. The white ice that once reflected warming sun rays no longer does so. The deep blue ocean water that takes its place absorbs those rays, warming the water and further accelerating the warming of the planet. Bad things happen in threes. The added heat also releases methane gas that was previously trapped under polar ice. Methane gas, like carbon dioxide (CO2), traps heat in the atmosphere, but molecule per molecule it is many times more damaging. The cascading effects of climate change, previously predicted for the distant future, are already here.

Experts at the United Nations–sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) all agree that the two-degree-Celsius rise in global temperature, the so-called "safe" level of warming that we will still get even if we cut GHG emissions by 80 percent, is a rise that is unavoidable. The IPCC predicts that, even at this "safe" temperature increase, up to 50 percent of the planet's species will become extinct. But we are on a path where GHG produced from the burning of fossil fuels is not dropping but increasing rapidly. With a five-degree rise, much more would be lost. Former U.S. vice president Al Gore, when seated before a U.S. Senate hearing on climate change held in January 2009, was asked if a five-degree rise in global temperature would "end life as we know it". "No, Senator," he replied, "people will survive in some form, but likely all of our institutions would collapse and billions would die."

What have all of these gloomy scenarios to do with a book on city design? Everything. If we change the way cities are built and retrofitted, we can prevent the blackest of the nightmare scenarios from becoming real and can create the conditions for a livable life for our children and grandchildren. It is not apocalyptic to say we can save their lives.

Normally, GHG production is described by sector. We often read that buildings account for about half of all GHG production; transportation, for about 25 percent; and industry, for most of the rest. But this division obscures a fundamental point: cities are responsible for 80 percent of all GHG—caused by the way we build and arrange our buildings, by all the stuff we put in them, and by how we move from one building to the next. Since the problem is caused by cities, the solution should be there too.

Citizens and their elected officials have been slow to acknowledge the connection between GHG and urban form. This book may help change that. It is written for designers, policy makers, developers, regulators, and ordinary citizens in the hope that it will arm them with an understanding of the ways our cities are failing and offer them very specific actions to cure them.


In any journey, it helps to start with a look back from where we once came. Various historical starting points could be studied, but the end of World War II marks the time after which cities changed the most. Many compelling reasons drove the crucial choices we made at that time; foremost among these was the need for a place to live.

After World War II, a variety of policy inducements provoked a massive redistribution of population across metropolitan landscapes. In the United States, the mortgage interest income tax deduction, low interest GI loans, restricting new mortgages through bank "red lining" of older residential areas, and the 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, which funded the construction of the interstate highway system, were most significant. Provoked by these inducements, middle-class and working-class families who had traditionally occupied higher density walkable and transit-served neighborhoods fled to much lower density and car-dependent suburbs. Average densities began to fall in every North American metropolitan area, while transit ridership as a percentage of all trips began to fall with it. Older, prewar parts of the metropolitan landscape still maintained healthy transit ridership, but transit use in newer areas was near zero.

As North Americans moved from transit to cars, their per capita GHG amounts began to rise too. Of course, no one worried. GHG production was not important at that time, as the implications of this increase were not widely known and were even less widely accepted. Buying fuel for the family car was also not a concern, as prices were low. The brand-new high-speed freeways provided previously unimaginable freedom of motion, allowing workers to hold jobs twenty-five or more miles from home. This was a massive change that fundamentally altered the reach of cities. In 1950, the Boston metropolitan urbanized area was only 345 square miles. In 2000, it sprawled over 1,736 square miles, a quintupling in only five decades (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000a).

During this period of dramatic metropolitan expansion, land was generally less expensive on the peripheries. This made it profitable to build residential developments ever farther away from the metropolitan center, with single-family homes generally dropping in price as one moved farther out. This concentric reduction in house prices gave rise to the saying "drive till you qualify," a widely used phrase meaning that home buyers were induced to push a home search farther and farther from the center of the region until their income matched the qualification requirements for the mortgage.

With so much unprecedented freedom of movement in this new urban landscape, house price became much more important than location. A distant job was easy to reach, and shopping centers catering to millions of auto nomads were soon to come. Eventually, vast stretches of the metropolitan landscape become completely car dependent, forcing individuals and families to spend more and more time behind the wheel and to rack up ever increasing vehicle-miles traveled (VMT).

The new single-family homes were not only auto dependent but, because of their shape and exposure to the elements, also inherently hard to heat. We now know that the GHG production of this style of home is up to four times greater per capita than that of home types common to older center cities.

Not only price but school quality strongly influenced location decision. Here, newer communities had a distinct advantage over older ones. Newly developing areas had new schools, whereas older areas had older schools that were populated by children from families without the economic resources to follow the migration and that were located in cities hampered by declining property values to fund them adequately. Of course, the new schools were sprawling one-story buildings that were impossible to reach on foot, requiring expensive fleets of carbon-producing buses to ferry children back and forth.

Unquestionably, this new low-density and car-dependent development pattern successfully supplied millions of new housing units at prices that North Americans could afford. This success has led many to claim that sprawling urban areas are more affordable than those with metropolitan growth controls. For example, for decades well-financed lobbying groups have attacked Oregon's growth controls, in force since 1974, on this ground, even though Portland's housing costs are lower than other similar-sized western U.S. communities, such as San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco, and Sacramento—all metropolitan areas with no such laws. Thus, the claim that low density is more affordable than higher density cannot be credible. This is especially true when transportation costs are considered. The more sprawling the metropolitan area is, the higher the percentage of family budget devoted to auto use. When these additional costs are factored in, the "affordable" house in a third-ring suburb is not nearly so affordable, a fact made sadly obvious when in 2008 the combination of sky-high gas prices and the mortgage meltdown led to the virtual abandonment of many subdivisions in third ring suburbs.

Low-density sprawl also costs much more per dwelling unit to service than does higher density development. A subdivision of single-family and duplex units on 2,800- to 3,300-square-foot lots can be serviced for 75 percent less per dwelling unit than can single-family homes on larger lots of 8,000 to 9,000 square feet. The cost of providing streets and utilities to a new home can be substantial. Each home requires a certain amount of paved street, storm drains, and utilities before it can be occupied. At lower densities, the cost of providing required streets and services can be over $100,000 per dwelling unit. Home buyers are seldom aware of this cost, which is always buried in the cost of the home purchase, and thus do not know that streets and pipes can account for over 20 percent of the purchase price. This cost can make the difference between a home that is affordable and one that is not. When houses are built at higher densities, they are closer together. Thus, the length of roadway and utilities required to get from one house to the next is reduced as lot sizes shrink. If a lot holds two dwelling units, then the cost for servicing each dwelling unit is cut by half again. The land component of the house cost will also be proportionately less as density increases, since the cost of an acre of land can be recouped on the sale of more houses.


The "drive till you qualify" concentric rings of increasing affordability discussed above do not capture the whole story. After World War II, a second, finer-grain distinction emerged, particularly noticeable in metropolitan landscapes made up of dozens of quite small, formerly rural communities, such as Boston's. Whether by accident or intent, formerly rural towns now part of Boston's suburban ring adopted zoning policies that narrowed the income range of new residents. Towns that allowed subdivisions made up of lots of one eighth, one quarter, or one half acre attracted middle-class and lower-middle-class home buyers. Towns that allowed only large lots of two, four, or five acres per dwelling unit attracted only upperincome earners. Land in towns with the large lots was quickly used up (it only takes 122 houses at 1 house per five acres to consume a square mile of land). Exclusive zoning increased the average number of VMT as home buyers, unable to afford homes in the low-density communities near where they worked, could only buy homes in distant communities and make long daily commutes. In many cases, these low-density communities went so far as to exclude any new commercial development to serve new residents, leaving it to neighboring communities to supply supermarkets and other shops, further increasing the need to drive.


The cracks in the system began to emerge after the 1974 "oil shock," a supply constraint caused when the OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) nations cut off the flow of oil to the West. Spending long hours in line for gas exposed the weakness of the economy to interruptions in the flow of imported oil, by now a clearly vital resource. At first the response was significant, provoking a shift away from larger cars and a lowering of speed limits to save fuel. But over the longer term, the lesson went unlearned. Dependence on imported oil has increased dramatically in the intervening decades, and average fuel consumption per capita has risen sharply and steadily, only reaching a plateau in 2007. Also unfortunate: scientists who began loudly sounding the alarm about global warming at this time were largely ignored, and with the election in the United States of Ronald Reagan, a man who had no interest in energy conservation, the moment was lost. During the 1980s and 1990s, suburban low-density development moved the United States from being a country where most of its residents lived in former streetcar-served districts, where alternatives to the car were possible, to one where the majority of residents lived in districts that were completely auto dependent.

Rather than put in place national, state, and regional policies to reverse or at least mitigate an ever rising per capita use of fuel for the single passenger automobile, the reverse occurred. U.S. transportation bills from the 1970s through the 1990s favored expanding the interstates and feeder highways over transit; no policy proposals to require walking-distance access to transit and commercial services in new districts were ever seriously considered. Canada fared somewhat better. The Canadian federal government was happy to collect a substantial gas tax but, unlike the U.S. government, was under no obligation to return it to the provinces in the form of highway funds. Thus, Canadian cities have far fewer freeway miles per capita than do U.S. cities.

Absent any national, state, and provincial policies, average densities in metropolitan regions continued to drop until at least the year 2000. Exceptions were few, with Vancouver, British Columbia, and Portland, Oregon, notable among them. More numerous were the extreme examples of centrifugal forces pushing population to peripheries, impelled by vast new highway expenditures, even where regional population was stable. Detroit and St. Louis are two instructive examples. Unabated freeway construction even absent significant population increase has left many neighborhoods in older center cities of St. Louis and Detroit virtually abandoned; both cities lost two thirds of their population to the suburbs during that period.

Current aerial photos of a once-attractive single-family-home neighborhood in Detroit show urban blocks with all but one or two houses razed (figure 1.7). The same population that once lived there has since spread out over a landscape four times its original size. Now an urban population that prior to World War II lived almost entirely in walkable, transit-served communities mostly lives in auto-dependent, low-density districts.

Infinitely Increasing Car Dependence

All of these forces combined to create an entirely new U.S. and Canadian urban landscape. Many thoughtful voices argue that this is a good landscape where families can find a house they can afford with a yard for the kids in a community of their own choosing. This is a strong argument, but one that can be sustained only if we are willing to forever increase the percentage of national treasures we commit to highway construction, the amount of personal wealth we pour into the gas pump, and the amount of carbon we pour into the atmosphere.

The trends are not hopeful. Per capita driving has increased alarmingly for decades, and until 2008, when fuel costs leapt briefly to over four dollars per gallon, was increasingly inelastic (meaning not responsive to market signals, such as increased fuel price). For most people, driving is no longer a discretionary expense. They cannot just shift to walking or taking mass transit in auto-dependent landscapes; there are no sidewalks to walk on, there are no walkable destinations to walk to, and for all intents and purposes there are no buses to catch. Absent a practical way to shift to alternative modes, residents in auto-dependent landscapes can economize only by cutting discretionary car trips, forcing families to give up the leisure or social activities they once enjoyed to preserve precious fuel for trips to work. Much of the 2008 drop in VMT seems a consequence of such sad choices.

Auto-dominated landscapes have forced families to devote ever larger shares of their income to transportation, a share that now, for the first time in history, approaches the share consigned to paying for a home. Whereas in 1965 most families owned one car, now two cars is the norm. The increase in two-income households has contributed strongly to this trend. The two incomes needed to pay off the mortgage on the home can be maintained only if both workers have a car to get to work. Dropping children at daycare and driving older children to otherwise inaccessible schools makes a car even more indispensable.

But it's not just "bread winners" who need a car. Everyone of driving age needs one. To be without a car in these landscapes imprisons one in the home, leading to a craving for escape with a car as the means. But in this case, escape does not mean freedom.


Excerpted from Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities by Patrick M. Condon. Copyright © 2010 Patrick M. Condon. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


About Island Press,
Title Page,
Copyright Page,
CHAPTER 1 - Introduction,
CHAPTER 2 - Restore the Streetcar City,
CHAPTER 3 - Design an Interconnected Street System,
CHAPTER 4 - Locate Commercial Services, Frequent Transit, and Schools within a Five-minute Walk,
CHAPTER 5 - Locate Good Jobs Close to Affordable Homes,
CHAPTER 6 - Provide a Diversity of Housing Types,
CHAPTER 7 - Create a Linked System of Natural Areas and Parks,
CHAPTER 8 - Invest in Lighter, Greener, Cheaper, Smarter Infrastructure,
Island Press | Board of Directors,

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