Because climate change is the "ultimate externality," as MIT's Robert Solow has put it, the world of land policy faces complex questions. How much impact does land use have on emissions and energy efficiency? If one city, region or state ties land policies to reducing emissions, will the impact be diluted because the neighboring jurisdiction does not? Are other things more central in the climate debate, such as continued international reliance on coal-fired power plants or the price on carbon?
Those were some of the questions that planners and policy leaders wrestled with at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy's New England Smart Growth Leadership Forum, attended by about 100 people at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Nov. 1. In the conference, titled "Climate Change: The Emerging Role of Land Use," Tufts University research professor Paul Kirshen catalogued the New England industries that are already feeling the results of changes in temperatures: fishing, blueberries and cranberries, maple sugar, dairy farms, and ski resorts to name a few. Steve Winkelman, manager of the transportation program at the Center for Clean Air Policy, explored "why sidewalks are as sexy as hybrids" - that is, how zoning, design, and transportation funding priorities can produce environments that reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT). "Cars last 15 years," he said. "A street grid is for a century." Better ways of quantifying the relationships between the built environment and auto use are needed, he said.
In a panel discussion, Geoff Anderson, director of the EPA's Development, Community and Environment Division, said in the years ahead a new measure may emerge, showing how development of various kinds affects greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. "I'd like to go to the Multiple Listing Service and see it right along with the property tax - how much am I going to drive if I live here?" he said. There may not be a silver bullet to counter the global warming challenge, said Beth Nagusky, project director of Grow Smart Maine, echoing comments by Bill McKibben, "smart growth may be the silver buckshot."
Douglas I. Foy, former secretary of the Office for Commonwealth Development in Massachusetts and founding partner of the firm Serrafix, said in keynote remarks that the framework for land use and settlement patterns is slowly changing. "Congestion is a good thing, not a problem," he said. The goal of transportation policy should shift from mobility to "being there," in walkable or transit-accessible environments.
Armando Carbonell, chair of the Department of Planning and Urban Form at the Lincoln Institute, said there was clearly a role for land policy and cities in the challenge of climate change. "It may be useful to think of cities as great carbon-reduction machines," Carbonell said. "We've got to fix the cars, but we've also got to address VMT growth, and that is done by providing environments where one can walk or take transit. Planners are on the supply side of the problem, providing places for people to live with lots of amenities and diversity in housing - and by the way, such attributes are increasingly in demand anyway."
There may well be a cap-and-trade regime in place in the years ahead and a price on carbon, he said, and at that time urban environments will be even more in demand.
The real estate industry has begun to come to grips with climate change, largely for business reasons. At a recent Urban Land Institute conference, industry leaders expressed concern that office space and other buildings will be obsolete fairly soon because they lack "green building" features. Rising sea levels are also seen as a threat to extensive property holdings in coastal cities.
The Lincoln Institute continues to be engaged on land use and climate change, convening 30 big city planners to share best practices in climate action plans, sponsoring research by New Orleans recovery director Ed Blakely on how urban planning must adapt to the inevitable impacts of global warming, and participating in the Superstition Vistas project on 275 square miles of desert state trust lands in Arizona, new development with a goal of being carbon-neutral.