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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist
Stop dancing with dinosaurs
WASHINGTON — Call it, if you will, a converging of the dots. There's no question that America is moving far too slowly toward the greener, more energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable ways that a century of global turmoil, climate change and likely severe fuel emergencies clearly demands.
Even so, some bits of fresh evidence suggest the country's gluttonous energy and land consumption ways may be starting to turn course, with luck in time to avoid being a 21st-century Titanic.
Helped along by multiple scientific warnings and most recently Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," we're beginning to take the threats of global warming far more seriously. On June 5, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously voted to call for sharp reductions in fossil-fuel use in all buildings — both for construction and heating-cooling. The breathtaking goal: to make the nation's building stock "carbon-neutral," using no more fuels made from oil, coal or natural gas, by 2030.
The stakes are immense. Buildings account for 48 percent of total U.S. energy consumption, well ahead of transportation (27 percent) and industry (25 percent). The mayors' resolution calls for immediate steps to cut back fossil fuel demand for new buildings by 50 percent, massive energy-saving renovation of existing buildings and a 10 percent cutback in buildings' total fossil-fuel use each five years to 2030.
Among methods to be used: more-efficient heating, cooling and ventilating of buildings; green and recycled building materials; and buying renewable (solar, wind, geothermal and biomass) energy.
For the mayors, the new targets aren't as revolutionary as one would guess. Last year, they adopted a climate-protection agreement — since signed by 238 cities — to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 7 percent from 1990 levels by 2012. While the Bush administration has waffled and ducked on climate protection, America's cities have taken a strong lead.
Notwithstanding $3-a-gallon gasoline, progress is likely to come slower in auto and truck use. Even as oil creeps toward $100 a barrel and news stories dwell on outraged SUV drivers shelling out $70 a tank, people shy away from recognizing "the ultimate reason we use so much energy — our physical development," notes Anthony Flint in a new book, "This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America."
What's more, most of the inducements for sprawl are still in place — easy zoning, lower land costs, perception of better schools, and increasing unaffordability of housing in many cities and closer-in suburbs.
Still, real-estate agents report that home buyers have reacted to the gas-price hikes of the last year by inquiring more about locations in walking distance of public transit lines or shopping.
"The playing field is suddenly tipped in our direction," said famed Miami architect/planner Andres Duany, at the meeting of the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) in Providence, R.I., earlier this month.
The New Urbanism approach is no slam dunk. On an acre-for-acre basis in new development, backers acknowledge, it's not yet contending seriously with sprawl. Despite about 600 New Urbanist developments around the U.S., the movement's principles are followed in less than 1 percent of new construction, estimates Peter Katz, CNU's founding executive director. "But we've gone from being taken as eccentrics to mainstream. Builder magazines feature our work prominently. It's clearly where the industry's going — the new 'norm' for good growth."
An important stimulus may come soon with impending agreement on building standards for neighborhood-based projects between the New Urbanists and the U.S. Green Building Council — sponsor of the widely recognized "LEED" building rating system for energy-conserving buildings.
Right now a LEED-certified building can be anywhere as long as it saves energy internally. The aim of the new program, called LEED-ND (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design for Neighborhood Developments), is to certify only projects that are in a good regional location, are part of a walkable, diverse neighborhood, and employ high-performance green technology.
"Under this vision," says Chicago architect Doug Farr of the CNU Environmental Task Force, "both urbanists who pick bad regional sites and don't embrace technology, and green building practitioners who ignore location and context, will be dancing with dinosaurs."
Dancing with dinosaurs! Let's hope, indeed, that our old, collective, incredibly wasteful ways get corrected as the progressive forces — architects, builders, businesses, environmental, community development and smart-growth groups, and local governments — start combining to connect the dots. If they succeed, the prize could be sensational: transforming "sustainability" from abstract theory to growing reality of how we build, commute, breathe — and survive.
Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
2006, Washington Post Writers Group