by Todd Jones
I’ve always been interested in land use planning and transportation as an environmental sub-discipline. So when I heard Peter Calthorpe on National Public Radio talking about his new book, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change, I went straight online and ordered a copy. Well, not straight. First, I went into a bookstore (a what?) and asked for it. They told me it was categorized as a textbook and I had to order it online. I would not be deterred however, not even by the $35.00 price tag.
I beamed when it finally arrived. I ran it into the house and destroyed the packaging. “It’s…it’s really thin,” I said out loud. That $35.00 price tag was starting to smart a little. 130 pages soaking wet. Given the complexity of both urbanism and climate change, I was disappointed before even opening it.
I had taken a couple classes on urban land use planning and transportation in grad school, and even written a couple papers of my own on the subject (one that was upwards of 50 pages long, which I thought must rival Calthorpe’s book in terms of sheer length). I looked over at my copy of The Reluctant Metropolis on the bookshelf, easily my favorite of the books I’ve read on the subject—400+ pages. I’m no expert, but I knew enough to know something had to be missing from Calthorpe’s book.
Still, I thought, he sounded great on NPR, and he’s a big deal. I looked back at my bookshelf and saw the battered spine of Blaikie’s The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries, a book scarcely 200 pages long that absolutely transformed my view of environmental science and policy once upon a time. Reinvigorated, I sat with my new book and prepared myself for another Blaikie moment.
In spite of infographics that are distracting at best and confusing at worst, this book is an accessible outline of how climate and land use are related, and a vivid vision for sustainable, climate-smart growth. Calthorpe presents urbanism (and in its most advanced form, green urbanism) as a critical solution to rising greenhouse gas emissions and other resource issues, but also as the most suitable and modern design approach, which brings various other social and economic benefits.
He lays out the various elements of urbanism and presents important ideas like regional planning, mixed-use zoning, and the urban transit network. He makes thoughtful arguments for design over engineering, place-based design approaches, improving accessibility over transportation, integration of planning professions over specialization and departmentalization, and human-scale development with community-scale services. He explains important concepts like transit-oriented development (TOD), systems efficiency, walkability, human scale, community, diversity, conservation, and connectivity. He also provides a useful new lexicon of zoning and planning terms as a part of a new planning tool, The Urban Footprint.
Alas however, no Blaikie moment. It’s all just a successful introduction to what should be a much heftier work. Though Calthorpe occasionally uses examples to illustrate these concepts, he fails to adequately put them to use for the reader. He never unpacks them or contextualizes them in the political, social, and historical ecology of any place in particular. He never situates his vision amidst the power relations that constrain all resource use, especially land. We are denied the gritty reality of what it takes to achieve the political and social change needed to achieve changes to the physical environment.
It is case studies that are missing. Case studies are different than examples. They don’t just explain the “what,” but the “how” as well. “How” is the question that’s really begged by this book. The “what” (urbanism) and the “why” (climate change) are well covered. “Where” is tackled in general but not specific terms. “Who” is also conspicuously muted. But the absence of “how” leaves the whole story feeling hypothetical. How can we implement all of this? Not in general, but in particular. How has it happened before? How has it failed before and why? Who wins and who loses?
Fulton’s The Reluctant Metropolis is chock-full of horror stories, ways that entrenched political interests and historical processes in land use decisionmaking can prescribe the type of development that occurs, regardless of community involvement or individual effort. This helps explain why Los Angeles looks and works the auto-centric way it does. Calthorpe gives us a brief history of land use development in America in his second chapter, but it’s depoliticized and so it stops well short at: the auto suburb was once suited to our lifestyles and now it is not. Sprawl is still a black box. This depoliticized history yields a depoliticized prescription. But regional planning, for example, involves questions of municipal autonomy for crying out loud. This can’t work the same everywhere. Calthorpe essentially offers up a toolkit but without any information about the worksite or conditions. As a result, many or all of the tools may be completely unsuitable for the work, or worse yet, may yield an entirely unintended product.
My second chief complaint with Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change is that it is focused squarely on the next wave of growth, not existing sprawl. Perhaps that is not the aim of the book, in which case it’s hardly a fair criticism, but I am curious how we get from sprawl to green urbanism. And how do we break the cycle of sprawl once it’s in place, since existing sprawl will demand auto-centric development suited to sprawl. In so many areas, we are not starting from scratch. How would walkable, mixed-use development work when it’s surrounded by sprawl? Would it work at all? Perhaps it all goes back to regional planning, which needs to account for integration of existing outlying low-density areas with new urbanism. There is some discussion of urban infill, redevelopment, and retrofit in the book, but Calthorpe’s examples are limited to either redevelopment of individual lots in an already dense downtown or new urban designs for undeveloped swaths.
Both of my chief complaints illustrate a crisis of context for the book: the sociopolitical and historical context as well as the existing physical built environment.
I realize I’ve been heavy with the Tabasco in this review, so let me emphasize that this book is worth reading (though perhaps not buying in hardback), especially if you’re new to the subject. It’s certainly not that Calthorpe has nothing new to say. He clearly has a great deal of experience and I hope that in future volumes he decides to ground the work in these experiences and paint a decidedly less apolitical picture…with fewer infographics.
Todd Jones is manager of Green-e Climate, and lives in a neighborhood he can afford with a walk score of 65. He can be reached at todd [at] resource-solutions.org