With the dust settling on the Paris climate talks and the difficult process of international negotiation over, the even harder process of confronting climate change begins. Unsurprisingly, transitioning to a less carbon-dependent economy and society will require sacrifice, hard work, open dialogue, and strict accountability—not to mention overcoming tremendously powerful economic structures and political opposition. Yet, tackling climate change is not only about conjuring up herculean strength or unleashing torrents of technological innovation. Rather, overcoming our carbon dependence should be seen as an opportunity to rethink for the better an institution largely shaped by and for fossil fuel: our cities.
For the past 100 years, urban life has been indelibly shaped by the ample consumption of carbon. Our dependence on the automobile can be traced back in part to Eisenhower’s 1956 Federal Highway Act, in which the American government at all levels—city, state, and federal— transformed the American urban landscape into one entirely dominated by concrete. Decades later, it is no surprise that the vast majority of the CO2 emitted by cities is caused by automobile use.
Around the same time as the Federal Highway Act, new land use policies were put in place that zoned cities into sections separated by their uses and densities. With federally backed mortgages making home ownership easy, the combination of these trends led to the exponential growth of suburbs, and along with it the demand for gasoline. Once compact, dense, and walkable, the American city today is sprawling and dispersed—and more dependent than ever on fossil fuel to sustain its infrastructure. Continue reading
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