It’s easy to become a cynic about the state of the American citizen’s covetous psyche. The expansion of our desires long ago exceeded the boundaries of our wallets resulting in the constant expansion of the federal government and not just the lowest national savings rate in history but also culminating in a negative savings rate—most Americans spend more than they make.
But it is in times of calamity that the true spirit of Americans shines brightest, attested too by the collective selflessness of our citizens following 9/11, the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. When properly motivated to action, there is no nation on the planet more capable and more willing to help a neighbor in need. I believe this about Americans with every fiber in my body.
Today, our nation’s problematic petroleum paradigm is a serious vulnerability for the United States and a drain on our individual budgets and a constraint on economic growth. However, solving the P3 is a potentially lethal weapon against terrorism and given that our uniformed sons and daughters have been warring in the middle east for eight years in significant part because of our oil addiction, the most pro-American, “I support the troops,” “buy American” act we can endeavor. Reducing our need for oil is the most patriotic issue of the day.
One of the most significant ways we can reduce demand for oil and improve our qualities of life is to alter the composition of our local communities. These are choices American families can make today and which forward thinking urban planners can aid. Suburban sprawl, far removed from our economic centers, is a monument to the global misunderstanding about the role of oil in geo-politics, formulated when oil was thought to be cheap, accessible and secure.
It would be trite to say that more suburbanites simply need to move closer to the cities—a trend underway in several cities attested to by the sustained property values of residences closer to cities and mass transportation hubs. Importantly, there simply isn’t enough space in already land-constrained districts. Moreover, such a mass exodus by well-to-do suburbanites back towards city-centers would force less affluent citizens to move out, thus shackling those with the fewest resources with the greatest transportation burden particularly in an absence of established mass transit systems in our suburbs.
In the most innovative cities the urban development trend is mixed-use zoning policies. Areas that are built around a mass transit access point allowing easier and less energy intensive access to city-centers are popping up from D.C. to Portland. These mixed-use development centers have a variety of housing options from single-family homes (though often on smaller lots than the most recent suburban sprawl) to townhouses and apartments. Additionally, business space is interwoven both for service-oriented companies and also for the stables of modern existence—groceries, entertainment, dry cleaning, barbers, and restaurants. These town centers become professional, recreational and social gathering places for Americans of all ages and are easily accessed by foot, bike, or a short drive. Town centers use land more efficiently by emphasizing vertical construction while recognizing the evolving desire to blend our work, family and social lives. More than anything else, the modern American is short on time. Town centers return dividends on this scarce resource by collocating the services and commodities we need most thus reducing time in transit from one provider to another. No longer trapped and isolated in our cars and rushing through cold, impersonal, cavernous stores we increase personal contact with friends, coworkers and neighbors in ways that draw us closer together. Beyond their obvious patriotic advantages, town centers represent societies sharing their lives and experiences.
Connecting local citizens to both the smaller, outlying town centers which become the mini-hubs of daily life and to the larger cities around which town-centers orbit can be an urban planning challenge and capital intensive to build new infrastructure. However, more creative examples exist such as Bogota, Columbia’s Transmilenio that essentially created a city-wide surface subway system with cutting-edge bus service utilizing existing streets.
It is chic to look for the fastest and most impressive gains in energy efficiency to come from technology. This techno-chauvinsim in American thought might dated from the atomic bomb’s success in bringing an end to the Second World War, but techno-chauvinism removes emphasis from the greatest instrument of change at our disposal—our individual and collective will as Americans. As Headmaster Albus Dumbledore noted to young Harry Potter, “It is our choices….that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Americans have a long history of rising to a challenge and doing what is necessary under difficult circumstances. Americans have decisions to make but it is the role of good policy to facilitate easier transitions and promote the general welfare. Innovative mass transportation solutions and the addition of town-centers to existing suburban sprawl can bolster plunging property values in the suburbs, promote an end to our problematic petroleum paradigm and pump money back into the economy.
Reducing our need for oil is the most patriotic issue of the day. Viewing urban planning through this lens opens the door to a variety of effective, community-enhancing, options that conserve the investments we’ve already made and engage Americans as part of the solution, and when Americans are part of the solution, all things are possible.