Town planning: a missing link in the struggle to cut emissions

The built environment is responsible for a big chunk of our carbon emissions. There cannot be a solution without big changes to the way we plan and operate our urban centres. [14 July 2009 | Peter Boyer]

It’s hard to visualise carbon entering the atmosphere. Television producers turn repeatedly to images of car exhaust pipes and industry smokestacks — clichés of global warming that have seriously skewed our notion of why we have a carbon problem and who’s responsible.

Exhaust pipes and chimneys are just the end stage of a long process that shifts carbon from its natural storages out into the air. And the biggest contributor to this process are the human life support infrastructures of the developed world: our built environment.

Making and using homes, workplaces, streets, and water, gas and electricity supply lines produce between a third and a half of all emissions in the developed world. According to a recent European study published by Energy Policy, with a determined effort we could reduce that by 80 percent.

A compelling case for radically changing our perspective on the built environment — especially our urban planning processes — was made at a recent Hobart seminar by Professor Roger Fay and Geoff Clark of the University of Tasmania’s architecture and design school.

Their message to the seminar was that our battle to cut carbon emissions will be doomed if we put our faith in technological and economic “fixes”, like fuel-efficient vehicles and emissions trading schemes, and fail to create a built environment that can function in an energy-scarce world.

Australian cities, towns, homes and workplaces, they said, were among the world’s worst in terms of energy efficiency, with enormous urban footprints and long distances to traverse. Per person, our sprawling cities and towns cover roughly 12 times the area of older cities in Europe.

Prof. Fay and Mr Clark recommend an urgent re-think of how we deal with our built environment with the aims of:

• reducing urban sprawl rather than expanding it, clearly defining and rigorously enforcing town and city boundaries and creating self-reliant, more close-knit communities.

• building more efficient transport systems and energy management into all planning regulations, requiring “green” attributes such as better building insulation and renewable energy generation.

• making our built environment more self-reliant, along with our lives in it, preparing for more difficult times ahead by seeking greater local autonomy, as was the case before the emergence of modern technology and globalisation.

• making our cities and towns more eco-friendly, containing greater biodiversity and more in tune with natural, physical realities and human imperatives.

“We need to break our ingrained perceptions [and] modify our habits to prepare ourselves for dramatic change,” Mr Clark said. “Reliance on global economies and technology represents significant risk, which will compound as climate and other pressures increase. We must aim to become autonomous.”

“Functioning within a dramatically different global condition makes good sense. Tweaking is out of the question; dramatic change is required and luck favours the prepared.”

As I see it, that pretty well sums up what we must do across the board, and makes clear — as if this was needed — that action to reduce fossil fuel emissions demands integrated, coordinated, far-sighted, bipartisan policy and action at all levels of government.

• Last week I discussed how people are taking initiatives to build better communities. A shining example of this is Source, a community wholefoods centre set up by some hard-working, dedicated young people on formerly disused land at the University of Tasmania’s Sandy Bay campus.

Source’s management and meeting centre, a spectacular mud-strawbale structure, is a focal point for an organic food cooperative, emerging community gardens and orchards, composting and water recycling facilities and a native revegetation project.

Next Saturday, Source will hold its second annual Winterfeast, an evening banquet with entertainment and a showcase of Tasmanian produce, at Wesley Hall, Melville Street, Hobart, with proceeds supporting further enhancement of this valuable community resource. You can get your tickets at Eco Haven, 71 Murray Street, Hobart.

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