In his March 30 speech on energy at Georgetown University, President Obama declared that “there are no quick fixes” with regard to the country’s energy policy, and noted that huge amounts of the nation’s wealth and petroleum consumption are directly tied to transportation.
While the President’s acknowledgment of this reality is a step in the right direction, any energy independence vision must include marshaling the power of local governments to address a fundamental issue: our unsustainable dependence on the auto-based economy.
Our cities and towns are a key component of addressing climate change, and this must be matched by serious and forward-thinking urban planning. It is encouraging to witness President Obama stress the importance of a reduction of reliance on fossil fuels, but an increased reliance on biofuels, domestic oil drilling and natural gas must also be coupled with better growth policies and empowerment of localities to build more energy independent communities.
It is certainly heartening that the president recognizes the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the issue of land use and an informed growth policy in our communities must be included if we are to truly become energy independent. Our energy policy should also address the root of the issue – the fact that we are continuing to build our communities in ways that demand the reliance on foreign oil. But across the nation, local solutions are working towards oil independence. We’re seeing more and more well-planned communities that are walkable, and that incorporate mass transit or biking, allowing for more transportation choices and a higher quality of life.
- Portland, OR, is, not surprisingly, a prime example of a city that has lead the way on reducing greenhouse gas emissions through urban planning and alternative modes of transport. Portland has made a robust investment in clean transportation and bike paths, and the city estimates that these efforts have reduced the amount of car trips by an average of 65 million per year.
- The town of Rockville, MD, understands the importance of city planning and transit as well. King Farm, a high-density, mixed-use community, incorporates an innovative system of narrow streets, light rail, buses, and bike paths that link nearby parks, businesses, and schools.
- The state of North Carolina is also making the connection between cities and sustainability. In February 2011, legislation was passed to begin work on the Sustainable Communities Task Force, sponsored by State Senator Floyd B. McKissick and Representative Jennifer Weiss. The initiative will include provisions to help develop a sustainable practices scoring system for North Carolina municipalities and distribute $250,000 in grants to regional sustainability projects. The legislation’s overarching goal is to bring together local government officials, business leaders, and urban planners to address climate change through incorporating an integrated, planned approach to transit and housing at the neighborhood level.
President Obama’s energy perspective includes steps in the right direction. Substantial investments in clean energy like solar or wind power and retrofitting buildings to make them more energy and cost efficient are vital measures. However, local government solutions to our development patterns that keep us dependent on foreign oil must be a key part of any nationwide solution. Ambitious federal commitment to encourage a more sustainable approach like the Sustainable Communities Initiative and Livable Communities Act are steps in the right direction, but their future lies in question. A fresh, calculated approach to how we build our cities will be a crucial part of our efforts to address climate change and to sustain the vitality and vibrancy of our urban centers.
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