Building Cities as If Energy Matters

Rome was not built in a day, as they say. Neither will our clean-energy world be built in a day, or a year. We must start, however, rebuilding our cities around energy efficiency and human needs, rather than around the car and wasted energy. To a very major degree, the structure of our energy demand is driven by the way we build our cities. As Winston Churchill said, "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us."

Investment decisions in designing the form of our cities—from our transportation choices to the infrastructure that supports urban sprawl—drive future energy demand. If America is to hope to rein in its increasing upward spiral of energy use, we must rethink how we will design and build our infrastructure over the long term. This must be a comprehensive change, from altering how we fund water and sewer line expansion into agricultural lands, to promoting denser, more walkable and livable communities, to providing a rich range of transportation choices from rail to roads to high-speed bus lines and easy bicycle and pedestrian transportation.

Smart growth is not only good energy policy but also has quality-of-life benefits, produces cost savings, and is a tremendous job creator. Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution has demonstrated that dense communities are less costly to maintain, noting that "compact growth can be as much as 70 percent cheaper for governments than equivalent volumes of scattered growth" when such infrastructure services as streets, schools, flood control, and sewers are considered.33 As a driver for job creation, building dense urban communities is also a great engine for investment in quality employment building and maintaining public infrastructure. According to the American Public Transportation Association, $1 billion invested in transit capital projects creates 30,000


This is perhaps the most critical long-term investment in getting off oil. Only by investing in smarter infrastructure will we have the option of reducing our energy use over time by getting out of our cars while still enjoying freedom and mobility. An integrated package of investments in infrastructure—from transit starts, high-speed rail, and road maintenance to more energy-efficient water infrastructure, fully supporting job access and reverse commute programs, and cleaning up brownfield sites in cities to promote smart growth and more walkable and livable communities—will together revitalize the economy and cut our carbon emissions substantially while reducing our thirst for oil.

The Apollo Alliance has estimated that such a federal investment package would cost just under $100 billion over ten years but would leverage two and a half times that amount in direct GDP impacts and the creation of 678,000 jobs, while unleashing many times that amount of investment in private capital in new urban development projects.

These sorts of investments also strengthen local economies by improving job access for workers and redirecting money spent on imported energy into direct local investment in both infrastructure and increased local consumption of goods and services.35

Develop Smart Cities That Demand Less Energy to Run

Promote efficient metropolitan growth. By creating a system of smart-growth tax credits, it would be possible to reward developers for low-energy building projects in high-density areas near public transportation. In addition to directly using the tax code, incentives can include mortgage tools, financial underwriting, and support for bond financing for smart-growth development projects. Agencies such as the Economic Development Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Transportation must all play a role in steering federal money to energy-efficient projects.

Use federal incentives to require on-site renewable energy generation. Frequently, public money plays a very important role in getting large-scale development projects off the ground. Such financial support should include conditions for green-building attributes and distributed renewable energy generation to help build local green-energy markets and to make energy efficiency mainstream. Greening public buildings and affordable housing can help create these new markets.

Require smart-growth planning in conjunction with the use of federal transportation dollars. Metropolitan planning organizations should be required to demonstrate oil savings and reductions in vehicle miles traveled in their regional transportation plans in order to qualify for federal funds. Special technical and financial assistance should be dedicated to states and metropolitan regions that (1) invest in transit corridors and robust rail networks to link major population centers, and (2) apply a strategy of "fix it first" before building new. In addition, the federal funding match for state dollars invested in oil savings and clean energy should be increased. This would drive more resources toward new transit starts, construction of high-speed rail corridors, and construction projects that mitigate congestion and prioritize maintenance of existing transportation infrastructure over new sprawl construction. All of these investments would build denser, more energy-efficient urban environments that are less dependent on both cars and carbon.

Promote the workforce of the future. Besides driving down energy costs, public procurement should invest in high-quality jobs to promote strong livable communities. This includes paying family-supporting wages and employing life-cycle cost analysis not only environmentally but also in labor standards through best-value contracting practices that reward responsible employers in the clean-energy industry. In addition, major infrastructure and energy projects should be required to link to apprenticeship and job training programs, uphold the right to organize a union, and employ community hiring practices to ensure that the green jobs of the future are shared by low-income and minority citizens.

Create a clean-energy jobs corps. Moving our nation away from oil dependence and implementing climate solutions will create tremendous opportunities to engage the enthusiasm and excitement of our young people in national service. Many young adults have been held down by poverty and have lacked access to job opportunities and skills training. A clean-energy jobs corps would create a unifying and vital program to engage the commitment to national service of our college-bound students, while providing meaningful training in the skills of the future for those seeking work. Creating new opportunities—through everything from apprenticeships in energy efficiency, weatherization, and solar installation to internship opportunities at energy service companies and green design firms—would accelerate our clean-energy revolution with the vitality of a national campaign. Building career ladders and service learning opportunities would help to infuse this national effort with the excitement and hope that it deserves, while inspiring our nation's youth with new possibilities, expanding our skilled labor pool, and providing essential training in the jobs of the future for the next generation.

Promote global warming preparedness. Finally, as a nation, we must face the reality that climate change is upon us, and while we must do everything within our power to avert the catastrophe of further global warming, some impacts are already irreversible. Conducting regular national assessments of regional climate impacts, improving community-based emergency planning, encouraging financial risk disclosure, and instituting a state-by-state threat assessment and preparedness ranking system would all go a long way toward preparing the public for the dangers of climate change and building support for reducing emissions to head off the worst potential harms, as well as constructing the infrastructure for responding to irreversible impacts. These would be smart investments in public planning and infrastructure and the centerpiece of a no-regrets strategy for building more resilient communities.36

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