Sidewalks and Climate Change

[Weather change affects sidewalks by snowing on them. Climate change affects people by making them use sidewalks.]

The climate change conference is wrapping up this week, and people all over the world are justifiably talking about how the US needs to cut its carbon emissions. 350 parts per million, 1990 emissions levels, 20% reductions by 2020, etc.

But all these numbers don’t seem to have much meaning. They’re abstract. They make you think of smokestacks or coal mines or hot and humid greenhouses with polar bears growing in them. They make you think about the milquetoast list at the end of Al Gore’s movie, maybe something about buying a Prius. But what does cutting carbon emissions really mean?

To put it quite simply, cutting carbon emissions means sidewalks. If we Americans are at all serious about fighting climate change, we’re going to have to start by changing our cities.

[Transportation is a huge chunk of US carbon emissions. We use far more of our energy in our cars and trucks than other countries. Img. BTS]

Cutting these numbers means dramatically reducing the amount of oil that we use in our cars and trucks. It means changing how much, and how far, we move around. Luckily, we have amazing new advanced technology that will replace these inefficient, CO2 spewing machines…

We all have feet, which, given advanced futuristic shoe and rubber technology, will step in to fill the car-sized hole in our lives.

Imagine the future...

Picture yourself walking to and from bus stops, schools, workplaces, corner stores, smaller movie theaters…

Are you happy? Of course you are!

On top of that, by designing walkable cities, we will necessarily start making smaller, denser homes that will reduce the energy spent on heating, another big contributor to climate change. If we start living in sidewalk-centered cities, we can cut emissions in both short- and long-terms, and the effects will begin to multiply as our everyday lives become more closely intertwined with feet.

(Granted, I am not remotely optimistic about much of this happening, or mattering. I have asymptotically close-to-zero hopes about governments reigning in their rates of GDP growth, which are very closely tied to fossil fuel use. Even the UK, one of the most aggressive Western countries at changing public policy, isn't meeting its goals. Though, they are kicking our English-speaking asses. And even re-designing cities won't really solve our problems. Carbon is pretty central to almost everything we do or produce as an industrial capitalist society.)

But, if change begins at home, then climate change begins at sidewalks. A low-carbon future will look a lot like our low-carbon pasts: sidewalks and dense living, walking far more and drive much less, neighborhoods replacing freeways as the centers of activity. Frankly, its not so bad.

[Famed urban designer, Jan Gehl, talks about what other (cold) cities can learn from Copenhagen about reducing auto-dependence and cutting carbon emissions.]


Anonymous said...


Andy Lane said...

So, will people ever walk in the winter in MN? I know I'm tempted to drive even the shortest distance when it's zero out and my neighbors have blithely left their sidewalks to turn into ice-rinks.

In fact, any time I drive anywhere, I feel guilty. But miserably waiting for a bus in the cold and dark just to go buy groceries when I have a car sitting right there takes far more resolve than I have.

When I lived in the UK, I'd walk 2 miles each way to the shops without even thinking about it. (But I didn't have a car then, either).

Maybe this place just isn't properly habitable.

Anonymous said...

Maybe minneapolis should build an urban ski-way. Like the skyway, but through snow, at ground level.