Alex Steffen on Carbon-Zero Cities

In 2003, environmental journalist Alex Steffen and Jamais Cascio started a blog called Worldchanging that focused on innovative solutions to the planet’s problems. The blog attracted a global audience and became one of the most trafficked sustainability sites on the Internet. Wired columnist Bruce Sterling called it “the most important website on the planet” and it won numerous awards, including two Webbys, before shutting down in 2010 due to lack of funding. Since then, the site has merged with Architecture for Humanity and will re-launch in October of this year.

Alex Steffen recently published an ebook, Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities That Can Save the Planet, that explores the technology and design innovations that could “transform our cities into low-carbon engines of prosperity.” Earth Day founder Denis Hayes says that Steffen “may be the world’s boldest, most innovative thinker about future cities.” We caught up with him to talk about some of the ideas in his book. This is an edited version of our conversation.

Theresa Riley: What inspired you to write Carbon Zero?

Alex Steffen:Having paid attention to the debate about climate change as it’s emerged over the last two decades, it’s felt to me that we are approaching the problem of climate change with unclear eyes. Because much, though not all, of climate change is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, we have this tendency to think that the solution is to replace fossil fuels. And certainly fossil fuels are bad. They’re things we should be moving away from as quickly as possible. But the idea that we are going to be able to take our entire society as it currently works and simply change the source of energy and make it sustainable is not actually congruent with reality.

What I wanted to do was to take a different approach than the normal climate change approach of, “Let’s talk about solar, wind and wave,” and instead talk about how we use energy. Because the reality is that how we use energy is not a given. There are a lot of different ways of building a prosperous society and some of them use much less energy than others. And it is possible and more practical to talk about rebuilding systems to use much less energy than it is to think about trying to meet greater demands of energy through clean energy alone.

Riley: Why the focus on cities?

Steffen: There are three reasons. We are already an overwhelmingly urban species. The percentage of humanity that’s predicted to live within one day’s travel of a city rises up to 95 percent by 2050, which means that almost everybody will be living either in a city or within urban systems. If you’re going to solve a problem, you might as well solve the problem that most of humanity is having, right?

Secondly, cities are themselves the center point around which all of these systems turn. Cities are responsible for the vast majority of the creation of the economy. They’re also places into which we pour the vast majority of resources, the vast majority of energy and the places where a huge percentage of the decisions about how systems are built and how products designed, etc., happen. So if you change cities, you actually change all of those other systems as well.

And on top of that, cities are this weird creature: they’re big enough to be very important but they’re also small enough for little groups of people to make a difference.

Riley: What does it mean to be a carbon-zero city?

Steffen: Carbon zero simply means that the emissions you are releasing either are zero or balance out to zero. It’s very difficult if not impossible to design a city that doesn’t emit some CO2, but there are things that cities can do to take carbon back out of the air and balance some of what they’re doing.

The real challenge here is that we have to think about our consumption. It’s not enough to just think about what happens within the city itself, because increasingly in a global economy much of the manufacturing, much of the agriculture, etc., is done somewhere else. If all you were going to do was look at the actual numbers for fossil fuels burned in your city, you would get a very incomplete picture. You need to ask, what’s the consumption footprint of that city? And that is hard, although there are some really excellent people starting to do it. The Stockholm Environment Institute has some really great programs going on this, and there are others. It’s one of the things that potentially may become much easier as we start to gain the capacity to digitize our cities and systems and understand the data flows within them. It’s really just a number crunching problem with the added complexity of some of those numbers we don’t yet count. There’s nothing all that theoretically challenging about it, it’s just that we haven’t quite caught up to doing that.

Riley: You write about consumption-based footprinting and concepts like people-focused streets, walkability and deep walkability. What do you mean by those terms?

Steffen: People-focused streets is a term that I take from the Danish architect Jan Gehl. He uses it to describe streets that a person walking along has the experience of being in their own realm, that the street is meant for them. So there may be cars, there may be bicycles, there may be streetcars, but the feeling is that you are walking along a street where you are meant to be.

Deep walkability extends that idea. Deep walkability describes a city that is built in such a way that you can move from one area to another on foot, on bicycle, on transit and have an experience that remains a pleasant one, that you feel you are welcome not just in the neighborhood but moving between neighborhoods. And the reason that’s important is that if you have only a few neighborhoods scattered through a city that are inaccessible to one another, you still are pretty much car-dependent. It’s only when you gain the ability to actually move across the city without a car that you start to see big shifts in behavior and the impacts of them. And those behaviors are really significant.

One of the amazing things about walkability is that we know already that there is a correlation between density and transportation emissions, that as a place gets denser, its transportation emissions go down. It’s not really rocket science. If you have a denser place, you have more things nearby to which you can walk and therefore you have less need to get in a car. Also, denser places support better transit, etc. But when you add walkability to that, one of the things you get is the ability to live in a much more locally focused way. You start to have people not only driving less, but getting rid of their cars. You start to have people living very urban lives in terms of their consumption by, for example, sharing the things that they use rather than buying their own, and that can range from anything from a gym — if you live in a 800 square foot apartment, you’re very unlikely to own your own home gym — to things like power tools. Cities that are walkable and dense and high-tech offer enormous opportunities to take that kind of surplus capacity and share it.

Riley: What are some of the cities that are taking steps toward becoming carbon-zero cities? What are they doing?

Steffen: Many of the best examples aren’t in the United States. Copenhagen has done a remarkable job creating streets that are focused on bicycles and pedestrians. Freiburg, Germany has done an amazing job of focusing on energy efficiency and on clean energy. Melbourne has come up with terrific plans to take new growth and channel it into specific districts that will be higher density along transit lines — leaving the rest of the city at a lower, perhaps more comfortable density — but still offering the benefits of density to everybody. Vancouver is worth looking at. They’ve actually managed to reduce the percentage of their population that owns cars while growing at a pretty steady clip, creating one of the world’s most livable cities.

If you want to look within the U.S., New York City has done a terrific job of taking many small good ideas and integrating them into plans and policies. The PlaNYC approach has led to a lot of really good things. Portland, Oregon has brought transit and bikes into what was a very low-density city, and used growth management to channel new growth inwards rather than out to sprawl. There are many other cities: Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, even Los Angeles — which I think most Americans tend to think of as irredeemably auto-focused and smoggy — even L.A. has managed to come up with a lot of great ideas for how to start transitioning into a more sustainable place.

Riley: How does technology factor in, particularly at the consumption level?

Steffen:I think we are still in the early stages of grappling with what technology is already doing today to our cities. Our task is to imagine a society that can deliver comparable or better prosperity and well-being using a small fraction of the energy and materials that we use today. Why do we use all this energy now? Where are all these materials going? A lot of energy is used simply to move us around really spread out places in our cars, or to heat inefficient buildings, or to power inefficient appliances. Those are all problems that we can fix. Many of those things can be made better, but also can be approached in a different way that let’s many more people have the benefit of them without having to make many more of them.

That’s not a very 20th century way of thinking. It was almost the definition of 20th century prosperity that you had more stuff. But I think we’ve both culturally and technologically hit a point where the idea that more stuff doesn’t equal more prosperity is sinking in. There are plenty of people out there talking about how difficult it is for some of us to just deal with all the stuff we already have, from packed closets that need organizers to storage spaces to maintenance costs, etc. Lots of people are reevaluating whether or not they need giant garages full of stuff and finding that they don’t. But we are also starting to understand that there’s a freedom that can come from having access to things but not owning them. Some of that freedom is financial. Borrowing a drill from your friend or renting it from a tool library is much cheaper than buying a drill. But part of that freedom is not having to worry about as many things, having a life that’s lighter in your material responsibilities, so that you can focus on things that actually are important to you.

Riley: And what about non-people-focused technology? Green buildings, for example.

Steffen: The advances in green building over the last thirty years have been totally amazing. We now know how to build structures that essentially need little to no heating and cooling energy. They’re so efficiently designed, so well sited, so well insulated that they can be quite comfortable without a lot of air conditioning or heating. That’s pretty amazing in and of itself. We’re also starting to understand that buildings that were not built with those standards can be retrofitted. That it’s possible to take older buildings, especially well-built older buildings, and basically transform them into very efficient structures.

Riley: What can people living in cities do to get involved and push their cities to transform?

Steffen: One of the biggest things that people can do is begin to see their own cities as places of transformation. We have almost two centuries now of people describing cities as the source of the problem, old school environmentalists who saw nothing good in them. So we’re all having to relearn how to think of cities as engines that create solutions. Simply learning how to appreciate what in your city is already working well and trying to think about how those things could be made to work better. That’s important. We have a lot of learning together to do here.

Secondly, trying to push your city to join up with others — there are great civic groups all around the country who are doing this — to adopt really ambitious goals about climate change and climate action. It matters, what we’re trying to do. Cities that are embracing the idea of bold action are generally producing better solutions.

We unfortunately already live on a planet where the climate has changed and will continue to change no matter what we do now. We’re playing a game of making the problem less bad rather than preventing it. And that means that every city is going to have to deal with questions of disaster management, building systems that are more rugged. Many things work for both of those goals: a place that’s less auto-dependent is also a place that’s better braced to deal with natural disasters. But it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal, which is that we’re trying to make sure that our cities are safe, great places to live, but also to make sure that the same is true for our planet.

Watch Steffen’s recent TED talk in which he presents some green projects that expand our access to things we need — while reducing the time we spend in cars.