Community design can help combat climate change, say landscape architects, planners

One viable solution to the energy and climate crises is to develop more compact, walker- and biker-friendly communities with high-performance buildings, said some of the 50 landscape architects and community planners gathered at Cornell June 3.

They attended the one-day conference, Regional Planning and Community Design for a Renewable Energy Future, hosted by the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Cornell's Department of Landscape Architecture, to discuss how planning and design could help New York meet the formidable energy, climate change and public health challenges of the 21st century.

Richard Allmendinger, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, noted that humans will face four great crises -- energy shortages, climate warming, lack of fresh water and soil erosion -- as the population swells to 9.4 billion by 2050. He described energy and climate as "flip sides of the same crisis."

Traditional solutions, such as finding more oil and natural gas, are less environmentally friendly, while carbon capture and sequestration strategies can significantly decrease energy efficiency, he said.

"The all-around win is energy conservation and efficiency. It's highly cost effective, and there are many technologies available today," Allmendinger said. "Even a small change in greenhouse gases will have a huge impact on life on Earth."

According to a recent Brookings Institution study, 60 million new housing units -- more than half the current housing stock -- will need to be constructed in the United States during the next 25 years to house the country's projected population. Experts at the conference argued that dense, more efficiently designed communities have many collateral benefits, including improved public health and preservation of farmland, natural resources and water supply.

Ithaca landscape architect Rick Manning '87 noted the links among suburban sprawl, public health and greenhouse gas emissions.

"In 1950, 23 percent of people lived in the suburbs while owning one car per family. In 2005, more than 50 percent of people lived in the suburbs with almost two cars per family," Manning said. "The miles that people traveled also doubled in that time frame."

Today there are 72 million obese adults in the United States, with no state reporting less than 15 percent of its population as obese, he added. This is greatly affected by the sprawl lifestyle, where people pay to drive to health clubs, for instance. Manning proposed healthier lifestyle alternatives, like those seen in Copenhagen, Denmark, where people often cycle through the city.

"If we could provide adequate facilities and proper bike lanes, we could open up a whole new mode of transportation," said Fernando de Aragon, director of the Ithaca-Tompkins County Transportation Council. "This could have a real significant impact," he said.

Other speakers at the conference addressed building design, local food markets, transportation and county planning.

"We must rapidly adapt, design and provide a sustainable way of life for more than 7 billion people, as well as deal with the consequences of our past 100 years of growth," said Jamie Vanucchi, lecturer in landscape architecture. She noted that the Rust to Green initiative, for example, seeks to transform industrial areas into vibrant, environmentally beneficial and economically viable communities. To do this, cities must position themselves for a sustainable future through progressive planning and creative design. Instead of quantifying urban performance based on gross domestic product, Vanucchi said that urban performance should be based upon affordable housing, clean water availability, healthy food, education and social networks.

Bethany Liebig '12 is a writer intern for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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