Reinventing Cities for People and the Planet, by Molly O'Meara. Washington: Worldwatch Institute Paper #147, copyright 1999. Paperbound, 68 pages.
reviewed by H. William Batt, Ph.D.
Toward Sustainable Land UseSometime this October, 1999, the population of the world will pass 6 billion, about half of whom live in cities. A century ago only one in ten people lived in cities. So it is in cities where the problems of livability and environmental sustainability must be solved. "Reinventing Cities for People and the Planet," by Molly O’Meara addresses the challenges we face if human and natural systems are to be restored to ecological balance. Ms. O’Meara makes reference to the concept of ecological footprint, the work of Wackernagel & Rees, showing that "meeting the needs of everyone in the world in the same way that the needs of Londoners are met would require at least three more Earths." The remainder of the paper shows just how much cities are in fact related to -- and depend on -- the larger environment for their existence.
Considerable attention is devoted to describing the volume of food, water, energy and material goods flowing into cities each day and how much garbage and wastewater flow out of them. The energy of course leaves in the form of dissipated heat and gases that cause global warming. The garbage and wastewater often leave entirely unprocessed, leading to destruction of habitats for both human beings and other species, or perhaps left to degrade the quality of urban settings.
Some attention is given to how the volume of this consumption can be reduced -- half of all food, for example, is disposed of rather than eaten. It is also possible to generate many requirements of urban life without transport from afar. But central to the discussion of the challenge of making cities livable is fostering land use configurations and related transportation patterns that are economical, safe, efficient, and pleasant. To this reviewer, this is where we have failed most and where the greatest challenges lie.
The fourth of six sections of the book addresses 'Linking Transportation and Land Use.' It is refreshing to see this paper address the inextricable connection between the two, something policy makers typically ignore. In the development of contemporary urban forms, the best agricultural lands are frequently lost to urban sprawl, and the cost of motor vehicle based transportation consumes an inordinate amount of our resources—in the United States a full 25 percent of our annual GDP according to a Natural Resources Defense Council study.
Rene Dubos decades ago opined that America would be the first -- and the last -- suburbanized nation, for reason that only here does the nation have the temporary wealth to create such patterns. Indeed, Colin Campbell notes in his recent book, The End of Oil, that this lifestyle will likely come to an abrupt end if the Hubbert projections of oil supply hold true. (See http://dieoff.org for this and many other excellent articles.)
That poses challenges to America and even those in nations not now invested in such transportation modes. It is worth pondering how our economy will adjust in two decades when now the typical food we eat must travel 1,800 miles to reach our tables. Campbell notes that future historians will likely refer to the 20th century as the fossil fuel era, and its end will have radical implications for our urban lifestyles and designs.
The direct and indirect subsidies currently provided by society to extravagant land use and transportation services need to be corrected by bringing prices more closely into line with costs. Worldwatch paper #147 explores some of the major ways in which this can be accomplished. It explains advantages of denser urban development and ways in which it can be facilitated.
Charging the full private cost component of transportation services rather than passing costs off to society is the first step to successful economic operations. Equally important is removing the centrifugal economic forces that create sprawl development, the major one being the current tax structures. A full two pages of the paper are devoted to site value taxation and transportation policies. For those people curious to explore these practices further, the footnotes lead one to David Roodman’s recent book, The Natural Wealth of Nations, as well as to work of this reviewer. It is reassuring, at the least, to see both that land use and transportation policies are discussed together and that site value taxation is an element of that discussion.
One must cover matters quickly in a paper totaling only 68 pages, and discussion of site value taxation or any other approach is certainly short. But it is nonetheless reassuring to see this matter presented, especially to a readership as large as that of Worldwatch. Even if in the US the die may already, in good part, have been cast with respect to many urban patterns, it is certainly not too late for policies that can reverse and restore urban blight and sprawl. This paper is worth citing to journalists, politicians, students, activists and others who are curious about how tax policies can foster sound and ethical economics.
H. William Batt runs the Central Research Group, Inc., headquartered in Albany, New York.
You can order Reinventing Cities for People and the Planet from the Worldwatch Institute.
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