Climate change is an emergency in more than name only. It needs to be not only a priority but the priority. Cities can start by drastically reducing fossil fuel use in their own vehicles and their own buildings. They need to reconsider the content (e.g. concrete, asphalt, steel, etc.) and consequences of more infrastructure which often predetermine and promote additional fossil fuel use. Cities are facing inefficient land use patterns of their own making, established over the past 70 years. This pattern was based on cheap fuel, ignorance of the consequences of burning fossil fuels and an attitude that assumed that natural resources in general and prime farm lands in particular were limitless.
Cities must now reconcile the fact that what helped shape the existing land use pattern has proven to be a major factor in causing climate change. Planning more low density developments, extending roads and separating residential areas from places of employment are a recipe for excessive fossil fuel consumption, not to mention higher taxes.
Most buildings and vehicular travel are controlled by private individuals and corporations. Municipalities need to decisively end the granting of approvals of inefficient buildings or inefficient land use and aggressively encourage and support individuals seeking to reduce their energy needs in buildings and in movement. While neighbours require some level of compatibility, far more emphasis needs to be placed on dramatically increasing energy efficiency and far less importance on complying with rigid checklists left over from suburban sprawl applications. Building permits should require a very high efficiency standard, or proposals should be rejected or postponed until greater efficiency is projected. Homeowners who plan for serious energy retrofits should expect a positive response from municipal officials. Individual landowners who are willing to create energy efficient and affordable housing should be granted an appropriate level of flexibility (officially referred to as “bonusing”) and perhaps offered financial incentives and bureaucratic expediency given that their actions provide a “public good” which governments of all stripes have been incapable of delivering.
In order to begin taking action, decision makers, including the public need to understand the challenge, the context, the ramifications of inaction and practical, potential solutions. Councillors who simply do not or will not make the effort to comprehend how houses can be adapted to make them energy efficient and how neighbourhoods can be modified to reduce private automobile use can hardly be expected to provide workable responses to climate change. The mayor, councillors, the city manager, — someone has to step forward to help the city confront climate change, starting with education.
If the city becomes an active participant in the transition to efficiency and climate sensitivity, it will quickly send a message to its citizens and others that it is serious about the climate emergency. We can anticipate a backlash from developers who wish to exploit market opportunities at the expense of local taxpayers and our only planet. But in this case, climate and human health, housing affordability, science, small business and local taxes are all aligning in favour of efficiency and sustainability.
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