Urban Planning and Climate Change

Climate scientists say that last month was the hottest July on record. Some urban developers see this as a cue not only to adopt sustainable practices to avoid global warming, but as an opportunity to completely re-evaluate the way cities are designed.

Urban planners are considering how to build city infrastructures that would run on limited resources.  Arizona State University design professor John Meunier suggests that planners of the future look to lessons of the past, including adopting simple strategies like planting more shade trees and building smaller roads that don’t absorb as much solar energy.

Meunier also suggests that civic leaders in Las Vegas and elsewhere resist the urge to copy other cities.

“Developers on the whole tend to look at success modeled in other cities and then import them rather than trying to figure out something fresh that makes sense for their particular situation,” says Meunier. “You really have to look at the local conditions and ask what makes sense in terms of quality of life.”

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Matthew Kahn of the Institute of the Environment at UCLA wonders if America’s urban sprawl model will spread to other countries, even as planners in this country tout the environmental and economic value of high-density land use.

“When I visit China I wonder if they will embrace our American dream as they get richer, with all the environmental consequences,” says Kahn. “I’m an optimist that there is diversity in the U.S. Some people embrace the barbeque suburban life, but there are many other people who are flexible in their conception of the good life and adopt low carbon living, and there are many people who will embrace that.”

Lloyd Alter is the editor for Architecture and Design at He agrees with Meunier that we should imitate the way we lived in the past, with walkable streets and smaller houses.

“We don’t need new technology,” says Alter. “We can learn from the people who were there before us.”

Alter thinks that city dwellers of the future won’t resist the downsizing that must occur for communities to run more efficiently.

“People do like their big houses,” says Alter. “People used to like smoking in restaurants too. But things change.”


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