Peter Calthorpe’s Vision for California: Save the Cities, Save the World

New Urbanism has traditionally positioned itself as an antidote to the soullessness of urban sprawl, with an emphasis on “soul” — the ineffable benefits in living in places built to human scale rather than breaking out hard metrics as to why dense mixed-use communities are both qualitatively and quantitatively better than the auto-driven suburb of single-family homes.

vision california

New Urbanism has traditionally positioned itself as an antidote to the soullessness of urban sprawl, with an emphasis on “soul” — the ineffable benefits in living in places built to human scale rather than breaking out hard metrics as to why dense mixed-use communities are both qualitatively and quantitatively better than the auto-driven suburb of single-family homes. But the 18th annual Congress for the New Urbanism is shaping up to be the year New Urbanists demand a seat at the table for fixing two of the most intractable problems facing America in the coming decades: public health and climate change.


The charge for the latter is being led by Peter Calthorpe, a founder of the movement whose firm is best known for the idea of “transit-oriented development,” i.e. building dense communities around train stops (and If that sounds like a no-brainer to you, it’s a testament to how far they’ve come) and Stapleton, the former Denver airport site that is now the largest New Urbanist community in America. But Calthorpe has something even bigger in mind: bringing urbanism to bear on the debate about how best to combat climate change, using metrics and software that quantifies the savings in both CO2 and dollars from denser urbanism. “This policy debate is going forward without us,” he said. “And I think it’s very important we inject ourselves into it, because we have the best solution for climate change.”

His lever is California Assembly Bill 32, the law mandating a state-wide reduction in carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The law is currently under attack from the California Jobs Initiative and its backers, which include Valero Energy Corp. and other oil refiners. They are seeking to delay implementation of the law until the state’s unemployment rate falls from 12.6% to 5.5% or less for four consecutive quarters. The state’s leading Republican contender for governor, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, has said she would suspend the law if elected, and there is a growing campaign to place a referendum on a delay on the November ballot.

“If they win, you can give up on any climate change or energy policy at the federal level,” Calthorpe said, “because conservatives will say ‘if they couldn’t make it happen in California,'” there’s no way it would go over with the voters in the rest of the United States. “It’s a surgical strike; they want to kill this thing before it demonstrates its power and efficacy.”


At the heart of the debate around the law is how much it will cost to mitigate California’s carbon emissions, and it is here where Calthorpe began his discussion of climate change and urbanism. Quoting a McKinsey report, he noted that building conservation, transportation efficiency, and energy efficiency all save money while lowering carbon emissions, while opponents of A.B. 32 tended to focus on the technological measures that would cost money to lower them. The one thing McKinsey refused to consider was a profound change in the urban fabric; the American way life was non-negotiable.

Calthorpe was disgusted at this. “Urbanism is not on the table, really, when it comes to solutions for climate change. McKinsey leaves out urbanism altogether, assuming we’re not going to change our behavior when this” — he gestured at the slide — “is all at the service of an urban fabric and lifestyle that is fundamentally unsustainable.” He followed with a broadside at Al Gore, whose plan to solve climate change is “all technology, and no urbanism.”

But as the world continues to urbanize — from 50% today toward 80% or 90% by 2050 — “the concerns of the world begin to look like the concerns of the U.S.” In the United States, he said, transportation is a third of the problem; in California, it’s half.


“A lot of people still question: does urbanism change our behavior?” Calthorpe asked. “Luckily, we’ve been at this long enough that we have a lab,” Portland, Oregon. Following the inception of the city’s light rail line and denser development around it, vehicle miles traveled fell 11% from 1996 to 2002, and have continued their downward trajectory. “If we cannot prove these benefits, we cannot prove ourselves in the realm of politics,” he said. “Good urbanism is going to be isolated and anecdotal; it’s not going to be normative.”

Calthorpe’s solution was to invent new software capable of modeling the carbon consequences of land use planning, transportation, and new technologies, an effort funded by the California High Speed Rail Authority under the name of “Vision California.” What makes it more than a quixotic side project is California Senate Bill 375, an addendum of sorts to A.B. 32 which explicitly makes land use planning part of meeting its carbon reduction goals. Seeing his audience’s eyes glaze over at this, he paused to apologize.

“This is very dry, and I’m sorry here, but this is what it’s going to take. Either we do this,” i.e. embrace a bit of complexity science, “or we’re going to lose.” So what has he come up with?


In classic scenario-planning style, he’s created four possible outcomes for California by 2050: “Business As Usual” (i.e. change nothing); “Mixed Growth;” “Growing Smart” and “Green Future;” in which green technologies are married to the New Urbanism.

The latter assumes a future in which cars get 55 miles per gallon, fuels are 50% cleaner, 60% derived from renewable sources, and energy and water use is 70% more efficient than they are now. It also assume that California’s residential mix changes from its current 70% sprawl, 25% compact suburban, and 5% urban mix to something more like 10% sprawl, 55% compact suburban, and 35% urban — which might strike as wildly optimistic.

Comparing “Business as Usual” against “Green Future,” Calthorpe found that California’s carbon emissions will nearly double on its current transportation/land use trajectory, while simply adopting smart growth principles would cut them in half, “and Al Gore didn’t even put it in his book,” Calthorpe said.


Other outcomes by 2050:

  1. Following current trends, California will more than double the size of its urban footprint to 10,900 square miles; Calthorpe’s plans would preserve 3,750 square miles — an area the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
  2. Energy and transportation efficiencies would save $24,000 in construction costs per housing unit, or $194 billion.
  3. Vehicle miles traveler per household would fall 9,300 miles annually, resulting in a savings of $5,150 per year. 
  4. The cumulative building energy saving would be enough to power all the homes in California for 20 years.
  5. The water savings would be enough to fill San Francisco Bay twelve times overs.
  6. And when you combine energy and transportation savings per household, they total $9,600 per year in 2050, plus carbon emissions two-thirds lower than the present.

“The metrics matter, because they can change the politics,” Calthorpe said. “The politics matter, because they can change the landscape for us as urban designers.”


About the author

He is the author, with John D. Kasarda, of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, which examines how and where we choose to live in an interconnected world


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