Low-carbon cities can be engineered and built today for livability, sustainability, resiliency, energy-efficiency and affordability
One of the more exciting high-impact opportunities for America is to start building a number of low-carbon cities from the ground-up.
America is expected to increase it's population by 70 million people by 2050. This is equivalent to 140 new cities of 500,000 people.
Over 1,000,000 new homes will need to be built annually to provide for this increased population. It's imperative that all new land-use, development, and transportation makes wise use of the resources available while eliminating fossil fuel emissions.
Almost all of this new construction is expected to be in existing cities. Many of these cities are already at the forefront of planning for a low carbon future.
However, even in the best case, the speed at which existing American cities can reduce their emissions will be limited by:
- Lock-in of land-use, infrastructure and modes of transportation
- Normal replacement cycle of transportation and appliances
- Economics of retrofitting and land re-purposing
- Availability of new technologies and zero-carbon energy sources
- Increasing number of legal actions by developers and vested interests
- Public apathy and political will
Instead of development as usual. America can also start to build a number of low-carbon cities from the ground up.These new cities can provide more than twice the economic, social, and environmental impact at half the cost of new development in existing cities.
Building from the ground-up has the benefit of not having locked-in land-use and infrastructure to contend with. The disruptions feared by politicians and vested interests are avoided with new cities being built independent of existing cities.
What is a low-carbon city? Engineered for livability, human-scale, pedestrian-oriented, compact urban resort. They need not be radical or utopian, but simply the continuing evolution of city planning and design. The goal is not to duplicate 19th century European cities, or Asia’s megacities, but to use the vast amount of recent ‘built environment’ research to design, plan and build the uniquely American low-carbon city of the near future.
Located and engineered for adaptation and resiliency. These new cities will be prepared for climate change and become zero-carbon as quickly as technology allows, but more importantly, provide a more vibrant, livable and higher standard-of-living. These new cities will not be for everybody, nor replace existing cities or suburbs, but have the potential to provide the highest quality-of-life in America.
A single low-carbon city will have limited impact. But if the first low-carbon cities are economically and socially successful they can provide an important model to Americans that would help accelerate emission reductions in existing cities.
Which proposals are included in your plan and how do they fit together?
First, this is a real project with the goal of breaking ground on three low-carbon 21st Century cities in the United States by 2020. This will be accomplished by a social-impact company that won't build a city itself, but only focus on the siting, financial engineering, and minimal pre-construction planning. Only upon site approval will independent organizations be formed to actually build and govern a new city.
This project has no ulterior social agenda other than facilitating healthy and sustainable communities. Each city will be different and there will be multiple solutions to various problems. This social-impact company is organized to prevent any one person, corporation, or insular group having a dominant decision making role in the design of these new cities.
Why focus on America? The economic, social and environmental fate of the world, and resultant quality-of-life in America, will likely depend on how fast America can lead the world to a more sustainable zero-carbon future. America is in the best position economically and technologically to actually effect change. And the fact that America's 4% of the world's population emits 14%, or over 20% if externalized, of global emissions makes it essential that America take the lead.
America can still do great things! In the same vein as engineering a better rocket for travel to Mars, the goal of this project is to engineer a better built-environment in which to live here on earth. Both goals provide a singular focus allowing Americans to come together to accomplish great things. If you haven’t already been inspired by the recent SpaceX Orbcomm-2 launch and landing, make sure that you watch the YouTube video. (Click Here)
In addition to reducing emissions, building low-carbon cities from the ground up can also:
- Take full advantage of the latest research, tools, materials, and technologies.
- Provide a more livable, healthier and sustainable built environment.
- Utilize the latest in energy, transportation, communications, and other technologies.
- Be designed for maximum adaptation and resilience.
- Improve a communities health and fitness with a more walkable mixed-use environment.
- Reduce traffic fatalities and respiratory disease caused by fossil fueled cars.
- Provide the better educated workforce, more and higher paying jobs, increased business and economic opportunities of larger cities.
- Reduce mental illness caused by the social isolation of suburbia and skyscraper cities
- Have a demographically balanced city to minimize social stratification, racism and ageism.
- Allow for more personal and family time with shorter commutes.
- Reduce stress with more greenspace and less noise.
- Decrease cost of living with affordable housing and convenient public transportation.
- Improve livability with more local amenities, destinations and events.
- Engineer more efficient grid-level water, energy and transportation infrastructure.
- Improve wealth equality with sustainable economic development, long-term jobs, and affordable home ownership.
Future housing needs of America
The GHG pathway for the United States already includes the carbon emissions for the building of over 1,000,000 new housing units annually. The first low-carbon cities would start with less than 20,000 units a year of this planned construction.
Population Growth and Land-Use. America is expected to grow by 70M people by 2050. The number of people living in rural areas and car-dependent suburbia will stay about the same. But by 2050 the percentage of Americans living in denser urban and compact areas is expected to grow from around 23% today to 50% by 2050.
New Home Construction. Most new development will be urban and compact, including the urbanization of some suburbs. Traditional suburbia will not be going away, but will require only about 200,000 replacement homes a year. The limiting factor for compact development in existing cities is the high cost of land, demolition, impact fees, bureaucracy, and politics. Building low-carbon cities can play an important role in meeting the growing demand for high-quality affordable compact development.
Building New Cities in Megaregion Growth Areas. There are many city-scale sites already slated for development where this future growth is expected. Many of these sites are under review or recently approved with 20th Century car-dependent land-use plans that will lock-in even more carbon emissions in the future.
Mitigation benefits of low-carbon compact cities
This proposal to build low-carbon cities is in addition to, not an option to, reducing emissions in existing cities. The table below shows current federal and state initiatives to reduce emissions by 2050 compared to what is possible by building from low-carbon cities from the ground up today.
The blue wedge shows the possible mitigation benefit of building low-carbon cities.
The table below is simply an indication that 'at scale' carbon emissions are possible by people living and working in these new cities. There are many other emission savings from all sectors.
Feasibility of building new cities
It’s fully understood that new cities cannot be built without political acceptance and economic viability. Political resistance can be minimized by building new cities away from the influence existing cities while by providing billions of dollars of economic, social and environmental benefits to state governments.
Understanding the history of building new cities is also critical:
- Locate where people want to live and be active
- Comfortable climate located for adaptability and resilience
- Sufficient water and energy resources
- Interesting, yet practical and cost-effective architecture
- Sufficient jobs to support community long-term
- Properly financed and budgeted
- Not dominated by self-selected individual, corporation, or insular group
- Not constructed as a one company town
- Not built for a new cult or religion
- That no single individual or group can kill the project
- Have bottom-up community input into the project
- Minimization of excessive political or regulatory influence
- Avoid any impact to gentrified neighborhoods
- Have environmental, sustainable and other community support
NewCityFounders and the Pre-Construction Challenges
NewCityFounders is not waiting for others to act, but is in the process of assembling a board of directors, advisory committee, and corporate sponsors. As a small, but agile, 'for-profit' social impact company, NewCityFounders will not build a city itself, but limit it's focus to performing the siting, financing and other pre-construction challenges:
Organizational Challenge. Pre-construction planning for each city includes preparing for the formation of a community-owned ‘not-for-profit’ prime developer (see: http://cltnetwork.org/) to acquire the land and direct construction, along with its various subsidiary companies, and an initial city government to provide additional checks and balances.
Leadership Challenge. NewCityFounders will recruit highly-qualified leaders and planning professionals for a year of pre-construction planning and advanced executive training. The most capable of these executives will be offered the leadership positions in the independent organizations formed to actually build and govern new cities.
Location Challenge. Preferred sites include larger brownfields, struggling small towns, closed military bases, HubZone areas, and other properties where compact development should have precedence. There are many city-scale sites slated for development within the eleven megaregions where the majority of population growth is expected. Some of these large sites have already been approved or are under review with land-use plans that only perpetuate long commutes, business as usual. NewCityFounders will perform an inventory of potential sites throughout the United States. Most of these sites will be quickly eliminated after considering livability, climate, resources and other factors, or where the development is unwanted. With siting, financing and planning shovel-ready, competition between the states for billions of dollars in economic, social and environmental benefits are expected to accelerate the first site approvals.
Crowd-sourcing and Outreach Challenge. A crowd-sourcing (not crowd-funding) website has already been developed for outreach to planners, professionals, corporations, non-profits, and individuals to submit ideas, work on projects, respond to RFPs, and learn about housing, jobs and business opportunities.
Land Use and Design Challenge. NewCityFounders is not an architectural or design firm, but will coordinate the design of low-carbon land-use plans. These master plans will be assembled and modeled by experienced land-use, architectural, transportation, energy, water and other professionals with the help of crowd-sourced planning teams. To minimize up-front costs, these master plans will only require minimal architecture and engineering work by using design-build contractors for the initial infrastructure and simple worker complexes that will eventually be repurposed as hotels, or senior and student housing. Once a city is underway, over $50M annually of high-quality architecture and engineering services is budgeted.
Financial Challenge. During a year of pre-construction planning, the financial engineering of securable mortgages, bonds, and new financial instruments will be packaged and pre-sold to enable the construction of a city. A high level of interest in these non-speculative low-risk investments are expected by both the private capital market and institutions divesting themselves of fossil-fueled investments.
Employment Challenge. Tens of thousands of new long-term middle-class construction, healthcare, public, and private business jobs will be created simply by building new cities. However, the most difficult pre-construction challenge is to recruit or incubate the businesses and jobs that will not be financially reliant on the construction and servicing a new city. The key to these new cities is to create a high demand for the more livable and affordable 'built environment' of the future..
Budgeting and Modeling Challenge. Comprehensive budgets and models will need to be prepared to verify both the construction and long-term economic, social and environmental feasibility of a city.
Legal Challenge. Numerous agreements and negotiations are required before a city can be built. Both an internal legal team and legal volunteers will be needed.
Social and Other Challenges. Initial planning for healthcare, education, food planning, security, among others are well suited to crowd-sourcing.
Environmental Challenge. This project will require strong support from the Environmental Community. Additionally, we will need help with quick environmental studies as part of any location selection.
Explanation of the emissions scenario calculated in the Impact tab
Assumptions for carbon calculation of low-carbon cities:
City Population. Population of city when completed.
Construction Time. Time to construct a city given 20,000 to 25,000 net new inhabitants per year.
Base Cost. $100,000 per resident plus land acquisition, non-revenue infrastructure and interest cost.
GDP Contribution. Economic benefit to U.S. economy using multiplier effect of (3x) while under construction.
Housing Units. Private, rental and other housing built at 1.7 dwellers/unit. (USA current average 2.4 dwellers/unit)
Energy Saved. Minimum residential energy efficiency savings target of 33%. (Current USA average home use of 30kwh/day).
Cars Removed From Road. City designed to totally eliminate fossil fueled car use. (Currently .8 vehicles/person U.S.A.)
Annual Gas Savings. Amount of gas saved annually by removing cars from the road. (per EPA greenhouse calculator)
Electrical Energy Required. Electricity required for residential, commercial and transportation purposes of a low-carbon city (estimated at 20kwh/day per person).
From Renewables. Minimum target of 50% energy required from cost-effective renewables (solar, wind, hydro, etc.). One option is to use available roof area for solar panels to provide 50% of non-industrial energy requirements.
Less CO2 (cumulative). Reduction of CO2 usage over construction timeframe compared to normal developmen
Less CO2 (annually). Annual CO2 mitigation once city is completed. (EPA greenhouse calculator used for reduced car usage, home energy efficiency and 50% renewable energy usage).
% USA Annual Carbon Emissions. Percentage of the United States annual carbon emissions (see ecoequity.com)
What are the plan’s key benefits?
One of the most important benefits is that ‘Cities of the Future’ can spark the public’s imagination in the same way the first airplanes and moonshots did for previous generations. Spurring existing cities to do more in reducing their emission than they would do otherwise.
A strong macro-economic case can be made for building low-carbon cities!
Provides the more livable and sustainable ‘built environment’ of the future
Cities built for adaptation and resilience provide a hedge against new technology arriving too late, and for potential migration caused by rising sea levels and other disasters.
Provides for more energy-efficient and affordable housing than existing cities for a growing population.
Finally, it is simply much easier, more political acceptable, and less costly to build a city from the ground up.
What are the plan’s costs?
A compact city built from the ground up can be surprisingly affordable.
- Lower cost of raw land
- Attached housing with shared foundations, walls and roofs cost 50% of equivalent quality single-family housing
- Infrastructure of a compact city can cost less than 25% of a car dependent city
- Economy-of-scale construction over many years
- A ‘not-for-profit’ developer can save homebuyers 10% to 40%.
Models show that a 'not-for-profit' community-owned developer can build a high-quality compact city for around $100,000 per inhabitant. 80% of the built value can be easily financed in the private market, with the remaining 20% from down payments, reinvested profits, and other investment. Public transit, energy and water can be financed with their own revenue streams.
What are the key challenges to enacting this plan?
The main challenge of building low-carbon cities is simply getting started.
Strong environmental, social, and economic cases can be made for building low-carbon cities. But government must focus taxpayer resources on existing cities, not subsidize new cities. And a city-scale project would be hard to populate with the 30% to 50% profits of traditional development.
NewCityFounders, as a social impact company, won't build a city itself, but can provide the siting, financial engineering, and other pre-construction planning necessary to break ground on one or more low-carbon cities.
Additional information can be requested by signing up to ClimateColab and sending us a private message. (And please don’t forget to vote for this proposal)
It may be possible to break ground the first low-carbon city with a year of pre-construction planning, lining up financing, grooming future leaders, and a location search using competition between the states to accelerate initial site approvals.
These new cities will be prepared for the new energy technologies that can make these cities zero-carbon as quickly as technically possible.
Building these new cities is a generational project that will take decades. The generation now graduating from high school will be the eventual leaders and builders of these new cities. These new cities can provide the low-carbon jobs, wealth creation, and lifestyle for this future generation. The older generation is expected to play a key role in transferring their skills and knowledge to help this younger generation.
In any case these new cities can both improve the quality-of-life while reducing the carbon footprint of their inhabitants.
There does not currently seem to be any publicly known project to build a larger demographically balanced low-carbon compact city from the ground-up in the United States.
Although most new development declares itself energy-efficient and environmentally friendly, most larger-scale projects are either traditional development requiring commutes for work and shopping, or eco-village/transportation-hub projects serving as non-family oriented bedroom communities to larger cities. Sadly, if you look closely, most new development in America, including higher-density development, is being built without any improvement as to livability, greenspace, parks, large public spaces, nearby schools, or the desired walkable amenities of either a larger city or resort community.
Gouldson, et. al. (2014) The Economic Case for Low Carbon Cities. http://2014.newclimateeconomy.report/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Low-carbon-cities.pdf
(2015) Climate Equity Reference Calculator. http://calculator.climateequityreference.org/
(2015) Seizing the Global Opportunity. http://2015.newclimateeconomy.report/
Kenworthy J. (2006) The eco-city: ten key transport and planning dimensions for sustainable city development http://eau.sagepub.com/content/18/1/67.full.pdf+html
Creutzig F, Baiocchi G, Bierkandt R, Pichler P-P, Seto KC (2015) Global typology of urban energy use and potentials for an urbanization mitigation wedge. http://www.pnas.org/content/112/20/6283.full
Neuman, Michael (2005) The Compact City Fallacy. http://understandtheplan.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/The-Compact-City-Fallacy.pdf
Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.www.epa.com http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-resources/calculator.html
What should be the United States’ plan to address climate change?