Muckraker: Grist on Politics

The House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming held a hearing on Thursday about the opportunities for better urban planning to reduce energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions. “Planning Communities for a Changing Climate” brought together a panel of experts on “smart growth,” clean air policy, and transit.

Witnesses included Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, who works in smart growth in Abu Dhabi; Steve Hewitt, administrator of Greensburg, Kan., the town that’s rebuilding green after a tornado leveled it last year; Gregory Cohen, President and CEO of the American Highway Users Alliance; David Goldberg, director of communications for Smart Growth America, and Steve Winkleman, transportation director of the Center for Clean Air Policy.

Goldberg and Winkleman spoke to the virtues of promoting denser, better-planned cities with good mass transit and pedestrian-friendly design. Goldberg noted that families in areas where you can get by with one or no car save an average of $6,000 a year, not to mention reducing their personal emissions.

Winkleman noted that pretty much any savings created by the increase in fuel efficiency standards laid out in last year’s energy bill would be more than negated by the ever-increasing number of miles Americans travel each year.

Cohen was brought on as the skeptical voice on the panel, arguing that reducing vehicle miles traveled isn’t the best solution — it’s creating “congestion relief” plans. “Instead of restricting travel, an effective congestion relief plan would be better for people and the planet,” said Cohen, who also said that smart growth is “based on ideology” rather than practicality, and that advocates are pandering to “special interests.”

Al Jaber and Hewitt were both on hand to testify to the possibilities in greener cities. Asked about why Abu Dhabi — located in a country run on oil money — has been able to move toward greener policies, Al Jaber answered succinctly: “It’s considered a nation-building exercise. We’re showing our leadership.”

While the international example was interesting, perhaps the most relevant issue raised on the panel was the fact that not only does current U.S. policy not encourage smart growth, but also it actively discourages it. Hewitt testified that when his town, destroyed by a tornado in May 2007, decided to rebuild green, with all their buildings at an LEED platinum rating, they met with opposition from government agencies. Both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture told them they can only get funding to rebuild at the same level they had before the storm — any extra costs for going green won’t be covered.

“We’re trying to make the case that it is a smarter use of tax dollars, a better use of tax dollars,” Hewitt told Grist after the hearing. Select Committee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) pledged to send letters to the agencies to address the issue.

“The least we can do as a federal government is to help them reach the highest level,” said Markey.

Select Committee member Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) also noted his own experience with smart growth in Portland, hailed as one of the greenest cities in the U.S., where residents are 10 times more likely to ride bikes than they are in average towns. He emphasized the need to change both our housing and transportation infrastructure across the country.

“Unfortunately, dumb growth is alive and well across the country,” said Blumenaur.