This week I was able to attend a conference on urban planning hosted by the Penn Institute for Urban Research and the Rockefeller Foundation. Fifty years ago, the same entities had put together another urban conference, at which gathered names like Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford, intellectuals who shaped the design world’s thinking about cities at a time when many urban places were facing crisis. Those thinkers faced a world in which the city no longer seemed necessary, and where planners were increasingly tearing downtowns limb from limb to make them safe for the coming car-tropolis.

Now, of course, the consequences of those actions have become clear. Our dependence on oil has made us financially vulnerable to any little change in petroleum prices, and decades of heavy driving have helped push the global climate toward the brink. This urban conference, then, held up cities not as treasures to be saved but as saviors.

Called "Re-imagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil," the convocation brought together academic and professional designers, planners, and architects with governmental leaders and scientists from around the world. The goal? To throw out ideas and craft a manifesto. To create, in short, a blueprint showing how countries might build themselves out of the danger of imminent catastrophe.

And I enjoyed myself. Designers are wonderfully creative people, and the conference was littered with ideas for ecological city systems, green roofs and walls and floors and roads, buildings covered with algea and windmills able to provide positive power to the grid, and so on. I’ve felt for a while that existing conventional technologies were more than sufficient to solve our climate problems. I now feel that if they aren’t up to the task, the design world has plenty of existing unconventional technologies waiting in the wings.

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But it’s in my nature to tend toward practicality, though often of a dreamy sort, and I felt that the world’s designers, in reveling in the functional strangeness of their creations, missed the point of it all.

The conference’s organizers invited me to help document the proceedings on a blog (with several other very talented design bloggers). Here is what I wrote in my last entry:

I appreciate the idea of an ecological approach to city planning, which permeated today’s working group discussion, of just what should go in our manifesto. It’s very appealing — a holistic system that wastes little or nothing, and which constantly replenishes itself. Certainly, if this can be made to work over the long-term, our impact on the environment will be sharply reduced and the sustainability of our cities guaranteed. Those are worthy goals.

But our immediate task is more specific. How can we build our cities in the next two decades, to minimize growth in carbon emissions and minimize the detrimental impact of high resource prices on the citizens of the world? As desirable as ecological city building may be, it will not be the solution to this crisis, because there is no time. People are stubborn creatures. Political institutions are, if possible, yet more stubborn (being made up of people). Planners must act to cajole both households and leaders into accepting changes that constitute, on the surface at least, a painful alteration of lifestyle. Forget, for the moment, total recycling of waste. How do we get people to want to walk from one place to another? Forget, for the moment, the encasement of buildings in energy-producing algae tubes. How do we attract young families back into cities from the suburbs, reducing their carbon footprints in the process?

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And we can’t begin from the position that the rules around us will change so that we can make it easier to be green. We have to start from the position that the rules around us will not change, and so how can we produce change despite that hardship?

The most important thing to realize is that global climate change and environmental challenges are more important to this group of urban planners than to most other professions, and certainly than to the population as a whole. Given that, it is basically certain that the demand for good environmental design will lag supply. And the supply of good government policy will lag demand for policy improvements among the planning profession. Those are the constraints, and they’re pretty significant. We have to sell the people something they’re not sure they need, and it seems unlikely that merely telling them they need it is going to change their minds. Planners have to convince them they want it, through the power of their design.

That’s doable. So long as we recognize that that’s the challenge, it can be met.

To paraphrase Barack Obama, we can’t solve global warming because I flipping stuck some windmills on my green roof. It’s because of something collective. Designers must try and build a mass market for affordable, attractive, emission-reducing technologies. I hope they realize that’s what we, as a society, need from them.

Do check out my other posts on the conference here, along with excellent contributions from Lloyd Alter (TreeHugger and Planet Green), Nate Berg (Planetizen), Andrew Blum (Metropolis and Wired), Randy Crane (UCLA School of Public Affairs), and Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson (New York Times Magazine, Architect, and Metropolis).

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