Thoughts On Alex Steffen's Thoughts On Carbon Neutral Cities

<p>On Wednesday evening I went to Town Hall Seattle to see Alex Steffen of <a href="">Worldchanging</a> talk about carbon neutral cities, and I guess, specifically Seattle and our future.  In 2009 after we had local elections Steffen also spoke on this topic at Town Hall, for two nights.  Both nights the house was basically sold out.  Not so on wednesday.  Steffan spoke to a half empty (or perhaps in his case a Half Full) auditorium.</p>
<p>Last year Steffen's presentation and slide deck was strikingly familiar to the one he used at the Seattle Green Festival earlier in the year, and this year his slide deck was strikingly familiar to the one he used last year.  In fact, his talk was surprisingly devoid of any seriously new ideas — ideas that he did not talk about one year ago.</p>
<p>While I like many of his ideas, they have become, quite frankly, pretty main stream, and I think in many respects he would agree, that quite a few of the ideas he has been stumping for have made their way into the general discourse, and are supported by many Americans:</p>
<li>As a nation we need to address the energy crisis</li>
<li>We need to move beyond fossil fuels</li>
<li>Smart Grid, and smarter use of energy resources are both important</li>
<li>Sprawl sucks, and we need to re-concentrate in cities</li>
<li>It is time to dial bag our reliance on the automobile regardless of its method of propulsion (hybrid and electric are not going to solve our problems)</li>
<li>We need to innovate more, China and India are going to eat our lunch</li>
<li>The population of the planet is growing more and more urban</li>
<li>We all have access to awesome technology in our pocket, it will change our experience of place</li>
<li>There will be climate change refugees</li>
<p>And then there are the New Urbanism concepts that are perhaps less well accepted by those who don't already live in nice urban areas: we need more walkable communities, increase density while increasing green space, etc…</p>
<p>And then the semi-distopian futurism that Steffen usually presents as an opportunity:</p>
<li>There will be climate refugees, not all of them will be from other countries, people form the southwest will be eying cities like Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, San Francisco… because of our moderate climate. Yup, heard it last year. Not 1 million, but maybe 2 or 4 million new Seattlites (we have a pop of ~ 628k now) in the next 15 or 20 years.</li>
<li>We are on the wrong track with our regional planning: we need to increase urban core density, and decrease car dependence, yet we are building a car tunnel on the waterfront.  </li>
<p>That was last year's election, and I hear that last year.</p>
<p>What was painfully missing amongst the interesting statistics about how many people have access to cell phones, or how many new people get them in India each month (15 million was it?), the average number of minutes a power drill gets used (16) or how many humans have access to a car (1 in 9) and how many have driven (1 in 5) was any roadmap from how we get from where we are today: unsustainable dependence on fossile fuels, unsustainable consumption, to where we need to be, and where Steffen seems to suggest we will inevitably windup, just in time to avert total catastrophe — urban density, renewable energy, smarter and greener buildings, collaborative consumption and sharing, waste reduction, and carbon neutral or negativity.</p>
<p>I didn't go to Town Hall tonight to hear about where we need to go — I've heard that before, I've heard it before from Alex — I went hoping to hear about how we could get there from here.</p>
<p>When given the opportunity to ask a question, I did.  To paraphrase: "You've contrasted for us the time table upon which China is building new intracity and light rail with the time it took us to built LINK light rail, and you've said we need to build more transit, your time horizons are 5, 10, 15, 30 years into the future, but here we are about to start the 520 bridge replacement which has been in the planning stages for 10 or 15 years. We have environmental impact statements that can take that long to be conducted and challenged, which China certainly does not deal with. How do we <em>make it happen</em>? How do we get there?"</p>
<p>I didn't really get an answer, and after talking for a while, Steffen basically admitted that he hadn't answered it. Of course there was the expected "we need to fight for it," which he echoed in responses to subsequent questions, "those in power never give it up without a fight."  But fighting hasn't really gotten us very far in these last few years.  Fighting seems to be more effective at stopping <em>anything</em> from happening rather than making something happen.</p>
<p>The time for prognosticating about what the future may hold for us in the next 10 to 30 years really feels like it is over.  We need to sit down and start planning on how we can meet the future that has been predicted, and come out as livable, sustainable — no, thriving communities. And we are not going to do it by lining up on opposite sides of issues.  We need to find the win-wins, we need to do as Gandhi and Mandella did: convert those who oppose our goals into supporters of our goals.</p>
<p>In terms of actionable things that we can do here in Seattle, that perhaps grow out of some of Steffen's suggestions:</p>
<li>Build stronger communities through meeting our neighbors and sharing resources</li>
<li>every community should have cooperative resource centers: tool lending libraries, seed libraries, car sharing, skills sharing</li>
<li>create disincentives to car use by eliminating street parking, increasing parking fees and taxes downtown and funneling any extra revenue into public transit.</li>
<li>create business networks with the goal of sharing resources, integrating supply chains and reducing waste within the region</li>
<li>Education: sure it takes alot of money, but if we could get more professionals into schools to inspire young people, those adults would perhaps be inspired to vote FOR a tax that funds education like the two that were defeated/repealed yesterday.</li>
<li>We need to require green building/construction and reuse of buildings</li>
<li>Wastewater/runoff mitigation to help keep the sound clean</li>
<p>Some of these are small fry, others could be the beginning of something excellent.  Many don't require legislation, or funding even.  They take inspired thinking and <strong>leadership</strong>. A little money doesn't hurt, and perhaps if the millionaires who and businesses that spend so many millions trying to pass or defeat initiatives and referendums each year just put some of those resources to actually solving problems we would be able to set our city on the right path to meet the future that might be our destiny.</p>
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<p>One last note, a pet peave really, related to ALex Steffen's slide deck: This is something I learned from books like slide:ology and by masters of information and data design like <a href="">Edward Tufte</a>: members of your audience can read what is written on your slide about 3 times faster than you can read it to them.  If you are going to put text on your slides that you are also going to speak, don't. By the time you have said it, most people have read it. An anchor word, a bold image, an impressive info graphic: all make good slides, but bullet points, or long blocks of text, not so much.</p>
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