#07 transition
Patrick M. Condon / Eva-Maria Verfürth

Interview: "I Wish We Had Less Money to Spend

When asked to name three wishes, Patrick Condon says he'd like people to think in a more complex way, for global warming deniers to burn in hell, and that we had less money to spend. Condon has spent his lifetime investing in sustainable city design and found some simple but effective answers for how to reduce greenhouse gases. Complex thinking, less spending and acknowledging climate change are all certainly part of the answer.

In your book titled "Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities", you write: "If we change the ways cities are built, we can save the lives of our children and grandchildren." Can cities actually kill people?

Of course they can, and do: Climate change is definitely putting our children's lives in danger. In North America 80% of our citizens live in cities, and the energy and resources these cities demand are causing 80% of the damage done to the environment. So yes, if we change our cities, we can have an effect on the lives of our children. But we better hurry. We have no more than ten years left to cut down emissions.

Because of high emission rates, you say cities are "sick". What has made them ill?

The introduction of the car, basically. I am referring mostly to the USA and Canada, where I work and live. Our towns were streetcar cities before cars were introduced, that is to say they had entirely hydro-electric and thus zero greenhouse gas transport systems. People did a lot on foot: stores and jobs were within walking distance of their homes. Nowadays, we have a petroleum-based transport system. With the emergence of cars after World War II, people started to move into areas with lower population density. Single-family houses on the outskirts of the cities became common. This results in high environmental costs – not only because people start travelling into town by car every day, but also using the car for their everyday needs. It is also much more effort to get services like electricity and water to these isolated places.

But aren't cars estimated to contribute only 15% to global greenhouse gas emissions?

That's just the emissions from the tailpipe. If you look at the whole chain of greenhouse gas costs it's at about 40 per cent: this comes from the construction of highways, the production of and materials for the cars, drilling and refining oil, the massive shipping of oil around the globe, only to name a few

So should we return to the past?

No, we should learn from our errors and from what has proven good in the past, but not simply repeat it. You know the children's television shows "the Flintstones" and "the Jetsons"? We had these two programs in the US, and everyone has seen them: the Flintstones live in the Stone Age, in a world with self-built machines out of natural materials, while the Jetsons live in the future with robots and high technology items. Most sustainable communities theorists believe in either the one or the other of these models: some think we should return to nature and start growing food in our gardens, they are in the Flintstones camp; others think that we should live in glass towers and that advanced technologies are the solution to everything, they are in the Jetsons camp. Both visions are cartoons. Both visions have nothing to do with reality.

In your book you set up seven rules for sustainable communities. How should cities be designed to become less damaging to the environment?

  1. Restore the streetcar city This is the main principle, because the streetcar, or tram, is simply the most sustainable transport system. All other rules are aspects of this model. "Streetcar city" means that everything is organized around walking and transit.
  2. Design an interconnected street system Interconnected street systems have many street intersections and thus provide more than one path to reach surrounding major streets. It makes all trips as short as possible, for cars as well as for pedestrians and bikes. Sadly, it is common in American cities to have residential quarters with a lot of dead-end streets, which makes distances longer and leads to more car dependency.
  3. Locate commercial services, frequent transit and schools within a five-minute walk. Everything should be close to the homes – tram stops, shops and jobs – so that daily distances decrease. Then people can travel long distances with the train, but most of their daily needs are within a 5-minute walking distance. People won't need their car that much anymore.
  4. Locate good jobs close to affordable homes and
  5. Provide a diversity of housing types Also there have to be affordable houses in every neighborhood, so that everyone has the possibility of living close to work. Nowadays, offices are often located in the city centre, while homes are outside.
  6. Create a linked system of natural areas and parks The last two principles have to do with water systems. A linked system of parks protects and preserves natural system functions, like river ways. This not only protects habitats, it also raises our quality of life – and thereby it even elevates land prices.
  7. Invest in lighter, greener, cheaper, smarter infrastructure We should also use these natural systems for our infrastructure services, particularly for storm water: instead of establishing heavy, expensive, stupid infrastructure, we should use lighter, greener, cheaper, smarter infrastructure – we should work with, not against, natural systems.

So the solution is at hand if we will just grasp it. We have to use the next 30 or 40 years to transform our cities – it will make our lives more affordable and happier.

If a city followed these rules...

...it would emit 50 to 60 percent fewer greenhouse gasses. Our projects show that this works! In the area where I live, for instance, the trend is towards higher density housing – and therefore the average number of cars per family is dropping fast. People are walking more, and polluting less.

You've also worked as a practitioner, as a city planner. From your experience – how difficult is it to implement such strategies?

It is very difficult. I wrote another book on the topic called "Design Charettes for Sustainable Communities". In America, we call complex design projects that have to be done in an almost impossibly short time "charettes" – a notion that goes back to the architecture program at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. Sustainable city transformation is the kind of problem that can only be solved using a charette method. You can only solve it by a collective effort: bring all the stakeholders involved together – architects, engineers, politicians – to quickly reach a consensus plan. This doesn't have to be the perfect plan, but it should be a good one. Scientists and engineers always tend to aim at the perfect solution. Designers, by contrast, always operate with a high degree of uncertainty, and therefore aim at good solutions. Sometimes, these are even better than the perfect ones.

You've participated in outlining the "100 year sustainability vision" for North Vancouver, which aims at making it a zero-carbon city. Even the municipality is involved. Will North Vancouver be a non-carbon-emitting city by 2112?

Well, they are already making progress – only I won't be on this earth anymore to see it happen. But the process has already generated changes. And I think an important aspect of this strategy is not only what happens in 100 years, but that it gives people an idea of what to do on Monday morning. Like deciding whether to widen a street, or not.

Do your rules apply to other cities too?

They are specifically designed for North American and Canadian cities. Perhaps they apply for Australia too, which has developed in a very similar way. But Asian cities, especially the fast growing cities of China and India, would be well advised not to make the same mistakes and copy the American model with its dependence on the car. Sadly car levels are rising there too. But China has already responded by restricting the number of cars per family. But I think the deeper principles of efficiency and walkability are universal.

If you met the famous fairy who offers you three wishes, what would you wish for?

I wish

  1. ... humans were capable of thinking in systems – of thinking in a more holistic way, not only about one thing at one time.
  2. ... all deniers of global warming would go directly to hell. They confuse people, although it has been fully proven that we have an enormous problem that puts our children's lives in danger.
  3. ... we had less money to spend. Even in times of the budget deficit and everybody moaning about not having any money, this still holds true: we are spending too much instead of simply doing things efficiently. And that makes us unhappy as well! It's been proven that the unhappiest people are those who live in the very richest countries and those who live in the very poorest countries. People who live with just enough, but not too much, are much happier.

If you could choose one city in the world to live in surrounded by all your family, friends and a job – which one would it be?

May I choose Vancouver? It's really an interesting, multinational, though not too big city. Asian migration has brought about some nice changes, like the glass towers similar to those in Hong Kong. So it seems to me that it has more in common with cities like Shanghai or Sidney than with our Canadian neighbours like Toronto, for instance. And there is a lot of political support for sustainability and ongoing changes in city design.

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