Libraries, Walkable Communities, and Imaginary Squares.
Aside from opening the door to discredited theories such as Malthusianism, there has been a moralising tendency among many urging action on climate change. It is a logic which suggests that people are “evil” because of their CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) emissions; that inefficient use of natural resources are a moral failure. This moralising tendency often neglects the fact that people are products of their environment; that we develop and adapt our beliefs and behaviors to the environment we find ourselves in. If you create a Brave New World, you will socialise a society full of Soma-popping Alphas, Betas, Deltas, Gammas, and Epsilons. If you create an Oceania, then a society full of indifferent Proles and subservient Outer Party members will be the result.
By that same token, if people live in an environment which makes it easy to live with low CO2e emissions, and they are rewarded for doing so, they will. Similarly, if people live in a physical environment in which it is impossible, or takes significant effort and sacrifice, to live with low CO2e emissions, and they are rewarded for not doing so, then they won’t. Urban planning and public policy are therefore at the very heart of creating a low carbon emission environment.
In terms of urban planning and natural resources, if you need to house a whole heap of people, low density sprawl is horrendously inefficient way of doing it. And Melbourne has plenty of it. According to The Age, Melbourne has an average of 10 homes per hectare. A Hectare is an area of 100m x 100m (i.e. 10,000 square metres). Phrased differently, if your house were in the middle of an imaginary square 100m by 100m, the nearest edges of this imaginary square would be 50m walk from your house, and there would be (on average) around 10 homes in that square.
But what does this sprawl mean in human terms? Well, there’s a limit to the distance that a reasonably fit, able bodied person would be comfortable to walk to a destination before they chose to drive. in this example, we’ll be generous and say it’s 400m (though this distance will vary from person to person). If you were to walk to the edge of an imaginary square 400m away from your home, the area of that imaginary square would cover about 80 homes.
Population density, and the number of households within walking distance of a home, become important factors when we look at the many businesses and services which depend on population base (and, in many cases, a customer or user base) in a given area in order to be viable.
Let me give you an example: imagine that one library is viable for every – say – 1,000 homes. Obviously, this would mean roughly one library would be viable in every 100 hectare area (or thereabouts). If you imagine a square demarking the homes the library serves, its nearest edge would be 5 Km away. Of course, only 80 homes would be within a comfortable (400m) walk of the library, meaning that the other 920 homes would be using some other means to get to the library. And, with inadequate public transport, this means driving.
In this example, what would happen if we doubled the population density? If, instead of 10 homes per hectare, we moved to 20 homes per hectare? If our 400m walk invisible square covered 160 homes instead of 80?
We could chose to have our libraries closer together. The nearest edge of that square demarking the area the library serves, instead of being 5 Km away, would be only 2.5 Km away. 160 homes would be within walking distance of the library, with 840 left to drive.
Or we could chose to build bigger, more efficient libraries (in terms of labour and – more importantly – natural resource use) that serve 2,000 people. The savings made in avoiding duplicating staff and resources across two libraries could be channeled back into better services and lower taxes. The local residents would have more books and resources available to them, and they would not have to travel any further from home than they do now to get to it.
And if we increased the density further, you could chose to do both.
Of course, the situation would not just apply to libraries. It would also apply to train stations, bus and tram routes, schools, hospitals, parks, and shops, just to cite a few examples.
These are important if we want to reduce our car use, dependency on oil, and the Co2e emissions this creates. In our library example, doubling our density could mean an extra 80 homes who would not need to drive to the library. And instead of 500 homes being within 2.5 Kms of the library, now all 1,000 would be. This means fewer people are driving, and when they do, they drive a shorter distance.
Reduced car use is further encouraged by the more efficient public transport networks that higher population densities allow. Reducing the size of suburbia means shorter bus routes, and by reducing the number of kilometres our bus network has to serve, and we can redirect those resources to more intensively serve each kilometre of bus route. More people would live within walking distance of public transport, and more destinations are within walking distance of public transport. This, in turn, encourages more commuters on public transport, meaning more money entering the system through fares, and more fares in turn mean more frequent for the same level of government funding. While – as I will point out in a future post – higher density is only part of the public transport challenge, it is certainly one means to improve public transport patronage.
So if we are serious about creating an environment which encourages lower resource usage, we need to aim for Walkable Communities: medium and high density communities where more businesses and services are within walking, cycling, and public transport range of more homes. Sermons about individual moral failings do little in comparison.