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Panel Explores How Land Use Strategies Can Reduce a Community’s Carbon Footprint

By Judy Sheahan
November 19, 2007


A panel of Mayors and a leading state official shared innovative best practices on how to utilize land use strategies to decrease greenhouse gas emissions in their communities. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Fayetteville (AR) Mayor Dan Coody, and Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo joined with California Energy Commission Chair Jackalyne Pfannenstiel to discuss how planning for growth, better transportation alternatives, and more regional cooperation can help decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

“No other single thing we do can have as big of an impact on climate change as our local role in the land use planning,” said Rybak, the session’s moderator, as he introduced some of the key issues before the panel. Noting that many cities were originally designed around streetcars where people could walk to stores and entertainment, he said that nowadays this would be considered as self-contained and sustainable. After World War II, he explained that people moved out of the cities and places were designed so that a car was needed to do anything. Rybak called attention to the potential for a post-oil city which will look similar to the streetcar era, with more mixed use and transit-oriented development leading to a more sustainable community design. “As mayors, we can have a major impact on the use of cars,” he said.

Rybak discussed what Minneapolis and surrounding communities, including Burnsville (MN) Mayor Elizabeth Kautz and Eden Prairie (MN) Mayor Phil Young, were doing together in the Highway 35 corridor, working together to create a “new vision” which includes light rail, bus rapid transit with bus stations as hubs, and promoting telecommuting by creating wireless cities. Rybak also discussed a $20 million transportation investment in his area to develop non-motorized travel options, funding that will help support more walking and bicycling through 100 miles of trails, wider sidewalks, more drinking fountains and trees and other improvements.

“Strict land use that separates business areas from residential forces people to drive,” Rybak said. Explaining how the Minneapolis area is expecting nearly one million people in the next decade, Rybak indicated he wants to accommodate that growth from within. To support this objective, the Minnesota Plan has been adopted, which set forth a comprehensive 10-year plan to promote growth along transit corridors, emphasizing mixed-use development, with housing above street level shops, and other measures that allow people to live near their jobs. “We need a new messy urbanism to create a more sustainable community,” he said.

City Design for Growth

Fayetteville Mayor Dan Coody echoed the need to plan for new growth. His city is projected to grow by 70,000 people, which prompted his community to create a sustainable land use plan, called City Plan 2025. “Growth is inevitable,” Coody said, “but the question you have to ask yourself is how you are going to grow.”

Coody described a series of citizen charettes that were held where maps of the city were made available and people were asked to place yellow dots, representing new residents, to indicate where new growth should go. Coody said that consensus was reached on five goals, including an emphasis on infill development, discouraging sprawl, creating a town form, providing a transportation network, and ensuring attainable housing. Coody said that people wanted mixed-use development with parks, open space, bike and walking trails, and mixed use development along transportation corridors.

The results include:

  • One thousand acres has been donated (as a tax deduction) to Fayetteville, which increased the city’s green space to more than 4,000 acres;

  • Development of a Downtown Master Plan which has resulted in more people now living in the city center, more housing options are now available, and arts and entertainment is also expanding;

  • Redeveloping and beautifying their major transportation corridor to promote walking through wider sidewalks, storefronts on the sidewalks, and increasing the tree canopy; and

  • Exploring ways to transfer development rights so that more farmland can be protected.

Regional Planning

Fargo discussed how the Sacramento area was utilizing its Council of Governments (COG), the area’s Metropolitan Planning Organization or MPO, to conduct regional planning to “help save the planet.” The COG is made up of six counties and 22 cities, representing 2.2 million people. It is anticipated that the area will grow by 1.7 million people and add one million new jobs. One of the area’s key challenges is that it has been too easy to build everywhere since there are no geographic limitations. As a result, poor air quality and traffic congestion are now key challenges before the community.

The region held planning meetings, similar to the City of Fayetteville example, to develop a strategy for growth. More than 5,000 people participated and developed the “Blue Print” for the region. What they developed was a land use plan that moved away from the “business as usual” method, where it was anticipated that over 1,000 square miles would be utilized, to the “Blue Print” which utilized only 707 square miles, a savings of 351 square miles. The plan was approved by all 31 COG members.

“The collective wisdom out there shows that people are ready for something different,” Fargo said, emphasizing that “they are ready for the mayors to step forward and their city to step forward and give them alternative options.”

Fargo stressed the importance that smart growth principles can play in development, even if you don’t have a regional plan in place. These principles include: providing multiple housing options; transportation choices; offering compact development that includes not just housing but a place to gather; utilizing existing assets; encouraging mixed-used development; increasing the quality of design; and protecting natural resources.

As a result of this process, the housing development patterns have shifted from the traditional detached homes to increased percentage share of attached housing on smaller lots that utilize transportation alternatives.

An overall goal, she explained, is to decrease the vehicle miles traveled (vmt) in the region. Currently, the average vmt is 46.1 miles per day in the region; under the Blue Print proposal, it will be reduced to less than 35 miles per day. This would reduce the region’s daily consumption of gasoline by 310,000 gallons.

What States Can Do

Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, Chair of the California Energy Commission, discussed the role the states and what state officials can do to influence land use decisions. California passed a law, AB 32, which requires a reduction in greenhouse gas reductions to 2000 levels by 2010 and to 1990 levels by 2020. In the wake of the new law, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger created the California Climate Action Team, making it responsible for researching and developing recommendations on the various areas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Pfannenstiel leads the Land Use Committee of the Climate Action Team.

“California, like most states, doesn’t have a lot of jurisdiction over land use decisions. It is mostly yours (cities) or in some cases delegated to regional planning agencies….however, I see our role as facilitator between the state and the region, the region to the local, and the state to the local to help in those decisions,” she said.

According to Pfannenstiel, the sources of California’s greenhouse gas emissions are electric power (22 percent), industrial sources (21 percent), agricultural (8 percent), and transportation (41 percent). In the transportation sector, California sees three possibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions: increasing vehicle efficiency; decreasing carbon content of fuel; and reducing vehicle miles traveled.

Although increasing vehicle efficiency is generally subject to a federal standard, federal law, subject to U.S. EPA approval, allows California and other states to set their own standards; California, which has previously requested this authority from U.S. EPA, has filed a lawsuit to force the agency to grant this authority. For low carbon fuels, California is operating under an Executive Order, which is now being implemented by the California Air Commission. However, even if the first two strategies are fully implemented, they still would have a ways to go to meet the goals set out by AB 32, particularly given the population growth and projected vmt growth.

Pfannenstiel discussed how community growth has affected vmt as communities were being widely dispersed, with no sidewalks, no places to go, and the need for a car to go anywhere. “We need communities that are accessible, highly dense, and have more mixed use,” Pfannenstiel said. Based on their findings, recommendations were made to the Governor and the State Legislature to help implement this vision. These recommendations include:

  • State Government should be a model for climate friendly and energy efficient development;

  • Develop criteria for smart growth development and prioritize infrastructure funding towards development that meets those criteria;

  • Require local governments to include an energy element in their general plan; and

  • Require regional agencies to develop growth management plans and prioritize infrastructure funding.

Pfannenstiel emphasized that regional planning can make a huge difference in smart growth efforts and how energy efficient buildings were a necessary component of any climate change plan. Currently, recommendations are being made by the Energy Commission is to make buildings more efficient at the point of sale to help spur on additional investment in energy efficiency.

Pfannenstiel addressed how certain detractors subscribe to the argument that by using less energy, you will somehow negatively impact economic growth. Pfannenstiel displayed a graph indicating California’s energy usage per capita which has remained steady for the past 30 years while their economic output has increased. “Energy efficiency does not hurt the economy and, in fact, I would argue, it supports it,” she said.