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Is the solution to climate change better urban planning? The role of urban infrastructure in driving individual carbon footprints

January 31, 2019


Lela Cooper

Inderhavnsbroen bike and pedestrian bridge in Copenhagen, near the Greenland Embassy in the background. Credit: Copenhagenize Design Co. (April 2017)

Historical environmental movements have often placed great emphasis on the actions individuals can take to create positive impacts. This strategy works well for pinpointed environmental issues. However, climate change is an incredibly global, and complex concern, and the individual responsibility approach does not produce the results necessary to address current and future risks. While individual actions are critical, it is necessary to evaluate the role of widespread societal infrastructure in directing individuals’ carbon footprints. The United States’ urban development patterns necessitate the use of motor vehicles, often increasing individuals’ carbon footprints in profound ways. Alongside this, the modernist approach to development has lead to low density developments, and large stand alone, single family residences, that greatly increase a household’s carbon dependency.

While climate change is an issue that ultimately affects all people, regardless of where they live, its strongest impacts are often in the Arctic, an environment that many people are rather isolated from. In order for our society to address Arctic climate change in the next several decades, action must be taken outside of the Arctic as well. While recent environmental movements have often pushed for the ‘individual action’ approach, in which individuals make their own changes to lower their own environmental footprints, it is necessary that in the developed world, we also evaluate our society’s development patterns and societal fixtures, that rely heavily on carbon intensive resources.

Although seemingly mundane, the United States’ urban planning patterns that rely heavily on road transportation and large stand alone houses drastically increase our collective carbon footprint. These widespread cultural features have impacts outside of the US, as climate change becomes an even more pressing issue. In this paper, I evaluated the ways in which Seattle’s urban planning patterns compared to those of Copenhagen, and how this impacts both cities’ carbon footprints. As the developed world begins making more commitments to address global climate change, smarter urban planning serves as a way for local governments and municipalities to not only create more efficient cities with a direct local benefit, but also lower carbon emissions. This goal of course faces many challenges, one of the main challenges being that many city planning policies and subsequent changes require large amounts of investment, (i.e. public transportation projects). However, if city planners and policy makers take an approach that concentrates on civic engagement, and focus not just on lowering carbon dependency, but implementing changes that take residents’ current concerns into account, this will result in not only more carbon efficient cities, but better communities as well.

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