Idea #28

Design and the Spatial Politics of Climate Change

by Billy Fleming

We are living through a period of once-unfathomable hope on climate change. It can be hard to notice at times, as we watch the Amazon burn and we careen from disaster-to-disaster in the United States—including Hurricanes Maria, Harvey, and Irma, as well as the recent California wildfires and Midwestern flooding—without a response to match the scale, scope, and pace of the devastation.

But beneath the surface of these devastating global events, grassroots movements—led by organizers in the Sunrise Movement and newly-elected Members of Congress like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—are shifting the parameters of what’s possible in a national mobilization around climate change. They rightly recognize that the greatest risk to the future of this country is that we’ll continue searching for small, technocratic fixes to a system in need of complete transformation.

This isn’t to say that those technocratic fixes aren’t important—indeed, amending the National Flood Insurance Program, instituting a carbon tax, and creating new financial instruments to catalyze clean energy investments are all vital components of a national response to the risks posed by climate change. But on their own, they are no longer a sufficient means of dealing with the climate crisis. They must be paired with big, structural reforms to how and where we live. Put another way, we have to redesign the planet for a new, novel climate that we’ve helped create.

The greatest risk to the future of the United States is that we’ll continue tweaking the system that produced climate change rather than transforming it.

How might we mobilize and expand the organs of government to accomplish something like this? Whether through the framework of a Green New Deal or some other yet-to-be defined national response that is scaled to the challenges of climate change, there are a number of ways the federal government can lead on the dual tenets of decarbonization and adaptation. And because I tend to see the world through the buildings, landscapes, infrastructures, and public works that national-scale investments create, that’s also where I see tremendous opportunity for government to lead on climate. Though this work could unfold across a number of agencies in a variety of ways, four particular ways of dealing with climate risk can be tied to the Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

This work can begin with a 10-year moratorium on new highway construction—a $200 billion program (nearly $1 trillion when leveraged). Not only are the materials involved in the construction themselves massive sources of carbon emission, but nearly 20 years of transportation engineering research has shown that building these new roadways does not alleviate congestion—it increases it, through induced demand, leading to more vehicle miles traveled and more carbon emissions in the transportation sector (already our biggest emitter). This moratorium would give the Department of Transportation the opportunity to maintain the massive highway system we already have, to deconstruct more of the urban freeways that destroyed neighborhoods during the urban renewal era, and to invest the bulk of the savings in new low or no-carbon transport systems, including Bus Rapid Transit, light rail, commuter rail, and high-speed rail.

As part of a broader, green industrial policy initiative, the Department of Housing and Urban Development could also begin to condition its funds—including, but not limited to its Community Development Block Grants program—on a new set of carrots to reshape land use patterns in communities throughout the U.S. This could include requirements that municipalities eliminate carbon-intensive parking minimums, invest at least 10% of their total budget in building new low-carbon public housing and retrofitting their existing public housing stock for maximal low-carbon outcomes, and abolishing single-family zoning districts in their comprehensive plans.

As Senator Elizabeth Warren first proposed, the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) could also fundamentally reshape the management of public land towards new goals that de-prioritize the extractive goals of oil and gas exploration and instead invest in decarbonization and biodiversity aims. This could include a rolling moratorium on oil and gas exploration on all public lands, as Warren has proposed. But it should also be tied to a drastic rollback in timber operations across these landscapes—a practice tied to the concept of sustainable yield, in which forests are mined at the highest level possible without triggering an ecosystem collapse. Instead, DOI could reorganize their land management goals around maximizing carbon sequestration and biodiversity—both of which would require an end to the pine plantation forests of the Southeast and a new investment in more complex, multi-species forests and landscapes. DOI could even tie the new management of these public lands to a jobs guarantee—a form of transition assistance for whatever timber and oil/gas industry jobs are lost due to their managerial reforms.

Finally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could dramatically expand its brownfield and Superfund (CERCLA) remediation programs around a central goal of the Green New Deal: to clean-up every single toxic site in the United States. Not only would this open up new land for other social goals like public housing and parks, but it could serve as a 21st century equivalent to the Civilian Conservation Corps—in this case, a jobs guarantee program tied to the clean-up of polluted sites that could take a generation or more to complete.

When it comes to mobilizing a national response to the risks posed by climate change, there’s no time to spare.

Billy Fleming is the Wilks Family Director for The Ian L. McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design.