Our Carbon Futures

For those who have recovered from the mayoral primaries, you may have noticed that the Waxman-Markey Climate Bill, otherwise known as H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, has moved on to the Senate… and the debate over how best to dilute it is about to start. 

The Bill is huge.  It is 1,428 pages of pure economic bliss for financial behemoths like Goldman Sachs and a moral victory for folks who have been pummeled enough to understand that for the federal government even a small step in the right direction is a big thing.  Greenpeace and others oppose the bill because it simply does not go far enough for the environment (which is true), decrying the “this is the best we can do” mentality as an indictment of the whole legislative system.   But, they neglect to acknowledge that at least this is a start with promise.  It’s not going to solve our gargantuan problems, but, as one optimist notes, it “gives us a framework to build on, and puts us on the path to what science says we need.” 

So, what is so promising, aside from greenish platitudes?  If you want the scoop by someone who really knows, stop reading and go here.  Or here.  Or just read the thing yourself.  Notice the obnoxiously large line spacing and the glacially scaled margins.  You’d think that a climate preservation bill could have said to hell with legislative layout standards in the name of resource conservation – just this once.  But alas… 

This Bill is not only about big picture policy – it also has real implications for our cities.  Here is my take on two of the tops:

1. Mo money? Yes.   Mo Problems?  Maybe… 

This is the obvious part.  Thinking optimistically, Waxman-Markey manufactures a brand new revenue stream that can be directed towards fixing the environment we broke.  More cynically, it is the opening salvo in the race to win the climate-industrial complex.  Regardless of your perspective, however, Waxman-Markey will open up an entirely new global market, allowing cities, regional authorities, nations, international consortiums, and anyone else with some vestige of faith in the resiliency of the US financial system to raise revenue by trading carbon debt.  There is tremendous opportunity here.  Imagine a TDR system for all new development that is based on trading embodied-energy credits related to construction and building operations – a potential boon for preservationists, proponents of adaptive reuse, and eco-conscious yimfy’s.  Possible?  Maybe.  Bel-Red set one recent local precedent earlier this year, allowing density transfers between the City of Bellevue and King County.  Others are being looked at too.  There may be little market for this today, but eventually there will be.  When W-M passes, which seems likely, we will all have to work diligently to ensure that the environment actually comes out on top.  Otherwise, we’re all done for, and density – no matter how seductive, or profit – no matter how great, won’t matter. 

2. National Energy Code


This is a little more wonky.  For cities today, the most important part of the bill is the building energy code language, otherwise known as Section 201, which mandates a new National Building Energy Code and federal enforcement of state and local compliance.  Since buildings account for about 40% of energy consumption in the US (add about 12% more if you consider the building materials industry), recalibrating the laws that govern their construction is some of the lowest hanging fruit from a policy perspective.  Edward Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030, notes:

“The codes … achieve more than six times the emissions reductions of 100 nuclear power plants… [and] …accomplish all of this at a fraction of the cost.”

Wow.  If this is even half right, nothing may do more to put our built environment on the path to energy smartitude.  Good thing Washington State has already started.

But more efficient energy codes are only the beginning, as they deal with only one slice of the US building pie – building systems.  Revamped general building codes are the next step.  The International Code Council (ICC), which creates the general building codes adopted by most US cities, is working on a project to develop a new Green Building Code, albeit initially focused only on commercial buildings.  The aim is to substantially reduce buildings’ share of energy consumption through passive measures and to contribute to a suite of coordinated codes that harness synergies between building components, construction systems, energy systems, and development types.  LEED, BuiltGreen, and a host of other private programs have attempted to get at this for years, but each has been limited by voluntary participation, a lack of standardization, and an as yet emerging understanding about how many green features will actually perform in the field.  Firms that are actually evaluating the post-occupancy performance of buildings that they design are learning how to anticipate many of these aberrations, which helps.  But there is still a long way to go.  Hopefully, as the Green Code develops, we can put the lessons learned all in one place.

Where this could be pushing us, of course, is the holy grail of plannerly wonkish enviro grass roots urbanism: the Performance-Based Code.  A flexible, climate-friendly platform for city making.  Too bad it doesn’t exist. 

But it did, once, sort of, in a relationary form that delineated building envelopes and uses by adjacencies and interface with the streetscape, rather than by “as-of-right,” or zone.  Granted, the scale, politics, market, and technologies involved were a bit different back in 550 CE than they are today, but the overall concept remains a compelling one.  Some are trying to re-establish it today – albeit in a much updated version, based how urban areas operatate.  West 8, the Netherlands’ landscape urbanism starchitects, borrowed from the idea to code the sexy little wharf block at Borneo Sporenburg, as a pilot project.  And that turned out ok – if you look at it as a petri dish sized experiment for a larger urban system.  After a series of tests about how design-side factors could impact urban and architectural performance, the firm narrowed the code mandates down to roughly three:  parcel size (which they conveniently got to choose because the development was brand new), land-side streetwall, and a 30-50% interior void (courtyard) space.  There were a few other minor conditions, but that’s about it.  The project acheived a remarkable variety while contributing to a cohesive, dense, urban streetscape.  No word on energy consumption, but with all the operable windows, internal daylighting, and party wall conditions, I bet it’s not too bad.  Metropolitan scale endeavors would have to be much more complex.

If you think of cities as the backdrop for life, then the mechanism that enables the backdrop to function is a bit like a computer’s operating system.  Zoning and codes are the programming languages which allow neighborhoods and buildings – the ‘wares in this metaphor – to develop, relate, and interact.  Unfortunately, from an environmental and use perspective, we are all running on Euclid v1.0.  And nationally speaking, we live with the results every day.  A sea of climate-sapping, auto-oriented non-chitecture and a few mediocre 5 over 1 ‘bread loafs’ bobbing about here and there.  Form-based Codes, ‘Smart Codes,’ and well thought out design guidelines have raised (or are raising) the level of average in many places, but they are still the equivalent of Microsoft giving you a prepackaged list of options for your Windows ‘theme.’  I run ‘Classic.’  Yeah.  Please don’t judge me.

Some places, like Portland, have pioneered performance-oriented urban districts, and others have suggested policy language to incentivize their creation.  But neither really gets at the core of the issue: the coding platform itself.  Instead, both serve as patches (albeit highly innovative patches) for a byzantine OS. 

So, why not just rewrite the OS?  Well, it is not that simple of course.  Politics, economics, and just about everything that physically exists today each has a vested stake in the status quo, which, as you can imagine, creates a substantial amount of inertia.  Also, there is the fact that “performance-based” implies that someone or something must be the decider regarding who has performed well and who has not.  Who’s going to volunteer for that?!  Until we develop some standard metrics for evaluation, I imagine there will be few takers.

Oh, and there’s this… last Tuesday, the National Academy of Sciences reported that no matter how progressive we get with our urban coding strategies, we are totally and irreversibly screwed when it comes to climate change.  There is simply too much sprawl for denser, better performing cities to provide a meaningful offset.  Even though the same report says that Portland’s growth policies are working.  Hmmm.

So, back to W-M and our City.

Where is Seattle in all of this?  What leadership can we offer?  Well, we have a Copenhagen fetish – that’s cool I guess, because Copenhagen is cool and very green.  We have the Seattle Climate Partnership, which we are still figuring out what to do with.  We have the Green Factor scorecard.  We have created a thorough, data-driven pedestrian master plan with performance criteria at its core – Good.  Also, we are at least considering amendments to our own zoning code.  Like Waxman-Markey, those are a start.

11 Responses to “Our Carbon Futures”

  1. Hank

    Wow…I actually understand all of this, but good lord, the writing is dry and boring. If I wanted that, I’d read the Times.

  2. Comitant

    You get a star for understanding Hank. Or maybe you’re ironically complimenting? Now go back to your *exciting* Maxim.

    To answer the question posed in the last paragraph:
    1)Urban Model -> 2)Zoning -> 3)Individual buildings

    1) Seattle, like almost every American city, suffers in some way from the hub and spoke model. Everyone works in the center and goes to sleep elsewhere (and that really doesn’t matter as long as you can get there). As it stands, our current light rail model is another fat spoke connecting new bedroom communities to the almighty Downtown. When you consider a place like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, it’s hard to determine what exactly is the downtown. Instead of one center, many smaller centers are networked together with rail and bus. Density is not just about mixed-use plopped next to a bus station. It is the formation of neighborhoods that are self sufficient in business, commerce, residence, culture, and maintenance. The hub and spoke, as it is in Seattle, does not support it.

    2) In comparison to Amsterdam and Copenhagen, Seattle’s zoning looks like the board game Candyland. Our setbacks and envelope limitations are some Frankenstein of country living individualism and metropolitan living. Just look at the Seattle Times article mentioned here a few weeks ago about the Mother-In-Law zoning proposition. It’s a big deal to have your neighbor’s wall on your property, and it’s an unthinkable big deal to actually share a party wall in your, *gasp*, private house. Borneo Sporenberg is a good example of energy and land efficiency, but our landscape fetish does not support it. We insist on having squarish houses and small window on the sides looking down on fences and shrubs. Like Michael McGinn said last week on KUOW’s Weekday, there are a lot of great housing solutions available that are deemed off-the-wall by our land use codes.

    3) When actually talking about the environmental impact of a building, both in manufacturing and energy use, it’s hard to determine what is what times what. Is a house that has a lower R value but heats all its water via the roof more or less energy “conscious”? Or the house that has the big windows that loose the precious R but a thermal mass floor and walls that collect sun heat? These things are hard to quantify for bureaucracies because often the ecological benefits are fuzzy, long term, or just hard to quantify.

    We need a mayor who is brave enough to stick it to the NIMBYers, reform our zoning/land use codes, and require some real givebacks from developers. Then we can start actually experimenting with new dense housing solutions that don’t look like the Fischer Price condos+town houses that popped up in the last decade. And maybe in the future we’ll take the step of deconstructing Downtown and start putting up real office space in, say, oh Beacon Hill anyone? Or how about next to the new Capitol Hill station in 2016?

    Solution for now: Vote Mike Mcginn

  3. John of Humdinger

    If you’re concerned about preserving Homo Sapiens’ life,
    why vote for someone who supports partial birth abortions?

  4. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    While Seattle has a mild case of hub and spoke disease, jobs in the region are pretty strongly multi-center. That was one reason we scored badly on the poorly done job sprawl study (in their definition, the 40,000 people who work in the U-District are “too far from downtown”).

    I agree that the current light rail stations are not where the jobs are, but it’s pretty hard to argue that future stations at Husky Stadium, Northgate, and Bellevue are for bedroom communities.

  5. James

    Good post, David, but you’ve got a few dead links in it.

  6. Ross

    Comitant: On point number 1, I couldn’t disagree more. Since the 80s, there has been a huge increase in business buildings outside of the downtown area. This has happened not only in Seattle, but across the country. This has lead to much more sprawl and much more car use. One of the big attractions of these buildings is that they have their own, cheap parking. Take a job in Factoria, for example and they will provide you with a parking permit. Take the same type of white collar job in downtown Seattle, and they will tell you where to get a bus pass. Maybe Factoria just needs to be self sufficient, perhaps? OK, fair enough. Except that’s not how people live and it’s not how people work. Are you supposed to move to Factoria if you get a job there? Is your wife supposed to quit her job and work in the neighborhood as well? That won’t happen. Instead, we will see one more car on the road (since the buses to Factoria suck if you live in Seattle). Are we supposed to love the Microsoft campus, since it pretty much epitomizes this approach (Microsoft will house you — seriously, they have their own apartment buildings). Do you really think we would have more sprawl if Microsoft had decided to locate in downtown Seattle?

    One of the reasons we’ve struggled in getting light rail in this city (aside from the obvious limitations of being a mid-size city with tremendous physical obstacles) is that there has been a huge growth in suburban business buildings. If more people worked downtown, or in a few central locations (like the U district) then a rail system would provide a lot more benefit for the miles covered.

    I don’t know about Copenhagen, but it was pretty obvious to me where the center of Amsterdam was when I was there. Seriously, for those who’ve never been there, go on Google maps and take a guess. The city looks like a set of concentric circles to me. The striking thing about Amsterdam, though, is not this design, but how much of it is green. It is rather striking that in the most densely populated country in the most densely populate continent that there is so much green and so few huge buildings. In that regard, you make a very good point. Amsterdam (and the rest of the Netherlands) make for a very good model of development. What makes them special, though, is not their lack of hub and spoke (L. A. has way less of a hub than Amsterdam or New York) but their preservation of green space in the city and the mix of mid-size development.

    In many ways, that is the obvious solution to the problem: preserve green space and watch the density increase. How it increases will be very interesting to watch. While plenty of folks will love to see the density of the city increase, just as many (myself included) would love to see the suburbs actually be nice places to live. There are lots of people who would love to live on a small house with a small lot (think San Francisco) but really don’t have that option (unless they spend big bucks on a skinny city house). It would be nice if the suburbs looked like that. Actually, it would be nice if the suburbs had houses like most of Seattle’s houses. If they did, there would be a lot less sprawl and lot more affordable housing.

  7. Jay


    Copenhagen was in fact planned around a hub-and-spoke model. In 1947 the “finger plan” was adopted wherein 5 fingers were developed radiating out from the city center along S-Train lines. It is very visible on a map as well as from the ground when traveling around Copenhagen. What’s made Copenhagen successful isn’t the topography of the city, but rather the content of the city and the citizens’ commitment to changing the city’s culture after the 1970’s energy crisis.

  8. David Cutler

    James, links should be fixed. Thanks.

  9. David in Burien

    I’m glad you guys responded to Comitant on the substance. I was gonna call him/er out for being an anonymous, condescending prick.

  10. Comitant


    (from http://www.time.com/time/2007/america_numbers/commuting.html)

    The point about Copenhagen and Amsterdam is their night time and daytime maps, which would most likely be more equalized than Seattle’s. Regardless of street layout, their urban functions are marbled. Our current LightRail+TOD approach by the City/State incents mixed-use but not much else.

    Thank you for not calling me out, David, with what exactly? If anyone is condescending prick….

  11. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Those graphs are awesome. What it shows is the extreme need of dense housing in the center city and U-District (stats must not include students, though; it shows campus as empty at night). I also wouldn’t be surprised if that’s pretty old census and BLS data.

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