Rewiring America's 'Energy Crisis'

Mike Lydon's picture

In a much discussed speech, ‘A Generational Challenge to Repower America,' Al Gore challenged America to hit the off-switch on foreign oil and re-power itself with home-grown carbon-free energy– namely wind, solar and geothermal.

The predicted outcome Gore said would be a bold, energy independent nation ready to lead the world into the 21st century. However, such an effort, he asserted, would require "commitment to changing not just light bulbs, but laws. And Laws will only change with leadership."

If Gore's riff on JFK's ‘generational challenge' (the man-on-the-Moon speech) is actually met, the former's charge may go down in the annals of human history as more significant. After all, putting a man on the Moon, or Mars for that matter seems a bit frivolous these days-unless of course that is where we all plan to go when the last iceberg melts away.

Certainly Al Gore and Texas oil man turned wind energy proponent, T. Boone Pickens, deserve respect for their willingness to lead the way. However, "An Inconvenient Truth," "A Generational Challenge" and the discourse following this summer's energy/oil crisis media blitz, neglect a fundamental piece of the climate change puzzle: America's land-use laws.

For generations American affluence has been manifested in malls, power centers, residential pods, office parks, mega-schools, and the congested highways and collector roads that connect them. Long-considered the hallmarks of free-market prosperity, these energy intensive and car-dependent development patterns are actually hard-wired by a system of antiquated zoning laws. This ubiquitous framework is usually created at the local level and mandates a rote separation of land uses. As a result, from hamlet to city most Americans consume disproportionate amounts of energy and literally emit tons of CO2 because everything is just so spread out. The next several generations of Americans will likely eschew our disconnected landscapes of material comfort, finding them and the laws that created them dysfunctional and wasteful.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology's diagram at labove, at left depicts tons of CO2 emitted per square mile in the greater Chicago area. The diagram at right displays tons of C02 emitted per household. Despite higher total emissions in the core, the second image demonstrates compact urbanism is far more energy efficient than the outlying suburbs.


Municipalities, in an effort to supplant sprawl, have created tools like zoning overlays, planned-unit development and smart growth guidelines. Yet, they have had little to no effect because they are inconsistently grafted upon an already dysfunctional system of land use control. This prevents what Chris Leinberger calls the ‘option of urbanism.' That is to say, this broken practice has made illegal some of our greatest cities-the compact, mixed-use and transit-efficient patterns of places like Chicago, Boston or San Francisco. As you can see, America's ‘energy crisis' is simultaneously a land-use crisis.

There are no quick and easy solutions to this messy problem, but an entirely different system is surely needed. The SmartCode, a replicable and effective form-based model zoning ordinance, is available and, in capable hands, can alter inefficient "dumb growth" development patterns at the scale of the region on down to the block. It also features supplemental "plug-ins," which help site everything from wind turbines to community gardens.

And just as conventional suburban codes swept the nation in the 20th century, so too can the SmartCode become the defacto operational zoning system for the 21st. It is not a silver bullet, but those municipalities who have already adopted SmartCode-based ordinances, like Montgomery, Alabama or El Paso, Texas, are clearly providing the legal and political leadership Gore so adamantly implores.

In short, a federally mandated, but locally-controlled and implemented series of SmartCodes would compliment Gore's green energy revolution with one of the most fundamental human technology there is: the force of law and its ability to generate desired outcomes. Hundreds of cities and towns moving to a SmartCode based ordinance would, in the long run, drastically cut down on sprawling patterns of land use.

Unlike wind turbines and electric automobiles, nationwide zoning code reform does not yet invoke techno-elegance, nor does it promise direct corporate profit or political gain for the movers and shakers in Washington. This may explain why none of our political leaders care to understand why everyone drives so much in the first place, despite the well-known fact that 35-40% of oil consumed in this country is used for transportation.

Regardless, those banging the sustainability drum must consider rewiring the system while simultaneously going to great pains to re-power it.

Mike Lydon is Principal of the Street Plans Collaborative and co-author of Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Actions for Long-term Change (Island Press, 2015).


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