One of the many ways to reduce dependence on fossil fuels is to conserve energy. However, it is often difficult for people to build lifestyles of energy efficiency when living in communities whose infrastructures were designed with the assumption that fossil fuels were cheap, inexhaustible, and did not harm the environment. It may therefore be necessary to reshape the infrastructure of automobile-dependent countries such as the United States to help its citizens reduce their carbon footprints.
A fairly unobtrusive way to introduce more energy-smart infrastructure is to set up green building quotas for all new construction. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a certification system instituted by the US Green Building Council. It would not be too difficult or pose an undue burden on developers for city and/or state governments around the country to require that a certain percentage of all new construction be LEED certified. Some cities are already doing this. Seattle, for example, has already mandated that all new construction in the city meet green building requirements of at at least a silver LEED certification level.
One group proposing more ambitious change to design and community infrastructure are the New Urbanists. They have a set of ten core principles in community design and development that include pedestrian friendliness (sufficient sidewalks and bicycle amenities), aesthetic beauty and natural amenities such as tree-lined boulevards, access to quality public transportation, and ecological sustainability. They believe that the nationwide development of public transportation (buses, light rail, and high-speed trains) is needed to help nurture elements of a happy, sustainable, and community-centered culture in America.
In Japan and Europe, high-speed trains are very popular for business or leisure travel; they are faster than cars, cheaper than planes, and use less fossil fuels than either one. Currently the only high-speed rail system in the US is the Acela Express, which connects Boston, New York City, and Washington DC. One possible reason why high-speed trains have not caught on yet in the US is unreliable intra-city public transportation. But in 1996, the California High-Speed Rail Authority formed to study the feasibility of a high-speed train system within the state as a potential solution to its current problems of pollution and traffic congestion.
Another aspect of infrastructure design is utility companies. A common critique of our current system of utilities is that they are highly inefficient; there is considerable loss of energy simply in lighting and heating homes and buildings. Cogeneration facilities create heat and electricity in the same facility. Power plants that utilize steam to turn turbines, such as gas-fired, geothermal and fuel cell facilities, could also generate heat for nearby industrial and residential areas. Decentralizing power-and-heat plants by adding more facilities to the grid would make cogeneration a more feasible, less wasteful option for communities – and could increase competition among utility companies, ultimately driving down prices for consumers.
A common criticism of community design and development is that overly ambitious “social engineering” plans are ultimately doomed to fail; markets, say critics, are the most efficient means of providing the consumer with the goods s/he wants at a fair price. But New Urbanism and similar community development plans need not entail rigorous social engineering. There are plenty of market-friendly incentives that state and federal governments can provide to ensure the redesign of community infrastructure for the purposes of maximizing energy efficiency. Tax breaks and other subsidies, combined with zoning and planning reform, need to guide community development in a direction that reduces America’s carbon footprint. And if healthier and more aesthetically designed communities arise as a result, then so much the better for all of us.