Peter Calthorpe, Founder, Calthorpe Associates; Author, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change (5/25/11)

Peter Calthorpe, Founder, Calthorpe Associates; Author, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change It’s a love story gone horribly wrong. Big cars, ever-bigger homes, distant suburbs – all of it kept afloat by cheap oil. If this American arrangement ever made sense, it certainly doesn’t now, Peter Calthorpe says. Tragically, we’re perpetuating this failed system in much of the country, ignoring a cheaper, greener alternative: urbanism. “It’s better than free,” says Calthorpe, founder of Calthorpe Associates and author of Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change. “It costs less money to build smart, walkable, transit-oriented communities than it does to build sprawl. It takes up less land, it uses less energy, it uses less infrastructure, less roads … less of everything.” For Calthorpe, the ruptured housing bubble revealed a broken system but offers a chance to rethink how we build. “The real estate recession was a sign not just of perverse bank financing,” he says, “it was also a manifestation that we’d been building too much of the wrong stuff for too long, specifically large-lot, single-family subdivisions.” Why did we overbuild? “Habit and inertia,” Calthorpe says. “There’s tremendous institutional inertia” – banks, homebuilders, and zoning. “We have land-use maps that dictate low density in many areas and single use in most areas.” Calthorpe dismisses the notion that every American yearns for a piece of suburbia. Households with kids represent just 24 percent of the total, he says. The rest – singles, empty nesters, young couples – have different needs. “There are a whole range of needs out there and lifestyles that the one-size-fits-all subdivision just doesn’t satisfy,” he says. Calthorpe gives an example from his firm’s work, Stapleton, the nation’s largest redevelopment project. There, 12,000 units are going up on 4,500 acres – four times the density of the typical suburb – at the site of Denver’s old airport. “People spend more dollars per square foot for a smaller house and a smaller lot,” Calthorpe says, “but it’s in a walkable community; they’re willing to make that trade.”Change will require hard choices. Calthorpe challenges environmentalists to accept that infill alone won’t be able to meet the demand for housing; in some areas, projects cited near transit, for instance, building on greenfields may be necessary. We must also be willing to partner with developers. Development can help pay for a lot of the things we need, Calthorpe says: levees, transit extensions, flood control projects, parks, open space, and schools. “Quite frankly, the Bay Area should be thankful that we have the growth to deal with because it’s what we can use to repair so much of what we’ve misdesigned,” he says. This program was recorded in front of a live audience at the Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco on May 25th, 2011 Learn more about your ad choices. Visit

by Climate One