May 25th, 2011


Principal Architect, Peter Calthorpe Associates


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 told a Climate One audience in San Francisco on May 25.

Tragically, we’re perpetuating this failed system in much of the country, ignoring a cheaper, greener alternative: urbanism. “It’s better than free,” said 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.”

The benefits of compact communities don’t stop there, Calthorpe said. “They have the added benefit of creating the kind of cultural environment and the lifestyle that many, many people really desire at this point.”

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 said, “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.”

He cited a 2006 paper by Chris Nelson, which took a 20-year view of the economic and demographic demands for housing and concluded that developers had already built enough single-family homes to satisfy demand through 2035.

Why did we overbuild? “Habit and inertia,” Calthorpe said. “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.”

“Everybody likes to point out the Federal Highway Act, in 1957, as the backbone and armature for sprawl,” he went on, “but at the same time, the government financed zoning, gave money to local jurisdictions to zone the new way, which was single use, low-density sprawl.”

Calthorpe dismissed the notion that every American yearns for a piece of suburbia. Households with kids represent just 24 percent of the total, he said. 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.”

Calthorpe gave 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 said, “but it’s in a walkable community; they’re willing to make that trade.”

Change will require hard choices. Calthorpe challenged 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 said: levees, transit extensions, flood control projects, parks, open space, and schools. Brooklyn boomed, he noted, because developers paid for streetcar lines the linked the neighborhood to greater New York City.

“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 said.


– Justin Gerdes
May 25, 2011
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California