Connecting Climate Change and Cities

Harvard conference gives reporters a new language

What happens when VMT meets GHG? A new version of the old “Two Cultures” problem articulated by British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow nearly fifty years ago. Snow focused broadly on the schism between science and the humanities. Today, in looking at the human impact on the natural environment, climate scientists and urban planners also see the problem from different vantage points and sometimes speak different languages—exacerbated by the acronym problem.

A recent “Journalists Forum on Climate Change and Cities” provided an opportunity to bridge the gap and improve coverage of the human carbon footprint in urban and suburban areas, from the nation’s capital to Normal, Illinois. The two-day conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, helped a diverse group of environment and land-use reporters find common ground (and, more specifically, a common language) in writing about these issues.

“I haven’t written that much about cities,” said Beth Daley, an environment writer with The Boston Globe whose series on the impact of global warming on New England was a 2008 Pulitzer Prize finalist. “We have an opportunity now to start talking about smart growth.”

“Land-use coverage has been pretty bad,” said Mary Newsom, a Charlotte Observer editor, columnist, and blogger who is currently a Harvard Nieman Fellow. The beat has often focused on local zoning fights between developers and NIMBY neighbors (that’s “Not In My Back Yard” for the uninitiated). “The question is how to cover land use and relate it to climate change… There is a disconnect between environmental reporting and land-use planning.”

The conference, sponsored by Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, the Harvard Graduate School of Design,
and the nonprofit Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, focused on connecting the two. But first the journalists had to learn how to translate the inevitable jargon that the expert speakers slipped into on more than one occasion. Environmental reporters were scratching their heads about the acronym “VMT” on the ubiquitous Power Point charts—that’s “vehicle-miles traveled”. And some land-use and real-estate reporters needed a reminder that “GHG” stood for “greenhouse gas” and that “Reggie” was a nickname for the northeast’s “Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative”. We’d all heard of “green cities,” but when one of the urban designers began his talk on “informal cities” in Latin America, it took a while for most folks to figure out that this was the PC term for slums.

That said, the reporters in attendance got numerous story leads in areas such as changes in urban development (make that “built environment”) designed to reduce automobile emissions. In the United States, transportation accounts for about one-third of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and a key contributor, in addition to the type of car and fuel used, is the amount driven. Americans are driving more today than in the past and using up land more rapidly, in part because of suburban sprawl and the long distances between where people live and work. Since 1980, the number of miles driven has grown three times faster than the U.S. population. Land is being developed at about the same rate. The result: CO2 emissions from cars go up at the same time that forested land, which helps absorb CO2, goes down.

People in this country obviously love their cars, and public transportation is often not conveniently located (in many European countries the vehicle-miles traveled are far less). We drive our kids to school, drive to get groceries—we often drive a few blocks rather than walk. When one speaker asked how many in the predominantly boomer-age audience walked to school as kids, a majority raised their hands; only a few hands went up when asked how many of their kids had walked to school.

To combat this trend, urban planners are promoting new approaches to “compact development” in which neighborhoods are designed to allow people to live within walking or bicycle distance of workplace, schools, shopping, and other necessities of life—or at least close to public transportation. Think TAD (“transit-oriented development”), LEED-ND (“Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Neighborhood Development”), “new urbanist neighborhood,” or “walkable community.” “Lifestyle centers” are replacing yesterday’s suburban shopping malls.

Studies show that with compact development people may drive 20-40 percent less, said Reid Ewing, a research professor at the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth and co-author of a new book, released earlier this month, called Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change.

One model of a walkable community cited at the conference is the Atlantic Station Project in midtown Atlanta. It was featured on April 1 in NPR’s excellent “Climate Connections” series. The story told how the Taylor family of two moved to an apartment in the planned community for the convenience of “jobs, home and shopping all in one place,” and in the process dramatically cut its carbon footprint. While the regional average VMT is about thirty-two miles per day per person, the residents of Atlantic Station travel only about one-third that amount. Mother Malaika walks her eleven-year-old daughter Maya to the bus stop, and then generally walks to work a mile away; she also does her grocery shopping on foot. This is in sharp contrast to another Atlanta family featured in the NPR series, the Carvalhos, who moved to a five-bedroom “dream house” on a big lot in the suburbs, but commute more than an hour to work.

The April 11-12 educational seminar attracted about forty reporters, many from national outlets such as The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Bloomberg News, CNN, NPR, National Geographic, and Scientific American (with New York Times environment reporter/blogger Andrew Revkin and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor David Shribman among the speakers). But it also included a lot of local or regional reporters and editorial writers from papers like the Arizona Republic and The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.

Conference sponsors offered to cover expenses for all attendees, an option that several reporters said was the only way they could attend in a time of tight to nonexistent travel budgets. “Our travel budget is essentially zero,” said environment reporter Mike Taugher of the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, California. He and others said their publications had no problem with the conference paying expenses, especially given the Neiman partnership. Anthony Flint, of the Lincoln Institute, said the intense two-day conference was the equivalent of a “mini-fellowship.”

While most came from one of the “Two Cultures” of environment or land-use coverage, a few reporters are already straddling the fence. “I’ve always made the link between growth and the environment,” said The Tampa Tribune’s Yvette Hammett, whose beat includes environment and growth development issues. “[But] I haven’t done much in making the connection between climate change and local land use issues, including walkability.”

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.