Friday, October 21, 2005

New Urbanism

I'm going to start this post with the caveat that I have absolutely no technical foundation to my arguments; as bubba could tell you, I'm hopelessly, physically ignorant. But that might just make me the perfect foil for all the strong, technical arguments made in the last few post and comments. I'll lay my case and let you explain where my naivete has led me astray.

Listening to NPR the other day, I was fascinated by the rebuilding ideas already being discussed for the Gulf Coast, specifically hurricane -razed Mississippi. The idea is New Urbanism - mix-use, walkable town centers with combined low and middle income housing, using architectural designs from the early 19th-century, but incorporating modern technologies. It's rebuilding the small towns of our past with an eye to the future.

After reading the AE posts of the last few days and thinking of SinceSlicedBread, wouldn't this be a great way to initialize schemes for alternative-based, energy-efficient communities. Things could be tested in these micro-climates and the successful ones transferred to larger communities, either over-layed or reengineered as necessary. Could a brownstone type structure, with a storefront on ground level and four single family apartments above get by with a roof-sized power grid and community biomass heater?

At one point none of our infrastructure was interconnected, not water and sewage, heating and electricity, phones, cable or satellite. All of these things have been incorporated over time, with new areas having the best of the new technology, but older housing being updated as it became possible. In 1980, fewer than 10% of houses had cable, today it is derigour for new developments, even though satellite is becoming more popular. In 1990 not one in fifty had heard of the internet, today technophobic seniors wouldn't dream of living without e-mail. It may take years of trial and error to get the country (world) out of fossil fuels and into alternatives, but it doesn't all have to be done at once. So longs as we make it a priority, it will happen.

It also doesn't have to be a one-size-fits-all proposition. Wind technologies may work better in rural areas, solar in sunny ones, wave-driven near the coast. Industrial areas may need more interconnected power, while populated ones could use more individualized solutions. Bubba worries that people would be slow to commit/utilize/accept such diversity, but as others have pointed out, necessity is the mother of invention. What about a slow, need-fit conversion?