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City planners descend on Las Vegas... and largely ignore energy

"We've got nearly 2 million people living out here in the middle of the desert...maybe this is something planners should be concerned about?" Program Manager Daniel Lerch returns from the APA conference in Las Vegas, where climate change got a little more attention than last year, and peak oil barely any at all.


"We've got nearly 2 million people living out here in the middle of the desert...maybe this is something planners should be concerned about?" Program Manager Daniel Lerch returns from the APA conference in Las Vegas, where climate change got a little more attention than last year, and peak oil barely any at all.

Last Wednesday John Kaufmann, Jennifer Brost-Sarnecki and I held a session on "Responding to Peak Oil and Energy Uncertainty" at the annual American Planning Association conference in Las Vegas -- the only session this year specifically on peak oil, and likely the first ever at this annual conference. (If you attended the session and want to our presentations or get on the mailing list we discussed, click here.)

This is not something I'm happy about. James Howard Kunstler, Richard Heinberg and other scholar-authors sounded the mainstream wake-up call on peak oil over three years ago with books like The Long Emergency and Powerdown, among others. We planners, of all folks, should not have waited until 2008 to get peak oil on the agenda.

Still, better late than never. And judging from the reception we got at our last-of-the-day session (a near-capacity audience, most of whom stayed 45 minutes after the end for Q & A), APA members are starting to recognize that peak oil is a serious, serious issue for us to deal with.

At last year's conference in Philadelphia conference I was encouraged by the trends I saw toward integrating sustainability thinking into conventional planning practice. Last April, however, oil was trading around $60, not $120, and the 'acceptable' level of atmospheric carbon was a reasonable 450 ppm, not a daunting 350 ppm (daunting because we're already at 385 ppm). Things have changed. So this year I went to Las Vegas with a high sense of urgency, and sought to gauge --if only roughly-- two things:

1.) How interested are planners, really, in climate change and energy issues / peak oil?
This year's conference included a special "Energy Planning" track and around 13 climate / energy sessions (out of over 250 total) -- up from a small handful last year, and few if any the year before. I and others noted that many of those session rooms weren't exactly bursting at the seams, and more than one speaker noted that climate and energy should not just be a "special interest" but rather the overriding theme of the conference. They're right: we are nearly out of time on peak oil, and if we're really going to achieve the carbon reductions called for by James Hansen, George Monbiot and others, we have no time to lose.
Planners do seem to be increasingly interested in climate and energy, but not to the degree that's truly needed.
2) Are the big planning firms and agencies starting to address energy uncertainty / peak oil in their work?
To answer this one I did a rather unscientific poll of the folks staffing tables in the exhibit hall for big names like Parsons Brinkerhoff and FEMA, figuring I could get a rough sense of whether an organization was thinking at all about energy uncertainty by how informed or clueless an answer I got.
I certainly got my share of disappointing answers (sorry folks, 1990s-style low-density transit-oriented development is not going to cut it in a world of $250/barrel oil), but there were some bright spots -- most notably a project manager for WRT who's rewriting a Pennsylvania county's Comprehensive Plan with energy efficiency as its main theme, and a manager with FEMA's Mitigation Division who was fully on board with peak oil and wanting to integrate energy uncertainty into her work.
So are the big players really integrating global warming and peak oil into their work? I won't say "no" based on two hours in the APA Exhibit Hall, but I think it's safe to say that energy and climate uncertainty are inching their ways onto the radar screen but have a long way to go.

Disappointing, to be sure. Indeed, the whole conference was somewhat discouraging to me: a massive missed opportunity to address sustainable community planning in this most unsustainable of cities. Not only was there not a single session on what was wrong with Las Vegas (and there is plenty to be learned from, there), the closing speaker, New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger, largely focused on how Las Vegas was an extreme extension of American anti-urbanism (per Venturi et al's groundbreaking 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas) that nevertheless has become 'accidentally urban' thanks to the massive pedestrian traffic the Strip generates. Well, the urban designer in me finds that interesting. But we're in a sorry state when thousands of planners come to Las Vegas and the focus is on architectural philosophy -- and not on the fundamental incompatibility of that sprawling city's economic, land use and transportation patterns with the increasingly uncertain flows of natural and human capital it depends on for survival.

In other words: We've got nearly 2 million people living out here in the middle of the desert; they're extremely dependent on distant and declining water sources; their economy absolutely depends on cheap aviation fuel, which will soon be a distant memory; their food, manufactured goods and construction material are all trucked and trained in thousands of miles with cheap diesel fuel, which also isn't getting any cheaper... Maybe this is something planners should be concerned about?

No, at the APA conference, as in planning offices around the country, I'm afraid it's still largely business as usual. I caught the tail end of a session on John Kasarda's 'aerotropolis' concept, which basically promotes public investment in airport-related development clustered around expanded airports. (This is exactly the kind of concept that Hamilton, Ontario abruptly reconsidered after a study pointed out that the air travel and freight sector will have a hard time expanding given a future of depleting oil reserves.) After the session was over, I asked a fellow on his way out if the speakers had discussed energy. He said "No. Absolutely not."

Disappointing, but not surprising.


For folks who attended our session at APA:

I promised the audience at our "Responding to Peak Oil and Energy Uncertainty" session that we'd post our slideshows:

- Daniel Lerch, Post Carbon Institute:
PCC_April2008_presentation.ppt (8MB .pdf)
My slideshow was just the first half of this 45-minute show I used in Ireland and the UK earlier in April.

- John Kaufmann, Oregon Department of Energy:
JKaufmann_POTF-American_Planning_Assoc_May08.pdf (1.6MB .pdf)

- Jennifer Brost-Sarnecki, Southern California Association of Governments:
SCAGAPAEnergypresentation.pdf (12MB .pdf)

I also announced --in response to a suggestion by an audience member-- that I'd set up a mailing list for people to continue the discussion about advancing the peak oil message within the APA. I've done so and have added to it the people who gave me their cards after the presentation. If you'd like to be on this list as well and you're an APA member, please contact me with your email address, name, title, affiliation, and APA member number and we'll add you to the list. Please put the words "SCP list" in the title of the message -- I get a lot of email!

Photos: Daniel Lerch


Posted by cjryan2000 on May 20, 2008 - 1:34pm

I have felt for some time that the vast majority of planners are timid and centrist, largely reflecting the midpoint between progressive and hard core conservative thinking. While some exceptions are out there (e.g. radical urban planners), most are not trendsetters or risk takers. On this front I appreciate your work and others who are willing to stick your necks out and speak to an uncomfortable truth (see Kelpie Wilson's piece in yesterday). So thank you and hopefully the profession can take a leadership role in these issues or be left behind by alternatives.

Christopher Ryan, AICP
Member, Concord Local (MA)

Posted by hugho on May 24, 2008 - 10:44am

I totally concur with Daniel on the stunning absurd implausible ironic choice of las vegas for such a conference. What were they thinking? It seems likely that las vegas will be the first domino to fall in the brave new world of energy and resource scarcity looming.

Posted by Kassil on June 23, 2008 - 12:31pm

Speaking as someone who lives near Las Vegas and works in part of the tourism industry, I have to say that the incredibly shoddy nature of Las Vegas development is understated here. The city has literally sprawled outward, only rarely taking advantage of anything but the simplest of efficiency measures - some streets in Summerlin have roundabouts, some places have shut down the absurd water-in-the-desert displays that they once had. Unfortunately, the city as a whole is laid out in such a way that the main transit routes are routinely blocked by heavy traffic, the public transit system is a bad joke told by an inept comedian, and the idea of conservation provokes gales of laughter from the primary industry; just witness the immense 'bay' at Mandalay Bay, which flagrantly wastes vast amounts of water just so visitors to the high desert can feel like they're on the beach somewhere. Despite a worsening economy and soaring energy prices, numerous construction projects are underway to add still more casinos, presumably for when things 'get back to normal'.

The greatest frustration, for me, is an awareness of exactly how much the city could do to become a model of sustainability; our geographical position makes it ideal for tapping wind and solar power, and in Henderson there's potential for geothermal energy. Get rid of our water-wasting methods and install communal gardens, stop widening roads and funnel the funds into public transit systems - light rail, bus systems, and so on - and maybe Vegas could be something besides a one-trick town that can only survive in a burgeoning global economy.

Posted by michaelkaer on July 14, 2008 - 9:07am

Looking at the plans these places have (or don't have) I am glad I took part in a SWOT* of my community. I live in Chatham-Kent, Ontario, Canada. We are so lucky to be surrounded on all sides by great lakes. Water is not an issue for us(except flooding). We also have some of the best farm land in the world here. It also happens to be the most southern part of Canada, so (as far as other Canadians are concerned) warmer longer parts of the year. Chatham also is just outside the snowbelt region. We do get our share of snow, but not like London and Toronto. A city sitting in the middle of a desert like Los Vegas has only solar power going for them. They will have to export that power just to survive.Who is going to afford a trip to spend money there except the ultra rich? They do not make the bulk of their money on the high rollers, but on the nickels and dimes that come in from the working class that just wants to have fun for a while. I heard there was smart money down there. The smart money would be building solar powered everything and selling the power.

Here in little ole Chatham, we are going to be getting many new Wind generators because we also happen to be where the wind comes on and off the lakes all the time. We had some problems with some crops getting flooded this year, but we are going to be getting large enough crops that did make it to make this a banner year(crossing my fingers).All the local gardens are abundant( in my case with weeds as well as food) so I have to work harder this year ate weeding, but I will have a larger crop and my worms will have more food to keep them going which means I will have more worm compost and organic matter to put back in the soil next year. My pear trees look good and full. The mulberries are over producing this year(making up for the drought conditions of last year). Every place is going to have it's strengths and weaknesses. Los Vegas's is obvious. The challenge to you is to do a SWOT* of your area and see what is what.

* SWOT=Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats

Michael J. Kaer, author of "What Money Can't Buy" and owner of mikeswormsdotcom

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