Surprising Way to Fight Climate Change: Better Urban Schools


urbansprawl1When it comes to the warming of the planet, you never know how much of an effect a single, seemingly innocuous, policy can have on the big picture. Take attitudes toward birth control — it’s crass, but fewer people means less energy used. Well, here’s an even more surprising factor that some say could have an significant effect on the warming of the planet: better urban schools. A member of the audience at an MIT energy forum brought up the issue yesterday, which caused me to look into the subject further.

Here’s the rub: sprawling development outside of urban areas is a driver of carbon emissions. Communities constructed far from cities — so called cul-de-sac suburbs — are designed for people using cars to commute, shop, and access other services. Such communities are increasingly being seen as unsustainable or just plain bad planning. Some states — California, in particular — have turned to regulation to discourage sprawl; late last year California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 375, which takes the additional and unusual step of asking municipal governments to incorporate climate change concerns into the regional development planning process.

Well, one of the chief reasons families move outside of urban areas into these planned communities is to raise families and send them to nearby schools. Anecdotally speaking, here in San Francisco it’s very common for a couple that wants to start a family to flee the city because of its lack of good urban schools. John Mcilwain, senior resident for housing at the Urban Land Institute, tells us that close to 1.5 million new homes will be created every year due to the children of the baby boomers, or the echo-boomers; where those families will choose to raise children will be consequential in terms of climate change. Mcilwain says better urban schools could be a very important factor for keeping those families in urban areas.

Currently, only 25 percent of U.S. households have school-aged children, says Mcilwain, so there are many other factors involved in American’s decision to buy homes in sprawling communities. But funding for better urban schools could help put a dent in carbon emissions. While the stimulus package is giving billions for clean power and energy efficiency, it’s also allocating even more for education and improving urban schools. Could something that counterintuitive effectively reduce carbon emissions on the scale of an obvious carbon-reductive action like building a solar plant? It’s certainly something to watch.

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Improving urban schools, like growing our food locally and raising livestock humanely, is a good idea for many reasons. That it will help us keep the planet habitable is an excellent one, if another was necessary.

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