What makes a neighborhood? Is it the style of buildings or the attitude of the residents? Perhaps a neighborhood is defined by the dominant characteristics of industries long since vanished. Political boundaries notwithstanding, surely all of these factors and more contribute to the tangibility of almost any place thought of as “neighborhood.”
Distinct from the specific social character and built fabric there is a factor less visible but equally as important; the energy required by the life support systems that make a neighborhood in the contemporary 21st century, habitable. Noticed more often by its absence than presence, energy is mostly harnessed offsite and transported great distances to the places where it is ultimately used.
Like an invisible tariff, the vast majority of energy is consumed during the transportation processes between the primary sources and the end users. “The electricity use for an average American home accounts for only 39.2 million Btus per year, the amount of energy consumed in creating that electricity is equal to 134.9 million Btus.”1 The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that on average, it takes 3 Btus of primary energy to generate the 1 Btu of electricity.2 When the emergy of delivered energy is accounted for it becomes obvious that incremental increases in energy efficiency delivered by better lightbulbs, appliances, and materials will ultimately have little effect on society’s total carbon footprint. Eighty percent of today’s commercial building stock will still be in use in 2030, which indicates that despite our most efficient and cutting edge buildings, a more radical design approach is needed.3
The city must be its own power plant, utilizing rapidly renewable sources of energy and radically reducing the distance between where energy is harvested and where it is consumed. But polemics and platitudes are easy; Is it possible? What will it take to get there and where are we now relative to that goal?
1. N. Schuyler, Defense Sustainability: Energy Efficiency and the Battlefield, Washington DC: Global Green USA, 2010, p. 6
Photo Credit: http://www.phlmetropolis.com/Northern%20Liberties.jpg