Planning for Decarbonization: Building a Low Carbon Urban Commons

The following piece is part of Progressive City's series The Future of Planning: Insights From Emerging Planners, in which current or recently graduated Planning students reflect on the state of the planning profession and how our activities as planners can be oriented towards justice as opposed to perpetuating ongoing racial, colonial, economic, environmental, and ability-related injustices. More information on this series can be found here.

New York City. Photo by Arielle Lawson.

The science is clear: to reduce the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, we need drastic and immediate action to cut emissions and radically decarbonize. Beyond the depoliticized narrative of “technological fixes,” this ultimately necessitates a reckoning with the political, economic, social and material structures of our society and current catastrophic (mal)distribution of resources. As Naomi Klein writes, addressing the climate crisis requires “changing everything.” Yet as a recent urban planning graduate, the urgency, scale and reality of this necessity seems almost entirely missing from our current models of planning and planning education.


Beyond a “niche” focus on environmental or social concerns — too often pitted against each other as a “choice” between community gardens or affordable housing, or used to “greenwash” new luxury development — planners rarely talk about what the “norm” of an actual framework of planning and built environment based on the demands of a just transition would really mean and look like in practice. Situated within its full social, political and economic context, a focus on decarbonization could broaden our understanding of “environmental” urbanism, the scale of change needed, and the urgency of resource redistribution. Decarbonization needs to be materialized in the infrastructures of our everyday life. Cities provide a tangible and demonstrable scale through which to imagine the “concrete” and transformative dimensions of these changes.


Yet for planners to engage this true scope would require a fundamental conceptual reorientation that unapologetically breaks from the limits and rationale of the current neoliberal status quo and the market-driven logics that have gotten us into this mess. We would need to build from and for the real social needs and social functions of our cities, prioritizing and investing in the “foundational” infrastructures that make up the building blocks of equitable and collective low-carbon urban life.


While decarbonization is the baseline, any form of an equitable transition fundamentally depends on a broader political project of decommodification, democratization and decolonization. Without confronting the deeper roots of the climate crisis and the broader forces at play, we will continue to perpetuate the same systems of speculation and crisis. In a landscape shaped by centuries of racist exploitation and extraction, any change must be redistributive and realized materially in the world around us. At its heart, this must be a process built around reclaiming and democratizing “the public.”


Mike Davis calls the “cornerstone of the low-carbon city… the priority given to public affluence over private wealth.” Building public affluence requires investing in the collective infrastructure and associated public goods and services of the city as well as an explicit shift away from “public-private partnerships” to building new relationships and forms of democratized governance and accountability between the public sector, civil society and the grassroots. As Daniel Aldana Cohen notes, “It’s by expanding collective consumption — in housing, transit, services, and leisure — that we can democratize and decarbonize urban life.” This foundation aligns the struggles for the right to the city, especially around the core pillars of shared urban infrastructures and services, with that of a low-carbon urbanism.


Focusing on the built environment provides an opportunity for embedding and embodying systemic transformations across sectors on a collective scale. As planners, we must invest in the social and physical infrastructure that is critical to this transition. Rebuilding, expanding and democratizing our public infrastructure — from schools and libraries to swimming pools and housing to solar and energy grids — provides not only thousands of new jobs, but also represents the building blocks for a low-carbon, high quality of life that is accessible and meets the needs of everyone, but particularly those most marginalized and vulnerable. By embracing and leveraging the framework of the urban commons, we can advance a transformative model of decarbonization.


Drawing from and building upon the many place-based community demands and efforts already underway, a framework for equitable decarbonization must include the following core principles for “public” planning for a just low-carbon future:


• Redistribute resources to prioritize community health and wealth, not corporate profit;


• Collectivize resources to unleash new forms of cooperation and shared abundance beyond the scale of just the individual;


• Invest in our public (social) infrastructure to meet people’s needs and essential human rights, advancing a model of “universal basic services” as a fundamental right to the city;


• Address historical and ongoing injustices and center the most vulnerable and marginalized as core and defining members of the public.


By considering how societal transformation, particularly decarbonization, can take place concretely within our cities, we can open up new possibilities and imagine alternatives that represent real opportunities to reorganize our everyday life and address historic and ongoing spatial inequities. We need to build from the bottom up and the top down to reshape our priorities, institutions, and distribution of resources. More broadly, decarbonization, as intertwined with a larger project of democratization, decommodification, and decolonization, provides us the opportunity to rearticulate what cities are for, how they function, and whom they serve.



Read the full article in the Urban Review: Planners for a Green New Deal: Planning for Decarbonization



Arielle Lawson is a recent graduate of the Hunter College Masters in Urban Planning program. She is based in NYC and organizes locally with the Planners Network NYC chapter.

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