Could What’s Bad for “Out There” be Good for Santa Fe?

Date July 15, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Author Alan M. Webber



Let's say you got a telegram from the future telling you what to expect. And let's say that you could confirm to a 95% certainty that the telegram was authentic and its contents accurate.

What would you do with that information? Would you use it to your advantage? Would you make changes in your own lifestyle to get ready for what the telegram told you to expect? Would you try to get ahead of the curve so that, by the time that future arrived, you were already prepared?

That's exactly where Santa Fe is today, folks.

We know what's coming and we know what our natural advantages are. Now all we need is a little leadership and we can actually capitalize on a bunch of changes that the rest of the U.S. is probably going to find much more wrenching than we are-if we act now.

What am I talking about?

Well, here's a little quiz, simple enough.

In the next 10 years:

  • Do you expect gasoline prices to go higher or lower?
  • Do you expect energy prices to go up or down?
  • Do you expect food to be healthier or less healthy?
  • Do you expect city land prices to go up or down?
  • Do you think Americans will value quality of life more or less?
  • Do you expect the environment to be more important as an issue or less important as an issue?

I think we know the answers to these questions. Maybe not with precision but I think we all know the general trajectory of change.

In case you still have your doubts, here are a couple of recent data points courtesy of The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker magazine.

The Wall Street Journal notes that "smart growth"€ is transforming city planning in such places as Sacramento, California. Faced with rapidly rising gas prices, Sacramento is busy investing in mass transit, figuring out how to locate jobs and economic development closer to residential neighborhoods to cut commuting time, and permitting higher density development to improve the overall efficiency of the city. Much of the reevaluation of the city's growth and development is, of course, triggered by rising gas prices: The New York Times reports that nearly 70% of the 21 million barrels of oil the U.S. consumes every day goes for transportation.

The New Yorker recently took a slightly different tack in reporting on the same phenomenon: it found the Danish island of Samso, which took up energy conservation and renewable energy the way some towns adopt a favorite sport. The island now exports more energy than it uses and has been designated the "renewable energy island."€ According to The New Yorker, this achievement flies in the face of what the rest of the world is doing: this year the world will consume 31 billion barrels of oil, six billion tons of coal, and a hundred trillion cubic feet of natural gas; next year those numbers will increase by about 2%.

It's as if Sacramento and Samso both got the same telegram from the future that we got-only they took the time and trouble to read it-and act on it.

So what can Santa Fe do? That is, in addition to having a "sustainability"€ committee look into matters.

Let's start with transportation. The rail line between Albuquerque and Santa Fe couldn't be smarter-let's give the Governor the credit he deserves. Now how do we capitalize on that? What can we do to provide incentives for more fuel-efficient cars? Special parking places? Tax rebates? Has the city converted its fleet from gas guzzlers to gas sippers? Let's implement that long-discussed bike fleet concept. How about a fleet of jitneys-a share taxi system used in many parts of the world, often with a fixed or semi-fixed route-to carry people on short trips, using cell phones and the web to coordinate a flexible fleet? Since Santa Feans aren't afraid of tax increases and transfer fees for good causes, let's petition our elected officials to increase the Santa Fe gas tax. That's right, ask for higher taxes! We could dedicate the extra revenue to a much expanded transit system-and run it at reduced cost to the users. We've subsidized the auto long enough! Let's invest in the future by studying the current traffic flows coming into town by car, and put park-and-ride interceptors at key places, offering subsidized shuttle rides into town. It would make a lot of sense to put trolley lines on strips like Cerrillos Road. Let's start now!

What about electric and gas? We're sitting under a sun that shines at least 300 days a year. How hard would it be to create a financially attractive set of incentives to convert the City Different into the City Solar? If conventional energy is going to get more and more expensive, logic says that a thoughtful utility could underwrite loans for solar conversion out of the savings the plan would generate. That would exploit one of Santa Fe's natural strengths, create clean industry, and make it a cheaper and better place to live and work.

How about land use planning? Everybody knows that land use and transportation need to be integrated. Now that we know the future won't look like the past, how should we adjust our land use patterns? Urban density in Santa Fe should be our goal. There is a strong link per capita between density and energy consumption. High density also helps with housing prices and affordability: as you make development denser, you can charge less for each housing unit. People can afford them-and enjoy the benefits of Santa Fe-because you reduce the cost and time it takes to commute. A new comprehensive look at how to bring jobs and homes closer together is overdue, given what we know about the future.

Food and fuel prices clearly go together. The town leaders need to invest heavily in our local sources of food; the permanent space being built for the Farmers Market is a great step in the right direction, but we can do more. Think about the ways food and farming were supported during the Great Depression; public and private organizations taught subsistence farming, home canning, all kinds of techniques and skills for making sure families had enough to eat at prices everyone could afford. Think about all the ways the food supply can be made safer, more available, more affordable. In other parts of the world leaders are looking at ways to eliminate all the waste that afflicts our food supply; what could Santa Fe do to conserve and put to good use food that otherwise is simply thrown away? Conservation of energy and conservation of food go hand in hand.

Let's face it, folks.

We're enormously lucky in Santa Fe.

Our town is still relatively small. There's less sprawl than in most parts of America. We have a fantastic environment. We have magnificent natural resources. We've got a head start compared to most cities and towns to make sure the future is actually better; to take advantage of the transition we're all about to make, from the old oil economy to the new renewable economy.

We all got the same telegram.

All we need to do is read it-and get busy. There's a lot of work to be done, no doubt. Not only is it do-able-it'll make the future even better.