Can We Take the Heat?

by Nathaniel Popkin

In six to ten years, in a minor but important step in the response to Global Warming (air travel is the fastest growing emitter of carbon dioxide), a substantial portion of express air travel is likely to be outlawed or heavily taxed. To the delight of many of us, the federal government, at long last, will invest heavily in intra-city rail travel, and ten year’s hence, assuming sea levels haven’t risen as high as some scientists predict and the Atlantic coast remains as we know it today, Amtrak’s Philadelphia – Miami run will take a respectable seven hours and thirty-five minutes, not quite as blistering as the three hours six minutes from Paris to Marseille, but you get the idea.

Before you say Philadelphia – Miami’s no express flight and anyway, I can leave here in the morning and be sitting on the terrace at Nexxt Café for lunch, and no one’s taking that away in the Land of Freedom, so get real…

…I will tell you life as we know it is about to change. Al Gore says we’ve entered the time of consequences. 2005 was the warmest year on record, the ice caps at both poles are melting at a faster rate than scientists had ever predicted, dwarf flowering cherry trees were in bloom here latitude 39.9252N on January 29th . Across the ocean, mean British temperatures have risen nearly a degree and half Celsius in just seventeen years.

As gas prices rise with the temperature, the denials and obstructions by the Bush Administration continue with a childlike glee. The more they deny it, the more it’s true, a matter of fact.

The earth is boiling.

That fact – and its consequences – poses a challenge to the contemporary idea of city as an open environment for the exchange of ideas, goods, and people. Despite our famous parochialism, Philadelphia today is such a place, and every day more so: our streets are a babble of language and culture, and we are richer for it. Philadelphia as a plinth on which people of the world cross — and mostly in peace – is a model in a world in love with hard borders and ethnicism.

But what happens if the very real consequences of Global Warming restrain us? About 700 flights leave PHL a day, 31.5 million passengers a year (1 of 6 flying outside the country): and this is good, right? The airport says it’s worth $14 billion to the local economy and beyond that, it is the very real conduit of open-ness and exchange (think what the Beirut airport, now destroyed, means as a symbol to that nation). Restrict air travel here – around the world – in the service of reducing greenhouse gases and…will we too be thrown back to medieval times? (Something tells me the seven hour thirty-five minute train service to Miami would seem medieval to most Americans.)

We might argue: impossible! Never happen. We can’t give up air travel. Who are you kidding?

Suppose then that Philadelphia will be sustained by the flow of refugees fleeing the low-lying delta of Calcutta: there’s forty million potential Philadelphians right there. As Global Warming takes its toll on the economies of poor nations, a global refugee crisis will build; rich American cities will have to be more (not less) open to the displaced. In this scenario, Philadelphia becomes ever more a polyglot; brotherly love pushed to reach its fullest potential.

So we can’t close the doors, or we risk destroying that potential.

But to slash our carbon emissions, we’re going to have to fly less. Philadelphia, all 135 square miles, plus the rest of the region, is going to have to entertain us, sustain us, from cradle to grave, fifty-two weeks a year. As we open the door wider to refugees, the door to frivolous travel will close, and that includes dirt cheap flights to Miami Beach.

Adjusting may be easy: with a spray park on every block, Philadelphia will become the world’s first wireless soakspot. You’ll spend your vacation rock-climbing in the Wissahickon, tubing down the Delaware…you may be surprised to know there are fourteen trains every day from 30th Street Station to Atlantic City, and the ride takes just an hour and a half.

In truth, Global Warming will require the city (and the region) to invest in transportation and other infrastructure that will move us around quicker at less cost to the environment. Philadelphia will have to become simultaneously larger (that is with more things to do in more places) and smaller (easier to navigate and faster to get around on transit). We’ll need to act like Paris, with regional rail lines departing every few minutes, instead of on the half hour, with a completed subway system that connects existing El, Broad Street, Subway-Surface, and Regional Rail lines, instead of simply dispersing them in a radial from the center.

We’ll want to properly light our sidewalks, neighborhood squares and parks, retail streets (think: Front Street in Kensington, Castor, Passyunk, Snyder, Germantown, Girard Avenues, Fifth Street) so that they are safe and pleasant at night. So that Philadelphia finally loses the title of Quietest City in the World.

How about fueling all this transit and lighting with wind power, giving a boost to Pennsylvania’s fledgling wind mills, and reducing to almost zero the cost in carbon emissions of making Philadelphia safer and more efficient?

We ought to use our two rivers for transportation, finding places to connect them with canals, and all the while radically re-orient our city and its everyday function. The point is: this is no time for small ideas. For Philadelphia to function in the Age of Heat, for it to amble sweetly into the middle of its fourth century, for it to withstand the earth’s brutal response to carbon overload, we’ll have to perfect urban life.

You won’t want to leave.

I happen to think that turning Franklin Square into a mini-Disney World is a terrific start.

2006-07-21 07:50:49

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