How Sprawl Impacts Religion

Lately I’ve been pondering on the effects of sprawl on my own religious community.  Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns is partially to blame for this.  I enjoy that he speaks openly about his own religious background as evidenced by two recent posts: in “Living in Communion,” where Chuck discusses the impact of the built environment on his local congregation, and in “The Cost of Transition,” which directed my attention to Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation from last November, wherein the Pope makes very clear his feelings toward “a financial system which rules rather than serves” and other ills of inequality plaguing our society.

While I’m going to keep this post secular, I feel strongly that religion still holds an important place in society.  My dad is an electrical engineer, who is also religious.  He raised me to look at the world in pluralistic manner, for which I will always be grateful.  Rather than seeing science and religion as contradictory, I see the two as complimentary and appreciate multiple perspectives.  But enough on that.

Before I can explain how sprawl impacts my own religious community as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS Church (AKA the Mormons), I need to give a brief overview of the basic structure of the church and how strongly tied it is to geography.  The basic congregation of the LDS Church is the ward, which usually consists of around 250 active members.  Having a boundary that delineates the geographic extent each ward is unique among most other religions.  In the LDS Church, geography dictates which ward you attend.

In areas of high LDS membership (like Utah), a ward’s geography may consist of only a handful of city blocks.  Most of the Salt Lake City metropolitan area was developed under land use policies that create the sprawl typically found throughout the United States, complete with the strict economic stratification created by zoning.  The end result is that for a ward covering a small area, there is little economic or demographic diversity among its members.  A good case study is the ward, where my aunt and uncle live in the Millcreek Township.  They describe the demographic makeup of their ward as “the newly-weds and the nearly-deads.”

Examining why the lack of diversity is detrimental to the ability of a ward to function requires a brief overview of the concept of social capital.  Social capital is a term coined by sociologists (and often used by city planners) to describe the exchange of goods and services that occur in a community among friends, family, and neighbors without an exchange of money.  Here’s a simple example: A family with teenagers has their kids shovel the snow from the walkways of the elderly widow’s home next door, and in return, the widow bakes cookies for the family.  The basic idea behind social capital is that everyone has strengths and weaknesses; we all have needs, and we all have something to offer others.  In a community with a high level of social capital, much can be accomplished without actually exchanging a single dollar.  Social capital tends to flourish in a diverse population, where the strengths of some can alleviate the weaknesses of others and vice versa.  However, social capital struggles in homogenous populations, where everyone tends to share the same set of strengths and weaknesses.

Religious communities perform many functions beyond saving souls, and the LDS Church is no different.  Considering the previous paragraph, a LDS ward can be seen as a mechanism for fostering social capital.  When a ward suffers from a lack of diversity, social capital struggles, which makes it more difficult for the LDS Church to achieve its commitment to welfare and self-reliance.  It’s true that the LDS Church can and does transfer the abundance of donations from affluent wards to those wards that are in need; however, I feel that the redistribution of wealth functions much better when we can be personally involved in it.  The more we become personally involved, the less we need formal systems for redistributing wealth.  When we build communities that naturally encourage diversity and promote a natural redistribution of wealth, society has far fewer issues that need to be formally solved later on.

Finally, a shout-out to LDS Earth Stewardship for the great conversation that I had with those who were tabling last Saturday at Salt Lake City’s Downtown Farmers Market.  Hopefully, this post will help to show that stewardship is also critical for creating the proper human habitats.

Games DOTs Play

I live along Redwood Road, which is also known at Utah State Route 68.  In my neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Redwood Road is a 5-lane arterial with a concrete roadbed.  Recently the Utah Department of Transportation embarked on the concrete pavement rehabilitation of Redwood Road.  As stated on the same page, “The project will also repair or replace pedestrian ramps as needed.”

The two photos below show the state of the pedestrian ramps nearest my home as of July 15:IMAG0160IMAG0159This wouldn’t be so much of a problem, if it weren’t for the fact that the pedestrian ramps have been in this same state for weeks!  So, if you’re in a wheelchair, you’re forced out into the lanes of traffic in order to detour around the construction.  And, if you’re in a wheelchair and need to cross the street, good luck trying to reach the button to activate the pedestrian signal.  Once again this has been dragging on for weeks.

It’s obvious that UDOT has continued to view pedestrian facilities as a required formality rather than a legitimate transportation mode, which explains why few pedestrians can be seen walking along Redwood Road.  I hope someday soon UDOT will shift its priority from moving cars to moving people.

Quantifying Jeff Speck

Jeff Speck, the author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, is one of my heroes.  Back in October, his TED Talk entitled Jeff Speck: The walkable city debuted, which is also available on YouTube.  At 14:09, he makes the statement that “Changing all your light bulbs to energy savers saves as much energy in one year as moving to a walkable city does in a week.”

Slide2While I trust Jeff Speck and his statement makes perfect sense to me, as I have mentioned it to my colleagues and classmates, they’ve basically told me “Show me the numbers!”  So, earlier this week, I set out to actually quantify his statement.

The first thing that I had to do was establish a relationship between gasoline and electricity.  After some searching on Google, I found a nifty table created by the Alternative Fuels Data Center explaining the relationship among various fuels.  Basically, the relationship is established by converting each fuel into British thermal units (BTUs) or, in other words, finding out how much heat each unit of energy produces.  Burning one gallon of gasoline produces 116,090 BTUs.  Applying one kilowatt-hour of electricity to a heating element produces 3,414 BTUs.  This results in one gallon of gasoline equaling 34 kilowatt-hours of electricity.

Slide3The next step is to examine household lighting consumption.  I found an interesting report from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy that outlines average household lighting consumption.  When it comes to incandescent bulbs, the average household bulb is 48 watts.  There are an average of 67 bulbs per household.  On average each bulb burns for almost 2 hours a day.  This totals around 5 kilowatt-hours per day or 1,878 kilowatt-hours per year.  Assuming that compact florescent bulbs use 75% less energy than incandescent bulbs, this drops the average household bulb wattage to 12 watts.  The average of 67 bulbs per household burning for almost 2 hours a day remains the same.  This results in about 1 kilowatt-hour per day or 469 kilowatt-hours per year.  Subtracting the two annual consumption amounts results in a savings of 1,408 kilowatt-hours per year.

Slide4The final step is to examine household gasoline consumption.  I found a useful table from the Energy Information Administration, which states that the average household gasoline consumption is 1,143 gallons per year or roughly 22 gallons per week.  This translates into 741 kilowatt-hours per week.  Let’s assume that the “walkable city” imagined by Jeff Speck allows its households to significantly reduce the amount of driving necessary by allowing its citizens to complete most of their travel by walking, biking, and riding transit.  Let’s say it’s a 95% reduction.  The result would be reducing the household gasoline consumption to 57 gallons per year or just over 1 gallon per week.  This translates into 37 kilowatt-hours per week.  Subtracting the two annual consumption amounts results in a savings of 704 kilowatt-hours per week.

Slide5So in conclusion, the 704 kilowatt-hours saved per week by moving to a walkable city is only half the 1,408 kilowatt-hours saved per year by switching to energy-efficient light bulbs.  But wait!  There’s more!  Upon taking a second look at that useful table from the Energy Information Administration, I discovered that the average annual household gasoline consumption is actually per vehicle.  A quick search reveals that there are almost two vehicles per household according to this study also by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.  In the end, Jeff Speck’s statement that “Changing all your light bulbs to energy savers saves as much energy in one year as moving to a walkable city does in a week” is accurate!

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Gulfport, Mississippi

(I’ll be on vacation through August 10th, so this will be my last post for a while.)

For the final project of my Introduction to New Urbanism class, I had the opportunity to critique the Mississippi Renewal plan for the city of Gulfport.  In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated several communities along the coast of Mississippi.  In October of 2005, the Governor of Mississippi called upon leaders from the Congress for New Urbanism to lead the Mississippi Renewal Forum as an effort to create a plan to rebuild and revitalize the region.  Below you’ll find my critique and the slides I used for my presentation in class earlier today.  WARNING: I have never been to Mississippi, so my knowledge of Gulfport and the surrounding region is based on what I gathered from reading the Mississippi Renewal plans and other sources online.

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More Albuquerque

Yesterday’s post got me thinking about more aspects of population and metropolitan areas.  I decided to examine the relationship between the population of metropolitan areas and the population of each area’s core city.  Basically, I wanted to know how Salt Lake City‘s population of 189,314 comprising only 8.1% of the Salt Lake City metropolitan area’s population of 2,350,274 ranks among other metropolitan areas.  I put together the following table of metropolitan areas exceeding a half million in population and figured out how much of their populations were comprised of their core cities.  Some core cities, like Colorado Springs, El Paso, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi comprise more than 60% of their metropolitan area populations.  Surprisingly though were some of the cities on the other end of the spectrum.  Atlanta, Miami, and Boston each comprise smaller portions of their metropolitan areas than does Salt Lake City.

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Albuquerque?!

I’m writing this in response to a tweet by Brad Bartholomew, candidate for City Council District 1 in Salt Lake City.


(For purposes of consistency, all populations listed will be based on the July 1, 2012 estimates from the US Census Bureau.)

I’m actually surprised that Salt Lake City was regarded in a category as high as Albuquerque.  Often people use the wrong demographic methods when trying to formulate some kind of ranking.  As far as population within city limits goes, Salt Lake City is a mere 189,314 compared to Albuquerque’s 555,417.  On a list of US cities ranked by population, this places Albuquerque as number 32, while Salt Lake City is way down the list at number 124.  Unfortunately, many so-called experts inappropriately use this type of ranking when making comparisons.

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Wealthier Motorists More Likely to Drive Like Reckless Jerks

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Experiences in life have led me to wonder if this were the case, but now there’s research to support the notion that there’s an inverse correlation between the cost of one’s automobile and the politeness with which one drives.  In other words, people with pricey cars drive like jerks.  A study titled Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States actually presents research to support what we’ve all known for years.  Thanks to Angie Schmitt at Streetsblog Capitol Hill for pointing out that wealthier motorists are more likely to drive like reckless jerks.  Among the conclusions drawn by the authors are two quotes worth mentioning:

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