When I moved from China to suburban Seattle several years ago, I planned to continue getting around by bicycle and bus, as I had during my two-and-a-half year stay in Beijing. I was in for a rude awakening.
The main streets adjacent to my suburban neighborhood were a nightmare of speeding cars and congested intersections. The curving cul-de-sacs of the suburbs made it impossible to use back streets to get anywhere – I felt like a rat in a maze as I encountered one dead-end after another in my quest to find a back route to the grocery store. Riding a bicycle became pointlessly dangerous alone and impossible with a two-year-old riding behind.
Walking was equally unpleasant. The beach was just a 15-minute walk away, but the fumes from the cars roaring up the road beside the sidewalk, the danger of letting go of my daughter’s hand for even a second, and the disappearance of the sidewalk halfway to the beach all made the experience unpleasant and stressful. And once again, back streets were out of the question – they all curved around and fed back into the main arterial.
So, after living happily for over two years with no car, our family found we couldn’t get by without two. My husband and I joined the many people who contribute to the smog, noise, resource depletion, congestion, and alienation associated with the widespread use of the automobile. Ironically, in spite of our family’s much larger investment in transportation technology, we found it neither quicker nor easier to get where we needed to go on those congested suburban arterials than we had in our mixed-use neighborhood in Beijing.
THE ROOTS OF SPRAWL
The widespread dissemination of the automobile, and the associated destruction of much of the existing mass transit system set the conditions for suburban sprawl.
Suburbs were intended to be safe refuges that would allow the middle and upper classes to escape the contradictions of a divided society. But the escape was illusory, the divisions made more severe as cities were abandoned to the poor. In many areas, children are growing up without ever having met a person of a different race or class. Moreover, suburbs have failed to provide a warm community life.
We now know that suburban developments are inevitably accompanied by congested commutes of increasing distances, isolation, and waste. An automobile may be designed to travel effortlessly and rapidly along a highway, but for most commuters, that potential is seldom realized. Instead, the more highway capacity built, the more sprawl, the more congestion.
Industry, which was once chiefly to blame for poor air quality, now takes second place to the automobile as the chief source of air pollution, and much of our contribution to global warming can be traced to automobile use.
MOVING BEYOND SPRAWL
Many in planning circles now disparage sprawl, but those who want to make the shift to a more sustainable pattern often find themselves in a quandary. Most suburban areas lack the density to support a frequent and high quality public transit service- the very type needed to attract ridership. Without a good public transit system, commuters continue to depend on cars, and planners continue to demand that developers include large allocations of land for parking, and wide roads to handle the extra traffic, and the sprawl continues.
The solution is a whole-systems approach: land use and transportation must be planned together.
Architect/planner Peter Calthorpe is among the most important innovators of this approach. He proposes "pedestrian pockets," which are balanced mixed-use areas within a quarter-mile, or a five-minute walking radius, of a transit station. Within this 50 to 100-acre zone are housing, offices, stores, day care, recreation, and parks. According to Peter Calthorpe, 2,000 units of housing and 1 million square feet of office space can be located within three blocks of a transit station.
There are variations on this approach; some are based in suburbs, while others are "urban villages." But many of the principles are the same: relatively high density; mixed uses; a welcoming environment for pedestrians and bicyclists; and preservation and in some cases restoration of open space so that parks, natural areas, and agricultural land are interspersed between and within pockets of development.
Each pocket can develop its own identity and may have specific characteristics that would attract people from other pockets, such as specialty shopping facilities, light industry, etc. The pockets are connected along a rapid transit system.
As in many whole-systems solutions, once you solve one problem – like getting better access to jobs and services – you find you’ve solved several other problems as well. This style of development enhances community life. Those without access to cars – older and younger people, the poor, or disabled – can continue to participate in public life.
A variety of housing types and sizes encourages a diversity of ages, income levels, and races. Housing is made more affordable when infrastructure is used more efficiently. Smaller homes on smaller plots of land, "granny" apartments, or auxiliary units either above garages or added to existing homes increase housing choices.
Efforts to increase density have run into opposition in some areas. But the trade-offs are becoming clearer and many people are ready to make the switch.
Anton Nelessen, a New Jersey designer, who, like Peter Calthorpe, is considered a neotraditionalist, has found that when people see photographs of the two types of developments – the sprawl that has become typical of development in predominantly Anglo-Saxon countries, versus examples from Europe and elsewhere of mixed-use neighborhoods, they often prefer the latter.
Here are some ways to move toward this model of development:
- Start charging automobile users the full cost of driving. In a new draft study, "The Price of Mobility," John Moffet and Peter Miller of the Natural Resources Defense Council estimate that the costs of automobile travel that are not borne by the driver amount to between $380 billion and $660 billion annually (see also IC #33 p. 8). This does not include such unquantified costs as loss of wetlands and agricultural space to automobile infrastructure, but it does include an estimated $120 billion to $220 billion from the effects of air pollution.
If car owners paid the full costs of driving through the price of gas – instead of passing those costs along to others in this and future generations – gasoline prices would increase between $3.80 and $6.60 per gallon.
- Encourage telecommuting. Build telecommuting satellite centers that can provide the facilities needed to expedite work at a distance. The state of Washington has compiled a detailed volume of instructions on how to institute telecommuting programs (see Resources, p.61)
- Make long-term transit commitments. Adjust zoning to accommodate high densities and mixed uses in areas that will be well served by transit (see below).
- Reclaim the streets for bicycles, pedestrians and community activities by using traffic calming techniques, holding outdoor community events, and planting trees.
- Encourage the development of leading-edge transit technologies. Provide federal incentives for research, development, and demonstration of these technologies. Convert defense-related industry to mass transit production.
- Encourage bicycle commuting by providing tax and other incentives to employers who provide bike parking and showers for employees. Eliminate tax incentives that encourage the ownership and use of automobiles in association with work.
- Encourage urban village-style mixed-use redevelopment through local action and through tying federal and state transportation, housing, and community development funds to appropriate comprehensive land use/transit planning. Adopt guidelines that steer reurbanization to areas appropriate for urban villages.
- Involve all the stakeholders in envisioning what urban village development would be like in specific locations. (See article by Wendy Morris on page 50).
- Designate areas around ravines, streams, rivers, and other natural areas as permanent open space. When buildings become obsolete in such areas, restore the areas to their natural condition.
- Allow the transfer of development rights – within criteria set by land-use goals – to provide financial incentives to leave some areas undeveloped while others are built up more compactly.
- Allow infill of residential neighborhoods with "granny units" and additional units over garages. This step alone would probably do more than any other single step to increase quickly the supply of affordable housing both for renters and owners. This would also put to good use the excessive size of many homes.
- Adjust mortgage qualification criteria to take into account a home’s location. A home located in an area well served by mass transit or within walking distance of amenities could save a potential owner the thousands of dollars that US automobile owners spend each year on their cars. That level of saving would make a higher mortgage more affordable.
- Provide federal support for permanently affordable "third-sector" housing. Such housing is held in various ways ranging from community land trusts to owner-occupied homes with deed restrictions. This approach provides permanent affordability, a range of housing options, and accountability to residents and community.
- Direct pension funds to sustainable building and retrofitting projects. Long-term commitment of pension-fund money made a sustainable design for Bamberton possible (see p. 23).
- Develop model design guidelines that include the principles described here. Require fast-growing communities to adopt a locally appropriate version of these guidelines. Provide financing for projects that meet design criteria (see p. 50).
CITIES OF EXUBERANCE
We can make that transformation to "cities of exuberance" – the tools are at hand and the opportunities in a variety of venues are plentiful. Let’s do it! s
"A Third-Sector Housing Policy: Recommendations to the Clinton Administration," Community Economics, (Spring 1993): pp. 12-13.
Aldous, Tony. Urban Villages: A concept for creating mixed-use urban developments on a sustainable scale. London: Urban Villages Group, 1992.
Berridge Lewinberg Greenberg Ltd. Guidelines for the Reurbanization of Metropolitan Toronto. Toronto, Canada: Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, 1991.
Green, Mark, ed. Changing America: Blueprints for the New Administration. NY: Newmarket Press, 1993.
Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Getting from Here to There: Building a Rational Transportation System. Washington: Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 1992.
Kelbaugh, Doug, et al. The Pedestrian Pocket Book: A New Suburban Design Strategy. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1989.
Kelbaugh, Doug. "Backing Into the Future: Rethinking the Way We Dwell." Housing Affordability and Density: Regulatory Reform and Design Recommendations. Seattle: University of Washington, 1992: pp. 13-29.
Knack, Ruth "Tony Nelessen’s Do-It-Yourself Neotraditionalism." Planning, (December 1991): pp. 18-22.
Kuiper Compagnons, City Fruitful. Rotterdam: Uitgeverij, 1992.
Moffet, John and Peter Miller. "The Price of Mobility: Review Draft." San Francisco: Natural Resources Defense Council, May 14, 1993.
Newman, Peter and Jeff Kenworthy. Winning Back The Cities. Leichhardt, NSW: Pluto Press, 1992.
Newman, Peter, Jeff Kenworthy, Tom Lyons. Transport Energy Conservation: Policies for Australian Cities: Strategies for reducing automobile dependence. Perth: Murdoch University, 1990.
Once a city makes a commitment to move away from sprawl towards an urban villages model of development, how is that accomplished?
Metropolitan Toronto commissioned the firm of Berridge Lewinberg Greenberg Ltd. (BLG) to study the issues associated with increased housing density, because the metropolitan area needed to absorb substantial growth when virtually all its land was already developed.
BLG, which specializes in urban planning, went beyond the original mandate. It developed guidelines for the "reurbanization" of the city, using an approach that integrates environmental, economic, and social concerns with the built environment.
Much of the BLG approach to reurbanization has been adopted in Metropolitan Toronto’s first draft Official Plan, which was issued last year for public review.
So fundamental is appropriate transit to this approach that the guidelines propose that the level and location of planned transit service be established at the outset. The availability of transit service will be among the major criteria for assessing which areas to reurbanize. But other criteria will also apply. Reurbanization should:
- help an area move toward a ratio of 1.5 residents per job;
- increase the diversity of housing types and sizes, including a portion of affordable housing;
- maximize densities in designated areas;
- designate at least 30 percent of the land area for public uses;
- make walking an interesting, welcoming, and efficient means of transportation;
- reduce parking requirements, and keep parking space from separating the public realm from a building’s entrance; and
- preserve and restore ravines, rivers and other natural areas.
Reurbanization is aimed at creating the kind of community focus provided by a traditional Main Street. By coordinating development of land and transit, the need for automobile travel is reduced, along with pressures to develop open space surrounding the metro area.