New Urbanism: Cities for people not cars

New Urbanism argues that our current concept of a city - as segregated, unsustainable and running on cheap oil - must change.
A boy places basketball as tourists relax in chairs on Broadway in New York\'s Times Square, .../ Credits: Reuters
The future is urban. That much we know. Over half of humanity now lives in cities and that proportion is growing as the countryside empties.

Is this good news for the planet?

Cities are responsible for about two thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions. They use vast amounts of energy and water, they tear up land and tear down forests, and they are a magnet for polluting industry and automobiles.

On the other hand, packing large numbers of people into a compact space means that you can deliver electricity, water, food and transport more efficiently with less waste. Work, home, school and services are closer together.

New Yorkers have half the carbon footprint of residents of Denver partly because of the Big Apple’s higher population density. Mile High City residents live in large, suburban houses and have to drive everywhere; Manhattanites live in apartments and can get the subway or even walk.

So a city’s environmental impact depends on what kind of city it is.

Is a city designed for cars, or is it designed for people? Does it reach up like New York, or sprawl out like Denver?

New Urbanism, a loose movement of architects, designers and planners that has flourished since the 1990s, answers these fundamental questions about urban life by promoting these principles:

- high density, compact cities
- walkability
- mass transit
- mixed land use

Under these principles, cities would be designed around the dimensions, movements and needs of the human body rather than those of the car, which requires so much more space and fuel. Cars also encourage urban sprawl, requiring miles and miles of pipes, cables and other infrastructure, and oversized housing.

City centers would become denser, combining residential, retail and work areas that people could easily move between on foot or using public transport. New zoning rules can be used to allow people to live, work and play closer together. At night, downtown would no longer turn into a ghost town.

Buildings would be taller with houses replaced by apartment buildings which could also house rooftop gardens and restaurants, offices and even vertical farming greenhouses. Multi-use buildings are already a feature of advanced Asian cities like Tokyo and Seoul.

The road and parking network could be scaled back, making way for parkland and urban farms. Public transport would be the best way to get around, as in Manhattan or Tokyo.

Many European cities, laid out in medieval times, already have these principles built into their fabric and have sought to preserve this heritage.

But others have embraced car culture, resulting in the daily gridlock that Londoners, for example, endure. In imitating America, the British forgot that they live on a small, crowded island not a vast continental landmass.

Cities Changing Gear

But past mistakes can be corrected. Taxes can cut car use and promote public transport, as London’s congestion charge has shown.

The German community of Vauban has gone much further, banning cars altogether. People travel by bicycle or tram to the nearby city of Freiburg. Asphalt roads and parking areas have been replaced by flower beds and lawns. Children play in the streets.

Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba in Brazil and a winner of the United Nations Environment Award, says that it takes just three years to transform a city for the better, if you have the political will.

Lerner is famous for restructuring Curitiba’s transport system, introducing a bus rapid transit system which started in 1974 with 25000 passengers a day and now carries 2.2 million passengers daily. The city’s population has doubled since 1974, but its car traffic has declined by 30 percent.

“The city is not a problem but a climate change solution,” says Lerner in a presentation to the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference. “But it is not enough to erect green buildings, use new materials and new sources of energy. It is also about the concept of the city design.”

Danish architect Jan Gehl, an urban design consultant to London and Sydney, expands on this vision in an interview with the BBC World Service, first recounting where planners have gone wrong:

“Planners looked down on scale models of cities. What they missed was the environment at eye level.” Top-down planning in action: designing an urban machine not a human habitat.

“I would like people to be just as visible in planning as cars have been for the last 50 years,” said Gehl. “All cities have a traffic department counting cars but no city I know has a department for pedestrians.”

Gehl explained how Copenhagen has made a start. Extended pedestrian sidewalks cross road junctions, blurring the boundaries between driving areas and pedestrian areas. Studies show that this ‘shared space’ makes drivers slow down improving road safety. The result: “My seven-year old granddaughter can walk all the way to school without having to cross any streets.”

A more walkable city will also be a greener city.

There are thousands of things cities can do to reduce their climate impact: green building, water and waste recycling, district heating systems, renewable energy initiatives, smart grids that allow local power generation and distribution: all very important.

So-called eco-cities offer utopian visions incorporating many of these innovations. But the much-hyped Masdar City in Abu Dhabi or Dongtan in China still exist only on paper.

New Urbanism challenges us to rethink existing cities and what a city, and a car, is actually for. Jaime Lerner summed it up humorously:

“A car is like your mother-in-law. You have to have a good relationship with her but she cannot command your life. When the only woman in your life is your mother-in-law you have a problem.”

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