How to design cities around people, not cars

The New Urbanism movement puts mobility of the human body at the heart of urban planning.  
People walk down Broadway (on the right) in Times Square after it was converted into a pedestrian .../ Credits: Reuters

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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 environment?

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 and public transport network.

So a city’s environmental impact depends on what kind of city it is. Is a city designed for vehicles, or is it designed with the human body in mind?

The principles of New Urbanism

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 extended pipes, cables and other infrastructure.

Under new zoning rules, city centers would become denser, combining residential, retail and work areas that people could easily move between on foot or using public transport. 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. Others have embraced car culture, resulting in the daily gridlock that Londoners, for example, endure.
But past mistakes can be corrected. Taxes can cut car use and promote public transport, as London’s congestion charge has shown.

The car is "like your mother-in-law"

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%.

“The city is not a problem but a climate change solution,” says Lerner in a presentation to the 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.

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

Gehl's home city of Copenhagen has made a start, with extended pedestrian sidewalks for instance. “My seven-year old granddaughter can walk all the way to school without having to cross any streets,” he says.

New Urbanism challenges us to rethink existing cities and what a city, and a car, is actually for.

“A car is like your mother-in-law," says Lerner. "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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