“[Brown’s] ability to make a complicated subject accessible to the general reader is remarkable...” –Katherine Salant, Washington Post
As I was being driven through Tel Aviv from my hotel to a conference center in 1998, I could not help but note the overwhelming presence of cars and parking lots. It was obvious that Tel Aviv, expanding from a small settlement a half-century ago to a city of some 3 million today, had evolved during the automobile era. It occurred to me that the ratio of parks to parking lots may be the best indicator of the livability of a city—an indication of whether the city is designed for people or for cars.
Tel Aviv is not the world’s only fast-growing city. Urbanization is the second dominant demographic trend of our time, after population growth itself. In 1900, some 150 million people lived in cities. By 2000, it was 2.8 billion people, a 19-fold increase. Now more than half of us live in cities—making humans, for the first time, an urban species.
The world’s cities are facing unprecedented challenges. In Mexico City, Tehran, Kolkata, Bangkok, Beijing, and hundreds of other cities, the air is no longer safe to breathe. In some cities the air is so polluted that breathing is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Respiratory illnesses are rampant. In many places, the number of hours commuters spend sitting in traffic-congested streets and highways climbs higher each year, raising frustration levels.
Credit: Andrew Larsen
In response to these conditions, we are seeing the emergence of a new urbanism, a planning philosophy that environmentalist Francesca Lyman says “seeks to revive the traditional city planning of an era when cities were designed around human beings instead of automobiles.” One of the most remarkable modern urban transformations has occurred in Bogotá, Colombia, where Enrique Peñalosa served as mayor for three years. When he took office in 1998 he did not ask how life could be improved for the 30 percent who owned cars, but for the 70 percent—the majority—who did not.
Peñalosa realized that a city with a pleasant environment for children and the elderly would work for everyone. In just a few years, he transformed the quality of urban life. Under his leadership, the city created or renovated 1,200 parks, introduced a highly successful bus-based rapid transit system, built hundreds of kilometers of bicycle paths and pedestrian streets, reduced rush hour traffic by 40 percent, planted 100,000 trees, and involved local citizens directly in the improvement of their neighborhoods. In doing this, he created a sense of civic pride among the city’s 8 million residents, making the streets of Bogotá in this strife-torn country safer than those in Washington, D.C.
In espousing this new urban philosophy, Peñalosa is not alone. Jaime Lerner, when he was mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, pioneered the design and adoption of an alternative transportation system that is inexpensive and commuter-friendly. Since 1974 Curitiba’s transportation system has been totally restructured. Although 60 percent of the people own cars, busing, biking, and walking account for 80 percent of all trips in the city.
When 95 percent of a city’s workers depend on cars for commuting, as in Atlanta, Georgia, the city is in trouble. By contrast, in Amsterdam 35 percent of all residents bike or walk to work, while one fourth use public transit and 40 percent drive. In Paris, fewer than half of commuters rely on cars, and even this share is shrinking thanks to the efforts of Mayor Bertrand Delanoë. Even though these European cities are older, often with narrow streets, they have far less congestion than Atlanta.
One way to combat congestion is to eliminate the subsidies, often indirect, that many employers provide for parking. In his book The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup estimates that off-street parking subsidies in the United States are worth at least $127 billion a year, obviously encouraging people to drive. What societies should be striving for is not parking subsidies, but parking fees, reflecting the costs of congestion and the deteriorating quality of life as cars and parking lots take over.
Scores of cities are simply declaring car-free areas, among them New York, Stockholm, Vienna, and Rome. Paris enjoys a total ban on cars along stretches of the Seine River on Sundays and holidays and is looking to permanently ban cars along 1.2 miles of the Seine’s left bank by 2012.
There are two ways of dealing with the environmental challenges facing cities. One is to modify existing cities. On Earth Day 2007, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced PlaNYC, a comprehensive plan to improve the city’s environment, strengthen its economy, and make it a better place to live. At the heart of the plan is a 30-percent reduction in the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Thus far, 25 percent of the taxicab fleet has been converted to fuel-efficient gas-electric hybrids, and more than 300,000 trees have been planted. Efforts to raise energy efficiency are under way in dozens of city buildings and many more in the private sector, including the iconic Empire State Building. Just three years into the plan, citywide carbon emissions are down by 9 percent.
The other way is to build new cities from scratch. For example, developer Sydney Kitson has acquired the 91,000-acre Babcock Ranch in southern Florida on which to build a new city. The first step was to help sell more than 73,000 acres of the land to the state government to maintain as a permanent preserve. The heart of the city, intended to be home to 45,000 people, will include a business and commercial center and a high-density residential development. Several satellite communities will be linked to the downtown by public transportation. The purpose of the city is to be both a model green community and a center, a national focal point, for renewable energy research and development firms. Among the distinguishing features of this new community are that it will be powered entirely by solar electricity, all residential and commercial buildings will meet standards set by the Florida Green Building Coalition, and it will have more than 40 miles of greenways, allowing residents to walk or cycle to work.
Half a world away, in oil-rich Abu Dhabi, construction has begun on Masdar City, designed for 50,000 people. The government’s goal here is to create an international renewable energy research and development center, a sort of Silicon Valley East. In addition to being powered largely by solar energy, this town of well-insulated buildings plans to be carless, relying on a rail-based, electrically powered, computer-controlled network of individual passenger vehicles. In this water-scarce part of the world, the plan is to continuously recycle water used in the city. And nothing will go to a landfill; everything will be recycled, composted, or gasified to provide energy. How well these pre-engineered cities will perform and whether they will be attractive places to live and work in remains to be seen.
We are only beginning to glimpse where we want to end up. In 2006, the History Channel sponsored a City of the Future Competition in which architectural firms were given one week to outline a vision of New York in 2106. Terreform, a design studio headed by architect Michael Sorkin, proposed gradually eliminating automobiles and converting half the city’s street space into parks, farms, and gardens. The designers envisioned that by 2038, some 60 percent of New Yorkers would walk to work and that the city would eventually be transformed into a “paradise for people on foot.”
At this point, Terreform’s proposal may seem a little far-fetched, but Manhattan’s daily gridlock must be addressed simply because it has become both a financial burden and a public health threat. The Partnership for New York City, representing New York’s leading corporate and investment firms, conservatively estimates that traffic congestion in and around the city costs the region more than $13 billion a year in lost time and productivity, wasted fuel, and lost business revenue.
Mayors and city planners the world over are beginning to rethink the role of the automobile, seeking ways to design cities for people, not cars. The integration of walkways and bikeways into urban transport systems anchored by public transportation makes a city eminently more livable than one that relies almost exclusively on private automobiles. Noise, pollution, congestion, and frustration are all lessened—and we and the earth are both healthier.
Adapted from Chapter 6, “Designing Cities for People” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), available on-line at www.earth-policy.org/books/pb4