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January 2000
Sustainable Cities: Modes and Strategies for the 21st Century

By Philip Goff


Sustainability” is a word that is thrown around quite a lot these days. “Sustainable cities” in my view allow their residents to live without the environmental hazards of air and water pollution, maintain access to nature, and protect nearby farming communities. Strategies to promote sustainability include the reduction of energy use, water consumption, waste, and asphalt. A strong sense of community and participatory democracy are other hallmarks of the sustainable city. The sustainable city of the 21st century will not only require a highly efficient transit system and road network for bicycles and zero emission vehicles, it will also need to eliminate the demand for travel by mitigating people’s need to consume goods and services. This task becomes increasingly difficult as globalization spreads the hedonistic allures of America’s car-oriented consumer culture throughout the world.

As the 20th century comes to a close, the emergence of sustainable cities appears to be in jeopardy. Most American metropolitan areas continue to swell with population on the urban fringe, eliminating farmland and natural habitat and increasing auto dependence. Despite many walkable and transit-friendly cities, Europe is building and expanding many highways and airports. In post-communist Eastern Europe, subsidies to trolley lines have been curtailed in many countries, and citizens are using private automobiles more than ever. Many Asian cities oblige the growing middle class by continuing road building programs and banning bicycles and rickshaws on major streets. Lending institutions such as the World Bank continue to help shape dysfunctional urban forms in the developing world’s cities by providing funding for urban highway projects. How then, should the world’s cities develop? And can American cities such as Houston or Las Vegas become more environmentally friendly and sustainable?

Reconfiguration of North America’s and Europe’s transportation systems and the development of transit networks in the large cities in Asia, Africa and South America will play a critical role in the ultimate fate of the planet. While the issues of consumption, diet, and overall population size have enormous global environmental repercussions, how people get around may have the greatest impact, for transportation shapes land use and in cities is the largest consumer of energy. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, transportation accounts for 66 percent of carbon monoxide emissions, 35 percent of volatile organic compounds and 40 percent of nitrogen oxides in the U.S. In the car capital of the planet, Los Angeles, automobiles alone are responsible for 70 to 80 percent of all air pollution.

Curitiba, Brazil
Two places in the world provide examples of cities that address issues of sustainability: Curitiba, Brazil, and Portland, Oregon. Twenty-five years ago, Curitiba suffered from many of the problems plaguing cities in developing nations: air and water pollution, traffic congestion, accumulating garbage, and extreme poverty, which forced thousands of people to live in squalid shanty towns at the edge of the city. The mayor at the time, Jaime Lerner, took on many of these problems with bold public policy and urban-planning strategies that employed ecological thinking.

The problem of transportation-related pollution was tackled with specially designed, high-capacity buses and transit platforms that allow hordes of passengers to enter or exit quickly. Lerner removed traffic lanes on busy arterial roads to provide separate rights of way for buses, allowing them to avoid congestion. This bus network provides accessibility to all and, with some bus lines arriving every minute, represents 75 percent of all trips in Curitiba. In the heart of downtown, a 49-block area was closed off to motorized traffic. Businesses now boom in the clean air environment of the pedestrian-only zone. To slow sprawling development and create parkland, a greenbelt around the entire city was preserved. To keep the park’s lawns trimmed, local sheepherders graze their stock on them.

In the shantytowns surrounding the city, where accumulated waste was polluting the water and adding to the misery, Mayor Lerner’s plan not only cleaned them up but supported local farmers as well. The city bought food from local farms and then exchanged it for garbage collected from the streetless neighborhoods where garbage trucks had no access. Local people were hired to separate the garbage into recyclables, trash and compost. With a single program, Curitiba supported the local agricultural economy, cleaned up a poor neighborhood, helped feed the needy, and saved natural resources and landfill space.

Portland, Oregon: Future Directions
Curitiba offers lessons that should be instituted in the U.S., though they may be difficult to implement here because of highly subsidized automobile ownership and mistrust of regional or city planning efforts with teeth. However, since the late 1970s, Portland’s policies have stood out as an example to the rest of North America. The city is by no means an ecotopia: nearly all residents who can afford a car drive for most trips, congestion is rising, per capita garbage levels have increased, local companies are being bought out by multinationals, and the outer fringes of the metropolitan area are defined by housing subdivisions, strip malls and parking lots. Despite this, many innovative land-use and transportation policies, and an environmentally conscious population provide the foundation for building a “sustainable” city.

Set at the tip of one of the most fertile valleys in North America, the Portland region’s farmland is protected from development by a state-mandated Urban Growth Boundary, outside of which is reserved only for agricultural use, forestry, or open space. A significant portion of Portland’s food is grown locally, keeping much of the money spent on produce within the regional economy, and minimizing the environmental damage done by transporting food from other parts of the country or world. In other ways, financial resources remain local as downtown and most business districts within Portland lack many national chain stores and restaurants that dominate so many other cities. Downtown Portland has no gigantic Barnes & Noble, Tower Records or Hard Rock Café, and only a few fast food chains. The region has a heavily promoted and well-used recycling program that saves 52 percent of all waste, one of the highest rates in the country.

Providing transportation options is still what sets Portland apart from other American cities. Although the majority of trips are still by single-occupancy vehicles, transportation choices abound for those who do not drive. Well known as one of the nation’s best, Portland’s transit system relies heavily on light rail as its backbone. Currently, two lines carry over 60,000 passengers daily. An extension to the airport and two new lines are now being planned or built and long-range plans include a number of additional trolley routes, coupled with very little investment in new or widened highways. Urban planning policy encourages higher-density development along transit routes and especially near light-rail stations, allowing people to walk to public transit, therefore limiting auto use.

In both 1994 and 1999, Portland was voted the most bicycle friendly city in America by Bicycling magazine. The city’s primary goal is to create a fully connected network of bike lanes and paths to help bring bicycles’ share of all trips to 10 percent by 2015. Finally, Portland recently established North America’s only car sharing program. The fledgling initiative has over 200 members who share only 14 cars, reducing the need for parking space and allowing many members to live auto-free or to eliminate a second household car.

A 21st Century Plan of Action
So what about other cities throughout the world? To minimize its impact, cities must present real alternatives to the automobile. Car use responds to the quantity of space that is provided for them, via roadways and parking. Cities that sow roads will indeed reap traffic. It is not a coincidence that the cities with the biggest congestion and air pollution problems have built the most roads and highways: Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Denver. Reducing the overall capacity for automobiles combined with parking limitations and transit improvements may be the best strategy to reduce auto-dependence and air pollution problems in the next century.

Light Rail
Despite the enormous costs of constructing light rail—between $50-$100 million per mile—medium size and large cities need to have rail transit or at least Curitiba-style bus systems. (Additionally, high-speed rail lines need to connect large cities and should replace all flights between cities that are fewer than 500 miles apart.) Train lines have greater capacity than highways, produce far less pollution per mile traveled and do not take up as much space as roads, off-ramps, interchanges, and parking lots. Rail transit is not a perfect system, however. Without sound planning for the land use alongside the alignment, rail’s ability to reduce auto dependence is severely compromised. But if planned correctly, rail lines and their stations serve as a framework or spine for high density nodes of housing, employment, shopping, recreation, and cultural facilities.

Transit-oriented development promotes walking and biking near the station areas, the key to minimizing auto use for errands and shopping, which represent a large portion of trips taken by car. For those of you who live and work in high-density cities, think about how many daily “trips” you make on foot to get a cup of coffee, find lunch, pick up drycleaning, or buy shoes. Then consider that most Americans have the same needs for mobility, goods, and services but instead of walking, use a car for nearly every occasion. As a consequence, the average American household consumes over 1,000 gallons of gas each year, putting 10 tons of carbon dioxide, the prime ingredient in global warming, into the air.

That much gas per household is a major concern, for many oil analysts predict that world petroleum supplies will literally run out sometime in the middle of the 21st century. Decades before that, scarcity will increase the price significantly, affecting people’s travel behavior and desire to live in auto-dependent suburban communities. Demand will rise for housing near transit stations, as gas prices skyrocket due to depleting oil reserves and burgeoning worldwide demand. Businesses and employers will also realize that to retain the best employees and attract customers, locations along the rail route will become necessary.

Encouraging a Bike Renaissance
A network of bike paths, trails and lanes can also serve to reduce automobile use. Currently, nearly half of all trips in the U.S. are three miles or less, and half of those are less than one mile. But without a safe way to make the trip by bicycle, only the most dedicated will use their bikes. According to polls, only one in 25 adult bike owners use their bikes regularly for transportation, but one in five of all adults would sometimes ride to work if better bike lanes or paths existed. The creation of bike infrastructure is inexpensive and can be done quickly, complementing ongoing efforts to build or improve rail transit networks.

A city can provide all the transportation infrastructure in the world, but must also acknowledge the economic and cultural forces that produce the need for transportation. Buses, cars, trains, planes, boats and even bicycles are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. The many emerging cities of upwards of 10 million people in the next century will not be able to accommodate the demand for mobility from a population with similar wealth and technology as that experienced by the people of North America and Europe. For example, a residential subdivision, populated by the middle or upper classes—the consumer classes—produces enormous demands for transportation, while the poor who live in dense city centers may require only a few “trips” per day, many made on foot.

The Economic Connection
The solution to the world’s urban transportation problem is not to keep people poor and force them to live in overcrowded urban conditions; instead, the point is that economies that allow citizens to acquire excess capital and then encourage them to “go out and spend it” will always have problems coping with the demand for mobility. In America, nearly 4 out of 10 automobile trips are made for the purpose of shopping. Internet shopping, like catalog shopping, is no solution, for it will only increase consumption, rather than reduce travel demand. Economies that rely on consumer spending for growth will always have severe problems accommodating the need for mobility. They must look to other remedies to lower their environmental impacts.

Curitiba and Portland have shown that policies, initiatives, and infrastructure projects can help the world’s cities minimize their negative impacts on the environment. Sustainable cities will be created by tackling big-picture issues like land use and transportation. Composting toilets and solar-powered water heaters are great, but do very little if both are placed in single-family homes on quarter acre lots far from a city’s core. While utopian dreams of future eco-villages are well and good, strategies to minimize the need for transportation through intelligently planned and highly intensive land use within the boundaries of existing cities will determine whether we as a species can survive on this planet for another millennium.

Philip Goff is an urban designer and bicycle activist who lives in Portland, Oregon.


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