Cities: Modes and Strategies for the 21st Century
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 peoples
need to consume goods and services. This task becomes increasingly difficult
as globalization spreads the hedonistic allures of Americas 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 worlds
cities by providing funding for urban highway projects. How then, should
the worlds cities develop? And can American cities such as Houston
or Las Vegas become more environmentally friendly and sustainable?
Reconfiguration of North Americas and Europes
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.
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 parks 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 Lerners
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, Portlands 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 regions 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 Portlands 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 nations best, Portlands
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
In both 1994 and 1999, Portland was voted the most bicycle
friendly city in America by Bicycling magazine. The citys 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 Americas 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.
Despite the enormous costs of constructing light railbetween
$50-$100 million per milemedium 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, rails 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 peoples 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 classesthe consumer classesproduces
enormous demands for transportation, while the poor who live in dense
city centers may require only a few trips per day, many made
The Economic Connection
The solution to the worlds 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 worlds 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 citys 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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