Transportation is crucial in city development
Most of the world’s major cities grew up around a port, a river crossing, a railroad hub, or some other focal point for transportation. Often, those original reasons for city placement no longer apply, and a location that made sense for a small, backwoods community no longer works for a major metropolitan center. Getting people around within large urban area has become one of the most difficult problems that many city officials face. A century ago, most American cities were organized around transportation corridors. First horse-drawn carriages, then electric streetcars provided a way for people to get to work, school, and shops. Everyone, rich or poor, wanted to live as close to the city center as possible, and within easy walking distance of the trolley or streetcar line. When Henry Ford introduced the first affordable, mass-produced automobile, it allowed people to build houses on larger lots in areas served only by streets. Freeway construction, which began in America in the 1950s, allowed people to move even farther out into the country. Cities that were once compact began to spread over the landscape, consuming space and wasting resources. This pattern of development is known as sprawl. While there is no universally accepted definition of the term, sprawl generally includes the characteristics.
In most American metropolitan areas, the bulk of new housing is in large, tract developments that leapfrog out beyond the city edge in a search for inexpensive rural land with few restrictions on land use or building practices. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that urban sprawl consumes some 200,000 ha (roughly 500,000 acres) of farmland and open space every year. Although the price of tract homes often is less than comparable urban property, there are external costs in the form of new roads, sewers, water mains, power lines, schools, shopping centers, a
nd other infrastructure required by this low-density development. Ironically, people who move to the country to escape from urban problems such as congestion, crime, and pollution often find that they have simply brought those problems with them.
Because many Americans live far from where they work, shop, or recreate, they consider it essential to own a private automobile. The average U.S. driver spends 443 hours per year behind a steering wheel, or the equivalent of one full 8-hour day per week in an automobile. The freeway system was designed to allow drivers to travel at high speeds from source to destination without ever having to stop (fig 14.9). As more and more vehicles clog highways, however, the reality is far different. In Los Angeles, for example, which has the worst congestion in the United States, the average speed in 1982 was 58 mph (93 kph), and the average driver spent less than 4 hours per year in traffic jams. In 2004, the average speed was only 35.6 mph (57.3 kph), and the typical driver spent 97 hours in bumper to-bumper traffic. Altogether, it’s estimated that traffic congestion costs the United States $78 billion per year in wasted time and fuel. Some people argue that the existence of traffic jams in cities shows that more highways are needed. Often, however, building more traffic lanes simply encourages more people to drive farther and put more cars on the road. Meanwhile, about one-third of Americans are too young, too old, or too poor to drive. For these people, car-oriented development causes isolat
ion and makes daily tasks like grocery shopping difficult. Parents spend long hours transporting young children. Teenagers and aging grandparents are forced to drive, often presenting a hazard on public roads.
As the opening case study for this chapter shows, it’s possible to build cities without private autos. Most European urban areas have good mass transit systems that have allowed them to preserve historic city centers and remain relatively compact while avoiding the sprawl engendered by an American-style freeway system.
Many American cities are now rebuilding the public transportation systems that were abandoned in the 1950s. Consider how different your life might be if you lived an automobile-free life in a city with good mass transit. Vehicle fleets are expanding rapidly, however, in many developing countries and traffic accidents have become the third largest cause of years of lost life worldwide. For example, the number of vehicles increased eight-fold in Nigeria and six-fold in Pakistan between 1980 and 2000, while the road network in those countries expanded by only 10 to 20 percent in the same time. The recent introduction of the Tata Nano in India raises nightmares for both urban planners and energy experts. Costing less than $2,000 brand new, these tiny vehicles put car ownership within reach for millions who could never afford it before. But they will probably increase petrol consumption greatly and result in huge traffic jams as inexperienced drivers take to the road for the first time. A famous example of successful mass transit is found in Curitiba, Brazil. High-speed, bi-articulated buses, each of which can carry 270 passengers, travel on dedicated roadways closed to all other vehicles. These bus-trains are linked to 340 feeder routes extending throughout the city. Everyone in the city is within walking distance of a bus stop that has frequent, convenient, affordable service. Curitiba’s buses carry some 1.9 million passengers per day or about three-quarters of all personal trips within the city. Working with existing roadways for the most part, the city was able to construct this system for one-tenth the cost of a light rail system or freeway system, and one-hundredth the cost of a subway.
We can make our cities more livable
Are there alternatives to unplanned sprawl and wasteful resource use? One option proposed by many urban planners is smart growth, which makes effective use of land resources and existing infrastructure by encouraging in-fill development that avoids costly duplication of services and inefficient land use. Smart growth aims to provide a mix of land uses to create a variety of affordable housing choices and opportunities. It also attempts to provide a variety of transportation choices, including pedestrian friendly neighborhoods. This approach to planning also seeks to maintain a unique sense of place by respecting local cultural and natural features.
By making land-use planning open and democratic, smart growth makes urban expansion fair, predictable, and cost-effective. All stakeholders are encouraged to participate in creating a vision for the city and to collaborate with rather than confront each other. Goals are established for staged and managed growth in urban transition areas with compact development patterns. This approach is not opposed to growth. It recognizes that the goal is not to block growth but to channel it to areas where it can be sustained over the long term. Smart growth strives to enhance access to equitable public and private resources for everyone and to promote the safety, livability, and revitalization of existing urban and rural communities. Smart growth protects environmental quality. It tries to reduce traffic and to conserve farmlands, wetlands, and open space.
As cities grow and transportation and communications enable more community interaction, the need for regional planning becomes greater and more pressing. Community and business leaders must make decisions based on a clear understanding of regional growth needs and how infrastructure can be built most efficiently and for the greatest good. One of the best examples of successful urban land-use planing in the United States is Portland, Oregon, which has rigorously enforced a boundary on its outward expansion, requiring instead that development be focused on in-filling unused space within the city limits. Because of its many urban amenities, Portland is considered one of the best cities in America. Between 1970 and 1990 the Portland population grew by 50 percent, but its total land area grew only 2 percent. During this time, Portland property taxes decreased 29 percent and vehicle miles traveled increased only 2 percent. By contrast, Atlanta, which had similar population growth, experienced an explosion of urban sprawl that increased its land area three-fold, drove up property taxes 22 percent, and increased traffic miles by 17 percent. A result of this expanding traffic and increasing congestion was that Atlanta’s air pollution increased by 5 percent, while Portland, which has one of the best public transit systems in the nation, saw a decrease of 86 percent.
New urbanism incorporates smart growth
Rather than abandon the cultural history and infrastructure investment in existing cities, a group of architects and urban planners is attempting to redesign metropolitan areas to make them more appealing, efficient, and livable. Vauban, Germany, described in the opening case study for this chapter follows many of these principles of green design and smart growth. Other European cities such as Stockholm, Sweden; Helsinki, Finland; Leichester, England; and Neerlands, the Netherlands, have a long history of innovative urban planning. In the United States, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Peter Calthorpe, and Sym Van Der Ryn have been leaders in this movement. Using what is sometimes called a neo-traditionalist approach, these designers attempt to recapture some of the best features of small towns and livable cities of the past. They are designing urban neighborhoods that inte- grate houses, offices, shops, and civic buildings. Ideally, no house should be more than a five-minute walk from a neighborhood center with a convenience store, a coffee shop, a bus stop, and other amenities. A mix of apartments, townhouses, and detached houses in a variety of price ranges ensures that neighborhoods will include a diversity of ages and income levels. Some design principles of this movement include:
• Limit city size or organize cities in modules of 30,000 to 50,000 people—large enough to be a complete city but small enough to be a community.
• Maintain greenbelts in and around cities. These provide recreational space and promote efficient land use, as well as help ameliorate air and water pollution.
• Determine in advance where development will take place. This protects property values and prevents chaotic development. Planning can also protect historical sites, agricultural resources, and ecological services of wetlands, clean rivers, and groundwater replenishment.
• Locate everyday shopping and services so people can meet daily needs with greater convenience, less stress, less automobile dependency, and less use of time and energy. This might be accomplished by encouraging small-scale commercial development in or close to residential areas.
• Encourage walking or the use of small, low-speed, energy efficient vehicles (microcars, motorized tricycles, bicycles, etc.) for many local trips now performed in full-size automobiles. Creating special traffic lanes, reducing the number or size of parking spaces, and closing shopping streets to big cars might encourage such alternatives.
• Promote more diverse, flexible housing as an alternative to conventional detached, single-family houses. In-fill building between existing houses saves energy, reduces land costs, and might help provide a variety of living arrangements. Allowing single-parent families or groups of unrelated adults to share housing and to use facilities cooperatively also provides alternatives to those not living in a traditional nuclear family. Make cities more self-sustainable by growing food locally, recycling wastes and water, using renewable energy sources, reducing noise and pollution, and creating a cleaner, safer environment. Encourage community gardening. Reclaimed inner-city space or a greenbelt of agricultural and forestland around the city provides food and open space, and also contributes valuable ecological services, such as purifying air, supplying clean water, and protecting wildlife habitat and recreation land.
• Equip buildings with “green roofs” or rooftop gardens that improve air quality, conserve energy, reduce stormwater runoff, reduce noise, and help reduce urban heat island effects. Intensive gardens can include large trees, shrubs, flowers, and may require regular maintenance. Extensive gardens require less soil, add less weight to the building, and usually have simple plantings of prairie plants or drought-resistant species, such as sedum, that require minimum care. They can last twice as long as conventional roofs. In Europe more than 1 million m2 of green roofs are installed every year. Urban roofs are also a good place for solar collectors or wind turbines.
• Plan cluster housing, or open-space zoning, which preserves at least half of a subdivision as natural areas, farmland, or other forms of open space. Studies have shown that people who move to the country don’t necessarily want to live miles from the nearest neighbor; what they most desire is long views across an interesting landscape and an opportunity to see wildlife. By carefully clustering houses on smaller lots, a conservation subdivision can provide the same number of buildable lots as a conventional subdivision and still preserve 50 to 70 percent of the land as open space. This not only reduces development costs (less distance to build roads, lay telephone lines, sewers, power cables, etc.), but also helps to foster a greater sense of community among new residents.
• Preserve urban habitat. It can make a significant contribution toward saving biodiversity as well as improving mental health and giving us access to nature.