We can literally build ourselves a better future. Instead of trying to discover new mega-barrels of oil, we can ‘discover’ nega-barrels of oil savings. It’s all there, to be ‘re-discovered’ in the very town plans and infrastructures we build around us: in where and how we build our homes and offices. Instead of being stuck in traffic for a few hours a day, we could be walking past our favourite coffee shops on our way to the tram, and then a short ride into work. Or we could just ride a bike!
This is a big subject and if you don’t have time to read this entire page please just watch the following very short, sharp, and trendy movie instead.
(Only 4 minutes short).
On this page…
- Cities change — and can change fast!
- What are the basicprinciples?
- Dense and Diverse
- Build trains, trams, and trolley-buses — because “if you build it they will come”
- Retrofit existing structures where possible
- Cities become more like cities, and the country more rural
- What are the benefits?
- Good for mental health
- Burns less oil
- Burn more calories and increase public health
- Compact cities save material and embedded energy
- Saves time
- Saves people
- Saves cultures
- Saves wilderness
More pages on New Urbanism:-
- What are the different styles of New Urbanism?
- An Australian philosophy of Eco-cities
- What are the common objections to New Urbanism?
- Once we get the town plan right, what materials and techniques can we use on the homes themselves?
- Where are Eco-cities being developed?
1. Cities change — and can change fast!
From our immediate human perspectives lived day by day, we often forget how much is actually changing in our city over time. Buildings and roads seem fixed and eternal. But the reality is that they do change over time. The current building pattern is suburban sprawl. In most of the western world this strange mix of concrete jungle and fake ‘country living’ stretches from horizon to horizon, expanding ever outwards and devouring farms and parks and wildernesses. We can stop this destruction, and even reverse it. Over time, with the right planning laws, our suburbs can collapse back in on themselves. They can become dense and diverse and lively and beautiful; surrounded by parks, gardens, farmlands, forestry, plantations, and wilderness. All of this can be achieved by rezoning the land and then letting the natural attrition of aging buildings take over.
“But they can be redesigned, not over night, but steadily and with compounding beneficial interest.”
“A normal city is changing all the time – buildings grow old and are replaced. Just look at a picture of your city fifty or a hundred years ago. If the average building life is 60 years, then the city changes at the rate of 1.6% per year. I took as the basis for this scenario the average size of an average Swedish municipality – 36,000 inhabitants. I assumed that instead of building the houses on that same plot as the one demolished you build eco units on the periphery of the city, along the roads preferably. Then you start to ruralise at the same pace as the normal replacement rate. After 50 years, only ten percent of the city is left.”
There’s no need to wait on building bright green cities. Better design solutions for buildings, communities and, in many cases, infrastructure either already exist or are mid-development. If we spend the next 20 years developing compact neighborhoods with green buildings and smart infrastructure, we can reduce the ecological impacts of American prosperity by jumps that are now somewhat hard to imagine.
Alex Steffen — Worldchanging
2. What are the basic principles?
Dense and Diverse
Dense design means bringing people closer together instead of spreading them far and wide. It means doing it right in attractive multi-functional buildings, instead of doing it wrong and just cramming everyone into a bunch of ugly apartment buildings with the same residential code. It means surrounding them with the infrastructure and shops and parks and town spaces and coffee shops they need. It means bringing people and businesses together, not cramping them in. It creates vitality and interest.
Diverse means bringing in the different functions of city life. Diversity of form and function makes density bearable, even pleasant. Imagine hectares of densely packed people living in the horrible sameness of over-crowded apartment blocks. Imagine the horror of competing with all of those people to drive to work every day. Instead of uniform apartments and town-houses for hectare after hectare, we mix up the city functions. We mix light commercial and recreational and residential zoning all in together. Then the coffee shops and bookstores and jobs are scattered throughout the apartments and town-houses. Then your local neighbourhood comes to life as people pause on their trip home from work to buy that coffee, or desert, or loaf of bread: and chat with the owner. And the neighbour who also stopped by. Greater diversity of function makes higher density pleasant.
Dense and Diverse can turn this horrible nightmare you just want to zoom through and forget about…
…into this place you might want to visit for an evening to remember.
Also, diversity is simply not commercially viable in the bland sameness of suburbia. The customers are too scattered, and tend to drive by the smaller stores on the way to the larger mega-malls where they can get everything they need in go (after negotiating the vast oceans of car-park). But instead of this driving mentality, we can provide everything residents need right outside their front door, and save that car trip, and the neighbourhood, in the process. New Urbanism creates communities. It creates townships in which residents can work, rest and play. We can have everything we need within a 5 minute walk. Imagine being able to stroll 5 minutes from your front door to the barber, cafe, grocer, baker, bank, church, restaurants, cinema, bookshop and all manner of other shops. Density does that. It provides the customers. It sings a local neighbourhood into being. It breathes life and character and a soul into the city. It provides the critical mass of customers for trains and trams and trolley buses. If designed well, it just works.
Build trains, trams, and trolley-buses because — “if you build it they will come”
Build the trams, trains and trolley buses and New Urbanism will follow.
As Professor Peter Newman explained on the ABC’s Difference of Opinion (on peak oil), we first build shiny new train, tram, and trolley bus lines. These will act as the transport ‘lifeblood’ around which the future city can grow. They are vital. As the Australian Council for New Urbanism says in their summary paper (an 11 page PDF from 2006):-
‘Movement Economy’ is a term ESD has coined to describe the relationship between an urban centre and the combination of its location within its catchment, and how well the street network ‘feeds’ that centre. A beneficial Movement Economy will optimise the position of its centre between being central to its walkable catchment, and locating the centre to maximise
‘capture’ of custom flowing through it daily, en route to and from a larger destination such as a city centre. Structure planning that isolates community or neighbourhood centres away from the Movement Economy will deny such centres of crucial commerce (as well as public transport), which should also bring people to such centres.
Any informed observer of sprawl and/or post-war English new towns will recognise this systemic planning error, where neighbourhood centres were systematically isolated from the Movement Economy. Those centres continue to struggle because their community facilities alone cannot attract enough custom or activity. Community and Commerce are compatible and interdependent, as they always have been. Urban structuring can and should combine the two, to their mutual benefit.
This ABC Radio mp3 further discusses how to translate a suburban city into a more urban, dense and diverse cityscape. It features Peter Newman.
New Urbanists take the heart of a city transport network and build around that. A successful town cores must be places of both commerce and transport. By building on transport hubs as the town core, the lifeblood of successful commerce is pumped into the businesses, and gives something for the surrounding suburbs to plug into as they are gradually rolled back into local greenfields (as buildings age and are not replaced).
Together, commercial and transport hubs and town centres just work. Isolated, the businesses fail, the social heart of the city is impoverished, and people find themselves inconvenienced and walking further to get what they need. But if you build the rail or trams first, if local governments allow it, New Urbanist designers will gladly design a vibrant community around that arterial support.
Or see this plan of Adelaide by Urban Ecology Australia. I’ll let their colour code finish off this point for me.
Suburban to urban…
- light pink- low density urban. 1995 is ALL light pink. Light pink areas will gradually disappear over the next four panels. The 2136 panel shows no pink areas but some may still be appropriate in small doses…
- dark pink – medium density urban. The beginnings of ecocities, these areas begin in the urban centres with a corresponding reduction in the outlying pink areas.
- deep red- higher density urban / ecocities. Established most commonly in the urban centres of 1995 but may shift slightly.
River, sea, creek…
- light blue- water. In 1836 the water is a slightly deeper blue because it is still clean. In 1996 the blue has been made lighter in reflection of our mistreatment of the water systems. From 1996 onwards the water gradually becomes healthier, the blue eventually reaching the same shade as in 1836.
- lightest blue – salt pans. In 1996 the salt pans near the Port River provide one of the few wetland habitats in Adelaide. This area will be absorbed over time into the coastal wetland system of 2136.
- light blue/green - indicate marine aquaculture, found in coastal areas. These will begin appearing around the fourth panel.
- yellow – sand dunes. 1836 & 2136 show healthy dune systems along the entire coastline. 1995 has minimal dunes, their reinstatement is a gradual process through the next four panels.
Retrofit existing structures where possible
In the TED talk below, Ellen Dunham-Jones shows how New Urbanism can happen in small stages.
It can grow in pockets without bulldozing the whole suburb first. New Urbanism is incredibly dense and can grow in small unused areas. Think of the many American shopping malls that bankrupted in the GFC. These places were previously zoned for one purpose and one purpose only: as vast temples to consumerism. But with a little imagination they can be rezoned (and retrofitted) to include apartments, workshops, shops, a library; mixing up work, rest and play.
The range of projects includes urban centre revitalisations, brownfield redevelopments, new mixed use town centres, CBD retrofits, public and private sector greenfield urban extensions, growth codes and a couple of new towns.
Cities should become more like cities, and our rural areas more like the country.
The goal is to do away with the fake ‘country living’ of the suburbs that is neither town nor country, but a faux, weak, soulless thing. Instead, we should rezone so that our vast suburban areas collapse back into cities that are truly cities that we can be proud of. This then frees up the suburban ‘badlands’ to be restored to parks and pastures! Rivers are unearthed out of the ugly concrete drains they were trapped in, soils are restored, and local agriculture and forestry rediscovered.
Richard Register illustrates how Denver’s sprawl could be converted into clusters of ecocities.
So that’s my summary of the main philosophies behind New Urbanism. Let’s hear how the professionals summarise it. The ACNU says (again from their summary PDF):-
New Urbanism advocates:
- a built environment which is diverse in use and population, scaled for the pedestrian, and capable of accommodating the automobile and public transport;
- a structure based on walkable neighbourhoods (400m radius/five minute walk) focussed on fine-grained mixed-use town and neighbourhood centres with a variety of higher density housing in close proximity;
- a well-defined and high quality public realm which is responsive to site features and ecology, and supported by a distinctive architecture reflecting the climate and culture of the region;
- a highly-interconnected street network, with traffic management to support pedestrians, cyclists and transit-users.
The Australian Federal Senate Peak Oil enquiry basically agreed with these philosophies of city design as solutions to peak oil. See Chapter 5:21 – 25.
Urban density is major element in the picture of a bright green future. Compact homes, closely situated, make a drastic difference in the all-around efficiency of a city, from energy to transportation to shopping for basic necessities. They also make it easy to skip driving and take transit or walk, which decreases pollution and improves physical health. Finally, they foster the creation of supportive community networks in which resources can be better shared and everyone feels safer.
3. What are the benefits?
Good for mental health
The sociologists and other health professionals are starting to analyse how an attractive public space can affect how we relate to each other! Consider these questions: is getting together with your local community difficult? Does it only happen at artificially manufactured moments, or naturally in your everyday life? Does it take a school fete or craft fair to get your community together, or is there a real and deep sense of personal belonging as you walk down your local street into town? How long would such a walk take, and does that itself prevent you doing so? Can you honestly say that meeting together with your community is an easy daily event that is a natural part of your daily life?
Health professionals are telling us that attractively designed public squares can both help local business and the social fabric of our community, which in turn makes us feel connected. This meets a profound human need, and has a measurable effect of our mental health! For example, the Science Show episode of 12th December 2009 discusses the importance of friendships on mental function. Apparently being part of an active community can increase your own memory by 10% and decrease many other risk factors to your health. They mention how good town planning can increase person to person contact as an automatic part of our lives.
Burns less oil
Burn more calories and increase public health
Instead of burning oil, we could walk and burn calories. Evidence is coming in that suburbanites who move into New Urbanism gradually lose weight. Having placed everything they need within a 5 to 7 minute walk, they are more likely to walk instead of drive. They’ll walk to the park, pub, or pizza rather than drive. New Urbanites tone up and eventually slim down. That’s the trend. The research is coming in! As the wiki states:
The American Journal of Public Health and the American Journal of Health Promotion, have both stated that there is a significant connection between sprawl, obesity, and hypertension. Many urbanists argue that this is due to less walking in sprawl-type developments. Living in a car centered culture forces inhabitants to drive everywhere, thus walking far less than their urban (and generally healthier) counterparts.
Compact cities save material and embedded energy
If you make a city dense and diverse, you save on materials. You’ll need less roads and pavement, less power lines and telephone cables, less plumbing and drainage and sewers. You’ll save materials and energy and space. You’ll have less parking and more parks, less traffic and more trees, less frustration and more farms.
New Urbanism makes walking an option. Why drive, when a gentle 5 minute stroll will provide everything you need? Why waste time driving? Suburban shoppers often spend 20 minutes driving to the Westfield mall, 10 or 15 minutes driving around the car park, and then still have to walk 5 or 10 minutes to the shops across an ugly patch of bitumen! Add it all up, and that’s 50 minutes just to get there and back in a car, plus the actual shopping time. And they tell us that’s convenient? We’ve been conned!
Let’s turn the whole experience into an enjoyable 5 minute walk past friends and neighbours and local people we know and enjoy. Lets shop locally where the baker knows us, and cares about what we want. Lets shun the McMalls blasting Muzac at us, hypnotising us into some kind of trance like state for consuming. Let’s not be alienated, but connected.
As the wiki says:
A heavy reliance on automobiles increases traffic throughout the city as well as automobile crashes, pedestrian injuries, and air pollution. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of five and twenty-four and is the leading accident-related cause for all age groups. Residents of more sprawling areas are at greater risk of dying in a car crash.
In this scathing attack on suburbia, James Howard Kunstler passionately presents the problems with suburban sprawl. One point he briefly touches on: if we let suburbia steal the soul of the neighbourhood, is a nation even worth defending? He briefly mentions soldiers dying in Iraq to free up the world market’s supply of oil. What goes through their mind as they “spill their blood in the sand”? Is it the ugly blimps and billboards on the side of the highway? What are they dying for: American commercialism? What happened to their sense of community, to the depth of relationship and culture that should have embraced them from the moment they were born? In inventing a car-dependent lifestyle like suburbia, we have alienated ourselves from each other and robbed our lives of many of the spontaneous, unplanned, delightful conversations and moments that are facilitated by good town planning.
James is hilarious in this 20 minute presentation, but pay attention to this language warning!
Critics of sprawl maintain that sprawl erodes quality of life. Duany and Plater-Zyberk believe that in traditional neighborhoods the nearness of the workplace to retail and restaurant space that provides cafes and convenience stores with daytime customers is an essential component to the successful balance of urban life. Furthermore, they state that the closeness of the workplace to homes also gives people the option of walking or riding a bicycle to work or school and that without this kind of interaction between the different components of life the urban pattern quickly falls apart. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 6, 28). James Howard Kunstler has argued that poor aesthetics in suburban environments make them “places not worth caring about”, and that they lack a sense of history and identity.
We’ve lost our sense of being rooted into our local lifestyle and culture. Bad town planning makes us want to just drive home and turn the idiot-box on. We drive home bored in traffic jams instead of enjoying memorable conversations in a rich tapestry of local relationships. We don’t even know what we are missing simply because most of us have never experienced it. We are individuals in our individual car driving up our individual driveway to our over-sized homes to watch the mass produced sameness of reality TV. We watch reality TV mainly to have something and someone to talk about at work. We talk about those people because, well, we don’t really know as many people that well any more. We used to talk about the stories of people around us. Now we talk about people we don’t even know. The richness of local culture is vanishing. Does that mean we live in commercialised neighbourhoods that are simply not worth defending?
Good New Urbanism creates vital cities that have self-sustaining local economies relying on relatively close local ecologies. (Where possible). That is, any green-field gains we get from collapsing suburbia back into vital city cores should be put to the best use of that city, NOT just returned to ‘nature’ in some greenwashing exercise. It won’t work, because natural ecosystems need to be large enough to remain contiguous. As I said above, we need our cities to become more like cities, and our rural areas more rural. So where we recover land, it should be put to use growing food and fibre, feeding and clothing use, rather than some faux wilderness. By feeding and clothing us locally, our recovered suburban hectares will take pressure off virgin wilderness elsewhere! That’s where the real environmental gains can occur!
Just as passenger train corridors require about 3km either side of the line for enough passenger density to fund the railway, so too wildlife corridors have certain requirements for water, migration patterns, and finding a mate. Jungles that are divided by logging roads do not do as well as virgin jungles. They are already degraded, just by the logging road. So we simply must protect the last real wildernesses and vital ecosystem biodiversity hotspots on the planet. As pages 13 and 14 of the ANCU PDF (again) explain, we need to conserve those last large wilderness areas as separate places: not surround them in patchy suburbia or even New Urbanism in the vain hope of saving some furry critters. This is a lose / lose scenario of bad city design and a broken ecosystems. Cities must be more like cities, rural areas more like proper farms and forestry, and leave the wilderness areas alone thank you very much!
Avoids the 10 things wrong with sprawl!
James M. McElfish of the Environmental Law Institute lists 10 problems with suburban sprawl. You can download his 12 page PDF HERE!
1. Sprawl development contributes to a loss of support for public facilities and public menities.
2. Sprawl undermines effective maintenance of existing infrastructure.
3. Sprawl increases societal costs for transportation.
4. Sprawl consumes more resources than other development patterns.
5. Sprawl separates urban poor people from jobs.
6. Sprawl imposes a tax on time.
7. Sprawl degrades water and air quality.
8. Sprawl results in the permanent alteration and destruction of habitats.
9. Sprawl creates difficulty in maintaining community.
10. Sprawl offers the promise of choice while only delivering more of the same.
Or, as the suburban sprawl wiki says:-
- 6.1 Criticisms
- 6.1.1 Health and environmental impact
- 6.1.2 Increased pollution and reliance on fossil fuel
- 6.1.3 Increase in traffic and traffic-related fatalities
- 6.1.4 Delays in emergency medical services response times
- 6.1.5 Increased obesity
- 6.1.6 Decrease in social capital
- 6.1.7 Decrease in land and water quantity and quality
- 6.1.8 Increased infrastructure costs
- 6.1.9 Increased personal transportation costs
- 6.1.10 Neighborhood quality
- 6.1.11 White flight
- 6.1.12 Groups that oppose sprawl
More pages on New Urbanism
- New Urbanism, Ecocities, Sky-Cities, Village Towns and Eco-Villages
- An Australian philosophy of Eco-cities
- That’s so typical of Nazi Greenie Control Freaks telling us how to live!
- It’s just lefty propaganda — suburbia is the American way
- Cities are ugly!
- What do we do with the vast suburban areas we’ve already built?
- How do we pay for all this?
- Passive solar designs use thermal mass to heat and cool
- What is Hempcrete?
- New Urban News and where to find it