How to get there?

  • Temporary tests can provide a glimpse
  • Build trains because “if you build it they will come”
  • Rail essential
  • Retrofit existing structures where possible
  • But rebuilding cities takes too long!

Temporary tests can provide a glimpse

Peak oil doomers I knew said big business would never let their cities create more bike lanes, Bus Rapid Transits or start the journey of retrofitting city centres around moving pedestrians, not traffic. But New Yorkers painted their roads and added a little temporary street furniture to create large pedestrian islands for a 6 month trial. They tested it, and gathered data.

  • They found traffic flow actually increased a little.
  • Local business increased 150% in some cases.
  • Pedestrian and cyclist safety increased dramatically as more people took to cycling into town, and hanging out on the new street furniture when they got there. 
  • People felt safer and had a better time.
  • Giving up *as much* car use doesn’t have to be a chore. Just paint over any spare road surfaces, add street furniture, make sure the local businesses are briefed on increase customer flow, and stand back and watch!
  • Just these small changes merely hinting at the New Urban (Gilmore Girls) town square were good for people, business, and safety.
  • The result? New York is making those changes permanent!
  • The idea is spreading!
  • This TED talk outlines the 2007 to 2013 developments in Times Square and other American New Urban experiments. These are baby steps, but in the right direction, and remind people of what they have lost.  
  • But isn’t it good to see these baby steps growing larger and more confident?

Video works: 14 minutes

 

Build trains because “if you build it they will come”

As I showed on my Rail page, if you build rail, New Urbanism can grow around it or even up in the air above a new subway station. The government could fund it and recover costs through the increased productivity of the development over time, or could even ask the private New Urban developers to pay half the rail for the land development rights!

Rail essential

Trains or trams are essential. As the Australian Council for New Urbanism says in their summary paper (11 pages: 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 can design a city transport network and build around that. A successful town cores must be places of both commerce and transport. Trains provide the lifeblood of customers past their businesses. Successful town cores like this give the local suburbs something to plug into. If the population of those suburbs ever declines, the cheaper and more convenient lifestyle of the New Urban core can attract the population into the centre, and the outer districts can gradually be sold back to local farming co-ops or parks or forestry.

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.

As the Australian Council for New Urbanisn says (ANCU PDF again):-

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.

But rebuilding cities takes too long!

Not really! Cities can change significantly in just 20 years. From our immediate human perspectives lived day by day, we often forget how much is actually changing in our city over time. While much of the western world seems devoted to increasing suburban sprawl, there are signs of change and awakening. 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.”
Richard Register

“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.”
Folke Günther

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

Indeed, as The Guardian points out, there are a significant signs that indicate we have already reached ‘peak car’ just from lifestyle changes and some city supply saturations. Let’s capitalise on that and build both the rail and new urbanism to create neighbourhoods worth caring about.

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