We can literally build ourselves a better future through more recent discoveries in town planning, transport systems and technological changes. We can make city living dense, diverse, beautiful, clean and convenient. Suburbia comes with a list of woes including traffic jams and lost productivity and even loneliness and obesity. But attractive New Urban designs promise to reinvigorate neighbourhoods, increase productivity, increase walking and weight loss and even reconnect people. Instead of getting stuck in traffic for a few hours a day, we could walk past our favourite coffee shops, sit next to friends on the tram or train, and answer some emails on our smart-gizmos.
It all starts with how we build. For a 4 minute summary of the entire New Urban message, please watch ‘Built to Last’.
On this page…
- What’s wrong with suburban sprawl?
- Won’t it take too long to fix?
- How do we fix it?
- Build trains because “if you build it they will come”
- The private sector may even foot half the bill for the trains!
- Then build Dense and Diverse
- 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 lives
- Saves cultures
- Saves wilderness
1. What’s wrong with suburban sprawl?
The very nature of sprawl massively increases the sheer hectares involved in housing the same number of people as an eco-city development. This increases the length and number of roads, gutters, powerlines, drains, electrical wiring, the distance rubbish tucks and other utility vehicles must drive: all of it. In short, it’s the most inefficient way the human race has ever built cities, and some have calculated that can use over 10 times as much land as New Urbanism.
Suburban sprawl spreads accommodation out too far and wide for many public transport systems to be economically viable, and creates a lifestyle that absolutely requires a car. This inconveniences the poor and infirm who cannot drive, or who must waste a disproportionate amount of money on taxis. It also creates traffic jams and wastes time. One of the greatest myths every fostered on us is the ‘convenience’ of a shopping mall. We often drive 15 or 20 minutes to the mall, drive around the mall for 10 to 20 minutes looking for parking, and then still have to walk 7 to 10 minutes just to find the shop we are after! That’s anywhere from half an hour to 40 minutes regularly wasted just getting to the shop/s we were after. New Urban developments try to provide almost everything we need within a 7 minute walk, which is often shorter than the trip from the carpark to the mall, let alone avoiding all the hassle of driving there and parking in the first place!
Suburbia isolates communities. There’s no ‘there’ there, no local town centre, no soul. Events must be manufactured to bring people together: it does not happen automatically.
Suburbia wastes money in buying cars, lost productivity in traffic jams, and negative mental and physical health impacts.
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.
2. Won’t it take too long to fix?
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.”
“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
Indeed, as The Guardian points out, there are a significant signs that indicate we have already reached ‘peak car’.
3. How do we fix it?
Build trains because “if you build it they will come”
First build the trams, and then the New Urbanism will creep in around and above the train stations. As Professor Peter Newman says:
Rail is needed in all of the world’s cities as it can enable travel time savings and space efficiencies no longer achievable by car and bus. Rail can carry 20 times as many people compared to a single lane of freeway and five to 10 times that of a bus way.
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.
The private sector may even foot half the bill for the trains!
As Peter Newman explains, there are even ways to get the private sector to evaluate the land value in a New Urban development and have them build the train line in line with government guidelines. Indeed, much of the value of this real estate development may only exist in the air above some hypothetical new train station! But government guided public private partnerships can evaluate the billions in real estate development, and encourage the private sector to invest in public trains. Everyone wins.
Then build 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 7 minute walk. Imagine being able to stroll 7 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 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.
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.
4. 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.
As The Conversation reports, the heatwaves of 2050 could kill 2000 people in Victoria alone, and smart urban design can reduce the overall temperature of a city without using any extra energy to do so!
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.
Saves Green Space
We need more green space to stay healthy, defeat depression, and even improve our memory. New Urbanism locates beautiful parks within a 5 minute walk of everyone. Instead of hundreds of kilometres of tarmac, we plant trees and gardens in a well maintained local park. (Some wealthier families will have their own backyards, and even eco-apartment tenants should have access to gardens).
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!
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?