by Janet Biehl
Automobile use is the single greatest contributor to greenhouse emissions, and since 1850 the United States has been the greatest user of automobiles. Far too much of the American built environment is auto-dependent: more than half the population (51 percent in 2010, or about 158 million people) live in sprawling suburbs, where each adult in every household, in order to function, must have a car.
But sprawl was built by conscious design, and it can be unbuilt by conscious design as well. In the past 20 years a new generation of urban planners has emerged who have devised concrete ways to shape our built environment that will enhance sustainability rather than destroy it. The Congress for a New Urbanism, founded in 1993 by Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Peter Calthorpe, and others, are a group of about 2,500 architects, planners, designers, developers, policymakers, and others who are showing the way to reduce auto dependency by designing public spaces that open alternatives to the automobile. They call themselves “the leading organization promoting walkable, neighborhood-based development as an antidote to formless sprawl.”
They understand that our environment shapes our behavior. Compact, dense cities are inherently greener than low-density suburbs, as David Owen points out in his landmark 2009 book Green Metropolis. For one thing, energy efficiencies are built into the urban infrastructure: in apartment buildings, units share adjoining walls and heat escapes into the units above, meaning that less energy is wasted than in single-family homes. Moreover, people who live in cities have access to public transportation, which suburban housing developments are insufficiently dense to support transit.
But even more important, cities are compact and walkable. In compact settlement patterns the distances between the places where people want and need to go are reduced: destinations are within walking distance. One of the most pernicious aspects of the sprawl was its adherence to separate-use zoning: land-use zoning codes separated out the various functions of life–living, working, shopping, and playing–into separate enclaves: residential, workplace,, commercial and recreational. Since these various enclaves are separated by distance, people in suburbs have to drive just to get from one to the other.
The new urbanists have shown that separate-use zoning must be discarded; we must return to the mixed-use zoning that characterized downtowns before the Second World War, when people could live in apartments above shops. Using traditional town planning methods, the new urbanists are bringing houses, stores, offices, civic buildings, and streets together. Their closely woven, small-scale neighborhoods have a variety of home types including rowhouses, narrow and tree-lined streets, sidewalks, and parks. New urbanists create easily identifiable town centers with plazas, and other common spaces that welcome pedestrians rather than threatening them with car dominance.
Their concerns are not merely architectural. Walkability enhances interactions and encounters among people on foot, knitting communities together instead of tearing them apart. Walkability nourishes the public realm. While the sprawling suburbs separate people by income and age and still to a great extent by race, good urban design promotes diversity, so that rich and poor, whites and nonwhites, elderly and young can live near each other and meet in the street. We all need opportunities to interact so that we don’t become afraid of one another and can learn to talk together. As Duany and colleagues point out in Suburban Nation, “A society is healthier when its diverse members are in daily contact with one another.” Thus walkability strengthens not only sustainability but the civic sphere that underpins a robust democracy.
To date new urbanists and others who think like them have created several hundred neotraditional neighborhoods using these principles. The last choice is to go out into greenfields and construct anew in open farmland. It’s far more preferable to restore existing urban centers and towns. Towns and city neighborhoods that were built before the era of the car already have compactness, walkable streets, a mixed-use infrastructure. For the many decades in the twentieth century when Americans were enchanted by suburbia, these urban cores were neglected, falling into disrepair and decay. Now that we understand the value of traditional neighborhoods, abandoned buildings and neighborhoods can and are being rebuilt and renovated.
Even better, new urbanists are reconfiguring sprawl into neighborhoods with communities. According to architect Ellen Dunham-Jones, “The big design and development project of the next fifty years is going to be retrofitting suburbia.” Many of the indoor shopping malls in the United States (Dunham-Jones says about two-thirds of the existing 1,200) are struggling to survive. Some have gone out of business, and when they do die, their huge concrete shells can and are being put to new uses: as civic centers, medical centers, schools, offices, nursing homes, even universities. Dead big-box stores can become churches and libraries.
So-called “underperforming asphalt” is being repurposed as well. Many parking lots built in the early years of sprawl are now underused, as construction leapfrogged over them. They are now being dug up and converted into downtowns for suburbs that never had downtowns. The oldest retrofit, Mashpee Commons, in Massachusetts, was created this way, on top of old parking lot. Incrementally, the result was a compact, mixed-use New England village.
About forty shopping malls have been razed to the ground altogether, giving place to city halls and parks and even entire downtown cores. In Lakewood, Colorado, for example, one hundred acres that were once home to a regional mall are now dedicated to 22 blocks of walkable streets, lined with multiuse buildings and a range of housing types, with 1,500 households. The buildings have PV arrays on the roofs, and wind turbines. Eight bus lines serve this community, called Belmar; it has two parks.
In some places densification doesn’t work—for example, subdivisions that are just too far from transit and where people choose not to live there. They can be returned to green areas or suburban farms. When a shopping center in Phalen Village, outside Minneapolis, went under, the city tore it up and restored the wetland that had been there before. Creeks are being daylighted.
Some of the most sprawled-out American cities are developing plans and goals to retrofit. Phoenix, Arizona, the epitome of a low-density, car-dependent city, has adopted a program called Reinvent PHX to create more walkable centers and connect them by public light rail. New urbanism principles are being accepted even in Texas: the city of El Paso now requires that architects working in city projects have accreditation in new urbanism. And the Texas department of transportation’s new rulebook actually recommends new-urbanist street design.
A large share of today’s Millennial generation (the 80 million people born between 1977 and 1995) are rejecting the car-dependent lifeways of their parents. Accurately viewing car ownership as a trap, they are choosing to drive less: in 2010, only 47 percent of seventeen-year-olds had driver’s licenses. For the first time since the advent of the internal combustion engine, we have a generation that is less enthusiastic about driving than the one before. Seventy-seven percent of Millennials prefer to live in urban areas: cities with walkable neighborhoods, transit, biking facilities, and a lively urban pulse.
The big question, according to Leigh Gallagher in The End of the Suburbs, is what the Baby Boomers (about 77 million Americans) will do. As they retire, will they prefer to age in place, even if it means heating too-large houses, even if their declining eyesight makes driving more precarious, and even if their houses isolate them socially? They, like the Millennials, may find that compact, mixed-use, walkable communities with convenient transit linkage to be highly desirable.
Whatever they decide, a rejection of suburbia is under way. American urban form is no longer reflexively being dictated by the automobile. and planners are discarding the old land-use codes that generated sprawl. In my view, overcoming sprawl is one of the most promising developments now under way in mitigating our carbon footprint.