By Dom Nozzi
Why do so many of us believe that “greening up” the city is important, while few of us find it important to keep city sizes and dimensions at a modest, “small town” size?
I can think of three reasons.
Desperation Politics. After several decades of sprawl, many of us, with some justification, are now extremists, desperately trying to save everything that has not already been destroyed, and calling for exceptionally punitive regulations — to the extent that we fanatically strive to protect the environment.
For example, we improperly push for the achievement of wildlife habitat above all other community objectives, such as safety, economic health, walkability, or comfort.
By becoming militant environmentalists, we often make the mistake of promoting wildlife habitat everywhere, failing to understand that an in-town location should be designed to be good places for people to live (and what is a good place for Bambi is not necessarily a good place for humans). Only in peripheral areas of communities or neighborhoods — where a great deal of breathing room can be found (breathing room needed by sensitive wildlife) — should we set aside areas for high-quality wildlife habitat. Trying to create habitat for “Bambi” in the middle of a city creates not only a mediocre environment for wildlife, but also creates a low-quality environment for humans (the result, too often, is that many humans flee such unwalkable, poorly-scaled places in order to live in sprawl locations — which commonly happens to be the place where there is high-quality habitat for Bambi — soon to be low-quality habitat due to the sprawl).
“If the city is not well-designed,” Javier Cenicacelaya once said, “its impact on the surrounding nature will be lethal.”
Space. Motor vehicles and a great many wildlife species share one important design need: They both require a great deal of space — much more than is acceptable when designing for a pleasant, human-scaled realm for people. The result is that the leading advocates for cars (suburban developers) and the leading advocates for wildlife ironically often find that their strategies and advocacy coincide.
In a sense, adopting a “green” agenda for city design is a path of least resistance for civic advocates. After all, if advocates for quality city design were to lobby for modest sizes and dimensions, as I argue here, they would meet with stiff opposition from sprawl developers and the road lobby. Since the latter groups are in need of lots of space to provide for the needs of cars, they are generally more than happy to align themselves with (or not actively oppose) the “green cities” lobby group — which also needs lots of space.
A consensus on cheerleading for our cars. The massive subsidies we have poured into roads, parking, fuel, and sprawl have created a heavily distorted market in which suburban developers, auto makers and financial institutions have a powerful vested interest in promoting the needs of the car. These subsidies mean that big roads, big parking lots, and minimal costs for sprawl development are one of the most effective ways for developers to be financially successful in our society. Unlike in times prior to WWII, when developers regularly built walkable, human-scaled, timelessly lovable, compact towns, most contemporary developers are now compelled to build to make cars, not people, happy.
The result is that nearly everything built is feared and despised the day the ribbon is cut.
Over 50 years of substantial motor vehicle subsidies has meant that our communities are primarily designed to make cars happy. All of us inexorably have a vested interest in supporting anything and everything that makes life easier for car travel. Almost all of us adopt the values of the car. After all, our communities force us to make nearly every trip by car. Obstacles to using a car therefore become continuous aggravations that enrage us, regardless of our political persuasion, our lifestyle, or our values. It is why we so often find that the community activists I describe above often find that they are promoting design which results in more suburban sprawl and more in-town decline.
In sum, we have met the enemy, and he is all of us…
The Key to a Better Future
It is essential that all of us recognize that one size does not fit all. That we not strive to “suburbanize” (i.e., design for cars) or “green” (i.e., design for Bambi) our entire urban area.
There is a place for those objectives. Community villages should be walkable and human-scaled. The areas surrounding our walkable urban villages should be suburban. The areas surrounding our suburbs and neighborhoods should be for rural living and wildlife. Doing so maximizes the chance that we can provide the highest quality habitat for each of the three lifestyle choices. Only walkable, human-scaled design is allowed in our villages, only car-oriented design is allowed in our suburbs, and only rural and wildlife habitat needs are allowed in our peripheral areas. Trying to apply suburban or wildlife strategies throughout the community degrades each objective, and decreases our lifestyle choices.
And yet we often fail to understand that one size does not fit all portions of the community. That we should not try to force suburbia, or wildlife habitat, or even walkable human scale into all portions of the region.
It is in the interest of suburban developers, environmentalists, and those seeking a walkable lifestyle to instead support the three-tiered approach.
The market seeking the walkable lifestyle is best served when the purest form of walkable design can be used — a design unmarred by car-oriented (or wildlife design). Indeed, as Alex Krieger has pointed out, “the majority of sprawl in this country is produced by those who are fleeing from sprawl.” Those, in other words, who have grown to be repelled by a neighborhood degraded by an overdesign for cars and a neglect of people.
Likewise, it is in the interest of banks, developers and those seeking the suburban lifestyle to see that the purest form of auto-oriented, suburban, expansive, open, private, low-density design be used — a design unmarred by a walkable or wildlife design.
Finally, it is in the interest of our environment that we focus our wildlife habitat efforts on the peripheral areas. Only here can we find the vast areas needed by the panther or the bear or the large forest to feel comfortable and healthy. An area unmarred by any form of human activity — be it walkable or suburban.
We must let the city be a city. Let a suburb be a suburb. And let our wildlife habitats be good places for Bambi and her friends.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
My Adventures blog
Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog
My Town & Transportation Planning website
My Plan B blog
My Facebook profile
My YouTube video library
My Picasa Photo library
My Author spotlight