For Release Sunday, May 5, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group
Will they be more livable, green, vibrant? Can we do away with our tons of city-based industrial wastelands and remake our low-grade strip commercial roads into attractive boulevards?
One vision is that the distinction between city and rural will fade as suburbs become more urban, densely occupied and town-like. And we’ll see robust expansion of such phenomena as “micro flats” near city workplaces.
That’s a vision of my Seattle planner friend Mark Hinshaw, who surprised me in 1985 by predicting that Bellevue, a quintessential post-World War II suburban growth town across Lake Washington from Seattle, could become a true urban place on its own. I picked up on his idea – the possibility that Bellevue, alias “car city,” all strip-commercial, no sidewalks and “potentially terminal boredom,” might turn itself into a Class A center with high-rise buildings, plazas, parks, cafes.
Today Bellevue is precisely that. Across the country, growing numbers of close-in suburbs are undergoing that same transformation from dullsville to walkable and inviting places.
Looking forward from today, Hinshaw foresees many more people working at home, even in cottage industries – perhaps even home 3-D printing workshops. He hopes some Americans might adapt the form of a neighborhood he’s visited on the western edge of Amsterdam:
“Very few people have cars, but some do. The street is essentially a shared garden that cars pass through, albeit very slowly. It’s so narrow it’s like a bike lane that cars occasionally use. Everyone’s front room and yard is different – in some places a living room or kitchen/dining area, in others even a store, small cafe or repair shop. The setting is quiet, serene and green, but it’s loaded with choices.”
But what about standard suburbia? The wave of the future will be infill, and connecting separated places (residences, shopping, offices), June Williamson predicts in a new Island Press book, “Designing Suburban Futures.” She reports progress in turning growing numbers of “ghostboxes, dead malls, dying commercial corridors and aging office parks” into “regreened,” more transit-accessible places including more walking and biking opportunities.
Suburbs do face obstacles: the accumulation of the past 60 years of spread-out development standards, plus fears of “the wolf of urbanism.” But from growing numbers of accessory (“mother-in law”) dwelling units to steps that revitalize suburban downtowns, the overall signs are brightening.
A radical “green” and “safe” prescription for building and rebuilding streets, both city and suburban, is presented by Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, in an article for the March-April edition of Urban Land magazine. Before the arrival of the automobile a century ago, Peñalosa notes, pedestrians crossed streets wherever they wished and let their children play there. Then came the motor age, taking more than 200,000 peoples’ lives in the United States alone by the 1920s.
Enique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Columbia
“What had been a marvelous human environment – the city – became not only noisy and unpleasant, but also dangerous to human life, particularly to children’ lives,” Peñalosa writes. Dangerous streets, he suggests, were one reason tens of millions of Americans, especially after World War II, moved into low-density suburbs, which require long car trips to reach jobs, shops and often schools. Without someone offering a ride, both children and the very old are effectively marooned.
Peñalosa proposes a radical remedy: cities with generous numbers of auto-free streets and with greenways reserved for pedestrians and bicycles. He challenges us to imagine a Manhattan – or other city – “where alternate streets and avenues are reserved for use by pedestrians and bicycles, with a few of those streets, green with trees, allowing trams or buses on narrow busways.”
The result would be a network of pathways free from competition with autos and trucks except at every-other-street intersections. It would constitute a return, in major aspects, to the safer pedestrian walkways and life of the pre-auto era.
And where that’s not possible, Peñalosa would have us at least consider limiting the car’s occupation of space: “Curbside parking is not a constitutional right. Would it be better to eliminate curbside parking and instead have larger sidewalks and protected bikeways?”
Without question, smart urban planning could advance the Peñalosa vision. The predicted U.S. population rise means we’ll need to build some 75 million new homes by 2050. The smart place to put them, to avoid massive new infrastructure cost and reignited sprawl, is in multifamily units in underused city and suburban areas. Networks of greenways would reduce auto dominance, create safe spaces for youth and the elderly, promote biking and public transit, and restrain heat impacts and carbon emissions.
Sounds revolutionary. But we need to think ahead and ask ourselves: “Why not?”
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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