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American Futures: Greener, Safer, More Compact?

Neal Peirce / May 04 2013

For Release Sunday, May 5, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWhat will our cities look like by mid-century as America’s population expands a projected 36 percent, to some 440 million?

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

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  1. Mary DeWolf
    Posted May 4, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Beside busy Westside Drive in El Paso, Texas is the most wonderful strip of firm soil, where you see horses loping along! Some churches have hitching posts! Also, more and more bike lanes are being built, and SunMicro buses have a place to carry bikes through the busiest streets.

  2. Posted May 5, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Not sure I buy into the historical revisionism of cities having been these marvelous utopias prior to the car. Unless, of course, one was in the upper class rather than the working class. Had cities been utopias, its doubtful that so many people would have fled them as soon as opportunities arose. Not everyone was a New Urbanist. Especially those living in the shadow of Bethlehem Steel rather than the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

    Prior to the car being a risk to public health, disease was a serious issue due to sanitary problems and infectious disease. After the advent of the Industrial age, pollution and smog were issues. (Interesting article link below*). My parents fled Buffalo, NY back in the early ninteen sixties from the combination of deteriorating neighborhoods, a desiere for open space, and to escape pollution. That was back in the days when major Northeastern rivers were catching fire, and workers in the big smokestack industries lived, literally, under a pall of smoke.

    Whether we will get to that 440 million Americans is an interesting question. By mid-century, we might also be seeing some of the hard weaning of ourselves off of fossil fuels, which will not only impact transportation but food growing. Couple that with climate change that may impact food growth (see second link**) and coastal inundation that may require major environmental engineering prospects or resettlement. Becoming more frugal and efficient will be required, and will push us in the direction of these major social paradigm shifts. I probably won’t be around that long, but good luck to those who do. These will be interesting times.



  3. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    My first thought when I read Penalosa’s article is who is going to pay for it. Certainly this may happen in certain places;but, given the demographics maybe not in most. Before it can happen, US needs to improve the education and earning prospects of the majority of its new minority-majority population.

  4. M Joseph Frago
    Posted May 10, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Why Not? Because the thought of living in large multi-family housing with common walls, lack of personal open space and thousands of other people is dreadful sounding. Let me decide which style of living/housing we want to have and then we can choose to utilize the public gathering places, markets and festivals when we want. There should always be a choice and the market will ultimately decide the options! Interesting artcle nonetheless.