Published on
the Seattle Times

It's Time to Return to a Robust Urbanism

Columnist Neal Peirce writes it's time to return to robust urbanism, the relatively compact, more energy-efficient growth we once practiced in our cities and towns, but lost in our rush to build far-flung, auto-centric subdivisions and strip malls after World War II.

WASHINGTON - "Urbanism" isn't a word that races many people's motors. But think again. It might just be the key - not only to enrich community life but to achieve a safer energy future as well as efficient and livable metro regions, and to ensure our place in the larger world.

That's the case that famed New Urbanist architect Peter Calthorpe lays out in his book "Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change," just published by Island Press.

Fighting to reduce our oil and coal burning, and combat global warming, much of the buzz surrounds such new "green" technologies as solar and wind power, industrial efficiency and fuel-efficient cars. But add up all the potential carbon savings they promise, argues Calthorpe, and we'll still fall far short of reducing the United States' grossly disproportionate use of fossil fuels and contribution to globe-imperiling climate change.

The only answer, he argues, is to start correcting the spread-out, energy-profligate patterns in how we use our land. In other words, a return to true urbanism, the historical patterns of relatively compact, more energy-efficient growth we once practiced in our cities and towns, but lost in the decades following World War II.

That means a radical turn from the post-World War II pattern of throwing up clumps of subdivisions, isolated office parks, commercial strips and shopping centers, strung together by arterials and highways, all accommodating the automobile but rarely if ever walkable or encouraging of civic life.

It's as if, Calthorpe alleges, we'd gone on a "fast food, high-carbon diet" that let our metropolitan regions, where most of us live, "become obese" through our heavy dependence on oil - "a high-sugar and high-starch diet," expanding the urban waistline, ballooning our output of carbon into the global atmosphere "without nourishing strength or resilience."

The only cure, he argues, must be a return to a robust urbanism of efficiently shaped and planned cities and regions.

So what's urbanism? You can recognize it by what it delivers, suggests Calthorpe. It is places that feature a diversity of uses - homes, shops, libraries, parks, schools - mixed closely so they're walkable (or easily bikable). It balances cars with public transit. It supports a rich public life.

And it is cities and other urban places that create, on a per-capita basis, the least carbon emissions.


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Urbanism, he insists, can come in many forms. It's not just a big-city model. Many of our traditional small towns, village centers and streetcar suburbs, with their mixed uses and walkability, are as "urban" as historical city centers.

Our big need now, he's suggesting, is to focus on the co-benefits of carbon reduction and more sustainable urban form. Examples abound. For heating, a joining wall (as in apartment houses or town houses) is more effective than a detached house's solar collector. A small neighborhood cogeneration electrical plant that reuses its waste will likely save more carbon per dollar than a distant wind farm (with its inevitable heavy power loss in transmission cables). A walk or a bike ride costs less and generates less carbon than does a hybrid car covering the same ground.

What we need to do, Calthorpe contends, is to expand urbanism's historical qualities of compactness and civic connectedness to the metropolitan scale, the citistate regions of our time. Rather than the old model of a city/suburb schism, we need to see regions as interconnected, interdependent networks of places.

Neighborhood becomes the metaphor of choice here. Just as a neighborhood needs a vital center - its crossroads - the citistate needs a strong center city that is its cultural heart, center of trade and symbol to the greater world.

But that's not to eclipse other regional towns and cities. In fact, the pedestrian scale of successful neighborhoods has a mirror in regional transit networks, the lines focusing growth in the vital towns and cities in a region just as main streets focus a neighborhood.

And there's an associated big value, Calthorpe argues, in diversity - mixes of all manner of people, the reverse of standard suburbia's habit of separating us by age and income.

Is all this a touch Pollyannish, wishing for goodwill and collaboration when the natural tendency among towns and places (not to mention businesses and individuals) is so often "us-first" competitiveness?

One might think so. Except that the old formula - easy mortgages, pro-sprawl land patterns, almost total automobile dependency - was overturned by the Great Recession. The excessive resources aren't there to go back to.

Calthorpe's substitute - more prosperity for all by smart regional strategies that are civic-, asset- and carbon-conserving - isn't guaranteed. But it would be a thousand times smarter.

Neal Peirce

Columnist Neal Peirce is chairman of the Citistates Group, a network of journalists and speakers who believe that successful metropolitan regions are today's key to economic competitiveness and sustainable communities.

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