Saturday, April 21, 2012

The sustainable city: An introduction

Too many American cities look like this all the time.
Actually, this picture was taken near Toronto. See? Our
bad habits are rubbing off on the Canadians.
Here's a blunt headline that grabbed my attention. It talks about how "politically conservative" cities across the United States tend to be the worst for pedestrians. For example, American urban centers like San Francisco and New York are ideal for walking; meanwhile, cities like Oklahoma City and Jacksonville are terrible for it.

This observation tapped into one of my biggest passions. If I ever decided to go back to school (and certainly I haven't yet), I might study urban planning and development. The world's population is shifting decidedly toward cities. This graph on urbanization suggests that 60 percent of people will live in one by the year 2030 (over half do now). With those numbers in mind, the idea of a sustainable city — which includes ones where it isn't necessary to drive everywhere — is certainly an important conversation to have.

That's why I'm starting a new series on this blog about that very topic. There's way too much to cover in just one post, so this will simply be an introduction. Subsequent posts will touch on the specifics.

So, what constitutes a sustainable urban center?

First and foremost, it has an infrastructure built to last that can cope with the demands of rapid population growth. That means it's designed so as not to be a slave to the single-occupant automobile. Streets and neighborhoods are laid out so that walking or biking is a practical, safe, and efficient method of transportation. Public transit is extensive, effective, continually expanding, easy to use, and prioritized over the construction of new highways and vehicle lanes.

Residential and commercial development is centralized so that downtown areas are vibrant and populated at all times of the day, and so that mass transit is easily accessible and can reach the greatest number of people (and take them where they need to go without using a car). This development also meets certain density standards and is multi-use — meaning that residents can live in close proximity to where they work, shop, and dine, while establishing a sense of community that might not otherwise exist.

Public transit is essential to a sustainable urban center.
Meanwhile, the city exists in harmony with the surrounding countryside, rather than exploiting it. This means that urban growth boundaries and greenbelts are established to discourage and control sprawl. Soulless, decentralized, vehicle-dependent suburbs are kept in check. Nature preserves — such as forests, parks, and other public lands — are in close proximity to provide a buffer between urban and rural areas; to give city dwellers an easy refuge from urban life when needed; and to protect important natural resources like watersheds.

Under those same lines, open space inside the city is also prevalent, including parks and public gardens. This serves an obvious quality-of-life purpose, but can also provide the means to grow certain foods locally as oil prices make it increasingly expensive to purchase them from long distances.

Lastly, the city shows respect for the environment through its building and waste management practices. It maintains municipal recycling and composting programs, and its buildings are energy-efficient and powered by renewable resources whenever possible. They also use green roofs to absorb rainwater and reduce the urban heat island effect, particularly during the hot months of summer.

Does this all sound somewhat utopian? A pipe dream?

Collectively, it is — and, obviously, it's certainly not reflective of the overwhelming majority of American (or world) cities today. But as climate change gets worse, and the world's population increases, and urban centers swell, the characteristics mentioned above will become increasingly important in making cities livable and sustainable for the future. This was just a broad overview. Expect to see more details in upcoming posts under the category of sustainability.

1 comment:

  1. While your description of a sustainable city, as you term it, seems utopian, there are examples of cities that have taken significant steps in the direction that you suggest. Their experience can serve as a model of what works and what doesn't. In so far as the quality of life in cities such as these is perceived as superior, they motivate other urban centers to emulate them. Portland, Oregon, is such a city. Perhaps there are others, in this country or elsewhere.