Any visitor to a North American city knows that a lot of the geography is designed for single occupant car-based transportation. Anybody who’s spent months in any of these places knows that this car-focused design has been an unmitigated disaster. People are dying, the planet is being killed, and so many other problems stem from building cities for cars.
That badness all being acknowledged, we are at turning point of urban design. The evidence for making our streets for pedestrians over cars is overwhelming; cities which life easier on people are witnessing demonstrable benefits. Those benefits are quantifiable and more research comes out every month highlighting the benefits of desiring for people. Over at Strong Towns they have compiled a great article outlining some of the benefits of pedestrian friendly design.
The cost of paving sidewalks for people is minuscule compared with the cost of paving wide roads for cars, installing traffic signals, paying the salaries of traffic cops, etc. Even the cost of providing enhancements to pedestrian space such as trees and benches pale in comparison to what we spend when we build around cars.
Furthermore, the wear and tear caused by foot traffic is also negligible compared with the wear and tear caused by car and truck traffic, meaning that long-term maintenance costs for walk-friendly areas are also much lower than for auto-oriented places. (Ironically, most cities spend exponentially more on their roads while utterly neglecting their sidewalks.)
In short, a simple sidewalk could serve millions of people traveling on foot for decades, even centuries, with only a small amount of up-front investment and minimal maintenance costs for the city — yet it would support dozens or hundreds of local businesses. The same length of street designed primarily for cars would cost exponentially more to build and keep up and would only serve a handful of businesses.
Vehicles have been used to kill a lot of people throughout 2017, sometimes it’s an act of terror and other times it’s drivers being startlingly incompetent. Either way, people who walk are under threat from vehicular traffic in our cities (remember that everyone is a pedestrian). This past weekend in Toronto 11 people were struck in less than half a day by cars. The car-friendly designs of cities also make it easier for vehicular terrorism, safe streets can thwart some terrorists.
Why do we design our cities around cars and then allow people to drive recklessly? We shouldn’t.
Let’s try something seemingly radical: let’s say no to car culture in big cities.
Of course, the cities we have today could not ban cars tomorrow. No current public transportation system functions well enough to carry an entire city population. Not everyone can walk or ride a bike. Too many taxi drivers would be out of work.
We are not ready, but the car-free city is being tested in bits and pieces around the world. We should learn from all of them, and apply those lessons as soon as possible.
Oslo plans to ban all cars from its city center by 2019. Madrid has a goal of 500 car-free acres by 2020. In Paris and Mexico City, people are restricted from driving into the city center on certain days based on the age of their cars or the number on their license plates. Inside Barcelona’s superblocks, all car traffic that isn’t local is banned. Over 75 miles of roads in Bogotá, Colombia, close to traffic for a full day every week.
Cities need to work with their local ecosystems and not against them. This is evidently true when it comes to waste management and overt displays of green initiatives. There is a harder aspect of ecological thinking for cities and it’s usually beneath our feet: water.
Water systems are complex in every direction – getting drinking water in and storm water out. The way cities plan for water issues is more important than ever before as we enter a time of water scarcity and extreme weather. What we should be doing (and smart cities already are) is designing our urban spaces with the flow of water in mind.
“We need to acknowledge that the water is eventually going to do what the water wants to do, and shift our approach, as human populations living on the Earth, from one of trying to dominate nature to one that acknowledges the power of nature and works in synchrony with that,” says English. “We’ve already set ourselves down this path of dams and levees and water control systems, and it’s really hard to turn back. But we don’t need to keep replicating that. We don’t need to make the situation worse. It’s time to step back from the approach of control and fortification.”
“Cities that today start to embrace water and take advantage of the skills of water, will be the cities that have a better performance economically and socially and politically in 20 to 30 years,” says Koen Olthuis, founder of Waterstudio, a Dutch firm that has found designing around water to be more than a niche market. “When situations change—and that’s happening now, the environment is changing, the climate is changing—cities have to react. You have to change the skills and the performance of the city to give a reaction to this situation, and the reaction should be not fighting it, it should be living with it.”
Cities contain the majority of the worlds population and moving that many people is a challenge, to say the least. Each city has its own design and plan for public transportation and some are clearly better than others. Wendover Productions tackles this question and provides some nice insights into what makes a city a good place for public transit. The video ends with a nice snapshot of the kinds of success that public transit can bring to cities. One example is that Portland has seen an estimated 5 billion dollars in development thanks to their streetcar network.
The last month brought a lot of rain to the city of Toronto which has led to the Toronto islands being half submerged and a temporary (and lax) travel ban to be put into effect. The rest of the city has fared slightly better. The city has slowly been improving its water management over the years by implementing green roofs and providing more green space along ravines to absorb water. That’s not enough to deal with the increased rainfall from climate change. Over at the CBC they have an article looking at effective ways that Toronto is already using and what more can be done.
Of course, the techniques used in Toronto can be applied to many other cities.
The water that makes it past collection systems or soaks through green spaces ends up in Toronto’s sewer system.
In cases of a heavy downpour, that can send a mix of storm and sanitary water into Lake Ontario, due to the city’s combined sewer system.
While the city has dedicated reserves for storm water, it has no choice but to pump the mixed sewage and storm water into the lake during extreme rainfall.