Big Boxes Have Failed us; Supporting Downtowns will Save us

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We’ve all heard about how downtowns have failed in smaller cities while big box stores like Walmart succeed; what we don’t really talk about is why and what’s the solution. First we need to establish that suburban big box stores are horrible for people and the economy (which is easy); then we need to address those core issues. The folks over at Strong Towns do exactly that and recently published a great piece exploring how the costs of running a big box operation from the perspective of a city is high. The solution then should be easy: reinforce local economies for success.

And we should also recognize where our wealth really comes from. It comes from our downtown and our core neighborhoods (those within walking distance of the downtown). It certainly doesn’t come from people driving through those places. It doesn’t come from people commuting in. It doesn’t come from tourists or developers or the potential of land development out on the edge. Our wealth — the wealth built slowly over generations — is slowly seeping away in our downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods.

Put these things together — the need to build resilience and the historic wealth that still remains in our core — and the strategy becomes too obvious to ignore: We need to piece our economic ecosystem back together. We shouldn’t spend a penny on the mall — we should be willing to let it fall apart and collapse if the market can’t support it. But we should support those investments in the core that are already paying our bills.

And here’s the really sweet thing: the downtown doesn’t need millions of dollars of investment. There are some trying to force that down the city’s throat, but we don’t need it. It’s already the most successful area in the region. We just need to start reconnecting things.

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How Pressure from Pedestrians and Cyclists Make Better Cities

Depending on where you live you may think streets are for people or for cars. The correct answer is that streets are for moving people and not built for the need of inanimate objects. In an interesting series of videos the Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume examines the different urban design decisions between suburban and urban neighbourhoods. The urban areas that promote cycling and walking are understandably the most vibrant, interesting, and productive (economically and culturally). The impact non-car uses can have on streets is evident and something that every city can benefit from.

Unsurprisingly, Toronto’s most vibrant streets — Queen, College, Bloor — are generally narrow car-slowing thoroughfares lined with unspectacular buildings between two and six storeys tall — hardly the stuff of vehicular convenience. The major interruptions in these mostly intact streetscapes are largely the result of clumsy modern interventions beginning in the 1950s and ’60s. Decades later in what’s now Vertical City, we still have difficulty making buildings work at street level. Architects are slowly learning, but have yet to master the skills of contextualism. They prefer the silence of the vacuum and ignore the public realm whenever possible.

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Why Urban Areas Are More Efficient Than Suburban Areas

It’s been known for years that urban centres have a lower carbon footprint than the lands of urban sprawl. This is a for a variety of reasons and it’s rather complex, sure most of it comes down to density, but the exact know how is still being figure out.

Over at Alternatives Journal they looked at how building sustainable cities makes better cities overall. This is how and why people make resilient cities.

FOR EXAMPLE, existing low-density suburban developments “actually increase the damage on the environment while also making that damage harder to see and to address,” wrote Green Metropolis author David Owen. Although Forbes ranked Vermont as the greenest US state in 2007, Owen’s 2009 article revealed that a typical Vermonter consumed 2,063 litres of gasoline per year – almost 400 hundred litres more than the US national average at that time. This vast consumption is primarily due to single-use zoning and the absence of a comprehensive public transit system. Contrary to popular belief, dense cities such as New York City typically have the lowest carbon footprints. NYC emits 7.1 tonnes of greenhouse gases per person per year, or less than 30 per cent of the US national average. This is due to its extreme compactness. Over 80 per cent of Manhattanites travel to work by public transit, by bicycle or on foot. Population density also lowers energy and water use, limits material consumption and decreases the production of solid waste. For example, Japan’s urban areas are five times denser than Canada’s, and the consumption of energy per capita in Japan is 40 per cent lower.

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Urban Living Cheaper, More Sustainable Than Suburban

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Years of car-focused suburban designs have unleashed problems in the 21st century that we will have to deal with and accommodate. The years of the suburbs are coming to an end and it can’t be soon enough. With every passing years more and more municipalities discover that urban design is the better choice.

The above image is composed of data taken from a report done by Halifax in 2005. Undoubtably the costs of supporting suburban households has only increased relative to urban housing.

Recently, the New Climate Economy released a report titled Analysis of Public Policies that Unintentionally Encourage and Subsidize Sprawl and advocates for a change to policies to encourage better urban design.

The report, Analysis of Public Policies that Unintentionally Encourage and Subsidize Sprawl—written for the New Climate Economy by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, in partnership with LSE Cities—details planning and market distortions that foster sprawl, and smart growth policies that can help correct these distortions.

Sprawl increases the distance between homes, businesses, services and jobs, which raises the cost of providing infrastructure and public services by at least 10% and up to 40%. The most sprawled American cities spend an average of $750 on infrastructure per person each year, while the least sprawled cities spend close to $500. In its Better Growth, Better Climate report, the New Climate Economy has found that acting to implement smarter urban growth policies on a global scale could reduce urban infrastructure capital requirements by more than US$3 trillion over the next 15 years.

The New York Times ran an article on urban versus suburban costs back in 2010.

So we set out to do the math, based on an apartment and a house in the New York metropolitan area. Here’s what we found: a suburban lifestyle costs about 18 percent more than living in the city. Even a house in the suburbs with a price tag substantially lower than an urban apartment will, on a monthly basis, often cost more to keep running.

It’s very clear that as we populations grow urban design needs to focus on sustainable infrastructure planning and all of us should encourage it.

Better Urban Design Can Increase Happiness and Sexiness

Obesity is a growing problem in North America and it looks like this health issue will continue to grow. There are many contributing factors to what’s referred to as an obesity epidemic, and some designers think that we can curb at least one contributing factor: poor urban planning. Not coincidentally, places with a higher proportion of obesity have low density planning.

What if we changed the low density planning to something more walkable and liveable?

Walking and biking, on the other hand, not only make us fit, but they also both improve mental health. Oxytocin—the same chemical released during sex and breastfeeding, that reduces stress and increases trust and empathy—is released during outdoor exercise. (Indoor exercise, interestingly, doesn’t have the same effect).

There are many things that need to change in urban planning and design, but one of the most basic is this: we need to define success differently. Right now, engineers make many decisions based on something called “level of service”—basically, how long cars are delayed at certain points. Our goals should be based on people, not cars. Right now, a busy commercial street would be judged a transportation failure even though it’s a social and economic success. We need to change the way we measure, so designers can make the right decisions.

Read more at Good.is to find out where the sexiness comes in.

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