A Good City is Only 5 Minutes Away

Intersection

Paris is showing the world the future (their present) of good urban design, and it’s all about 15 minutes. We’ve looked at this concept before, and every year Paris pushes us further. The city has already reduced their reliance on automobiles and increased mobility for the entire populace. They’ve added green space and now since the pandemic hit they’ve accelerated their plans to make the entire city a good place to live. The core concept for all of this is that everything a person needs should be a 15 minute walk from their house.

“We know sometimes large cities can be tiring and can create a sense of anonymity,” says Rolland. “But proximity means that we will, through our social links, rediscover our way of living in cities. We want open spaces, but ones for doing nothing in particular, where people can meet each other or encounters can happen as much as possible. We live better when we live together, and this will rework our social fabric.”

The transformation of neighbourhoods has been well underway since Hidalgo took office in 2014, with the Paris mayor banning high-polluting vehicles, restricting the quays of the Seine to pedestrians and cyclists, and creating mini green spaces across the city – since 2018, more than 40 Parisian school grounds have been transformed into green “oasis yards”. More than 50km of bike routes known as “coronapistes” have also been added since the pandemic struck and last month renovation of the Place de la Bastille was completed as part of a €30m redesign of seven major squares. Hidalgo has pledged a further €1bn euros ($1.2bn, £916m) per year for the maintenance and beautification of streets, squares and gardens.

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How Pandemic Life is Changing Transportation for the Better

Traffic is the worst and when people start to regularly work from offices we are bound to see an abundance of traffic. Nobody wants this, yet for the last century we’ve been building our cities and suburbs to cause traffic instead of alleviating it. This past year as the need for outdoor space in cities has increased we’ve seen cities reimagine our streets (not in Toronto though, but elsewhere). People are seeing the benefits of designing cities for people who live there instead of designing for car domination of the public realm.

What about traffic though? Inevitably we’ll need to get around again in the future. This is the next step. Most people don’t need a car (they just think they do) for most of their trips, let’s give people multiple options to get around instead of just one!

Micromobility technology, by contrast, is evolving as fast as fruit flies. As Anthony Townsend notes in Ghost Road, the dockless bike operator LimeBike “put no fewer than nine versions of its flagship bike into service during its first year and a half of operation,” while scooter company VeoRide, he notes, can transform a new idea into “on-street hardware in 15 days.”

And yet for all the flurry of micromobility activity, the state of macromobility—which in the US means the car—has changed little, and in some ways is going backward. “The curb weight [of vehicles] is higher than it’s ever been, and these are the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade,” says Greg Lindsay, director of applied research at New Cities, an urbanist think tank. “The OEMs—who don’t seem to be particularly financially healthy—have basically hooked the earth on these extremely expensive vehicles. It’s like the SUV boom has happened against the backdrop of this supposed mobility revolution.”

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Truly Smart Cities are Actually “Dumb”

Montreal

Earlier this year Sidewalk Labs (Google) opted out of building a “smart” neighbourhood in Toronto due to local pressure (protests work!). What the “smart” neighbourhood wanted to do was monitor and control the activities of occupants and visitors, which would have likely violated many laws. The business plan was even more outrageous since it set out to mire the city in debt by loaning money to the government to pay for the construction. These so-called smart initiatives are really the privatization, through surveillance capitalism ,of the urban space by massive corporations.

If we want resilient, robust, and nice places to live then we ought to get inspiration from the past. Ice in the desert without AC? That’s possible with technology dating back hundreds of years. We need to take a look at work at the past and implement those solutions in modern ways.

As for dumb transport, there can be no doubt that walking or cycling are superior to car travel over short urban distances: zero pollution, zero carbon emissions, free exercise.

And there’s a dumb solution to the spread of air conditioning, one of the greatest urban energy guzzlers: more plants. A study in Madison, Wisconsin found that urban temperatures can be 5% cooler with 40% tree cover. Green roofs with high vegetation density can cool buildings by up to 60%. Or you could just think like a bug: architects are mimicking the natural cooling airflows of termite burrows. Mick Pearce’s 350,000 sq ft Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, completed in the 1990s, is still held up as a paragon of dumb air conditioning: all it needs are fans, and uses a tenth of the energy of the buildings next door.

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What Cities can do Right Now to be More Sustainable

bus

People can make changes in their everyday lives to help the environment, like reusing items or simply by buying fewer things. If a bunch of people make positive changes together the impact is bigger. This is what you can do in your city today.

Cities the world over are changing tiny aspects of how they do things to make a big impact. Many of these changes are inexpensive and relatively easy to implement. If you have a moment today you ought to send your local politician a quick email asking for one of these changes.

Local governments are also consumers, and the day-to-day tasks of running a city require supplies and services. Purchasing policies can be written to ensure city purchasing is less harmful for the environment. For example, the city of Boulder, Colorado, has an Environmental Purchasing Policy that guides the city’s procurement towards environmentally friendly products, even requiring certain items like stationery and toilet paper to be made of recycled material.

Though on a larger scale, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts found that its Environmentally Preferable Products Procurement Policy saved more than US$18 million in fiscal year 2017 and more than US$12 million in fiscal year 2018. “Organizations are already having a huge impact through purchasing. If they can leverage that influence to support other goals of the government or organization, that’s a win-win,” says Sarah O’Brien, acting CEO of the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council.

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Walkable Towns are Economically More Productive

housing

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.

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