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.
The suburbs are massive urban design problem because they have a large footprint. The footprint is evident in the energy inefficiencies present in suburban design from sprawl to increased costs. To reduce the footprint and build more environmentally friendly neighbourhoods will cost a lot and some people are debating whether or not we should just give up on the suburbs.
The anti-retrofit movement is missing the bigger picture, in order to lessen the damage of sprawl on the planet we need to modify these sprawling neighbourhoods.
New Urbanism was launched a quarter century ago by a committed group of multidisciplinary professionals seeking to reverse the worst social, economic, and environmental impacts of sprawl. New urbanists, as a group, will never “let sprawl be sprawl.”
“Drivable suburban,” areas, otherwise known as sprawl, make up about 95 percent of the land in US metro areas (built, amazingly, in less than a century), according to research by Christopher Leinberger. The rest, about five percent, is “walkable urban” — historic neighborhoods and street grids.
Improving walkable urban areas and revitalizing run-down neighborhoods are critical projects for new urbanists, but we can’t leave the other 95 percent alone. It has too much impact on people’s health, social lives, and the economies of communities. The Charter of the New Urbanism speaks to the entire built environment—not just historic street grids.
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.
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.
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.
Peter Calthorpe is a man on a mission to make the suburbs of North America a place where people can live (seriously, you should see what books he’s written).
The car-dominated culture of the suburbs has produced a series of housing developments that pretends the environment and other people don’t exist, and in the 21st century this lifestyle is confronting reality. Recently, Calthrope has been asked to make a suburb of Toronto, Markham, into a modern city and Markham is moving ahead with the plan. The key component of the plan is to make a more urban setting that revolves around good transportation.
“We’ve had a 50-year experiment with sprawl,” Calthorpe argues. “Now it’s over. Everything’s changing. There’s a huge demographic shift happening. If you include externalities and eliminate subsidies, sprawl is not affordable. The key to unlocking the potential is transit.
But as Calthorpe also points out, successful transit is regional transit. That’s surely true at Langstaff. Cut off by hydro easements, highways, railway tracks and cemeteries, the missing connections to the external world can only be created through transit. Extending the Yonge subway to Hwy. 7 is critical to the project, as are the locations of the new stations.
“If you want to get people out of cars,” says Calthorpe, “you’ve got to get them close to transit. And transit must be there to support walkability, not the other way around. Destinations have to be nearby.”
A Canadian study has looked at how much carbon per capita a person living in Canada produces and the conclusion is that if you live in a city you produce less carbon. Once more it’s proven that living in an urban centre with high density is better for the environment than urban sprawl.
When it comes to climate change pollutants, Toronto residents are among the greenest in Canada, says a new study.
The report, published in the April issue of the journal Environment and Urbanization, says metropolises, commonly denigrated as big, dirty places, are in fact spewing fewer greenhouse gases per capita than the rest of their countries.
“Blaming cities for climate change is far too simplistic,” said author David Dodman, a researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, England. “There are a lot of economies of scale associated with energy use in cities. If you’re an urban dweller, particularly in an affluent country like Canada or the U.K., you’re likely to be more efficient in your use of heating fuel and in your use of energy for transportation.”
Dodman found that the average Canadian is responsible for 24 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year, while Torontonians just 8.2 tonnes.