The future is 15 minutes away and it’s high time we get there. With the climate crisis in full swing we need to rethink unsustainable lifestyles and restructure unsustainable urban design into sustainable living. The concept of the 15 minutes city has gained popularity and captures the core idea of what we need to do. Even if we don’t build 15 minute cities it is abundantly clear that we need to move away from low density high energy suburban development. In the car-dominated USA they are looking into ways to increase livability of communities by decreasing car dependency.
Some proponents of new urban developments imagine a future where cars are obsolete. It is just as feasible, however, to implement city designs that allow for vehicle use without becoming dependent on it. In Utah, plans for a new 15-minute-city include 40,000 parking spots, all inside or underground, out of view from pedestrians. This leaves space available for wider paths, outdoor dining, and greenways that enhance community. Without having to make space for cars, all city amenities are within close proximity and enjoyable to walk between.
Federal legislation is also contributing to a growing acceptance of alternatives to car-centric transportation systems. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee highway bill increases pedestrian safety provisions and increases funding to bike sharing and mass transit. Unfortunately, it falls short of addressing the heart of the issue (cars). In fact, it grants $220 billion to highway development programs. It also fails to include any provisions for metro system carbon emission targets.
Where you live matters in almost every way imaginable, and there’s now more evidence that your location impacts your mental health. We now know that what has been colloquially known is now provably true: rates of depression are higher in suburban communities than elsewhere. Of course, you’re probably thinking that the rural lifestyle is that one that provides the best mental health, but what you probably don’t realize that urban living is also really good for you. So if you’re living in an in between sub-urban and sub-rural area and not feeling great than maybe you should move out the country or in to the city.
We think the relative higher risks of depression found in sprawling, low-rise suburbs may be partly down to long car commutes, less public open space and not high enough resident density to enable many local commercial places where people can gather together, such as shops, cafes and restaurants. But of course, there may be many other factors, too.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t potential benefits to living in the suburbs. Some people may in fact prefer privacy, silence and having their own garden.
We hope that this study can be used as a basis for urban planning. The study provides no support for the continued expansion of car-dependent, suburban single-family housing areas if planners want to mitigate mental health issues and climate change.
Inequality has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and we ought to be conscious about this. Wealthy individuals can work from home and afford to move, while others need to be physically at work and can’t move. As a result the prices of houses outside of cities have risen has more people look for more space to accommodate working from home.
We also know that the suburbs are drivers of regressive political attitudes and horrible environmental damage. We ought to be conscious about this too. Since people want to keep working from home and move further from sustainable infrastructure, what should we do? Over at Fast Company they explore this 2020 conundrum.
As we face aclimate turning pointfor which our post-COVID-19 behaviors are especially crucial, itâ€™s important that higher-income individuals who move outward live in an eco-friendly way, especially when manyessential and lower-wage workersmust stay in cities and, often, climate hotspots. â€œCOVID-19 has illustrated a sad truism: We may all be in the same boat, but we all do not have the same paddles,â€ Daniel Kammen, the other Berkeley study author, wrote in an email toFast Company. Affluent individuals in New York and San Francisco have the financial means to insulate themselves from climate risks, such as wildfires and unsafe air, by working from home and relocating, he explained. â€œMultiple properties, often larger suburban and rural homes, and longer delivery chains all mean that individual emissions of the affluent rise when they take the extra precautions they can afford.â€
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 â€” the wealth built slowly over generations â€” is slowly seeping away in our downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods.
Put these things together â€” the need to build resilience and the historic wealth that still remains in our core â€” 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 â€” 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.
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 â€” Queen, College, Bloor â€” are generally narrow car-slowing thoroughfares lined with unspectacular buildings between two and six storeys tall â€” 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.