Cars in cities just cause traffic and block other modes of transportation so one Spanish city decided to do something about and banned car traffic in its downtown. The results are a thriving downtown with local businesses performing better than before the ban. Locals prefer the lack of smog and the ability to just be able to get out and walk without risking their lives. Let’s hope more cities plan for a carless future!
The benefits are numerous. On the same streets where 30 people died in traffic accidents from 1996 to 2006, only three died in the subsequent 10 years, and none since 2009. CO2 emissions are down 70%, nearly three-quarters of what were car journeys are now made on foot or by bicycle, and, while other towns in the region are shrinking, central Pontevedra has gained 12,000 new inhabitants. Also, withholding planning permission for big shopping centres has meant that small businesses – which elsewhere have been unable to withstand Spain’s prolonged economic crisis – have managed to stay afloat.
Raquel García says: “I’ve lived in Madrid and many other places and for me this is paradise. Even if it’s raining, I walk everywhere. And the same shopkeepers who complain are the ones who have survived in spite of the crisis. It’s also a great place to have kids.”
The suburbs are an energy-intensive housing solution that started in North America and has spread worldwide. The appeal of the tract housing the very thing that makes the suburbs detrimental to society: large lots, expansive houses, low density, and that they are reliant on individual use automobiles. With the mounting pressure of rapid climate change and urbanization of civilization what can we do to negate the poor planning of the suburbs? One solution is to rezone the suburbs to allow business to operate to make the neighbourhoods liveable.
It’s not specifically the built form of the suburbs that makes them unappealing; the buildings there—the houses—are perfectly fine. What deadens these areas is the homogeneity of the uses these buildings are put to. But a building that looks like a house can easily be altered and put to another use. Toronto’s two most iconic and walkable neighbourhoods, Yorkville and Kensington Market, were created like this 100 years ago. If the City took away restrictive zoning, suburban areas will change as local people set up stores and services in converted single family homes and these neighbourhoods will develop organically into complete and vibrant communities.
The permit office should parcel out permits to create a situation where you can go six blocks in any direction anywhere in Toronto and find one or two services. For instance, from my house in North York, you have to walk 12 large suburban blocks to get to the only services available, at Bayview Village. Why isn’t there a little ice cream store or cafe on the first floor of one of the brand new townhouses built across from Bayview Village Park, six blocks away? My home has a walk score of 38 out of 100. Gradually, the City should rezone wherever necessary until every home has a walk score of at least 50. The point isn’t to make all of Toronto like downtown or Kensington Market; just add reasonable access to services that will benefit the neighbourhood. The suburbs would still be the quietest neighbourhoods with the most green space, but they would be better off by virtue of a few local amenities. If a neighbourhood wanted to opt out of this scheme, it could cease issuing these permits altogether, or, alternatively, request that the City issue more of them and to try becoming a new Kensington Market.
It’s well established that people living in urban areas use cars less frequently than their suburban and rural counterparts. Some argue that it is thanks to better transit services that urbanites don’t drive but there is another reason for success. Population density alone can make a striking impact on how often people drive!
Holtzclaw concluded that even in areas with minimal transit service, density affected VMT [vehicle miles travelled]. For example, in an area with only two buses per hour, a census tract with 20 households per acre drove about 40 percent less per household than one with two units per acre (15,374 per year as opposed to 27,339). But VMT did not stop dropping at the 20 households per acre level. An area with 100 households per acre drove 1/3 fewer miles than the 20-per-acre neighborhood (10,028 VMT per household) and one with 500 households per acre drove 40 percent less than the area witih 100 households per acre (5781).
People in urban centres walk more and are generally more active than those who live in the suburbs, which is great for urbanites but not so great for the health of suburban dwellers. Years of poor urban planning in the suburbs have had a negative effect on the health of those who live there, which is most visible in increased obesity rates. In the suburbs of Toronto, Peel region is leading in new urban planning that encourages people to live a healthier life.
Instead of telling people what they shouldn’t do they are encouraging people to live healthy through passive, barely noticeable ways.
The health-minded policies, many of them pushed through despite strong opposition, are starting to pay off, said Dr. Karen Lee, a Canadian who is the director of Built Environment and Active Design in the New York Department of Health and Hygiene.
She cited a 289 per cent increase in commuter cycling, a 37 percent drop in traffic fatalities, a 1.5 per cent decline in car traffic and a 5 per cent drop in car registration over the past decade. There’s even been a small reduction in the worrying statistics on childhood obesity.
Many of the ideas are environmentally friendly and accessible but not necessarily expensive, said Lee. Posting signs near elevators that read “Burn calories, not electricity” can boost stair usage by 50 per cent. Drinking safe tap water is better for the environment than expensive bottled water.
“Neighbourhoods that are well designed for pedestrians are usually well designed for people with disabilities,” she said.
When it comes to talking about the divide between urban and non-urban living there’s more differences than just who lives in a more sustainable community. People living in non-urban areas just don’t understand the positive urban living that is being espoused, and in fact, can take insult to how pro-urban thinkers (like me) talk about cities versus sub-urban living.
Marohn says he has realized over the past decade that he and the New Urbanists are actually often talking about the same thing. The urban experience and the small-town experience have more in common than people think. And they’ve both been distorted by the suburban experiment. The picture looks different. In cities, it looks like an army of surface parking lots has devoured our downtowns. Small towns have also been hallowed out at the core and nipped at their edges by encroaching subdivisions.
But the effect is the same, Marohn says: an erosion of civic space, which has led to an erosion of the financial viability of communities. And this is the language he uses to talk about planning – the language of economics, of debt and prosperity and gas prices.
Sure, economic arguments are often environmental ones, too (saving on gas also saves the environment!). But Marohn only ever mentions this under his breath, like, “oh, by the way, reinvesting in our existing infrastructure is good for the environment, too.” He says he sometimes ticks off environmentalists by acknowledging their worldview as an afterthought instead of up front.