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Urban Planning Can Clean Soot Out of Environment

I hate being stuck in gridlocked traffic on city streets and zero to five miles an hour on the freeway during so-called “rush hour”? And since when did “rush hour” extend right into the “lunch rush”?

Just the other day as idled through several lights before being able to turn from one gridlocked street onto another, I had a vision of a different kind of American city – a city a little more like Down Town Disney than Los Angeles. There were more bicycles than cars and more walkers than both. In my imagination people actually smiled and greeted one another as they walked to work sipping their fresh Starbucks lattes. There were no gasoline fumes and the only sound was the hum of conversation and the tapping of shoes on the pavement.

The Urban Village Concept

A walkable city is not just the product of my imagination. It is the latest fashion in urban planning – the urban village. In the urban village people live, work, shop and play in the same radius.

The urban village concept ignores three realities. The first is that the super market, super store, mall anchor store, Costco world we live in – and only want more of – is not compatible with pedestrian shopping. The shopper needs at least a sedan – if not an SUV – to carry home 24 shrink wrapped rolls of Costco toilet paper (their number one selling item).

The second – America’s suburban romance with spacious living – is not over. The Sunday home section of your local newspaper, like mine, is full of pictures of spacious two story homes being developed on “reclaimed” farm land and open space – many miles from major employment centers.

The first urban village in San Jose is a mixture of designer boutiques and upscale restaurants with a few expensive apartments build above the retail space. Half of the first floor of the several block complex, and all of the basement levels, is a parking garage. The entrances and exits to the two freeways that access the area are always jammed. This urban village is a net carbon polluter!

And that brings us to the third reality. Typically, the types of small businesses created within an urban village do not produce the sort of high salary jobs that attract people to Silicon Valley or other large cities. The major job centers of most urban areas are miles and miles from residential districts.

New York Understands Urban Villages

The rest of the country would be well served to study New York’s plans to revitalize a 120 acre parcel in South Bronx.  The project is an example of “infilling” the city. Without expanding the city limits, infilling will turn existing blighted housing and rusting industrial facilities into much needed new housing, retail and entertainment facilities surrounded by green space – anchored to the larger city by an extension of the city’s subway system.

New York subways may not be elegant but they move millions of people from one commercial and residential center directly into the heart of another district in about 30 minutes. Subways are electric – and, thus, have a smaller carbon foot print – and efficient. Mayor Bloomberg prefers the subway to a limo ride to work every day – avoiding street traffic and saving time!

Urban Planners Are Obstacle

The problem is not that Americans don’t want quieter, cleaner, walkable cities integrated with efficient, modern people mover systems. The problem is our urban planners and the politicians they serve. Their thinking is all short run. The motivations are tax dollars, development fees, federal grants – all mixed with campaign contributions.

As a result, too often, urban planners and politicians lack imagination and foresight. It is not apparent that they understand the longer historic trajectory or the frightening consequences of failing to develop solutions that will lead to a cleaner sustainable environment.

Heck, they don’t even understand the short term trajectory. Congress mandated higher fuel economy standards for cars and trucks and then was surprised when fewer gasoline taxes were collected! For example, you travel 200 miles a week in an SUV that gets 20 miles per gallon. The federal highway tax on 10 gallons of gas is $1.835. Now you buy a new SUV that gets 40 miles per gallon. The same weekly travel will net only 92.5 cents in taxes. What should really scare you is that this surprised law makers who couldn’t understand why the highway fund was running out of money – its 4th grade math!

American cities will rise from the soot and the noise and the smell and the stress for the 20th century only when we, the American people, stop staring out of our gridlocked windshields, step out of our cars and make a chorus of “we’re madder than hell and we are not going to take it any more”.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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