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Sierra Magazine

12 Gates to the City

A dozen ways to build strong, livable, and sustainable urban areas.

by Francesca Lyman

The gently rolling hills of Bedford, New York, only an hour from midtown Manhattan, seemed an unlikely site for a talk on urbanism, looking more like a pastoral scene out of a Currier and Ives painting. But here in a church meeting-room next to the post office and firehouse, Bedford's citizens were rallying to save their beloved town from encroaching urban ills like strip malls and parking lots. For advice they turned to architect and planner Andres Duany, one of the leaders of the "new urbanism" movement. New urbanism, it turns out, is very similar to old urbanism: it seeks to revive the traditional city planning of an era when cities were designed around human beings instead of automobiles.

In his frequent lectures, Duany blasts "planned unit development"--the standard suburban subdivision with its worm-shaped cul-de-sacs, sidewalks that no one ever walks on, and bottleneck-creating collector roads that feed into already congested highway strips. He then shows slides of the old-fashioned Main Street from Disney World; there are no cars in sight, just visitors strolling. "People pay dearly for this, fly across the country and stay in expensive hotels just to soak up this urban atmosphere," he says. "But this is all fake. Imagine how they would love it if these streets and houses were real." Duany goes on to talk about some of America's favorite real places, delightful walking towns like Narragansett, Rhode Island, and Annapolis, Maryland. Because today's building and zoning codes are woefully fixated on traffic flow, he points out, "such places would be illegal to build."

The fate of America's cities over the past 50 years has been one of gradual abandonment. What may be the biggest mass migration in the nation's history--the move to the suburbs--was set in motion by a series of federal and state policies at the end of World War II, including GI-Bill subsidies to suburban home-buyers and massive road-building projects, and furthered by speculative real estate development and savings-and-loan chicanery. That wave continues to sweep over us with the building of thousands of suburban and regional shopping malls and industrial parks, all of which continue to pull investments and consumer dollars away from cities, while destroying farmland and wildlife habitat.

The motor for this migration was the postwar devotion to the internal combustion engine, which led to the now ubiquitous suburban miasma of malls, drive-in franchises, and subdivisions with prominent driveways to garages almost as large as the houses themselves. Residential areas are far distant from commercial buildings, making them almost impossible to reach without an automobile. The iconic all-American Main Street, with its public space of shops and markets and offices, is fractured in favor of monolithic discount houses in yesterday's pastures and woodlots.

Older, pre-automobile cities were inherently far more ecological, in more ways than are obvious. Compact and dense, they allowed for greater efficiency, better use of space, and more diverse housing types and income levels. And because most major American cities were sited in fertile agricultural areas, there was--and often still is--great potential for feeding them locally. (See "Food for Thought".)

Cities are not necessarily bad for nature-unless they're designed to ignore nature. "In many ways the environmental crisis is a design crisis," writes Sim Van der Ryn in Ecological Design (Island Press, 1995), "a consequence of how things are made, buildings are constructed, and landscapes are used." Design decisions have become so severed from their ecological consequences, he says, that during the past 50 years "we have reduced a complex and diverse landscape into an asphalt network stitched together from coast to coast out of a dozen or so crude design 'templates' "-the strip malls, regional malls, industrial parks, trailer parks, and mass-produced single-family homes that are now so familiar. "Dumb design" is what Van der Ryn calls these standardized solutions mindlessly replicated everywhere, because they require extravagant energy use, auto dependence, and total disregard for the particulars of place.

Our cities and suburbs are so locked into dumb design that it is hard to imagine a way out. Government policies are riddled with subsidies for cars (at the expense of transit and regional planning) and suburban development. At the same time, those seeking to build in urban areas often face higher costs for construction, energy, water, and waste disposal. Thousands of old industrial sites contaminated by their past use, the so-called brownfields, linger on the urban landscape for decades because it is easier--and cheaper--for businesses and industry to relocate to "greenfields," the open, often agricultural spaces in suburbs and countryside.

How can we undo what 50 years of urban planning "progress" has done to our farmland, communities, and culture? The good news is that the work has already started. Pick almost any city in America today, and chances are that people are working together to reclaim it-through community gardens, recycling, habitat restoration, greenways, rezoning, and many other projects. No one city has done it all, but Chattanooga, Seattle, Jacksonville, and a few others have undertaken comprehensive plans to dramatically reduce energy and resource use and increase access to open space. Architects and city planners are beginning to shape these visions of sustainability, and, perhaps more importantly, beginning to change the rules of urban design.

In the old gospel song, there were 12 gates to the heavenly city. Here are 12 ideas that are gateways to a new city. Walk through one or more, and help build a vibrant, human community where you would want to live and bring up your children.

1. Think in terms of whole systems.

The modernist school of planners (who got us where we are today) saw homes as "machines for living in" and design in terms of function: architects creating facades, engineers creating electrical and plumbing systems, landscapers doing the greenery, and traffic engineers dictating the connections between buildings and the rest of the urban environment. Thinking instead about whole systems encourages planners to include the landscape (or cityscape) and its inhabitants in their approach. It promotes the idea that many design solutions can spring from a given problem. Rather than depending on specialists, the community--which, after all, will have to live with any new development--is involved as much as possible in the planning, with architects making its ideas and desires concrete.

Michael Pyatok is an architect of affordable housing who designed a unique, mixed-use building complex in a rundown section of Oakland, California, practicing this whole-systems approach. He doesn't take all the credit, however. "We built a constituency from a community of coauthors," he says. In a series of workshops, the prospective tenants divided up into teams, building models and shaping the indoor and outdoor space to their liking. "They talked about the things architects talk about," Pyatok says, "and educated themselves about everything from how to build community and prevent crime to sustainable construction materials." For example, they chose to use stucco and cement-based siding rather than wood, to consume fewer trees. A central courtyard evolved into a place for hanging out, available only to residents. The Ohlone residents named the place Hismen Hin-Nu, "Doorway to the Sun." The development never would have happened in a conventional situation, says Pyatok, because "developers have preconceived notions about what people want."

2. Design and build green homes.

Individual houses, too, are being built in harmony with the surrounding environment in accordance with Frank Lloyd Wright's credo that a house should grow into the light "as dignified as a tree in the midst of nature." Green homes are rooted in the natural and cultural characteristics of their regions, and are designed to save energy, water, and materials. Instead of using wood clearcut from national forests, they are constructed from recycled, reclaimed, or locally produced substitutes. (See "Shopper, Spare That Tree!" July/August 1996.) One model is the Sustainable Housing Demonstration Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It began as a drafty, poorly insulated three-story woodframe with hazardous lead paint. The architects preserved the foundation, sidewalls, floors, roof, and shingles, finding that many 1920s-era materials contained fewer harmful substances than their modern counterparts. They retrofitted the rest with sustainably produced woods and nontoxic wood alternatives. Composting toilets and a wastewater recycling system that feeds indoor plants dramatically conserve water.

An excess of water was the problem in the small town of Pattonsburg, Missouri. In 1993, ravaged by one of the worst floods this century, the entire town was relocated with the help of federal disaster aid. Environmental architect Bob Berkebile designed the new homes to be within easy walking distance of each other, with carefully placed trees to cool them in the summer and shelter them from winter winds. After a series of community meetings, Pattonsburg adopted a set of codes that includes energy efficiency requirements for all new buildings and passive solar orientation for new homes.

3. Bring back industry.

Industry was a big reason for the growth of cities, but when people started to abandon them after World War II, industry soon fled as well, and cities have suffered ever since. Many are now trying to redevelop abandoned industrial sites, or brownfields, and other areas by bringing back industry in the form of "eco-industrial parks." In such complexes, based on ideas developed in Denmark, one facility's waste becomes another's feedstock. In its simplest form, this means locating businesses so as to efficiently share resources, reusing raw materials as much as possible and minimizing waste. Burlington, Vermont, is experimenting with recycling hospital-waste as compost, and in the Bronx, new furniture is being made out of discarded wooden pallets. Chattanooga has replaced its diesel buses with what is now the biggest fleet of electric buses in the country, manufactured at a plant within the city and contributing 35 jobs and substantial tax revenues to the community, while simultaneously reducing air pollution.

4. Respect the law of the land.

In 1890, in one of the first suburban developments, William Duzer Lawrence staked out sites for his houses in Bronxville, New York, paying less attention to lot size or shape than to access to sunlight and relation to the woodland setting. Originally an artists' colony, what is now the Lawrence Park Historic District was designed before the invention of the bulldozer (thus sparing boulders and rocky crags, as well as old trees) and before the advent of city planning, with its fierce observance of uniform setbacks and other boundaries that pay little respect to natural formations. Houses here are built on a steep and rocky terrain, almost sitting on top of each other. Given the district's attractions, however, no one seems to care.

Lawrence Park is connected by railroad to New York City. Its narrow streets were intended for horse and carriage rather than cars. To this day, one of its charms is that you don't need a car to live there, and can walk to markets and shops.

Today, architects and designers are returning to this model, using design motifs that pay homage to native trees and plants. At Village Homes, in Davis, California, planners Michael and Judy Corbett grouped dwellings around an interlocking series of existing orchards, winding bike paths, and narrow, pedestrian-friendly streets. It helped that Davis is already devoted to the bicycle; the city famously has more wheels than legs.

5. Encourage people to walk.

Pedestrians "create the place and the time for casual encounters and the practical integration of diverse places and people," says architect Peter Calthorpe. "Without the pedestrian, a community's common ground--its parks, sidewalks, squares, and plazas--become useless obstructions to the car."

Calthorpe is trying to popularize "pedestrian pockets," areas of high-density development built within a quarter-mile of public transit. To this end, he has designed regional plans for cities such as Portland and San Diego that direct new housing and jobs into mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhoods and downtowns.

(While the new urbanist designers are making high-density, mixed-use, close-knit neighborhoods marketable as high-end housing, they have come under fire for failing to practice their urbanism in the heart of the city. Most of their developments are new towns, "gentrified from scratch," as Newsweek described them. Some new urbanist developments like Calthorpe's Laguna West outside Sacramento, California, are served by bus routes but otherwise ended up as fairly conventional suburbs.)

6. Humanize cities.

In addition to insisting on the need for open space and trees, argues Fred Kent, director of the Project for Public Spaces, we also need to consider the ecologically sound aspects of density and street life. Many cities are learning that compactness promotes efficiency, creativity, and walking, and are working to revive old main streets and neighborhood centers. Urban planners, who in the past focused primarily on managing traffic, are now beginning to look more at the whole complex of functions of city streets and neighborhoods. Kent's own firm spends much of its time "humanizing" chrome-and-glass facades on city streets like New York City's Sixth Avenue by adding shops, benches, landscaped sitting areas, and the like.

Steve Price, who redesigns streets and buildings on his computer, argues that the minimalist modernist view of "less is more" is destructive. "More is more," he says. "People need interesting things to look at in cities--flowerpots, murals, window displays."

7. Set limits to urban growth.

Postwar zoning and planning codes--not to mention the availability of cheap land--encouraged cities to spill out into the surrounding countryside. One way to limit sprawl is to create regional plans that channel building and development back to the city or close to suburban transit stations. In Portland, 1000 Friends of Oregon supported a study of alternative land use and transit options to counter a proposed $300- million beltway around the west side of the city in 1992. The plan, which architect Peter Calthorpe helped create, redirects a projected population growth of 160,000 away from standard sprawl and into high-density housing with commercial buildings and shops, within walking distance of planned light-rail and bus connections. "Portland is always cited for its wonderful, walkable downtown," says Keith Bartholomew of 1000 Friends. "We're trying to build more of this, places where people can get a quart of milk without using a quart of gas."

Another way to control sprawl is to permanently preserve open space at the edge of the metropolitan region--the "greenbelt" approach. Portland also used this strategy. Thanks again to 1000 Friends, Oregon has state-legislated boundaries preventing urban and suburban development in rural and agricultural areas around its cities. With Portland's population projected to boom during the next 50 years, planners have been working to set aside 6,000 acres of new open space and to guide growth within city limits. A few other states, including Florida, Georgia, Vermont, Maine, and Washington, have begun growth-management plans like those Oregon and Hawaii undertook in the 1970s.

In the past, environmentalists often supported lower-density development in the belief that it was "greener" and more natural than city living. Fortunately, a growing number are discovering the benefits of urbanism. The more energy you put into creating compact cities, argues Chris Beck of the Trust for Public Land's Oregon field office, the more open space you save.

In Sonoma County, California, four municipalities recently voted by substantial margins to establish urban-growth boundaries, protecting the open space between the cities from leapfrog development. "Part of the charm of these cities lies in the rural landscapes that surround them," says Tim Frank, chair of the Sierra Club's Sprawl Campaign. "When you give people a chance to conserve that for their children, and pay lower taxes to boot--that's very popular."

8. Establish greenmarkets.

As more cities build mixed-use communities rather than subdivisions fed by highway strips, there is a chance to revive not just pedestrian scale but local commerce. Farmers' markets are booming across the country, their numbers increasing to 2,410, a 40 percent gain from 1994 to 1996. These markets not only create a festive community atmosphere, but also give people access to fresh, often organic produce, and even serve as tools for economic development. Oriented toward small entrepreneurs, these markets offer job opportunities, and make shopping by bicycle or foot possible. The main rule, according to Maureen Atkinson of the Urban Marketing Collaborative in Toronto: "Keep it funky. Don't make it a mall."

9. Revive historic and local building styles.

Historic buildings have an undeniable appeal, partly because they were often built to last, using materials and styles appropriate to the regional climate. Coherent local building styles also serve to unite diverse people, says David Rice, executive director of the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority. "In the best examples," he says, "differences among people--race, income, and social status--are less evident than the shared sense of community identity."

Rice points to the redevelopment of a public housing complex called Diggstown, which was transformed through the addition of humanizing, historic touches like porches, walkways, and lampposts. "It's really very exciting to see," says Ray Gindroz, the project's principal architect. "There's a sense of self-esteem and community that wasn't there before." Police report that drug use and the crime rate have declined; in stark contrast to the desolate landscape of many public housing projects, Gindroz reports that in Diggstown "you see family reunions being held."

10. Bring back public space.

Another casualty of modernist planning has been the traditional civic commons, which has been displaced by public space that is privatized in the extreme: the shopping mall, private club, and gated community. Many planners are now trying to reintroduce truly public space, as in New York City's unique business/government Grand Central Partnership, which helped transform Bryant Park on 42nd Street from a "needle park" into an oasis of green, a lunch and cultural mecca.

Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces cites a hugely popular new neighborhood that has sprouted up around New York City's Union Square as a result of the highly successful farmers' market there. It's a symbiotic and organic process, he says. The loft housing available in the neighborhood was another catalyst, as was an important transit stop and effective traffic engineering. Now there are a host of renovations and new businesses. Urban planners need to build on the natural processes in communities, says Kent, rather than impose new projects on them.

One of the best examples of returning civic space to the public may be a plan for Portsmouth, Virginia, in which Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh redesigned several major areas with public spaces linked to natural sites. A new high school will include a green, open stretch that will extend views of a large city creek. A new ferry landing and redesign of a park and portside tourist shops will reconnect the city to its waterfront, and, say the architects, "create a new front door to the city."

11. Restore the local landscape.

The harbors, forests, valleys, and other natural settings that shaped particular places and (formerly) imposed limits on the community are now being rediscovered and highlighted. In Baltimore, Seattle, and San Francisco, old port facilities have become business and recreational hubs, while in San Jose and Austin, urban riverfronts have been made attractive public amenities. Creek restoration and wetlands preservation have also become part of the repertoire of urban designers, ecologically important and aesthetically satisfying at the same time.

12. Combine residential and commercial buildings.

American cities once had shops, homes, apartments, government buildings, and public squares all built closely together. Postwar planning ended that tradition, separating residential, commercial, and industrial areas into single-use zones linked by highways. The solution is to amend zoning laws to allow housing in commercial areas, and neighborhood--serving commerce in residential areas. In New York City, designers are "adaptively reusing" empty office buildings as residential condos. Toronto recently commissioned a design firm to help it "reurbanize" itself; the new plan includes, along with carefully orchestrated transit and higher densities, a mix of residential and commercial buildings.

One can easily respond to the challenge of transforming today's cities like the Maine farmer who was asked for directions to Boston: "You can't get there from here." But we don't really have a choice, especially with four out of five people in the United States now living in metro areas. The old dream of a suburban home on a quarter acre is losing its luster, especially as the two-car garage is joined by the two-hour commute. It's time to replace that old vision with a new, sustainable one.

Building environmentally sustainable cities will be neither easy nor cheap. It will require architects, planners, politicians, and ordinary citizens to shift their customary ways of thinking. But we won't be doing it alone. After all, building community means that you have lots of good company.


Resources

For further reading on livable cities, look for Cities in Our Future edited by Robert Geddes (Island Press, 1997); Home From Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century by James H. Kunstler (Simon & Schuster, 1996); At Road's End: Transportation and Land Use Choices for Communities by Daniel Carlson et al. (Island Press, 1995); Eco-City Dimensions (New Society, 1997) and Sustainable Cities: Concepts and Strategies for Eco-City Development edited by Bob Walter, Lois Arkin, and Richard Crenshaw (Eco-Home Media, 1992).

A useful periodical for urban redesigners is The Urban Ecologist, quarterly journal of Urban Ecology, 405 14th St., Suite 900, Oakland, CA 94612; (510) 251-6330. For emphasis on environmental justice, see Race, Poverty, and the Environment, a publication of Urban Habitat, Box 29908, Presidio Station, San Francisco, CA 94129-9908; (415) 561-3333; uhp@igc.apc.org.


Francesca Lyman is teaching ecological urban design at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City. She is author of The Greenhouse Trap (Beacon Press, 1990) and is currently working on a children's book.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.

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