How many roads must a man walk down without sidewalks, crosswalks, adequate lighting, or bike lanes, before he realizes that his quality of life depends on the built environment? How we build our cities, and especially how we build our streets, determines an awful lot about how we live together.
One area where smartly-built cities can help is in climate change. A climate-friendly transportation policy is like a three legged stool, and all three legs are necessary for it to function. This year the US finally raised fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, but that’s just part one of a solution. Part 2 is reducing the pollution coming from the fuel we do burn. Hybrid cars help, since they recapture some of the energy it took to get the car moving, by letting the brake system charge up a battery. Biofuels help, since for some kinds of biomass-based fuels, the growth of plant feedstocks uses up more carbon that is released when the fuel is combusted–although we should note well that one kind, corn-based ethanol, may not be much improvement at all over fossil-fuels. And as we’ve noted often in this space, growing food for our cars competes with growing food for people, to the detriment of hungry folks worldwide.
But by themselves, these two legs are not going to get our transportation policy where it needs to go. Our stool still needs a third leg, and that means changing the way we build our cities, so that we can live more of our lives unshackled from our vehicles. If we had an ever-increasing fuel-efficiency standard, and an ever increasing renewable content to our fuels, but we continued to build inefficient, sprawling cities, we’d be sunk. So much of our pollution and traffic is caused by poor urban design, that we simply must rethink the kind of development we promote.
Smartly-built cities can do a lot more to create healthy places to live than just slowing climate change. New urbanism is a movement of architects, engineers, city-planners, and others that is leading the way in reimagining how we build our settlements, and some of that imagination is fed by recapturing and relearning lessons from our recent past.
Until the 1940s, it would have been unthinkable to build an urban streetscape without providing for walkers. Building for the 21st century, including retrofitting surburbia, will mean we learn to “complete the street”. We will have to teach our Departments of Transportation the lessons that should have been learned in engineering school.
Finally, come to the workshop on new urbanism and social justice that I’ll be doing with one of the video’s creators, Chris Elisara, at this year’s CCDA conference in Cincinnati.
If your church, organization, or faith community has done any work on urban street design or walkability, let me know (email@example.com). We’ll try to describe your work in an upcoming issue of Flourish magazine.