Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Designing Cities for People: Cities for People

A growing body of evidence indicates there is an innate human need for contact with nature. Ecologists and psychologists have both been aware of this for some time. Ecologists, led by Harvard University biologist E. O. Wilson, have formulated the “biophilia hypothesis,” which argues that those who are deprived of contact with nature suffer psychologically and that this deprivation leads to a measurable decline in well-being. 70

Meanwhile, psychologists have coined their own term—ecopsychology—in which they make the same argument. Theodore Roszak, a leader in this field, cites a study of varying rates of patient recovery in a hospital in Pennsylvania. Those whose rooms overlooked gardens with grass, trees, flowers, and birds recovered from illnesses more quickly than those who were in rooms overlooking the parking lot. 71

Creating more livable cities thus involves getting people out of their cars and more in touch with nature. The exciting news is that there are signs of change, daily indications of an interest in redesigning cities for people. That U.S. public transit ridership nationwide has risen by 2.5 percent a year since 1996 indicates that people are gradually abandoning their cars for buses, subways, and light rail. Higher gasoline prices encourage commuters to take the bus or subway or get on their bicycles. 72

Mayors and city planners the world over are beginning to rethink the role of the car in urban transport systems. A group of eminent scientists in China challenged Beijing’s decision to promote an automobile-centered transport system. They noted a simple fact: China does not have enough land to accommodate the automobile and to feed its people. This is also true for India and dozens of other densely populated developing countries. 73

When 95 percent of a city’s workers depend on cars for commuting, as in Atlanta, Georgia, the city is in trouble. By contrast, in Amsterdam 35 percent of all residents bike or walk to work, while one fourth use public transit and 40 percent drive. In Paris, fewer than half of commuters rely on cars, and even this share is shrinking thanks to the efforts of Mayor Delanoë. Even though these European cities are older, often with narrow streets, they have far less congestion than Atlanta. 74

There are many ways to restructure the transportation system so that it satisfies the needs of all people, not just the affluent, it provides mobility, not immobility, and it improves health rather than running up health care costs. One way is to eliminate the subsidies, often indirect, that many employers provide for parking. In his book The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup estimates that off-street parking subsidies in the United States are worth at least $127 billion a year, obviously encouraging people to drive. 75

In 1992, California mandated that employers match parking subsidies with cash that can be used by the recipient either to pay public transport fares or to buy a bicycle. In firms where data were collected, this shift in policy reduced automobile use by some 17 percent. At the national level, a provision was incorporated into the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century to change the tax code so that those who used public transit or vanpools would enjoy the same tax-exempt subsidies as those who received free parking. What societies should be striving for is not parking subsidies, but parking fees—fees that reflect the costs of traffic congestion and the deteriorating quality of life as cities are taken over by cars and parking lots. 76

Scores of cities are declaring car-free areas, among them New York, Stockholm, Vienna, Prague, and Rome. Paris enjoys a total ban on cars along stretches of the Seine River on Sundays and holidays and is looking to make much of the central city traffic-free starting in 2012. 77

In addition to ensuring that subways are functional and affordable, the idea of making them attractive, even cultural centers, is gaining support. In Moscow, with works of art in the stations, the subway system is justifiably referred to as Russia’s crown jewel. In Washington, D.C., Union Station, which links the city’s subway system with intercity rail lines, is an architectural delight. Since its restoration was completed in 1988, it has become a social gathering place, with shops, conference rooms, and a rich array of restaurants.

There is much more happening with cities and the reshaping of urban transport than meets the eye. Initial efforts to reverse the growth of urban car populations were based on specific measures, such as charging fees for cars entering the city during rush hour (Singapore, London, and Milan), investing in BRT lines (Curitiba, Bogotá, and Guangzhou), or fostering the bicycle alternative (Amsterdam and Copenhagen). One of the consequences of these and many other measures is that car sales have peaked and are declining in several countries in Europe and in Japan. Total vehicle sales in Japan peaked at 7.8 million in 1990, an economic boom year, and may drop below 5 million in 2009. Similar sales declines have occurred in several European countries and may be starting in the United States. For example, in mid-2008, U.S. automobile scrappage rates exceeded new car sales, a trend that promises to continue through 2009. Adverse economic conditions are a recent factor, but there is a more fundamental set of forces at work. 78

Owning a car, once an almost universal status symbol, is beginning to lose its appeal. An early 2009 article in The Japan Times reports that many young Japanese no longer want to own a car. They see them as wasteful and, particularly in cities like Tokyo, far more trouble than they are worth. 79

The attitude of young people in Japan appears to be mirrored by growing numbers in other countries, where interest in digital devices may be eclipsing that in cars. Young people are often more interested in their computers, Blackberries, and iPods and in electronic socialization than in “going for a spin” in a car. They have less interest in the latest model cars than their parents’ generation had.

There are two ways of dealing with the environmental challenges facing cities. One is to modify existing cities. On Earth Day 2007, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced PlaNYC, a comprehensive plan to improve the city’s environment, strengthen its economy, and make it a better place to live. At the heart of the plan is a 30-percent reduction in the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. By 2009, PlaNYC—with nearly 130 initiatives—was showing some progress. For example, 15 percent of the taxicab fleet had been converted to fuel-efficient gas-electric hybrids. Nearly 200,000 trees had been planted. Raising the energy efficiency of buildings, a central goal, was under way in dozens of city buildings and many more in the private sector, including the iconic Empire State Building. 80

The other way is to build new cities from scratch. For example, developer Sydney Kitson has acquired the 91,000-acre Babcock Ranch in southern Florida on which to build a new city. The first step was to help sell more than 73,000 acres of the land to the state government to maintain as a permanent preserve, thus ensuring an abundance of public green space. The heart of the city, intended to be home to 45,000 people, will include a business and commercial center and a high-density residential development. Several satellite communities, part of the overall development plan, will be linked to the downtown by public transportation. 81

The purpose of the city is to both be a model green community and a center, a national focal point, for renewable energy research and development firms. Among the distinguishing features of this new community are that it will be powered entirely by solar electricity, all residential and commercial buildings will meet standards set by the Florida Green Buildings Coalition, and it will have more than 40 miles of greenways, allowing residents to walk or cycle to work. 82

Half a world away, in oil-rich Abu Dhabi, construction has begun on another new development, Masdar City, designed for 50,000 people. The government’s goal here is to create an international renewable energy research and development center, a sort of Silicon Valley East, that would house up to 1,500 firms, including start-ups and the research arms of major corporations. 83

Masdar City has several important features. In addition to being powered largely by solar energy, this town of well-insulated buildings plans to be carless, relying on a rail-based, electrically powered, computer-controlled network of individual passenger vehicles. Resembling an enclosed golf cart, these vehicles will be clustered at stations throughout the city to provide direct delivery to each destination. In this water-scarce part of the world, the plan is to continuously recycle water used in the city. And nothing will go to a landfill; everything will be recycled, composted, or gasified to provide energy. How well these pre-engineered cities will perform and whether they will be attractive places to live and work in remains to be seen. 84

We are only beginning to glimpse where we want to end up. Until now, changes in urban transport systems have been the result of a negative reaction to the growing number of cars in cities. But thinking is starting to change. In 2006, the History Channel sponsored a City of the Future Competition in which architectural firms were given one week to outline a vision of New York in 2106. Terreform, a design studio headed by architect Michael Sorkin, proposed gradually eliminating automobiles and converting half the city’s street space into parks, farms, and gardens. The designers envisioned that by 2038, some 60 percent of New Yorkers would walk to work and that the city would eventually be transformed into a “paradise for people on foot.” 85

At this point, Terreform’s proposal may seem a little far-fetched, but Manhattan’s daily gridlock must be addressed simply because it has become both a financial burden and a public health threat. The Partnership for New York City, representing New York’s leading corporate and investment firms, estimates conservatively that traffic congestion in and around the city costs the region more than $13 billion a year in lost time and productivity, wasted fuel, and lost business revenue. 86

As the new century advances, the world is reconsidering the urban role of automobiles in one of the most fundamental shifts in transportation thinking in a century. The challenge is to redesign communities so that public transportation is the centerpiece of urban transport and streets are pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly. This also means planting trees and gardens and replacing parking lots with parks, playgrounds, and playing fields. We can design an urban lifestyle that systematically restores health by incorporating exercise into daily routines while reducing carbon emissions and eliminating health-damaging air pollution.


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