Monday, May 2, 2011

Time Machine

From Planetizen, "Give Yourself the Green Light", about how the American military impacted the kind of sprawling urban form developed in the 1950's. Postwar might and ingenuity were applied to some of the urban problems in order to solve them, and military planning was adopted to develop American cities and suburbs. The means of access to everything became the automobile, and this kind of thinking solved all problems with acres of asphalt and parking lots. An earlier post delves into the reason that auto-based planning is destructive to urban areas as well as suburban and rural landscapes in creating sprawl.

Here in Southern California, it became the norm to "drive 'til you qualify" for the cheap outer suburban mortgages that are now imploding our economy, along with inexpensive gas. Those days are now past, and it's important to look at new paradigms, such as are outlined in this interview with Peter Calthorpe, author of “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change”. As he states, "I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to demonstrate that if you design communities around a car, you’re going to have increased automobile use." No, but the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration certainly had their sights fixated on the rigid military formulas for how to develop cities. It was like garrisoning the highways and cities for an industrial invasion; it's Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

The change in urban design approach espoused by New Urbanists involves the desire to implement transit oriented development (TOD), and sometimes this kind of planning puts the cart before the horse, especially when it comes to building projects before the transit linkages exist that provide an alternative to automobile dependence. The shift needs to be made to rail and bus that connect nodes of walkable areas, and reduce the impact of the asphalt and concrete canyons in the urban areas. As Calthorpe points out, landscaped and open areas are a prime feature of urban areas that have escaped the automobile culture. Additionally, some creative arts expression with mass transit has started to enliven the light rail being developed along the old rail right-of-ways in Los Angeles. The precedent being, perhaps, the old Moscow underground stations that made "arriving" somewhere a special experience.

Hence, many cities are beginning to take the first steps to repair the urban fabric by unbuilding freeways in order to open the city up to light, open space and urban forests. This is the new paradigm that will need to ultimately prevail in our revitalized cities. It goes far beyond the historic "city beautiful" precedents and brings the critically necessary element of ecological regeneration into the mix of human habitation.