"As I was being driven through Tel Aviv from my hotel to a conference center in 1998, I could not help but note the overwhelming presence of cars and parking lots. It was obvious that Tel Aviv, expanding from a small settlement a half-century ago to a city of some 3 million today, had evolved during the automobile era," says Lester R. Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute, in a recent release, "Parking Lots to Parks: Designing Livable Cities." "It occurred to me that the ratio of parks to parking lots may be the best indicator of the livability of a cityâ€”an indication of whether the city is designed for people or for cars."
Tel Aviv is not the worldâ€™s only fast-growing city. Urbanization is the second dominant demographic trend of our time, after population growth itself. In 1900, some 150 million people lived in cities. By 2000, it was 2.8 billion people, a 19-fold increase. Now more than half of us live in citiesâ€”making humans, for the first time, an urban species.
The worldâ€™s cities are facing unprecedented challenges. In Mexico City, Tehran, Kolkata, Bangkok, Beijing, and hundreds of other cities, the air is no longer safe to breathe. In some cities the air is so polluted that breathing is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. In response to these conditions, we are seeing the emergence of a new urbanism, a planning philosophy that environmentalist Francesca Lyman says "seeks to revive the traditional city planning of an era when cities were designed around human beings instead of automobiles."
One of the most remarkable modern urban transformations has occurred in BogotĂˇ, Colombia, where Enrique PeĂ±alosa served as mayor for three years. When he took office in 1998 he did not ask how life could be improved for the 30 percent who owned cars, but for the 70 percentâ€”the majorityâ€”who did not.
PeĂ±alosa realized that a city with a pleasant environment for children and the elderly would work for everyone. In just a few years, he transformed the quality of urban life. Under his leadership, the city created or renovated 1,200 parks, introduced a highly successful bus-based rapid transit system, built hundreds of kilometers of bicycle paths and pedestrian streets, reduced rush hour traffic by 40 percent, planted 100,000 trees, and involved local citizens directly in the improvement of their neighborhoods. In doing this, he created a sense of civic pride among the cityâ€™s 8 million residents, making the streets of BogotĂˇ in this strife-torn country safer than those in Washington, D.C.
One way to combat congestion 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. What societies should be striving for is not parking subsidies, but parking fees, reflecting the costs of congestion and the deteriorating quality of life as cars and parking lots take over.
Scores of cities are simply declaring car-free areas, among them New York, Stockholm, Vienna, and Rome. Paris enjoys a total ban on cars along stretches of the Seine River on Sundays and holidays and is looking to permanently ban cars along 1.2 miles of the Seineâ€™s left bank by 2012.
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 cityâ€™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 cityâ€™s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Thus far, 25 percent of the taxicab fleet has been converted to fuel-efficient gas-electric hybrids, and more than 300,000 trees have been planted. Efforts to raise energy efficiency are under way in dozens of city buildings and many more in the private sector, including the iconic Empire State Building. Just three years into the plan, citywide carbon emissions are down by 9 percent.
Half a world away, in oil-rich Abu Dhabi, construction has begun on Masdar City, designed for 50,000 people. The governmentâ€™s goal here is to create an international renewable energy research and development center, a sort of Silicon Valley East. 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. 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.
Mayors and city planners the world over are beginning to rethink the role of the automobile, seeking ways to design cities for people, not cars. The integration of walkways and bikeways into urban transport systems anchored by public transportation makes a city eminently more livable than one that relies almost exclusively on private automobiles. Noise, pollution, congestion, and frustration are all lessenedâ€”and we and the earth are both healthier.
For full report visit www.earthpolicy.org/index.php?/book_bytes/2010/pb4ch06_ss1and8.
Website : Earth Policy Institute
From: Earth Policy Institute
Published May 25, 2010 10:30 AM