05 March 2007
Changing the way we live
Think urban density, not mpg, in energy war
Column - Gwyn Morgan, the retired founding ceo of EnCana, sayas that a major cause of escalating energy use is dysfunctional urban design. Canadian and US cities sprawl ever outward and, as suburbia eats up land, more roads and freeways create a paved labyrinth. Twice a day, most suburbanites get into their vehicles and become part of a massive gridlock of idling emitters. And for suburbia's homemakers, there are no nearby shops - only the mall, a traffic-filled drive away. There is a better way, and a better life: enhanced urban density. The late Jane Jacobs was a true visionary on the need to transform our cities into denser but more livable spaces. The case for urban density was eloquently argued in a recent article by Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, who said: “Instead of telling Canadians to simply check their tires, or put energy-efficient light bulbs in their suburban homes, we should be talking about how better urban planning and densification of our cities can significantly reduce our impact on the environment.” When we talk about reducing our environmental footprint, most people think it's all about making sacrifices, and we do need to make some. The good news about densification is that it actually offers a better quality of life. My wife and I have constantly been struck by how some of the most compact cities in the world are also the most livable. For most of our working lives, we lived within walking or cycling distance of the office. We loved our proximity to the numerous amenities within walking distance, such as shops, restaurants and arts centres. No spending hours each day in traffic gridlock. Our neighbourhood actually had character, although not quite as much as some of the great old high-density European cities like Stockholm or Prague. I am a passionate defender of free markets, but also believe that laissez-faire urban planning is not planning at all -rather, it is both an environmental and quality-of-life disaster. Instead of city fathers patting themselves on the back for buying wind-generated electricity to fuel City Hall, how about some real vision that would change our cities from polluted gridlocked frustration zones into wonderful places to live?
(Globe and Mail 070305)
There is no doubt that denser communities are more walkable, have smaller, more numerous retailers and merchants, allow for better mass transit service, move people and goods with less total energy required, and thus become more liveable. Having been an "almost purist" pedestrian for almost ten years and witnessing rush hour insanity daily from the pedestrian point of view, I can safely say that I would prefer a setup like older areas of Montreal, where every block has a depanneur (corner store) and everyone lives a reasonable distance from their place of work, than a model resembling newer areas of Calgary where going to get the most basic items from the closest offering requires a car ride and traffic navigation, or a very patient wait for transit. I've noticed especially during the storms of the past few weeks where pedestrian traffic is in the pecking order of priority for snow clearing -- pretty much right at the bottom. Pedestrians must climb over snow banks, dodge icesheets or jump over seas of slush created by the snow clearing done to open roads for cars. I recall this metaphor I once read that jokingly said (but more tongue in cheek) that if aliens ever came to Earth and needed to determine what the dominant 'lifeform' on the planet was today, they would have a hard time deciding whether it was humans or cars.
The idea of communities and the aspects of humanism in urban design have been mothballed for the sake of the convenience of car culture. This has been going on for a long time, and we've all been more than willing to let it happen for the sake of our bottom lines and our convenience. Convenience and low immediate costs are not consequence-free either.
Over the past ten years, car drivers have become even more dominant, aggressive and careless around pedestrians and cyclists while navigating more congested streets that it's no wonder drivers are stressed to the max and that pedestrians and cyclists fear for their lives while venturing out where they are theoretically supposed to. I've seen this at the extreme in south Texas, where most new sprawled-out areas don't even bother to put in sidewalks anymore. What's the point? Everything is built so far apart from each other it leaves any travel from point-to-point available only through more and more limited means. We need to change the way we live for our own sanity without even considering all the other good reasons.