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.


Doug said...

Yes, its true that the urban sprawl has really wrecked alot of cities and boiled culture down to the lowest common denominator- and its only possible because of roads, cars and cheap oil. I watched an interesting show on the documentary channel called the Death of Suburbia and the end of the oil age (or something to that effect) I found it fascinating how "downtowns" around the world originated as manufacturing and commercial hubs and the suburbs resulted as people tried to escape over-crowding and pollution. Then when industry moved out of city centres the people mostly never came back (at least the rich ones anyway- who by now had a love affair with their HUGE suburban homes and a fraction of the cost of downtown properties.

While its true that suburbia has become pretty boring and problematic I say this......its simple not possible for EVERYONE to live in a "downtown core". Can you imagine evn trying to condense LA or New York by having more higher density residential propeties. It ain't gonna happen baby.

As was said , it makes more sense is to have Suburbia evolve into a more humanistic communites served by local shops, buses, rail systems etc. Urban communites could be interconnected and made to be worth living again. AHHH but lets be real - until cheap oil runs out suburbia as we know it won't die - Not just yet anyway. its too easy to slap dowm more roads to nowhere.

As for me I like somethings about suburbia - like the fact its quiet. Shopping isn't as bad as you might believe either (although admidedly it too is car based). In the end Suburbia is not a place I have a love affair with though. For me if I'm lucky enough to escape suburbia it won't be for a 750 sq ft pad on the 65th of some aircraft chasing tower - I'm moving back to the country. 2 acres in Bragg Creek - now that's my solution and yes that too will be car based - umless I can convince Bronco to extent the LRT?

Reid Dalgleish said...

Well, first of all, when cars stop ruling the roads, EVERYWHERE is going to be much quieter. That is one huge thing I'll be looking forward to...I think everyone will.

Secondly, yes I think many of these better-built mid-century suburban communities might localize and become self-sufficient. The ones in the far-flung suburbs with their airtight pre-fab construction won't be very popular once air conditioning and natural gas become prohibitively expensive. They may even be mined for scrap once the Chinese have mined out and forged all the remaining accessible metals like copper and aluminum.

Houses with passive designs that allow for elemental heating and cooling with lots of south-facing windows, proper use of trees and bushes, real fireplaces, and allowance for airflow for heating and cooling will be the winners here.

Alas, the core of any city built up after WW2 will most likely be the worst place to be. As above, once A/C and NG become scarce, the functionality of all those condo towers and office towers suddenly becomes a liability. Unless you want to break out all the windows in those things, they will become airlocked nightmares. Who wants to be climbing 40 stories of stairs when the rolling blackouts start?

And don't worry, Doug. Bragg Creek's only a 45-minute bike ride away....if there's anything worth coming to Calgary for at that time. All the Western North American cities are pretty much writeoffs, I think. They're all built for an unalterable future of magical fossil fuels. Maybe Bronc Jr. will build a trolley to Bragg. Oh yeah, horses aren't hard to learn to ride either.