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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis May 17, 2013
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American Futures: Greener, Safer, More Compact?

What will our cities look like by mid-century as America’s ­population expands a projected 36 percent to about 440 million?

Will they be more livable, green, vibrant? Can we do away with our tons of city-based industrial wastelands and remake our low-grade strip commercial roads into attractive boulevards?

One vision is that the distinction of city and rural will fade as suburbs become more urban, densely occupied and town-like. And that we’ll see robust expansion of such phenomena as “micro flats” near city workplaces.

That’s a vision of my Seattle planner friend Mark Hinshaw, who surprised me in 1985 by predicting that ­Bellevue, a quintessential post-World War II suburban growth town across Lake ­Washington from Seattle, could become a true urban place on its own. I picked up on his idea—the possibility that Bellevue, alias “car city,” all strip commercial, no sidewalks and “potentially terminal boredom,” might turn itself into a Class A center with high-rise buildings, plazas, parks, cafes.

Today Bellevue is precisely that. And across the country, growing numbers of close-in suburbs are undergoing the same transformation, from dullsville to walkable and inviting places.

Looking forward from today, ­Hinshaw foresees many more people working at home, even in “cottage industries”—perhaps even home 3-D printing workshops. And he hopes some Americans might adapt the form of a neighborhood he’s visited on the western edge of Amsterdam:

“Very few people have cars, but some do. The street is essentially a shared garden that cars pass through, albeit very slowly. It’s so narrow it’s like a bike lane that cars occasionally use. Everyone’s front room and yard is different—in some places a living room or kitchen/dining area, in others even a store, small cafe or repair shop. The setting is quiet, serene and green, but it’s loaded with choices.”

But what about standard suburbia? Infill, and connecting separated places (residences, shopping, offices), will be the wave of the future, June Williamson predicts in a new Island Press book, Designing Suburban Futures. She reports there is progress in turning growing numbers of “ghostboxes, dead malls, dying commercial corridors and aging office parks” into “re-greened,” more transit-accessible places—including more walking and biking opportunities.

Suburbs do face obstacles: the last 60 years’ accumulation of spread-out development standards, plus fears of “the wolf of urbanism.” But from growing numbers of accessory (“mother-in-law”) dwelling units to steps that revitalize suburban downtowns, the overall signs are brightening.

A radical “green” and “safe” prescription for building and rebuilding streets, both city and suburban, is presented by Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, in an article for the March-April edition of Urban Land magazine. Before the arrival of the automobile a century ago, Penalosa notes, pedestrians crossed streets wherever they wished, and let their children play there. But then came the motor age, taking more than 200,000 people’s lives in the United States alone by the 1920s.

“What had been a marvelous human environment—the city—became not only noisy and unpleasant, but also dangerous to human life, particularly to children’s lives,” Penalosa writes. Dangerous streets, he suggests, were one reason tens of ­millions of ­Americans, especially after World War II, moved into low-density suburbs that actually required long car trips to reach jobs, shops and often schools. Without someone offering a ride, both children and the very old are effectively marooned.

Penalosa proposes a radical remedy: cities with generous numbers of auto-free streets, greenways reserved for pedestrians and bicycles. He challenges us to imagine a Manhattan—or other city—“where alternate streets and avenues are reserved for use by pedestrians and bicycles, with a few of those streets, green with trees, also allowing trams or buses on narrow busways.”

The result would be a network of pathways free from competition with autos and trucks except at every-other-street intersections. It would constitute a return, in major aspects, to the safer pedestrian walkways and life of the pre-auto era.

And where this is not possible, ­Penalosa would have us at least consider limiting the car’s occupation of space: “Curbside parking is not a constitutional right. Would it be better to eliminate curbside parking and instead have larger sidewalks and protected bikeways?”

Without question, smart urban planning could advance the Penalosa vision. The predicted U.S. population rise means we’ll need to build about 75 million new homes by 2050. The smart place to put them, to avoid massive new infrastructure costs and reignited sprawl, is in multifamily units in underused city and suburban areas. Networks of greenways would reduce auto dominance, create safe spaces for youth and the elderly, promote biking and public transit, and restrain heat impacts and carbon emissions.

Sounds revolutionary. But we need to think ahead and ask ourselves: “Why not?”

E-mail Neal Peirce.
© 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

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