When I am able to blank out the last thirty five years, during which I have continuously despised and fought against the automobile (even when I owned one myself…yes, I’m talking about that rattling death-trap of a 1967 Ford Falcon!), when I can forget all that, it does my heart good to hear people talking about Ecocities. Richard Register has a decent column in Foreign Policy in Focus this week, advocating for more sustainable cities built around better transit systems and less automobile traffic. His points are well taken and straightforward, building upon his books on the subject (from 2001 and 2006):
- Switch to a pedestrian and transit-oriented infrastructure, built around compact centers designed for pedestrians and transit;
- Roll back sprawl development while vigorously restoring nature and agriculture;
- Integrate renewable energy systems while using non-toxic materials and technologies and promoting recycling.
Which he follows immediately by pointing out the major obstacles to achieving this dream:
A major difficulty in moving toward ecocities is that cars have influenced urban design for 100 years. Many of us caught in this infrastructure find it extremely difficult to get around in anything but the car. The distances are just too great for bicycles, the densities just too low to allow efficient, affordable transit.
In many ways, I couldn’t agree more with Register’s suggestions, many of which were echoed by Antonio Di Mambro in his recent speech at Boston Public Library. Of course we need to rethink the functionality of the city, to reduce the incessant automobile trips, to improve access for bicycles and pedestrians, and to restore our creeks and aquifers. But as Di Mambro pointed out when he approached the City of Dallas with a Memorandum of Understanding about the development of the South Dallas area, the city council “didn’t speak that kind of language in Texas.” It is good to know that a gradual awakening is taking place. More programs for sustainable development, and sustainable planning are producing graduates who no longer believe that creating endless sprawl is their “job.” Old timers and young’uns alike can relate to the warnings of ecological failure in Chip Ward’s excellent piece, Too Big to Fail.
Even so, I find some aspects of Register’s proposals starkly unrealistic. We should make maps of our cities to identify densification areas and look for creeks to restore? Haven’t we been doing this continuously for decades? There aren’t any more creeks to be found in Boston or Toledo. It is not a question of coming up with a good plan! The problem is total automobile dependence. Pure and simple. Let us define THAT as the problem and attack the sickness at its source. Now that automobile corporations are reeling and staggering from their own inefficiencies, the bicycle – pedestrian – mass transit – urban ecology – alternate energy sectors should deliver a supersonic lightning kick to their balls! All together, now! To hell with those crapulent dinosaurs! Close the blighted factories down right now and retool them to produce modular, super efficient housing components and electric mass transit vehicles. It is not too much to ask for 10% of all city streets be immediately converted into greenways where NO motorized vehicles are allowed. Indeed, that is a very modest proposal. What we should be demanding is the end of this stupid era; an era dominated by energy companies and corporate thieves, who have gone totally beserk with greed. Of course, we need all of our Registers and Di Mambros, advocating the intelligent alternative…but we also need to get people out of their stinking hell-buckets on wheels, and get them back into touch with Mother Earth. Until we get people onto bicycle / pedestrian trails that connect with mass transit, all of these eminent plans are wishful thinking.
Isn’t it shameful that we must look back fifty years to Mumford and Jacobs for good ideas, or back to the garden city of the 30s! Instead of dealing with the core problem – the gas burning demon – we sit wistfully thinking about how things might have been. The fact is that we are living in Ballard’s High Rise, and breaking down on his Concrete Island, and we are stuck up Kunstler’s cul-de-sac… the city has been designed by Mister X, and has unfurled itself into a psychetecture that we apparently can neither break nor escape. The only way out of this is to trade in the car (a $4,000 per year albatross around our necks) for shiny new hybrid bikes ($400, and they last forever with minor repairs you can do yourself!). Be a mensch, join the Carfree Network, and demand 10% Now!