Since my earliest days I have been intrigued by the question: “will we ever take a rational approach to the role of the automobile in the city?” If we do, will we ever find a way to design a city without automobiles?
Fortunately we know a lot about what the city of the future, the city without the automobile, will look like. This is because the city of the future will look a lot like the streetcar cities of the late 19th century, except without the horses, as they will be replaced by bicycles and other human powered vehicles.
The challenge of course is finding a way to re- design our cities, in every sense of the word design, that have for several generations been built around the spacial needs of the automobile, instead of humanity.
To some, this idea is preposterous. 20 years ago, inspired by the 2nd international conference on the auto-free city, I spent a few hours reconsidering what the late 19th century downtown of Kent, Ohio will look like in the post automotive era. To some, including the mayor, this idea was not just provocative, it was absurd. My response then, as it is now, was that the real absurdity is to put convenience of a few before the needs of many, and indeed the future prosperity of the planet and its people. In the interim, of-course, we have learned that climate change, mostly created by the burning of fossil fuels, requires us to make changes to the way we live, govern and do business. The challenge of course is that our problem is not technological (as in designing more efficient vehicles), but as our former president, George W. Bush, a Texas oil man, was willing to admit …psychological and and sociological. An addiction not to oil, as he said, but to auto-driven vagrancy. The changes therefore have to do mostly with our relationships to each other and the planet, to the way we use space,time and because those, energy, each being integral to the other.
We know how to create human-centered convivial places where people can live most of their lives within a few miles of their and upon the resource base of their home region. Traditional societies around the world have done this, even in post industrial times. Subsistence economies always do this, but the modern, globally integrated society, built on financially cheap but ecologically costly energy have long lost the geographical imperative of living at home in our regions. The automobile, while manufactured within our region, has severed our tie to place and unsustainably un-tethered us from our region. It has reduced the natural influence of geography by creating the illusion of speed, without factoring the time and resources invested in return for that speed. As Ivan Illich famously pointed out in his seminal Energy and Equity, when the time and money of maintenance of the automobile and its infrastructure is examined, our net Miles Per Hour is actually no better than walking. Unfortunately, it comes at a great social, ecological and economic cost. Building walkable, and as a bridge to walkable, bicycle-friendly, communities, is our way to sustainable prosperity.
Part of our challenge of course is making a paradigm shift from the modern-industrial consumptive economy to an economy based on conservation, the preservation of the planet and its people. We have so separated consumption from production that until that idea is over turned, we will further imperil our planet.
MORAL IMPERATIVES FOR HUMAN SCALED DESIGN
As an architect who happens to be a Christian, I consider it my solemn moral and dare I say, sacred, duty to speak out in favor of the human-centered redesign of our settlements. Earlier I mentioned design, “in every sense of the word”, because the creation of the places we work, live, play and are buried are ” designed” not just by architects and urban designers, but by businesses, elected officials, energy companies, consumers, engineers, and the geographical settings that constrain development. Indeed, the development and “design” of our communities and regions is driven more by investments in infrastructure and real estate than by the rational evaluation of the costs and benefits by architects, designers, urban and regional planners.
The question that I am asking now, and will pursue with a series of essays is,” can we design a sustainable future?”, and can we put the automobile in its place, in the dustbin of bad inventions.