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.
Isn’t it interesting that every time that the price of gasoline increases at the pump there are many that become indignant. We are told that there are 5 years worth of oil under the arctic, 50 years off-shore in deep water, even 400 years beneath the Rockies! Of course it is there for OUR taking and we should pull it up and burn it! Never mind the next generation, let alone the next millennium.
Our choice is simple. Re-create our civilization to run on solar energy – to return carbon to 350 parts per million, or be remembered by historians as selfish barbarians that imperiled the planet because we had to drive the two blocks to buy lottery tickets.02.28.11
Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability [Riverhead Books, 2009], by journalist David Owen
An inspiring and provocative case for urbanism.07.12.10
In the past few weeks, two historic events have occurred in downtown Kent that point to our sustainable future; the annual Kent Heritage Festival and the visit of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to sign an agreement for PARTA’s multi-modal center.
At the Heritage Festival, several blocks of Main and Water Streets are closed down for an entire day and thousands of people come downtown to enjoy live music, fairgrounds food, restaurants and stores, arts and crafts, kid’s activities, and even historic train rides.
The new Multi-Modal center, envisioned by the PARTA board nearly 20 years ago, promises, in the words of Secretary Hood, to have a ‘transformational’ affect on transit service for our county, the city of Kent, and Kent State University.
The Heritage Festival confirms, every year, that if people want to come downtown, parking isn’t an issue. Indeed every year the city closes down hundreds of parking spaces yet tens of thousands manage to show up and wait in the hot sun to buy elephant ears!
The Multi-Modal Center will allow easy access of people into downtown Kent without automobiles and can, if we chose to, free up valuable real estate for creating a habitable and desirable downtown.
At the Heritage festival, the willingness of people to stand in line to take a five mile ride on a slow train, reminds us of “the good old days” when most visitors and college students arrived at the Erie Depot, now a destination themed restaurant, and took a taxi to the campus. There are many that envision the day when the multi-modal center with buses, and even a new high speed train network, will perform that same function.
The multi-modal center has 100 parking spaces, to which developers believe we need to add hundreds more by deferring tax income to pay for them. (Through Tax Increment Financing) What people are forgetting is that with the multi-modal parking, we will already have 550 spaces in downtown that are mostly paid for by the public. We give most of this parking away, rent free, and as a result, discount the value of transit service to the point that most people don’t bother to use it. We forget the lesson of the Heritage festival;people find a way to get downtown if it is worth coming to.
Of course, as everyone that studies cities or has lived in one knows, it is a densely developed, transit-oriented, multi-storied, pedestrian friendly, mixed-use downtown with well designed green spaces that will draw businesses and residences as well as commerce. Such cities are also necessary for our future prosperity, as articulated most succinctly by David Owens in “Green Metropolis”, “the future of humanity will be predominantly urban. From an environmental point of view, we need to apply ourselves to making city life appealing and life-enhancing, not wishing that doing so were unnecessary.” (p201)
Compact, dense cities are the only way to a sustainable world because they allow us to live smaller, closer and drive less.
The multi-modal center will provide us with the ability to return our downtown to its heritage as a “transit oriented development, ” (TOD) which historically was accessed by train and interurban. Growing communities across the nation are creating TOD’s because they understand that the quality of life, cost of living and use of resources point to a future of pedestrian and bicycle friendly communities tied together by transit and served by regional farmland. The ecological imperative is that we use this historic moment to build on our historic downtowns to create core neighborhoods in Kent, Ravenna and other village centers that will use less energy, create less pollution, and be places where people of all mobility’s may live independently.
Our work, as the citizens of Portage County, is to demonstrate our gratitude to the people of the United States for their vote of confidence that we will use their investment well. Instead of building even more parking that consumes valuable real estate, we need to allocate our existing parking to those who really need it. This will include market-based pricing to cover the real cost of the spaces and discourage wasteful use of our existing multi-million dollar on street parking public asset. Indeed, there are nearly 500 private parking spaces in downtown Kent that all were once productive building lots, and can be again if we can create a transit future.
Will those of us who live within ¾ of a mile of a transit stop (which is most of Kent and Ravenna) walk or ride buses if the full cost of parking is assessed? Those who live within a mile and half off downtown or a bus stop can bike, or bike and ride, and we will, especially as parking lots are turned into productive stores, restaurants, offices, mini parks and residences.
I share the skepticism of some that our multimodal center will become just another dirty downtown bus station, frequented only by those too poor or disabled to be able to drive a car and subsidized by tax dollars. The only way to keep this from happening is to follow the lead of some of my friends from Franklin Township who rolled their sleeves up to make the Heritage Festival a success. They “owned” our downtown and understand its importance to the life of our community. They were willing to sacrifice their leisure to make it better for a day, and show case its wonders to all who would come. Are we likewise willing to embrace a vision for downtown that means we might need to give up convenience for conviviality, free parking for freedom from our addiction to gasoline? We have our Heritage, and the people of the United States, waiting to see what we will do.02.28.10
Phillip Morris’ column on speed enforcement (Friday 16, 2010 Cleveland Plain Dealer) reflects our oil- stained reality in which the unfettered flow and access of the automobile takes precedence over all else in our lives..
As a former city councilman I am aware that everyone is concerned about speeding on their street, and that there are never enough police to even begin to enforce speeding laws, so other means are required. My parents taught me that you are breaking the law, whether or not someone is there to see you do it. Mr. Morris and others opposed to red light and speeding cameras seem to be promoting that a driver’s license is a license to speed unless there is a traffic cop there to personally witness their infraction!
Shouldn’t it be enough for us to know that pedestrian survival rate in collision with a vehicle is 95% for 20MPH, 60% at 30 MPH and 20% at 40MPH? You don’t like it when someone speeds on your street, so don’t do it on someone else’s.
120 Portage Street
Kent, Ohio 44240