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Adventures in Obviousland
By Indy Media /

Car Free Cities in the Big Picture

by Richard Register
Oakland, California

So much that seems obvious from one person's perspective isn't from another’s. For example, cities, towns and villages - the "built environment" or "constructed habitat" – constitutes collectively the largest creation of our species.

Talk about obvious, I came to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1974 – that’s a long time ago. Now observe the changes: Berkeley and Oakland rise up from San Francisco Bay to a ridgeline on the east, and beyond that in those days, it was the wide open spaces interrupted by a farm town here or there until you got to the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains with their small tourist and retiree villages, with skiing, rock climbing, nature photography and other such delights.

The "Great Central Valley" between here and the high mountains was flat farms, hilly rolling ranches, and marshes down by the Sacramento and San Juaquin Rivers. With my kids I used to pick fruit in commercial orchards that were opened on occasion for city slickers to have fun in and experience a little agricultural reality once in a while. Now you look out over that same landscape and what do you see? You know the answer because it’s everywhere – I’ve seen it in Turkey, China, Brazil, Australia, South Africa….

Vast and relentlessly expanding sprawl. Franchise restaurants. Tangles of broad, clogged freeways and interchanges fading into the haze. When I first came to Northern California those thirty years ago, the air was usually clear and above the lazy cows and soaring red tail hawks you could see the snow capped peaks of the distant Sierras.

The biggest thing on the face most of America is sprawl. The biggest news out of China is massive development dense enough that, if mixed up with various of life’s activities close together, would be a promising context for bicycles, transit and pedestrian areas.

What’s with stuffing all those cars in there at the same time? Why not more sensitivity to the kind of traditional fine grained "mixes of land uses" that are everywhere traditional in the pedestrian village and small town and pre-car city centers, including in China? What’s with kicking out all those millions of bicycles? The answer is a car mania as big as America’s if in a very different culture on a far away continent.

With the variety of different arrangements of city structure we see now and can remember from history, why then is it we don’t say, Hey, maybe the whole sprawling thing can be re-designed and rebuilt?

How obvious can you get: that’s exactly what we need to do. Is it just too big to undertake? Answer: in the last 30 years the entire region I live in was rebuilt – if in the wrong direction. Big things happen. Knowing what we know now of ecology, renewable energy technologies, restoration techniques and other very positive actions, we could just DO IT.

Whole systems approach
How to do what we obviously need? That is, design and build cities, towns and villages for pedestrians rather than cars. That is, design and build ecological cities that restore the earth and help create a physical structure for advancing human compassion and creativity.

I don’t have the whole answer of course. Nobody does. But I think two things are very important and can take us a long way in the right direction.

First, the whole systems approach. We need to see the city as a whole, living organism. We have to understand and put to rest forever the misconception that believes in "the better car." The "better" the car the worse the city – and the whole living world.

You don’t want better tumors in your body, more efficiently eating away at your life; you don’t want better cars in the body of your city, more efficiently dissolving its structure out into the energy addicted oblivion of sprawl. Though it’s easy to understand that high-energy efficiency in cars means people can drive farther for less gasoline and money, most people don’t connect that to the sprawl development "better" cars enable.

This is hard to understand if you think of making each separate little part of our world work better. Don’t think like that! It doesn’t work! Ask what the whole system needs and you find out its not "better" cars but better places for people and a healthy environment.

Restoration paired with the better larger buildings and cluster of buildings – call them pedestrian/bicycle/transit centers.

Another example: why not look at the relationship between cities and global warming? The cause and effect lines seem absolutely direct, from the largest things we build to our largest environmental problem. Yet I find precious few environmentalists who want to help clarify the linkages and work on the solutions at the level of the causes of the problem in urban design and planning. The solution of course is largely in making cities car free.

Other things are pretty obvious, though we are obviously oblivious to them. Look at the smog that is one continuous blanket from one side of the US to the other, from France to deep in Russia. Often, out in the middle of the Pacific, from 35,000 feet, looking through all that air to the horizon its whisky brown and not the healthy old sky blue I remember as a child flying over the Atlantic in the 1950s.

That yellow-brown CO2 loaded planetary atmosphere ain’t plankton farts and burps of krill. Consider these big numbers, when people point out that the automobile/truck transportation system is really only responsible for about a quarter of humanity’s energy use – so does that really implicate city form in atmospheric perturbations and climate change? Energy for transportation, however, is not the only kind of energy wasted by the car oriented city, town and village.

The scattering of separate small structures that do not share heating and cooling energy with one another constitute another very large fraction of our energy use. Clustered structures and larger buildings in which people share energy instead of letting the heating and cooling energy escape to the sky after only one use, conserve enormous quantities of energy.

Then with good solar passive design and passive cooling based on use of convection currents in air – warm air rises! Direct it so it cools! – larger buildings with ecological features are a crucial part of the solution.

The holy grail of future architecture and city design, in fact, will prove to be to make such larger buildings integral parts of pedestrian/transit centers with thoroughly pleasurable features like terracing, rooftop gardens and cafes, trellises, vines, trees and bridges between buildings high up in the gorgeous bioregional views.

This way of building will save both transportation energy problems and interior temperature control energy problems at once by way of radical energy conservation. Then what about the energy use that falls into the category of industry? Isn’t automobile manufacture, highway building and the procuring, shipping and cracking of oil into gasoline very energy also one of the major uses of energy?

I probably shouldn’t bring this up when my country is conquering other countries for oil (and intimidating critics at home), but much of what we categorize as industrial energy use is the manufacture of warplanes and bombs for forcing people to supply us with oil. Add it all up and the car/sprawl/freeway/oil infrastructure is… obviously the biggest problem faced by humanity.

I’m glad the folks at Car Busters Magazine are doing something about it. Somebody besides me sees car-free cities as the obvious solution they are. Now to gather those tools and actually build the eco-city…
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Adventures in Obviousland