Sunday, September 23, 2007

Green Urbanism: Chapter 2

Chapter 2 recounts concepts of land use by identifying why European cities have experienced and embraced patterns of urban design that promote concepts of sustainability. Author, Timothy Beatley, gives a both clear and thoughtful account of the historical reasons for Europe’s urban development, and contrasts its development with that of the United States. His points about why European and American cities have experienced the type of development that they have are well structured and enjoyable to read.

One concept where I felt that Beatley could have done a better job was in his lack of emphasis on the history of European cities compared to their American counterparts. In this vein, there are two areas that I felt got short-shifted a bit in his analysis. The first is the fact that many modern European cities are more sustainable because… they have sustained over a greater period of time. They are, by example of their successful existence, sustainable. We like to think that our concepts of modern sustainability are unique to our time period, but in fact many concepts have been around for decades and even centuries. Concepts of transportation, convenience of urban density and energy distribution have all helped to shape European cities for a century or more. European cities that have not been able to adapt to social, political and technological change have faded, or become successful and over time declined. American cities have faced many fewer tests, and perhaps haven’t been thinned out. The second point is that many American cities, and especially those in the west, have grown up in the era of the automobile. Though this is mentioned by the author its importance can’t be understated from an urban design standpoint.

Consider the auto-centric development of the American city. Boston, for example, has recently attempted to rectify its condition of having a major traffic artery running right through the center of its downtown. The result was the largest federally funded public works project of its kind (in $’s). It took fourteen billion dollars to essentially bury the highway beneath the city and reintroduce the downtown to Boston’s waterfront. Ironically, the event that caused this dissection of the city by placing a giant raised highway right down the middle of the city happened in the 1950’s in a city that to that point shared more in common with its European counterparts than most American cities gaining prominence at the time. Nonetheless, the issue of undoing the auto-centric infrastructure in American cities is no small matter, and the costs of doing so will be enormous.

At the end of the chapter, Beatley suggests ways in which America can improve its urban planning direction, and adapt more sustainable practices. I think that many of his points are good, but I believe that the amount of work required to make a substantial change will take one of two things, a lot of money (see Boston’s Big Dig) or a lot of time and commitment. The undoing or even modification of the auto-centric architecture is an enormous process. Beatley uses the example of Portland as a city that has had some measure of success when it comes to concentrating development in the downtown area. He then cites the reasons why. Each and every one of the reasons involves a cost of greater regulation. This notion is not one that sits well with many Americans, and is and will continue to be a large impediment when attempting to direct urban redevelopment towards sustainability.

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