May 26, 2007


Sam Smith

BURIED IN a NY Times update on the ecologically conscious city of Curitiba Brazil is an oft-ignored lesson for environmentalists: don't listen too hard to planners, politicians and business groups about how to improve cities. Few of them are like Curitiba's former mayor Jaime Lerner, an architect and planner who knew well how, and for whom, to use his skills.

Among his projects was an apprenticeship program for kids who didn't want to stay in school, a floodplain used as parkland rather than for flood-endangered construction and municipal sheep to tend the parks and pas their wool on to needy kids.

But his most remarkable project was changing a bus system which had carried only 54,000 passengers a day. Writes Arthur Lubow in the Times:
"That number has ballooned to 2.3 million, in large part because of innovations that permit passengers to board and exit rapidly. In 1992, Lerner and his team established the tubular boarding platforms with fare clerks and turnstiles, so that the mechanisms for paying and boarding are separated, as in a subway. To carry more people at a time, the city introduced flexible-hinged articulated buses that open their doors wide for rapid entry and egress; then, when the buses couldn't cope with the demand, the Lerner team called for bi-articulated buses of 88 feet with two hinges (and a 270-passenger capacity), which Volvo manufactured at Curitiba's request. Comparing the capacities of bus and subway systems, Lerner reels off numbers with a promoter's panache. 'A normal bus in a normal street conducts x passengers a day,' he told me. 'With a dedicated lane, it can transport 2x a day. If you have an articulated bus in a dedicated lane, 2.7x passengers. If you add a boarding tube, you can achieve 3.4x passengers, and if you add double articulated buses, you can have four times as many passengers as a normal bus in a normal street.' He says that with an arrival frequency of 30 seconds, you can transport 36,000 passengers every hour which is about the same load he would have achieved with a subway."
To get a sense of how extraordinary this idea was, Washington's subway, built at huge expense and cost overruns, carries about a third as many passengers each day.

I made few friends when Metro was bring built by arguing that it was a false god. I pointed out that dedicated bus lanes or light rail could produce ten or more times the mileage for the same cost and further that surface transit directly competed with cars as opposed to a subway that mainly competed with preexisting successful bus lines. Besides, many of its new riders would be the result of urban sprawl spawned by the subway itself by creating ever more distant development opportunities at widely spaced stops.

Further, the subway contradicted the urban goal well defined by Toronto planner Terry Fowler: access rather than mobility. The most ecologically sound footprint is that made by our own feet and not by any form of transit.

Less apparent at the time was another major handicap: the subway made it possible for residents, businesses and tourist facilities to leave town which they did in large numbers. Thus, as both an economic and an environmental concept, it fell far short of its promise.

But environmentalists frowned (and still do) on any criticism of Metro. I came to understand that while they understood open space, skies and water well, in cities they tended to rely upon the expertise of those a cynical urban journalist like myself knew were up to no good. After all, from the start, Metro was a land development scheme, not a transit solution.

This naivete has been repeated in recent years by the unquestioning participation of environmentalists in a smart growth movement that, though begun with noble purpose, has been increasingly subverted by development and big business interests. Thus in one Washington neighborhood we find the Sierra Club and other liberals supporting a controversial high rise in a way that never would have occurred even a decade ago. Simply by using the smart growth illusion, the developers have produced enough liberal guilt to change the politics in their favor.

And it's getting worse. In the past few months it has suddenly become respectable to talk about trashing Washington's historic height limit, one of the factors that has made it such a livable city. It's too early to tell whether the Sierra Club and liberals will start to feel guilty about the height limit, too, but if they do, you can kiss the beauty of the capital good bye.

At the heart of the problem is the assumption that density is what matters. In fact, density can be achieved in a lot of different ways other than those sought by the typical high rise developer. But to understand this and deal with it, one most free the debate from the rhetorical grasp of those who see a city's future primarily in economic - rather than ecological or humanistic - terms.

Here again, the NY Times article on Curitba is useful:
"Jorge Wilheim, the Sao Paulo architect who drafted Curitiba¹s master plan in 1965, says: 'When we made the plan, the population was 350,000. We thought in a few years it would reach 500,000. But it has grown much bigger.' The municipality of Curitiba today has 1.8 million people, and the population of the metropolitan region is 3.2 million. 'I know the plan of Curitiba is very famous, and I am the first to enjoy it, but that was in '65,'"
Curitiba has run smack into an issue that in the U.S. is off the table: urban scale. A good idea had become too big.

If you look at the stats it seems beyond our control. In 100 AD the largest city was Rome with 450,000. In 1500 the largest city was Beijing with 672,000. In 1800 the largest city was Beijing with 1.1 million. It was not only 1825 that any city - London - hit 5 million. No city exceeded 10 million until 1925 (New York) and Tokyo became the first city over 20 million in 1965. The global urban population reached 2.9 billion in 2000 and is expected to rise to 5 billion by 2030, according to the United Nations Population Division.

And, as a publication for the International Society for Ecological Economics puts it: "However brilliant its economic star, every city is an entropic black hole drawing on the concentrated material resources and low-entropy production of a vast and scattered hinterland many times the size of the city itself."

The fatalistic assumption many seem to be making is that we are all headed for apartments on the 110th floor.

But the fact is that you could fit the entire population of the U.S. into an area the size of the state of Maine and still have a density two thirds that of my highly livable Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Why is thinking and reality so distant on this issue? In part because the discussion is dominated by those with an economic rather than a social or ecological interest in cities. In part because environmentalists don't understand cities all that well and defer to the former. And in part because environmentalists still don't fully accept human beings as part of the ecological community.

Thus it is enough to support density without looking at what it actually has done to a place like Curitiba or might do the culture of a neighborhood in DC. We don't discuss the fact that density can lead to brutality, atomization and the bureaucratization or corporatization of matters best handled by a community - not to mention increasing damage to the environment as we attempt to make the new monster work efficiently.

Fortunately, we still have time to look at this differently. Obviously, population growth itself has to become more of an issue. But we also need to be more sophisticated about how we look at our urban areas.

A few groups, like Redefining Progress, are already doing this. The World Wildlife Fund has added the resolution of humanitarian crises to its agenda and started measuring the ecological footprint of various French cities. Among the results: the people of Paris require 15 acres to support themselves while the residents of Besancon (population 115,000) require about 2 acres less. Other studies have found that those in Seattle need 55 acres. Other examples: In England, both York and London come in at about 16 acres per capita despite the difference in population. Those in Santa Monica require 21 acres, in Vancouver 13.

The European Environment Agency came up with these average footprint acreages per capita:

Global 5.4
Europe 11.6
Africa 2.7
Asia 3.2
Latin America 4.7
Canada 18.5
U.S. 23.9

Low income countries 2
Middle income countries 4.7
High income countries 15.8

One may argue with the formulas or the specific analyses but the differences are striking enough to show that a lot more than density is involved and that we need to study far more closely what improves a city's ecological status.

What is the ecological impact of different building types? At present the judgment of planners and developers is heavily driven by land values. How do we change that? Could we be using the wrong urban model? One that has been based on planning traditions and economic assumptions? Could Orvieto be a better model than Manhattan? If York is kinder to the planet than Seattle, why?

Is there a size at which cities become environmentally counterproductive? Does it make more sense to add to the density of existing large cities or redesign existing suburbs so they become self-supporting villages with easy accessibility to the services they need? What is the footprint not just of a whole city but of each of its neighborhoods?

We not only don't know the answers, too few are even trying to find out.

As I write this, our mayor and some members of the city council are in Las Vegas attempting to entice major new businesses to set up shop in one of the last predominantly black corners of Washington. The purpose, of course, is economic development. Leaving aside such issues as gentrification and the true economic effect of non-local commercialism outsourcing the income of a neighborhood instead of recycling it, we find once again major changes being made to a city without a single word about the major long term ecological impact of that community. Conventional environmental impact statements are necessary but ultimately the question is not just the quality of the water or whether the eagles survive, but whether the plans make it harder or easier for humans to keep living on this planet.

A good starting point might be to require an ecological footprint analysis of new urban plans. Certainly issues of ecology - both natural and human - need to be raised to the same level in urban planning as present considerations of economics.