In a number of comments attached to the various posts thus far on this blog, issues of designing for a sustainable, or green, future have been raised. Today I shall try and dissect what this might mean if we were to start and apply this, not in “new towns” or “new neighbourhoods”, but in the fabric that already exists on the ground.
Principle #1: Deal in Health
A sustainable community begins life by being one that is built around the prospects for health for its residents. This begins, as far as I’m concerned, by removing the emphasis on the automobile. Walking is the foundation of good health.
10,000 steps/day is a maintenance level required, generally, to avoid many of the degenerative diseases, such as Type II Diabetes, Heart Disease, High “bad” Cholesterol, etc. Such is quite within reach when we remember that movement around the office or school, walking to and from lunch, etc. is part of this base.
Steps add up, however, when one walks to/from transit, or around one’s neighbourhood. A standard Manhattan city block, for instance, represents roughly 180 steps (with a step based on “from one foot, to the other foot, back to the first foot (L-R-L or R-L-R)” at around 1.5 m/5 ft each) in the long direction, and 52 steps in the shorter direction (blocks traditionally are rectangles). For a person living four “long” blocks from effective transit service — less than 10 minutes between pickups in either direction, and with an average speed of 25 km/h or better between stops including time spent at the stops — and two “long” blocks to a place of work/schooling at the other end of a daily journey, this basic commute introduces over 2,150 steps/day. Add another 2,000-3,000/day in movement around the office and/or to/from lunch. In other words, neighbourhood amenities need only create rational behaviour leading to another 5,000-6,000 steps to be designed for healthy living.
What, in this term, is “rational”? Consider the length of time it takes to get in a car, move it from its parking space, move it to the destination, find and secure parking at that end: a distance of 400 m, somewhere between three and four blocks, represents 12±2 minutes on foot. Oddly enough, this also represents a typical time of 12±2 minutes behind the wheel, in a neighbourhood with a high street for shopping. Beyond this time frame, the car begins to be “competitive” with the foot traveller, at least on paper.
(I picked these as this represents a pair of journeys I know well, from living in Vancouver: one block off Dunbar St. on W. 27th Ave., to a parking lot stretching back one “short” block at Dunbar St. and W. 30th Ave., also known as “from (then) home to Stong’s Market”. At my stride, this was typically only 10 minutes, including “red light” delays to cross Dunbar St., so 12±2 minutes is certainly favourable to people less mobile than a mid-fifties me. At the same time, traffic levels on the side streets made the delays in coming out of an on-street parking space roughly equivalent to having left a laneway garage.)
That 400 m each way represents another 560±30 steps, depending on my efficiency in the store.
We lived in a neighbourhood in The Hague (The Netherlands) where every 4 blocks or so there was a short shopping strip: a small grocery plus one or two specialty stores (e.g. bakery, deli, barber, dry cleaner, etc.). These neighbourhoods were built on the principles outlined here. 90% of all errands could be handled with a trip to no more than two of these strips. As this pattern was repeated regularly, a round trip of 800-1,000 m was sufficient to meet — on foot — almost all needs. Manhattan is laid out similarly. By regular personal experience, I can also say that in The Hague, Manhattan and in Vancouver, making two or three such trips a day (to handle all packages by hand while not overloading myself as a walker) fit comfortably within the same “time window” used for these errands while living in suburbs (Trumbull, CT and Coquitlam, BC), where using a car to handle the distances involved thanks to the zoning policies barring the mixing of retail and residences was required.
(Living now in Toronto, I live in a similar pattern: 700 m to the subway on foot, 350 m from the subway to the office, with a “90% of needs” shopping district accessible in an 1,000 m trip from a different subway station to home. In other words, in terms of paces and timing (even the shopping return after work fits into 15 mins.) I effectively live in a walking-scale community.)
Neighbourhoods can be constructed around these principles, using the existing street grid and fabric, simply by allowing mixed-use zoning. The construction of 3-4 storey blocks of flats with street-level retail along transit corridors provided needed density to promote frequent service; the retail, in turn, turns at least three long blocks on each side of the transit/retail street into “walking zone” residences. Ensuring the side streets are kept narrow helps hold down auto speeds, making the neighbourhood favourable to walking. On-street (not store lots!: storefronts should be built out to the sidewalks) parking insulates walkers from the cars on the street. (Merchants detest this at first, until they discover that their neighbours are their customers, and still coming: this is the Manhattan experience, where most stores also pickup if appropriate, and generally deliver to make walking and shopping a pleasant experience.)
What about bicycles, you might say? Keep them on the road. Sidewalks are for pedestrians, especially ones loaded with bags. Install, by all means, bicycle locking loops at the sidewalk’s edge.
Service vehicles and delivery vans should be relegated to the service lanes, or to the early morning hours if store front loading zones are to be in use.
Finally, the use of through street blocks — one way streets are not advised, as making a street one way encourages speeding! — periodically converts a neighbourhood full of cross streets into a neighbourhood full of “T”-junctions. These promote slower speeds.
Such simple techniques take us a long way to a more sustainable neighbourhood and to healthier people, at low cost. As you’ve seen, we haven’t yet reached (in this thought experiment) a 10,000 pace/day society. One would hope such a rich set of neighbourhoods would provide further reasons to walk: trips to small theatres, restaurants and the like, trips to the library or community centre, trips to walk the dog in the park. (This, too, is the experience of Manhattan, parts of Toronto and Vancouver, The Hague and other European centres.) It is generally not necessary to actually bar cars: simply making it more sensible to not use the car is enough. The important three points, though are:
- Stop engineering streets for speedy auto traffic, and instead engineer them for walkers, bicycles and transit, with the residual space “left” for cars and trucks. Walkable streets are treed (for shade), have room for outdoor tables (for the pleasure of being there), interesting shops (a function of the density of stores), reasons to go to the neighbourhood (the special amenities that require “larger catchment areas” to make them viable) and have enough people living in them to make transit facilities financially viable on an operating basis.
- Mixed-use zoning is essential: the more opportunities to walk (or cycle a short distance) to work, to shop, etc. the better. This implies the need to insert such facilities, as current single-use zoning systems create long “dead zones” where cars are essential (consider any typical suburb of your choice).
- While focal points (e.g. “T”-junctions) are pleasing places to be and slow traffic, they are not currently “engineered in”. These must be created out of the existing fabric. Keep traffic two-way, but limit the number of lanes (e.g. today’s “six lane” road [four for traffic, two of parking] becomes a pair of parking lanes, a pair of bicycle/transit lanes and a pair of lanes for cars and trucks).
Rather than dream of carbon taxes, tax credits, incentives and regulations, or of massive urban re-engineering schemes, this is a model we know works, know how to move to, and can do inexpensively. What, pray tell, is holding us back?