walkable urban

People can adjust to friendlier streets, fewer cars

If getting automobiles to emit fewer noxious pollutants clears the air and improves the health and well being of the American public, then reducing the number of vehicles overall would make it even better.

Controlling traffic and improving the quality of urban living is the goal of New York City entrepreneur Mark Gorton's Rethinking the Automobile project. Gorton, whose credits include forming almost a half dozen investment firms and other ventures, says what's good for a person -- a safe, slow and not very directional environment -- is not what's good for a car.

And mixing the two has created urban environments that cater to cars and trucks and "hostile for people," he says.

To highlight the car-vs.-people disparity and increase discussion of planning and policy alternatives, Gorton's nonprofit OpenPlans launched a campaign fronted by the Henson-created character Zozo to "protect the spirit and message of Dr. Seuss' acclaimed book 'The Lorax' from crass commercialization."

The medium sends the wrong message

The effort takes aim at a commercial by Mazda promoting its Skyactiv technology engines. Skyactiv, Mazda says, improves performance and reduces emissions through greater compression ratio, improved exhaust and custom piston design. Mazda teamed with Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment on the "Seuss-ified" advertising campaign tied to the release of the animated Lorax movie.

At one point, the ad says Mazda is "Truffula Tree friendly."

That didn't sit well with some. "Theodor Seuss Geisel wouldn't have liked this," comments woodsprout on the youtube post. Other posts call it "drivel" and "disgraceful."

The Lorax makes a pitch

OpenPlans and Zozo are encouraging people to sign a petition urging Mazda and Universal to stop running the ads. "This advertising campaign goes directly against the message and spirit of The Lorax," says Zozo, in prepared remarks. "The Lorax speaks for the trees, not the SUVees!"

The Lorax remains neutral on issue of reducing cars, but he is considered one of the first environmentalists and often is a child's first encounter with the concept of treating nature with respect and tolerance. The character was one of the first non-hippy greenies I encountered as a kid and gave some of the goofy rules my mother espoused some credibility. At least for awhile.

Retiring the Volvo

Mom decided when the Volvo died that cars were costly polluting machines that we could do without. Mom was a trust-fund baby, who embraced the environmental/back-to-nature movement with her entire being. When, sometime in the deep Fairbanks winter of 1971 the mechanic retired our 1964 Volvo Amazon station wagon, we had to hitchhike.

That continued until I started making money and purchasing my own cars. While I can never shake my sincere dislike of hitchhiking, spending all that time on foot gives me an appreciation for Gorton's concept of rethinking urban design and transportation systems. I can also attest that cars are great. I love them. There's nothing worse than walking miles in the middle of nowhere wishing you were anywhere else.

But, certainly, I know what it's like to be a pedestrian. More people ought to get the chance, although I don't encourage ever hitchhiking from Seattle to San Francisco with much of it on Highway 1. Ugh.

Europe is paying attention

I got to bum a bit around Europe in my teens. It was with my perennially adolescent closeted Jewish father, but he was paying. We spent nearly all of one summer on foot. When a bus line ended before our destination, we walked. Once we hoofed it more than 14 miles to an obscure Czech cave and slept in a tiny hotel you'd never find in a car.

The Eastern European cities and towns we visited were designed for foot travelers. We could have been vagabonds chasing down religious sites in the 1300s. Gorton applauds efforts in places like Zurich, Berlin and Copenhagen where policy makers have made pedestrians a priority.

And it's not that difficult. In Old Town Clovis, Calif. where I live, the community comes alive during festivals and every Friday when city officials close Pollaski Avenue. Fridays in summertime is reserved for a farmers' market, street fair and assorted events. It's packed and a great place to rub shoulders with a lot of sweaty Californians, especially when it's 100 degrees or more.

Streetfilms shows how the other half lives

OpenSource's Streetfilms team chronicles benefits of pedestrian, bike and mass transit friendly urban planning across the globe. Some of its most startling mini documentaries show how people have adapted in Bogata, Columbia to Ciclovía, a program that for seven hours every Sunday opens 70 miles of city streets to nothing but biking, walking and general public recreation.

"Two million Colombians use Ciclovía to exercise, de-stress and connect with their neighbors," OpenSource says.

Streetfilms' work is credited with helping inspire Summer Streets in New York City, which during three weekends in August, turns Park Avenue carless, allowing free flow of bikes and people.

Congestion indicates a bad transportation system

OpenSource, which defines itself as a team of 60 transit nerds, journalists and engineers, builds open-source software and offers technical assistance to public agencies on such subjects. It's looking for different approaches to urban living, one not so car-centric.

The approach resembles the sustainable cities movement, which is taking Europe by storm. Hamburg's HafenCity project, which has taken docks and old industrial land in the heart of the German city, epitomizes the trend.

The massive redevelopment project is being engineered to transform 387 acres on the Elbe River into the most energy efficient residential, business and arts sector in the city. Design is compact yet has open space, encouraging living, working and entertainment. The emphasis on sustainable design and its goal to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent in 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 helped Hamburg win the European Commission's European Green Capital Award for 2011.

Sustainability is people friendly

The American Society of Landscape Architects says urban development should be guided by a sustainable planning that promotes interconnected green space, multi-modal transportation systems and mixed-use development. Or that it should be people friendly.

Rethinking the Auto with Mark Gorton from ReThink TheAuto on Vimeo.

Gorton says we've learned a lot about living with the automobile. He says New York City streets reflect its influence with narrower sidewalks, more dangerous crossings and a "damaged human living environment." He says relatively simple policy changes can transform communities.

"People will adjust," Gorton says.

So along with emissions reductions from the average American vehicle, wouldn't it be something to have cities that encouraged mixed-use, pedestrian friendly zones? Certainly pollution would suffer, and the air would improve.

What's not to like?

For those interested in seeing "Dr. Suess' The Lorax," here's a review by David Edelstein for npr.org.

Rethinking urban design can save energy & reduce congestion

Director Robert Zemeckis chose for a quaint town square shadowed by a massive clock tower his iconic DeLorean-powered-by-lightning scene in "Back to the Future."

Such squares give residents the impression of community, allow them to mingle and experience common culture. For the past 70 years, however, that town center has been shoved aside and is experienced undamaged only in communities that have remained relatively intact and development free. Some in New England come to mind.

Now that's beginning to change as designers embrace concepts more familiar to those of the past.

Most cities, Fresno, Calif. especially, have seen their historic town centers marginalized by sprawl and pockets of massive outward-bound commercial construction. In Fresno, the city moved north. Some of its deserted streets in downtown would make great post-apocalyptic movie sets.

Seattle and San Francisco found ways to beat the trend, focusing inward while still experiencing an explosion of suburbia. But their successes are overshadowed by a majority of U.S. cities and towns, whose residents learned to accept longer commutes, parking battles and frustrations that come with congestion.

Michael Freedman, urban planner and founding partner at San Francisco-based Freedman, Tung + Sasaki, spoke of such sprawl and its beginnings at the Smart Valley Places kick-off convention at the Radisson Hotel in Fresno. Then he tore off the veil. Smart Valley Places is a partnership of cities, organizations and regional groups to promote sustainable development in the San Joaquin Valley.

"The market has shifted," Freedman says.

Young people increasingly are gravitating to urban environments, settings made popular on sit-coms like "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "How I Met Your Mother." They don't want the cookie-cutter neighborhood, which almost served as the evil villain in "Edward Scissorhands."

Somehow, Freedman says, developers missed this shift in demand that started in the 1990s, continuing to plunk subdivision after subdivision ever farther from city centers and work places, forcing commuters to endure longer drives, use more energy and spend more money.

Reversing that design mentality would save energy, reduce commutes and cost less. Energy savings alone would be a huge boon. Fewer vehicle miles traveled means huge reductions to greenhouse gas and emissions production.

Freedman gives a history lesson in community design in his presentation, explaining that our current system for designing cities arose from mechanization, industrialization and the assembly-line mentality of the early 20th Century, when Henry Ford pioneered profits by separating tasks and creating worker specialties.

The idea to separate housing, recreation, work and transport caught global fire after the appearance the Athens Charter, a treatise on urban planning by Swiss architect Le Corbusier. It was based on ideas reached by the Fourth Congress of the International Congress of Modern Architects, which took place in 1932 "mostly aboard a passenger boat which steamed from Marseilles, France, to Athens, Greece, and back again," according to clio-online.

"We embraced this," Freedman says. "This was cool. This was modern."

Subdivisions were separated by incomes. "We had business parks," he says. "We had shopping centers, separated by function with miles and miles of pavement ... with miles and miles of utilities."

The current system has fallen apart. Freedman cites Emerging Trends in Real Estate by Price WaterhouseCoopers, which says, "Homeowners slowly will accept that they can live comfortably and more affordably in smaller houses or apartments and gain economies from driving less."

The annual report also says infill areas, or vacant lots, and cities with active neighborhoods and "urbanizing suburban nodes" will become more desirable among aging, baby boomers and their children. "At the same time, fringe suburban subdivisions — long car rides from work, shopping, and recreation amenities — lose some appeal."

Innovation, Freedman says, is the answer and new design must incorporate cluster and density, synergy and mix and public places. Of course, he says, that's exactly the opposite of most existing zoning regulations. "It's a time of tremendous opportunity but also tremendous anxiety," he says.

Photo: "Back to the Future" cake by snoboogie on Flickr.