People need livable communities and a high quality of life. The attractiveness of older
small towns and a scattering of newer developments demonstrate the appeal of certain
characteristics. Lively downtown areas, streets designed for pedestrians as much as autos,
a scale and pattern of development that allows us meet everyday needs by walking, are all
key factors in ensuring cities provide a high quality of life.
The standard style of suburban development since the 1950s produces less livable
communities. Uses are rigorously separated into housing subdivisions, shopping malls, and
business parks, which are then segregated by walls and wide collector streets. Residents
must depend on cars for all their shopping, family and recreational trips. Traffic
congestion is the norm. A sense of community is often lacking.
|Cities that work for people
- People-friendly streets
- A mix of uses in an area
- Provide the benefits of town-like density
- Build on a human scale
- Provide public places, civic amenities
|Development patterns to avoid
- Segregated uses
- Strip commercial
- Buildings surrounded by parking lots
- Office parks
- Ribbons of development into rural areas
We are building sprawling mega-cities that provide this lesser quality
of life, while consuming vast acreages of farmland and wildlife habitat. Fifty years ago,
Los Angeles was a delightful place to live, a sunny city surrounded by stunning mountain
ranges, and the nation's number one agricultural producer. Now it's a vast mega-city
stretching 50 miles in all directions, with commuters driving 50 miles between their job
and affordable housing. Traffic congestion reduces mobility, but lack of public
transportation and scattered services and jobs mandate auto travel.
Air pollution remains a major problem, despite dramatic reductions in individual auto
emissions. Agriculture has all but vanished. Many species and habitats are rare and
imperiled. A variety of fiscal and social problems accompany this sprawl. Inner cities,
and then inner suburbs, decay as growth moves outward like an ever-expanding doughnut.
Peripheral growth incurs tremendous costs for constructing and maintaining infrastructure,
costs which are rarely internalized into the price of new development.
Low density development is particularly expensive: new infrastructure on the edges of
urban areas can cost up to $30,000 a house. Meanwhile, localities cannot afford to
maintain existing infrastructure in older communities. More and more people endure ever
longer commutes between jobs and distant affordable housing. Family and local government
economies suffer. Decisions are made on the basis of short term fiscal needs, rather than
the long-term good of the communities we are building.
People move out of the Los Angeles area, often to get away from these ills and find new
homes with better quality of life. But because we have not learned that sprawling
development causes so many problems, their new locales are on the same path to becoming
A growing number of planners and architects are learning from communities that work.
Leaders like Andres Duany and Peter Calthorpe promote design principles and work with
developers to produce model communities. Here are some of the key principles.
- Mix uses, rather than segregating them. Designs like dwelling units placed
above shops, and streets with a mix of stores offices and housing are a basic feature of
these cities and towns.
- Change street design and relationships of buildings. People-friendly streets
have some common characteristics. They are narrower, lessen the overwhelming presence of
speeding vehicles with trees, parked cars, and traffic calming devices. Shops and
businesses front directly on to sidewalks, while any parking lots lie behind. Houses
present front rooms and verandas, rather than a line of garages, onto the streets.
- Provide the benefits of town like density. Well planned, town like mixed-use
development gives vibrant communities and opportunities for walking on errands. It allows
cost-effective public transit.
- Build on a human scale. "Everything in these coveted neighborhoods is
built on a smaller and therefore more intimate scale" states a 1993 Sacramento Bee
editorial on neighborhoods which work. From narrow streets, to homes pulled closer
together, to lively retail businesses that people walk to, these areas provide areas
provide real communities.
- Provide public places and civic amenities, including small parks, and civic
buildings. A collection of large stores surrounded by parking do not make a 'town
We also need to address two other issues in order to obtain successful communities and
curb suburban sprawl:
- Changes in local ordinances and building codes. 'Under todays zoning
regulations, most of the standard practices of good town planning are against the law'
says James Kunstler in his 1993 book The Geography of Nowhere. This is a major stumbling
bloc. We need a concerted education campaign and the promotion of model ordinances and
zoning regulations that will allow livable communities. In California, the Local
Government Commission does a superb job in promoting the need for change to local
- Firm urban boundaries. There are many schools of thought on urban limit lines,
some claiming that are not an effective way of addressing growth. Urban boundaries are a
natural feature of compact cities, are common in Europe, and are a centerpiece of the
successful Oregon land use planning law. We can combine these boundaries with conservation
or agricultural easements and transfer of development rights programs for lands outside
the outside the urban growth boundaries.
Finally, there are things to avoid. They include ribbon development, strip commercial,
malls with buildings surrounded by parking lots, and office parks.
Change Must be for Real
Unfortunately, these concepts can become buzz-phrases, providing attractive packaging
without the substantive changes. This is reminiscent of those billboards, peddling housing
developments with scenes of oak studded rural valleys, or wildlife-laden ponds. Currently,
the term 'mixed-use' is subject to abuse. Architect Peter Calthorpe provides a guide for
spotting fake 'mixed use' planned communities. They still separate uses into individual
development zones segregated by major arterial roads. They isolate pedestrians from the
street. They use a hierarchy of streets, so causing congestion of feeder routes and
continue to design streets for autos, not people. And they fail to provide effective
The writings and lectures of reformist planners and architects have increased
awareness. California's Local Government Commission educates local officials and promotes
the Ahwahnee Principles for planning communities that work. But still it is largely
business as usual. The 'Beyond Sprawl" report of the Bank of America and others
states the problem. 'Little constituency exists beyond groups of government reformers,
some local government leaders, community groups and conservationists. Political alliances
must be forged between environmentalists, inner-city community advocates, business
leaders, governments experts, farmers and suburbanites.' An essential task for the years
reprinted from Linkages, newsletter of the
Institute for Ecological Health.
Further Reading on Livable Communities
- Carl Abbott et.al. Planning the Oregon Way: A Twenty-year Evaluation. Oregon
State University Press. 1994.
- Randall Arendt. Conservation Design for Subdivisions. Island Press. 203 pp.
- Randall Arendt. Rural by Design. American Planning Association. 440 pp. 1994.
- Bank of America et.al. Beyond Sprawl: New Patterns of Growth to Fit the New
- Peter Calthorpe. The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community and the American
Dream. Princeton Architectural Press. 1993.
- Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Towns and Town-Making Principles.
- James Kunstler. The Geography of Nowhere: the Rise and Decline of America's Man-made
Landscape. Simon and Schuster. 1993.
- Local Government Commission, Sacramento. "Anwahnee Principles" (text and slide
show). 1991 and 1995. http://www.lgc.org
Up to Top | Printer-friendly version of this page