Urban Tipping Point: It's High Time That We Put "Vision" Back into Municipal Planning If We Want Sustainable Cities

By Tomalty, Ray | Alternatives Journal, November-December 2009 | Go to article overview

Urban Tipping Point: It's High Time That We Put "Vision" Back into Municipal Planning If We Want Sustainable Cities


Tomalty, Ray, Alternatives Journal


AT THE TURN of the 20th century, cities were at a tipping point. Many people believed that broad social problems, such as poor public health, poverty, widening class divisions and social unrest, were closely linked to the design and (non-)functioning of cities. Visionary urbanists, such as Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright and Thomas Adams, showed how humans could settle in ways that would be in concert with, rather than in opposition to, human aspirations and natural settings. Their prescriptions usually involved some form of decentralization--essentially to thin and air out the city by building garden suburbs or self-sufficient satellite towns in surrounding regions.

Today, we are at another tipping point. Victimized by the decentralization movement's success, our cities have become giant machines that convert vast quantities of fossil fuels into asphalt, air pollution and greenhouse gases. Cheap fuel and the introduction of the automobile gradually pried open the urban hinterlands for waves of suburban development. This process, which began around 1900, picked up speed after the Second World War when it became the dominant form of development throughout Canada and the US. Although profit-seeking developers drove it, planners, whose visionary profession was transformed into a bureaucratic process based on zoning rules and engineering standards, facilitated it. In a few short decades, we used up much of the ancient energy stored in the Earth's crust to fuel our sprawling cities and their auto-based transportation systems.

Many people now see the warming planet, longer commutes, worsening traffic congestion, rising fuel costs and disappearing countryside as signals that the form of urbanization that marked the 20th century was an aberration from which we must now recover, or face dire consequences. As British green-urbanist Herbert Girardet says, "There will be no sustainable world without sustainable cities." Once again, the fate of the world is tied inexorably to the fate of our cities.

Planning with vision

Sustainable-community planning (SCP) is a new movement that is reviving the visionary role of urban planning. It marks an important turn away from conventional planning, which is based on the tacit assumption that current trends (e.g., population-growth, land-consumption and energy-use) can be extrapolated indefinitely into the future. In contrast, SCP asks a simple question: "What kind of community do we really want and how should we realize it?" It raises the radical possibility that in order to preserve the things that most people cherish--a livable environment, a healthy, lifestyle, meaningful employment and a rewarding life--we might have to change how we plan, design and build our cities.

As an international movement, SCP has champions throughout the world. In the US, pioneers include Richard Register, who wrote the 1987 book Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future and organizes the International Ecocity conference. In Canada, William Rees, who helped develop the ecological footprint notion, and Patrick Condon, a well-known landscape architect who led the design of the innovative East Clayton project in Surrey, BC, are closely associated with the SCP movement.

Although every sustainable-community plan is different, they usually strive for similar goals: building a compact urban form that limits sprawl and car use, encouraging transit and active forms of transportation, reducing waste, shifting to green energy, increasing the energy efficiency of buildings, providing local sources of food, preserving community identity and a sense of place, promoting socially inclusive neighbourhoods and generating meaningful, life-supporting employment.

As with all sustainability initiatives, SCP attempts to integrate economic, social and environmental development. Beyond this, SCP does not have associated with it a universally accepted definition. …

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