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The Option of Urbanism
Alex Steffen, 9 Dec 07

I'm in Barcelona, where I delivered a talk on sustainability and the future for the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona's remarkable NOW series, and where Erica and I have stayed on for a working vacation.

Barcelona, people here will tell you, is not only the most vital and stylish city in Spain, but the densest city in Europe. Though I've heard this factoid disputed by people who aren't from here, the fact remains that Barcelona is extremely dense: to wander through much of Barcelona is to walk through mile after mile of narrow streets embraced by beautiful old buildings, fronted by small shops.

But to hang out in Barcelona is also to taste a from of urban livability almost unknown in North America. The locals complain of the nuisances, pollution and cost of living (and it is both dirty and expensive)... while they sit for long hours in some of the best cafes and bars in Europe, eating some of the best food in the world, and surrounded by a city designed to make the street a second living room.

If, as I believe, building much denser cities is the lynchpin to any realistic strategy for building a bright green future, we'll need to learn the lessons Barcelona has to teach, and figure out how to make compact communities more vibrant and fulfilling places to live than the suburban alternative.

Because doing this in North America is no easy trick, I'm eagerly awaiting my review copy of Christopher B. Leinberger's The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream, which my urban development friends say is kicking up real buzz. The basic message: we have already entered an age when the market for walkable urbanism has grown larger than the market for drivable suburbanism, and the main challenge now is building enough compact communities, well enough, fast enough.

You can hear an interview with Leinberger on Carol Coletta's awesome Smart City radio show here.

Here is one of the questions with which I'm struggling: if the unintended consequences of suburban sprawl include auto dependence, social stratification, obesity, loss of farmland and climate change, what might the unintended consequences be of a massive shift towards walkable communities? Gentrification, of course, stands out, but what else might we try to foresee?

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Comments

Great post and insightful questions, Alex, but there's another question that haunts me. Cities, as presently constituted, are systems for producing two outcomes. One is density, with the advantages you cite, but the other is sprawl. That is, sprawl isn't a "side effect" of urbanization, it's a logical consequence of city-systems, as presently structured. So cities currently may be a zero-sum game.

I don't know, but I think a key question is what the boundary of cities should be. Today it's generally rings of diminishing densities and rents: the city as target. But we may need to change to the city as starfish: "fingers" of highly-dense settlement along light rail or other transit, separated by "fingers" of land for green space, nearby agriculture, etc. This comes from a Pattern that Chris Alexander and colleagues described decades ago, called "City-Country Fingers."

One positive consequence of increasing urban density might be the restoration of ecosystem services, and agriculture, to land near and within cities.

I used Google Earth to look at Barcelona and its surroundings - one sees the sprawl there, yet, perhaps more than other cities, glimmerings of the possibility of the kind of settlement I'm advocating.


Posted by: David Foley on 9 Dec 07

I guess the problem is that few cities were designed. Most just happened. And of the few purpose designed cities I’ve visited (Milton Keynes in the UK for example) most were very poor examples of community. Having visited Barcelona I had the feeling that its excellent atmosphere was a result of local cultural circumstances more than anything else. It often seems to me that cities reflect the attitudes of people that live there – London has huge sprawl, mostly because everybody who works there can’t wait to get out at the end of the day. Visit some areas of the city of London on a weekend and they are deserted – what a complete waste of infrastructure.

There used to be a very good blog on this subject at http://sustainablecity.blogspot.com/ written by a gentleman named Patrick who explores all of the angles of sustainable city design. Unfortunately today it seems to be unavailable.


Posted by: Mark @ TalkClimateChange on 10 Dec 07

First of all - I'm an amateur in this field.

I understand David's post. European cities are more dense than american - I live in Stockholm, Sweden and I haven't owned a car in 15 years.

But as mentioned - dense city centres that everyone wants to live in leads to increased costs, which leads to an increased need to find space in the periphery, which leads to sprawl. That's how capitalism works...

The alternative would be to give power to the people we put in charge of these things, the politicians, and let them make a plan for where to build, how and even make sure that there is space for building new centres. Call it big government if you like. But it is obvious that we will commit cultural suicide if we keep letting the market forces be in charge.


Posted by: Daniel vS on 10 Dec 07

Firstly, I'm a European and all though I've read about the American problems it's sometimes hard to get the full picture. It would great if WC could give a comprehensible (for a european)view of the situation.

I myself am also a fan of Barcelona. However, B is prosperous and extraordinarily cosmopolitical for a city of its size. It doesn't face the same problem that most european cities face. The first is the growing museum-fication; the stagnation of cities when conserving architecture and old values overrules new economic and civic realities. The second is how to integrate utopistic mass-housing suburbs/exurbs (mostly found in nordic welfarestates, the eastblock, france, germany). These places are undynamic, poor and segregated, and pose a great challenge in how they are going to be integrated to the wealth and values of modern europe. The third problem is an overregulation of our cities, the politicization of cities when government imposes its view of the good life is just as detoriating for the cityscape as i commercial views.

I sincerly ask you not propone european cities and NOT "starfish cities", the only invert the concept of the american cities. Innercity rich and vibrant and suburbs poor and isolated. I think you really need to think twice about what you're wishing if your proponing european-style cities.


Posted by: Nielsen on 10 Dec 07

(please don't publish this)

Third paragraph:

"But to hang out in Barcelona is also to taste a from of urban livability almost unknown in North America."

Should that be "form"? I don't mean to be a pain, but some naysayers might take that and run with it:)

Happy holidays!


Posted by: Ron on 14 Dec 07

Clearly, from Google Earth central Barcelona appears dense. I'm sure the geography and Metro network were important factors in creatingthis character. However, when you look at the Barcelona region, a more contemporay development pattern is apparent. From Mataro to Castelldefels along the coast there is obvious suburbanization. Similarly, along highway corridors going inland there appears to be subtantial suburbanization.(It's unclear if this is served by commuter rail)Is the Barcelona region so much different, than other regions where household income is sufficient to support at least one automobile? Central Barcelona may fit an urban ideal, but the region is very much in the 21st Century.


Posted by: art on 24 Dec 07

Clearly, from Google Earth central Barcelona appears dense. I'm sure the geography and Metro network were important factors in creatingthis character. However, when you look at the Barcelona region, a more contemporay development pattern is apparent. From Mataro to Castelldefels along the coast there is obvious suburbanization. Similarly, along highway corridors going inland there appears to be subtantial suburbanization.(It's unclear if this is served by commuter rail)Is the Barcelona region so much different, than other regions where household income is sufficient to support at least one automobile? Central Barcelona may fit an urban ideal, but the region is very much in the 21st Century.


Posted by: art on 24 Dec 07

Clearly, from Google Earth central Barcelona appears dense. I'm sure the geography and Metro network were important factors in creatingthis character. However, when you look at the Barcelona region, a more contemporay development pattern is apparent. From Mataro to Castelldefels along the coast there is obvious suburbanization. Similarly, along highway corridors going inland there appears to be subtantial suburbanization.(It's unclear if this is served by commuter rail)Is the Barcelona region so much different, than other regions where household income is sufficient to support at least one automobile? Central Barcelona may fit an urban ideal, but the region is very much in the 21st Century.


Posted by: art on 24 Dec 07



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