Authors Andres Duany and Jeff Speck, renowned city planners who brought the issue of suburban sprawl to the forefront of the national debate, have come together again with The Smart Growth Manual, which details the path to creating better, greener and environmentally-friendly communities.
CleanTechies caught up with Speck for three questions on better living through planning.
CleanTechies: When you hear the term smart growth, what does it mean to you?
Jeff Speck: It’s the opposite of sprawl. And sprawl is identified as growth that spreads out at low density, separates uses and relies on automotive transportation and has a concomitant disinvestment in city centers. So smart growth is the attempt to reverse those trends, or to continue the momentum that’s already been begun toward reversing those trends.
I have a specific message for CleanTechies: Sustainability is about systems. Unless we approach our footprint systematically, we’re just kind of nibbling around the edges. And I think almost all of the gizmo green solutions to climate change and post-peak oil challenges are nibbling around the edges without getting to the meat of the problem.
The meat of the problem is the American middle class lifestyle. You can change all the light-bulbs in your house and then multiply that by 50 (to compare with) the difference that you would make by moving from an outer-ring suburb to an inner-ring suburb in terms of your individual carbon footprint. And I think it’s very easy to point to, “Oh, I’ve got solar panels on my house. I’ve got a solar hot water heater.” Very easy to say those things, but the impact of those gizmos is statistically insignificant compared to the impact of where you choose to live and whether you can live with one less car per family and whether you can actually make the choice to walk, bike, take transit.
For so many Americans, they find themselves living in places often not by their own choice, because they didn’t have the choice or couldn’t afford the choice – but they find themselves living in areas where they are burdened with constant automobility. And the automobile has become – it’s no longer an instrument of freedom, it’s a prosthetic device that they need to lead a viable life. And that’s the fault of the planners. Some would say it’s the fault of the planners screwing up. Some would say it’s the fault of the powers-that-be not letting planners do their job. Certainly now the planning profession has it all figured out and is advocating for the right things. But the infrastructure of laws and established practices that are in place make it illegal and unusual to build alternatives to sprawl.
CleanTechies: What are the steps that can reverse this trend? Clearly, people live far away from city centers in a good majority of America. What can we do to bring (smart planning) into reality?
Jeff Speck: I think so much of the smart growth manual deals with the neighborhood level. Because if we don’t get the neighborhood right, then you don’t have the sort of environment in which people will make the choice to walk. Transit will never become the mode of choice if it doesn’t begin and end with a pleasant walk. Because every transit ride begins with a walk. The question is, is that walk useful and comfortable? The key element that I’m bringing up first that’s often ignored in the discussion and is really the contribution of the new urbanists to the smart growth movement is that neighborhood design has to encourage walkability. I’m naming that first since it’s the most often forgotten.
The other parts of the puzzle are replacing roadway subsidy with transit investment. A big step. And as a sub-set to that, I would say stop building highways. Increased lanes and new highways have never stopped congestion and they never will. It’s like loosening your belt to cure obesity. We talk in the book that statistics show that when you build a new road, it ends up choked with people who wouldn’t have driven otherwise. They move further out and adjust their habits and they choke the road. The other half of that is if we have a transit system that have pleasant, well-run transit systems, that becomes a mode of choice and it no longer has to struggle to attract the amount of ridership that makes a difference.
Thirdly, there are a whole bunch of laws that need to be removed in communities that prohibit all the things that make for real neighborhood. Those include laws against mixing uses and laws against high-density housing and laws regarding the design of thoroughfares. Street design right now, we’re designing streets for the highway manual. If you want to design streets that comfortable for pedestrians, they can’t be designed for highway speed. And currently it’s a highway manual that most engineers use to design city streets. So that’s part of the rules that need some change.
CleanTechies: Who are the forces against these plans?
Jeff Speck: Most of it is just established practices, so it’s not a conspiracy. The whole landscape of construction, finance and governance in the U.S. has evolved around the sprawl model in the last 50 years. The typical developer only knows how to build one thing. So guys do malls and guys do apartments or they do luxury apartments or medical office buildings or housing subdivisions. But they’ve developed specialties and most are not comfortable thinking about making towns or villages or neighborhoods.
Secondarily, our vaunted financial system for funding construction, the whole model of repackaging mortgages is that it’s very hard to finance something which is mixed-use. So there are financial institutions that bundle strip centers and single family homes. But no one’s really bundling mixed-use development, so the whole system of finance is arrayed against mixed use.
The biggest impediment are all the rules on the books in cities that are either directly or indirectly prohibitive of mixed-use and density. There are a few people and organizations that benefit tremendously from the status quo and those are principally automakers, highway builders and fuel companies.
The Smart Growth Manual (Paperback) by Andres Duany, Jeff Speck and Mike Lydon (McGraw-Hill Professional; 1 edition): October 15, 2009. Buy from Amazon.