ities don’t ask you to change how you see the world. To live in a city, you don’t have to become a nature lover or activist, cut your consumption of plastic junk from Wal-Mart, create less waste, have fewer children, or eat less meat. But chances are, the cities themselves will transform you.
That’s because the greenest places to live in the world are extremely dense cities, such as Vancouver and New York City. As author David Owen (Green Metropolis) points out, however, it’s not that the people living there are inherently greener—it’s because density is its own reward. When you live in stacked apartments, each unit below heats part of the unit above. When your space is smaller, you collect less furniture and “stuff” to fill the void. And perhaps most importantly, when you’re close to stores, schools, restaurants and hair salons, you tend to drive less and walk more. Put simply, you use less of everything.
Our views about eco-friendly development patterns (my own included) have become outdated and now appear completely upside down. In advocating single-family housing—in the ‘burbs or rural countryside—albeit net-zero or better, we may be handing out fluorescent light bulbs on the deck of the Titanic.
With the population headed for more than 9 billion by 2050, the stress on biodiversity, climate change and resource shifts will make such lifestyle choices increasingly difficult to rationalize.
Yet in the U.S. especially, where resource use per person dwarfs that of most of the rest of the world, urging people to reduce consumption is heresy. The party continues, despite ever more dire warnings about climate change, drought, the percolating dangers of global inequality and so on.
Here’s where cities come in. They offer a choice that is by design more sustainable than the suburban narrative of the 1950s that still dominates U.S. policy and planning. People in cities consume less, because of where and how they live, not because they occupy the moral high ground.
How Much Less? Researchers have put some figures on the consumption impact of urban living. The starting point is usually density. Owen notes that residents of New York, living at a density of 26,403 people per square mile, have rates of C02 emission (per capita) that are 71 percent lower than the national average. But current zoning laws in most of the U.S. actually preclude the kind of mixed-use zoning found in New York. This is a problem. Without such high-density “congregation,” population growth will be increasingly burdensome. If the residents of New York City spread out the way people in Vermont do, Owen notes, every acre of land in the northern six states would be part of a gigantic suburb.
The Happiness Agenda
To accelerate the in-migration to cities, we first must make them incredible places to live for all ages, all income levels, all cultural backgrounds. That’s not as daunting a task as it sounds. We have decades of research about what works, and what doesn’t.
The biggest hurdle to making cities great places to live, says author Charles Montgomery (Happy City) is balancing two human needs: proximity and isolation.
“In some ways, our needs are at war with each other. We need the nourishing, helping warmth of other people, but we also need the healing touch of nature. We need to connect, but we also need to retreat.”—Charles Montgomery
“In some ways, our needs are at war with each other,” he says. “We need the nourishing, helping warmth of other people, but we also need the healing touch of nature. We need to connect, but we also need to retreat.”
Also, there are the lingering negative stereotypes that cities carry for many Americans, including traffic gridlock, high crime rates, pollution, lack of privacy and separation from nature. But as Owen and other urban evangelists explain it, almost all of these stereotypes have, in the modern city, become far less significant. In fact, many of the drawbacks attached to cities should really be applied to suburbs.
For example, the chance of being killed in the ‘burbs is far higher than in the city, due to speeding automobiles. And people generally get a lot more exercise in cities than out on the fringe because they walk more. That sounds like a small thing, but studies have found that people in the ‘burbs tend to weigh, on average, 10 pounds more than urbanites. City folk generally live healthier, longer lives, while demanding less of the Earth.
But the research on what makes “happy” cities all points to one main perk: social connectivity. As Montgomery notes, this is where cities really shine, because we live in an age of increasing isolation. Surveys show that most of us can name only one or two people with whom we can confide closely. Just 30 years ago, people had three or four such close connections, and before that, deeper community involvement and a social network far more personal than any number of Facebook friends.
But Happy City makes an important and ultimately optimistic point. We didn’t reach this level of isolation and anti-urban bias by accident. It was designed into the infrastructure of our lives, in the form of ever-widening suburban living arrangements. It was based on ideas—put forth by iconic visionaries such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Henry Ford, who could hardly have foreseen a world of 9 billion people dispersed across the planet’s land mass. But if those ideas changed the world in a few short decades, why can’t new ideas change it again—for the better?
So what makes a good city? If we expect people to want to move closer—to accept and embrace urban lifestyles, Montgomery says, we have to recognize that there’s an underlying push and pull that has to be addressed.
Architects of the past—from Frank Lloyd Wright to Le Corbusier—created radically different ideas of what a utopian city should look like. But the age of the lone genius has given way to an era of research and social inquiry. Wright was fully invested in the idea of spreading out as the path to healthy lifestyles.
The idea of isolated vertical living, for example, as important as that is to achieving the necessary density to support transit and other urban features, holds little appeal for many people. It’s simply trading one form of isolation—automobile-dependent subdivisions in sprawling suburbs—with neighbors who never see each other, locked away in high-rise apartments.
But even that problem is one that can be improved with good design. For example, one successful way to add density is to create “staggered” elevations. This technique not only allows more sunlight into more units, but opens up outdoor living areas and connects units above and below (wave to the people on the patio).
The psychological nuances that breathe life into a city are often surprising. In Vancouver, for example, the importance of the “view” can’t be overstated, and planners have gone to great lengths to adjust building profiles and heights to protect that view.
On the other hand, urban engineering that is based on assumptions—not research—can backfire. In Toronto, for example, the new mayor removed some bike lanes from a major street to make commuting easier for cars. But the number of vehicles commuting remained about the same, and collisions between vehicles on the road rose significantly.
Transit: Multiple Choice
Attempts to radically change transit to one mode above all others have notoriously created unforeseen problems. The auto-dependent vision of the 1939 World’s Fair, for example, is still widely emulated today.
It emphasized high-speed auto thruways surrounded by towering buildings. But those wide streets proved dangerous, and nearly impassable. There’s a great scene in the movie Bowfinger, where Eddie Murphy tries to cross one of these modern freeways, at hilarious peril to his life.
The 16-Minute Rule
For commuting to and from work, special limits apply.
American Gridlock. Darker areas indicate longer commute times. Few regions of the country can brag of lifestyles that are auto independent.
A study by the UK’s Office of National Statistics recently put commuting to work in a new light. What it found is that virtually any type of commuting—including bicycles and walking—makes people less happy. They would rather work at home.
Research by Patricia Mokhtarian reinforces the idea that the destination of travel affects how people feel about it. And when it comes to mobility, feelings dictate behavior. Mokhtarian found that for people in the San Francisco area, 16 minutes is the magic number. That’s the length of time people are willing to spend commuting between work and home.
After that period, unhappiness increases steadily. Sixteen minutes apparently plays out psychologically like a heroic journey. Drivers feel pleased that they have endured the stress and mental demands of driving for that time, so that they can feel the satisfaction of making it home.
The average commute time for most Americans, however, is closer to 40 minutes.
But as researchers point out, all predictions about future cities that rely on narrow modes of transport—be they underground pneumatic tubes or flying cars—tend to miss the point. The reality is that people want a wide variety of options, based on their lifestyle, age, cultural views and whims. And the basic modes of getting around don’t tend to change much over time. In 100 years, we may still be using some variation of buses, trains, bikes or cars to supplement walking.
Montgomery cites the work of transportation guru Eric Britton, who has studied virtually every angle of how and why people get around. Britton realized by the early 1970s that the key to happy urban residents is something called new mobility. New mobility differs from old mobility in that instead of offering one or two solutions (drive to work or take the subway), people can ride a bike, walk, take a bus, or maybe ride in an automated taxi. It’s about freedom.
One of Britton’s successful activations of that idea was convincing the city of Paris to offer residents a “magic card” that would allow residents to use ANY form of transit with one easy pass. Bus ridership increased by 40 percent the first year the card was issued. “Gradually, the card underwent a series of dynamic upgrades,” Montgomery notes, “evolving by 2008 into the Navigo pass, a chip-embedded ID card. With a wave of your Navigo card over an electronic reader, you can ride any metro, bus, airport shuttle, regional train, express train or tram in the city.”
More is better—which may explain why New York City, at 26,400 people per square mile, has a packed transit system.
Nature: Just Enough
We’re all familiar with the term “concrete jungle.” Architects have long recognized that cities need green space to improve livability. But the science of city greening has become far more sophisticated, and what sociologists tell us is quite shocking. Surprisingly little may be enough to fulfill our need for contact with nature. We don’t necessarily need eco-tourism trips to the jungles of Peru to retain our mental health. In fact, even a photo of nature helps.
As Montgomery discovered in his research, the performance and satisfaction of prison guards in one study improved dramatically when a nature mural was hung in their workplace. Patients have said they experience less pain if they have a nature scene to look at, and visitors passing a brick wall with vines growing up its side reported feeling happier because of it.
Tiny vehicles that encourage urban transit riders to become drivers may do more harm than good environmentally.
We’ve all seen the new Smart Fortwo personal vehicles in U.S. cities—more popular every day.
But as author David Owen points out, we have to look at the bigger picture. When urbanites see these vehicles, they see a vehicle that could solve the problem of city parking.
If they normally use transit, however, they help create the critical mass that makes mass transit efficient. As a personal automobile owner, they’ve actually become a bigger environmental drain.
Anecdotes like these provide hints for urban planners and developers. People need to encounter nature at regular intervals, as they walk through a city. Urban life is stimulating—and we need stimulation, but we also need nature to break us out of that aroused state and allow our brains to recharge. In other words, our “natural” state as human beings is to strike a balance between arousal and relaxation.
That’s why creating giant centralized parks is not always the best green choice for a city. Large green spaces such as Central Park in New York can actually go awry, because they create artificial borders between residents. Citing The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, Owen notes that “large urban parks, including Central Park, have many of the same drawbacks that sprawling suburbs do: they insert so much space between individuals and uses that they actually inhibit many of the activities they are intended to encourage.”
Montgomery elaborates on the Central Park example. He says the park is not the problem. The problem is that it’s not integrated into the daily life of residents. It’s a separate place they may not visit or see for days at a time.
One thing every developer understands gets a major thumbs-up from researchers: the “view.” People need to see natural landscapes. Just seeing the ocean, mountains and forests is good for the psyche. One way to approach that in a dense, vertical city: designing staggered buildings (as noted above) and the careful use of glass, protecting important views. Vancouver has mastered this approach, if you’re looking for an example.
Humans have shown an affinity for views that include open grasslands and sparse tree cover (the suburban home with a big lawn is a microcosm of this idea) but what we think we want isn’t actually what we “need” to create positive physiological effects in our bodies. Instead, our minds crave “biological complexity,”—a wide range of plant species, colors, heights and settings—not manicured parks. GB