Michael E. Arth on the Future of Sustainable Cities

March 17 2008 / by Venessa Posavec
Category: Transportation   Year: General   Rating: 7

As the human population grows, people are either forced to live further and further from the workplace, or to pay a handsome price for the luxury of location. The resulting sprawl has had a devastating effect on the landscape and eco-systems. Pollution associated with requisite transportation is destroying the environment. Rising energy costs are driving up the cost of living. Longer commutes lessen the hours in a day we can allocate to productivity or leisure.

How can we create cities and towns that can accommodate a community’s economic needs, while improving the general quality of life? This is a question that urban planners, like Michael E. Arth, must ask and answer to the best of their abilities when designing or retrofitting cities to best suit our changing lifestyles.

We spoke with Arth, founder of the urban planning theory of New Pedestrianism, about what the city of the future might look like. His theory, a spinoff of New Urbanism, addresses the social and environmental problems associated with suburban sprawl by creating an urban design plan that places sustainability, beauty, and functionality at its forefront.

“New Pedestrianism is an urban design movement that is a more ecological and pedestrian-oriented branch of New Urbanism. New Urbanism revives and expands upon the old urbanism that was common before WWII, while New Pedestrianism is a reiteration of experiments with more pedestrian-oriented towns and neighborhoods that have been tried over the years,” explained Arth, “In new and old urbanism you have streets in front and an alley in the rear. With New Pedestrianism the alley is replaced with an attractive tree lined street and the street in front is replaced with a car free pedestrian/bike lane. A mixed-use village or neighborhood center is within walking distance with higher density toward the center. Aesthetics and quality of life are very important.”

He envisions smaller communities he calls Pedestrian Villages, which are built to encourage walking, biking, and other alternative means of transportation instead of automobiles. The neighborhoods are intended to break our dependency on vehicles, and therefore oil, and instead focus on integrating alternative energies to increase sustainability.

According to Arth, the idea is catching on “especially since more and more people are noticing the economic, environmental, social, military, and moral consequences of oil and automobile dependency. Also, there is widespread dissatisfaction with our quality of life as it relates to the built environment. The worse things get, the more people seek an alternative.”

But, for some, seeing is believing. So, Arth took on the challenge by buying up 30 houses and businesses in a slum in Deland, Florida. He rebuilt the neighborhood, adding in the aesthetic features of plazas, courtyards, and tree-lined streets. In 2007, he produced a feature length film highlighting his work, which can be viewed here.

While do-able, implementing New Pedestrianism is still, pardon the pun, no walk in the park.

“It’s hard to fix a city that was built badly to begin with,” Arth admitted. “The best way to fix the existing towns is to create sanctuaries within the blocks, either by creating pedestrian lanes at the rear property line, or through demolition and reconstruction where applicable. Then we have to connect those blocks with an alternative network of pedestrian lanes.”

That proposition can get extremely expensive, and in some cases impossible due to zoning laws or building codes.

This has led Arth to offer up an alternative strategy, whixh is “to ring existing cities with a necklace of pedestrian villages that are strung with a network of pedestrian/bike lanes completely separate from the automobile street network.” He explains, “This serves as a greenbelt boundary, and as a place to build for the future. We should rebuild the cities from the inside out and from the outside in.”

Arth’s proposals offer an exciting vision for a environmentally friendly neighborhood of the future, complete with access to amenities and visual old-world charm. We’re already seeing similar offshoots to New Pedestrianism springing up, such as ecovillages and cohousing. As more jobs are able to be done online from a home office, combined with the growth of the green movement, I hope this is a trend that will continue to grow and earn the support of local municipalities all over the globe.

To read the full interview transcript, click here

_Illustration credit to Michael E. Arth

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