Parking Lots to Parks: Designing Livable Cities

We should design cities for people, not for cars. Environmentalist Lester R. Brown discusses the city planning philosophy of “new urbanism” and how it can address the environmental challenges facing heavily populated cities.


| May 28, 2010



Empty parking lot

“New urbanism” is a planning philosophy that environmentalist Francesca Lyman says “seeks to revive the traditional city planning of an era when cities were designed around human beings instead of automobiles.”


ISTOCKPHOTO/ULES BARNWELL

As I was being driven through Tel Aviv from my hotel to a conference center in 1998, I could not help but note the overwhelming presence of cars and parking lots. It was obvious that Tel Aviv, expanding from a small settlement a half-century ago to a city of some 3 million today, had evolved during the automobile era. It occurred to me that the ratio of parks to parking lots may be the best indicator of the livability of a city — an indication of whether the city is designed for people or for cars.

Tel Aviv is not the world’s only fast-growing city. Urbanization is the second dominant demographic trend of our time, after population growth itself. In 1900, some 150 million people lived in cities. By 2000, it was 2.8 billion people, a 19-fold increase. Now more than half of us live in cities — making humans, for the first time, an urban species.

The world’s cities are facing unprecedented challenges. In Mexico City, Tehran, Kolkata, Bangkok, Beijing and hundreds of other cities, the air is no longer safe to breathe. In some cities, the air is so polluted that breathing is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Respiratory illnesses are rampant. In many places, the number of hours commuters spend sitting in traffic-congested streets and highways climbs higher each year, raising frustration levels.

In response to these conditions, we are seeing the emergence of a new urbanism, a planning philosophy that environmentalist Francesca Lyman says “seeks to revive the traditional city planning of an era when cities were designed around human beings instead of automobiles.” One of the most remarkable modern urban transformations has occurred in Bogotá, Colombia, where Enrique Peñalosa served as mayor for three years. When he took office in 1998 he did not ask how life could be improved for the 30 percent who owned cars, but for the 70 percent — the majority — who did not.

Peñalosa realized that a city with a pleasant environment for children and the elderly would work for everyone. In just a few years, he transformed the quality of urban living. Under his leadership, the city created or renovated 1,200 parks, introduced a highly successful bus-based rapid transit system, built hundreds of kilometers of bicycle paths and pedestrian streets, reduced rush hour traffic by 40 percent, planted 100,000 trees and involved local citizens directly in the improvement of their neighborhoods. In doing this, he created a sense of civic pride among the city’s 8 million residents, making the streets of Bogotá in this strife-torn country safer than those in Washington, D.C.

In espousing this new urban living philosophy, Peñalosa is not alone. Jaime Lerner, when he was mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, pioneered the design and adoption of an alternative transportation system that is inexpensive and commuter-friendly. Since 1974, Curitiba’s transportation system has been totally restructured. Although 60 percent of the people own cars, busing, biking and walking account for 80 percent of all trips in the city.





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