I reported a week and a half ago that I’d be giving a workshop at the fourth annual Clucking Blossom festival, on the future of city planning and neighborhoods in Fairbanks after $10-per-gallon gasoline. I’m happy to report that the workshop was well attended, and that my audience gave lots of participation.
Following is a rough outline of the workshop. While I did elicit contributions from those attending, I shouldn’t pretend that this outline represents a major collaborative endeavor. The bulleted lists are where participants’ ideas show most; otherwise, most of the ideas that follow are mine.
In my blog, I’m reluctant to take the “stop driving because it’s economically unsustainable” tack or the “stop driving because it’s hurting the earth” tack, since there are so many other good reasons to pursue walkable cities and public transit. But there’s a sustainability focus at this year’s Clucking Blossom workshops, so I’m using that as my angle here.
Just yesterday, a fellow cyclist and I were waiting at a crosswalk, bemoaning the aches that come from starting riding after a winter (or longer) of inactivity. She said, “At four dollars a gallon, I can live with a sore butt.” She’s just one of many people who are now finding it difficult to live an auto-intensive lifestyle.
Gasoline prices are almost $4 a gallon now, and there’s no reason to expect them to go down. I’ve heard speculation that petroleum will hit $200 a barrel by the end of summer. Soon, driving cars will not be viable for most people. Here we’ll address: How will we have to live, if we want Fairbanks to continue as a city? (Of course, it could devolve into survivalist anarchy, but I’m hoping to keep an outpost of civilization in the Interior.) We want to start a planning document that could ultimately be a tool for the Borough Planning Department or the Assembly.
Bear in mind, I’m not proposing that there will be NO cars in the future, just that our day-to-day use of them will be much diminished. Perhaps most people will not even own cars. There is no reason we need to own cars and other vehicles if we only use them occasionally. There are conventional car rental businesses in most cities. In some larger cities, there are agencies scattered about town that rent cars for very short times — measured in hours. (“Zipcars” is one such business.) Certainly heavy utility vehicles can be rented. Perhaps pickup trucks are rentable in Fairbanks — if not now, they surely could be.
But since car ownership, or car use for day-to-day needs, is becoming unaffordable for many, we need to redesign our cities and neighborhoods to allow for people to meet their daily needs on foot. (I’ve written about the idea of “walking distance” elsewhere. It means, no farther than you’re willing to regularly walk at twenty below.)
HOW WE GOT IN THIS MESS
Here are three cycles of expanding car use. In fact, they work concurrently, but they’re easier to understand if we can tease them apart. These are covered with greater detail in David Engwicht’s book Street Reclaiming (See Further reading).
- We start with walkable, pedestrian-friendly streets and neighborhoods.
- Cars are introduced. At first, they are a novelty and add interest to the street. Naturally, more people want their “convenience”.
- Because the streets are more filled with cars, it feels less safe to walk on the street.
- For their own safety, former walkers now drive.
- Because the streets are more filled with cars, it feels less safe to walk on the street. Et cetera.
- We start with walkable, pedestrian-friendly streets and neighborhoods.
- As more cars are introduced, more space is required to move and house them: wider streets and roads, parking lots, driveways, garages, etc. Engwicht says (and I don’t know where this figure comes from) that cars require 70 times the land that pedestrians do.
- Now towns must be planned more spread out: there must be wider streets and roads, garages, parking lots, et cetera. This pushes every destination farther from every other destination.
- Because of the increased distance people must traverse, more buy cars.
And the last cycle is my favorite. Engwicht says that culture is made up of “exchanges” — that is, social exchanges, cultural exchanges, economic exchanges, romantic exchanges, and such. The genius of cities is that they concentrate those exchanges so that we may have them easily, often without planning or thinking about them. Cities are best thought of as “exchange spaces”.
- In the pedestrian-scaled city, unplanned, convenient exchanges abound. Acquaintances bump into each other on the street; people stop at the corner grocery on their way home from work; friends meet at the local tavern with no advance planning.
- As people and destinations grow farther apart from each other, people’s chances for unplanned exchanges diminish.
- To make up for the lost unplanned exchanges, people need to increase their number of planned exchanges — and to reach these, they must drive.
- The time spent driving and the time spent at places that serve only one purpose reduces the time people have available for unplanned exchanges. (How often do you run into friends while driving?)
- To make up for the lost unplanned exchanges, people drive more.
I think many people actually view the reduction in unplanned exchanges as a virtue. It is rational: every trip serves only the purposes designed by the traveler. You must only spend time in those places, and with those people, that you choose. But for all its rationality, such a life is inefficient.
FUNCTIONS OF CARS
Just what do we do with cars, that we may need to make available to pedestrians? (Some on this list were mine; others were from participants.)
- Commute to work
- Buy groceries
- Make supply purchases
- See friends
- Go to school
- Go to meetings or other civic participation
- Take kids to school, soccer practice, violin lessons, etc.
- Attend church
- Cultural events
- Have dinner with friends
- Quiet, leisure driving
- Put the baby to sleep
- Subsistence: hunting and fishing
- Road trips / travel
- Outdoor recreation (camping, skiing, etc.)
Most participants seemed to agree that most of these things were fully compatible with dignified residential living. (I have put the ones that seemed incompatible, or that will certainly require car use, at the bottom, starting with “Quiet, leisure driving”.) Leisure driving itself might have to be curtailed just because of the price of gas, but there’s no reason neighborhoods couldn’t offer places for quiet, leisurely walks. Somebody pointed out that, while subsistence hunting and fishing required cars for the transport of guns and game, it might be possible to integrate horticulture or small-scale agriculture within the city. (Large-scale agriculture requires too much land and needs to be on the periphery.)
CHALLENGES OF INTEGRATING THESE USES INTO THE CITY
I was going to lead people to this, but somebody hit it straight away: the biggest challenge to having all these in our neighborhoods is population density. Without enough children near a school, it’s not viable to maintain the building. The population of your neighborhood may not be enough to allow you to make many friends — and you can’t expect all your friends to simply move into your neighborhood. Without a sufficient customer base, a business will fail.
So what are some changes in ordinance that will allow us to live closer to each other and to the services we need? Alternately: What now encourages sprawling development and auto-intensive living, and how do we change that?
- Zoning. Currently an area might be zoned for “single-family” use. We’ll need to change this, to allow denser residential living and to allow businesses, schools, banks, hair salons, grocery stores, and light (not heavy) industry to mix with houses and apartments.
- Zoning vertically, not just horizontally. Horizontal zoning spreads people and their needs farther from each other. The land-use mix should encourage ground floors to be inhabited by businesses (and other agencies) that are useful to people’s day-to-day life. Retail and commercial should ideally be on the ground floor, offices on the second floor, and apartments (or condominiums) on the third and fourth floors.
- A tax framework that supports local agriculture. (I don’t remember why this came up, though it seems like a good idea.)
- Protection of local businesses. Outside businesses typically build stores large enough to draw people away from neighborhood businesses, which are exactly what we want. Also, they’re parking-intensive, which means land-intensive, which means they push people farther from each other.
- Distribution of land uses: agriculture, since it’s land-intensive, should not be mixed within the city. Current zoning puts rural uses at odd places within the city.
- Infill, rather than greenfield development, should be encouraged. (Perhaps with tax incentives.) This ties in with setbacks and lot lines, below.
- The cost of services in the city should be brought down. Currently, people perceive that city services are expensive and that it’s cheaper to live outside.
- Required setbacks and lot lines. That is, “Your house has to be 20 feet from the street and ten feet from the neighboring property line” and such. I call these “mandatory lawn laws”, since they require us to have mostly unused land that most people don’t care to maintain. It forces development outward. Instead, this land could be inhabited.
- Tax land rather than buildings. Current practice of taxing land at a rate far less than buildings encourages less useful building and more unused land. Better to encourage people to build densely and build profitably. (I’ve written more on that here.) There’s no reason to think that we’d have to tax every use at the same rate: agriculture is a necessarily land-intensive activity that we might want to support with a lower tax rate.
“WHAT IF I LIKE WHERE I LIVE?”
Often, once you start talking about mixing land uses and encouraging denser living, people think either (a) they’re going to have to move downtown, or (b) their town has to become like Manhattan. Neither is the case. There is no reason to think that the center of the city is the only place for development or the best place for neighborhoods.
To me, it’s obvious that most people will have to live closer to each other and to their day-to-day services. But these neighborhoods can occur some distance from each other. Some will have the full range of services you expect in a city of 90,000; others may enjoy a more spartan way of life. It seems fully possible that a group of people who wish to farm (or otherwise live by leaning a little less on civilization) could live fairly near each other, sharing their produce and other products, and making a supply run to the city only once a week with a shared car.
The solution I’m excited about is transit-centered. One of the attractions of my house is that it’s only three minutes’ walk from the nearest bus stop, and only 15 minutes from the transit station. Our future neighborhoods could be centered on transit stops; my special favorite solution is light rail. It offers a permanence that change bus routes do not. Those who live near a train stop know that public transportation will be within walking distance for the forseeable future. And businesses that locate near train stops know they’ll have a guaranteed customer base getting off the trains and seeing their stores several times an hour. Light-rail stops don’t have to be over-near each other, so there could even be parkland somewhere between them, and they would make great nuclei for neighborhoods.