Tackling Urban Sprawl: New Urbanism and Eco-Towns

City CarbustersCapasCan eco-towns stop the sprawling suburbs? Urban sprawl is a modern phenomenon most prominent in the United States and spreading into parts of Europe, it has many consequences which include the rising carbon emissions from modern consuming habits such private car use.

This article is a selection of excerpts from two recent articles by Bruce Stutz ‘The New Urbanists: Tackling Europe’s Sprawl’ and ‘Britain’s Elusive Eco-Town Dream’. Stutz analyses the debate surrounding ‘eco-town’ developments which many regard as practical solutions for a carfree and carbon-free future, as well as the principles of New Urbanism which are gaining in popularity for urban development.

The Super Sprawl

In the last few decades, urban sprawl, once regarded as largely a US phenomenon, has spread across Europe. Improved transport links – highways designed to accommodate increased freight traffic – have led to American-style intercity corridors built up with new industrial and commercial developments. Auto-centric suburbs with low-density housing tracts and shopping malls have followed, and public transit has not been able to keep pace. Now an emerging group of planners are promoting a new kind of development – mixed-use, low-carbon communities which are pedestrian-friendly and mass-transit-oriented.

A nearly iconic fact of life in the US, urban sprawl had been slow to evolve in Europe. Cities from Luxembourg to Prague, from Madrid to Istanbul, are experiencing accelerating sprawl and its increased automobile traffic, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, energy consumption, land fragmentation, natural resource degradation, watershed damage, farmland decline, and social polarisation –has become a major concern across the continent. Over the last 20 years, the number of kilometres travelled in urban areas will increase 40%, an increase that will negate any expected gains in fuel efficiency, and make reaching Europe’s Kyoto goals of reducing CO2 emissions nearly impossible. In the newest EU countries, those in Eastern Europe that had been communist, the changes have been even drastic. Central planning demanded high-density housing and public transit. With its entry into the EU in 2007, Romania’s economy grew 5.7%, and the year after, 7.5%. This economic development drove residential construction up 29.3% in 2007, and along with it, the number of cars – up 27%.

Enter New Urbanists

For the new urbanists, building an eco-town is not a matter of building ‘green’ buildings. More important is creating places that encourage people to change their unsustainable behaviours and then enable them to do it. New urbanism arose in the 1980s in reaction to the planning and design practices of the preceding decades. The new urbanists sought to integrate all of a town’s functions, blending components to create mixed-use and mixed-income developments, compact and densely populated, where the pedestrian and bicyclist would have priority over the driver. For inspiration they looked back to traditional urban design, especially the close-knit European towns that had thrived for centuries.

European governments – as well as some in India and Asia – have begun turning to them in an effort to forestall further unsustainable growth, reclaim the lost primacy of their cities (along with their sustainable density and scale), and deliver a built environment with a much diminished carbon footprint. There are already some remarkable examples of new urbanism. Works in progress include compact, mixed-use, pedestrian-, bicycle-, and transit-friendly ‘urban extensions’ underway in Amersfoort, the Netherlands; in Hammarby Sjostad outside of Stockholm; and in Adamstown, outside of Dublin.

Eco-towns – Problems and Prospects

Since the greatest share of greenhouse gas emissions comes from buildings and cars, national and local governments have initiated efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of the built environment – ‘sustainable cities’ in the US, eco-cities in China, villes durables in France, eco-towns in India. It’s one thing to talk about ‘walkable’ and ‘bikeable’ places, but what are the practical essentials of a carbon-neutral urbanist town and how does one go about developing one?

In the UK the need was particularly urgent. The government hoped that along with new public transportation initiatives and regulations on industry and coal power, its eco-towns would help the UK meet its commitment to bringing greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. However, it was a lack of clear planning – as well as politics – that has mired the UK’s proposed eco-towns. So public reaction was cool in 2007 when Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced an initiative to develop 10 new communities in the countryside, each of 5,000 to 15,000 homes. Citizen’s committees formed; irked that the government had first asked developers, not regional and local planning authorities, where or whether they wanted these towns built. And they predicted more cars on already crowded roads. The press suggested they were greenwashing suburban development as usual.

Cars are eco-town killers. Transportation accounts for some one-third of all energy use and CO2 emissions in the UK, Europe, and the United States. Getting people out of their cars requires a combination of strategies, from the passive – such as compact development, pedestrian and bicycle paths, and substantial public transport – to the draconian – restrictions on parking, taxes on driving, limits on car ownership, and moratoriums on highway expansion, none of which are part of the eco-town plans. Inner cities once produced the greatest amounts of CO2; now it’s the expanding urban fringe. In the UK over the past 20 years, transportation and domestic use have each surpassed and now far exceed the energy consumption of industry. Personal car use consumes the most. The greater the urban density, the lower the emissions.

“Town-making is a complicated business” states James Hulme, director of public affairs for the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, UK. The eco-town protesters, Hulme says, had legitimate concerns. The plans as they stood would have created ‘mono-use estates’; ‘dormitories’ for commuters; towns that failed to integrate living, shopping, and workplaces and thereby continued to give driving precedence over walking. According to a report to the British government by the BioRegional Development Group, a non-profit group in Surrey, UK a well-planned eco-town could reduce its residents’ share of total greenhouse emissions by 76%. The average time for walking between homes, schools, services, and shops would be no more than 15 minutes. Bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly street plans would reduce overall car use by 75%. This, however, would be only a beginning.

Carbonfree and Carfree Future?

The car continues to haunt the dreams of carbon-neutral town planners. Despite lower-carbon fuels, stricter emissions standards, and better fuel efficiency, CO2 emissions will continue to rise as long as the number of vehicle miles travelled – VMT (or in Europe, VKT, for kilometres) – continues to increase.

Steve Winkleman of the Center for Clean Air Policy in Washington DC, has found that even if average fuel efficiency in the US increases to 35 miles per gallon, as it’s required to do by 2020, the predicted increase in VMT would effectively negate any reductions in total vehicle CO2 emissions. The rise in VMT far outpaces population growth, and increased commuting is not the only explanation. Trips to and from work account for only some 20% of miles travelled. A growing proportion of these miles is made up of the distances that must be driven in the suburbs because one lives nowhere near where one shops or goes out to eat, drink, or see a film or where the kids go to school, play ball, take dance lessons, or get a haircut.

The US may have invented sprawl, but now it’s a problem in Europe too, and especially in fast-growing Eastern and Central Europe. It’s happening even in places where the total population is declining. Over the past 20 years, there have been four times as many new cars in Europe as new babies. VKT is expected to increase 40% by 2030, with a corresponding rise in CO2 emissions.

To get people out of their cars, says Steve Melia, a researcher at the University of the West of England, it will take more than reconfigured roads and new bus routes. He points to the town of Vauban, Germany, with 2,000 homes and 6,000 people, where cars now account for only 16% of local travel as a result of the prohibition on street parking except for pickup and delivery. More than three-quarters of residents bicycle to work on the town’s and the region’s well-established bike routes, although they can keep a car in an offsite parking garage. The British government’s eco-town prospectus mentions Vauban as an exemplar of eco-development, but Melia believes that when it comes to cars, the eco-town formula falls far short. In his view, the government has to make a commitment to creating extensive bicycle networks as well as car-free neighbourhoods, or “the scepticism of the critics will have proved well founded”.

From the EU’s standpoint, the hope is that national and local governments initiate planning processes that will rein in sprawl. The urbanists’ hope is that concerns for global warming, as well as the global recession, have people looking for ways to change their economically profligate and carbon-costly habits. Give communities a new paradigm for growth and new, sustainable designs for living may follow.

By Bruce Stutz
Illustration by Valentin Aguado

Bruce Stutz is the author of several books and regularly writes on science, nature, and the environment. For more information about Bruce Stutz’s work, please visit: www.brucestutz.com

You can read the full articles online at: www.e360.yale.edu and www.onearth.org

One Comment

  1. Posted 4 February, 2012 at 10:07 | Permalink

    I live in Rozelle a inner suburb of Sydney. The local Council continually tries to reduce development of high density and high population high rise developments. Most of these developments are on old industrial sites.
    For many years i have worked on my interest of soils and water in urban areas. My last study
    on Carbon Emissions from Urban Sprawl is reported on my Creekcare web site. I agree urban sprawl is a problem increasing climate change and other environmental issues.
    In my local suburbs a compact city should be built with a high population density. Rozelle is close to the Central Buisiness District of Sydney enabling many workers to have short trip to work. More population in Rozelle and surrounding suburbs will decrease pressure for population expansion in outer suburbs. Residents in the outer suburbs are car dependent.

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  1. […] rêve perdu des eco-towns britanniques » (Il est paru initialement sur le site Carbusters, puis adapté en Français pour le site Carfree, NDLR). Stutz y analyse soigneusement le débat […]

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