If Cars and Cities Were to Evolve Together (cars would disappear but car companies would not)
I'm the author of books on "ecocities," head of some local ecological restoration projects and a speaker on the international circuit. By ecocities I mean simply cities that are ecologically healthy, that leave the biological world happily buzzing along while we humans do whatever we do best in our built environments of cities, towns and villages, and in moving about and utilizing the countryside while protecting nature - mostly from us.
I don't have to tell many audiences these days that climate is changing rapidly now and in dangerous directions, that biodiversity is sliding from high to lower everyday, that humanity is drawing down resources rapidly in many areas from finite energy stores to digging up, using and losing considerable amounts of finite minerals for our metals, and failing to recycle efficiently.
In thinking of the next 25 years I have to admit, I am not optimistic. The basic ideas I've been advancing for 40 years have not yet caught on, have barely started the journey. So instead of trying to predict, I'll simply say what I think is the problem and what I would like to see as the solution - and car companies' role in the solution.
It starts with whole systems thinking. Car companies should become whole systems transportation/infrastructure companies, bifurcating their moveable products into cars so much smaller they become carts - that's right - essentially carts like improved golf carts, on one hand, and train systems large and small plus elevators and conveyor belts sometimes called "people movers" like we see in airports. Transport and city development needs close coordination with architecture, plazas and parks and streets and rails. A small number of what we think of as cars today would still be needed for rural work and living and available as rentals for city and town people wanting to get to places in the country far from small towns with train stations.
The conventional car is about 30 times as heavy as a person, 10 times as fast in optimal operation and takes up about 50 times the volume. To say the least, it doesn't mix well with pedestrians and bicycles. It demands hundreds of acres per city for parking lots and whole extra buildings called parking structures stuffed into city infrastructures scattering everything farther apart making everything work worse for foot, bike and transit.
Another important point: the presently understood better car actually makes the city worse - and takes the world down with it. The car does not stand alone; it is integral to the buildings and their arrangement and to the street and energy systems. To improve the car simply continues the pattern of sprawling development and all the harms that go with it. If it's energy efficient, it is most efficient in convincing its owner he or she is "green," while perpetuating a disastrous urban form. It would be a sad day for most car companies to wake up to this notion, which I take to be a reality, without realizing that they could become companies to coordinate far better urban development with transport. They could turn out to be thriving and profitable endeavors after all, serving society and nature alike, but only if re-missioned, re-tooled and re-trained to participate in building ecocities, perhaps even taking the lead. There is no one like the reformed to lead with enthusiasm and effectiveness. The story of their conversion is powerful.
The ecological city, the "ecocity," would be much more compact - think Manhattan, downtown Tokyo, or at the other end of the size scale, compact pedestrian European villages where buildings are no more than five or six stories high. Ecocities are three-dimensional, not essentially flat like most American cities excepting their central business districts. Ecocities are cities primarily for pedestrians, supported by bicycles and transit - the best of which would be rail from streetcars to metro systems. But they would go beyond models we see in the general layout of compact cities of separate buildings, the European old city model, for example, by beginning to stitch the buildings together in whole systems design featuring extreme pedestrian permeability - access three-dimensionally through the city. This means there would be bridges between buildings with rooftop "uses" like shops and restaurants, mini-parks and plazas on rooftops and rooftop gardens for native species of birds, some food gardens, though not high volume production relative to the number of people obviously, but educational for the children - and all this with fantastic views over the city and surrounding landscapes. Systems of bridges for bicycles and monorail-like connections fit too in the larger city context, connecting those rich, verdant pedestrian environments hanging in the sky.
This configuration of the physical structure - clusters of buildings linked on ground level and one or more levels above ground level arranged around streets, parks and plazas uses radically less land, as well as energy, than the car/sprawl/paving infrastructure we see so dominant today and growing rapidly in many countries. Ecocity design means natural landscape and agriculture can come back into close relationship to the city. Just take an elevator - I encourage adventurous glass elevators on the outside of some buildings for pleasure rides - walk a few short blocks and be in the country. Ecocity wholes systems design also applies at all scales. I've been in some villages in Nepal, Turkey and Northern Italy that are only four or five blocks long and wide and yet have buildings six or seven stories high, infrastructure providing for enough people to have a very lively cultural life, plus hosting a small hotel or two for very personal connection to the outside world. Think in addition to such structures attached solar greenhouses and those bridge linkages and roof and terrace experiences.
So as part of a coordinated enterprise understood by people everywhere, we can well imagine car companies joining, even leading, a larger program of coordinated parts in which the city is stitched together in the ecocity way and a healthy future is launched.
Founder and President, Ecocity Builders
Richard Register is one of the world's great theorists and authors in ecological city design and planning. He is also a practitioner with four decades of experience activating local projects, pushing establishment buttons and working with environmentalists and developers to get a better city built and running. Among his many "firsts," he convened the first of the Ecocity International Conference Series in Berkeley, California.