Old-School Urban Planning

| September-October 2010

We like to think that we live in an age of enlightened calculation in which we plot our escape from the enemies of humankind—climate change, health crises, overdevelopment. Miller-McCune (May-June 2010) writes that we might not be as clever as we think.  

Around the turn of the last century, city planning was motivated by concern for citizens living in urban industrial areas. Not long after, “the planning of built environments was hijacked by the car,” and driving needs and consumer convenience began to dictate design. The solutions-oriented publication argues that it’s time to dispose of car-centered approaches to city planning and put public health at the forefront. 

There is plenty of research to prove the obvious: Depression attends suburban isolation, the immobility of non-drivers, and lack of access to green space. Doable walking distances promote physical activity and fight obesity, and exposure to nature can be a salve for those suffering from attention deficit disorders. At root, though, by honoring the assumption that everyone drives, we’ve built distance into our lifestyles.   

Building with health in mind, however, has to be as much a practical consideration as a philosophy. Walkability, for instance, isn’t the same for the athletic and the elderly, or for those with children. And while a fuel-efficient car might satisfy your inner Al Gore, all cars promote the distant, atomized living style we already consider normal.  

Still, solutions exist. Take “agriburbia,” a neighborhood landscaped with cropland to feed and employ its residents. Or the notion of “lifelong” communities, which adapt to the shifting needs of aging populations (by shortening walking distances, for example). That’s what new urbanism is all about, says Miller-McCune: “taking important steps to address the cause-and-effect relationships of built environments and public health.”

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