Monday, April 20, 2009

Op-Ed: Jeff Kenworthy on Cars, cities and paradigm change:
- Australian perspectives on sustainable transportation

Cars and cities: Time for a paradigm change

The current economic meltdown in the USA was triggered by the toxic loans now held by banks all over the country. These toxic loans are focussed in the highly car-dependent parts of US cities and were partly triggered by the extraordinary prices for oil experienced in mid-2008, which made such locations simply unsustainable from every perspective, especially the financial one. It highlighted the extreme fragility of the US urban development pattern characterised by urban sprawl and excessive dependence on cars.

More deeply it began to show that the current long wave business cycle or 5th Kondratiev wave has reached an end. The end of the four such previous long wave business cycles dating back to the 18th century was characterised by an economic recession and depression. At the moment we see some of the death throes of this current cycle in the deep crises within the global auto-manufacturing industries and a general crisis of confidence in the whole financial world that underpins the current long wave business cycle. The temptation is to support the old “paradigm” in the form of bailouts, to extend the life of such a cycle. But did the age of steam and railroads survive the age of electricity and the internal combustion engine? It did not and no one today would conclude that it would have been sensible to try to forestall the new era.

A more effective response and better use of such precious funds is to embrace the new long wave business cycle or new dawn that is waiting to break over a world desperately in need of social, economic and environmental restoration. What is this new long wave business cycle waiting in the wings? It is the age of sustainability. Cities are inevitably a focal point for the dawn of this age and there are new imperatives that need to be embraced, which offer the basis for a whole new economy. Not only do they promise a new economic boom, as happens with each new business cycle, but they hold within themselves the seeds of a whole new healthier way of living, which can also restore the local, regional and global commons.

There are ten critical dimensions in urban development and transportation that can be embraced to bring forward this new era of sustainability.

(1) The city has a compact, mixed-use urban form that uses land efficiently and protects the natural environment, biodiversity and food producing areas.

(2) The natural environment permeates the city’s spaces and embraces the city,
while the city and its hinterland provide a major proportion of its food needs.

(3) Freeway and road infrastructure are de-emphasised in favour of transit,
walking and cycling infrastructure, with a special emphasis on rail. Car and motorcycle use are minimised.

(4) There is extensive use of environmental technologies for water, energy
and waste management – the city’s life support systems become closed loop systems.

(5) The central city and sub-centres within the city are human centres that emphasise non-auto access and circulation and absorb a high proportion of employment and residential growth.

(6) The city has a high quality public realm throughout that expresses a
public culture, community, equity and good governance. The public
realm includes the entire transit system and all the environments
associated with it.

(7) The physical structure and urban design of the city, especially its public environments are highly legible, permeable, robust, varied, rich, visually appropriate and personalised for human needs.

(8) The economic performance of the city and employment creation are maximised through innovation, creativity and the uniqueness of the local environment, culture and history, as well as the high environmental and social quality of the city’s public environments.

(9) Planning for the future of the city is a visionary ‘debate and decide’ process, not a ‘predict and provide’, computer-driven process that just produces more and more traffic growth.

(10) All decision-making is sustainability-based integrating social, economic, environmental and cultural considerations, as well as compact, transit-oriented urban form principles. Such decision-making processes are democratic, inclusive, empowering and engendering of hope.

Capitalising on the business opportunities inherent in the above urban agenda will put nations in a much more competitive economic position that rides the crest of the new economic wave that must inevitably come.

Jeff Kenworthy,
CUSP Institute (Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Contribution by the author to the world wide collaborative project “Messages for America: World-wide experience, ideas, counsel, proposals and good wishes for the incoming Obama transportation team”. See for latest version of this report of World Streets and the New Mobility Agenda.

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