How to Build Better Cities: A Manifesto

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

A few years ago, I became interested in Paradox Interactive’s game, Cities: Skylines. It is a game wherein one designs his or her own city, meeting the various demands of citizens through zoning, constructing buildings and funding public services, all while trying to maintain a balanced budget. Admittedly, I usually just end up finding increasingly creative ways of destroying my city. One day, however, before I gave in to my destructive urges, I wondered, what it is that makes a truly good city? How do we turn sprawling urban hellscapes into places where people can feel proud to live? Some pondering over TED Talks, city planning videos and articles later, I feel as though I have some answers. I find that good city design is centred around two equally essential principles: efficiency and beauty. Efficiency in that the way we use space and resources minimises waste as much as possible without sacrificing comfort. And beauty in that the spaces we occupy are enjoyable, pleasant to be in and even uplift the soul. The balance between these two principles is absolutely essential, for if a city were too efficient, it would become completely uniform and soulless. On the contrary, if a city were too beautiful, then it would be needlessly extravagant and neglect practicality. Something one might notice, however, is how interwoven these two concerns are. For does one not find the haphazard use of space to be unappealing? Does one not find beauty in the proper organisation of our spaces? While I am far from a qualified city planner, I would like to expand upon these principles and humbly propose some guidelines for how our cities (primarily North American cities, as this is where I find these problems to be more commonplace) can become more desirable homes for millions.

The logistical concerns of efficiency are perhaps the most obvious or of greater concern to most. Fundamentally, efficiency comes down to how our space is used because it affects everything from transportation, to sustainability, to the economy. Being that land is a limited, and often expensive resource it would be wise to try to be as efficient as possible with the land we have.

The American city is designed primarily for the car, to the detriment of the citizen.

Perhaps the most important thing that can be done for our cities is the elimination of our dependence on the car. Owning a car (let alone multiple cars) is very costly between the many expenses such as fuel, maintenance, insurance and parking. Owning a vehicle however, is often necessary, especially for suburban families as it is virtually impossible to do anything without driving. This dependence on cars is inherently limiting, especially to poorer families who cannot as easily afford this. A car should not be a necessity, it should be a luxury. A city must be designed first and foremost around the pedestrian and primarily to accommodate walking. Moreover, it is important to recognise that because most residents have cars, so much infrastructure has to be dedicated to their cars as opposed to the residents themselves. An ungodly amount of land is paved over for wide roads and vast parking lots. These roads and parking lots are not productive assets, but must be maintained and are, thus, a huge financial burden. One must imagine, instead, how much space would be saved if people used bicycles and if this land were repurposed for, say, affordable housing or space for local businesses. This would allow for a more diverse and productive local economy.

In addition to the financial burden, attention must be given to the environmental impact of having so many cars on the road. Idling at stoplights and in gridlock traffic pumps a significant amount of carbon dioxide and various other pollutants into the air which contributes to climate change and poorer air quality. Furthermore, the noise pollution produced by cars often goes overlooked. Noise pollution from cars has been shown to cause higher levels of stress, notably in children, which can then lead to increased blood pressure, diminished quality of sleep and decreased lifespan.

So, how can we reduce our dependence on cars? This can be done in a multitude of ways. Arguably, the best solution is to eliminate sprawl in favour of a denser concentration of development. Residents of the United States and Canada are likely familiar with the long stretches of wide roads, home to various stores that are virtually only accessible by car, making them unsuitable and dangerous for pedestrians. They are also a financial burden to the local government as their tax revenue does not offset public maintenance costs. Compare this to the far more inviting and lively streets of European cities: a multitude of shops within walking distance along with many streets dedicated solely to pedestrian traffic such that, in many cases, one need not even cross car traffic at all. Moreover, many of these commercial buildings have apartments above them; homes are not clustered in an area 10–20 minutes away by car. This mixed-use development is not only a more efficient use of space but it also facilitates a greater sense of community as these buildings are typically occupied by local businesses within such a small distance of one’s home. Rather than continuously expanding into new land, developers and city planners should instead focus on building upon and improving the spaces that are already occupied. Moreover, zoning should not be restricted merely for one use in all cases; a concentrated mix of home, office and commercial uses would be far more beneficial for both individuals and their community as a whole. Daily life would be far more accessible and navigable. Mixed-use development in the United States is in many cases, however, illegal.

Many suburban neighbourhoods are also perpetrators of inefficient space usage. Instead of being built on a grid, many houses are built along long, winding roads in cul-de-sacs, meaning that they only have one road by which one can enter and exit. While this may maximise privacy for the homeowners, it wastes space and makes it difficult or impossible to be independent of a car. Additionally, public services such as ambulances and fire trucks must travel longer and waste time in emergencies. I do not find the solution to this to be dense blocks of high-rises, but development must be more thoughtfully planned with differing levels of density, including mid-rise buildings. Excessive sprawl is wasteful and inconvenient, yet it is often the only choice for many in North America. This sprawl can also promote loneliness or an anti-social sentiment and inhibit the creation of a true community.

Another solution, which is admittedly quite obvious, is to have a network of public transportation. Rail (e.g., subway, elevated train, tram) is preferable to a bus route since busses only add to traffic and greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, the initial expense of designing and implementing a rail system (especially underground) is far more expensive than that of buying a fleet of busses, but rail systems perform more efficiently. This is because rail systems are more scalable; they can transport more people at once, more frequently and faster than can busses.

For where cars are necessary, however, things can be done to improve the situation for both pedestrians and drivers. Perhaps most paradoxically, the removal of traffic lanes would be helpful to both drivers and pedestrians. Wouldn’t this only make traffic worse? one might ask. Not necessarily. Research has found that the addition of lanes on freeways decreases traffic in the short term, but actually only makes traffic congestion far worse in the long term. This is due to a phenomenon referred to as induced demand, wherein demand is created by the mere availability of a resource. For anyone who has spent time in city traffic, it is quite self-evident why any plan to reduce it should be a welcome one. Traffic is a huge waster of a very finite resource that cannot be bought or sold: time. In addition to this, the lanes of roads and streets can be narrowed. Narrowing streets can be used as a form of traffic-calming, forcing car drivers to slow down, be more alert and thus reduce traffic injuries and deaths. Moreover, the space taken away from car lanes can be used for buffered bike lanes or more sidewalk space for pedestrians. The expansion of bike lanes would allow citizens to use a cheaper and more sustainable mode of transportation as well, thus potentially easing the burden of traffic. Another helpful addition to American roads would be the roundabout. For whatever reason, Americans despise the roundabout even though it has proven to be both more efficient at moving traffic and far safer than a stoplight.

When space is utilised efficiently, it is not only good from a logistical standpoint (saving time, money and lives), but it also facilitates a sense of community since everything is more connected. Proximity and ease of access undoubtedly foster a more intimate connection between people and their community. Also, as noted previously, thoughtful design and considerate use of space are often found attractive as opposed to careless expansion.

Photo by Eirik Skarstein on Unsplash

Some may consider beauty a secondary concern to efficiency, but to do so is a mistake. Cities are not merely where business is conducted and products are consumed; cities are also homes. Homes where people spend their entire lives. Indeed beauty serves the practical function of drawing in tourists and making life overall more pleasant, but beauty also serves a more fundamental purpose. Humans have an innate need for beauty. Beauty is an essential vitamin that nourishes the soul. It is without a doubt that such a fundamental need must be incorporated into the area where one lives. How is this to be achieved? Incorporating nature into the city is one simple way of making cities more attractive, as nature has an easily recognisable innate beauty. Another way would be to design buildings and areas that pay homage to local history and tradition. This gives the city a distinct character and sense of place.

Nature serves the functions of being a source of beauty and making cities more eco-friendly. The incorporation of nature is one of the easiest and most sustainable ways to make our cities better. Introducing more vegetation (e.g., trees, bushes, vines, etc.) into urban areas is not only good for the environment but good for us as well. It satisfies the natural desire we have to be close to nature and also improves air quality. The incorporation of nature can be accomplished in numerous ways, including parks and trails (obviously). The implementation of green roofs, which is simply a roof whereon plants are grown, would also allow plants to occupy space that would otherwise go unused. Trees planted on sidewalks are also a great way of providing shade to pedestrians and reducing noise pollution.

As for the buildings themselves, while steel and glass may be cheap, effective and serve a practical purpose, they can nonetheless feel cold and uninviting. These glass façade buildings also typically do not give the eye anything interesting to focus on. The much warmer and more inviting buildings of European cities, on the other hand, are as such because the buildings surrounding them are built from stone, brick and other such materials. Moreover, they do not overwhelm the pedestrian with gratuitous height. Buildings should give a sense of comfortable enclosure, not oppression or suffocation. Additionally, the old European buildings are not so utilitarian like skyscrapers are; they have elegant and elaborate designs on their façades. Many of these old European buildings were built not just merely to serve a functional purpose, but a greater purpose as well. They were designed for the goodness of all who lay eyes on them: to capture true beauty such that they may be timeless. This is not to say that skyscrapers and modern architecture are always detestable; they are interesting and having innate value, but they do not excite the soul in the same way as older buildings do. This is due to the fact that they lack tangible cultural character; the style in which they were built gives no real sense of place. Take, for example, the Hôtel de Ville in Paris and compare it to that of Sears Tower in Chicago. The Hôtel de Ville is unmistakably French, whereas Sears Tower looks as if it could have been built in virtually any industrialised country. While magnificent in its own right, it lacks a cultural identity. Buildings should be local; they should belong in the wider cultural aesthetic tradition where they were built. What’s more, many of these modern buildings with “innovative” designs have been torn down only to give rise to new ones that will also inevitably be torn down in less than a century. This is a waste of resources. We need to continue to build office buildings, homes, communal spaces, etc., with good-quality materials and designs that are future-proof. We can do this by taking inspiration from the past; seeing what worked then and building upon those foundations today.

Our cities are very much in need of change in how they are built. As it stands now, our cities are not sustainable and it has been a long time since a truly beautiful city has been built. We must demand better. We must forge the political will be a force for meaningful change within your own city. Look for inspiration from our European neighbours; Lyon, Venice, Amsterdam, Barcelona, etc. This is not to say that the European designs should be entirely copied, but the designs we create now should capture beauty in the same way that they do. We cannot tolerate mediocrity. We must take more pride in where we spend our lives. Indeed, many of these changes will take a lot of time and resources, but they will be more than worth it. We owe it to ourselves, to future generations and to the environment to have truly beautiful and sustainable communities.

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