New Urbanism isn’t dead – but thanks to climate change, it is evolving

Houston under water following Hurricane Harvey in August. Image: Getty.

New Urbanism is dead, writes Bill Fulton on the October issue of Governing. Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, says New Urbanist thinking has so thoroughly permeated the mainstream that it no longer needs a movement to champion it.

Not so fast.

Today, the folks who brought us walkable downtowns and transit-oriented development have a new challenge to tackle: climate change. There is an urgent need to reduce carbon emissions while fortifying cities against the supercharged storms, rising seas and blistering heat waves of a warming world. And, in this era of staggering inequality, climate solutions must narrow – rather than widen – the gap between haves and have-nots.

New Urbanists are stepping up to the challenge. Last month, movement pioneers Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Peter Calthorpe joined with dozens of others at a Climate Summit hosted by the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). The challenges outlined there – and the envisioned solutions – could signal the movement’s rebirth.

The challenges are stark. According to Edward Mazria of Architecture 2030, carbon emissions must peak by 2020 and cease altogether by midcentury if we hope to preserve a livable planet. And cities, which currently produce 70 per cent of carbon emissions, are expected to absorb more than one billion new residents in the next 15 years. “It’s like building a city of one and a half million people every week,” said Mazria, “So we need to get it right.”

New Urbanists have much to contribute to “getting it right.” Some New Urbanists – including Calthorpe – have long urged attention to climate issues. And the solutions New Urbanists have promoted for decades (compact, walkable downtowns served by low-carbon transit systems) are among the best means to reduce carbon emissions. Many American cities have used that formula to revitalise their urban cores, bringing a surge of new residents and dynamism.

But it would be premature to declare “mission accomplished”. As editor Robert Steuteville explains in The Death of New Urbanism is Greatly Exaggerated, on CNU’s Public Square, that urban revival has been paralleled – and even dwarfed – by turbocharged suburban sprawl. Today, about 82m households (out of some 117m) in the US live in low-density areas of about three households per acre, according to Jen McGraw of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. “We have to move that needle to make a difference,” she said.

While the original goals of the New Urbanist movement are not fully realised, climate change poses fresh and daunting challenges. Weather-related disasters are proliferating, and the built environment must be retooled for a wetter, wilder future.

Epic disasters like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria (like Katrina and Sandy before them) illuminate the extraordinary vulnerability of our cities and towns. Yet those named storms represent just a fraction of the problem. The US now averages 129 disasters each year, up from 51 per year before the turn of the 21st century.


In the wake of disasters, there are opportunities to rebuild in ways that both mitigate and adapt to climate change. But those opportunities are typically squandered, said disaster recovery expert Laura Clemons, especially in smaller towns and cities that lack capacity to envision and implement change. Timely intervention by New Urbanists could help.

The New Urbanist response to climate change should not focus solely on technofixes, said Carla Mays of Mays Civic Innovation; it must also embrace social equity. Low-income people and people of color have been devastated by gentrification in “revitalised” cities; now they are impacted first and worst by climate change impacts.

Yet those groups are underrepresented in the New Urbanist ranks, said Mays. “This room does not reflect the diversity of the US,” she said. “We are coming to the dance, but we are not dancing yet.” New Urbanists must also confront the racially tinged policies that shape land use and infrastructure. “If we don’t acknowledge these disparities, we will proliferate them,” said Shelley Poticha, director of Urban Solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Given the urgency and complexity of today’s urban challenges, there is a pressing need for integrated, multi-tasking solutions. “We don’t have time to solve these problems – racism, climate change – separately,” said Douglas Kelbaugh, professor and former dean at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. And, for urbanists to have an impact, they must collaborate with others who are dealing with similar (and different) aspects of this problem. “New Urbanists need a lot more friends,” said Poticha.

New Urbanism is certainly not dead, but it is evolving. From the CNU Climate Summit, we can see the broad outlines of what it might become: a movement that marries a vision of livable communities to the necessities of a changing climate. The goal: resilient, equitable, carbon-neutral cities that people want to live in. That’s the new New Urbanism.

Laurie Mazur is editor of the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.