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

 
 
 
 

This interactive map of the Swiss rail network is just really, really cool

The first train crossing the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world's longest rail tunnel during the opening ceremony near the town of Erstfeld, Switzerland, on 1 June 2016. Image: Getty.

After 500 years of democracy all Switzerland has produced is the cuckoo clock: so said Harry Lime, Orson Welles’ character in The Third Man.

This is terribly unfair – so I’m going to leap to the defence of the proud Swiss people, and disprove Lime’s claim right now, by showing you a mind-boggling map of the country’s rail system.

Made by self-described hacker, trainspotter and map addict Vasile Coțovanu, it uses data from the federal railways organisation SSB to show the movement of trains across the country in real time. If you’re too impatient to watch the trains crawl across the map, you can speed the whole thing up. If you feel the need to follow a particular train, you can do that, too.

The map is not actually live, as such: it uses timetable data to show where trains are meant to be, so doesn’t show delays and so forth. But Swiss trains have such a reputation for punctuality that the joke is the locals set their watches to the trains – so we can be fairly sure what we’re seeing is spot on.

The map also, indirectly, shows both the physical and human geography of the country. You’d be hard pressed to find a more iconic duo than Switzerland and mountains: the country’s topography has allowed the small republic to keep out of Europe’s wars for centuries.

But as well as providing a natural barrier that would make Donald Trump go green with envy (what colour does green and orange make?), the mountains have been a huge obstacle for the engineers tasked with building the country’s rail system.

This map shows the rail network in its entirety: note the concentration of red to the north, representing the Swiss Plateau. Hemmed in to the north by the Jura Mountains and to the south by the mighty Alps, this stretch of relatively flat land was an obvious choice for settlers, and although it only covers 30 per cent of the country, two thirds of the total population lives there.

In the rest of the country, though, rail coverage really thins out. Tunnels and difficult spiral climbs are necessary for trains taking on the mountainous south.
Despite its difficulty, the route through the Alps along the Gotthard Pass has been an important trade route for centuries. It is the shortest route between the Po and Rhine Rivers, and control of it has been a key objective for the Swiss state.

Two years ago a new rail line opened along this north-south route, known as the Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT). The tunnel can be seen in the more faded red, running from Erstfeld to Biasca:

This tunnel was built quite a bit after Harry Lime’s time: he had seen it, I doubt he would have been quite so rude about Switzerland. It’s the longest and deepest rail tunnel in the world running for 57km under the Alps. At its deepest point, the GBT is 2,450m deep. This incredible feat of engineering allows faster and more frequent journies through the mountains and onto Italy.

Here you can see the 19:09 for Como go through the tunnel:

The Alps aren’t just an obstruction, though: where railway lines have managed to wind their way through you can find some of the most beautiful train journeys in the world.

The Bernina Express is the sort of old school Alpine train where you imagine you could find James Bond in the bar carriage. It travels along two World Heritage railways, the Albula and the Bernina, which are among only a handful of rail lines whose importance has been recognised by UNESCO. Sweeping past glaciers and lakes, the train goes through 55 tunnels and across a mindboggling 196 viaducts and bridges.

Here’s the 13.48 to Tirano going through the eponymous Bernina Pass:

I was thinking of asking Vasile Coțovanu, the man behind the map, to try mapping out the UK rail system in a similar way. The problem is the difference between actual running times and those timetabled is so great that any map would be less of a practical tool than a work of utopian fiction.

Let’s leave these interactive maps to a country that can build a world class rail system in the middle of a mountain range. Harry Lime, eat your heart out. 


Images: Vasile Coțovanu.