People/Planet Friendly Cities
The proposal presented here is a shortened version of a 1968 project proposing a new way for urban development in southeastern Michigan. At that time the fringes of Detroit were rapidly expanding outward, consuming valuable farmland. Commuting within the city could take well over an hour. The University of Michigan produced an hour-long television documentary of this project. As a result, I was offered a job to design a new town east of Cincinnati, Ohio utilizing many of the project’s features. Unfortunately, financial difficulties, and President Nixon’s halting of President Johnson’s project to build 10 exemplary new towns in the United States terminated the project.
Our Cities Today
While we Americans love our automobiles, we are their slaves, and cannot get along without them. Without them our cities would collapse—commuters in low-density suburbs could not get to work, people could not shop for food, and soccer moms could not get their kids to practice. In most American cities a lot of thought is given to accommodating automobiles, leaving pedestrians and cyclists to take their lives into their own hands. Recent urban fringe areas have been designed as if pedestrians simply don’t exist—which is mostly true. A day of reckoning will come, and sooner than most people think. A variety of events could cause petroleum prices to escalate rapidly, making driving painfully expensive for most people. In addition, the inevitable exhaustion of petroleum lies just over the hill. While there is much talk about using hydrogen or electricity to power cars, nothing that we know of can replace low-cost petroleum. If there was, we would be using it. We simply are not preparing for the unavoidable future that lies ahead.
Over the past 50 years American metropolitan areas have expanded ever further outward, at lower and lower densities, consuming many thousands of acres of the world’s best cropland—which we will need desperately in the future. This has been accompanied by a huge expenditure of energy to power the automobiles needed to commute from these suburbs, and increased levels of air and water pollution.
Without a doubt, there is much in central cities and older neighborhoods that is bad, but there is also much that is good in them, which exurban migrants leave behind when they move out. We have completely lost sight of the fact that a city should be a noble expression of man’s interdependent nature, created for his well-being and existing to help him more easily realize his potential and the dignity which is uniquely his. The fundamental relationships of man-to-fellow-man and man-to-nature have deteriorated as cities and institutions spread out, grow larger, and become more impersonal, and as people become more detached from a “place.” This has resulted in the loss of the conditions necessary for the maintenance of a democratic form of government.
For a democracy to work well, people need to communicate with each other, especially with their neighbors and people who have needs and views that differ from their own. Suburbs, the automobile, and electronic communications have reduced such contact. The Internet, where people restrict their contact to people who think like themselves, but do not share interest in the community where they live, does not replace such personal contact. Shopping malls owned by large corporations and filled with strangers and national chain-stores are not part of the community, as “Main Street” with shops owned by one’s neighbors was. Actually, most people shop in malls that are outside of the community they live in. The only way to participate in the life of a mall is to spend.
Urban development in recent years has been influenced by a number of factors that make no sense except to speculators, developers, and marketers. People have been sold on the idea that expansive front lawns, and overly large houses on huge lots (that often afford little privacy) are desirable and will give them status. These concepts cause urban areas to expand outward at tremendous cost to the environment and social values.
In planning to accommodate our growing population, we can get a fresh start and do what makes sense by abstractly looking at what a city actually is—an assemblage of interconnected activities. A city works as well as these activities take place in satisfactory, pleasant places; that movement between them is pleasant and time and energy efficient; and that neither these activities nor the movement between them affect people or places negatively. As activities are confined to a place, while connections are citywide, we will focus on connections. They are made by walking, biking, using powered vehicles, and utilizing electronics, namely: the phone, the web, and who knows what’s to come? As how electronics affects our lives is constantly changing, and these days is largely independent of location, we will focus on movement.
If we start at a point on a flat plane and travel for a specific period of time we can reach any point within a circle. If we walk, the circle would be small; if we drive, it would be much larger (figure 1.). A circle was the quintessential shape of towns before the introduction of rails or freeways (figure 2.). Should we start from a point on a rail line or freeway and travel for certain length of time, unless there was a way to get off, we would reach a point along the line, but nothing beyond (figure 3.). Now if a rail or freeway has ways to enter and exit, we can combine the line with circles. While on the rail or freeway we would travel fast and far, and when we exit, slowly and not far. (figure 4.). This simple model suggests a way to accommodate a large number of people who would have easy access to a large number of activities and each other without the burdens of living in a large city.
When we begin to take global warming seriously, and the environmental and financial costs of automobile travel become untenable, the remote urban fringes of existing cities will have to be abandoned, and returned, as much as possible, back into farm and woodland. This would protect existing cities from further sprawl. New development would take place at higher densities at focal points within existing cities, and in new belt developments following the pattern of circles arranged along transportation lines described above. This arrangement, which I shall call belts, would connect into the cores of existing cities by means of rapid transit lines. Existing downtowns would function as regional business, governmental, and cultural centers. Radiating out from existing cities these belts would lie in six-mile-wide strips of natural landscape (figure. 5). Running through the center of the strip would be a right-of-way which contains rapid transit trains and a freeway. The area along this route would be developed into communities, each having transit stations and access to the freeway. People in one of these new communities would have faster access to existing downtowns and major employment areas in cities by means of rapid transit than people in the suburbs have today.
Each community along the new “urban belt” would have a community commercial-cultural center which is readily accessible to both rapid transit and freeway traffic. Community plans could vary as dictated by the needs of the inhabitants and geography. Priority would be given to pedestrians. Motor vehicles have to fit in where they do the least damage. Feeder streets radiating out from the center would serve cul-de-sacs, leaving pedestrian zones free of motor vehicles.
The plan shown here (figure. 6) is radial and provides for a population of 45,000. Landscaped parkways (figure. 7), uncrossed by vehicular traffic, radiate out from the center to the countryside. Schools, playgrounds, neighborhood shops, offices, cafes, and churches would lie in these parkways. It is here that neighborhood life would take place. Neighborhood shops could be linked to the center of the community by automated single-track mini subways and for the delivery of goods, by a system of conveyor belts. The subways would operate like programmed elevators, attaching extra cars as needed and operating by push-button when traffic is light. Families would rent lockers in the neighborhood shopping area, to which goods would automatically be delivered by conveyor from the center. From here the merchandise could be carried home by the family, a neighborhood boy, or a delivery service. This conveyor system, in combination with trucking operations between major centers and community centers, would relieve shoppers of the burden of carrying packages and also facilitate rapid delivery of telephone or Internet orders. Some stores, instead of carrying inventories, would have goods delivered by warehousing companies using community delivery facilities.
Delivery trucks would enter the lower level of the business center directly from the freeway. After leaving the freeway, other vehicles would pass through semicircular tunnels or depressions along the edges of the business center. Feeder streets would radiate out and connect to neighborhood cul-de-sacs. This would keep residential areas free from through traffic. The center itself, which would contain shops, offices, government buildings, hotels, restaurants, theaters and churches (figure 8), would span the transit-freeway route. The lower level of the center would be a large structure split in half by the transit route. It could support buildings several stories high. Taller buildings would pierce this structure and have their own foundations. Land for non-residential uses, including light industry, would flank both sides of the transit route beyond the commercial center.
The green belt surrounding the communities would exist for many reasons, the foremost of which is recreation. Here adults could find solitude and quiet, and children could have the experience of growing up knowing nature (figure. 9). One could walk all day through the forest, stop for lunch at a woodland restaurant as easily as at a town cafe, and return home in the evening by rapid transit train. All the advantages of the country would be present: horses could be raised and ridden; one could rent garden plots; sport fields and some churches could be located here. Community people living next to these belts could have small farms or raise animals, selling their products at community farmers’ markets. The forest would be systematically lumbered; there could be orchards and, even grazing areas for cattle or sheep. Processed organic wastes from the communities would be returned to enrich the soil both here and on the farmland beyond.
A person living in any one of these communities would be able to walk, without crossing a street, to a parkway in less than three minutes, to a neighborhood shop and mini subway stop in less than five minutes, to the natural landscape in less than ten minutes, to the center of the community in less than fifteen minutes, and to a goodly number of places of work in less than twenty minutes. Innumerable places of employment, shopping facilities, and cultural centers would lie within half an hour’s commuting time by public transit or private car.
Within each community people could walk, use the mini subway (or some comparable device), or drive. The community at large would not be dependent on any one mode of transportation, a fact which would preserve individual freedom and protect the community against being trapped in a single way of travel. Also, the fact that most people would probably live within walking distance of their jobs and the countryside would reduce problems caused by a possible disaster brought on by events such as depression, war, boycotts, acts of God and the pervasive states of emergency thus caused.
People would be able to take rapid transit trains or drive between communities. Because private transportation is less energy efficient and will become very expensive, while mass transit will improve and become more pleasant as more people use it, in time most people will use the transit systems. With both local and express trains in operation, service would be fast, smooth, and frequent. Mini-subways would connect neighborhood centers(figure. 10) directly to the rapid transit system in the community business center. Rapid transit would extend to central stations in the major regional commercial centers and to terminal buildings of airports. High-speed railroads, stopping only at end terminals in major cities, would serve cities and newly established regional centers by means of detachable pods. These pods would leave the centers, travel out of the community and then catch and attach themselves to the trains. This system would provide passengers with access to a number of major centers along the way, without requiring trains to enter cities and major centers, and lose time making stops. Rapid transit trains serving these stations would whisk passengers to their home communities.
As older cities are relieved from perpetual growth on the periphery, they can focus on rebuilding themselves from within (figure. 11). As automobile traffic diminishes, rapid transit lines reaching in from the new communities and accessible new commercial centers in the existing cities will help. High-density residential neighborhoods would focus around these centers. Some of these centers might evolve from current shopping malls. It is hard to say what forms our cities might take when driving becomes untenable, however they cannot depend on large amounts of cheap energy. Hopefully, as we rebuild, people will reestablish contact with each other and their community. Planning must encourage this.
The plan presented here demonstrates how we can arrange urban growth to minimize the burdens it places on the environment, and at the same time provide better neighborhoods. Children can walk to school without crossing a street, and by planned or chance encounters, adults would get to know each other. This would encourage community spirit and involvement. While it is preferable to live on a less populated planet than ours almost certainly will be in the near future, this is not likely to happen. The “urban-belt” plan shown here is intended to accommodate a growing population in a way that would best serve our democratic way of life, and protect our environment.
I am indebted to Professor Ludwig Hilberseimer of Illinois Institute of Technology for his inspiration and work on developing better ways to plan contemporary cities.
The original 1968 project was done at the University of Michigan with the help of a Horace R. Rackham Faculty Research Grant, 1968.