Last week the Royal Danish Embassy sponsored a program at the Phillips Collection on sustainable urban development, “Urban Development - Global and Local Challenges for the Modern City.” I was honored to be among the speakers on the program (my remarks were the basis for my last post) and share the stage with the incomparable Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl. The next day he gave another talk to a capacity crowd at the National Building Museum as part of the on-going EPA-sponsored series on Smart Growth. I estimate that several hundred of us are now suffering from acute onset of Copenhagen-envy, and additional symptoms associated with Gehl-withdrawal. Gehl’s firm (http://www.gehlarchitects.com/) accurately describes itself as “urban quality consultants.” The conventional nomenclature of “architects, urban designers, and planners” seems too dry and insufficient to capture what he and his colleagues do. Like an urban Johnny Appleseed, Gehl has been around the world sowing urban sweetness on every continent. New York is the most recent U.S. city to benefit from his advice.
As he reminded both audiences, the mission of a civil city is to be sweet to its people, and to invite walking and biking. A city’s mission is not to sell it civil soul to the private automobile. And I mean all of them, whether gas guzzling, sipping or battery powered. Its worth remembering that as the media is saturated with images of penitent auto execs promising to make better cars and politicians extolling the duty of the tax payer to guarantee them the opportunity to make amends…and more cars. With all due respect to the disruption that a GM meltdown would engender, I do not believe our future prosperity should depend on automobile manufacturing. It’s ultimately a dead end. As another eminence gris of the design professions, Paolo Soleri, has said: the car is itself pollution. It eats land, requires miles of paving to be useful and acres of paving to be useless.
The incoming administration is promising a huge new infrastructure program, which I absolutely support in principle. What concerns me is the lack of imagination reflected in the language used: “road-building,” fixing our “aging freeways” …Excuse me? Roads? We don’t need no more stinking roads, Mr President-elect. What we need are streets, avenues, boulevards, alamedas, boardwalks, parkways, mews, lanes, sidewalks, bike lanes, steel rails—heavy and light--, piazzas, plazas, greens, fora, markets, bazaars, and an authentic ranges of choices about how to move about among those. A choice between a Chevy Volt and a Toyota Prius is no choice at all. A choice between feet and a bicycle, a bus or a shared car, a street car or a subway: those are real choices. And they make us, our cities, and our planet physically, socially, and culturally healthier.
If we’re going to dig deep into our already empty pockets for a New New Deal we should be sure that it’s a New Green Deal. We don’t have to suffer Copenhagan-envy. We can simply decide to do more and better. Oh yes…we can.