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Peter Calthorpe: Purging Suburbia

Interview by Jane Kolleeny

Edited by Laura Mirviss

July 2012

Peter Calthorpe has been exploring models of urban and suburban growth throughout his career. In the early 1990s, he developed the concept of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) and became a founder of the Congress for New Urbanism. His latest book, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change, documents new work relating patterns of development to energy and carbon emissions.

Calthorpe is a pioneer of innovative approaches to urban revitalization and regional planning.
Courtesy of Calthorpe Associates
Calthorpe is a pioneer of innovative approaches to urban revitalization and regional planning.
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GreenSource: You worked with California governor Jerry Brown and architect Sim Van der Ryn in the mid-1970s. What was the atmosphere in California like during those early times?

Peter Calthorpe: It was an extraordinary moment when everybody was discovering the issues surrounding energy consumption. Sim Van der Ryn is really the father of sustainable communities. Sim was running the state architect's office and we launched the first energy-efficient state office building, the Bateson Building in Sacramento. The most profound thing about the Bateson Building was that it had zero parking. Nobody drove to that building so a light rail was constructed. At the end of the '80s, I got a call from the Thousand Friends of Oregon, who wanted to stop a new freeway from wrapping around Portland. I told them the way to stop it was to propose something better: a light rail. Since 1996, the average motor vehicle miles traveled per capita in Portland has been falling. Meanwhile, the average vehicle miles traveled per capita in the United States has been rising. So there's this laboratory in Portland that's proof of concept. The data is there.

Can you explain the different aspects of sustainable planning and sustainable urbanism?

Sustainability is not just building efficiency, urbanism, or solar power collectors. Electric vehicles are not going to solve this problem for us. If we end up with this accelerating dependence on the car, even if it's a green car, you're still paving acres and acres of land. Sprawling suburbs are just too expensive for the American middle class. And by all estimations, it's not what is desired. There are many people—singles, empty nesters—that don't want single-family homes. There's a social side to all this that isn't fixed with technology.

Now that more than 50 percent of people live in cities, what do cities need to be?

Cities need to stop being cities, ironically. New York is not just Manhattan; it's the outer boroughs and the suburbs as well. The boundary of city versus suburb has to go away; you need a regional metropolis that can be walkable and transit oriented.

Where I come from, in the Bay Area, we have Silicon Valley—this economic engine that's the envy of the world—but we don't build housing for the people who work there. The captains of Innovation Inc. get a beautiful house in Palo Alto. But everyone else—schoolteachers, firemen, policemen—can't afford it. They're commuting huge distances. The economic nexus of a place has to be sustained by its circulation system, by its open space, by its housing availability. These are regional planning issues.

How do you change the mindsets of people and governments who couldn’t possibly imagine such a scenario?

People need to understand that a sustainable future fits with their marketplace needs. Most people say their dream house is a mansion on 8 acres within a block of their office. As a result, most people say they value having a single-family home. But when you ask what tradeoffs people are willing to make, they value proximity. They value walkability.

You talk in your book about narrow streets, which is an interesting idea because we always imagine a wider street, where there’s room for pedestrians and bicycles. How do pedestrian pockets fit in with your urban planning strategies?

The big arterial grid of six-lane streets is really inhumane for the pedestrian. With smaller streets, you actually have more space for pedestrians because you have more intersections. New urbanists hate me for this, but just like Manhattan, you need one-way streets.

What about environmental issues in the third world?

The same answer applies pretty generally. You need a robust street network that allows pedestrian permeability. You need to invest heavily in transit, which they're doing now in New Delhi. In India, they're pretty progressive and have inclusionary zoning requirements. Whenever you build housing, you have to build companion affordable housing. It's kind of ad hoc and it's grassroots architecture, but there's vitality to it.

I'm a big advocate for laying out those kinds of armatures and then letting people self-build, organically. In India and many other places, the right answer may be to lay out a good urban circulation system, complete with infrastructure, and then let people build their own houses over time. It would be a self-built world, but with a framework that's healthier.


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