Freeing Towns From the Tyranny of the Automobile: A How-To Guide
What do we mean when we say that a city is "healthy"? Do we mean that it's cleaner, safer and less polluted than others? That its economy is booming? That it spends its taxpayers' money wisely, on projects that benefit the many over the few? That it prioritizes the building of community—not just in the social but in the physical sense?
Jeff Speck believes that for a city to be described as healthy, it can't just be one, or even some, of these things; it has to be all of them. And he believes cities can achieve them by committing to the principles of walkability, the idea that communities should be built to meet the needs of pedestrians, not automobiles.
Speck, an architect by training, altered the course of our national conversation about urban planning six years ago with the publication of Walkable City. Pointed, funny and acerbic, his book railed against our sprawling automobile-focused culture and made the case for a human-scaled alternative. To historically dry discussions of things like municipal parking policies, congestion pricing and traffic flow, Speck brought a fresh voice and a no-holds-barred attitude; reading him was a bit like reading Anthony Bourdain, if the late food writer and TV host been more interested in sidewalk regulations than sidewalk cafes.
Walkable City became something of an evangelizing tool for advocates of smart growth and pedestrian-friendly communities, with adherents zealously handing out copies of the book to friends and acquaintances—"like tabs at a Grateful Dead concert," as Speck puts it (very Speckishly, I might add). But while Walkable City may have been terrific at summarizing a new philosophy, it wasn't necessarily the best how-to guide for, say, swaying a city council member to narrow traffic lanes or persuading a mayor to install speed bumps or a new traffic circle.
Enter Speck's new book, Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places (Island Press). Filled with the photos, graphics and charts that many of his fans felt were missing from the last book, the new volume comprises 101 mini-chapters, each of which elegantly distills a single precept from his philosophy over the course of just two pages. If the first book was written to convince you—the reader who has already evinced a keen interest in urban planning—of the manifest benefits of walkability, the second book, in Speck's words, "is meant to help you convince other people."
The book cover for Walkable City Rules.Island Press
Those benefits are walkability's demonstrably positive effects on a city's wealth, public health, equity goals, sense of community and, of course, climate change mitigation. My conversation with Speck took place shortly after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its much talked-about report detailing the consequences of allowing global temperatures to rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Naturally, we discussed how investing in walkability can help cities lead the way in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Speck had a lot to say.
"If you count both first-order and second-order impacts, I think it's absolutely clear that the car-dependent lifestyle—one that both is caused by and also causes sprawl—is the number one contributor to our destruction of the human habitat," Speck told me. "The first-order impacts, of course, are all the emissions that come from driving, and the other pollutants that come from it, from the petroleum in our asphalt to the acid in our car batteries. But as my friend [New Yorker staff writer] David Owen has pointed out, the biggest contribution that driving makes to our environment is that it causes us to spread out. And when we spread out, we consume more land; we require more infrastructure per capita; there's more sewers and electrical lines per person. We consume just so much more."
Speck's new book can be thought of as a primer on how to free our cities from the tyranny of the automobile, moving them closer to their original identities as urban villages that foster community interaction by encouraging people to stroll sidewalks and linger in public spaces. Among other things, it focuses on promoting dense, mixed-use development, ramping up bike infrastructure and right-sizing lanes (in both width and number) to lower traffic speeds and increase safety. And it makes clear that in this era of near-constant bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion, quick and dependable mass transit—and not cars—is what offers citizens the greatest amount of personal freedom.
In dendritic sprawl, most streets are cul-de-sacs and loops, so connectivity falls to a small number of collector streets that are designed as highways.Alex S. MacLean / Landslides Aerial Photography
Way back in 2000, Speck coauthored the seminal Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, which laid the theoretical groundwork for a New Urbanist movement that championed density, walkability and shared public space as the bedrock elements of community. While it may not be accurate to say that the author has softened his stance on sprawl since then, it's probably fair to state that he has come to accept the fact of its continued existence—and would rather spend his time and energy these days on making suburbs and exurbs greener, smarter, and healthier than simply excoriating those who choose to live there.
Speck sees an example of what he deems "training-wheel urbanism" in the current vogue for open-air, mixed-use "lifestyle centers." These giant mixed-use developments, often found in exurbs, typically combine shopping, apartments, restaurants, cinemas, hotels and public parks or fountains, all designed to mimic the dynamism and vitality of a city streetscape. The success of these projects outside Atlanta, Houston, Denver and other places signifies the public's deep desire, be it expressed or latent, to have the walkable-city experience even though they may be "surrounded by the miasma of sprawl," in Speck's words. And he's convinced that most suburbs built before World War II are sitting on economic gold mines in the form of abandoned Main Streets that are ripe for rediscovery and resuscitation along walkable, New Urbanist lines.
Speck and his firm keep quite busy these days consulting with cities large and small, studying traffic patterns, measuring sidewalk and lane widths, and helping city managers find new ways to incorporate walkability. But he sounds sincere when he says that he hopes his new book will put him out of a job. "I don't care if I never do another walkability study again," he says. "Not so long as lots of other people are doing them. I'd much rather be designing buildings!"
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>