Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities

Author: 
Review by Philip Langdon
New Urban News, October-November 2010

Design Strategies for the Post-Carbon World
By Patrick M. Condon
Island Press, 2010, 213 pp., $60 hardcover, $30 paperback

Cities are a chief reason for the climate crisis that’s beginning to bear down on the planet, Patrick Condon warns in his new book — a must-read for anyone involved in smart growth or New Urbanism. “Cities are responsible for 80 percent of all GHG [greenhouse gases],” he points out. Cities’ production of excess heat is “caused by the way we build and arrange our buildings, by all the stuff we put in them, and by how we move from one building to the next.”

“Since the problem is caused by cities, the solution should be there too,” insists Condon, a Brockton, Massachusetts, native who since 1992 has been at the University of British Columbia, doing some of North America’s most important thinking on how cities and regions can become energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and joyful to live in.

A few years ago, Condon took me on a nearly four-hour walking tour of the place he calls home: the Kitsilano section of Vancouver. It’s an urban district that combines ease of getting around (quick, frequent public transit); abundant neighborhood amenities (shops, stores, cafes, restaurants, parks, tree-lined streets); and a pleasingly human scale (few buildings are more than four stories, and many people occupy traditional-looking homes containing just two or three households).

Condon’s intimate understanding of his neighborhood — of how a series of different elements work together to make Kitsilano a satisfying human habitat — gives depth and persuasiveness to his Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities, one of the best books I’ve read on urban planning in the era of climate change.

Rule #1: Restore the streetcar city. Organizing the city and its neighborhoods around streetcar service is fundamental, in Condon’s view. Lay out the city so that everyone is within walking distance of a streetcar, and all sorts of things that are crucial to cutting energy use and reducing degradation of the environment will fall into place. 

Ten dwelling units per gross acre  (25 residents per gross acre) are needed to make bus service at frequent intervals economically feasible, he reports. “For streetcars or trams, the accepted figure is closer to twice that. Densities of seventeen to twenty-five dwelling units per gross acre are not uncommon in streetcar cities and not unachievable in new communities.”

Block configurations are key

The required density can be achieved in the neighborhood and block configurations that are common in the older sections of Vancouver, he says. In Vancouver, as in many other cities, there’s a grid, which brings houses within a five-minute walk of the mixed-use commercial arterials on which streetcars operate. The typical block is 660 feet long and 330 feet deep. Most houses occupy a lot 33 feet wide and 110 feet deep (3,600 square feet), backing onto a lane (alley). For years, many families have had a rental unit in the raised basement of their putatively single-family home or elsewhere on their property; recently the municipality has made accessory apartments legal in most neighborhoods. By such means, a streetcar city is fostered.

Alleys accommodate garages. This allows the fronts of houses to look out on continuous residential landscapes, which can support a tree canopy that’s good for both the climate and the psyche.
Many planners, including new urbanists, have lavished attention on city, town, and neighborhood centers, urban “nodes” where density concentrates. Condon asks for more attention to corridors, which he sees as being able to “create both a personal and communal sense of place.” A corridor can meet most of an individual’s daily needs, including food, entertainment, recreation, and transportation (especially streetcars and buses). Streetcar lines can deliver people to employment along the route.

Granted, streetcar arterials with frequent cross-streets prevent traffic from reaching high speeds. This, says Condon, “is probably a good thing rather than bad.” It enhances safety, he says, and as speeds come down, “the scale of enterprises shrinks with them.” Thus, instead of impersonal big-box stores a long and not very interesting drive away, people find smaller shops close to where they live and work. This reduces vehicles miles traveled, benefiting the environment while producing a more engaging and probably more sociable neighborhood.

Condon’s other six rules, then, are all compatible with the streetcar city: design an interconnected street system; locate commercial services, frequent transit, and schools within a five-minute walk; locate good jobs close to affordable homes; provide a diversity of housing types; created a linked system of natural areas and parks; and invest in lighter, greener, cheaper, smarter infrastructure.

Don’t plan for big, land-hogging businesses such as massive factories that are unlikely to materialize, he says. Keep urban footprints smaller. More than 95 percent of job sites, he asserts, “can easily fit into five, ten, or twenty acres.”

Don’t be snookered into thinking that high-rise buildings are necessarily a better form of urbanism, he says. The slim, glass-walled residential towers for which Vancouver is famous — “point towers” — consume more energy per habitable square foot of floor space than do mid-rise structures, Condon says. Even in a mild-temperature, frequently overcast city, they’re too exposed to sun and wind. No tree can shade a tower.

Don’t think that it’s okay to let rising urban real estate costs push poorer people to the region’s periphery, he urges. Unless affordable housing is made available in convenient, transit-accessible locations, low-income people will have to drive long distances (consuming much of their pay and contributing to global warming) or be cut out of the job market. Achieving a better jobs/housing balance is, for Condon, a moral and environmental necessity.

There is much to think about in this forthright, vigorously written book. Even the footnotes are worth reading. (Unconventionally, but quite effectively, the publisher has placed the footnotes in the center columns of each pair of pages, where you can’t miss them.) Seven Rules is, in more than one respect, a stand-out. If we’re ever going to achieve a “post-carbon world,” this book is a great place to start.

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