Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post-Carbon World

“Should I drive to get that loaf of bread, or can I walk? That decision amplified and repeated by many millions results in impossibly overloaded freeways and ridiculously expensive and unsustainable patterns of movement.”

“Should I drive to get that loaf of bread, or can I walk? That decision amplified and repeated by many millions results in impossibly overloaded freeways and ridiculously expensive and unsustainable patterns of movement.”

How can North American cities be designed to reduce carbon emissions? The answer, according to architecture professor Patrick Condon, lies in the past, 1880 to 1945 to be specific. That’s when multiple North American cities were designed as streetcar cities that were “walkable, transit accessible, and virtually pollution-free while still dramatically extending the distance citizens could cover during the day.” Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles and Vancouver were classic examples of this design, built on a grid with commercial/residential corridors along the streetcar lines. This approach to urban design was eclipsed by low-density, car-dependent suburban development following World War II.

Condon champions argues for a return to this bygone model of urban design. Although this book presents seven rules, rules two through six are arguably subsumed under the first one: restore the streetcar city. Even if the streetcars are gone and the tracks torn up, the bones of this earlier design are still there and should be used, he contends, to retrofit and rehab former streetcar cities. His vision is that planners in such cities will invest in zero-carbon trolley buses and modern tram systems (using lighter, less expensive European technology) to recreate high-density, transit-accessible, more environmentally-friendly corridors. Vancouver has done it. Portland, Oregon has done it too.

Living carfree is not expressly presented as a viable option or end goal. Listen to how he writes about living without a car: “Residents who live near Broadway [an east-west corridor in Vancouver] can survive without a car. Many of the residents along the corridor are students at UBC….” He leaves the impression that living without a car is something college kids do (where are the carfree working adults and families?) and his word choice (“can survive”) is hardly a ringing endorsement for a carfree lifestyle. He seems to be more in line with the idea of owning a car, but using it less.

I like that Condon dismisses electric, hydrogen and ethanol cars as a cure-all. I like that he wants to recycle and reuse design features that worked in the past when thinking about designing for the future. I appreciate the maps and the aerial, historic and contemporary photographs throughout the book. As a social scientist, I was intrigued by the perspective that human behavior can be changed by urban design alone. If a convenience store, café or transit stop is located within a five minute walk, he states, people will walk there. “Most people think that walking five minutes is easier than firing up the car, pulling it out of a parking space, negotiating streets, finding a place to park, and exiting from the auto driver’s crouch.” He is writing from Vancouver, “North America’s most successful example of center city densification.” I’m writing from Phoenix, the poster child for car-centered design with mile-long blocks and low public transit use. If more corner stores were built in cities like Phoenix, would car owners really start walking to them? He does say that any design-inspired shift to transit, walking and biking would be “gradual.” However, I think walkable design will need to be paired with the economic kick of ten-dollar-a-gallon gas before Phoenix residents leave their cars at home.

Condon admits up front that his seven rules are not original. What he’s trying to create is a “credible framework for action.” His salvage plan is really only applicable to former streetcar cities, though he says forty percent of US and Canadian urban residents currently live in areas with a streetcar past. Still, this book could serve as a good primer for students and other newcomers to urban development as it carefully and clearly discusses the issues raised by each of the seven rules. In fact, this book is required for students in the Sustainable Community Development certificate program at Simon Fraser University. As for me here in Phoenix, I’ll keep waiting for gas prices to soar and dreaming of moving to Portland, Oregon.

The Seven Rules
1. Restore the streetcar city.
2. Design an interconnected street system.
3. Locate commercial services, frequent transit, and schools within a five-minute walk.
4. Locate good jobs close to affordable homes.
5. Provide a diversity of housing types.
6. Create a linked system of natural areas and parks.
7. Invest in lighter, greener, cheaper, and smarter infrastructure.

Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post-Carbon World
Patrick M. Condon
Island Press, 2010, 200 pages.

Book Review by Kelly Nelson

One Comment

  1. Tim S.
    Posted 27 March, 2011 at 19:22 | Permalink

    I sometimes think of the New Urbanism as simply denser sprawl and a design regression. I live in a 1930’s vintage ‘streetcar suburb’ that is an example of the original New Urbanism. The local bus routes actually follow the routes of the original electric trolleys. However, rather than trolleys, the individual motor vehicle has taken precedence in transportation. Many people ‘warm-up’ their vehicles for 25 minutes to make what I supect is a 15 minute commute. When I was a car owner I too would drive past the bus stop 300 ft. away to spend hours on an Odyssey to Nowhere in Particular.
    I picked up a copy of Soleri’s “Arcology: The City in the Image of Man” in 1974, the first book on cities that I had ever seen, and I have been intrigued by his designs ever since. This book was published in 1969 just as the Baby Boomers were establishing households. Yet,the country was preoccupied with high performance cars and building suburbs. Perhaps only after we have burned through the cheap oil will these ecologically aware cities be built.

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