Luis Zamorano | Eco-Business

For cities to be more sustainable and liveable, urban design must reorient cities around people rather than cars. Mixed land-use development is a good place to start, say transport experts.

NYC pedestrians
Commuters in New York City. Urban planning that places different residential, commercial and recreational spaces close to one another makes it easier for people to get around by walking, cycling and public transport. Image: Andrew F. Kazmierski / Shutterstock.com

 

Mumbai, India can be a commuter’s nightmare. Downtown sits a full 10 miles from the residential core, and the two areas are poorly linked by public transport. Mumbaikars have the longest commute of any Indian city resident, averaging more than 47 minutes each way every day. This fragmented urban development has pushed car ownership in the city to rise by an astonishing 3,700 per cent in the past 60 years, clogging roadways and polluting the air.

Travel to New York City and the landscape is much different. A single city block houses a mix of restaurants, office buildings, residences, and shops. This type of development—known as “mixed-use development”—makes it easy to use public transport, walk, or bike, helping to efficiently connect the city’s neighborhoods through sustainable transport. The portion of commuters relying on cars in the city fell from 90 per cent to 59 per centbetween 2010 and 2011.

These two cities showcase an emerging urban design lesson: Sprawling cities decrease quality of life; compact, mixed-use developments yield economic and social benefits.

Sprawling and Segregated: The Cost of Disconnected Cities

The proliferation of zoning at the beginning of the 20th century contributed to sprawling cities around the world. Residential neighborhoods sprouted on the urban periphery and in suburbs, giving rise to car-dependent commuter towns. City centers languished, shopping malls replaced commercial streets, and the urban poor were segregated from the wealthy elite.

These sprawling cities are increasingly common in developing nations. For example, Mexico’s history of dispersioncreated thousands of single-family houses on the outskirts of cities. The sheer distance to everyday destinations means some families spend 25 percent of their income on transport. This type of design increased Mexico City’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by up to 70 percent and costs USD 2.5 billion (33 billion pesos) each year in lost economic productivity.

Connected Communities Improve Health, Environment, and Economies

Mixed-use development works against these trends to create inclusive, connected communities. In mixed-use areas, you can find housing, restaurants, services, schools, cultural facilities, parks, and more. This connectivity reduces the need for private vehicles, thus increasing the viability of public transport, walking, and bicycling. For example, Mexico City’s longest street, Avenida Insurgentes, is home to a range of services, residences, and businesses, but traffic congestion initially made the street difficult to access. For these reasons, local decision-makers choseInsurgentes as the site for the city’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) system, Metrobús. After the launch of Metrobús in 2005, 100,000 daily car trips were replaced by sustainable transport, easing congestion and reducing the city’s GHG emissions by hundreds of thousands of tons.

Growing Cities and Sustainable, Mixed-Use Development

According to the World Health Organization, cities will hold 70 per cent of the world’s population by 2050. About 96 per cent of this growth will occur in developing countries, demanding quality urban spaces and services.

As current cities expand and new ones crop up, it’s important for local leaders, urban planners, and citizens to examine what works. Compact, car-light cities spur economic growth, social cohesion, and quality of life.