Future Cities

by Walter Libby –

No doubt, we are in recession. And our prospects for recovery look grim. Already we’ve seen nine straight months of jobs losses. And it seems likely that they will continue, and get worse. We are caught in what economists call a liquidity trap. Here, despite the Fed driving interest rates ever closer to rock bottom and the infusion of new blood into the financial system, the recession forces consumers to cut back on spending, forcing businesses to cut back on production, investments and workers perpetuating the cycle. So as the economy continues to freefall, the demand for loans decline and the liquidity pumped into our banks goes unused- ergo the trap.

So the question now is how do we get out of the trap? We can’t look to a turn around in the housing industry- as the economy worsens more people are going to move in with family or friends, rent rooms, or move into tent cities. But we can look to a turn around in our thinking as we shift from unsustainable urban sprawl and invest in the development of new cities designed along sustainable lines. So together with investments in renewable energy and infrastructure, they will begin to pull us out of the trap.

The idea of building new cities is not unprecedented. In the late 1960s there was a movement to build hundreds of new cities to counter the inefficiencies of sprawl and its negative impact on the environment. Led by the National Committee on Urban Growth Policy- a private association funded by the Ford Foundation, made up of politicians and civic-minded individuals, sponsored by prestigious organizations such as the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, and the US Conference of Mayors- it published a book entitled The New City. Here, as they saw it, “If we allocate one-half of the coming 100 million [increase in population] to existing peripheral growth around existing cities and 10 percent to small towns and farms, the remaining 40 million would require the building of 20 cities of one million each and 200 new towns of 100,000 each.”

The US Congress, a supporter of the New City movement, affirmed it again by passing the Urban Growth and New Community Act of 1970. Its purpose was to underwrite part of the huge startup costs of new towns and so “encourage the rational, orderly, efficient…development and redevelopment of our cities…And to do so in a manner which will rely to the maximum extent on private enterprise.”

Major corporations were investing in and backing up the original developers. Gulf Oil, Westinghouse, US Gypsum, and Sears Roebuck to name a few. And others such as Chrysler, Ford, Phillip Morris and Ralston Purina were poised to jump on the bandwagon.

Unfortunately, the movement ran into stagflation- rising oil prices and interest rates- that effectively knocked off the wheels. The movement ended as developers sold off what they could or ended in bankruptcy. In 1983, Congress repealed the Urban Growth Act.

Today’s developers are going to have to be the ones with mega-bucks: Gates, Buffet, Allen, the Waltons, along with Turner (the largest landowner in the US), Trump and Soros- all those concerned with turning our economy in a sustainable direction. And corporations as well as Congress are going to have to get behind the movement again- corporations because they need more consumers and Congress because we desperately need new jobs both in the construction industry and the industrial sector.

That said, as the world moves by necessity to sustainable cities and so a sustainable global economy, new plans, new models are going to be proposed like the UN-supported World Trade Centers Association’s “Triangle of Peace” initiative .

Here I don’t propose building new cities adjacent to small towns; they may not want them in their backyards. As to existing cities, they are already surrounded by suburbs and edge cities, a conurbation that stretches out, in some cases, for hundreds of miles. Their challenge is to continue the trend to sustainable practices: turning brown fields, and perhaps dilapidated neighborhoods into high-density, mixed-use communities (providing those displaced with low-interest loans, moving them into foreclosed homes), further developing public transportation and rapid transit systems, car pooling, reduced driving and more walking and biking.

And while people are moving into cities to get closer to their jobs because of rising gas prices (the drop in oil prices reflect the concerns over a faltering global economy. When it comes back, so will higher gas prices), the best sustainable cities in the United States are some of the most expensive places to live. Nonetheless, with new jobs in the manufacturing and the industrial sector, jobs in the service sector will be secured. So people can afford to stay in their homes, qualify for loans to buy exising homes as well as clear the market of new homes. And while demand will raise the prices of both, that doesn’t mean that homebuilders should build more. It means that they should join the movement and become part of the solution.

So here’s how I see cities of tomorrow (with a nod to Ebenezer Howard, author of Garden Cities of Tomorrow): cities powered by renewable energy. Clusters of neighborhoods linked by elevated transportation arteries, public transport shared by electric vehicles, bikes and pedestrians will form the city line. These neighborhoods are large terraced multi-story structures sheltering thousands. Here the terraces are reserved for homes and greenhouses and their lower levels for recycling centers, cisterns, food processing plants and controlled-environment farms (as described in Discover magazine’s The Green Machine: Indoor Farming, December 1988).

So as you walk out into your neighborhood you encounter not hallways, but wide breezeways lined with trees, plants and shrubs. From here you enter pedestrian boulevards lit by skylights crisscrossing the neighborhood. Here you find second story apartment looking down on restaurants, businesses, theaters, banks, post offices, and the various shops- everything that makes up for a lively street encounter.

Make a turn and you’ll find supermarkets, playgrounds, basketball and tennis courts, ice rinks, schools, hospitals and libraries. And when you go down to the first floor, at ground level, you find barns (for pigs, beef, dairy cows, chicken and fish farms) opening into natural habitat mixed with organic gardens and orchards, parks and golf courses. Instead of sending our table scraps, our unwanted leftovers, dry bread, spoiled fruit to landfill, we recycle them to barnyards, indoor farms or to community orchards and gardens.

Once there is a sufficient population, a larger central city is built. This is the cultural center of the whole. Here you have colleges, the larger hospitals, museums, aquariums, zoos, sport stadiums, theaters for the performing arts, large central parks, plazas, street performers and so on. These cities are not a variation of urban sprawl. They are sustainable cities that do not grow beyond the constraints of their regions where they have nestled. If we need more cities we find other sustainable niches.

New cities, however designed, as an alternative to sprawl, are a good selling point. Add to that greater efficiency, lower taxes and the mix of town and country. But its best pitch to the people, the developers, the captains of industry and Congress is that their economic stimulus is necessary for our national security and confidence in general, for Wall Street, Main Street and for those who doubt that America can resolve its economic crisis, our ability to bootstrap our economy.

Granted the idea is unlikely to gain immediate traction. But in the coming months job losses are going to progressively increase given the vulnerability of a consumer economy. People are already angry, scared, stressed out and concerned with the lack of substantive ideas put forward by the candidates. In the quest for new ideas that will promote a sustainable recovery, we will need to be bold.

Walter Libby is a Practical Idealist living in Las Vegas, NV.

2008-10-17 07:35:02


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