What does it mean to have a sustainable city? While I am still tentatively certain that this concept will forever remain an impossibility in the strict sense (see William E. Rees, “Is ‘sustainable city’ an oxymoron?” 1997), I’m equally sure that we must begin moving toward this imperative with cities that are at least livable. And what I mean by ‘livable’, as soon as I push even a little on that term, I realize is almost synonymous, or at least intricately bound up with, having cities that are walkable. My word processor’s spell-check function still fails to recognize ‘walkable’ as a valid word, despite the fact that the concept has exploded in popular use in recent years. Countless rental agencies in cities across the nation now boast their units’ “walkability scores” in order to entice prospective renters.
As livable neighborhoods activist Jane Jacobs observed long ago, in order for neighborhoods to be livable, they must consist of mixed-use spaces, meaning that commercial spaces and residential spaces coexist in extremely close proximity (hence the term ‘walkability’) – as opposed to single-use districts that are currently almost guaranteed by traditional zoning standards which brand certain geographic urban areas either ‘commercial’ or ‘residential’ exclusively. As Jacobs notes, single-use spaces lead to a host of social problems, which, although incredibly difficult to measure, manifest themselves most obviously and measurably in area crime rates. Single-use spaces are problematic because people, for the most part, leave residential areas during the day and enter into commercial spaces (typically where they work), which are overwhelmingly vacant at night. Because the simple presence of “eyes on the street” acts to deter crime, vacant spaces become havens for criminal activity: empty residences become targets during the day while everyone is working, and commercial spaces are more dangerous at night while most people go back to their residential space. This by-design movement from one type of space to another all but ensures that people will choose (is this really a choice in the real sense?) to drive cars and that they will inevitably have weak attachments to the communities in which they live; they tend to not know their neighbors, and their social relationships are marked with low levels of trust and reciprocity. In order to have true communities, we must have those things. It may be over-simplistic to suggest that automobiles lead to higher rates of crime and lower levels of social solidarity; but I do not for a moment think this statement is inaccurate.
The hegemony of single-use space and the corresponding urban design based on automobile travel has guaranteed that a carless existence is impossible in many areas. Most towns and small cities consist of concrete and strip malls as far as the eye can see; on the outskirts are shoddy low-rent apartments or (depending on what side of town you’re on) “middle-class” housing developments that are, in actuality, nothing more than middle-class ghettos, separate from all other aspects of everyday life: you must leave your “neighborhood” to do anything: to buy groceries, to go to school or church, to go to the movies or a restaurant, etcetera, etcetera. These are not even neighborhoods at all in any real sense. Large cities look much the same, except in historic urban centers where contrary infrastructure already exists and cannot be easily changed on a large scale.
What we’ve been witnessing with most new development schemes has been a fracturing of our social lives through the destruction of the neighborhood proper. Our spaces are increasingly fragmented and discontinuous. In effect, we LIVE nowhere; we live a little bit over here and yet another little bit over there. We are hardly complete humans, let alone communities.
Small, locally owned businesses (ideally, cooperatives) and neighborhood schools and community centers (and/or churches, if that’s your flavor) are vital to the re-creation of actual neighborhoods. We must have spaces where we can live ALL aspects of our lives in order to be truly healthy individuals and families, and to have truly livable neighborhoods. This largely negates the need for the family car (certainly no one needs a three-car garage, the behemoth monster of greedy, capitalistic, car-centric culture) and ensures a neighborhood that is more walkable and safe – because in addition to measurably lower crime rates, increased safety is achieved simply by the removal of huge numbers of (now almost entirely unnecessary) cars from our neighborhood streets. As Portland’s Sunday parkways have shown, tens of thousands of grandmothers, parents, children, and others, will get out into the streets and cycle once the danger of car traffic is removed. We must correct the (mis)perception that riding bicycles is dangerous; it is precisely dangerous because cars are dangerous. In this way, Portland’s “Share the Road” Program is dangerously misinformed and misleading; we are pointing to precisely the wrong goals, and we should not consider this acceptable. As long as the hegemonic form of transportation (“gas-guzzling death machines”) is allowed to make our streets dangerous places, livable neighborhoods will have a hard time putting down roots, let alone blossoming. While car-free neighborhoods are taking off in parts of Europe, the United States’ (supposedly) most sustainable city (that’s Portland) has elected to build an expanded lane bridge over the Columbia River (the Columbia River Crossing, or CRC) and spend much of its transportation budget on fixing potholes rather than elaborating upon its (far less expensive!) bicycle infrastructure. (Thanks a fuck-ton, Charlie Hales!)
Lest I stray too far from my argument about mixed-use spaces being essential to livable cities (which in reality consists of continuous livable neighborhoods) and into the rabbit-hole of an anti-car rant, I’ll simply point out that the main argument against mixed-use space is the problem of parking spaces. (In Portland, we’ve eliminated the requirement to build parking spaces in high-density residential areas, at least; but without a corresponding increase in public transit incentives – Trimet fares continue to rise annually while simultaneously cutting services – we’re unlikely to see a significant reduction in car use to accompany this reduction in parking. Instead, nearby homeowners will have to share or forego their street parking, and their “neighborhood” will become an ugly clusterfuck of metal and their streets will become more hazardous, especially for young children.) The short-term return on profit associated with single-use design as opposed to the higher long-term yields of mixed-use design is another common argument against mixed use. This shortsightedness is a major facet of our current economic system; this fact alone ought to tell us that we have not yet reached the preposterous “end of history” whereby we have achieved the perfect system, that is, liberal democracy and capitalist markets. Shortsightedness is not a virtue; it is destructively idiotic. Again, I will return to the problem that our culture’s main form of transportation continues to be the automobile, a horribly out-of-date technology that relies on the extraction of fossil fuels, the combustion of which is one of the single greatest contributions to global warming and which damages the earth and human health at all phases of extraction. Fossil fuels, of course, continue to be profitable, and continue to be a primary investment for most retirement funds and even universities – including Portland State, which deceitfully markets itself as sustainable and innovative.
I, of course, am probably telling you nothing you don’t already know. And I, for one, am really sick of being told that we have to wait, that we have to “transition” from a car culture to a livable one, that we must be “more reasonable”. I cannot imagine anything more unreasonable than an insistence on retaining car culture in light of everything we know about its devastating effects, which can only leave room for further disaster capitalism in its wake. Furthermore, this “transition”, this “compromise” is an outright lie when Portland’s budget continues to favor the automobile over the bicycle and mixed-use development. One could point to the unholy alliance between City Hall and the Portland Business Alliance, or do an about-face and point to the continued apathy of the public at large. I believe we have to look both ways before we proceed.
On the bright side, it may be that Portlanders are waking up to the corruption of their local government – and the side-stepping of democracy that dictates so much public policy – with the Portland City Council’s failure to railroad water fluoridation through without a public vote. If we are to have a city where we can live in a way that makes us healthy and happy, we must take charge of public policy in other ways, to involve our energies in other “issues”. Moreover, we must stop being single-issue voters and begin seeing the public policy process as problematic in its current form; we must move toward a more participatory form of urban governance. Neighborhood governance structures with actual decision-making power (unlike the current structure of neighborhood organizations), where citizens directly make the decisions that dictate the planning of their immediate environments, would be a good place to start. This will not be possible without massive public pressure and a huge fight, the results of which would be well worth the collective effort.