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11187Reining back sprawl in Europe

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  • Christopher Miller
    Feb 6, 2009
      From the environment360 web log:



      05 FEB 2009: ANALYSISThe New Urbanists:
      Tackling Europe’s SprawlIn the last few decades, urban sprawl, once
      regarded as largely a U.S. phenomenon, has spread across Europe. Now
      an emerging group of planners is promoting a new kind of development —
      mixed-use, low-carbon communities that are pedestrian-friendly and
      mass-transit-oriented.by bruce stutz

      The mood among the planners, architects, and theorists gathered at the
      International Conference on Climate Change and Urban Design in Oslo
      last September was, despite the heavy gray autumn skies, quite
      buoyant, inspired by a feeling that their time had come.

      In the 1980s, exasperated by what they considered the excesses of
      American-style suburban development and its low-density “anonymous”
      subdivisions, and disenchanted by Corbusier-inspired large-scale high-
      rise housing blocks, they had begun proselytizing for a return to the
      scale and density that had given European cities, towns, and villages
      their distinctive character — compact development that did away with
      single-use zoning, isolating cul-de-sacs, and looping roads made for
      cars and not pedestrians. They hoped instead for a return to
      developments where business, industry, shops, and residences shared a
      matrix of meandering streets that were walkable, bikeable, and public
      transport-centered — developments that were socially and economically
      diverse and that provided residents with “a sense of place” and
      “celebrated local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.”

      They had not had much luck in getting their theories put into
      practice. They were accused of being tediously nostalgic. And besides,
      land outside of cities was plentiful and relatively inexpensive, and
      home buyers seemed reluctant to trade in their dreams of big houses
      with three bathrooms and a front and back yard.

      Not that there weren’t already some remarkable examples of new
      urbanism. Works in progress included compact, mixed-use, pedestrian-,
      bicycle-, and transit-friendly “urban extensions” underway in
      Amersfoort, the Netherlands; in Hammarby Sjostad outside of Stockholm;
      and in Adamstown, outside of Dublin. The UK had proposed ten “eco-
      towns” to be built across England. The French government had announced
      plans to develop its own low-carbon suburbs it called “villes
      durable.” As early as 1992, Freiburg, Germany, had committed itself to
      preserving the character of its medieval city center by keeping sprawl
      at bay, resulting in the 5,000-home Vauban suburb that is an
      urbanist’s dream; in Vauban, 65 percent of the energy is solar or
      produced by an efficient central heating plant; only 150 of every
      1,000 homes has a car (compared with the U.S. average of 640 cars per
      1,000 homes); and two-thirds of all trips are made on foot or bike.

      (Photo caption: While many German cities have designed pedestrian-only
      streets, Freiburg set aside an entire district that has steadily

      But the delegates to the Oslo conference, which was sponsored by the
      Council for European Urbanism, believed they could move beyond these
      limited pioneering efforts by impressing the still skeptical with hard
      science: New data demonstrated that increases in energy consumption
      and CO2 emissions are indirectly proportional to population density.
      The built environment, it turned out, was responsible for more than
      half of greenhouse gases. And low-density building was worst of all.
      From longer driving times to the expansion of energy, food, goods,
      and services distribution systems, sprawl undermined the efficient use
      and delivery of resources. And across Europe, urban sprawl was rampant.

      A nearly iconic fact of life in the United States, urban sprawl had
      been slow to evolve in Europe. While sprawl was not unknown — Paris,
      London, Brussels, every major city has long had outlying rings of
      lower density development — most European cities had, even late into
      the 20th century, remained far more compact than their American
      counterparts. They were still places where people walked or took
      public transportation to local shops, restaurants or theaters. That
      this is no longer the paradigm — that cities from Luxembourg to
      Prague, from Madrid to Istanbul, are experiencing accelerating sprawl
      and its increased automobile traffic, CO2 emissions, energy
      consumption, land fragmentation, natural resource degradation,
      watershed damage, farmland decline, and social polarization — has
      become a major concern across the continent.

      Yet Europe’s urban sprawl has had a counterintuitive streak: it has
      happened during a period of declining population. Over the last 20
      years, many eastern and western European cities have expanded their
      built areas by 20 percent while their populations have increased an
      average of only 6 percent. Over that same 20-year period in Europe
      there have been four times the number of new cars on the road as the
      number of babies born. Over the next 20 years the number of kilometers
      traveled in urban areas will increase 40 percent, an increase that
      will negate any expected gains in fuel efficiency, and make reaching
      Europe’s Kyoto goals of reducing CO2 emissions nearly impossible.

      All of this troubles the European Union and it should, since much of
      it, the EU admits, is its own creation. Sprawl, the EU recognizes, has
      followed the money — its money. EU investments in transnational
      regional growth following the member states’ economic integration,
      while intended to level the playing field, in the end favored capital
      cities over smaller cities and towns. Improved transport links —
      highways designed to accommodate increased freight traffic — have led
      to American-style intercity corridors built up with new industrial and
      commercial developments. Auto-centric suburbs with low-density housing
      tracts and shopping malls have followed, and public transit has not
      been able to keep pace.

      In the 1990s, abetted by a much expanded highway system, Madrid’s
      urbanized land area increased by 50 percent compared with 5.4 percent
      in the rest of the EU. During this same period the area’s population
      grew by only 5 percent.

      In the newest EU countries, those in Eastern Europe that had been
      communist, the changes have been even more drastic. Central planning
      demanded high-density housing and public transit. State-owned
      agricultural land was not open for development. In Romania, for
      instance, the Ceausescu government had even demolished houses to free
      up land for apartment blocks. With the end of Ceausescu’s rule,
      agricultural land was returned to its original owners and a “chaotic
      patchwork” of housing plots began to sprawl outward from the cities
      with little regard for planning or environmental protection.

      With its entry into the EU in 2007, Romania’s economy grew 5.7
      percent, and the year after, 7.5 percent. This economic development
      drove residential construction up 29.3 percent in 2007, and along with
      it, the number of cars — up 27 percent. This growth has become a great
      cause for concern among environmentalists, as Romania’s extensive
      forests are some of the least disturbed habitats in Europe.

      The losses to Europe’s natural and scenic reserves may be the
      mostrreversible effects of its sprawl. Natura 2000, the EU’s network
      of natural reserves, is increasingly finding urban sprawl encroaching
      on its sites and new transit corridors running through them. Via
      Baltica, a planned road network connecting the Baltic States and
      Finland to the rest of the EU will cross through valuable forest and
      marsh lands, including the Augustow and Knyszn Primeval Forests and
      the marshes of Biebrza in Poland, one of the few natural wetlands
      remaining in all of Europe.

      (Photo caption: Investment and Development Agency of Latvia
      Via Baltica will pass through the marshes of Biebrza in Poland, one of
      the few natural wetlands left in Europe.)

      Reenter, the new urbanists.

      European governments — as well as some in India and Asia — have begun
      turning to them in an effort to forestall further unsustainable
      growth, reclaim the lost primacy of their cities (along with their
      sustainable density and scale), and deliver a built environment with a
      much diminished carbon footprint.

      The sense of vindication at the Oslo conference was tempered by the
      realization that they now had a responsibility to find the money and
      put it on the line. It’s one thing to talk about “walkable and
      bikeable” places, but what are the practical essentials of a carbon-
      neutral urbanist town and how does one go about developing one?

      One thing everyone agreed on was that the end result was only going to
      be as good as the planning process that preceded it. Before ground was
      broken on the first foundation, long-term financing of the project had
      to be in place, public transportation should be ready, connections to
      established communities had to be assured. Where were the residents
      going to shop, work, go to school, church, the movies?

      “Townmaking,” one planner assured me, “is a complicated business.
      Without a guiding authority you’re not going to get the necessary
      level of sophistication. It’s necessary to have a long-term master
      plan that over time continues to add value to the development.”

      For the new urbanists, building an eco-town is not a matter of
      building “green” buildings. For some, in fact, green buildings are non-
      starters, taking 25 to 65 years to recoup the energy used to build
      them; and once built, they can become quickly obsolete, saddled with
      already out-of-date technology.

      “Everyone gets seduced by the ‘green bling,’” Stephen Platt of
      Cambridge Architectural Research told me. “Making the houses energy-
      efficient is the easy bit. The key problem is making this a long-term
      socially acceptable place where people will want to live and prosper.”
      More important is creating places that, like Vauban, encourage people
      to change their unsustainable behaviors and then enable them to do it.

      It was a lack of clear planning — as well as politics — that has mired
      the UK’s proposed eco-towns. The number of proposed developments there
      has been gradually whittled down to a handful. The French efforts to
      create “villes durable” have yet to get underway, but they have begun
      by requesting proposals for projects — “not ‘cities in the country,’
      but places that will interlock with the existing heritage.” Five to
      seven will be chosen that together will have to provide housing for
      some 50,000 people.

      From the EU’s standpoint, the hope is that national and local
      governments initiate planning processes that will rein in sprawl. The
      urbanists’ hope is that concerns for global warming, as well as the
      global recession, have people looking for ways to change their
      economically profligate and carbon-costly habits.


      Christopher Miller
      Montreal QC Canada