Three ways to achieve livable, low-density cities

Author and political activist Charles Siegel says you don't need high-density urban planning to make a city livable and sustainable. Here are his three ways to achieve the perfect suburb.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

In the world of urban planning, the high-density urban area is often held as ideal. After all, with that kind of density, you can do amazing things.

But what if we don't want vertical living? Charles Siegel, political activist and author of Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices, argues that there's a better way than the suburbs we have today.

Writing at Planetizen, Siegel suggests that suburbia as we know it -- sprawling, with freeways that connect everything -- ought to be reconsidered as a spectrum of ideals, rather than a single answer shaped solely by political or technical considerations.

He suggests three models of low-density cities:

The car-free city: Entails a ban on automobiles for personal transportation in the city. The feel: streetcar suburbs that were popular in America a century ago. A "high point of American urban design" that includes free-standing houses, small front yards, adequate backyards, apartments above main street shops and trolleys to get around.

The car-tamed city: Entails a speed limit of 12 to 15 mph for private vehicles, allowing cars for local trips but requiring high-speed rail for longer hauls. Distances would be shorter than today's 'burbs. Communities would gather at transit nodes.

The car-friendly city: Entails a speed limit of 25 or 30 mph. A high-speed commuter rail system would allow for houses with two-car garages on quarter-acre lots, but render freeways and high-speed arterials unnecessary. Commuters would use rail. Feels like: Post-World War II suburbia as it should have been.

The goal? Increase density to a point, without completely cracking down on the utility of the private vehicle.

Or, as Siegel writes, leave most decision-making to the individual, but use political means -- such as a limit on cars -- to start the discussion to make cities more livable and sustainable.

That's not all Siegel has to say. Read the entire essay for a brief dive into how things ended up this way.

Image: The future of American streetcars/Infrastructurist

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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