May 4, 2017
Space to Live
By Elliott Sclar
Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at Columbia University

As urban areas become more crowded and commuting times longer, governments and urban planners will need to consider ways to create easier access for all – be it by walking or cycling – rather than catering to easier mobility through ever more roadways.

Cities exist for one reason: They create easy access.

The world’s best cities provide the greatest ease of access to the greatest number of people. Access is the gateway to opportunities for work, education, recreation, culture and civic democracy. It is through this array of accessible opportunities that the socially diverse populations that comprise cities create the goods and services that make modern life possible. Cities create access through their ability to collocate a great number of activities and people in a comparatively small amount of physical space.

But they can’t crowd everything into this small space.

So the social quality of access emerges from a balance between actual concentration and colocation and some forms of orderly dispersion of people and activity over a larger metropolitan area. In 1950, about one-third of the world’s population lived in urban places and two-thirds lived in rural ones. By 2050, those proportions will reverse even as the total human population expands from around seven billion people at present to about 10 billion by mid-century.

Whether this urbanization produces a better life for all or is mired in stagnation will hinge on how well cities are able to balance their colocation with orderly dispersion. Too much density and cities become congested and the quality of access and urban life more generally begins to deteriorate. Too much dispersion and sprawl ensues. Sprawl in turn limits the opportunities for access across the broad social spectrum of people who comprise any given urban place.

Because access is a social public good that emerges from the physical and spatial patterns that create a city, societies have four tools through which to balance colocation and dispersion: land use planning, urban design, architecture, and infrastructure creation. There is no one correct or formulaic mix of these for all places and certainly not for all times. Depending on historic context, technological options and institutions of governance, different cities do better and worse at deploying these tools in pursuit of a vibrant, accessible cities.

For too much of the past century dispersion through expanded auto-mobility came to dominate policy and planning. The result has been metropolitan regions that extend for nearly 50 or more miles in radius. They are frequently characterized by single use zoning, such as exclusive, or “gated,” residential communities that require automobile travel for almost every single activity of daily urban life. It is easy to understand why this sprawl, with its negative environmental and social consequences for urban life, occurred: The advent of the automobile held out a powerful promise of easy and universal access to all urban residents regardless of where they were located.

Access essentially became conflated with mobility. Over much of the 20th century, policy and planning tools were fixated with the singular purpose of fitting our new cities and retrofitting older ones to accommodate the space consuming requirements of the car. As we quickly learned, we had taken a step too far in our design of urban places. The critical balance between concentration and dispersion, so vital to a good urban life, was lost.

We are now challenged by cities that are congested for long hours every day with more cars than they can physically accommodate. As the numbers of people seeking urban lives expands, the precious space that cities occupy can’t be used to accommodate more housing, more open space and more commercial space as the needs for roads and parking takes precedence in a vain hope for a solution to the congestion problem that they create.

The problem is larger than simply one of traffic jams. Around one-third of greenhouse gas emissions result from motor vehicles. We will not get a handle on stabilizing our climate change problems without moving away from an overly car dependent form of urbanism. Better design of public transport and more use of walking and biking can create as much if not more access at far lower cost in terms of environmental degradation. Pedestrian-automobile accidents are a leading cause of death especially for young people in the fast growing cities of the world in Africa and Asia.

So today’s challenge is to redress the co-location/dispersion balance. Compact access needs to become the watchword of 21st century urban planning and design; hence walkable places must be our first priority, “bike-able” ones come next, and then we need space for excellent public transport. Motorized transport should only be the final priority.

While the ideal path forward is clear, the challenge of how to get it done looms large. Our models and policies need to be adjusted in ways that incentivize access over mobility and that reflect a genuine concern for ensuring access to cities is enjoyed by all and not just the most privileged.

Elliott SclarElliott Sclar is Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at Columbia University. He is also Director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development. He coordinated the United Nation's Millennium Project’s Taskforce on Improving the Lives of Slum Dwellers and received the 2007 Humanitarian of the Year Award from the International Society for Urban Health for his efforts.