Peter Calthorpe

I attended SFU City Program’s public lecture Thursday March 09 titled “Looking Out to 2031 in Greater Vancouver: Accommodating the next one million residents”.

The feature speaker was Peter Calthorpe, much celebrated urban planner. As introduction, here is an excerpt from an interview of Calthorpe by Scott London, snipped from

As one of the leading proponents of New Urbanism or Neotraditionalism, Calthorpe has formulated a comprehensive design and planning philosophy aimed not only at curbing urban sprawl and reducing traffic congestion, but also creating more pedestrian-friendly and ecologically sound communities, environments that that promote a sense of connectedness and place. He is the author of Sustainable Communities, The Next American Metropolis, and most recently, The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl (co-authored with William Fulton).

Scott London: In a nutshell, how would you describe good urban design?

Peter Calthorpe: My short and simple answer is that a well-designed city is walkable. It’s a place where your destinations are close enough to walk to and where you feel safe enough to walk. And it’s a place that is interesting enough socially to make you feel that walking is perhaps something more than just getting from point A to point B. I think that is the heart of it.

London: Is it possible to design walkable communities in an age of freeways and strip malls?

Calthorpe: Well, the idea that we can return to mom-and-pop grocery stores is fallacious. But I think we have to find our way back to some of the design principles of the traditional American city. The idea is to create a hybrid between the realities of today and the need for a return to human-scale community.

These are a few notes I managed to catch during his lecture at the Hyatt last Thursday.

It’s challenging to get people to think long term. This generation seems to be different – less interested in future generations, just living in the present.

Is people’s investment in the future in decline?

The ethos of the WWI and WWII generations was of making things better for the next generation. This seems to be eroding.

We should be planning 50 years out.

The PRINCIPLES of urban planning:
• diversity and balance

• human and pedestrian scale

• conservation and restoration

• connections and interdependence

These principles need concrete implementation strategies.

For diversity, the more inclusive the better. Fully integrate low income housing with housing for higher incomes.

For pedestrian scale, short blocks encourage pedestrians. Oceans of parking is what results from large blocks (long distances between intersections) since it creates a reliance on the automobile to get around.

Examples of regions that at first weren’t open to new methods of accommodating growth found themselves embracing change as a result of an open and engaging PUBLIC PROCESS.

Make people designers.
• allow people to engage

* let them be the problem solvers

• step up the sophistication

Provide analysis of the alternatives. Show the data that results from each model. For example,
• land area needing to be added to accommodate projected growth if it were to follow current land use patterns;

• breakdown of the mix of housing types achieved with each model.

What will housing demands be in 20 years – for what types of housing?
Despite the belief that Americans aspire to the suburban Single Family home, on average, 1/3 of housing in the States is multi-unit.

There needs to be a mix of housing types to accommodate all phase in life. “Single Family only accommodates one phase.” Planning should provide a “life cycle” housing mix.

To achieve more pedestrian oriented streets, some cities are allowing higher FAR only for mixed use buildings. Also, in areas where 4 storeys mixed use is permitted, developers are allowed to build an extra storey if the project provides 20% of units as affordable housing. It has been very successful with most developers taking advantage of the opportunity.

For low income homes, de-stigmatize their lives through full integration within developments. Do not segregate low income housing.

Build “connector streets instead of collector streets”. Increase the density of the street grid to spread traffic thinner so streets – all streets – are more liveable.

Can we think about, can we care about, 50 years away? How do you manage the relationship between man and nature? Do you care about the next generation?

The following were in response to audience questions.

In response to my questioning if he was denying the obvious commercial success and market power of the big box centres:

Avoid big box effect while accommodating big box stores. Don’t allow large blocks at arterial intersections – make the street grid a finer grain. incorporate big box stores into smaller blocks, mixed use or blocks with smaller retail shops wrapping the box. force parking to be either underground or on the roof. But all cities in the area have to enforce the same standards, otherwise big boxes will just go where it’s cheaper to build.

In response to a question about his opinion on the Gateway project, he replied that he didn’t know what the Gateway project is, so couldn’t comment on it directly. Throughout his presentation he frequently focused on roads, number of lanes and speed of traffic. Much of his work has been in attempting to minimize the negative impacts of wide, high speed freeways. His advice:

Balance and mix transportation uses. Sometimes there is a need to blend both freeway expansion and increased transit.

On controlling congestion:

Constrain parking – limit available parking spaces and make parking expensive so that the market will control traffic. People will choose to not drive their cars if they know it will be hard to find a space to park and expensive if they do. Of course, this assumes there are transit alternatives in place. In San Francisco, there are zero parking spots required in some new developments.

In response to a question about the place for nature in cities and viability of green roofs:

Mayor Jackson reported a plan in Delta to achieve a 40% urban canopy by planting 2010X100 trees by 2010.

Calthorpe suggested these issues should be planned and enforced regionally – that the new LRSP could be a new set of standards, for street trees, block size, …

In response to a question about growth:

Limiting growth hurts the low income the most. Limiting supply when there is demand results in increased pricing.

In a rant about engineers, traffic engineers in particular, but also specialized professional disciplines in general:

Don’t forget about the full range of problems – don’t optimize a plan to solve one problem. Focusing on “one dimension of the problem” might create more of a problem than gets solved.

Plan for multi-modal transportation systems – the more modes of transportation, the more resilient the city. Robustness and redundancy builds capacity, supports more pedestrian oriented streets, and helps cities respond and evolve with changing trends, needs or circumstances.

On whether neighbourhoods would be safer with quiet cul-de-sacs separate from busy arterials:

“When you separate the person from the street, the street becomes a utility for the car” and becomes unsafe and undesirable for people.

In the planning process, asking and answering these questions will build public support and/or improve the proposed plan.
What are the consequences of the alternatives?
What are the outcomes of the proposal… and its options?

On a question about North American “car culture”:

“If you really want to have an impact on travel behaviour”, limit parking.

“You build transit to enable pedestrian activity not as an alternative to the car.” To be encouraged to use transit, you “need to arrive in a pedestrian friendly place… and should probably start from a pedestrian friendly place.”
“Transit is a pedestrian enhancer.”

In response to a question about the trend of neo-classical architecture:

Buildings of the 1830′s are still standing and performing well while those from the end of the 20th century are failing. “We need to be wise enough to look to our traditions and history.”

In response to a comment that the real problem is our cannibalistic, capitalist system fuelled by greed that needs growth in order to survive, and therefore doomed for failure and ensuring imminent destruction of the Earth as a habitable planet:

“We need growth as an economic engine to repair mistakes from over the past 50 years.” There has been a lot of damage done over the past 50 years, but growth creates an opportunity to fix that damage.

In response to a question about how high rises fit with the principle of human scale:

“Human scale isn’t about size, it’s about texture, activity, windows on the street … Human scale is not about size.”
[He listed several qualities. These were the only ones I caught as I was writing. I'm going to try and find out if anyone else caught it, because it was brilliant.]

Leave a Reply

If you want to use XHTML tags, these ones are allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>