Researchers have launched a new international standard and scorecard aimed at persuading planners, designers and architects to develop urban communities that encourage people to walk, cycle or take public transport - anything but drive.
Today, there are more than a billion cars on the planet. In a few decades' time, there might be twice that number. Combined with the trend in more people moving to cities, this presents a big problem for the planet, argues Luc Nadal, technical director of urban development at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), which is based in New York City.
"The two factors of urbanisation and motorisation tend to result in the phenomenon of 'suburbanisation', which is people moving in large numbers to urban places that are car-centric; depending on their cars to connect all the dots of what needs to be done on a daily basis, such as going from home to work, from work to places of supply, of entertainment, going to school, and so on," he said.
He described suburban living as the "most inefficient settlement form ever".
"The time and energy consumed by travelling in personal vehicles from one activity to another is obviously also linked to the emissions of pollutants, of greenhouse gases that transform our climate," Nadal said.
Finding a different way to develop is crucial, he added. To this end, the ITDP has come up with the "Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Standard", a policy guide that evaluates real estate schemes on how well they connect people with work, school or any other place they need to go, without having to use a car.
The team came up with eight principles that are "at the core of what good urban form should be", said Nadal. The principles - kept to one word each so as to be accessible and spreadable - are: walk, cycle, connect, transit, mix, densify, compact and shift.
Each principle has tangible objectives that can be scored numerically. The 24 metrics have been used to compare 50 new or recent urban developments around the world.
A LEADER IN LONDON
Top-ranked was the Central Saint Giles development in London's West End, which scored 99 out of 100, one of nine gold-standard developments identified by ITDP.
"It embodies all the planning and design that make a great transit-oriented development," said Nadal of the London project. "It's very compact in nature ... it is well-served by public transportation, it has an excellent mix of uses - residential, commercial, and affordable housing - and it has wonderful, inviting pedestrian space open to the public."
But it gained the edge because of one thing it doesn't have: a large parking supply.
"Both the government and the developers understood how important it is for people to walk and cycle. Even the few - I think 30 - parking spaces, are not mostly used for cars, and have been turned into cycle parking and parking for people with disabilities," Nadal added.
FAST-DEVELOPING WORLD A CHALLENGE
The real challenge, however, will be encouraging this kind of development in countries like China and India, where urbanisation is a rapid and powerful force.
"(In China) the capacity to do good planning is not really there. Or it is there in thought, but a large part of what is being built now... is with poor planning and design concepts, largely car-oriented, based on laying down very large roads and delineating very large blocks that are then sold to single developers," said Nadal. "The conditions for walking and cycling are not pleasant, and not conducive."
But the ITDP is optimistic about spreading the ideals of transit-oriented development to planners everywhere, even in China.
"The key is to convince leaders - city leaders in particular - to embrace good development. This is based largely on first getting access to them, and second showing them best practices in other places, and... the advantages of those good practices," Nadal said.
Having a showcase project can work well. For example, one of the top developments on the ITDP scorecard is in Guangzhou, China. The ITDP had been involved in developing a bus rapid transit system there, and was able to communicate alternatives to car-based development directly to city leaders, Nadal said.
Samuel Mintz is an AlertNet Climate intern.
The TOD standard and scorecard were launched at the World Urban Forum in Colombia: #WUF7