Penalosa Suggests Rebuilding Cities for Long-Term Viability

Have U.S. cities evolved appropriately for future needs? Not at all, according to Enrique Penalosa. The president of the Board of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy of New York offered new and sometimes radical suggestions for change as the opening keynote speaker for the ULI/Stan Ross Real Estate Trends Conference on Wednesday during the Urban Land Institute’s Fall Meeting.

Penalosa pointed to 1800s London, which by our current standards is considered “horrible” but two hundred years ago was revered as the finest city in the world. “We create cities not for the next five years but for the next 500 or 1,000 years,” he said. “The United States has to be the model for the world.”

The biggest problem Penalosa identified is the focus on automobile transportation today. Until the early 1900s, streets were for people, and horses, buggies and even trains did not interfere with the ability to walk and play relatively safely in the street and other public thoroughfares. Returning to the 15th century city model is not a solution, he emphasized, but he did offer some fairly extreme ideas of the ideal city, which he allowed could entail tearing down and rebuilding portions of cities and suburbs.

His initial premise: Cities are for people, making “human well being” a measure of any city’s quality. “How about a dense city without the constant threat and noise of cars?” he queried. He offered as a better alternative an emphasis on public transportation by bus, since buses carry more people than private cars and offer a more pleasant ride than subways (why put people underground?). And buses would not travel every street, since as with cars that would impede pedestrian traffic. Instead he suggested a significant increase in green space, with buses and cars traveling on every other street. (This would not work in every city, he noted, pointing to New York City in particular as a difficult place to achieve it.)

“Road space is a city’s most valuable resource,” he said. He termed allocation of the space (to car transit and parking versus sidewalks and greenways) a purely political decision.

Penalosa took the “greater good” approach further: Under the democratic (and not communistic, he said) theory that all citizens are created equal, he declared that all waterfronts should be made public, not private. He also emphasized use of building space: “More important than a building’s height is what happens when it reaches the ground,” he noted, terming ground-level access and allocation vital to city quality.

Suburbs offer a greater challenge of achieving higher density while also providing single-family alternatives for those that prefer them.