To build the cities of the future, we must get out of our cars

Remaking healthy urban areas means repairing damage done to communities once blown apart to serve the automobile.


The purpose of cities is to bring people together. In the 20th century, we blew them apart. One day last year, Peter Calthorpe took me on a drive through some of the wreckage. He wanted to show me how he proposes to make cities whole again.

Calthorpe is an architect who in the late 1970s helped design one of the first energy-efficient state office buildings, which still stands in Sacramento, California. But he soon widened his focus. “If you really want to affect environmental outcomes and social outcomes, it’s not shaping a single building that matters,” he says. “It’s shaping a community.”

Today he runs a small but globally influential urban design firm, Calthorpe Associates. In his spare, airy office in Berkeley, the charter of the Congress for the New Urbanism hangs framed on the wall, denouncing “the spread of placeless sprawl.” Calthorpe helped launch the group in 1993. The struggle is long and ongoing.

We waited until late morning for the traffic to settle a bit, then got into Calthorpe’s midnight blue Tesla and set a course for Silicon Valley, south of San Francisco on the far side of the distended metropolis.

“The problem with urban environments that are auto oriented,” he said, as we wound our way toward the Bay Bridge, “is that if there’s no choice, if the only way to get around is in a car, lo and behold, people are going to use cars too much. Too much for the climate, too much for people’s pocketbooks, too much for the community in terms of congestion, too much for people’s time. I mean, every way you measure it, it has a negative—no walking is a prescription for obesity. Air quality feeds into respiratory illnesses.”


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