Peter Calthorpe
Peter Calthorpe UrbanFootprint

In an interview, the leading New Urbanist Peter Calthorpe discusses autonomous rapid transit, Buckminster Fuller, NIMBYism, and his new urban-planning software.

The architect and urban designer Peter Calthorpe was an advocate of transit-oriented development (TOD) and smart growth long before those concepts were buzzwords. In fact, as one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism and the author of the first TOD guidelines (as well as numerous influential books), Calthorpe has done as much as anyone to re-focus American urbanism on walkable, dense, sustainable, transit-rich environments.

Now, in an attempt to spread this knowledge even more widely, Calthorpe has released a new urban-planning software, UrbanFootprint, which will soon be available to virtually every city and government agency in California. (The company behind the software, which is co-led by Calthorpe and Joe DiStefano, is separate from the planning firm Calthorpe Associates.) Calthorpe compares UrbanFootprint to Sim City because it allows non-experts to model the impacts of different urban planning scenarios, such as zoning changes and road reconfigurations. He hopes it will help planners, politicians, and citizens’ groups communicate the benefits of the kind of urban environments he has spent his career advocating for and creating.

In the interview that follows, Calthorpe discusses some of the most pressing challenges in urbanism today, including NIMBYism, the emergence of autonomous vehicles, and the urbanization of the developing world.

What originally got you interested in urbanism?

I was born in London and I spent the first five years of my life amidst rubble and coal-laden air, kind of a nightmare domain. Then we moved to Florida and it was like the Wizard of Oz, you know—I landed, and the world became Technicolor.

We moved to Palo Alto in the early ‘60s. In those days, it was a landscape filled with orchards. As I grew up, I watched it erode into subdivisions and office parks, and it became clear that it was just being degraded. I guess I grew up being sensitive to the physical environment and the kinds of ways communities shape people and their sense of identity.

I became a radical teenager and I looked at what was going on from an environmental standpoint, and felt that there was really great harm at work in the way people were living. I just kept on from there. I fell in with Buckminster Fuller’s idea of whole systems: You just can’t think of one issue at a time.

I really quickly realized that urban design had a much bigger impact on all the important outcomes than individual buildings. So I started the Congress for the New Urbanism with Andrés Duany. What we proposed was a viable alternative to sprawl.

That gathered a huge amount of momentum, and as we made the case for the alternative to sprawl, we realized that we had to be able to speak in many languages. There was energy and carbon and climate change, or land or fiscal impacts to cities; mobility; air quality; health. The amazing thing about the city is that it touches everything.

The Bay Area when you were growing up was one of the most interesting places in the world: the explosion of the tech scene, the early hackers, the birth of the personal computer. And on top of that there was the counterculture movement and the music scene. How did those things influence you?

They totally influenced me. It was a community that connected the dots all the time. Stewart Brand was the guy who started the Whole Earth Catalog, but he also started The WELL [an acronym for “Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link”], which was [one of] the very first email [services]. Stewart was a really good friend and mentor to me. The community of people who were willing to think in a broad way, but also to absolutely reject norms and posit completely different approaches, was ubiquitous. It was all over the place.

You had the Human Potential Movement in its heyday there. You had environmentalists who were really beginning to think about things as an ecology for the first time. And you had political activism, sometimes really extreme, like the Black Panthers.

The underlying principle was to question the norms, and when you question norms, you get innovation. That’s the foundation of innovation.

What do you think of what’s happening now in the Bay Area—its crisis of housing affordability and displacement, and the great shift in how the tech industry is perceived?

I don’t think technology and the city are at odds. I think that there’s a deeper phenomenon: We really still have not shaken the suburban sprawl paradigm that was born after World War II. The environmental community, some dimensions of it, are just anti-growth, which inhibits housing. Since the recession, jobs have grown in the Bay Area 11 times faster than housing. We’ve added over 600,000 jobs, and only 56,000 housing units.

But I also think that there’s something beyond that. It’s what we’re watching with Trump and all the rest of that tribalism, which is people being fearful and marking their territory and wanting to protect it. You know, a NIMBY is a little bit like a miniature version of Trump and his Mexico wall. It’s like he’s got a neighborhood and he wants to build a wall around it, and nobody else should be able to come now. We all have to realize this is a very powerful human emotion.

The only way you overcome that kind of feeling is with powerful coalitions. If enough groups can see common cause, and identify co-benefits and get behind a change, they can overcome that negative impulse to say, “Change is bad and I’ve got mine.”

You recently introduced a new urban planning software called UrbanFootprint. It’s got the backing of venture capitalists and is being used by the State of California. What makes it unique, and what kinds of projects will it be used for?

UrbanFootprint is a cloud-based software built to help planners, designers, architects, and advocates create sustainable, resilient communities. It supports a board range of stakeholders to enhance cities with the agility of data science and scenario-building. [They can use] UrbanFootprint’s extensive data library anywhere in the United States to assess existing environmental, social, and economic conditions in just a few minutes.

Once users get a sense of current conditions, they can lead community input to create alternative land-use and policy scenarios. Then they can evaluate their impacts across a range of key community metrics, including emissions, water use, energy use, land consumption, [pedestrian] and transit accessibility, and more.

We recently announced our partnership with the State of California, which will bring UrbanFootprint free of charge to over 500 cities, counties, and regional agencies. We’re thrilled to support California’s public planning efforts with this technology.

Land-use patterns in Madison, Wisconsin, visualized on UrbanFootprint (UrbanFootprint)

You’ve done a lot of work on transit and how it shapes urban form, and you have a growing interest in autonomous rapid transit. Tell us more about that.

The really exciting thing is that we’re going to have really affordable transit, in the form of autonomous rapid transit, coming online much quicker, quite frankly, than private autonomous vehicles. In dedicated rights of way, these things are safe, because they’re not mixing with ordinary vehicles. And because they’re driverless, the operation costs are so small that we can afford to build many more miles of this stuff.

We can basically grid our cities and suburbs with high-quality transit. The moment you do that, you have the armature for infill and redevelopment. So all the strict commercial environments—the six-lane roads lined with parking lots and single-story buildings, which, by the way, are losing value rapidly as Amazon steals all the economic activity from them—are these ribbons of opportunity throughout our metropolitan regions. By adding autonomous rapid transit and zoning for a range of housing types, we can solve the housing problem and the transportation problem.

But if you just let autonomous vehicles be privately owned or run as taxis, they’re going to make the situation much worse: anywhere from 30 percent to a doubling of vehicle miles traveled. It’s just like any amazing technology. If you use it well, you benefit, and if you use it poorly it can be catastrophic.

What do you think of this bill in California, SB 827, that would upzone all the areas near high-quality mass transit?

I don’t like the law as it’s written now, because it entitles redevelopment on single-family lots. I think that’s just a political formula for disaster. It won’t go anywhere. Disrupting existing single-family neighborhoods is really the last thing you want to do politically, and, quite frankly, [that you] need to do. The amount of land in ... single-story parking-lot environments, that nobody is in love with and that many people would actually like to see change, is more than enough to satisfy housing needs.

You’ve done a lot of work in China and the rapidly urbanizing parts of the world. What are some of the opportunities and challenges for good urbanism in these places?

In China, at the highest levels of government, the policy has completely shifted. Mixed-use, small blocks, [and] transit-oriented development are all now the norm and required. They appreciate that they can’t continue to add more ring roads. I think Beijing’s up to six of them now, and they’re all still in gridlock. And, by the way, in Beijing only 35 percent of households own cars. Just imagine if there was more auto ownership.

It’s just an impossible proposition, a high-density city whose mobility is dependent on private cars. It’s an oxymoron. It never works. And I think the Chinese really recognize that now.

Jane Jacobs, who had a very big influence on both of us, and who was so optimistic when she was young, called her last book Dark Age Ahead. Would you say you’re optimistic about the future of our cities in the United States and elsewhere? Or are you pessimistic?

I’m both. I think you can’t be intelligent and not be both. I am optimistic because cities offer the best, least-cost solution to so many of our challenges. Better than just technological fixes, healthy urban forms can resolve multiple issues simultaneously. For example, housing [units] placed in walkable mixed-use areas near transit and jobs cost no more than scattered subdivisions, but they are more affordable to homeowners, need less energy and water, cost less for cities to service, generate less carbon, and create stronger communities. These are the co-benefits I was talking about, co-benefits that can generate new, powerful coalitions.

I am pessimistic when I realize most cities don’t have the tools or processes to uncover these synergies—and too often default to piecemeal planning driven by professional and agency silos.

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