This article originally appeared on Metropolis Magazine’s Point of View Blog as “Q&A: Peter Calthorpe.”
The titles of Peter Calthorpe’s books trace the recent history of urban design in its most vital and prescient manifestations, starting in 1986 with Sustainable Communities (with Sim Van der Ryn) and followed by The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl (with Bill Fulton), The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community and the American Dream, and Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change.
A founding member of the Congress for the New Urbanism and a past winner of the Urban Land Institute’s prestigious J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development, the Berkeley-based architect and planner has been at the forefront of urban design for more than three decades. In recent years, in addition to his firm’s continuing work in the United States, Calthorpe Associates has increasingly turned his attention to a country urbanizing at a pace unprecedented in world history: China.
Martin C. Pedersen: I’ve done one-eighty on China. I once thought that the heedless urbanization and pollution there would spell doom for the world. Now I think China might be the key to a sustainable future—since they can change policies quickly, while we waste time arguing about whether climate change even exists! Where do you fall?
Peter Calthorpe: I fall somewhere between the can-kill-us and can-save-us camps. They do have a top-down, fairly rational decision making process. But given how complex that society and their economies and ecologies are, being rational doesn’t necessarily put you on a clear path. There’s ambiguity on how they’re going to emerge, and the ambiguities born of that represent a different set of forces. Our ambiguity is largely the fact that we just can’t reach consensus on anything. They can get to consensus, but they’re balancing many forces. It’s a fascinating process to watch. For example, in urban design, there is now clarity that walkable transit-oriented places are better for the environment and better for producing low carbon results. What drives policy in China, however, is air quality, health, and congestion.
MCP: Because they’re easily observable, there for all to see.
PC: It’s quality of life. The environmental community is endlessly caught—perhaps, necessarily caught—in this long-term versus short-term dilemma. And it’s always short-term well being that seems to trump long-term concerns. From a short-term standpoint, a lot of the luxuries that we have today, which are unsustainable, are quite desirable. So it’s always a struggle on the most profound level between long-term needs and short-term desires. The Chinese wrestle with the same issue. Still, the metrics all point in the same direction. The policies that solve carbon emissions and climate change also create better air in the city, healthier people, less time in congestion.
MCP: What is the planning process like in China? How receptive are they to the goals of Architecture 2030, carbon neutrality, battling climate change?
PC: The biggest difference of course is that the government owns all of the land. There is no private property. And even when they move property into a developer’s hands, it’s on a long-term lease. They have absolute control. And as a corollary to that, the cities make all of their money by putting in the infrastructure and then leasing the land to developers. This is leading to a bubble, because they’re flooding the market with land in almost all of the cities. The rapid growth has been phenomenal, but it is unsustainable. They’re now looking for ways to slow that process down. Because they’re developing so much land so quickly, they have a cookie cutter approach to urban design. This means superblocks, five hundred meters on the side, more than a quarter mile to the closest intersection.
MCP: It seems like they’re making all of our old mistakes.
PC: This is a mistake we made, briefly, in public housing. We did high-rise towers in the park and super blocks, and we destroyed our urban grid. But it didn’t become the ubiquitous pattern that upended us. The subdivision and suburban sprawl did that, not the superblock and towers in the park. So it’s a different paradigm in China, equally as malignant as the subdivision and the mall, in terms of the environment and social well being and health. That said, they’ve developed these superblocks because they’re quick and easy to bring to market. They can build streets on infrequent centers. Then they try to compensate by creating huge roads, so it’s doubly bad for the pedestrian. You not only have a long way to get to an intersection, but once you’re there it’s a death-defying act to cross the street. And within these superblocks, they have single-use environments that are so large and alienating. There’s no human-scale community implicit in this urban fabric. It’s a deeply flawed environment that increases auto-dependence, even in a society where auto-ownership is still quite low.
MCP: Your entire career has advocated the antithesis of all that. How do you show them a different way? What’s the politics of that?
PC: The idea is pretty simple. It’s transit-oriented development. And the urban form is small blocks and small streets that are walkable and bikeable. It is a huge challenge to the status quo, what we’re bringing, and yet the government on all levels is interested. They say, “This makes sense. The data lines up. We understand the rationale…” I’ve given speeches at all levels throughout China. Everyone gets it. They understand how deeply flawed what they’re building is. In order to take the next step, they do pilot projects. They say, “OK, let’s build a few of these walkable, mixed-use communities and see how they function. Then we can shift policy.” They basically test drive ideas, and pick what works. We have six projects in construction throughout China. All of them are based on small blocks, with auto-free streets, dedicated to pedestrians, bikes, and transit.
MCP: Are these in existing cities or new ones?
PC: Existing cities. They’re quite scientific about it. We produced a design manual because it’s important to communicate not just the idea, but also provide a step-by-step methodology for doing it. The engineers in China are methodical. They follow their rulebooks. If we can get a design manual in place, we can dramatically change the way Chinese cities are built. We’re beginning to make the argument—as was made around Pruitt-Igoe and all the mistakes with public housing—that these superblocks are also socially malignant. They bred ambiguous, in-between spaces that kill cities, because there’s no sense of identity, security, place, or community.
MCP: Do they respond to these arguments?
PC: Yes, they do. I show slides of these developments, and some of them have five thousand units of housing in one superblock. And I make the claim—I’m a white guy, the outsider—but I make the claim, because it’s true, that people don’t know each other well in these environments. Then I show some older urban blocks, where there’s maybe three hundred or five hundred units per block, and people do know each other. So there’s a social foundation to this, but it’s less quantifiable. You can quantify air quality impacts, congestion, and carbon. And that’s probably enough right there, to tell you the truth. Again, it’s a different paradigm. It’s being tested in pilot projects, as we’re trying to develop materials and policies. We’ve been helped by the Energy Foundation. They’re a great group, based in the Bay Area.
A lot of the big foundations decided that rather than each one of them having their own climate change projects, they would pool their money and create a collaborative program. The Energy Foundation is a well-financed organization looking globally for best practices to advance the art of halting climate change. Most of their projects involve technology. It’s a solar collector here, a wind farm there. We convinced them that land use plays a big role. It’s the foundation. It determines what the human needs will be. The level of energy demand is established by the quality of your built environment. The foundation understood that argument, and they’ve been supporting us in this effort.
MCP: On your website you said you wanted to retire the term “transit oriented development.” A term you coined. Why do you want to retire it?
PC: The reality is that people get almost too focused on transit. There’s a symbiotic relationship between it and walkable destinations. You can’t have good transit if you can’t walk when you arrive. So pedestrian-oriented development is really at the heart and soul of great cities. Every city that you love is a city that you want to walk in. We travel the globe in order to walk in great cities. But as an organizing principle for how you shape regional growth, transit oriented development is probably a better term for China.
MCP: What’s the future of the American suburb?
PC: I think it will densify along its arterials. There’s a huge potential to correct the mistakes of the last sixty years. And that’s to take those god-forsaken strip commercial zones and turn them into mixed-use transit corridors, thereby bringing a range of housing types, providing additional opportunities for transit, and creating walkable destinations. That’s what’s happening in Los Angeles. In California, we have Assembly Bill 32, which is our climate law. We’re getting to Kyoto on our own—we don’t care about Washington anymore. We’ve got a companion law, which is called Senate Bill 375, which requires each region to develop a sustainable communities strategy, which will reduce auto dependence. That plan is essentially what I just described to you. So, for example, the L.A. region is investing forty billion dollars in new transit lines, and almost nothing in new highways. To compliment that they’re converting most of that classic Sunset Strip world into mixed use corridors.
MCP: What’s going on with high-speed rail in California?
PC: Jerry Brown is standing firm. The naysayers are tragically ill informed. The simple reality of high-speed rail is that it costs less than the alternative by a factor of two. If you were to expand airports and highways just enough to handle the traffic that high-speed rail will handle, it would cost about $180-billion, instead of the $94-billion we’ll spend on high-speed rail. That’s putting aside the real benefits, which is not only convenience but also reduced carbon emission reductions and energy use.
MCP: Who’s against high-speed rail?
PC: A lot of enviros.
PC: Because it will go through certain farmlands and open spaces. It’s kind of the small thinking versus the big thinking trap. Tragically, there are some environmental groups that are single-minded about what they’re concerned about. They don’t think holistically. And of course, the right wing is also against high-speed rail. The Tea Party actually believes that it’s part an international conspiracy from the UN. I’ve been at these workshops that we do throughout the state and they show up and yell until the meeting ends.
MCP: You’ve had a chance to review the 2030 Palette. How do you see it influencing the built environment, both here and in China?
PC: I think that Ed’s [Mazria] 2030 Palette is a universal, best-practices guide. Designers often avoid coming to the obvious best solutions, because they think it’s too complicated or too expensive. What Architecture 2030 has laid out is a very simple set of elements that people can use. He breaks it down to five scales: the region, the city, the district, the site, and the building scales. Too often architects just think about stand-alone buildings. I’ve been saying for 30 years that it’s not just how buildings operate in their climate—although that’s important—but it’s how people get to and from their buildings that often creates the greatest demands on the environment and produce the most carbon. And the way Ed has structured this makes all those elements very clear. It will be internationally useful.