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How we got here and how to fix it- the rise of New Urbanism

How we got here and how to fix it- the rise of New Urbanism

From congested roadways to minimal affordable housing, underwhelming public transportation, lack of diversity, and a variety of other issues, it's apparent that the inherited way of thinking and doing is no longer apt. To better understand the current pickle we all find ourselves in, it helps to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. 



The Marchetti Constant 

The history of urban growth has been shaped by the technologies that allowed commuters to get to work in about 30 minutes. This is known as the Marchetti constant. Leave it to a physicist to quantify this but that is what Marchetti did. He stated that humans have a cave instinct, meaning that time not spent hunting or gathering is spent in a place like a cave (house) that limits exposure to variables such as predators and enemies. 

Marchetti found that across the globe humans prefer to limit their exposure to one hour a day when averaged over a year. With a walking pace of ~3 miles per hour this equates to a ~1.5 mile radius or about 12 square miles of territory. Tellingly this was roughly the size of ancient greek villages and numerous other ancient cities such as Venice and Rome, even with a population as high as 1 million people. 


Source: Harvard Map Collection, Harvard College Library.David Montgomery/CityLab

Source: Harvard Map Collection, Harvard College Library.David Montgomery/CityLab


Viewed through the Marchetti constant, the size (or area) of cities increased proportionally as the speed of transportation increased, expanding how far we can travel in an hour a day. As transportation technologies progressed from horse and buggy through railways, bus and cars, air travel, the distance that could be traveled in an hour per day drastically increased, and as a result our cities quickly sprawled. For instance, the speed of a modern day automobile is 6-7 times faster than walking thus this increased the area of a modern day city some 50 times larger compared to an ancient walking city. 


Modern Day Bottleneck 

The advent of the expressway in the 1950s and the implementation new building patterns led to the dispersing of population from the city center to the suburbs. Farmland was plentiful and so was the sprawl. Who wouldn't want the "white picket fence," especially when the prototypical house only cost $78k in today's dollars!?



This dispersal led to the widespread urban sprawl especially in cities like Los Angeles and Detroit, however due to restrictive legal measures minority populations were excluded from this bonanza, stuck in declining cities as the tax base fled. Population increased, available farmland decreased and the Broadacre City model became congested due to suburban density. Simultaneously the technological threshold of an expressway maxed out and the age of traffic began. Gone are the golden days of the expressway; 20 miles in 30 minutes quickly ballooned into 20 miles in 2 hours.

Our cities are drowning in concrete and suffocating in auto-polluted air, whilst we are clearly not getting around town in 30 minutes. Building more lanes or additional freeways is not going to solve the problem. This is where New Urbanism and offshoots like the 15 Minute City come to bat, ditching the antiquated idea of low density living for a human centric model emphasizing walking and micromobility.


The New Urbanism

Human-centric urban planning is catching on and for good reason. It's hard to argue against designing cities around people and green spaces, not cars and highways. From new zoning measures to incorporating new technologies, the new urbanism umbrella is wide. The primary goal is to make our urban settlements flow with nature and create human habitats that are equitable, sustainable, and diverse to improve the welfare of our communities and society as a whole.

A transition from the inherited world to a new one requires a change of direction. By deciding to use micromobility and alternative transportation (and telling everyone about it!) we can reduce our dependence on expensive and inefficient personal autos and the vast amount of road and parking space we give them in our cities. Imagine a future where getting around town is easy, clean and fun thanks to bikes, ebikes, scooters and more. We don't want you to give up driving, just choose a better form of transportation when it makes sense. 



There are interesting transportation ideas and very real urban development solutions that you can help with. Some may require governmental action, but many (like choosing to ride more and drive less) are choices you can make right now. 

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