Those of us who think about how to make our cities better places to live had a great week in Atlanta as we hosted the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Congress 18, which focused on the interconnectedness of our health and the places where we live. We don’t think or talk about it much, but how we live depends in large measure on where we live. CNU focuses on planning and developing communities for people, not just cars, and for all kinds of people doing different things.
Essentially, it’s a throwback to Mayberry R.F.D., a small town where the doctor lived next to the barber (or sheriff) and you could walk downtown to shop or get an ice cream cone. There was a park to throw a ball or have a picnic (baseball and apple pie). Now we talk about sustainability and new urbanism, mixed-use developments and TODs (transit oriented development). We don’t say you can walk to town, we say that it’s pedestrian-friendly or walkable – you get the gist.
We call it “new” because we are coming full circle after we sped and sprawled to the suburbs only to learn that the grass wasn’t necessarily greener five – or 25 – miles outside of town. It began to take a lot of time and resources (both emotional and financial) to drive into work everyday, which left less time and money for relaxing, enjoying friends and families and exercise. And instead of walking to the places we wanted to go, we had to drive to the strip mall, so we were always sitting behind a steering wheel or a desk rather than getting some exercise and fresh air. Our waistbands seemed to spread along with the roads. Unless your own yard was big enough to play a game of football or baseball, you and your kids probably weren’t going to play because there’s not a park in your neighborhood, so you stay inside and play a video game version. Come to think about it, with all those cars on the new road, the air wasn’t so fresh anyway. As the farms and forests started to be developed and paved, the rain water had fewer places to run and floods started drowning places that weren’t in the flood plain.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that we want to create communities like we used to have. With larger cities, we are thinking in terms of neighborhoods. As energy costs continue to increase and clean water becomes more precious, conserving resources and cutting utility bills also become more important. We understand that where we put the places we need to go, such as offices, homes, schools and hospitals, and whether we have choices about how we get there, whether by cars, trains, subways, bikes or walking, have an enormous impact on our lives. These questions of land use, transportation, resource allocation and economic development are enormous issues, and they are issues that our cities control. More and more cities are bringing sustainability, which in many situations means getting more while using less, into their planning processes, their operations and their ordinances and zoning.
But it’s not easy to think comprehensively about all of the aspects of a community that make it a place that you want to live and that is affordable. We’ve talked to many city officials, professional planners and developers and neighborhood residents who say that it’s hard to find credible, practical, action-oriented materials to help them accomplish their goals for today without sacrificing the resources and budgets of the future. That’s why The Home Depot Foundation is excited and proud to announce the creation of the Sustainable Cities Institute, which we have developed in partnership with Southface. At the Institute’s website, we are providing vetted tools and information to jump start efforts to make cities’ operations and policies more sustainable. People in so many places across the U.S. and Canada are making enormous strides in bringing the economic, health and environmental benefits of sustainability to their residents. By sharing their efforts and successes, we intend to catalyze similar activity in other places across the country. In the fall, we will announce two cities that will have been selected as pilot cities. Over two years, we will invest $1 million in these locations to bring their sustainability plans to life through specific developments. The progress, challenges and learnings from those cities will be chronicled on the SCI website.
Just as we know that anything worth doing takes time, we understand that creating places and lives that are sustainable takes years and the effort of many people. While we have been able to launch SCI because of the dedicated work of dozens of people, we know that it will evolve over time. We hope that you’ll contribute your thoughts and experience as a member of SCI and join us in this journey to make SCI a tool that can help shape our communities of the future.