Dense Cities are Sustainable Cities

Or so we think. The reality is people (including researchers at the Institute) are still trying to figure out the scale of green house gas emissions coming from dense urban centers on a global level. But big thinkers ranging from Eric Sanderson to Barack Obama think that urban density is a worthwhile goal to work towards. And one extremely important factor in this density equation is transportation.

As a response to Obama’s State of the Union, wherein he mentioned the necessity for investing in the infrastructure of tomorrow, Vishaan Chakrabarti–a local big thinker involved in the Moynihan Station project as well as the Hudson Rail Yards, while serving as the Marc Holliday Professor of Real Estate and the Director of Real Estate Development program in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University–wrote a piece on Urban Omnibus about Doubling Down on Density.  In it he talks about the potential for high speed rail construction to provide a real economic stimulus that has lasting benefits. Vice President Biden has stated that the new high speed rail investment of $1.25 billion in the Tampa-Orlando corridor, will generate more than 23,000 jobs over four years. Put these numbers to a national scale and we can see job generation rocket to 2.3 million. “Now that would be stimulus,” he claims.  He questions Mr. Obama’s pledge of $8 billion to high speed rails when really, we probably need more like $150.

The article itself is great. A pleasure to read, an interesting analysis of Obama’s infrastructure plans–which in itself is refreshing to read about instead of health care woes–, and most importantly, it is just plain common sense. It asks us to think about the barriers to creating and planning for productive, dense cities and it evokes William Holly Whyte’s sentiments on sprawl, who asked why we use multiple acres of land and space for what we can do in 1.

One small glitch: No mention of our consistent cultural tendency toward acreage and automobiles.  In another article authored by Chakrabarti, “A Country of Cities,” he jokingly asks if there is an asphalt lobby in D.C. as new planning projects, largely a product of stimulus money, are heavy on the highways.  Highways = cars. Cars = suburbs?

While there is a lot more to be said about this, I can’t help but feel like the biggest of thinkers can talk common sense and sustainable planning for a very long time. But right now, when we hear “shovel ready,” we think in the way we–as a collective–have since WWII’s end. Build highways, manufacture cars, let people own their homes. Until we can move urbanism deeper into American consciousness, our shovels will hit the asphalt.  The question is, how can we do this?


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