Thinking Regionally: A Conversation with Peter Calthorpe—Land&People

Architect and urban planner Peter Calthorpe goes where few of his profession have gone before. A founding member of the New Urbanists, a group advancing alternative approaches to community design, Calthorpe has long considered how development shapes communities, the land, and ultimately society. In addition to planning and design work, his firm, Calthorpe Associates, works with communities to envision their future based on existing patterns of development — process that can lead to big changes in how they choose to grow. TPL is involved with Calthorpe Associates in "Smart Growth Twin Cities," a renewed effort, funded in part by the McKnight Foundation, to bring integrated solutions of the problems of sprawl in the Minneapolis/St. Paul region. He is co-author, with architect Sym Van der Ryn, of Sustainable Communities: A New Design Synthesis for Cities, Suburbs, and Towns and author of The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community, and the American Dream, which describes his design forays into transit-oriented developments.

Calthorpe's current work extends his vision from neighborhood to regional design. The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl, co-written with William Fulton, takes a broad view of the economic, social, and environmental factors involved in design. A regional perspective, Calthorpe argues, is central to designing communities that provide for conservation of land and wildlife, access to jobs and education, and opportunities for people to participate more equitably in civic life. We spoke at his office in Berkeley, California.

You've been an advocate for redefining urban and suburban growth. How did you begin thinking this way?

When I was a teenager in Palo Alto, California, in the 1960s, I used to go up in the hills behind my house and look down at what we now call Silicon Valley. I had this sense that there was almost a cancerous growth occurring as I watched all the orchards disappear and be replaced by subdivisions. Beyond the environmental consequences, I had a sense of the social implications: that people's connection to the place and their sense of community were also being eroded. Then in the 1970s, when I was working in Governor Jerry Brown's administration, it became startlingly clear that energy issues and community development patterns were intimately tied. I don't want to be a reductionist and constantly say, well, it comes back to the amount of automobile use. But when you design communities around the automobile, the impact is huge in terms of development, open space, and energy use.

It sounds like what you're describing is sprawl.

Sprawl means different things to different people. I believe it is a model of development that is simply past its time. It was a postwar strategy to house a growing middle class in low-density places knitted together by the car. This pattern once delivered affordable single-family homes, low crime, open space, and free access for the car. Now homes are distant and more expensive, crime spreads, open space recedes, and cars are stuck in traffic. Sprawl now seems at once outdated and, for many, increasingly unaffordable.

How are the built communities you design different?

The most basic building block is walkable neighborhoods. It may seem simple and obvious or even quixotic to say that we could build neighborhoods where kids can get around without having their parents drive them everywhere, where elderly people could live without needing to own a car, where just about anybody could walk down the street to do something interesting and useful. It is possible. It just doesn't seem possible anymore because we've been designing away from it for 40 or 50 years now. But that walkable neighborhood is just the building block. There's got to be a larger framework. And that's regional design and regional planning.

How did you come to the idea of the "regional city?"

There's no question in my mind that we live in regional cities, in regional places. Our economies are regional, not statewide or national. That's why there can be one part of a state or nation that's succeeding economically and others that are failing economically. There obviously is a local dimension, but in fact it is the region that functions in the global economic landscape. Environmental impacts are felt regionally, not city by city. Air pollution and water pollution don't stop when they cross a jurisdictional line. Open space systems and wildlife don't obey the arbitrary boundaries we've created. So when we come to conservation, we can't continue to do it piecemeal; we're forced to think regionally. Finally, I think socially we live in a regional world. As important as it is to have neighborhoods that are coherent and walkable, our social lives, our cultural and civic lives operate at a regional scale. And yet we don't have regional governance. It's as if we have a blind spot.

Is this changing?

Things are beginning to change. Some state legislatures and governors see that these issues can be confronted only at the regional scale. Washington State is one example where environmentalists put pressure on the state house for preservation. The response was a growth management program that set urban growth areas around each city and began to knit those cities together with new transit systems. In Portland they've had an urban growth boundary for 20 years, but it was so loose that it had no impact on development within the line until the 1990s. Then what the line really did was to make people stop and think at a regional level about how they wanted to grow. In Salt Lake City, where you might not expect progressive thinking about land use, you had a regional visioning exercise, Envision Utah, that showed people the implications of 20 more years of sprawl (see sidebar, page 41). I think once people begin to see the bigger picture, see that they have real choices about their future, they get involved in a proactive rather than reactive way.

How do you respond to those who say controlling growth is impractical, unconstitutional, or just won't work?

There are always those who say that every property owner should have the right to do what they please with their land. Well, that's very nice, but it's often public money providing the infrastructure that fuels sprawl development. Without publicly funded roads, sewers, police, and fire services, landowners' options are more limited. Maryland Governor Parris Glendening's smart-growth position is very simple: we're just going to be fiscally conservative about how we invest public dollars in infrastructure. So, for example, Glendening is saying he wants to rebuild and improve existing schools before building new ones outside already urbanized areas. Politically, that's a win?win situation.

What about developers who say that the American Dream demands a single-family house with a yard, even if that means sprawl?

That mantra is really dying away because developers are recognizing that the housing market itself is much more diverse. It's no longer a one-size-fits-all single-family dwelling on a cul-de-sac. We've become a different society demographically?less than 25 percent of households are married couples with kids. "Ozzie and Harriet" is the minority, and all the others — empty nesters, aging baby boomers, young singles, young couples without kids, single parents, the elderly — have other housing needs that the marketplace is beginning to recognize.

Part of the argument always goes, "Gee, nobody wants to live in high-density housing." Well, I don't want to live in high-density housing out on a strip where I have to get in my car and drive everywhere and be disconnected from open space and civic life. But if I have the choice of a townhouse where parks are within walking distance, schools are nearby, and shops and cafes are around the corner, that's an option I might choose. I like to say it doesn't make much sense to live in a townhome without a town around it. It's hard for people to choose something other than sprawl when that's the only thing offered.

Does managing growth cause housing costs to rise?

There is an interesting comparison among Denver, Salt Lake City, and Portland. All three experienced massive growth in the 1990s. All three saw housing costs double, much to everyone's chagrin. In Portland, many blamed the urban growth boundary. But in Denver, where there were no constraints on where development would happen, sprawl was the order of the day. Housing costs also doubled in Salt Lake City, where there were no controls.

What other kinds of problems does the regional city model address?

Unless we address development issues on a regional scale, we miss the chance to resolve some big social challenges. Affordable housing fairly distributed throughout a region is a fundamental need, not just to achieve quality of life for lower-income families but for businesses that need an accessible work force. If employees can't get to jobs because of traffic congestion or just plain physical distance, that hurts the business community as well as people trying to move up the economic ladder. Once again that's a regional design problem, not a city-by-city problem.

Transit is a mechanism that encompasses social equity and environmental issues. Obviously, more transit use is benign to the environment and more equitable in economic terms. The average household in America now spends 20 percent of its income on cars. For higher-income households, that's not a problem. For lower- and moderate-income households, that's a big number. It can mean the difference between being a renter and a homeowner. The trick is to layer into our regions more transit and transit-oriented development so we get a more complex mix of opportunities, both in mobility and lifestyle.

Some environmentalists argue that regional transit encourages sprawl.

Growth will happen. The question is, what form does it take? How dense and how auto-dependent is it? If you go to very low-density forms of growth with real discontinuities between job location and housing and a pattern that necessitates every errand in a car, you have one set of consequences. If you take the same amount of growth and put it into a format where people can walk to local destinations and in which access to jobs can be multimobile?you can carpool, live close to work, or use public transit — you get a totally different set of consequences. Yes, the land will be used, but the quantities and differences are dramatic.

It's not just a matter of environmental preservation. We need to make sure environmentalists understand that our patterns of development and our choices about what kind of communities we build are just as important to the environment as saving land. They are hand in glove. You're not going to solve housing issues, transportation issues, and open space issues separately. You've got to solve them simultaneously and at a regional scale. The first step is always to give people choices. Paint clear pictures of where they're headed and show them the trade-offs. When you do that, then I think you begin to create a political movement for real dramatic change.

Susan Ives is The Trust for Public Land's Vice President for Communications and Editor of Land&People.