How architects can rescue unhealthy and unsustainable cities

Most of us live and work in cities that have been crippled by decades of car orientated development. Our parents built cities where those who vote, also drive, and so unsurprisingly vote for better conditions for even more driving. Alternatives are unthinkable. Thanks to democracy, or “idiotocracy”, our cities will go on producing fat kids, sedentary adults, emissions, and traffic congestion. These insults aren’t free. Collectively, we’re made to pay for the roads that are making the mess, and the hospitals that deal with the road toll and morbid illness resulting. Individually, we pay for cars, energy, and time lost in jams.

But there are car-dependent, “idiocratic” cities, that are slowly clawing their way out of this hole. From looking at two of them—Portland and Minneapolis—I’m able to articulate a way forward for cities wishing to rely more on the healthiest green mode of transport there is: riding a bike.

Step 1: map your city’s potential network of greenways, no matter how shabby. Greenways can run through parks and along peaceful waterways, but if their primary function is to provide safe routes for cycling, they might also be built over storm water canals, alongside dirty railways, and along disused rail corridors.


Step 2: You will almost certainly find that your sketched out network of bike paths, intersects a few urban brownfields. What is their development potential? How many people could live, work, and shop on these sites, without spoiling the bike paths with cars? Do some rough calculations. Aim for high density. Consider walk-ups and other affordable models. Remember cyclists will provide great passive surveillance of the ground plane, so don’t be afraid to build high.


Shy about density? Peruse anything by MVRDV. 

Step 3: Partner with progressive developers and/or government agencies to finish your master plan of a bicycling oriented city, occupying all of those canals and rail routes that the car-oriented city has turned its back on, and associated  brownfield reclamation sites.

Step 4: Show your plan to public health advocates, environmentalists, transit planners, and building industry bodies (who will recognize the obvious dividends), and have them back you in your approach to planning authorities.

Step 5: make sure before they pass any laws, that those authorities understand that developer contributions to infrastructure development, need to go mostly to the building of the greenways, on which the new development will depend, for most of its transport needs.

Step 6: Use the media to expose anyone whose ignorance stands in your way, as someone who should spend a few days in Rotterdam, a geographically spread out city where bikes are used for long trips and short ones, amidst crowds in the city, and out on lonely plains. David Singleton, of the Australian Green Infrastructure Council, told me after a recent presentation I gave, that cycling is a menace to walking, implying that cycling should be discouraged. He is the kind of public figure whose ignorance you will need to highlight as damaging to public health, emissions, and social equity.

Step 7: by this stage, the hope is your plan will have its own momentum, and that you can turn your attention to the creation of hyper bike friendly buildings and beautiful bicycling infrastructure.


  1. Sam Clifford says:

    Cycling is a menace to walking? What about cars? If the problem is cyclists interacting with pedestrians, build wider and segregated paths.

  2. Debra Storr says:

    Refer to William H Whte’s work on pedestrian and vehicle flow rates in New York. Example A : 26000 people travel in cars in a road 50 ft wide and 41000 on sidewalks that are 13ft wide – but because of sidewalk clutter, effective width is 6ft


  3. Steven says:

    Debra, them is salient facts. Since you have that book handy (I don’t) could you tell me, what do those numbers measure? Total numbers of walking and driving trips in New York in one day? It would be nice to do some comparisons with bike paths, The Hudson River Greenway especially. But comparing apples with apples might be impossible, since cyclists are funneled onto particular routes, while every street has car lanes and sidewalks. What do you think?

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