What sustainable architects can do for unsustainable cities, with bikes (Part 1… in progress)

In 2000, The Philip Merrill Environmental Center became the first ever building to receive a platinum LEED certification for energy efficiency. In addition to daily energy use, the designers, SmithGroup Inc., considered the smallest details of the building’s environmental impacts, including its demolition, even its “light pollution” at night. Yet they gave no thought whatsoever to the building’s transport energy intensity. The client’s old office in downtown Annapolis that many workers had been commuting to on the bus or by walking, was replaced by a Platinum LEED certified building 16km (10mi) out of town. Today, almost all of the organisation’s employees are commuting by car, meaning its energy use, and impacts on natural habitats flanking Annapolis’s roadways, are most likely higher than when they occupied a “non-sustainable” building.

Town planners have traditionally been more astute to such matters than architects or builders. Planners would rather buildings be inefficiently designed, than inefficiently sited. Their principle of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) would have development crowd around transit stops, so that buses and trains could run without timetables, and no one would have to own cars.

Newcastle, Australia (my city)

What though of cities that have already been carved into quarter acre lots for freestanding houses? Their populations will always be spread too diffusely to be served by frequent  (<10 minute) buses or trams. Most people living in cities like these seem likely to remain car-dependent, and thus big polluters. The consequences for them personally are equally dire: oil prices will rise; they might have to buy eCars; electricity prices will skyrocket because of those eCars, etc.. The spectre of expedient solutions to rising oil prices, like new nuclear power plants, or more coal fired power stations, has many looking for better solutions.

While most people are focused on pathways to abundant renewable energy, others are thinking of the bicycle’s role in reducing demand for transport energy. The bicycle propels people further per watt than other other device, is cheap to buy and cheap to provide for, and has the added advantages of providing streets with passive surveillance, and saving societies costs related to healthcare. Meeting the transport energy needs of cities too spread out to provide transit, could be as simple as providing some extra kilojoules with each meal, to fuel healthy bodies.

Providing riders with energy is the easy part. Inspiring them to ride, rather than drive, to such destinations as the Philip Merrill Environmental Centre, is the big challenge.

The solutions would most likely be different from ones found in famous bike cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where bikes have been encouraged primarily to save those dense cities from gridlock, and where bike trips are short. Here we are talking about the world’s many regional cities and towns, with much lower densities, where there are no immediate imperatives (in the eyes of most voters who have invested in cars) to move from car dependence. Only a minority of people living in cities like these are using bikes regularly, and then not to save time in their day. Due to distance, their commutes most likely take longer. Their motivations are more likely to be to insulate themselves from rising energy prices, or sedentariness, or to reduce their emissions.

The job of making car dependent cities like these more conducive to cycling is so far being done by unpaid bicycling advocacy groups, black-spot by black-spot. I would like with this essay to show that it is within architects’ power to take this cause further. I will start by highlighting ways architects of the 1920s avant-garde period helped inspire later public investment in freeways, by inspiring people to want cars in the first place. Then I will show how a new wave of utopian architects are doing things now to inspire people to cycle, that may later cause larger scale investment in bike paths. Then I will explain the principle of Bicycle Oriented Development (BOD) that architects can use to justify higher site yields for their clients when building near bike routes, and to provide funds for upgrading those routes. I will conclude with some thoughts about aestheticising sprawling cities, landscapes and buildings, from the point of view of a cyclist.

This is an essay in progress, based on a talk I gave recently, that in turn grew out of an essay I drafted as a blog post two weeks ago; please pardon the repetition if you’re a regular reader. I can’t be sure, but feel I’m working toward a grant application, for some of your (Australian) tax dollars, to further this research. You can help me now too, by looking at a site I am using to raise funds to promote my new book, on cycling and cities. I am uniquely placed to help architects and urban designers get behind cycling, as former generations of architects got behind cars. That’s my particular role in this bike revolution we’re living through here.

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