What will we do with our built up world?

It’s nice to dream from time to time. Dreams of new communities, properly designed for the sustainable, energy-sipping, less money-centric world of tomorrow.

Once the dreaming is done, however, reality sets in.

The reality is that the world you see around is the one you’re going to live in. You’ll be living differently in it, but the towns, cities and countryside you see is what will be there.

We can’t afford to tear it all down and start again. This is it.

The problem is, we won’t be able to use it in the ways we do now.

So we’re going to have to make some hard choices.

Getting Around

To have an energy-sipping world, one that lives within what’s available to it, we’re going to have to have more shared transportation systems.

More walking, of course — which means wider sidewalks and fixing what’s next to them so they’re worth walking on.

People will walk beside an arterial road on a footpath under duress. They’ll cheerfully set out on foot if there’s things to see, places to go, other people are attracted to it.

We used to call that “main street” — the urbanism where shops and cafés occupy the ground floors of buildings that have residences and offices upstairs, where the buildings are built to the edge of the sidewalk, where a few outdoor tables get placed, where trees are grown to shade the street.

Yes, and where the traffic is insulated from the pedestrians by a bicycle lane, on street parking, or boulevard medians reserved for transit.

There may be less traffic in the future as more getting around becomes shared rather than done in private automobiles, but frankly no one much likes being near any of it.

People certainly don’t like walking past “ample free parking” — the oceans of parking spaces surrounding big box stores. Or the seas of parking around pod offices in edge city.

Our shared transport, in turn, will come in a variety of flavours, from jitneys and individuals providing a taxi-like service, to small buses, to electrified services like LRTs (and subways where appropriate).

We have laws to undo — the ones that preclude me giving you transportation in exchange for covering my costs, the ones that preclude multiple operators from providing minibus services, the ones that make zoning a single function and preclude multi-use buildings, the ones that require ample free parking for every structure (floor to area ratios, one stall per unit, etc.).

In between the arterials

So much of our built world is not city, but suburb. Most of our suburbs, in turn, were not built city-style as a grid, with its many routing styles, but as loop structures, dead ends, and winding roads between arterials. As pods, they go nowhere and connect to nothing.

We are going to have to punch connections into them. Footpaths between houses as shortcuts at night are already frightening enough to many people; imagine them with fewer lights (or none). A street, on the other hand, with buildings facing it and regular foot traffic, is far safer.

That is why city dwellers seldom live in fear, and suburbanites generally do.

Within the middle of these pods, service businesses need to grow. Dépanneur or convenience stores, little pubs, reasons to take a walk to meet needs and to meet people. (Today zoning precludes this, as does the traffic pattern.)

Zoning that precludes shared accommodation — basement apartments, garage apartments, etc. — also needs to be overturned. Most suburbs are far too underpopulated to be healthy.

This means that some suburbs will thrive with changes, while others — I speak frankly here — will become sources of building materials.

Ownership structures

Shared ownership buildings are also going to be a problem. When you live in a condo or strata, for instance, you are dependent upon almost all units being in paid up ownership: the condo association needs to receive its fees monthly to keep the building in repair.

If bankruptcies rise, or people simply walk away from their commitments, maintenance suffers. Leaks (to take but one example) respect not a whit whether you are paying or your neighbour is not.

The challenge with these structures is not their height — we can probably find ways to continue to power the elevators. The challenge is the ownership model.

We are going to have to figure out how to unwind many of these.

Separately, we are going to have to figure out how to make it more plausible that John Doe can set up shop on the ground floor. (The fees charged for commercial tenants typically places the site beyond any but a national chain’s ability to pay; restrictions and covenants also tend to limit what can be installed.

Towns and cities, too, are going to have to rethink business property taxes for the same reason.

We can live in the ruins of what we have today bemoaning our fate, or we can recognise our future needs and make the changes to help us get there from here.


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