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The New City Beautiful

It can happen in your town: Streetscapes blooming with wildflowers, industrial waterfronts transformed into parks, and creeks once again dancing with salmon. A green urban renaissance is growing

On a brilliant blue sky day in May, a shining silver fish jumps the rapids of Whatcom Creek past the old marble city hall building in Bellingham, Washington, darting amid the rivulets under the Holly Street Bridge and making its way to the sea. Standing with sketchbooks in hand, schoolchildren and teachers cheer wildly as it passes beneath them.

Cheering, also, farther upstream, is a group of stream restoration volunteers, who have spent many cold, grey days ripping out Himalayan blackberry vines and knotweed to restore the riverbanks with native grasses—so they can see salmon return.

 “Got a big white thing on his nose!” yells Wendy Scherrer, director of the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association.

 Mike McRory, one of the founders of the 15-year old organization, confirms its identity: “It's a steelhead!” While not leaping 10 feet in the air like the legendary salmon of a century ago, this wild steelhead has returned to spawn in a creek that once suffered from a legacy of logging, milling, and dumping.

 “In the past, we straightened the creek, channelized it, buried it, and used it as a sewer and garbage dump,” says Scherrer. “Now we're bringing salmon back into the heart of downtown.”

 Better habitat and the return of a cultural icon are just some of the city's successes, she says, which have extended to the whole landscape. The city also closed down an old sewage treatment plant, turning it into a fish hatchery, and transformed the site of an old town dump into an environmental learning center, where the students today are learning the salmon cycle.

 This spot is also specially sanctified. Just a few miles upstream, tragedy struck the city in June 1999 when a pipeline bringing gas from Canada ruptured, spurting nearly a quarter million gallons of fuel into the creek. Minutes later, the fuel ignited and exploded, engulfing parts of Bellingham in a fireball and killing three boys fishing in the creek.

One of the boys was 18-year old Liam Wood. Soon after, his mother established a memorial fund in his honor that went toward further creek restoration. Now, as people walk along Whatcom Creek, they can pass through “Wayside Park,” built in Liam's honor.

 Time spent restoring the creek helped the community channel their grief and anger over the pipeline catastrophe into something productive and beautiful, says Scherrer. The creek also served to bring the community together around a vision of building a sustainable city.

A corner of the city hall parking lot has been retrofitted with a small “rain garden” to collect and filter storm water. There's a “buy local” campaign here called “Sustainable Connections” that promotes local farms and industries. Most importantly, the city is embracing “smart growth,” channeling new growth into city neighborhoods instead of rural areas, as an answer to its growing problem of urban sprawl. When Bellingham showed up in USA Today ranked eighth in the nation among smaller cities for sprawl, it came as a shock to this city of 70,000 residents. 

But look at most towns across America and you see the hand of sprawl across the landscape, in traffic congestion, air and water pollution, loss of farmland, and a crying need for parks and open spaces.

We're finding also that the suburban development model is linked to our physical diseases and mental stress—everything from heart disease to depression to obesity—says Lawrence Frank, a researcher at the University of British Columbia.

 But there's hope. Just as the “City Beautiful” movement at the turn of the 20th century transformed America's ideas of urban design, today's planners and designers are turning to new models for reclaiming cities and retrofitting suburbs. A century ago, planners tried to lift America's newly industrialized cities out of their congestion and squalor by infusing them with Beaux Arts architecture and civic planning borrowed from Europe and building parks to provide places of fresh air and sunlight. That movement died with the birth of the automobile age after World War I, when planners reshaped cities to accommodate cars and promoted development of residential areas in the suburbs—thought at the time to be the “healthy” antidote to urban life.

 Today, an urban sustainability movement is inspiring architects and city planners to shape new visions of city life, whether it's remaking old downtowns and industrial wastelands, incorporating green space, or channeling new growth smartly.  Community activists, too, are coming up with new ways of making neighborhoods and cities healthier—ecologically as well as socially. Here are some tools they're using.

The life of downtown
Vancouver, Canada, always rates high in surveys gauging cities for livability and quality of life. Blessed with a mild climate, it is surrounded by majestic mountains and sea. But it was good planning that enabled the city to capitalize on its virtues—and views—with massive downtown redevelopment projects that created a lively mix of high- rise towers, shopping districts, and urban parks.

Starting in the 1950s, says Gordon Price, a former city councillor and planner, Vancouver focused on  keeping its downtown neighborhoods alive and housing affordable. To this day, it draws a widely diverse population to its West Coast brand of high-rise living, with an outdoorsy lifestyle of walking, biking, and using public transit.

Its “Livable Region Strategic Plan” stresses not just “smart growth” development of compact, mixed-use neighborhoods, but also what it terms “complete neighborhoods” designed to promote “jobs closer to where people live and accessible by transit, shops, and services near home, and a wider choice of housing types.”  This strategy also protects from development “green zones,” including parks, watersheds, ecologically vital lands, and farmlands.

Vancouver's history provides many lessons, says Tom Hauger, a planner for the city of Seattle. “First, they decided, ‘there will be no freeways in our city,' and second, they sold vast tracts of land to developers with strict conditions,” he says. That allowed the city to design a mix of densities and heights of buildings, street connections, walkways, and public space in one attractive package.

 Vancouver continues to inspire planners with the longest of long-term planning.  A few years ago, Greater Vancouver drafted a 100-year plan called “Cities Plus” (Cities Planning for Long-term Sustainability) that anticipates handling global warming, air pollution, sprawl, overflowing landfills, water shortages, disease, and terrorism through strategies to conserve energy and water.

Green infrastructure
Forests, waterways and watersheds, parks, and other green spaces have often ended up as casualties of planning. As cities lose more trees and open space, community leaders are uniting around the idea of viewing green space as not only essential to replenishing the human spirit, but also as a form of essential infrastructure like roads, water lines, or sewers. In fact, they have begun calling trees and other vegetation “green infrastructure” because they are so valuable to the economy and functioning of cities.

Trees provide vital services in a globally warming world. They absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. They prevent the “urban heat island effect,” the phenomenon by which cities run higher temperatures because they are paved over with concrete and other surfaces that absorb rather than reflect the sun's heat. And trees absorb and clean storm-water that runs off streets.

And green infrastructure often does the job better than anything human-built, for much less money, as groups like the Tree People in Los Angeles and Cascade Land Conservancy in Seattle argue. Take storm-water management. With conventional approaches, runoff from roofs and roads is channeled into underground pipes and into lakes and streams, an expensive process that also causes too much water to flow too quickly, disrupting habitat for fish and picking up pollutants from city streets and yards, spoiling water quality for all. Trees and vegetation slow, collect, and filter flowing water, and replenish aquifers.

Enter the “green street” concept. In this, Seattle, the city of rainstorms, is leading the way. The city constructed the Street Edge Alternative (S.E.A.-Street) pilot project with a group of citizens. In this innovative streetscape, designers wove winding landscaped areas along the road edge to filter and slow the runoff into nearby Piper's Creek.

Some of these projects rise to the level of a new artform. The “Growing Vine Street Project,” designed by Carlson Architects and Peggy Gaynor, which carries storm-water over eight blocks of Seattle's downtown, features a streamlet coursing downhill over a series of water and plant terraces that act as biofilters for stormwater, as well as walkways and gardens to be enjoyed by passersby. On one building hangs artist Buster Simpson's playful gutter system, the “Beckoning Cistern,” with a downspout shaped like an outstretched hand.

 A green street can vary with locale. While a street may sculpt waterfalls of rain in Seattle, another might celebrate a sun shower over adobe in Santa Fe.

Taming the car, unleashing feet
Cars take 40,000 lives each year in the United States and are the leading cause of death of young people. In 2003, 4,827 Americans died while crossing the street, walking to school or work, going to a bus stop, or strolling to the grocery store, among other daily activities. Yet simple measures like crosswalks and speed-limit enforcement helped reduce that death toll.

At the same time, not walking is also dangerous to one's health, because it contributes to obesity. Research shows that Americans walk so little not out of laziness, but because of the popularity of suburban living, which dictates car travel and sedentary behavior. Not surprisingly, research shows people are more likely to walk if it's convenient for them and if it is an aesthetically pleasing experience.

Across the country, cities are establishing new traffic-calming measures, from round-abouts to  chicanes, which curve the street to slow traffic. Some are adopting European-style traffic-calming road forms, like the Dutch woonerf (“Living Yard') in which cars defer to pedestrians, bicycles, and other human powered forms of transport.

A woonerf typically features winding paths and street furniture, along with play areas, unusual paving stones, and signage to indicate that non-motorized transport rules the space. Berkeley's “slow street,” a six-block area combining speed bumps and weaving, shifting travel lanes, may be the closest official version in the United States. Seattle's city planner Tom Hauger says that the streets feeding the city's Pike Place Market, where shoppers, strollers, and itinerant street musicians freely walk amidst parked vehicles, might be considered an ad hoc woonerf.

Bicycles, as author John Ryan writes, are the most energy-efficient form of travel ever invented: “Pound for pound, a person on a bicycle expends less energy than any creature or machine covering the same distance.” And, of course, bicycles, without burning any fossil fuels, are great burners of human calories. While European cities are miles ahead of us in terms of bike lanes, signage, bike rentals, and bike parking, there have been some improvements here. Witness the rise of the “Bike Station,” which has popped up in a number of cities on the West coast. These offer secure bike parking for people riding bikes to public transit or to offices and shops. Many are staffed and offer commuting tips; others offer bike repair. The Cadillac of bikestations in the U.S., however, is Chicago's, which offers shower facilities. In Holland, Germany, and France, where there are many more services for bicyclists, 30 percent of the population regularly cycles to get from place to place, say researchers.

From brownfield to green
Despite its peerless view overlooking the Olympic Mountains, Seattle's industrial waterfront is fouled by a century of logging, shipping, refining, and toxic dumping. But, like many cities that find their cores riddled with contaminated sites, its community leaders are coming together to remake the waterfront. They hope to tear down a post-war, earthquake-vulnerable viaduct that carries truck traffic through the city and redevelop the land as a big civic park.

Re-using former industrial sites, called “brownfields,” can be an important strategy for economic development. Although hundreds of brownfield sites still litter the landscape, federal policies now encourage their redevelopment. Some are redeveloped along ecological lines. One of the most exciting examples is Chicago's Center for Green Technology, designed by Doug Farr. Built on the former site of an illegal garbage dump, the Center now houses a solar panel factory, as well as community landscaping and job training programs. A further bonus: the Center boasts that it is the only brownfield redevelopment in an urban district accessible by transit.

One way to build sustainability into cities is to design green buildings. That's important because buildings, in their construction and operation, use half the energy we expend as a nation—more even than the fuel burned by cars and trucks.

At the same time, construction demolition and disposal generate a quarter of the waste in landfills.

Under a self-certifying rating system called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), building developers accumulate credits for saving energy and water and using recycled materials. Already, the green building movement has created a shift in the way architects and planners go about their work, says Lynne Barker, a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, the non-profit council that manages the certification process. In the five years since the council created its standard, more than 3 percent of all new construction uses it.

When it comes to “green urbanism,” extending sustainable practices beyond buildings to neighborhoods and cities, there are few examples in the United States, but a growing number in Europe. London, for example, has its “Bed Zed” (Zero Energy Development), 100 densely packed but attractively designed apartments with roof gardens. The complex generates energy from on-site solar and renewable sources, adding zero carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

Across North America, however, despite its daunting challenges, the quest for urban sustainability is extending to cities big, mid-sized and small. Chicago bested Seattle by building a “green roof” on its city hall a few years before Seattle did, proving that a roof planted over with hardy, drought-resistant, native plants could effectively cool the building and lessen the city's heat island effect. Cities like Vancouver are pragmatically preparing for “unthinkable” global warming scenarios while trying to imagine their best options. What would it take for your city to become a green city beautiful?


Francesca Lyman is a Seattle journalist writing a book on cities. She thanks the CASE Media Foundation for a fellowship to Western Washington University last year that helped support the research for this article. Send further suggestions on urban innovations to her at chicha19 @ comcast.net.

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