The City of Tomorrow:
An Interview with Peter Calthorpe

By Scott London

A tour of the typical American city is enough to shake almost anyone’s faith in 20th century progress. Our cities are a jungle of freeways, parking lots, skyscrapers and strip malls. They seem designed more for motorists and consumers than inhabitants or citizens. And they are home to some of our most pressing social maladies, from crime and pollution to racial tensions and persistent poverty.

Peter Calthorpe

It is not surprising that over the last half-century Americans have largely abandoned the inner city for the suburb. Today more than half the population lives outside the city, more often than not in segregated worlds of housing tracts and office parks and shopping centers. The qualities that once made for vibrant towns and neighborhoods — public spaces, walkable neighborhoods, people-friendly downtowns — are for many Americans little more than a childhood memory.

For the past three decades, San Francisco-based architect and planner Peter Calthorpe has been working hard to change that. As one of the leading proponents of New Urbanism or Neotraditionalism, Calthorpe has formulated a comprehensive design and planning philosophy aimed not only at curbing urban sprawl and reducing traffic congestion, but also creating more pedestrian-friendly and ecologically sound communities, environments that that promote a sense of connectedness and place. He is the author of Sustainable Communities, The Next American Metropolis, and most recently, The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl (co-authored with William Fulton).

Scott London: In a nutshell, how would you describe good urban design?

Peter Calthorpe: My short and simple answer is that a well-designed city is walkable. It’s a place where your destinations are close enough to walk to and where you feel safe enough to walk. And it’s a place that is interesting enough socially to make you feel that walking is perhaps something more than just getting from point A to point B. I think that is the heart of it.

London: Is it possible to design walkable communities in an age of freeways and strip malls?

Calthorpe: Well, the idea that we can return to mom-and-pop grocery stores is fallacious. But I think we have to find our way back to some of the design principles of the traditional American city. The idea is to create a hybrid between the realities of today and the need for a return to human-scale community.

London: How do we confront the problem of grotesque, over-developed cities like Los Angeles?

Calthorpe: There are some fairly straightforward answers, to tell you the truth. Portland, Oregon, is an example of a city and region that has created an urban growth boundary, a state-mandated limit to growth around the metropolitan area. The exciting thing about this kind of approach is that the moment you draw an urban growth boundary it means that the economic life of the region has to begin recycling its dollars back into existing communities. It can no longer afford to spend those dollars spreading outward over the natural environment. That creates a consciousness in which reinhabiting older neighborhoods, rehabilitating strip commercial areas, and reinvesting in urban centers all become naturally viable.

We have to find our way back to some of the design principles of the traditional American city — to create a hybrid between the realities of today and the need for a return to human-scale community.

London: Most metropolitan areas seem to be moving in the opposite direction. For example, in Seattle the population grew by 36 percent between 1970 and 1990 while the developed land area grew by 90 percent. Cleveland’s population actually declined during that same period, but the city continued to spread outward.

Calthorpe: Yes, it’s because we’re building lower density suburban subdivisions at the periphery of regions. We’re not going back in and repairing and recycling older neighborhoods in inner-city areas, or even older suburban areas. It’s a disposable-society strategy to building cities — basically you use them then throw them away and move on to some virgin land. It’s a pioneer ethic. There’s no question that it’s in the blood of America. But at some point we have to recognize that we’re no longer pioneers on a frontier.

London: Will be able to turn things around?

Calthorpe: Democracies tend to be self-correcting, and I think we’re in a self-correcting mode now. We see the problems. The first and most profound sign of it is the anti-growth movement. People are saying "I don’t want any more development."

London: If people don’t want more of it, why do we continue to develop the way we do?

Calthorpe: There is profound inertia in the system. It didn’t just come about through the ideologies of some designers. There are subsidies in place that make it happen. Suburban sprawl came about as a result of two major subsidies from the federal government. The first was the Federal Highway Bill which began in 1956 with the interstate system, the largest public works system in the history of mankind. The second is the single-home mortgage deduction, a huge subsidy that moves people toward single-occupancy, single-family homes. We are the only industrialized country in the world that has those deductions, and it skews the marketplace in favor of sprawl.

London: It seems incredible that those subsidies are still in place given that America doesn’t look anything like it did following the Second World War.

Calthorpe: Right. If you look at the demographics, only 25 percent of the population is made up of married families — two people with one or more kids. The other 75 percent are "other." And one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to housing. However, everybody invests in the same house because of resale and mortgage deduction and other externalities that are dampening the true diversity of our communities. What we need is a much broader spectrum of housing opportunities, from apartments that are conveniently located to townhouses for people without kids to duplexes to small-lot, single-family homes.

London: How do we accomplish any real change in the face of federal subsides and other systemic problems?

Calthorpe: It gets easier, of course, as the infrastructure dollars begin to deplete. We simply can’t build our way out of congestion anymore. The interstate system basically created an incredible armature that’s taken thirty years to fill up. But it’s filled up. We don’t have the money to go back and keep doing it over and over. We also have enough wisdom to know that it’s not the best answer in terms of air quality, open space preservation and things like that. So I think these underlying things are changing.

London: You’ve pointed out that we should be narrowing our streets and roads, not widening them.

Calthorpe: What is a street? It’s not just a utility for the car. It’s everybody’s most immediate neighborhood. At least that’s what it used to be — a place to walk, a place to bike, a place for kids to play, a place to park cars, a place for trees, and therefore a place for birds. To think of the street as just a utility for cars is so absurd. And yet that is exactly what is happening because we have segmented design so that the traffic engineer designs the streets and the civil engineer designs the utilities and the architect designs the buildings. Nobody is thinking about the whole composition. Narrower streets win in every way. They make cars go slower, which means that the neighborhood is safer for kids and more enjoyable for pedestrians.

London: You’ve written about the importance of creating "ecologically sound" communities. What does that mean?

Calthorpe: There are lots of layers to it. Some people argue that we ought to build communities using materials that demand less of the global resource-base. Other people have pointed out that we can make more energy-efficient buildings. I worked in these fields in the 70s. But over the last two decades I’ve focused more on how destructive the automobile is — socially, aesthetically and environmentally. Given that we are tripling the number of vehicle-miles traveled per household per year, this upward spiral of auto-use grabs my attention the most. It’s also something that is in all of our faces. We now live in worlds with six-lane arterials and parking lots. The only peaceful place left is our living room and our backyards, so it’s no wonder that we tend to retreat away from community and neighborhood. Once you get out there, it’s just cars.

You can lead that issue down lots of paths: the amount of land area it takes to create the parking; the impact of all that asphalt on water quality; the lack of percolation in the soil; natural aquifer recharging; amount of land-area lost in terms of displaced ag and habitat; and of course air quality. But it all comes down to a really simple thing: We have a myopic transportation system. The way we design our communities doesn’t allow walking, doesn’t provide decent transit systems and doesn’t provide alternatives to the car.

London: It brings us back to the idea of walkable communities.

Calthorpe: Exactly. That is the foundation, because if you want a transit system to function, you have to arrive at a place that’s walkable — otherwise you are going to want to take your car there. So you need walkable neighborhoods. All of a sudden that brings you back to all those simple urban design principles that we seem to have forgotten about — tree-lined streets, local destinations, front porches, and a whole range of things.

London: What are some of the other ways we can incorporate basic ecological design principles?

Calthorpe: One dimension of it is that everything has to weave together. For example, we did a proposal at Laguna West in Sacramento where we wanted to plant trees in the parking lanes. Part of the problem was that the streets were too wide. They had two parking lanes, so the on-street parking basically got used once a year during the Christmas party and the rest of the year the street looked like you could land an airplane on it. So we said, why don’t we "park" some trees in these stalls. Then you can park cars between the trees. The public works official said, "Well, you can’t do that, the cars will run into the trees." I said, "Well, why don’t they run into the parked cars, they are in the same spot?" And very quickly he said, "Because the cars have reflectors on the back." We finally got the trees approved by applying reflectors to the trunks, which satisfied him. But the idea of parking a tree in a street is kind of a metaphor for the whole thing. In Sacramento, new suburbs without street trees are on average ten degrees hotter throughout the summer than the old downtown which has a beautiful tree canopy. Trees have a tremendous microclimate impact, especially in hot areas. So that is an example of passive solar design on a community scale.

London: When you began this work in the 70s you spoke a lot about solar energy, conservation, and sustainability. But you seem less focused on ecological issues these days.

Calthorpe: I was working for the state of California in those days and we put a lot of energy into passing an energy-conservation building mandate, Title 24. But it turned out that the savings from introducing new building standards were pretty small — nickel and dime stuff compared to the energy we were using to get around by car. So since then I’ve been very focused on how to get people out of their cars and how to create environments that require less vehicle-miles per household.

I also began to see that solar design is piecemeal thinking. You know, we were trying to solve the energy problem with this one mechanism. It was like a technological fix. Looking at the issue more systemically meant saying: Wait a minute, the best way to solve this may be to look at the configuration of our communities, not just apply some new technology.

I wrote an article twenty years ago called "The Solar Shadow." I did the calculations and showed that a townhouse — because of its common walls and its decreased external surface area — was actually more energy-efficient than a single-family passive solar home in most climates. The townhouse implied a density that creates a neighborhood where there are local shops and the viability of transit. I didn’t even get into the issue of how many vehicle-miles that single-family home requires compared to the townhouse, which is naturally closer to things and denser and therefore transit-supported.

So that’s not to negate solar and ecological design. I think it’s great. But we need to look at all these dimensions simultaneously.

London: We’ve been talking a lot about communities in the United States. Do you see similar trends at work in other parts of the world?

Calthorpe: Funny you should ask that, because I just came back from a trip to Tokyo. We’ve been doing several large projects in Southeast Asia. Most of what I have to report is rather depressing. China, for instance, is going in totally the wrong direction. They just put across a policy that said that the automobile is going to be their chosen transportation system. That is how they are going to steer their infrastructure dollars and their industrial investments. That one decision is monumental. And very frightening.

But there are a few little counter-movements. We’ve been involved with one in the Philippines outside of Manila in a new industrial are where many of the jobs that are leaving the U.S. are ending up. We were hired to design a new city around one of these job-growth areas. The first question was, "How many autos per household do you plan for?" It is so much at the core of everything. And they said, "Well, look, we have to design for at least one car per household because it’s the future." There is this expectation — that the future is America. The phenomenon of emulating the worst of what we do is really dangerous.

We were able to convince them to design it according to a totally different system. It’s a wonderful, ad hoc and completely unplanned bus system where each driver fights for and gets his own space and route and time and customizes his stretched Jeeps to look absolutely gorgeous. It turns out to be one of the most efficient mass transit systems on the globe, because these guys are not on anybody’s schedule. It’s not an engineering problem — they are organically at the right place at the right time because it’s their livelihood. Everybody knows each other, and they all have their own drivers and there is a whole social dimension to it. So we said, "Look, let’s build our city around this idea. This is the culture you have."

London: You started your formal architectural training at Yale but never finished. That seems fitting given that you’ve turned your back on the tried-and-true and forged your own path.

Calthorpe: Well, I left Yale partly as a reaction to the postmodernists. Don’t get me wrong, I think postmodernism in architecture was a very important impulse because, let’s admit it, modern architecture is a complete and utter failure. It’s a failure in terms of human aesthetic. It’s a failure in terms of the social fabric that it creates. It’s a failure environmentally. I mean, Philip Johnson’s houses may be the greatest symbol. Here’s a glass box that is isolated from the community, disconnected from its environment, and too expensive to design.

So the postmodern reaction to that was quite worthwhile. But some of the teachers were dealing with it in such a cartoonish way. The idea that you bring history back into architecture is fine. I think it’s very healthy. More often than not, history links a community together and we need every shred of common linkage we have. But to treat it the way they were treating it — as just another kind of packaging — is just façadism. And the cynicism of people like Philip Johnson, I just couldn’t stand it.

And at the same time, luckily, I had a very nice offer from Sim Van der Ryn and Jerry Brown, who was governor of California at that time, to come and join them in Sacramento to do some real work. So given those two choices, I went to Sacramento.

I remember, Charlie Moore was teaching at Yale at the time and he said something that really stuck with me. He said, "We’ve got to stop talking about space and start talking about place." And that is still very much at the heart of what I’m trying to do — to make the design of buildings and infrastructure create a sense of place, environmentally, culturally and socially.

This interview was adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook." It appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of the archicture journal CRiT.