Innovation Blog

Innovating Our Neighborhoods:  Breaking the Tyranny of Cars

By Shlomo Maital    Peter Katz, The New Urbanism

   “Imagine,” former Beatle John Lennon sang in his 1971 hit,  “imagine all the people… sharing all the world…You may say that I’m a dreamer…but I’m not the only one.”     

      You’re not alone, John.  Let us all imagine! 

      Imagine, if you will, getting up in the morning, scrambling bleary-eyed into your car and spending a frazzling hour or two in a traffic jam, arriving at work irritable and crabby, only to reverse the process at day’s end, arriving home exhausted after battling aggressive motorists for another hour or more.  And then − repeat the torture again, the next day, and every weekday.

       There is no need to imagine.  This is the reality many face  in Israel and abroad.  According to the United Nations Population Fund, since 2008 a majority of the world’s population, some 3.3 billion people,  live in cities.  Far more people work  in cities.  And cities everywhere are increasingly choked by private cars.    

         So, let’s listen to Lennon’s words again.  This time,  imagine getting up in the morning, walking to work down tree-lined boulevards, stopping for coffee at an outdoor café;  or  walking to a railroad station and zipping by train to work, to shop, to classes or to do errands or meet friends, a half-hour away.  

        This is the neighborhood-sharing vision of a group of revolutionary city planners, known as the New Urbanists.  They propose a new approach to urban development built around public transportation, known as transit-oriented development, or TOD.     I recently interviewed Peter Katz, a leader and founder of New Urbanism in America, now a Sarasota, Florida, County urban planner, during his first visit to Israel.

        TOD is defined as moderate-to-high density development, featuring a mix of residential, employment & retail uses,  all in short walking distance from adjacent public transportation. The essence of TOD is making transportation (access) a vital part of every master plan.  Indeed, easy access is the starting point of urban development. This is generally not the case.

     Peter Katz says  the new TOD approach is a three-legged stool, whose ‘legs’ are compelling urban design, effective public process, and better development regulations.    For a new approach to the planning process, Katz suggests a novel idea.   Mobilize neighborhood groups to say how they would like their neighborhood to look,  then integrate their ideas and create winning master plans.  This process is highly visual, with groups posting drawings and pictures on walls that reflect their thinking.  The results are then quickly integrated and combined by experts into development plans.  Katz says he and others have applied this method with success in the U.S.   (See my Blog on “Vive la Charette!”).  He notes that in an era when deficit-ridden central governments are slashing grants to local government, TOD is a way to enhance local property values and raise revenues.  

      Archaeologists and anthropologists claim that some 40,000 years ago, a wondrous thing occurred.  Homo sapiens began to create things of beauty, like drawings on the walls of caves, using their imaginations.  Only humans have imaginations.  Animals lack them.

     Why has this imaginative process seemingly halted, when it comes to planning the neighborhoods we live in?  Have we lost our city planning imagination? Can we revive it?  And can we enlist John Lennon, Peter Katz, the New Urbanism and TOD to unchain our lives from the tyranny of cars?             

* A longer version appeared in The Jerusalem Report, “Marketplace” column