European cities are moving aggressively to promote alternative forms of transport to the car in their downtown areas, not just with friendly programs like easy public bike rental stands (one in Copenhagen is pictured above), but with programs that are downright unfriendly to the automobile: street closings, traffic light sequences designed to slow car commutes; disappearing parking spaces; hi gas taxes and usage fees. An article in the New York Times discusses this in depth.
Lots of public expenditure for warehousing single-occupancy cars
Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, American cities are still overwhelmingly planning their cities around the automobile (above is a large parking deck recently finished in downtown Birmingham whose volume is almost entirely given over to the daytime warehousing of single-occupancy vehicles. At night, its eerie fluorescent lights hum over thousands of empty square feet at a prominent intersection, Richard Arrington Blvd. and 4th Avenue North).
Current zoning laws require far too much parking for certain uses in certain urban environments. Even when they don’t, market forces–including lending institutions which refuse to contemplate anything but car-centric projects–end up mandating the same car-dependent situation. European cities have learned that vibrant center cities are vibrant because of people, not vehicles. Public policy, gas taxes, and history make this an easier sell over there. Here, it’s a lot easier to pave a road for cars than to stripe a lane for bikes, or construct a decent transit system. We can’t turn ourselves into Europeans, but we could sure learn a lesson or two.
[thanks to mreames for the bikes shot; terry mccombs for the parking deck shot]
An ambitious plan
Denmark’s capital Copenhagen has become the first Scandinavian city to mandate green roofs on all new buildings with slopes of less than 30 degrees. You can read the article here–courtesy of inhabitat.
One of the reasons why we don’t have more green roofs in Birmingham is the lack of incentives. While green roofs offer many benefits–they reduce the need for costly storm water systems; they provide great insulation; they prolong the life of the roof; and they help reduce urban temperatures and clean the air–they are relatively costly to install, especially for smaller projects. Chicago had a great plan that gave small residential and commercial projects grants for installing green roofs; Cincinnati offers low-cost loans for commercial green roofs. We are way behind Europe, however, where cities like Stuttgart, Germany have a smart combination of mandates and incentives resulting in green roofs everywhere.
It can be done here too
Despite the lack of local incentives, we were able to design the green roof (shown above) on a new townhouse in downtown Birmingham. It’s one small step forward to reducing energy costs for all of us. Now, if Birmingham could create a Department of the Environment, with a super-progressive director backed by the mayor and council—we’ve got some great citizen and designer interest. We just need a program and some incentives!
Birmingham: the Copenhagen of the Deep South? Dream big.
[thanks to inhabitat for the Copenhagen photo]
I couldn’t resist adding this photo from the December, 1953 edition of National Geographic, showing an early green roof on the top of the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company, Decatur, IL:
An early pioneer