To build the cities of the future, we must get out of our cars

Remaking healthy urban areas means repairing damage done to communities once blown apart to serve the automobile.

SHANGHAI, CHINA Near the center of this city of 24 million, China’s largest, the Yanan expressway crosses under the North-South expressway. The country has gained half a billion city dwellers since 1990—and nearly 190 million cars. “It’s truly almost incomprehensible what happened in China,” says American urban designer Peter Calthorpe, who has worked there extensively. With nearly 300 million more people expected in cities by 2030, Chinese planners say they’re changing course, prioritizing walkable streets and public transit over cars.

The purpose of cities is to bring people together. In the 20th century, we blew them apart. One day last year, Peter Calthorpe took me on a drive through some of the wreckage. He wanted to show me how he proposes to make cities whole again.

Calthorpe is an architect who in the late 1970s helped design one of the first energy-efficient state office buildings, which still stands in Sacramento, California. But he soon widened his focus. “If you really want to affect environmental outcomes and social outcomes, it’s not shaping a single building that matters,” he says. “It’s shaping a community.”

Today he runs a small but globally influential urban design firm, Calthorpe Associates. In his spare, airy office in Berkeley, the charter of the Congress for the New Urbanism hangs framed on the wall, denouncing “the spread of placeless sprawl.” Calthorpe helped launch the group in 1993. The struggle is long and ongoing.

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