Designing Communities for Cleaner Air: Q&A with Urban Designer David Walters

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 25, 2011

03/24/11 by Juanita Teschner

Urban Designer David Walters spoke recently with Juanita Teschner, communications director of the Center for the Environment at Catawba College.  Walters will speak on “Signposts to Surviving the 21st Century: Air Quality, Carbon Emissions and Community Design” at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 31, in Room 300 of the Center facility on the Catawba campus. The presentation is free and open to the public, but reservations are required. To reserve a space, individuals may call 704.637.4727 or visit

Q:  How can we design communities that will produce cleaner air and lower our carbon footprint?

A: The basic way that we can get cleaner air and a smaller carbon footprint – and I think everybody knows this – is that we have to drive less. That’s the obvious answer. Everybody says, “Oh, yes, I understand that,” but then that immediately raises the issue: Well, how on earth could we do that, given the way American cities are built and the way that we live our lives?

 We are almost completely car-dependent. So, we tend to pin our faith on new technology that will make cars cleaner so we will be able to keep driving. We will be able to live as we do at the moment but without the bad environmental impacts because somehow technology is going to save us from ourselves. It is going to provide us with a clean car that will do everything we want and not mess up the environment.

Q: So you’re saying that pinning our faith on technology is not wise?

A: There’s a certain amount of hope there. We are producing cleaner fuels. We are producing cars that get higher mileage. But a study on the most effective ways to bring about cleaner air and lower our carbon footprint revealed that there’s a better solution. The study evaluated a variety of things: cleaner vehicles, more efficient insulation in homes and offices, and everybody living in walkable neighborhoods. And, of course, everybody living in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods was by far the best solution.  The other technical fixes – better insulation, better technology – produce useful but relatively small gains whereas changing to a walkable lifestyle as opposed to a car-dominated lifestyle is really the only way we can achieve our goal.

Q: How can we bring about a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, lower-energy environment?

A: That’s a huge question to which nobody has the whole answer. However, if we change our zoning codes, then that will enable creative designers to offer the public more choices. Because when we get right down to it, the way most zoning codes in most American communities work, it really mandates unsustainable development. It’s impossible for developers and their designers to do the kind of development that needs to be done. Some places are more enlightened, but, overall, across the country most zoning codes are actively hostile to the kind of sustainable development that needs to happen.

Q: Why is pursuing sustainable development important?

A: There’s a mountain of evidence that what we’re doing (principally our car-dependent lifestyles plus emissions from things like power plants and industries) is harmful to the planet. It’s the old Pogo quote: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Clearly, in cultural terms, we’re not going to get the solution by any kind of Big Brother ordering Americans about to change their lifestyle. That isn’t going to happen. If anybody tried it, it wouldn’t work.

We have to find ways of incentivizing, of promoting, of showing people the benefits. If we don’t do that, we won’t really take any action until the problem is so huge that it hits us in the face and in the pocketbook. Then we’ll start to change our lifestyles when we have to. So we want to try and head that off at the pass so it doesn’t come to that. We want to make enough progress so that there’s enough change that builds momentum.

Q: You have designed a number of mixed-use communities that are walkable. Give us an example.

Yes, I have been involved in the long-range planning of several of them and have written some zoning codes that encourage, or more accurately, mandate that kind of development, particularly in the towns of Davidson and Huntersville and a few others in North Carolina. The citizens of Davidson had enough foresight back in 1995 to put together a  zoning code which basically said, as development happens in Davidson, it’s going to happen in a way that fits the pattern and scale of the existing town so we can keep walking, we can keep riding our bikes. When we do drive our cars, we drive them for a mile instead of 10 miles to get something.

So almost automatically that kind of lifestyle becomes much more energy-efficient and therefore reduces everybody’s carbon footprint. That has happened in a community like Davidson largely because of citizen power. They have taken charge of how they want their community to function and to look. And there are other communities spread all across the USA that are doing similar things, but it’s a pretty small number in relation to the thousands of communities that exist.

Q: How do we spread that mindset?

A: We have to maximize the value of these best case scenarios, publicize them, explain them. As I’m involved in practice, there are an increasing number of communities that are looking very seriously at this. So we’re trying to help several. I’m off now to Beaufort, S.C., whose citizens are actively engaged in this kind of exercise. So we work where we can and try to promote these as examples.

It will be a success not when the experts promote it but when, as in Davidson, the citizens establish those kinds of priorities for their town. That’s a big education exercise.

Q: I know that Europe is light years ahead of us in this particular field. How is that?

They have a lot of history on their side. Most of these towns were built when the only alternative to walking was riding on a horse. So that normal level of compaction and higher density means right from the start that public transit is much more viable. Even small cities in Europe have light rail systems, for example, and streetcars because it’s more convenient. The old city fabric won’t accommodate huge parking garages, so driving in the center of these cities is very, very inconvenient. It’s actually easier to use transit, and almost none of that applies to the USA.

Only in places like Manhattan, central Boston, Chicago – the older cities with dense urban cores – are our cities similar to the normal European case, but, of course, they are a small minority of the American cities.  However, the fact that millions of Americans will pay huge amounts of money to live in incredibly dense places where it’s difficult to drive means that all is not lost. It’s one viable choice for Americans, but only a small proportion of Americans have access to that choice, even if they want it.

Q: So how do the suburbs fit into this scenario?

A: That’s the biggest challenge – how to retrofit the suburbs. How do you insert elements of sustainability and higher density, walkable nodes into suburbia so that suburbia as a whole can become more sustainable and parts of suburbia can act as mini-downtowns in their own right so you get what’s called the poly-nucleated city – the city with lots of little centers. That’s perfectly feasible except that most people in the suburbs don’t want density near them even if they think the idea is okay.

There are huge educational and political challenges to bring this about. But we have to keep doing it. Every mind that is opened to living sustainably is part of the solution.


The Center for the Environment at Catawba College was founded in 1996 to provide education and outreach centered on prevalent environmental challenges and to foster community-oriented sustainable solutions that can serve as a model for programs throughout the country.