David Walters: Pedestrian-friendly Neighborhoods Require Less Energy

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 5, 2011

04/04/11 by Kathy Chaffin

The United States is lagging behind in heeding signposts to survive the 21st Century, said British urban designer David Walters during a presentation Thursday evening at the Center for the Environment building on the Catawba College campus.
Eighty-five people from several counties turned out to hear Walters, who moved to the United States in 1983 and is now a tenured professor of architecture and urban design at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In addition to serving as program coordinator of the Master of Urban Design Program at the university’s College of Art and Architecture, he is the author or coauthor of three books on urban design and community planning.
 Walters, who has four decades of experience as an architect, urban designer and community planner, is also senior urban designer with The Lawrence Group, Architects and Town Planners and has won state and national awards for urban design master plans, form-based code and community planning projects based in Carolina communities.
The No. 1 and most obvious signpost in his PowerPoint presentation, “Signposts to Surviving the 21st Century: Air Quality, Carbon Emissions, Community Design,” was: “If we use less energy, we won’t need to produce as much in the first place, and we will produce lower emissions.”
“That attitude of keeping going, trying to keep what we have is definitely one option,” he said. But “clearly the more we utilize our own resources, we become more or less dependent on foreign sources …”
The alternative question, Walters said, is whether we can orchestrate energy from cleaner sources and “still maintain a reasonably affluent, convenient lifestyle.”
While cleaner energy sources are emerging, Walters said he gets nervous about “the promise of new technologies in case they don’t arrive.”
One slide on his PowerPoint featured two photographs, one of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the United Kingdom, where he received his undergraduate and graduate degrees. The photo was taken in 1970 when Walters was completing his graduate thesis on urban design. Four smoke stacks were visible in the background.         
“Clearly, people were living and dying in this environment,” he said. “Eventually, that was cleaned up with great effort.”
The other photo was of a rural scene in Union County, which Walters said has since been turned into a parking lot.
“We spoil our environment with great ease,” he said. “We reclaim it with great difficulty, but it is possible to reclaim it.”
Wouldn’t it be nice, however, Walters asked, if development was designed to not spoil the environment in the first place?
Current urban design trends call for pedestrian-friendly streets that are walkable, bikeable, drivable and transit-friendly. “And almost every community in the country of any size and sophistication has a plan for that,” he said.
Walters asked Joe Morris, city planning director of Salisbury who has collaborated with Walters on a number of design projects, if there was such a plan for Innes Street. “Oh yes,” Morris responded.
The problem, Walters said, is people don’t want them. “If we really wanted them, it would happen,” he said.
In recent years Walters said developers have become more positive toward pedestrian-friendly communities. Then, just as the academic community and developers were getting on the same page, the recession hit, he said, and new environmentally-friendly urban design plans were put on hold.
Sometimes when he talks about a transit-oriented development, Walters said people think he’s talking about a high-rise dwelling, but that’s not the case. “It can be quite luxurious,” he said.
He and his wife lived in the Dilworth community in Charlotte, a compact walking development featuring four-to-30 dwellings per acre. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the single dwellings around it sell for $400,000 and more, he said.
While some people like sprawl and can build a very nice life with resources, it may at some point become unsustainable, Walters said. He referred to author Christopher B. Leinberger, whose book, The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream, suggests that wealthy suburbs may become the “slums” of the future because with future increases in gas prices, they could become unsustainable.
Referring back to his contention that the United States is lagging behind in proceeding with green technology, Walters said “China is beating the pants off us.” The country has now surpassed Great Britain in the number of scientific papers published and Ph.D.’s awarded. At the current rate, he said within two years, China would “be producing more scientific knowledge than America.”
Walters said it’s going to take more than just upgrading suburbia to create green houses which use less energy. “We’ve got to change the pattern of suburbia,” he said. “We also need to get over this rail thing.”
He said he is baffled by Americans’ opposition to high speed rail. “Every other industrialized nation in the world is investing in high speed rail as fast as it can,” he said.
Spain, which has suffered major economic woes, is investing $193 billion to create the best high speed rail system in Europe. “Their aim is to be better than the Germans,” Walters said. “They’re broke, and they’re investing $193 billion….”
The British are in agreement that dealing with climate change is the only way to get out of the recession in good shape, he said. “Everybody is united over there that a green economy is the answer,” he said. “High speed rail is an essential component of that.”
High speed rail is the economic base of China, he said. “It’s going to be the economic base of most of America’s competitor nations.”
Using the 800 miles from New York to Chicago as an example, Walters said it would take 20 hours by Amtrak and two-to-three hours on a nonstop flight plus driving time between beginning and ending destinations as compared to the four hours by bullet train to travel an equivalent distance – from Beijing to Shanghai – at a speed of more than 200 mph.
Even if President Obama’s proposed $9.3 billion rail proposal is approved, he said, that’s very small in comparison to the $193 billion being invested by Spain, a country “which fits very handily into Texas.”
In concluding, Walters urged the audience to consider actions and votes in helping to determine the environmental course of America. The final slide of his PowerPoint presentation was a photograph of a young girl.
“And that’s why we care,” he said.
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.