in defense of space

Ok, just to be clear, not the kind of space that extends for infinity beyond our atmosphere. The space in your city or town. The space on the street–the physical distance between buildings, square footage allotted to sidewalks, roads, etc, all that stuff. Or more pointedly, the lack of such space.

It’s Earth Day, and on this day many people take time to reflect on the quality of our environment. Climate change. Poor air quality. Water pollution. Soil contamination. But few people are talking about what, in my humble opinion, is quite likely the biggest environmental challenge facing cities: a lack of space. Don’t get me wrong, those other things are hugely important. And in fact people (particularly urban planner types) are talking about space. There are precious few, however, who directly connect that discussion back to the environment. So on this Earth Day, I’d like to make a statement in defense of space: in most dense, mature urban areas there simply isn’t enough of it. Not with our current lifestyle.

Let me explain. In these environments the numbers of cars, buses, bikes, pedestrians who want to use the street far outstrips the amount of street space available. This is often obvious in older cities like Paris where 200 year old buildings line many streets. They are incredibly narrow streets and no one would dream that they might function like a wide thoroughfare like 6th Avenue. There just isn’t enough space. Why? Because we like to drive (including me!). Quite simply, though, driving just takes up more space than taking the bus or biking or walking. Just take a gander at the image below and others like it that have been circulating around the Internet.

The space we use to travel varies greatly depending on what method (mode) we choose.

The space we use when traveling varies greatly depending on the method (mode) we choose.

What does this have to do with the environment? A lot. Allocating space appropriately makes transportation and development projects more successful. These projects impact whether we can accomplish goals like making transit more reliable or more competitive. Or providing more bike lanes. So that we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But that’s a bit roundabout so I’ll call attention another to a connection that may be slightly more straightforward.

We’re reaching a point where we can either reallocate space on existing streets or widen streets by removing other features that matter to our health and well-being. Like sidewalks (health and accessibility) or building setbacks (housing and economic development) or plowing over parks (active lifestyle and, well, the environment). Planners design transportation projects based on the volume or demand during the worst conditions, typically the peak commute hours. They are required to do so by environmental law, and/or mitigate the impacts the project creates if it is unable to manage the volume of traffic. And in many, many mature cities, streets are already at or near capacity. Sometimes there’s a technology solution (eg, changing signal timing) or a design solution (eg, increasing peak capacity with tow-away lanes). More often though, we need to re-allocate space or forego sidewalks or remove trees or, if your city isn’t quite yet fully built, create parallel roads where land or greenery exists. And we all know how trees and greenery contribute to quality of life in an urban environment, not to mention air quality and soil/water quality. And they need space. For planting, for growing, for enjoying.

So if we all want to drive wherever we want all the time, I suppose we can for now (except if you’re somewhere ahead of the curve, like London or Stockholm). But we are just delaying the inevitable. Even with better technology or smaller vehicles, eventually once again there will be too many vehicles. So this Earth Day, think of how you get around and the amount of space that it takes. Maybe you can make a different decision just once or twice a week. If you drive, try transit. Or if you’re on transit, maybe ride a bike or walk. Or maybe just try it out once. Because space is important too.



  1. Jim Wood · · Reply

    Reblogged this on Time for Action.

  2. Elizabeth · · Reply

    Nice post. So sorry, my commute has to remain the way it is – lone driver.

    1. Ah, the joys of discussing one’s area if expertise with family ;-). Thanks! Some thoughts:
      [1] that’s ok! Not everyone can or should change. That would cause new, probably unforeseen problems. The benefit comes from some people taking advantage of alternatives at least some of the time. That way the volumes level out rather than peak.
      [2] maybe you can’t change for your commute everyday, although I’m not sure I agree, but maybe you can change once in a while. Or maybe another type of trip, like going to visit your neighbors or something along that line.
      [3] not every city is yet well-equipped with good alternatives. The goal in that case would be to support efforts to create them.

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