By Timothy F. Welch

A sustainable city could look like the ones we know today. It could look like the ones we see in science fiction movies, or it could look like something which none of us has yet dreamt.

No one knows what the world will look like in a generation. The cities our parents and grandparents grew up in are, in many ways, different places than the ones we now experience. In a dozen years, we may have ‘Smart Cities’ that use complex data to optimise many of the functions we rely on humans to perform today. We may have mega-tall structures that truly do reach beyond the clouds. We might have automated buses zipping people across town. But one thing is certain, the sustainable city of the future will not and cannot be filled with the automobiles we see today.

Transportation is one of the critical factors that influence how our built environment is composed. Aside from determining how we get from point A to point B, it has also helped determine where in space those points are located.

The evolution of transportation is the evolution of the city. The changing way in which we move around the world has had and continues to have a clear mark on the land.

Before the industrial revolution, starting around 1850 in London, transportation technology was limited to the foot and the hoof. The city’s layout was to maximise access by walking and, for some, access by horse and buggy or ox and cart. This focus on human speed and scale kept cities relatively contained, limiting how far development could spread.

Maps of London from the 1500s show a growing but incredibly dense city. Buildings of all types are packed together. City blocks are small, allowing easy movement. Streets are narrow to allow people of all ages access. At this point, the city measures just three kilometres between its most distant urbanised corners.

This early version of London is a city built on a human scale. It was built for the transportation technology of the day. Nearly anyone could walk to the centre of the town in about 15 to 20 minutes or reach the city’s boundaries in under an hour.

Fast forward to London at the very dawn of the industrial revolution. New transport technology was emerging, decoupling city size and walking. In 1829, the first regular omnibus service – what looks like a small bus pulled by a team of horses – was launched, leading to a fiercely competitive transport market by 1832. At nearly the same time, by 1836, the promise of fast, reliable travel by rail begins to push at the city’s boundaries. This is when the country’s first commuter railway, the London to Greenwich route, opened.

London was a city growing in scale, far beyond its early boundaries, because its citizens were no longer limited by the distance they could be carried by their own two feet.

It wasn’t long before the world’s first underground railway was erected, running between Farringdon and Paddington in 1863. From there, going into the early 20th century, multiple routes began to crawl under the bustling and ever-expanding city.

Despite these advancements in transport technology, the city was still dense and constrained in size. While rail service could transport residents farther from the urban core, they were still confined to work, live and shop along these corridors. The city’s boundaries were still limited to the distance the city could be traversed by rail within an hour.

The twentieth century marked a revolution in personal transportation. The early automobile took the world by storm. As cars became more affordable, they changed the way people moved around the city and the way the city grew.

In the 1920s and 1930s, cars became more ubiquitous in cities and more affordable to the average citizen. This era began the true separation of land uses, moving residences farther from the city core and farther from places of work.

In Auckland, the availability of cars meant residents could leave high-cost housing in the central business district for more affordable housing in the growing suburbs.

In the 1950s, across the Pacific in the United States, soldiers were returning home from World War II. They were flush with cash from the newly created GI Bill, which provided funds for cars, housing, and education. Anxious to start families of their own, the demand for single-family dwellings pushed housing farther away from the urban core. This movement was facilitated by the ever-growing popularity of the car and massive road-building efforts.

In places around the world, as more and more residents left the city for surrounding suburbs, the use of public transportation systems began to wane. Many public transportation systems, often privately operated, ceased operations. Those that survived suffered dramatic service cutbacks and were increasingly propped up by massive government subsidies.

The decline of urban density, coupled with the loss of public transportation ridership, service reductions and the growth of farther-flung suburbs and a decline in walking and cycling, kickstarted a vicious cycle of auto-centric urban development.

The influence of the personal automobile can be seen in today’s London. The urbanised area has grown ever larger in its expanse. Highways and arterials crisscross the city. While public transport still serves many, the dominance of the automobile is unmistakable. London now stretches over 50 kilometres between its boundaries. While a person can still cross the city in under an hour, to do so requires a car.

The story of London is the story of nearly every big city in every industrialised nation across the planet. Our transportation technology has pushed everything from buildings to people farther apart. That separation has consequences as our cities have grown to enormous sizes. We now rely more than ever on our automobiles for even the most basic daily activities. But, in the last quarter-century, we have also realised that our cities cannot continue to expand forever, nor can we drive forever.

The bigger our urbanised space, the more we drive and the more carbon we emit. If we want to make our cities more sustainable, we must move around them sustainably. We can do this by either shrinking our cities so we don’t have to drive so much or stop driving, so our cities don’t continue to expand so rapidly.

A sustainable city is a city that doesn’t require a car or, at the very least, requires the use of a personal vehicle on rare occasions. A sustainable city is one in which most people can get to work, go to school, shop, or visit friends in the same amount of time it took the early residents of London to get to the centre of their city.

A movement has been slowly simmering to transform the way our cities are laid out and how they work. In a way, an effort to contain our cities and rely less upon transport technology began soon after the industrial revolution in 1898 with Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept. The idea is that cities should be composed of smaller units that are both affordable and moderately dense. The Garden City concept was expanded in the 1930s with Clarence Perry’s Neighbourhood Units, describing a more self-contained community.

While these ideas enjoyed popularity for nearly 100 years, they were again refined in the 2000s under a large umbrella of movements including Traditional Neighbourhood Design, Transit Oriented Development and more broadly, Smart Growth in what is called New Urbanism.

At the heart of all these ideas is the desire to constrain the size of the city and move away from dependence on the automobile. As we move into the future, the name continues to evolve. We now talk about 15- or 20-minute cities – but the desire to contain our cities to a human scale remains constant.

A sustainable city could look like the ones we know today. It could look like the ones we see in science fiction movies, or it could look like something which none of us has yet dreamt. But one thing remains constant, to be sustainable, cities cannot rely on the personal automobile.


Timothy F. Welch is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries. He specialises in transportation, infrastructure and urban modelling with a focus on the use of big data and technology.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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