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For Healthy Cities, Government and Business Need to Reverse Roles

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Okay, I have to be honest with you. I love a city, and a downtown with walkways and tunnels and bus stops that tell me where my buses are via GPS and everything else, but sometimes you can just have more connectivity than you need. Remember the internet-connected toaster, that singed the weather forecast into your morning toast?

Well, meet the Big Belly Solar Trash Compactor, a precocious trash can that lives in Raleigh, NC.

It smushes stuff down to hold four times as much trash as usual, then sends up a signal to Raleigh Solid Waste when it’s full. According to the city’s Downtown Sustainability Tour, “Fewer trash truck pick-ups mean less wear on the road, reduced fuel use and reduced carbon emissions.”

Okay, all right, true enough, and I suppose if every trash can were like that, and they all filled at the same rate, and … well, you get the picture. I doubt this little dude really saves much energy or wear and tear on the roads; to me it’s a little more like the neighbor’s precocious kid whom they’ve coerced into learning the Minute Waltz two years before all the other kids do. It’s a little more about the show than the result.

Just the same, Raleigh’s heart is in the right place, as its sustainability tour shows – hybrid electric buses, LEED-certified buildings, LED streetlights, EV charging stations, all found on a 2.2-mile walk through the downtown. Like all cities – and most enterprises – Raleigh sees its future in green.raleigh sustainability tour

But all week I’ve been getting hit from all sides by the other ways cities can be good for the planet: by changing our actual behavior. There’s this piece from yurbanism, which notes recent discussion about how the move back to the cities from the suburbs is about more than just efficiency – it’s about health. It quotes Dr. Howard Frumkin, dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health and co-author of Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Designing, Planning, and Building for Healthy Communities. Dr. Frumkin notes that “Well-designed communities can be interventions for public health. How we build and maintain our communities’ transportation systems, infrastructure, and public spaces can either exacerbate or reduce obesity, chronic diseases, injury rates, poor mental health, and the adverse effects of climate change.”

This from the Chronicle of Higher Education makes much the same point. Author Scott Carlson quotes Dr. Richard Jackson, then head of the National Center for Environmental Health at the CDC, watching an old woman struggling along in the heat along a road full of strip malls and traffic. The health threats to worry about weren’t from radon or high fructose corn syrup: “I realized that the major threat was how we had built America.”

Progressive cities of course address this all the time now. Portland, as ever, leads the way, with an entire handbook for what it calls cool planning, focused on protecting the planet from warming.

Bicycling and walkability – fighting many of the suburban ills Jackson recognized – are getting more and more attention from places like the Atlantic, with a piece noting that lots of businesses make a place walkable — but that surprisingly some of those businesses ought to be the great big chains we’re all supposed to criticize, since they bring in more customers and help keep the place going. The Daily Green lists especially walkable cities and even Raleigh is working harder and harder at adding vast new stretches of dedicated greenway, beginning to turn its once-envelope-pushing greenway system into something like the transportation alternative it was originally meant to be.

And in his book Triumph of the City, economist Edward Glaeser claims that cities are not just the greenest and most efficient but the healthiest places on the planet, citing for example that New Yorkers live longer than most and have lower rates of heart disease and cancer.

It’s too bad we had to live through the flight to the suburbs, but it’s exciting to see so much interest – and so much science – figuring out why cities work so well. I ended last week by attending a forum by the Urban Design Center of the City of Raleigh, where NCSU urban planning graduate student Dwane Jones gave a presentation on the behavioral impacts of street modification, focusing on things like Complete Streets and using as an example studies done (but not yet published) on the results of the well-regarded urban design guidelines of Charlotte. Charlotte has not been widely known for its pedestrian-friendly attitude, but a caption on the homepage for the guidelines – adopted in 2007 – shows their new attitude nicely: “We can’t keep widening our roads, so we have to broaden our thinking.” The point is less that people like the streets better in Charlotte – or anywhere – once you give pedestrians a chance, or even that people get healthier when they live in well-designed cities.

The point, finally, was best summed up by city planner Ken Bowers: These good ideas are coming from city planners and scientists, not from some idealized free market. Bowers quoted planner Peter Salins: “The current responsibilities of government and private development need to be precisely reversed. … Governmental entities should prepare comprehensive plans and build the primary public infrastructure, thinking in broad and visionary ways…and private developers should be free to shape and site the community’s residential and commercial structures according to the preferences of their tenants or purchasers.”[1]

That is, people like Jones are working as extension agents, helping people see how to make their cities healthy — and he and a legion of civic planners like him are trying to make cities healthier so that we’re healthier. That’s part of their goal. Developers mostly just want to get us to buy their buildings. Putting the broader goals first seems to make sense.

I still can’t make sense of that solar powered trash can, though.

[1] Suburban Planning in a Market Economy. (Hack, Gary, Eugene Birch, Paul Sedway, Mitchell Silver (2009); “Local Planning: Contemporary Principles and Practice,” ICMA Press.)


Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. veronaa 3:31 pm 02/3/2012

    How does “Big Belly” contain all those unfinished drinks and dairy like treats that may wind up in its maw?

    AS the compactor crushes the contents the liquids are going to gush all over the streetscape unless there is a leakproof bin inside. This seems to make the costs all to high to spread this technology… and what happens when the local vandal-like teens cruise by and find glee in smashing the solar array.

    As a lifetime citydweller and one who spent most of his working life in Manhattan, I have seen the futility of well designed trash containers going down to defeat at the hands of the wandering youth. Even in the little town of 13,000 that I now live in, Verona, NJ, there is not a single nicely designed curbside trash receptacle that has not been trashed by the rowdies. Most curbside trees regularly suffer damage to their lower limbs from passing students walking to and from their hallowed halls of education. In the past I’ve even had to chase away a group of teens who were happily attempting to pull up a recently planted curbside tree. My call to the public works department the next morning got the tree replanted, and over a decade later it continues to grow.

    I won’t even mention the trash carelessly tossed onto front lawns and bushes.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Bops 10:35 pm 02/3/2012

    There’s always a few bad kids that always draw attention to their ability to break the rules because it’s fun to be a little bit bad.

    Link to this

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