Talk the Walk: the UAB Sustainable Smart Cities Symposium

“Trying to solve traffic jams with more roads is like putting out a fire with gasoline,” Enrique Peñalosa told an audience of nearly 300 greenies,…

If you’re pushing a new highway project, don’t expect any love from Enrique Peñalosa, a consultant and sustainability advocate.

“Trying to solve traffic jams with more roads is like putting out a fire with gasoline,” Peñalosa told an audience of nearly 300 greenies, academics, developers and government officials at a Birmingham conference last week.

Our love affair with the automobile has damaged our cities and our health and must end, according to several speakers at the UAB Sustainable Smart Cities Symposium held in Birminhgam Feb. 16.

The ebullient Peñalosa, an economist who served as mayor of Bogotá, Columbia, in the late 1990s, noted that Atlanta, Ga., despite having huge freeways, “has more traffic jams every year.”

And regarding U.S. Highway 280 in Birmingham, where a controversial, double-decked toll road has been proposed, Peñalosa had only one request. “All I ask you to do is never make it bigger,” he said.

Peñalosa spoke at the UAB Sustainable Smart Cities Symposium, an all-day event held at the DoubleTree Hotel, Thursday, Feb. 16.

The symposium was intended to engender discussion of the ways in which planning, technology, infrastructure improvements and public health can play a part in making communities like Birmingham more livable and efficient.

While mayor of Bogotá, Peñalosa restricted private car use, built a large network of bike paths, built a new bus rapid transit (BRT) system, worked to improve his city’s marginal neighborhoods and helped create many new public spaces, including parks, plazas and greenways.

“Public pedestrian space makes us happy,” Peñalosa said, referring to that space as “the most critical part of a city.”

And don’t expect to see the former mayor hanging out at, say, the Galleria. “When shopping malls replace public places as a place for people to meet, that is a sign a city is sick,” he said. “A great city has its shops on the streets. People like to walk.”

His solution for Highway 280? “I would put buses in exclusive lanes,” he said. “Buses can do what rail does and better,” adding later than “buses have a bad image” as a means of transport solely for the poor. He said that while rail “is nice and wonderful,” buses cost less.

The automobile had an overall negative impact on cities in the 20th century, according to Peñalosa. When cars appeared, he said, “first they pushed people to the sidewalks, then to the suburbs.”

Birmingham has suffered from this, as well, the outspoken Peñalosa said. While showing attendees an aerial photograph of a typical suburban housing development, he said that suburbs are a big problem in the Magic City. “People are totally car-dependant [and] it’s bad for the environment,” he said, adding, “This is a disaster. And nobody’s walking.”

Peñalosa, who has advised Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the “greening” of New York, said that “quality sidewalks are the mark of a great city,” and that the lack of them shows a lack of respect for human dignity. “People with cars are first-class citizens,” he said. “People without cars are third-class citizens.”

Bike riders should have the same rights as drivers, according to Peñalosa, and people will bike when given the opportunity. “World-class bike infrastructure would multiply bike use everywhere,” he said, adding that Bogotá went from almost zero bike use to about 350,000 rides per day.

Peñalosa took a well-publicized bike tour of run-down Birmingham neighborhoods (Titusville and Elyton) the day before the symposium and noted that the Magic City has hundreds of abandoned homes a short ride from downtown.

He showed attendees some photographs, including what appeared to be a shot of Rickwood Field off Third Avenue West, which Peñalosa referred to as “a half-abandoned stadium with lots of land around it.”

The consultant said that Birmingham should think big, take advantage of relatively low property values and make the investments necessary to turn these depressed areas into vital new urban neighborhoods.

“What would it take for people who work downtown and who don’t have children between ages 5 and 18 to move downtown?” he asked, and suggested such amenities as parks and grocery stores.

“You could do a new city with the best urban design on the planet,” he said. It would be, he suggested, “much more attractive than being in the lonely suburbs.” He added, “You have a fantastic opportunity to do something amazing in Birmingham to bring in high-income people and relocate the people who live there.”

Peñalosa would repeat his pitch for inner-city redevelopment three times during an afternoon panel discussion that featured several of the conference speakers, as well as others, including Birmingham developer Cathy Crenshaw.

For example, after Crenshaw suggested that Birmingham, as a realistic, short-term transit goal, could perhaps create a useful city center circulator, Peñalosa said, “You can’t have mass transit if you don’t have density,” and once again urged that Birmingham do massive, world-class renovations of underused neighborhoods. He said that U.S. courts have shown, in a case in Connecticut, that imminent domain can be used to aid private developers for a greater public good. “We are paralyzed by guilt and fear,” he said.

During a Q&A, when a woman from the audience asked why so much attention is paid to city center development instead of the needs of some surrounding neighborhoods, such as Titusville, Peñalosa answered her question obliquely while repeating his pitch for redevelopment. He said that these depressed neighborhoods will be gentrified anyway, even if it takes 20 or 30 years, because the land is cheap and attractive to developers, and that the process should begin now.

Later, in response to a comment from another attendee who suggested that the term “urban renewal” had developed a negative connotation because such projects have often been used, she said, to target low-income or minority areas, Peñalosa said that this didn’t mean that we shouldn’t do any projects. He suggested that Birmingham’s depressed neighborhoods could be rebuilt to include a mix of incomes and make them better for the people already living there.

Peñalosa cited a comment that Crenshaw had made earlier in the panel discussion – “Nationally, there is a significant shift toward walkable urban development,” Crenshaw said  – and suggested that if she and others are right, then even if government does nothing, the residents of these presently poor, underdeveloped areas “may slowly get kicked out and no one will even notice.”

Manuel F. Olivera, director in Colombia of the Clinton Climate Initiative, discussed his organization’s support for projects designed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in Colombia, including the testing of electric vehicles and biogas capture in a Bogotá landfill. “We want to reduce emissions but also make cities more efficient and save money for other purposes,” he said.

Olivera stressed that these types of projects make economic sense and are not necessarily expensive.

“We are talking about a concrete path to sustainability, and the cities can do that,” he said. “It’s not a matter of money. It’s a matter of imagination.”

He used the example of the city of Los Angeles, which has saved millions in lighting costs annual by converting to LED street lights. And the biogas extraction project at the Bogotá landfill had, he said, only a 2.7-year payback period. “Mayors always say we want money. Well, the money’s there. We just need to be more efficient.’

We need to look at the city of the future, Olivera said. “If we don’t do something now, [our descendants] will be living in that mess that we leave them for the future.”

Oscar E. (Edmundo) Diaz, a Bogotá-based management consultant, said our relationships with the auto must change. “People are in love with their cars,” he said. “It’s a terrible affair. We need to find other solutions to get people out of their cars and into public transit.” Diaz worked with Penalosa on several projects, including a car-free day and Bogotá’s BRT system.

Building more or bigger roads in an attempt to control traffic congestion is futile he says, because those roads will merely be filled. The only solution, he says is “a high-quality rapid transit system,” and, not surprisingly, he held out as a shining example the BRT system he helped bring to Bogota, a type of system that can be built more quickly than rail, he says.

He also said that walking should be encouraged with safer, more pedestrian-friendly crosswalks, as well as nice plazas and good sidewalks. “If you don’t have good infrastructure, people won’t walk,” he said. “You need good sidewalks, to encourage retailers to put nice places there, cafes. You need the political will.”

“Birmingham has a great opportunity here,” he said. “Birmingham has many quiet streets, so many pieces of land that can be renovated. It’s not expensive. It can bring people back to the city. We can have people coming back. I think the message is we need to reconfigure every city for pedestrians. “

During the panel discussion, Diaz discussed what he saw as the most important goal for Birmingham “The most important thing is to bring people back to downtown,” said, urging UAB, the mayor and the private sector to work together to bring companies downtown. He also suggested that the city try to create “livable cities” and use activities like car-free days to “let [residents] enjoy the city they have.”

Monica Baskin, associate professor in the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine, cited various health statistics in making the argument that people are often healthier when they live in high-density urban environments where they walk and ride mass transit. For example, according to Baskin, people who live in an area with a mix of shops and businesses in easy walking distance have a 35 percent lower risk of obesity. “The built environment has a role in increasing weight and [in] helping us to reduce that,” she said, citing a variety of health.

Fouad H. Fouad, chair of the UAB Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering and director of the new Sustainable Smart Cities Research Center, discussed some of the sustainability activities taking place on campus, including research, new degree programs and eco-projects. “For the largest employer in the state to run these programs sends a great message,” he said.

Birmingham Mayor William Bell discussed the city’s green initiatives and addressed what he sees as the need for a better transit system.  “Everybody wasn’t somebody to save them, but we are going to have to save ourselves,” he said. “Everybody will have to be on board, from the state to the city and the private sector [to create] a transit system that people will actually use.”

Other speakers included Dietmar Offenhuber, a research fellow in the MIT SENSEable City Lab.

The symposium was presented by the UAB schools of Engineering, Business and Medicine, as well as the UAB Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center

Jesse Chambers is the editor of Weld Local and a contributing editor at Weld for Birmingham. Send your feedback to editor@weldbham.com.