Lapped on Urban Sustainability - can the US ever catch up?

<p> Summer travel took me out of the US and back to Sweden for the first time in five years.  While my initial reaction was that things seemed much the same, I quickly realized that the Swedes had quietly pushed forward a number of projects that, if located in the US, would be on the vanguard of sustainability.  But over there it&#39;s just called urban planning. </p>

September 7, 2011, 10:11 AM PDT

By Walker Wells


Summer travel took me out of the US and back to Sweden for the first time in five years.  While my initial reaction was that things seemed much the same, I quickly realized that the Swedes had quietly pushed forward a number of projects that, if located in the US, would be on the vanguard of sustainability.  But over there it's just called urban planning.

What did I see? The completion of the CityTunnel in Malmo, which takes trains coming over the Oresund Bridge straight into their upgraded and expanded central station.  The thoughtful expansion of the pedestrian-only zone in central Lund (a 1000 year old university town in southern Sweden); expanded bike lanes and bike sharing throughout Central Stockholm; the near completion of the Hammarby District (now settled in so well I had to double check that I was in the "new" part of town); broad public discussion about how to rebuild the messy pinch point in central Stockholm called Slussen (which has nearly every type of transportation moving through it except airplanes - cars, trucks, bikes, pedestrians and yes, boats); privately run passenger train companies (operating due to legislation requiring competion with the national rail system); a fast new train going straight from central Stockholm to the airport; construction underway on an additional tunnel to move trucks through the city without filling local streets with traffic and air pollution; plans to add significant amounts of housing and green spaces to under used inner city districts; and finally an interactive exhibit about setting the future vision for Stockholm, set up on the main shopping street.

While stateside, I've had the chance to see a good number of US cities: Chicago, Denver, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, DC, New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Phoenix, New Orleans, Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, and our flagship of sustainability, Portland. To be sure, there is a lot going on in urban America, and much to be proud of.  Our inner city neighborhoods and downtowns are a thousand times better than the scary nearly abandoned places I remember from the 1980s.  And various iterations of the projects and approaches listed above are either completed or being proposed in various US cities. But it is still a challenge to find them working cohesively in any one place.  Instead we have a fragmented landscape of innovation, the Big Dig in Boston, bike infrastructure in Portland, industrial land revitalization in Atlanta, a new rail line to the airport in Seattle, infill housing in downtown Los Angeles, light rail in Phoenix, LEED ND certified plans for public housing in San Francisco, major transit and commuter rail upgrades in lower Manhattan, etc.

In the sprawl-dominated world of US urban planning this is all significant progress. But in a global context, its easy to feel like we're not pedaling fast enough, or with sufficient conviction. Swedish planners and elected officials have know for years that high-quality infrastructure and well-functioning cities are fundamental to the country's long-term economic vitality. Because of this sensibility, federal funding is allocated to enable on-going urban investments.  In the US, urban investments often get politicized and cast as part of a progressive agenda, and funding for low-income housing, brownfield clean up, regional planning, and non-highway transportation projects have to survive the ideological budget gauntlet.

While these battles may seem vital in statehouses and DC, the rest of the world is not standing around waiting for us to make up our minds. Our slow pace in making our cities more sustainable is only doing us long term-harm.  Because unlike the tortoise and the hare, I don't think the Swedes, or any other country with a coherent strategy for urban infrastructure, are planning to stop for a nap anytime soon.


Walker Wells

Mr. Wells is a Principal at Raimi + Associates, an urban planning consultancy based on sustainability, equity, health, and authentic stakeholder engagement.

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