Experimental Neighborhoods Where the Car Is Not King: Doing Things Differently in Arizona, Quebec, & Beyond
After apprenticing with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, in the late 1940s, Italian architect and urbanist Paolo Soleri eventually settled nearby and built a home and studio he called Cosanti. As a resident of the Phoenix metro area during an age of rapid expansion, he watched the post-war suburban development model play out in quintessential fashion, propelled by America’s car culture. Acre after acre was bulldozed, paved, and gouged by backhoes. Strip malls and highways, office parks and residential streets proliferated. Lamenting this “flat city” approach to growth, a horizontal dispersion of people and buildings across sweeps of terrain, Soleri formulated an alternative urbanism he called “arcology.”
A conceptual fusion of architecture and ecology, arcology rejected the automobile as “the main driver of urban design” (the phrase comes from Roger Tomalty, a former Soleri assistant and construction supervisor). The architect’s counter-model emphasized settlement density and vertical building to preserve land, reduce car use, and foster human interaction.
In 1969, Soleri published his influential manifesto, Arcology:The City in the Image of Man. A year later, he founded an experimental town, Arcosanti, in the high desert 70 miles north of Phoenix.
“The problem I am confronting,” he explained at a conference on alternative living in the mid-1970s, “is the present design of cities only a few stories high, stretching outward in unwieldy sprawl for miles. [These cities] literally transform the earth, turning farms into parking lots, wasting enormous amounts of time and energy transporting people, goods, and services over their expanses.”
Soleri’s original, unrealized vision called for 5,000 carless inhabitants living and working in a multiplicity of sustainable buildings. Instead, the site has endured as a laboratory of eco-urbanist thought and experimentation, never home to more than 150 or so people, but a compound animated by residencies, lectures, workshops, artisans producing bronze and ceramic crafts, and group tours. No fewer than 8,000 volunteers have helped build and maintain this desert architectural fantasia, with its half-domes and terraces, cube forms and circular windows.
Given Soleri’s status as an early advocate for sustainable growth, it’s fitting that America’s first car-free development, Culdesac Tempe, is being born in the Valley of the Sun, in a town home to Arizona State University, where Soleri once taught.
Launched by Culdesac, a startup founded in 2018 by a pair of Phoenix natives, this built-from-scratch neighborhood will house a thousand residents whose leases make clear they can’t park a car at the site or on nearby streets. The latter rule is part of Culdesac’s agreement with Tempe officials, who waived the parking-space minimums municipalities often attach to new developments. (This is changing; local governments are beginning to rethink minimums as they seek to reduce car dependence and encourage the construction of new affordable housing, which, when free of residential parking allotments, can incentivize developers.)
“We’re undergoing the first major shift in transportation since the interstate highway system,” wrote cofounder Ryan Johnson in a Medium post. “Private car ownership is giving ground to transportation that is on-demand, shared, and (on average) more environmentally friendly…. Prioritizing people ahead of cars unlocks all kinds of design freedom.”
The 17-acre Tempe tract will feature 761 apartments in 167 three-story townhouses, as well as a grocery store, a restaurant, coworking spaces, a gym, and a coffee shop. With no land devoted to large parking lots or garages, more than 50 percent of the property will go to public courtyards, landscaping, shaded pedestrian malls, and a half-acre park. Culdesac’s development will transform a bleak, underutilized site marked by abandoned buildings into an asset.
Transportation options include rideshare pick-up zones on the perimeter, bike- and e-scooter share, a mini lot stocked with rent-by-the-hour cars, and an adjacent light-rail line that can ferry residents across Tempe and on to the airport or west to Phoenix.
Billing itself as the world’s first “post-car real estate company,” Culdesac has plans to bring their model to other car-centric cities, including Dallas and Denver, and develop larger car-free neighborhoods. The founders even aspire to build a whole city for carless inhabitants.
Hendrick Farm Meshes Modernity With a Touch of the Past
2,500 miles northeast of Tempe, in the province of Quebec just across the Ottawa River from the Canadian capital, another walkable, landscape-sensitive neighborhood is taking shape.
With little hint of the pave-and-build suburban approach from the Automobile Age, nor the 5,000-square-foot McMansion phase that closed last century and continued into this one, Hendrick Farm, a residential project from sustainability-minded developer Landlab, follows a design model closer to that of a traditional village built before the car was king.
Powered by renewable energy from a hydroelectric plant, the Hendrick Farm community will feature a village center of shops, restaurants, plazas, and live-work units that residents of the homes and townhouses can reach on foot or by bike. Instead of people bunkered in domiciles with high, imposing privacy walls, the Hendrick Farm houses will have only short picket fences giving onto communal walkways and green space.
Garages, parking, and paved streets are situated in the rear. You won’t see any long concrete driveways. A human and communal aesthetic has replaced a vehicular one. With so much open space, the design is children-friendly. And nature is nearby. Landlab preserved acres of on-site forest and added some trails.
The largest single-family home will be 2,300 square feet, and swimming pools won’t be allowed. The Hendrick Farm neighborhood is scheduled to be completed next year.
Superblocks and Streetspace: Europe Pushes Cars to the Periphery
In 2016, Barcelona launched its first “superblock” (or “super-island,” to translate the Catalan term “superilla”): a car-restricted pedestrian zone formed of nine city blocks where through-traffic is banned and local traffic must proceed at 10 kph in a reduced corridor.
Several more superblocks followed, and this past November Barcelona mayor Ada Colau announced a plan for an enormous pedestrianized zone formed of 21 city-center streets, with intersections becoming plazas. The goal? “A new city for the present and the future—one with less pollution, new mobility, and new public space,” said Colau.
Meanwhile, last May in London, while introducing Streetspace, a plan to close multiple thoroughfares to vehicle traffic, Mayor Sadiq Khan put the matter bluntly:
“We have to rapidly repurpose London’s streets for people.”
And in Paris, as this year began, Mayor Anne Hidalgo revealed a plan to turn the Champs-Élysées—for decades a busy, polluting eight-lane highway—into “an extraordinary garden.”
A Visionary Dutch Model for a Carless City District
One of the boldest initiatives is taking place in Utrecht, Netherlands, where an office park in the Merwede district will be converted into a car-free community home to 12,000 people. Four dead-end perimeter service roads of 200 feet will enable trucks and vans to drop off deliveries or accept trash from electric shuttles. Car-using residents are allowed, but parking spaces will be minimal, underground, unassigned, expensive, and distant. Schools, a health center, a recreation center, shops and office buildings are being built. The roofs of the high-density residential structures will feature solar panels or greenery and gardens.
Urban Experiments in UAE, Saudi Arabia, and China
Will we see a car-free city some time?
The answer appears to be yes, based on intriguing designs for such a venture in China, and a work-in-progress example, Masdar City, in the United Arab Emirates.
Seeded with billions from the nearby city of Abu Dhabi and designed by the sustainability-minded British architecture and engineering firm Foster + Partners, Masdar was intended, from its start in 2007, to be a modestly scaled, carless eco-city, powered by solar and wind energy, with short, low-rise, shaded blocks on a platform raised up from the desert floor to catch breezes, and a wind tower to send more cooling downward. Electromagnetic podcars were developed to transport residents (50,000 were envisioned) below street level.
Construction delays, technical challenges, and design modifications leave Masdar at present a notable innovation hub, with a clean-energy research university, a start-up incubator, a Siemens regional headquarters, and ties to both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the U.S. Department of Energy. However, its residential population of barely a thousand people deprives it of a city feel, and its carbon-neutral goal remains unrealized.
Meanwhile, two weeks into 2021, Saudi Arabia announced “The Line,” a planned pedestrian city 100 miles long and home to a million people, all within a five minutes’ walk of whatever they need.
“What if we removed cars?” the promotional video narrates. “What if we got rid of streets?”
It’s dispersion urbanism, but not the kind Paulo Soleri critiqued. Here, the horizontal spread of people in so narrow, so linear, a corridor is meant to enable car-free living.
For a potential example of actual city-scale arcology, we turn to Chengdu in Central China, metro population approximately 18 million. In 2012, Chengdu announced its plan for the “Great City,” a vertical, hyper-dense, car-free satellite city for 80,000 people, filled with green space, surrounded by farmland and forests, powered by wind, and compact enough that everything you needed was within a 15-minute walk.
“Great City will demonstrate that high-density living doesn’t have to be polluted and alienated from nature,” said Gordon Gill of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, the Chicago-based firm that designed the experimental city. 2021 was the year projected for its completion. The Smith + Gill master plan remains. Perhaps we’ll see Great City rise someday.
Author of the book Life After Favre, Phil Hanrahan is a Milwaukee-based writer and editor working on a book sharing the story of a pioneering art college in rural Ireland.