Urbanist pushing parks, density, to speak at Chattanooga library

Gil Penalosa says city for 8-year-old, 80-year-old is a place for everyone

Gil Penalosa / Contributed Photo
Gil Penalosa / Contributed Photo

Gil Penalosa, founder of Canada-based 8 80 Cities, is set to appear Thursday in Chattanooga to speak about his philosophy when it comes to municipal design.

Penalosa advocates for designing cities for both an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old. In his view, that would be a city that works for everyone.

Penalosa will speak from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the fourth floor of the downtown branch of the Chattanooga Public Library. Admission is free, and organizers recommend registering beforehand at chattanoogastudio.com/civiq.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press spoke with Penalosa to learn more about his urban design philosophy and how planners can reimagine the landscape of a city.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

(READ MORE: Q&A: Famed city planner Jeff Speck talks walkability in Chattanooga)

Q: So your philosophy when it comes to urban design is to accommodate both an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old when designing a city. How and why should city planners do that?

What if everything that we did in our city — the crosswalks, the sidewalks, the park, the library, the coffee shop, the restaurant, everything — had to be great for an 8-year-old and for an 80-year-old? Because if it's good for the 8-year-old and for the 80-year-old, it's going to be good for everybody from zero to over 100. We need to stop building cities as if everybody was 30 years old and athletic.

How can we accept as normal that children are terrified of being killed by drivers? This is something that children and parents say so and think so and are truly terrified, and we know how to end this, so how can we accept this as normal?

We know that if we lower the speed in the neighborhood streets to 20 miles an hour — not because 20 sounds nice — but because if someone is going 20, it's less likely that they're going to hit someone.

There is also a huge problem with public health. We need to have better well-being. Well-being is physical activity. People keep talking about a magic pill. There is no magic pill. The magic pill is called physical activity. There is no other way. It has to be five days or more, and there is no other way to be physically active five days or more than walking or cycling as a normal part of everyday life.

Q: We seem so far away from a truly walkable city. How do we get to where our cities are safe and walkable for both younger and older people?

The city has to be smart about where to house the population as Chattanooga grows. No one should be continuing to sprawl the city. They should pass a bylaw that everyone has to grow within the system. You need to add some density.

For example, one of the reasons why people don't walk in the suburbs is because there's nothing to walk to, so if you have two arterials and you've got a lot of these houses, people don't walk because there's nothing to walk to, and on the arterials, people don't put businesses because there's not enough density.

But if you allowed, as a right, on the arterial to have five or six floors, then all of a sudden with five or six floors, there is enough density on the street level to have coffee shops, restaurants and all kinds of activities.

So now the houses in between there, those people are able to walk because there are places to walk to. Also, if you have higher density, you're going be able to have public transit, and you need public transit that is frequent, and you cannot add frequency if you don't have a little bit of density.

(READ MORE: Q&A: Chicago urban planner talks about inequity in city design)

Q: What's your assessment of Chattanooga? There's a large part of the city that isn't considered walkable. Last year, the city saw a spike in pedestrian deaths from being struck by vehicles. How can Chattanooga improve when it comes to walkability and public safety?

Chattanooga is very lucky that God was very generous. He gave you the mountains and the river, so that in itself is really, really, really good. Also, you have a lot of good trails, but over 85% of the trips are in cars. That has to change, and that will not change if you don't have more density.

On equity, I've visited parks in the wealthy areas and in the low-income areas, and they are very different. The parks in the low-income areas are in very poor condition. They should be fixed. They should be given priority.

Have good parks citywide, because if the city has a huge deficit of parks, then putting a park in a low-income area, the prices of the homes will go up. Why do they go up? Because the neighborhood has a good park, and the other neighborhoods do not. But if everyone in Chattanooga has a good park, then if you build a new one, it won't have any impact on the housing prices because everybody has parks.

When it goes up, it's a clear symptom that other places in the city do not have good parks. We're going to have to have a citywide strategy — so that everybody has a park within walking distance — very, very fast.

Q: What would you say to someone who wants Chattanooga to continue to primarily accommodate car infrastructure?

We have to show that there are many alternatives. They need to realize that even in the wealthiest neighborhood of Chattanooga, 30% of people don't drive. Everybody under 16, they don't drive. Many people over 70 don't drive.

Cars are also extremely expensive in the U.S. and in Chattanooga. People that have cars are spending 30% of their income on their cars. If they could walk, bike and take public transit, they are only spending 4% of their income. It would be like winning the lottery.

If people have more money, what are they going to do? They're going to go to coffee shops. They're going to fix their gardens. They're going to fix their houses. They're going to go to restaurants. That money is going to stay in the local economy. Instead of buying cars built in Mexico or Japan, that money is going to go to the local restaurants of Chattanooga.

Cars are very expensive. They make too much noise. They are too big, and not everybody has to have one. A few people can have it, OK, that's fine. That's an option. But today, we are not giving the option to people to walk or bike or use public transit. They say, "Only 15% are doing that, and 85% are using their car, so they prefer cars." It's not because they prefer cars. It's because we have not given them other options.

Contact Ben Sessoms at bsessoms@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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