Urban and city planners must plan for increased livability for all city dwellers as we increase urban density. The Urban Bill of Rights was motivated by alarm at the poor physical, social, and environmental planning for urban density in my urban area, and the consequent degradation of city quality of life. The rights are intended to guarantee personal well-being, comfort in the home, and access to urban facilities, resources, amenities, and services. In addition, planning cities according to these rights yields other important social and environmental benefits, including:
1. Reduction of carbon footprint: Because they guarantee adequate quality of life for individuals and prevent overcrowding, the urban rights ensure that most people can live happily in relatively high-density cities over the long term. This will reduce the carbon footprint of the human species because of the energy efficiencies of urban living.
2. Reduction of urban sprawl: By making urban life more attractive and viable for more people, planning according to the urban rights will draw more people to the cities and thereby protect natural greenspace and agricultural land from suburban sprawl.
3. Increased social equity: Because so many low-income people live in cities, and these rights apply equally to all neighborhoods, the greatest beneficiaries of the urban rights will be the poor, which will increase social and environmental equity. Likewise, the rights provide critical protections for renters, who mostly occupy high-density urban areas. In the future, the percentage of lifetime urban renters will probably grow. Measures that ensure that renting in urban areas is pleasant for the long term increase both the well-being of individual residents and the health and stability of neighborhoods.
4. Increased social health: The urban rights are part of a holistic approach to human well-being. They help create healthy communities by guaranteeing that basic physiological, psychological, and social needs of human beings are met. Generally speaking, healthy and stable neighbornoods require a diversity of ages. By focusing on the needs of children, long-term livability, and the ability to "age in place," the urban rights not only benefit individuals, but also neighborhood health and community continuity.
5. Economic efficiency: By creating healthy communities, fulfilling the urban rights will ultimately save cities money. The downstream economic benefits of urban livability--better physical and mental health, more secure and more curious children, reduced crime, increased confidence in government, increased participation in civic life, and so forth--are not as obvious and attractive to city officials as the quick taxes and fees generated by thoughtless development, but they are critical to long-term fiscal health.
Urban rights are human rights expressed through urban spaces. The Urban Bill of Rights presents eleven "personal space" rights and seven "communal and access" rights as necessary conditions for an acceptable quality of life in the urban environment. The rights are intended to guarantee personal well-being, comfort in the home, and access to urban facilities, resources, and services. The personal space rights include rights to a physiologically and psychologically healthy environment, rights to daily experience of nature, rights to adequate spaces to actualize oneself as a human being, the right to cultural integrity, and the right to personal security. The communal and access rights include rights to mobility, rights of access to amenities, employment, and the commons, and the right to democratic participation.
The urban rights fall within the existing human rights tradition, encompassing personal, political, socioeconomic, and environmental rights. They are grounded in basic human physiological, psychological, and social needs. Good urban planning is, simply, planning that best meets these human needs through time. Most importantly, the urban rights are not property rights; they are personal rights that accompany people into the specific spaces that they regularly frequent. For example, the right to personal security, or to freedom from unhealthy noise or light, are not based on privileges of land or respect for property, but on the needs of the human body and mind. Because the urban rights de-emphasize property ownership and protect the individual wherever he or she goes, focusing on urban rights will elevate and preserve the quality of the commons and public spaces, which are often distressed in American cities. The commons become much more important as urban density increases, and the degeneration of the commons is a direct result of disregarding the urban rights of people in public spaces.
All people are equally entitled to have their physiological, psychological, and social needs met, so classifying urban rights as human and personal rights will increase equity, for example, between the rich and poor, between property owners and renters, between those in high and low density neighborhoods, and so forth. The Urban Bill of Rights also increases environmental justice, by setting minimum standards of livability for those most often saddled with the consequences of society's consumption and environmental degradation---those in poor, high density, and mixed use neighborhoods.
Guarantees of urban livability are very important at this time because of the environmental need for more compact living, and the nature of the "smart growth" planning that predominates today. The cold utilitarianism of smart growth, with its emphasis on transportation efficiency and reliance on top-down planning, in addition to the crisis mindset caused by global warming, threatens to deprive people of their right to a livable urban environment and the benefits of localized planning. All bills of rights protect individuals or the powerless from the tyranny of the majority or the powerful; they are a necessary check on both democratic and autocratic policy making. But human rights are experienced by individuals at the micro level of planning, and only local residents are aware of the problems of their neighborhoods, and whether and how their rights are being respected or violated. The best protections for urban rights are flexible, bottom-up planning, and regular and respected feedback from the public, which occurs best in a decentralized, democratic environment. Local voices must be sought out, respected, and responded to by local planners and decision makers. Improved planning and development requires adequate time to learn from errors and from others, and the flexibility to change policies; hasty densification and top-down planning do not provide this.
The Urban Bill of Rights embodies a rights-based, rather than form-based, approach to urban planning and design. The prescribed forms of most zoning codes are a well-intentioned but clumsy means to ensure that human needs are met, but a more sensitive and effective approach is to address the needs directly. Many designs, forms, and sizes of buildings, spaces, and other amenities can meet human needs, and conversely, all urban forms, no matter how attractive or theoretically humane, can damage people if improperly applied or not supported over time. Successful urban planners and designers cannot divorce themselves from the continuing stewardship of the spaces they create. Planners claiming to create "sustainable" cities must address the economic and political problems that hamper planning for livability, and incorporate the realities of sociology, psychology, public works, and law enforcement into their plans. Excellent enforcement mechanisms are required to prevent the degradation and privatization of the commons, as well as the destruction of the livability of personal spaces. Even the most elegant space will collapse quickly without code enforcement.
Much attention is given to the vibrancy or decay of visible urban spaces, especially in emergent periods, when new vibrancy is often touted (by designers) as successful design, and new decay, sometimes in the very spot that was "vibrant" a generation before, is usually attributed to bad people or a bad economy. However, both urban vitality and urban decay occur first in personal spaces and everyday institutions that do or do not facilitate human physiological, and psychological, and social health. Personal spaces are most important and most fragile in dense and mixed use areas. At this time in history, as more compact living becomes the norm, personal space rights are at great risk and need our special protection, but instead they are undervalued by both smart growth planners and new urbanist designers. Without something like the Urban Bill of Rights to give them voice, urban quality of life will decline precipitously as urban density increases. But by adding "urban rights" protections to "smart growth" densification, we can create "smarter growth" that will be welcomed and sustainable because it is humane and meets basic human needs.
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