Courtesy Nelson\Nygaard

Transportation planner Jeffrey Tumlin wants us to bike more, walk more, drive less—and he has proof that it will make us happier and healthier. In his new book, Sustainable Transportation Planning, Tumlin talks about what we need to do to make more vibrant, healthy, and resilient communities. Recently he spoke with Builder about what this means for the home building industry.

Builder: What might a builder be surprised to hear you say?

Jeffrey Tumlin: Sustainability is easy, low cost, fun, and non-partisan if it’s done right, incorporating its social and economic basis alongside the ecological. Sustainability also works best when it’s not called sustainability.

Builder: What should we be calling it?

JT: I wish I could come up with an answer to that—the person who does will make a fortune! It’s more helpful to break sustainability up into its separate parts—the usual social, economic, and ecological components, but adding other considerations like health, happiness, and beauty. Some people have called it "radical common sense."

Builder: You've said that American cities get certain things right that cities in Europe don't. What are they?

JT: A lot of things. We take risks well. We think big well. That’s something that American builders have taught the whole world about, and that the rest of the world has imitated—sometimes better, sometimes worse. Americans can take on large-scale, long-term major change-oriented projects and can be led by the private sector. In Europe, projects like that are tightly government-controlled.

Builder: What does Europe get right?

Courtesy Nelson\Nygaard

JT: It’s hard to generalize, but there are some great examples. The French are brilliant at making transportation loveable and sexy, from the design of their light-rail cars to getting the station lighting right so that everybody looks good. The French acknowledge that good lighting is a vital part of urban living: Good lighting makes people want to linger longer, which in turn makes for healthier commerce. Copenhagen gets the details right: They made the city bike friendly, going from zero to 100 on that in a very short time. They rethought urban space, redesigning a cold and dreary city to one where people want to hang out because it’s fun and interesting and comfortable. The Dutch are remarkable for their attention to new town planning. Their planning is so deeply integrated—they approach transit, access to food, social welfare, and public health and agricultural policy as all part of the same thing. As a result, many of their new towns not only perform well in terms of energy, but also have a high return in terms of financial market performance, public health, and good social capital. Builder: What lessons can builders take from that?

JT: Builders can look at new development patterns in Europe and learn how important small details are. The key is designing streets to be as small as practicable while still accommodating everything, bikes to trucks. In America, we tend to design every street to be optimal for every possible use, whether it’s a Vespa or a high-speed fire truck. When you take the optimal requirements for every potential user and you mush them all together, the street becomes not very good for anyone. Fire safety gets traded for traffic safety. Many European cities are better at compromise and understanding the long-range consequences of today’s decisions.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Philadelphia, PA.