Infrastructure as Permaculture

Can our paved grid of roads and sidewalks evolve into an ecology of functions that benefit both residents and the environment?

The majority of the developed, American landscape has been crafted around automotive transport. As auto technology matured, increasing amounts of resources and area have been devoted to expanding and solidifying our road network. The result has often been environments that are built for a monoculture of cars and their passengers rather than an ecology of transit that supports a variety of mobility options. In order for our streetscapes to evolve to cater to pedestrians more than cars, so too must the car-oriented infrastructure evolve in what kinds of services it provides to its municipality. A broader array of roles can allow infrastructure to improve quality of life in multiple ways with systems that complement each other.

An Automotive Landscape

Fort Collins, Colorado shares many characteristics with typical, small, American cities. With roughly 150,000 residents in just under 56 square miles, Fort Collins hosts the campus of Colorado State University and a thriving local beer culture. Like so many other cities, Fort Collins has grown with its deference to car travel and has reached the point of problematic congestion on its road ways. Despite proactive efforts to promote biking, buses and modern traffic systems, car traffic has continued to rise along with its effect on the local environment. According to <ahref=””>an article</a> in the Coloradoan,

“Fort Collins traffic congestion has never been worse. The volume of traffic is at an all-time high, the city’s busiest intersections have gotten even busier and people are driving more than ever. What’s more, the exhaust that snakes out of all those tailpipes makes up about a quarter of community greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to rising temperatures and some of the nation’s highest smog-causing ozone levels.”

A new proposal by design firm DCP highlights opportunities for the paved grid of roads and sidewalks to evolve into an ecology of functions that benefit residents and the environment. The site chosen for the study was South Mason Street, a main spine for community not only due to its central location to the city and CSU, but also because it is the home of an active freight rail track with trains passing by at least twice a day. Cars and trains currently hold a disproportionate presence in the composition of South Mason Street that make it more of a road for cars than a street for people.

Traffic Monoculture vs. Multi-Modal Ecology. Image Credit: DCP

One of the tricky (and unpopular) truths about mobility is that one cannot affect walkability without affecting car travel (usually an inverse relationship). This is only more true when starting with an existing landscape that is car-dependent like ours. As author and engineer Jeff Speck notes in his book Walkable City:

“When more than a quarter of workers take transit, more than 10 percent go on foot. When fewer than 5 percent take transit, fewer than 3 percent go on foot. It isn’t just that transit users walk more, but non-transit users walk more in cities shaped around transit. For the most part, cities either support driving or everything else.”

Instead of promoting a monoculture of cars, DCP likened the infrastructural landscape as more of a permaculture-based system. With roots based in agricultural growing practices, “permaculture” is the development of complementary, interconnected systems to form a productive ecology–not dissimilar from the goal of a vibrant streetscape. The proposed design applies permaculture principles to South Mason Street to replace its transit monoculture with the cultivation of a multi-modal ecology. Area that has been doled out to high speed travel can be reclaimed for a more balanced distribution among multi-modal transit types to create a safe, walkable environment. Crafting new boundaries to the existing right-of-way could help decrease the sensory dominance that the train imparts on the street environment. A low screening element provides visual and acoustic dampening at the trains base and provides an additional layer of separation, aiding the pedestrian in returning focus to the walkable surroundings.

South Mason Street Site Plan. Image Credit: DCP