Anders Engnell: We Need To Solve The Problem of the Car

Anders Engnell. Image:

Anders is a real estate development and construction manager with 7 years of experience in people-first, master plan community development. He studied urban planning and development at the University of Southern California and now leads construction for Culdesac Tempe. Previously, he served as a development manager at the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles.

Anders: I read your interview with the Neutras talking about the need for more idealistic developers. I’m intimately familiar with how difficult that’s still to find nowadays.

Michal: When have you decided you are going to be one of those enlightened developers?

Anders: Growing up in metro Detroit, the home court of automation, I grew up around a place that was strongly influenced by GM, Chrysler, and Ford lobbying powers through the 20th century. The area had as little public transit as possible, buses with 30 or 60-minute headways, no rail system to speak of, and complete dedication to the automobile.

detroit street
The car-dominated urban design of Detroit contributed to many of the social issues. Image: Aditi Bhanushali

I saw the impact it had on my friends and family. I recall one winter, my dad and I were driving through downtown Pontiac, the town where I grew up, and we saw a gentleman running down the sidewalk because he’d missed his bus and the bus just kept going on without him. We picked him up and asked: “Hey, do you need to go somewhere? Can we help you out?” 

He needed to get to his job in Auburn Hills, 15 minutes north of where we were at and he’d come all the way from South Detroit. This was his third bus connection. He worked at a restaurant, in a type of role where if you’re late there’s not a lot of wiggle room, especially in the US with our weak labor laws.

The wealth of the auto industry of those times built a place with long and wide roads, dispersed jobs, residential, and retail spaces, but no public infrastructure to fall back on when it all went down.

I realized then that I wanted to do something different. I spent a lot of time in urban farming, community development, and grassroots work in metro Detroit. That’s where I saw the impact we can have at the neighborhood scale. 

leaders of the future pontiac
Leaders of the Future Pontiac helps develop high school students into grasroots social entrepreneurs. Image:

It made me believe that this is possible even on larger scales and that if a real-estate developer took the time to build with a long-term outlook, putting people first, there’s a lot they could do differently.

Goodbye to Parking

Natalia: What is your work about now?

Anders: The work I do now is focused on creating places where people don’t need to live by car and be surrounded by highways. Where they’re able to get around and have options when they need them, whether it’s taking a taxi, a scooter, a bike, or just walking.

They can get groceries five minutes down the street and visit friends by light rail. They are not forced to get behind a windshield for everything they need to do. With US urbanism so far behind, that’s where we have to start. Hopefully, we’ll catch up on all the rest after we solve the problem of the car.

First, I did a couple of projects in the Los Angeles area. In Jordan Downs, we created a mixed-use master plan. We had a retail corridor with residential areas close by. You could walk or bike from one to the other. But they were still built in a traditional street-mall style and the residential area was still disconnected from the retail.

jordan downs los angeles
Redevelopment of the Jordan Downs neighborhood in Los Angeles. Image:

Currently, I’m building a development in Tempe, Arizona, called Culdesac, the first car-free neighborhood in the US built from scratch. It will bring all of the principles together and focus on the key bits of transportation infrastructure that give you all the options you need to get around.

There’s light rail that takes you through Phoenix, Mesa, and Tempe. There’s a grocery store right on site, as well as workspaces, a coffee shop, and other amenities within a short walking distance.

We see a lot of low and mid-rise residential developments in the US, which struggle to keep their retail running. Because they’re relying on people driving cars into huge garages, from which you have to take an elevator or stairs to the retail spaces, which doesn’t make for a good experience.

culdesac tempe
Culdesac Tempe promenade will be a part of the walkable neighborhood. Image:

We’re building at a higher residential density, with street parking, and with a parking lot that’s directly accessible to the retail. The residences in this community don’t have parking spaces.

And that’s kind of the key thing that makes this different. We don’t need to make room for all the roads and garages that you might need in A typical development. There’s not a single parking structure on site.

And that enables a completely different type of urban density. Something that’s much more comparable to what you live and experience regularly throughout European towns, but something distinct and unique in the US outside of downtowns in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, or other older cities.

One of the reasons for this is the city codes, managed by urban planners, and engineering codes, managed often by traffic engineers. When it comes to streets, Chuck Marohn and the Strong Towns team do a great job of explaining why traffic engineering causes such problems in the US.

tree-lined street
In traffic engineering, trees are still marked as “fixed hazardous objects”. Research shows, on the contrary, they might increase traffic safety by making drivers pay more attention. Image: Faith Crabtree

Trees here are called fixed hazardous objects. And people are almost always responsible for any car accidents that happen. There’s this incredibly wide street that someone had to cross? You know, it’s like a two-minute walk across the street. Oh, but it’s an accident if a car going 40 miles an hour hits this person. 

The Codes Make You Do It

In the Early 20th century, urban planners started to mandate what uses could go in certain areas, what structures could be built, and how much parking they needed.

Over time, these codes have become so strong that there’s not a city in the US that doesn’t have some sort of formal parking regulation. And one that’s incredibly strict. That each developer builds a parking space to a parking space and a half per apartment, dozens of parking spaces per restaurant.

So it’s those regulations that force a lot of developers to build the seas of asphalt that you’ll see across the US. I know many developers who would prefer not to.

If they could, they would rather just think about the sort of products that they’re building, who their target audience is, and what their actual parking needs might be. And it’s expensive too! Building a structured parking space will cost you $20,000 on average, depending on the city.

parking garage
Quota-mandated parking structures often sit half-empty. Image: Aaron Lutas

So this is something that needs to change at the code level. Developers don’t necessarily want to continue doing it this way. I don’t know many urban planners who still want to do it.

There’s almost nothing to back up these codes as well. I haven’t seen a code yet that has a firm demand-based calculation behind it. And one that’s tested regularly to ensure that it’s adjusting to the needs.

I’m already seeing some evolution on this front. Parking minimums are being eliminated across the US right now, which is also what we did with our project.

Zero parking spaces are being built for all the residences because we don’t think that people who live here will need that. And we’re designing and enabling the community to live more conveniently, affordable and accessible. And we think it’s possible across the US as well. 

open street movement
The slow street (open street) concept became popular during the pandemic. Some streets were permanently redesigned this way. Image:

US cities are really good at propagating good solutions when something comes about, and it’s a proven model. Bike lanes are sprouting all across the US. When the lockdowns hit during the peak of the pandemic, “slow streets”, where large segments of the street were shut down, spread all across the US. And in many cities, this continues to be the case where they just.

Smart Cities vs. Soft Cities

Natalia: There’s a lot of talk about smart cities. What do you think about this trend?

Anders: I don’t think people want a smart city. I think technologists want a smart city. City residents want something more livable. In David Sim’s words, something that’s softer. 

The research that’s been growing over the years from Jan Gehl, Jane Jacobs, and Jeff Speck, is now culminating in this movement for human-oriented cities. It’s becoming an enormous topic of interest on social media, and in local council meetings, people are really pushing for it.

I don’t think people want a smart city. I think technologists want a smart city. City residents want something more livable. In David Sim’s words, something that’s softer.

I rarely meet an urban planner nowadays who doesn’t think that human-centered cities and moving away from car dependency is important. But I think that’s also going to be a slow process. It’s going to be a game of endurance because the physical world is difficult to change.

Michal: Technologists and tech companies seem to have a rising influence on cities. Electric cars are sometimes seen as the solution to many issues. But is this the right direction? It seems to me like they don’t solve the roots of the issues we have in cities. And jumping on the trend uncritically can cost us a lot of potential progress.

Anders: The University of Amsterdam is doing some fantastic research on how to merge technology with human-centered cities. I met with Marco te Brömmelstroet, one of the professors there. He’s studying things like applications supporting biking usage, and alternative mobility like scooters and electric bikes.

Only switching all vehicles to self-driving and electric ones won’t make our cities more livable. Image: Remy Gieling

He’s very attentive to issues that technology can bring. Maybe electric cars can make the streets a bit quieter, but if we’re just converting all the vehicles on the streets today into electric vehicles, we’ll be in the same place as we were before.

Redeveloping Development

Natalia: How would you encourage developers to move in this direction? To start getting rid of cars and parking.

Anders: I would encourage them to think more about who their customer is. If they actually spent time learning about people’s mobility habits and needs, they would find out their customer is not who they think they are. I would encourage them to take a walk through their parking structures, especially those outside of downtown, and see how many places are empty there. 

In Boston, they’re now converting and demolishing a lot of parking garages and removing parking requirements, because they just weren’t efficiently used. They were horrifically overbuilt.

Over 50% of people in the US want to live in a walkable community where amenities are easily accessible by foot. But less than 10% of people live in those kinds of places. Image: Nathalia Segato

There was a report from the Brookings Institution saying that over 50% of people in the US want to live in a walkable community, which feels like a place, which has a neighborly feel to it and where amenities are easily accessible by foot. But because of the current urban layout, less than 10% of people live in those kinds of places.

The message for developers would be that there’s a huge demand gap to meet in the near future.

Michal: In our previous conversation, you mentioned the topic of longevity and the flexibility of use that you are building your project for. Can you tell us more about that?

Anders: Yeah, David Sims and the book on Soft City did a great job of explaining just how important it’s to have flexible spaces that can respond to demand. Jane Jacobs was already talking about the importance of diversity of uses, classes, and price ranges of real estate in cities.

culdesac tempe courtyard
Culdesac residents will be able to shape their shared courtyards and use them as community spaces. Image:

In Culdesac, we have quite a few ground floor spaces that are designed as “live-work” spaces. It could be half-apartment, half-office. Or someone’s artisan studio with a bedroom in the back. Or it could be converted into a café in the future. A neighborhood should be a living habitat that evolves over time.

Cities for Wellbeing

Natalia: Seems like we are really starting to head towards cities supporting human wellbeing.

Anders: Yeah, it’s becoming much more mainstream, with certifications like LEED and WELL. There are researchers and thinkers like Charles Montgomery who wrote Happy City, one of the best popular books on building a good city. Also the Strong Towns movement.

But it’s especially hard for us in the US, because our infrastructure is so far behind. The year that sticks in my mind is 1939 because that’s when at the World’s Fair, General Motors presented the exhibit Futurama, which back then, was this groundbreaking, incredibly futuristic model of a city.

futurama exhibit
The 1939 Futurama exhibit presented a vision of a future city, ruled by cars. Today, these pictures look dystopian. Image:

But today, it feels dystopian. Highways ripping through downtowns with super tall towers and suburbs off to the distance, that’s not a city a lot of people would want to live in. But because of the influence that automotive executives have had in the last century, our cities actually look quite like that.

One of the movements that I’m most excited about in the US is cities reclaiming highways, whether undergrounding them, covering them, or replacing them with something else. In Boston, there was “The Big Dig” where they buried a highway that went through one of the most historic downtowns in the United States.

San Francisco has a great beachfront on the Pacific ocean. And they used to have a highway there. There were some structural issues with it and a part of it has crumbled. And they just never rebuilt it, they tore it all down. Now, there’s a fantastic pier there. One of the best places to walk in the US.

great highway san francisco
San Francisco’s Great Highway is turned into a recreational area on the weekends. Image:

Michal: With all the different development projects that you say, which of them would you highlight as positive examples? Which of them inspired your thinking?

Anders: I think Chicago and Philadelphia are great examples of walkable tight-knit downtown communities. When people from Europe visit Philadelphia or Boston, oftentimes they’ll say it doesn’t feel too different.

Fruitvale Village in San Francisco is another great example of new development around a train station that has a great walkable central plaza with fantastic retail surrounding it.

Fruitvale Village in San Francisco, a walkable neighborhood. Image:

But honestly, it has been more than 80 years since the World’s Fair and that’s a lot of lost time. It’s going to take some time to catch up.

Michal: We need to redevelop development itself.

Anders: Yes, the whole industry, from top to bottom, design, construction, planning, and financing needs to change. Many of the urban planning professors at my university were saying: “We were wrong for so many years. And now we think we’re right. But no one will listen to us because we were wrong for so long.”

The big question is how to pull this transformation off. Architecture and development are very busy work. So the question is, how do you get people there to put a bit more time into doing things that are more deliberate and human-centered. That’s something that I intend to focus on for the rest of my career. 

Dense urban walkable areas are much more economically sustainable for the municipality.

Michal: I think it’s great there are people like you, and it seems that there are more like you appearing every year.

Anders: I see a lot of developers who want to change this too. A development partner of ours, Sunbelt Holdings is a great example of this. They’ve built communities across Arizona for decades now. And they see this as the future. They really wanted to be a part of this next wave of how cities are going to be built.

And it makes economic sense too. There was an analysis from Strong Towns on the economic impact of car dependency. Suburbs are too expensive to maintain in the long term with too little revenue for a city.

They’ve got to upkeep the streets, the utilities, all the road connections, and the fire and police service, but they don’t get enough tax revenue from these places. Dense urban walkable areas are much more economically sustainable for the municipality.

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