By Dom Nozzi
The emergence of the car in the 20th Century led to a downward spiral for downtowns of most American cities. Retail, cultural, civic and employment began decanting outward to the suburbs. For the first time in history, the car had made close proximity of home, work, school and retail unnecessary.
Downtown property owners and retailers scrambled to find ways to reverse the flight from the downtown.
By the 1930s, many decided, understandably, that the solution was crystal clear. People were no longer going downtown because they couldn’t get there (conveniently, at least) with their cars. The obvious remedy was to build highways and parking lots so that people could conveniently drive downtown and park.
The sheer number of dying downtowns in America today stand as a testament to the ruinous consequences of this approach.
Cars are the enemy of the city because there are fundamental, irreconcilable, clashing needs of the car habitat in contrast to the needs of habitat for people. And a city downtown must be designed as a people habitat.
The ideal habitat for cars is a downtown that is almost entirely composed of parking lots, highway overpasses and a few scattered, one-story buildings. But what is left of such a downtown for people?
People feel unsafe standing next to roads with high-speed traffic. They feel inconvenienced and uncomfortable walking in large asphalt parking lots.
Because they take up so much room, cars need lots of space. People, on the other hand, prefer modest, human-scaled spaces.
People, unlike cars, enjoy the enclosed, “outdoor room” feeling created by buildings close to the public sidewalk, and are convenienced when homes are close to offices and retail. A community is most productive and creative when residential and commercial densities are relatively high.
And most of us enjoy being sociable and neighborly; strolling on a sidewalk filled with other people.
We naively comfort ourselves when we conclude that we can create, in our downtowns, a quality car habitat and people habitat in the same space.
As the countless number of ghost-like downtowns shows, the problem for American downtowns is not that people avoid downtown today because they can’t get there. Most people don’t come downtown anymore because they don’t want to get there. Increasingly, our downtowns have become places that only a Chrysler could love.
We have become our own worst enemy. In our blind pursuit of accommodating cars downtown, we have failed to realize that we have destroyed the reasons for going there. The human habitat is nearly always degraded when we improve the car habitat. Improving conditions for our Chevy’s almost assuredly harms conditions for Aunt Gertrude, office worker Fred and little Bobby.
In nearly all struggling downtowns, what is most needed to attract people is to provide more attractions, not places to park in order to reach the attractions. We need to dedicate ourselves to densifying and intensifying our downtowns if they are to be more healthy.
A downtown that is exciting, human-scaled, walkable, and filled with activities is a downtown that most people will figure out a way to get to, regardless of the “lack” of free parking. Major attractions draw enormous numbers of people, even though the available parking is “insufficient.”
The annual art festival. The yearly parade. The big sporting event. Walkable, exciting cities such as Charleston, Savannah and Portland draw thousands and millions of visitors each year, even though the amount of free parking in such cities is extremely limited. Visitors are so eager to visit such wonderful places that they are willing to put up with expensive, scarce parking.
And who among us is unaware of dying downtowns that have plenty of free parking but don’t have any sort of critical mass of activities that would attract people? Places such as Houston, Detroit, Buffalo or Jacksonville?
Granted, we must be careful to strike the proper balance when it comes to improving our downtown. Clearly, there is a need for downtown parking. But almost always, American downtowns need more attractions, buildings and activities than more parking. Often, downtowns considered to have “insufficient” parking actually have too much surface parking—particularly too much free parking.
We need not prohibit cars from downtowns. We simply need to design our downtowns so that cars behave themselves; so that the needs of people come first.
Downtown can never out-compete the suburbs on suburban, car-based terms. Suburbs will always be able to provide more parking and wider highways more cheaply. Downtown can only compete where it can have competitive leverage. That is, by being compact, walkable, romantic, unique, rich in history and human-scaled.
Ground-level parking lots create an obnoxious, deadening tear in the fabric of downtown that destroys the vibrancy it so desperately needs to be attractive, alive and exciting. We need to return to the tradition, in our downtowns, of making people the design imperative, instead of cars.
A version of this essay was published in the Gainesville Sun on May 18, 2008.
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