by Dom Nozzi
“The most important task of the urbanist is controlling size.” — David Mohney
We are a confused people.
After decades of a downwardly spiraling in-town quality of life, many have fled from cities to the “serene, sterile and safe” suburbs.
Across America, we see our town centers destroyed and abandoned. Asphalt and concrete everywhere!
How did our cities fall from grace?
For all too many, a quick glance at our abandoned, harsh, moonscaped cities provides an obvious — and wrong — answer: Add grass! Trees! Shrubs! Open space!
The universal cure-all medicine for saving our dying city patients is a nature band-aid to seek to cover the wound of bad urban design.
Who could argue with that?
The nature band-aid has become the remedy we too often reach for to solve nearly all of our community development problems. But prescribing this medication illustrates how befuddled we have become about why our cities are struggling to survive. Cities struggling to retain and attract jobs, residents, offices, and shops.
Scale is the Problem
The fundamental cause of the downfall of our cities as places we care about and take pride in is the radical change that has taken place with regard to scale. We have single-mindedly sought to design our cities so that they are scaled for cars, and in the process have lost sight of the fact that such a scale tends to wildly exceed the human scale — a modest dimensioning that makes people feel comfortable.
Buildings are close together and close to the sidewalk, thereby forming cozy “outdoor rooms.” Signs and lights are small in size and short in stature. Streets are designed for slow, human-scaled speeds, are narrow and therefore easy to walk across, with tight corners. Surface parking is either on the street, or modest and hidden away when off-street.
But what do we find instead of this sensible, lovable, charming vision? Too much of our cities have been handed over to the voracious size needs of our cars. We are now overwhelmed by too much space in our town centers, and nearly all of it is in the form of roads, building setbacks and parking lots.
So our dilemma today is this. Nearly all of us have come to believe that more “greenery” will improve the quality of our cities, yet in our rush to provide more “Bambi habitat” in our cities, we fail to see that adding nature to a walkable town center often moves us in the direction of car scale instead of human scale. Buildings are set back too far from the street and each other (to fit in some “nature”). Sidewalks are narrowed or not installed. Grass is installed where there should be hardscape.
When one looks at many European cities, which millions of people flock to each year to enjoy, is the attraction based on how “green” those cities are? Certainly not. What draws us is the modest, human-scaled design of those cities. The modest streets. The modest building setbacks. The modest distance between homes and shops. The modest and hidden parking areas. The modest signs and lights.
In our relentless efforts to scale our cities for cars, we have created excessive sizes and distances in our cities. Sizes and distances that move our towns and neighborhoods away from what we love so much about the European cities — the fabulous Rome. The picturesque Venice. The stupendous Florence. The magnificent Paris. Instead, the gargantuan sizes and placelessness we create in American cities repel humans. And increase the ability (and likelihood) for people to live in sprawling locations outside the city (because there is no love any more for our car-happy cities, and because there is now enough space for one to easily and affordably escape the city, and travel to the city by car).
Examples of Inappropriate, Counterproductive “Greening of a City.”
Opposition to Adequate Sidewalks
According to Margaret Mead, “Any town that doesn’t have sidewalks doesn’t love its children.”
Surely, those who urge more nature band-aids in the city are defenders of sidewalks, right? After all, it is common knowledge that pedestrian travel is a shining example of “trodding lightly on the earth.” But when we look at our town center design struggles, where space is at a premium, we generally find folks lobbying for “grass strips” between sidewalks and streets. Or large street trees in tight locations. Or grassy medians in the middle of streets.
In addition, are there any nature lovers who will find it acceptable to sacrifice a tree in order to install a sidewalk — even in a town center location? This despite the fact that in town centers, the pedestrian is the design imperative, not trees.
Those who are auto-dependent and live in sprawl certainly support such design. After all, grass and trees look pleasant to a motorist driving down the street — a motorist who never has a need to walk on sidewalks or cross landscaped medians.
But the problem is this: In a space-poor town center where the extremely powerful car lobby demands massive amounts of space for car travel and parking, there must be a loser. And the loser will almost never be the car and its needs. No, the loser in almost every case is the forgotten, powerless pedestrian (and, ultimately, the quality of life in our town center).
So how do we find space for enormous trees, landscaped medians and grass strips in a town center that strains to find room for space-hogging cars? We take from those with the least political power. We take from the pedestrian. Sidewalks are narrowed for the grass strip, and infringed upon by trees. It is both sickening and telling that on a large percentage of town center sidewalks, the degraded, disrespected pedestrian must walk single-file to squeeze through.
Is that any way to be treated — particularly when you are walking with a friend or lover?
The great irony, of course, is that there is nearly a consensus amongst designers that the pedestrian is crucial for creating a healthy town center. The second irony is that in the rare city fortunate enough to be the home to a great many pedestrians, these grass strips (which started out largely to improve “aesthetics”) soon become worn down and become dusty (or muddy) eyesores due to continuous trampling by pedestrians.
The solution for a quality pedestrian realm town center is clear. If space cannot be taken from the street, brick or concrete hardscaping should extend from the sidewalk to the curb (if not continuously, then at least at regular intervals), landscaped street medians need to be crossed by hardscaped crosswalks every 10 feet or so, more modest shade trees should be selected for use, and street trees should not be embedded in the sidewalk unless sufficient width, at a minimum, is provided for two pedestrians to walk side-by-side.
For many, of course, this represents unacceptable design. It takes away from the “greening” of the town center. And the motorist loses the pleasant view.
Opposition to infill
NIMBYs disguised as environmentalists are often prone to saving every blade of grass and every spindly tree on a vacant town center lot — even if the lot is a weedy, degraded place too unpleasant to even support a squirrel or pigeon. Yet in America, there is little that is more crucial than finding ways to promote more infill development in the underused portions of our cities. More infill reduces per capita driving, makes neighborhoods more walkable, increases the viability of small, neighborhood-based shops, makes in-town neighborhoods more safe, sociable and vibrant, and increases property tax revenues that can be funneled into community improvements. Each of these things reduces the pressure for suburban sprawl.
Opposition to Higher Densities
Higher densities are essential in creating a safe, pleasant, vibrant, and convenient place for walking.
Unfortunately, in land-rich America, most communities have very low land values in their urban and suburban areas. And the enormous pampering of cars in our culture means that there is a distorted, heavy demand for a low-density lifestyle. The result is that a great many residential developers in small cities and suburbs seek to build at the lowest possible densities — often much lower than what is allowed by the community.
A great many will demand lower urban densities. It is nearly a dogma that higher densities will be harmful to “nature”— even if “nature” is found in the middle of a city. Lowering the density of a project is an extremely common tool used to protect “Bambi Habitat” in a city.
But as Patrick Condon once said, “density and environmental protection are not incompatible. If they are, we are in very deep trouble.” If we consider them to be enemies of each other, the resulting lower densities will deliver us larger asphalt parking lots, larger roads, more driving, and more suburban sprawl — all of which end up replacing or endangering our important natural areas.
Opposition to Parking Restrictions
Restricting the supply (and location) of parking — i.e., controlling the size and obtrusiveness of it — is one of the most important ways in which a community can control over-dependence on car travel and, therefore, the powerful tendency to create suburban sprawl and a place where it is unsafe, unpleasant or inconvenient to be a pedestrian. For these reasons, communities are increasingly restricting the amount (and location) of parking allowed for a development project.
Sprawl advocates obviously oppose any restrictions on parking. The huge car subsidies our society provides create a large market of homeowners and non-residential property owners who know that designing for easier car use is desirable. Big parking lots are therefore quite frequently required by financial institutions who are being asked to lend money for a project. The sea of parking is seen as a way to ensure financial success.
Motorists are on welfare. And we have spent several decades building communities where it is extremely difficult to travel anywhere without a car. The inevitable result is that nearly everyone is has a vested interest in making cars happy.
As a consequence, we sometimes find the curious scene in which liberals, “greens,” other assorted “nature lovers” or arm-chair environmentalists will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the road and sprawl lobby to urge the construction of as many free parking spaces as can be built for a proposed project — particularly for shopping areas (where a number of folks will someday want to drive to in order to buy, say, recycled computer paper in order to “save” the environment).
Support for More Town Center Open Space
Perhaps one of the most common remedies suggested for “improving” a town center is more “open space.”
As motorists, we are always feeling squeezed in by congested streets and filled parking lots. Is it not obvious that town centers need more “breathing room” — more open space to relieve the “crowding” of town center?
Dying town centers, surprisingly, are suffering from the opposite problem. Hard as it may be to believe, most American town centers have too much “open space.”
We have gone overboard on “open space,” but it is space for cars, not people. In other words, what we find is that most of this “open space” is devoted to parking lots and roads and large building setbacks (for recently constructed buildings).
Certainly, our experience as motorists tell us that there is too little open space. That town centers are crowded. But again, such perceptions come from the adoption of the values of the car. Cars need an ENORMOUS amount of space and quickly “feel” crowded when only a few other cars are around. To feel happy, cars need vast seas of asphalt.
The excessive amounts of car open space we establish in our town centers create an unwalkable design lacking in human scale. Distances between buildings are overwhelming on foot, and the spaces between buildings fail to create a human-scaled “sense of enclosure” that make humans feel comfortable.
For humans, the preferred design is modest amounts of space. In particular, buildings need to be within walking distance of each other, and more compactly spaced and aligned to form desirable “outdoor rooms.” That means that great care must be taken when considering adding open space to a town center. For a town center, elegant, formal, well-defined, modest spaces are called for. Squares and plazas, graced with formally-aligned landscaping (and landscaping that does not block views), is appropriate and desirable.
Undefined, informal “open space” — at least in a town center — is not.
In most cases, town centers need a reduction in open space — particularly when that reduction is in the form of shrinking the size of roads and parking lots.
It is primarily our Fords that are telling us that town centers need more space.
Opposition to Congestion
However unpopular it has become to say this, it is increasingly clear that traffic congestion in a city is our friend. It is not only effective in achieving a number of desired community objectives, but is one of the few tools we have available to us for making such objectives a reality.
For example, congestion promotes urban infill, higher density urban development, use of transit, use of carpooling, community design for transportation choice, and retail health. Congestion reduces, on a regional basis, air pollution and gasoline consumption. It discourages and reverses suburban sprawl. It slows down average motor vehicle speeds. And it discourages multiple car ownership by households.
For obvious reasons, suburban developers are fierce opponents of traffic congestion — particularly because it strongly undercuts their market for sprawl housing and sprawl commercial development.
But again, a great many well-meaning community activists who want to “green” our cities also consider congestion to be substantial menace that must be fought against. Indeed, there is nearly a consensus in America that congestion is bad. The environmental activist literature regularly cites congestion as an evil that must be fought.
Almost all of us have bought the extremely misleading (and regionally false) argument that is invariably trotted out by the Road Lobby: Congestion aggravates air pollution and increases gasoline consumption. It is obvious! Common sense! Save the environment by widening roads!
It is just a “coincidence” that the Road Lobby is able to benefit from the typical “solution” to congestion (often supported by those who seek to reduce air pollution and gas consumption). The all-too-common “solution” for congestion: Road widening.
Increasingly, we are understanding that we cannot build our way out of congestion. Induced demand, whereby the widened road creates car trips that would have never occurred had we not widened, means that the widened road will create more per capita driving, larger levels of congestion, and more desire to flee to sprawl locations.
What a widened road in a growing city delivers in four to five years: More air pollution, more gasoline consumption, more sprawl, more congestion and a downwardly spiraling quality of life.
The keys, in sum, for a greener, more sustainable, and more lovable city are clear. Emphasize design for pedestrians, not cars. That means, somewhat counterintuitively, smaller sizes for streets and building setbacks, less greenspace, and slower speeds.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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