By Dom Nozzi, AICP
“Suburbanization is the biggest threat to cities in North America.” — Paul Bedford,TorontoPlanning Director, 1997.
What are the features of suburbs that Mr. Bedford is referring to as threats to our town centers? The litany will sound familiar, because it has metastasized everywhere in America.
Segregation, homogenization and isolation of land uses. Substantial building setbacks—from streets and other buildings. Wide, high-speed roads, disconnected with dead-ends and cul-de-sacs. Sidewalks an afterthought—as a result, they are often not installed, or too narrow and cluttered with smelly, unsightly dumpsters, mechanical equipment, blank walls and poles. Street blocks are too long for easy walking. Lots of parking for cars—usually in front of the building. Buildings turning their backs to the street and sidewalk. Big buffers. Compared to a healthy, convivial, sociable city, the ambiance is barren, monotonous and sterile. Generous amounts of randomly placed clumps and bands of landscaping. One-story “icon architecture” or “look-at-me” buildings. Drive-thru’s, auto sales, and auto repair. Glaring, excessive lighting on tall, highway-oriented light poles. Excessive signage. “Anywhere USA” character. No sense of place (no “there there”). Low densities—too low to make transit or walking possible. Important civic buildings placed in out-of-the-way, low-visibility, unimportant locations.
The reason such mind-numbing suburbanization is such a threat to our town centers is that many of the above-listed suburban features seem to be “good” features that anyone would want.
In the suburbs.
As a result, many well-informed, well-intentioned people are often easily seduced into agreeing that detrimental, anti-town center features would be helpful to the city. Elected officials are regularly convinced to opt for anti-city actions by those who are on a moral crusade to “save” our cities.
By suburbanizing them.
Crusaders for drivable suburban features sincerely believe that to incorporate their “pet” suburban features in the city will save the city from becoming an ugly, unpleasant, concrete- and skyscraper-filled megalopolis.
I am convinced, however, that if our cities are to again become attractive places to live in, shop in, and work in—if we are to reverse the “flight” to the outlying suburbs—our cities must build on their strengths. Among the strengths of the city are walkability, unique character, sociability, ambiance, vibrancy, diversity, civic pride, transportation choice, and buildings and streets scaled for people instead of cars.
The suburbs will always win if the city tries to compete on suburban terms—by attempting to incorporate elements of suburbia that can always be done cheaper and better in the suburbs. To attract investment, houses, jobs, and retail back to our city, we need to build on the inherent leverage of cities—those things that make cities wonderful.
And distinct from the suburbs.
Here is my idea of the strengths of a city—strengths that, when protected and promoted—will ensure our town center has a healthy future that will attract, rather than repel, those seeking a walkable lifestyle.
Retail buildings that are pulled up to, and face, the street and sidewalk so that the building gives its vitality to the sidewalk, and thereby makes our walks safe, pleasant and interesting.
Proximity of destinations, so that it is possible for us to walk, bicycle or use transit to get from our house to our job, city parks, the library and other public buildings, and retailers. In other words, we have a choice about how we will travel, instead of being forced to drive a car to get to anything.
Modest street sizes and parking lots, fairly priced car travel (ie, motorists are charged to park and to drive on a road), traffic calming and other techniques to ensure that cars behave themselves. There is nothing more critical than this to make our community sustainable, to make our neighborhoods safe and livable, and to make locally-owned retailers viable.
A vibrant, romantic, people-scaled, unique, prideful, diverse town center that thrives with pedestrian activity and therefore creates sociability, conviviality, safety, and fun, and makes downtown businesses profitable.
Buildings and street trees that are lined up along and near the street to form a pleasant, cozy “outdoor room”—the wonderful “public realm” that we admire in Charleston, Savannah, and the many walkable European cities.
A mixture of housing types and household incomes so that we do not live in a homogenized, upper-income or low-income enclave.
A neighborhood where we can “retire in place,” instead of being forced, as seniors, to be warehoused in a retirement village when we can no longer drive a car.
Streets with alleys, so that driveways, dumpsters, service vehicles, utilities, and garages can be moved away from the sidewalk.
On-street parking, so that our walks are safe and enjoyable, so that our small retailers do well, so that cars do not speed, and so that we can find a convenient parking space when we go to the town center.
Street vistas terminated with important buildings so that we are filled with pride because of all of our picturesque views.
Finally, let me hasten to add that this is not a clarion call to “eliminate” suburbs. There is no danger that we will lose the suburban option, nor do I think we should “get rid of” a lifestyle that so many enjoy. Since the vast majority of America is suburban, and the threat of our suburbanizing our small slivers of quality urbanism is so serious, there is, on the other hand, a real danger that we will soon lose a lifestyle choice for those of us who enjoy quality: walkability.
The solution is not to suburbanize our remaining remnants of walkability. To do so is akin to “destroying the city to save it.”
Because so many of our cities have been harmed by suburbanizing them, there is a substantial, untapped market for the strengths that make the city livable. We can best fight unsustainable sprawl and the flight from the city if we protect and promote our city as a place that we and our children, as lovers of the city, want to live in, shop in, school in, work in, and entertain ourselves in.
Let’s capitalize on the competitive leverage and “wealth” of the city.
Let the city be a city.
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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