I've been invited to give a number of public talks this summer and fall, and at least a couple of them will allow me to spread the word about urbanist design. Urbanism (sometimes new urbanism, but it's not new anymore) is the set of ideas I along with many non-planners first encountered in the 1990s with James Howard Kunstler's critique of post-war development, The Geography of Nowhere (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993).
Kunstler's thorough, slashing prose made such intuitive sense to me that I wonder if I've always been an urbanist, and only lacked the conceptual vocabulary to articulate it. Not everyone swallows the premises of the urbanist argument so quickly, however, as I was reminded last fall when one of my students praised Cedar Rapids's Collins Road strip for having every store you could possibly want. I look at an endless sea of franchises arrayed thusly...
...and I see unwalkable form and hideous appearance, not to mention the intensity of infrastructure is costly. It does have a lot of stores, though.
For a starting point, then, we turn to two questions from the Strong Towns Strength Test, plus one I made up, that establish a baseline picture of any city. (The other eight strength test questions are good, too, but these are things someone could answer off the top of their head.)
- Take a picture (or a mental picture) of your town at midday. Does the picture show more people than cars?
- Is it safe for children to walk or bike to school and many of their other activities without adult supervision?
- I'm visiting your home. You're going to show me one of the best places in your town. How do we get there?
|Marion's Novak School lies across busy 29th Street, which has a left-turn lane but no crosswalk|
...and storage of cars.
"Sprawl" has hollowed out downtowns and neighborhoods, and made it difficult-to-impossible to get most places without a car. That means (see sources below especially Duany et al chs 1-2, 4 & 7, Calthorpe and Fulton ch 1, Kellbaugh ch 1):
- Isolation of individuals: youth and elderly have difficulty getting around, social groups don't encounter each other, no one gets exercise unless they intentionally work out
- Unattractive civic spaces;
- Areas of concentrated poverty disconnected from economic opportunities and civic life;
- Traffic congestion, as single-occupancy vehicles travel the same paths as people go about their daily business;
- Deaths and injuries in auto crashes;
- Environmental costs, starting with wasted energy, as well as air pollution and climate change from auto emissions;
- Financial liabilities of governments at all levels to maintain the infrastructure;
- Financial costs to individuals who must have a car to get around; and
- Less opportunity for local businesses because potential customers are whizzing by them (or struggling by them on congested roads)
- walkable and human-scaled: safe for bikes and pedestrians, interesting (signs of human activity), and creating a sense of enclosure with street trees and buildings constructed to engage people on the street (neither "towers in the park" nor "snout houses")
- diverse in population: economic class, race, gender and sexual preference, religion, ethnicity, you name it
- varied in uses: residences, shops, offices and schools close to each other
- inclusive of public spaces that serve as community centers and landmarks, attract different kinds of people and foster a sense of commonality
|"Chicago Street," painting by Michael Broshar, Waterloo, Iowa|
|Happy hour at The Lounge, 1st St SE|
SEE ALSO:"The Urbanism CLEF," 4 February 2016 (four approaches to urbanism arranged to form a memorable mnemonic)
"The Parking Dilemma," 31 July 2013 (focus on the work of Donald Shoup)
"Biking in the 21st Century," 28 June 2013 (focus on the work of Jeff Speck)
"Gleanings from the New Urbanism," 19 April 2013 (introduction)
MORE ON URBANISM:The best first book about these ideas remains Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961). Her fluent, accessible language belies the power of the thoughts behind it. She analyzes how cities work, what makes them succeed and fail, and most importantly conventional misconceptions about cities that lead to disastrous policy choices.
More recently has come a cartload of books on design and its impacts. For me the earliest and most influential include:
Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton, The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl (Island, 2001)
Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (North Point, 2000)
Randolph T. Hester, Design for Ecological Democracy (MIT Press, 2006)
Douglas S. Kellbaugh, Repairing the American Metropolis: Common Place Revisited (University of Washington, 2002)
Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place (DaCapo, 1999)
Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking (Planners Press, 2005)
Jeff Speck, Walkable City: How Downtowns Can Save America, One Step at a Time (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012)
|Jeff Speck speaks in Cedar Rapids, 2015|