Saturday, October 25, 2008

Strip Mall America

New American Cities Have Lost Their Heart

OK. This blog entry is a rant. 

If you don't want to read a rant, I understand, and you have been warned. 

Otherwise, wade on in.

Anyone who travels throughout America as much as I do can't help but conclude that modern American city planning (the last three to four decades) has been a complete unmitigated failure. 

It has delivered ugly sprawl. The spaces it created will never become special. They will never be loved.

Our older cities had a town square and were served by a cartesian grid of streets with sidewalks. They were walkable and traffic moved well in them. Sometimes the grids were imposed so rigidly that it was kind of crazy (like the streets in San Francisco that go straight up and down its steepest hills).

Conversely, our new suburban cities have no heart and no core. Their defining planning features are simply wide, traffic choked, linear arterials. Super slabs that serve gated communities and strip malls. They don't work at all.

In older American cities the heart or core would include a town square or a courthouse square. It might have a compact walkable Main Street. Or even many blocks of retail shops and restaurants bound by a common theme such as the wonderful circa 1922 Country Club Plaza in Kansas City. 

All essential services for the community were located at the core. You knew where you were. You knew where to go for basic services such as the city hall, the courts, a post office, the library, and houses of worship.

Modern city planning now disperses all retail and major services for the convenience of the automobile. Even in small or medium sized communities, without a core everything is served from a six or eight lane arterial with a wide median running down the middle. There are no practical sidewalks. In fact, recently when in suburban Virginia, I attempted to cross a street to get to a restaurant. Thinking "its a nice day I'll just walk there", I soon realized there was no sidewalk or crosswalk. It had been inconceivable to the County planner that anyone might ever want to walk along or near that busy thoroughfare. 

In Texas many main arterials are now flanked with one-way frontage roads. As such, the distance from the driveway fronting on one frontage road to the driveway "across the street" may well be a quarter mile of pavement.

I'm convinced it isn't that we don't want to walk to get around. The very places we say we love are all walkable (and many - like Portland and San Francisco - feature great mass transit). Most of us simply opted for the developer's / planner's vision of utopia and now live in places we really can't safely walk anywhere. 

We totally miss the ball.  Instead of walking we just assuage our guilt by trading in our cars for evermore fuel efficient versions. The problem is we just drive our fuel efficient cars more and more and more.

I was amazed to learn that residents of smog choked New York City have some of the lowest rates of heart disease in the nation. Oh, Yeah! They walk a lot.

In old neighborhoods kids walked next door and played in the street. In todays suburbs, kids are loaded into urban assault vehicles and driven to "play dates".

Modern city planning really poses the big question. When did we give up on our cities and decide we needed to hide behind the walls of gated communities? When I ask residents that question they cite the need for "safety". That answer is, of course, simply "code" for choosing to live in economically and racially homogenious neighborhoods.

Lets face it, the whole idea of gated communities polarizes society. They isolate age groups (think "Sun City"). They isolate racial groups. They isolate the "haves" from "have-nots". 

When working with the Police Department in a City filled with gated communities I was told they routinely blindfolded their rookie officers and dropped them in the middle of these communities. They then let them drive aimlessly around simply trying to find there way out without maps. 

The police also found that many of these communities had remarkably similar crime profiles as the non-gated communities in the same city. The crime in the gated communities is just committed by insiders; frequently the drug addled latch-key kids of its residents.

So go ahead and think of every city you have ever truly loved. Maybe it was London or Paris. Maybe it was Chicago, or New York.  Maybe it was Winter Park FL, Portland OR, or San Francisco. Maybe it was the old parts of Franklin TN, or Glen Ellyn IL, or Spokane WA, Santa Fe NM, or Prescott AZ. 

My bet is you will have identified a place that defies almost all modern precepts of city planning. Yet, you found it livable and a lot of fun. 

It had lovely sidewalks with canopy trees. You could walk or ride a bicycle safely. It had houses with front porches. It had a piazza, or town square, or a compact main street. I bet the part of town you loved did not feature a Super Target or a Macaroni Grille. 

As we move into the next phase of urbanization in America we have a chance to rethink city planning. We can indeed try to return to the idea espoused by Jane Jacobs; walkable, live/work 24 hour neighborhoods. 

While my generation looked for big ranch houses with a lawn. Our kids are drawn to lofts. We liked covered suburban shopping malls. Our kids like outdoor lifestyle malls. The trend is clearly swinging.

I guess we can breathe a sigh of relief as the current generation of city planners collapses into retirement. Their damage is done.  Lets hope the next generation of planners realizes they must ignore the unsustainable failures of the past thirty-five years. It is time to make a big leapfrog back in time to reclaim and rework many of the planning structures we so recently abandoned. The ones we now have come to realize we loved. 

The ones that worked.

Roadboys Travels © 2008

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