19 January 2008

More thoughts on car culture

I'm no expert (though I may pretend to be), but it seems like for the longest time urban planners were insisting that the best solution to all urban social problems was to spread everyone out. People are living on top of each other in economic and/or symbolic poverty, awash in the pollution (though that was the day when it was considered simply dirty instead of dangerously toxic) of all that prosperous heavy industry. No no, that's not right--people need open space and lot's of fresh, country air. Move as many people as possible away from the city centers. Make sure there are plenty of yards and gardens. Private ones, mind you. Trust us.

These days, urban planners are insisting just the opposite. New residential developments are never dense enough for their liking. They bemoan the lone big-box retailer that displaces a cluster of multiple small businesses. Commutes to work are too long and inefficient. People are just too spread out for anything to be practical. Don't you see? Why isn't anybody listening?

I wonder what happened, and I wonder if it must have been the automobile that finally made it practical for people to spread out, just as the urban planners had dreamed would happen someday. Except once it was practical for everyone to own their own private auto, everyone wanted to spread out and live "in the country." But then what happened?

The automobile, owing to its large size and thus exorbitant demands for space, greatly increases the perceived density of some particular area. People sit at a busy intersection and think, gosh it's crowded around here--just look at all the traffic! Screw this. So they move farther and farther out into the "country," but then they drag the need for parking and driving space along with them. Meanwhile the old city centers, carefully designed or haphazardly built in an earlier age for density in a pre-automobile world, merely sit there with their infrastructure underutilized and their potential for denser development wasted. And thus we find ourselves in the mess we're in now.

I might be wrong. Perhaps urban planners are simply a foolishly idealistic bunch and nothing will ever really please them. Like editors ("Someday we will end the apostrophe abuse!"), but with more at stake than proper punctuation.

On that note, here are a few items to share.

West North:
"Two video games that I spent much time with during high school suddenly make so much more sense — after wandering around Japanese cities for a few days. A-Train and SimTower, both of which were published in the USA by Maxis (creator of SimCity), have at their hearts urban and business models that respond to conditions quite unique to Japan — a society that, despite its considerable automotive might, practically defines “transit oriented development.” Both games were fascinating looks into the integrally interlinked role that transportation, both horizontal and vertical, plays in a densely populated society."

Strange Maps:
“Slumless, Smokeless Cities”
"Take that, Harry Beck. Try as you might, the lines on your Tube map could never be as straight as this.

"Beck schematised a transportation system that was completely irregularly laid out to begin with. This map, however, shows how planning ahead would enable not just symmetry, but also better living conditions, or as the map itself states: “Slumless, Smokeless Cities”.

"The map was drawn up by Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928), the father of the garden city movement. Howard believed the living conditions of the poor, huddled masses cramped together in giant, insalubrious cities could be improved by combining the best aspects of town and country and carefully allocating space to housing, industry and agriculture."

Bike, Chicago!:
Living in between
"In our small ways, we push the boundaries of acceptable behavior. In our society of predictable patterns and fixed expectations, biking or walking -- not for health, or fitness, or a cause, but just to get somewhere -- is a subversive act. And those of us who engage in it, even if we do so without any particular plan or agenda, are perceived as being subversive. As we weave our way through traffic, and negotiate our way through a larger community in which we live, we find our spaces in between. Between lanes of traffic, between the street and the sidewalk, between cracks in the pavement."

[Out my window, screen and all.]


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