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The Importance of Good Urban Design

April 16, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy, Urban Design

the_national_automobile_slum.pngI mentioned in a previous post that I would revisit ‘urban design’ as a topic — that was primarily because I saw this video from James Howard Kunstler, entitled ‘The tragedy of suburbia’.

[NSFW - Not Safe For Work: Be warned - the video delivers a few curse words.]

The image seen here is the opening slide of Kunstler’s address - the slide is titled “The National Automobile Slum” (interesting that BMW sponsors TED). Kunstler starts his talk with the following:

The immersive ugliness of our everyday environments in America is entropy made visible. We can’t overestimate the amount of despair that we are generating with places like this. And, mostly I want to persuade you that we have to do better if we’re going to continue the project of civilization in America.

Strong words. And you definitely get the sense that Kunstler is angry. I know that I am angry.

The idea is not to pick on suburbia, per se (and I’ve often lived in suburbs, including the place I lived before Austin — Palo Alto, California), but to point out what I think is a great video. I don’t agree with all the sentiments expressed therein, but I think Kunstler’s main point is correct - we need to do better.

To me, bicycling is a crucial step in the re-making of our world, but it’s not the only step. So after we get bicycle directions on Google Maps, we’re going to want to continue to take steps to make the places we live nicer places to be. The more each of us knows about the principles of good urban design, the better off all of our communities will be. We won’t have to be such watchdogs for urban design because everyone will know the basics - might be a bit of a pipe dream, but I imagine it could be done. I’d like to see a more widespread teaching of urban design principles - starting in elementary school, even - so that we reach non-cyclists and non-advocates, too. The more folks who know the basics of good urban design, the less chance we’ll get stuck with poorly-planned town centers, car-only roadways, lack of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, etc.

Majora Carter has a very good presentation, too, as does Jaime Lerner. And don’t forget to watch the presentation by the founder of Zipcar, the car-sharing service, Robin Chase (check out here new ride-sharing/carpooling startup, GoLoco, too). I’m sure there are plenty of other good bicycle/transportation/green TED Talks that I didn’t point out here, so if you know of any we missed, please let us know in the comments.

…there’s another important part of Kunstler’s presentation that I wanted to point out:

We’re gonna have to change this behavior whether we like it or not. We are entering an epochal period of change in the world, and certainly in America. The period that will be characterized by the end of the cheap oil era. It is going to change absolutely everything. Chris asked me not to go on too long about this and I won’t. Except to say, there’s not gonna be a hydrogen economy. Forget it. It’s not gonna happen. We’re gonna have to do something else, instead. We’re gonna have to downscale, rescale, and resize virtually everything we do in this country — and we can’t start soon enough to do it. We’re gonna have to live closer to where we work. We’re gonna have to live closer to each other. We’re gonna have to grow more food closer to where we live. The age of the 3,000 mile Ceasar Salad is coming to an end.

Bicycling can be a boon for all of us because it can be beneficial to so many different people and causes and end goals. For instance, if you are a greenie, you probably know all about the slow food, CSA, and community gardens movements. These movements, along with the bicycling movement (implicitly), have to do with moving things closer together - exactly as Kunstler talks about. We need to be sure, as advocates of bicycling/pedestrians/local food/etc., that we reach out to each other and work together to achieve our goals. Send some emails, make some phone calls, attend some meetings to organizations you don’t belong to, and let’s see how we can help each other.

Tonight I stopped by the monthly Austin Flyers social (thanks, y’all!) at Mandola’s Italian Market (good food!) at The Triangle (map). The Triangle (which gets its name from the shape of the roads around it) is a mixed-use development with apartments, retail stores, restaurants, and a park. Cruising by tonight (on my Fuji Roubaix), I noticed the Austin Farmers’ Market (run by the Sustainable Food Center) was in full effect - man, it looked cool. There seemed to be lots of people, local farmers and food and veggies and all that, live music, some street vendors, and kids and dogs running around everywhere - a very cool scene. This market I saw is actually the second location — this one runs on Wednesday evenings, and the main one is downtown on Saturday mornings. The Triangle is about 4 miles north of downtown.

Kunstler mentions New Urbanism - essentially, a body of knowledge concerned with retrofitting poorly-designed urban areas - which is an unfortunate necessity for too much of America. Kunstler goes on to say more about ‘localization’:

We got a lot of work to do. We’re not gonna be rescued by the hypercar. We’re not gonna be rescued by alternative fuels. No amount, or combination of alternative fuels, is going allow us to continue running what we’re running, the way we’re running it. We’re gonna have to do everything very differently. And america is not prepared. We are sleepwalking into the future. We’re not ready for what’s coming at us. So I urge you all to do what you can. Life in the mid-21st century is gonna to be all about living locally. Be prepared to be good neighbors. Be prepared to be find vocations that make you useful to your neighbors and to your fellow citizens.

I thought the ‘vocations’ part was particularly important because I feel like many of us - especially in the white collar world - have little to no vocational experience. That is, take away our computers and we’re effectively useless if you need any type of skilled labor. I can’t build a house, fix a car, plant a garden, cook, etc. I can now change a flat on my bicycle - so that’s a start, and I can and have and will continue to provide physical labor to lots of efforts that can use it, but I’m still not that useful. I want to learn a real vocation so I can do my part. There are tens of millions of people like me. I don’t fear for us - humans are enterprising - we’ll learn and do what we need to do, but I like the idea of telling folks, “Hey - learn to do something useful - there is real value in being able to do things for yourself and your community”.

The DIY (Do It Yourself) movement continues to pick up steam for a lot of the same reasons all of these other movements continue to do so. The Austin Yellow Bike Project seems to me to have a DIY-type philosophy. I think one of the things that people value about doing things themselves is that when they’re done, they actually have a piece of work, a meal, a vegetable, a building, a bike - something tangible. Even sectors of the service industry can provide some fulfillment - fixing a bicycle, for instance. I think a lot of the computer work we do is just not fulfilling - and people aren’t meant to spend all day sitting in front of a computer, getting fat. OK - enough of the ‘society’ rant. :)

I see bicycling as the primary linking mechanism between all of the movements that are going to help us get to a better world - bicycling is very much the key to making good progress in ‘downscaling, rescaling, and resizing’. And it’s just my opinion, of course. :)

…Another note - the part where Kunstler mentions that we can’t expect to be ‘rescued’ by ‘the hypercar’ or ‘alternative fuels’ - I think it’s either true or true enough. Why is that important? Well, lots of people still think that something will save us - maybe technology. John Doerr is a venture capitalist at the premiere VC firm in the Valley. His firm invested in many of the top computer companies in the world - including Google. In March 2007, Doerr gave a presentation at TED titled “Seeking salvation and profit in greentech“. So, they even have a term for technology that will save us — greentech (short for ‘green technology’). That’s fine - I wish them well - we’ll need all the help we can get - but I think we should do our best to point out to folks - VCs and others - that it may just be non-technology that ‘rescues’ us - things like bicycle lanes, community gardens, and other ‘localization’ paradigms. Doerr mentions in his talk that he thinks it’s stupid to drive a car just to go a short distance, maybe to the grocery store, but then he talks up biofuel initiatives. He states plainly that he doesn’t think people will want to sacrifice enough - change their lifestyles enough - to help stave off the worst effects of global climate change. I disagree.

And I think many of you would disagree with Mr. Doerr, too.

And I think the question - “Are people willing to sacrifice enough?” - is misleading. Is riding a bicycle a sacrifice? Not for me. Is getting healthier and having fun and enjoying being in the fresh morning air and the warm afternoon sun a sacrifice?

I feel great when I walk someplace, and I feel great when I ride somewhere. Riding my bike is usually the highlight of my day. I don’t have to convince myself that I like it - I actually do like it. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that I love it. I think we need to be proactive in knocking down false platitudes that are just taken to be truisms, when in fact they are not. Ever heard, “People love their cars”, or “People will never give up their cars”? I say, bul…..poppycock! :)

I say:

People love walking and riding and fresh air and nature and exercise and camaraderie and feeling alive. If they so much as get the smallest sense that it’d be possible to give up their cars for even one day a week, they’d jump at the chance and never look back.

Take that!

And I think it’s true. Lots of people would love to ditch their cars - they just can’t for various reasons (bicycling looks prohibitively dangerous; too far from work; etc.). As cycling/pedestrian/mass transit advocates, we need to bring the narrative of enjoyment and exercise and nature and connectedness and community to our cause. Save the polar bears and the human race? Yes - it’s true, but it’s this very abstract thing for most people. Exercise is not. Fresh air is not. Self-reliance is not. Saving money is not. These are all powerful ideas that people will readily identify with.

Whether you believe that Jevons Paradox is real or not (more), I want to argue that car culture sucks, and we can do better. If tomorrow someone managed to invent the perfect fuel - for cars, for factories, etc. - I would have mixed emotions. The world would be saved from pollution and global climate change, but this movement to create local places that would make us happy would be destroyed. To me, that would be a terrible loss.

better_off_flipping_the_switch_on_technology.jpgGoing back to DIY culture - just to make this post even longer - I just thought of a book that I read called Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. The Google Books link gives us this:

What happens when a graduate of MIT, the bastion of technological advancement, and his bride move to a community so primitive in its technology that even Amish groups consider it antiquated? Eric Brende conceives a real-life experiment: to see if, in fact, all our cell phones, wide-screen TVs, and SUVs have made life easier and better — or whether life would be preferable without them. …

Good book. It might just be worth your attention. :)