Wednesday, August 4, 2010

urban|design.banter: Why shouldn't the place you live be somewhere you would want to visit?

A key topic of urban|design.banter will be making where you live a place where you would want to visit. Think of cities where people go to vacation or tour: Rome, London, Amsterdam, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Savannah, Charleston. People even come just for the day to downtown Friday Harbor. The urban core of these places share common traits, including:  older buildings mixed with new buildings; traditional neighborhood/mixed use development with zero lot lines and storefronts lining wide sidewalks; a variety of sizes and types of businesses, shops, bars, restaurants; well planned and maintained green space; and last but not least, the ability to walk or take transit to your destination, or to find the place so appealing that you don't even need a destination. When I lived in Rome the phrase I used for this was "You don't always have to go, you can just be."

A place to just "be:" folks hanging out at a street fair in beautiful downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

So why is it that we build the places that the majority of Americans live with exactly the opposite characteristics? Mostly because it is against the law to do otherwise, and because it's easier to make the numbers pencil on a large greenfield development of almost identical houses. 

What can we do to begin to reverse this trend? First of all, we can support policies that increase or allow for increases in density: allowing for ADU's or backyard apartment, transit (or at least transit funding equal to roads), allowing zoning laws to be updated to allow for mixed uses and less parking, and notifying your city council person when a sidewalk needs repair. These are just a few suggestions, some so big they seem to be insurmountable. "Density" is a four-letter word to many, and many oppose transit because they don't want "those people" to have a way into their neighborhood. But the most expensive and desirable places to live in the country are also the most dense and the most heavily served by transit, and creating density allows for more services close by, thus increasing walkability, thus allowing for places to be more human-scaled, and more like a place you would choose to visit.

When I lived in Chicago, I had to cross over Michigan Avenue on my way from the train to my office building. I would get annoyed as the tourists began descending upon the Magnificent Mile. So, I had to remind myself of a few things, the least of which being that I have been a tourist many, many times and have surely annoyed the citizens of the place I was touring, but also that I was so lucky to live my everyday life in a place where people save up their vacation time and money to come visit. I ran errands in the Hancock Tower and on the Magnificent Mile, and could walk home along the lakefront or through Lincoln Park (and the free zoo) if time allowed (I especially loved to do this when it snowed, as the park was serene and the train would be running behind anyway). 

This subject is covered extensively in James Howard Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape

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