Thursday, July 30

A visit to Roanoke City Market

Earlier this week, we stopped in to the City of Roanoke for some dinner. Of course, I wanted to find somewhere in the downtown, and, being spoiled with Charlottesville restaurants, preferred to find a place with outdoor seating. This brought us right into the heart of downtown, the historic City Market. This public space is a wonderful amenity to the city, and I don't want to be one to rush to criticize a place I've only visited once, but I was struck by one exceedingly strange reality: the central square is being used as a parking lot (at least while we were there).

I counted 26 spaces in the lot. That's it. Later, I found in a study conducted with DPZ in 2006 that there are 1500 parking spaces in the immediate vicinity of the market. This small lot right in the middle is a drop in the ocean, yet it creates an outsized impact on the public space. While eating my dinner about five feet from a pick-up truck bumper, I imagined what a central public square could look like. Maybe two prominent street trees with benches sitting in the shade, bricks and stone shaped into an ornamental pattern. Currently, there are only about five or six outdoor tables pushed up against the building, all of which were occupied on this Tuesday night. With the empty lot being fully utilized, the outdoor seating could pour out into the center creating much more vitality.

I understand that parking is a major problem for Roanoke. 93% of residents in the city commute by private vehicle, and the other 2/3 of the metro area that lives outside of the city are surely even less likely to walk, bike, or bus in. The downtown is walkable, but it's an island. The inner neighborhoods are pretty well cut off from downtown by an interstate, a moat of surface parking lots or vacant industrial lots, and a railroad track. Even so, if only 26 people could be convinced to leave their cars at home, the city could enhance it's core greatly. This seems like a reasonable possibility.

While the DPZ plan stops short of eliminating the parking lot, they did say this:

"The design team noticed that walking around City Market Square requires pedestrians to wade through a maze of car bumpers. Although to some degree, wagons, cars and trucks parked in the Square have always been part of its history, avoiding those vehicles does not provide a truly first-rate pedestrian experience."
Based on their recommendations and renderings, it's hard to see how the parking lot could coexist in any way. They recommend enlarging the farmers' market stalls, turning the City Market building "inside out" with seating and vendors, adding a stand-alone ticket kiosk to the square, encouraging outdoor festivals and musical entertainment. All of this requires space and an aesthetically pleasing urban environment. Even if shoppers have to walk an extra 50 yards, I can't imagine how this plan would not be a great benefit to vendors in the market.

Monday, July 27

Some clarifications about the meaning of urbanism

Ryan Advent makes an important clarification to an urbanist position that I wholeheartedly agree with:

"When urbanists like myself argue in favor of better policies, it is (generally) not with the belief that we all should or ever will live in very dense urban environments. Rather, I think that we should improve policy, and that the result will be slightly fewer living in low-density environments and slightly more people living in high-density environments. And it’s worth pointing out that “high-density” can mean many things — everything from Midtown Manhattan, to the walkable rowhouse neighborhoods in the District, to transit-oriented neighborhoods in places like Arlington where dense development around transit hubs rapidly gives way to detached but compact single-family homes. To the extent that any urbanist out there is arguing that everyone must live the condo and Whole Foods life, I’m ready to declare that they’re wrong."
Probably more than any other criticism, I hear that urbanism implies a certain lifestyle preference for denser urban living (cue techno music) over a simpler rural lifestyle (cue folk music). Seen this way, it becomes almost like a special interest group for young cultural creatives and empty-nesters pitted against families and those who work the land. This isn't what I hope to be conveying. Maybe if it means ditching the word urbanist, it would be worth it to clear up this confusion. I'd like to join with Ryan in countering this notion with a number of points:
  1. For decades, we have been imposing local, state, and federal regulations that encourage low over high density development. As a result it appears that the ratio of drivable, suburban choices to walkable, urban choices is way out of sync with the public's actual preferences. This skews market prices considerably. As a result, too many people are being forced into a suboptimal (according to their own preferences) living arrangements, especially those with less income. This could be called the Leinberger defense.

  2. It's not clear to me that we will be able to afford, as a society or as individual households, continuing the low-density living arrangements we now have, whatever our preferences may be. When oil prices spiked last summer, many people who were dependent on automobiles suffered, and everyone expects oil prices to rebound if the economy picks up. The highway trust fund is a sinking ship and will probably continue to not be solvent into the long-term. Our highway system is remarkably expensive to maintain, and it's unclear how we are going to expand it as we have been in perpetuity. Right now the government has been absorbing these costs with deficit spending, but that's obviously not sustainable into the future.

    And then there's the looming shadows of peak oil and global climate change. Preparing for anticipated economic realities is prudent and fair for the generations who will be following us. This could be called the Kunstler defense.

  3. Way back, I wrote a couple posts on how a movement known as agrarianism (think Wendell Berry) may actually overlap with urbanism to a significant degree. Encouraging vital cities is certainly one method for preserving farmland from rampant low-density growth. People have to live somewhere, and both of these branches of environmentalism share a common value of human flourishing.

    Many households choose to put pictures on their walls of bucolic settings or traditional city squares, but not so much the suburban subdivisions that lie in between. There is beauty in both the urban and rural form, and they depend upon each other in important ways. The same could be said for truly wild areas where the natural world can be displayed in a more lightly touched form.

  4. As I've written before, walkable urban environments are great places for families. If it weren't for the quality of public education and perceptions (often irrational) of safety, both of which are incidental to urban form itself, I think we would see a lot more families choosing to live in urban environments.
Hopefully, I've made it clear that at least my intentions are not to elevate one subculture or lifestyle or political base or familial pattern over any other.

Tuesday, July 21

Driving in an attention-grabbing world

The breaking news this week from the NYT is that the federal government suppressed data they had collected on the dangers of using cell phones while driving, in order to avoid offending some members of Congress (and apparently their voting constituents who enjoy multitasking while driving). Imagine if the FDA had reason to believe that a certain food additive increased risk of instant death by 400% upon eating, but did not think it was politically feasible to reveal this finding.

I like how Maureen Dowd put it in her op-ed today, writing that as an American you now have "a multimedia empire at your fingertips while you’re piloting a potentially lethal piece of artillery."

It's too bad that Dowd focuses much of her attention on the tech "drug dealers" compelling us to be connected at all times, and doesn't question why we actually need these "pieces of artillery" to go anywhere in the first place. Maybe the cell phone itself isn't the main culprit here.

When the private automobile first arrived on city streets in the early 20th century, the American public reacted strongly against the number of lives being claimed. Editorials peppered the newspapers. Mass vigils were held and prominent memorials were erected on behalf of children who were killed while playing on the streets. Now we see scarcely a nod, and we seriously have to debate whether the inconvenience of putting down the cell phone (or taking off the hands-free device) is worth the lives that are saved.

Sunday, July 12

A bright future for Richmond

Tracks into Main Street Station
It looks more and more like some of the $8 billion in federal stimulus allocated for high-speed rail will be used for service between Richmond and Washington, and continuing south into North Carolina. This will bring the the travel time between Virginia's capital and the nation's capital to around 90 minutes with several more scheduling options for rail travelers. From the 1950's through 80's, the downtown was chopped into pieces by interstates to serve development in the metropolitan area. This time the tables are being turned. Rail infrastructure has a tendency to promote concentrated development around the station and feed into different localized modes of travel. This is a good thing for revitalizing downtown.

Map from Richmond Downtown Plan (full size pdf)
And the timing couldn't be better. A truly visionary plan was completed last year for the downtown of Richmond, and the city has been moving toward the first stages of implementation. With an agreed-upon blueprint firmly in place for redevelopment, the city could better handle an influx of funds and direct it in a way that benefits the whole community.

"Cities are naturally mixed-use, mixed-income, and multi-modal"

Richmond has decided to restore many of the traditional elements that made the city a vibrant place. Most of the two-way streets that were converted to one-way to increase vehicular traffic will revert back to their original form. The streetcar system that ran through Broad Street and many other corridors, shaping the form of the city, may be resurrected. According to the plan, the pedestrian will once again be honored and made to feel comfortable and safe.

Everything in this plan seems to be spot on. The parking strategy is sensible (paid parking will kick in when demand meets 85% of supply), traffic speeds are managed to be conducive for a livable environment, and cyclists are taken seriously. There is a robust plan for infill development (each of the red buildings on the map are proposed new buildings), an aggressive street tree planting regime, and an integrated system of small urban parks. The plan recommends form-based codes over zoning regulations, requiring attractive street frontages and architecture that integrates into the historic heritage of the city.

It appears as if principles from this plan will guide the improvements made to Main Street Station. Richmond is fortunate to still have it's historic rail station (even if it is literally partially underneath I-95). It could either be transformed into a multi-modal hub and woven seamlessly into the downtown, or it could be surrounded by parking lots and cut off from the downtown completely. With an adopted plan that has been thoroughly hashed out by the citizens, the city has a good chance of winning this battle when it arises.

After reading this plan, I made a return trip to Richmond. Walking around the downtown, I imagined how each little section could be transformed according to this blueprint. There is something exciting about a place that has combined potential with vision, and if a few million federal dollars start to arrive, a catalyst to make it happen.

Friday, July 10

Fred Kent vs. Frank Gehry

Coming of the heels of Britain's fascinating architectural row between modernist Richard Rogers and traditionalist Prince Charles, a similar American public feud seems to be bubbling to the surface. While there may not be billions of dollars at stake and lingering issues about a hereditary monarchy, the underlying debate is taking the same shape. Essentially, world-famous iconic architects are being insistently asked to defend the proposition that their work has made cities better places to live in.

The Atlantic's James Fallows has been playing the role of the interpreter between two well-known designers, Fred Kent, director of the venerable Project for Public Spaces, and Frank Gehry, one of the most recognized names in modern architecture. It started at the Aspen Ideas Festival last month. Kent had been a speaker in previous years, but he had come to this event to hear Gehry speak. Apparently, Kent criticized Gehry's buildings for not functioning well as attractive public spaces and insisted on an answer to his question. After a few tries, Gehry called him a "pompous man" and waved him away, later accusing Kent of attaching himself to his celebrity status as a publicity stunt. Kent fired back,

"Around the world citizens are defining their future by focusing on their city's civic assets, authentic qualities and compelling destinations...not on blindly following the latest international fads conjured by starchitects. "
What's interesting to me is what makes this different from the British debate. It is actually more about function than about style. It's notable that Kent is not quibbling with the aesthetic properties of Gehry's buildings, nor is he questioning their status as works of art. He is casting doubt on the way these buildings are used by people on a regular basis and how they interact with a surrounding urban environment. It's an empirical question, very American actually. Everyone knows Gehry's buildings, particularly the Guggenheim in Bilboa and the Walt Disney Theater in Los Angeles, have become tourist attractions and sites of pilgrimage for modern architecture buffs. Kent is asking how they are used by people who are there for reasons other than seeing the building itself, what role they play in Jane Jacob's "ballet" of urban life.

William Whyte, the founder of PPS, was known for making meticulous observations about how each little detail of public space either encouraged or discouraged its use. How were the steps oriented to allow for sitting and lingering? Where did the shade fall at different times of the day? He watched and videoed places all around the country, with a particular fondness for small spaces that generated a critical mass of human interaction. Architects have come around lately to recognize the importance Whyte placed on monitoring the actual uses of buildings and places. In my opinion, PPS is in the ideal place to ask the empirical questions. I hope the substance of this debate continues, although maybe without any more accusations over self-importance.

Here are two recent projects, both in New York City, involving each side:

Pedestrian space on Times Square. Photo: Adrimcm

Gehry's InterActiveCorp Building in Chelsea. Photo: Scurzuzu

Tuesday, July 7

Stormwater Management should work with, not against, Smart Growth

Raining downtown, and that's just fine. flickr:bobtravis
Virginia is in the process of updating statewide Stormwater Regulations. A draft has been written, and it's open for public comment until August 21, 2009. Some people are concerned that the stricter caps on nutrient loads, as they are currently written, will promote low-density development and ultimately hurt the water quality and quantity of runoff in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

I believe there is merit to this case ...

Here’s a simple and, I think, realistic hypothetical scenario. Developer A wants to develop 100 dwelling units on 1000 acres of land, and developer B wants to develop 100 dwelling units on 10 acres of land. Developer A will only need to cover 10% of her large site with impervious surface, while developer B will need to cover 70% of her small site with impervious surface. Developer A assumes that 100% of residents will use an automobile for transportation, while Developer B assumes 50% will primarily walk or use transit. Therefore, Developer A’s project will require twice as many parking spaces and approximately twice as much road width in the region, but most of this will be accommodated for off-site.

Under the stormwater regulations being proposed, Developer A will likely score an A+ with a pass to move forward, while developer B will fail. This is because the standards are determined, site-by-site, on a per acre basis and not a per unit basis. Developer B may have the option of purchasing off-site water quality improvements or implementing a set of BMPs to offset the damage she is incurring, but she takes a hard look at her balance sheet and decides to join developer A as a business partner. What benefited the individual acres of the sites in question clearly was an overall loss for the watershed as a whole.

And considering opportunity costs makes the situation even dicier. What if these developers bypass infill redevelopment of an industrial site for a more compliant and cheaper greenfield development? (Stormwater controls will generally be more expensive for redevelopment than new development). Now you have impervious surfaces in two places, instead of one. Super.

The economic market analysis, conducted for the Department of Conservation and Recreation by a Virginia Tech professor, bears this out in more detail.

"Based on this site-by-site method, low density developments would produce less estimated phosphorus runoff than medium or high density areas. Very low density developments (1 dwelling unit per 3 to 5 acres) would unlikely face any water quality control requirements. Yet, on a watershed basis, low-density ("sprawl") development increases dependence on auto transport (thus increasing emissions and roadway impervious surfaces). Highly impervious areas accompanied by dense population settlement can produce net water quality improvements, independent of whether stormwater controls are implemented ... Higher phosphorous control costs in high density developments create financial disincentives that may work at cross purposes with larger watershed objectives." [my italics]
Now I'm no hydrologist. Not at all. Most of the science and bureaucratic mechanisms behind this policy are pretty bewildering to me, and I don't really have the time to try to figure them out. Furthermore, I thought it might be safe to assume that as glaring a potential problem as this is, somebody in the state offices must be working to sort it out. Then I read this comment from a member of the Technical Advisory Committee that helped craft the policy, and I changed my mind.

Stormwater management seeks to replicate the water quality and quantity benefits that are provided by a natural, undeveloped landscape. Development that contains more natural landscape (e.g. rural dev.) will consequently find it less costly to comply. This is not a fault of the stormwater management regulation; it is a natural consequence of the hydrologic cycle.”

In other words: That's life. Deal with it. He went on,

"Stormwater codes should be judged on how well they manage runoff quantity and quality, not how well they do or don't control growth ... Smart growth codes should be judged by how well they control sprawl."

This is where the trouble lies.

Sometimes genuinely smart and well-intentioned people err by focusing intently on the piece of the puzzle they have been commissioned to solve, thereby missing the larger system within which their problem is embedded. It's the classic widen-the-freeway-to-reduce-congestion scenario. It may solve the technical problem at hand, but it exacerbates the Real Problem.

The fact is that Stormwater Management and Smart Growth have everything to do with each other. Treating them separately and pitting one against the other is a losing game for both water quality and growth of development.

This was demonstrated pretty convincingly by a 2006 EPA report. Here are the three scenarios proposed by the study:

From Protecting Water Resources with Higher-Density Development

They put this model to empirical tests and mined numerous other studies to back up their conclusions. Once again, the crux of difference,
"The results indicate when runoff is measured by the acre, limiting density does produce less stormwater runoff when compared to the higher-density scenarios. However, when measured by the house, higher densities produce less stormwater runoff."
They show that this is the lapse in logic that lead so many regulatory agencies to assume that sprawl is good for controlling stormwater runoff,
"Many communities assume that low-density development automatically protects water resources. This study has shown that this assumption is flawed and that pursuit of low-density development can in fact be counterproductive, contributing to high rates of land conversion and stormwater runoff and missing opportunities to preserve valuable land within watersheds."
And I should add that this report focuses exclusively on quantity of water runoff. If you look at the issue of quality and factor in the introduction of pollutants such as motor fuels, de-icing chemicals, vehicular exhaust, lawn fertilizers and pesticides, faulty septic systems, etc. into the water supply the case against promoting low-density development grows and grows.

Let's not strike out on this one.

Crossposted at Greater Greater Washington

Monday, July 6

Raymond Unwin's Town Planning in Practice

This post is part two of a Garden City summer reading series ...

If Ebenzer Howard was the visionary and salesmen for the Garden City concept (his close friend George Bernard Shaw nicknamed him the "Garden City geyser" because he wouldn't stop talking about it), Raymond Unwin was given the task of making sure the design details fit with the overall social philosophy and aesthetic ambitions. Once Howard was able to round up enough finances to start implementing his idea, Unwin and his partner Barry Parker were commissioned to draw up the actual plans for Letchworth Garden City and Hampstead Garden Suburb. Neither Unwin nor Parker were trained architects or planners, but they learned their skills through observing traditional forms, learning from German contemporaries, and practicing on their own projects. In 1909, five years after the first Garden City of Letchworth was commissioned, Unwin collected all of the lessons he had learned into a treatise, Town Planning in Practice.

Peter Hall has written: "Unwin and Parker raised the art of civic design to a level of pure genius, after which almost everything else was pedestrian anticlimax."

Many of the principles in this book were considered obsolete for decades, only to be dusted off and brought back into the mainstream by the New Urbanists in the 1980's. The following post is not a summary, but some of my own reflections prompted by reading Town Planning in Practice. Once again, we have the privilege of free access to this work through Google. Email me, if you would like a pdf that I have formatted to be optimized for printing (I've condensed 489 pages down to a little over 200).

Formal versus Informal

By the time Unwin was building towns, a debate had long simmered in England between formal and informal gardens. The Formalists preferred neat, symmetrical geometries obviously invoking their human design, while the Informalists preferred the wild disorder of natural beauty. A similar dichotomy had existed between Medieval and Baroque styles of urban design. The Medieval city had evolved gradually through many individual decisions to adapt human habitation to the existing environment. Streets followed the natural curvature of a cow path, and buildings were comfortably layered onto their context. The Baroque style, on the other hand, was planned in advance according to a preconceived notion. Most famously, Haussmann had been hired by Napoleon to "modernize" Paris with broad tree-lined boulevards, uniform heights, and formal gardens.

Unwin had a deep appreciation for the beauty of the Medieval city, but he warned against deliberate attempts to manufacture its haphazard nature by design. Doing so is less of an homage to nature than a "parody of nature." Artificially creating irregularities is the exact opposite of the pragmatic adaptations individuals had made to their own living arrangements. And this is why Unwin makes his case for rational planning, not because it yields a more beautiful or practical result but because it is the only countermeasure available to the fast pace and large scale of modern industrial society. Unwin,

"The very rapidity of the growth of modern towns demands special treatment. The wholesale character of their extension almost precludes the possibility of our attaining that appearance of natural growth which we have admired in the medieval town, where additions were made so gradually that each house was adapted to its place, and assimilated into the whole before the next was added. We already see in the modern suburb too much evidence of what is likely to result from any haphazard system of development. Modern conditions require, undoubtedly, that the new districts of our towns should be built according to a definite plan"
This is as good and succinct a defense of planning as I've seen. The idea of the Medieval city has undergone somewhat of a resurgence in recent years through the concept of emergence, a recognition of systems' self-organizing potential, and some urbanists have concluded that great cities can still be built strictly through the mechanisms of the free market. A completely different group celebrates the informal evolution of the slums in global cities. I personally believe that Unwin's answer to these challenges still stands, maybe more so now than ever. Rational planning may not be the ideal, but it has emerged has a necessary countermeasure to the speed and economies-of-scale inherent to advanced capitalism.

The Importance of Boundaries and Enclosure

According to Unwin, town and country must be clearly delineated from each other to have a functional identity. This happened naturally for ancient and medieval towns that needed a wall or body of water to defend themselves, but modern towns need to find other ways to create a pleasing definition and avoid the "unbroken monotony of garden houses." Here Unwin seems almost curiously anti-Howard:
"It is not an easy matter to combine the charm of town and country; the attempt has often led rather to the destruction of the beauty of both."
The human mind wants to make sense of it's location and categorize it accurately. While not getting very specific on how growth can be controlled to maintain a sense of containment, Unwin does advocate for a greenbelt around an existing town with provisions made for a certain degree of growth. Entrance corridors need to clearly convey a transition from one place to another and should be an important aesthetic focus of the plan.

The sense of enclosure is also important to the individual places within a town. A central square, from the Greek agora to the medieval European church grounds, needs a "frame for the street picture." It should be enclosed on all sides by buildings of an appropriate height, and the area itself should be appropriately sized according to the proportions of this visual frame. Unwin takes issue with the notion that expansive views and open space are always more preferable for public spaces. Almost of of the great traditional cities have enclosed public spaces, with the Piazza San Marco being one of the most obvious examples.

This also impacts decisions about street widths. Even by 1909, English local government regulations were calling for excessively wide streets universally. While Unwin agreed that busy arterials needed to accommodate the traffic, he lamented the fact that aesthetic proportions of regular streets were thrown off balance by these strict requirements. Streets ought to be arranged according to a hierarchy, and sometimes even the lowly footpath or alley is the most beautifully scaled to its context.

Is There an Optimal Density?

Technically, Unwin's answer is no. It depends on the site. But he does offer some principles for determining what a density for a particular urban area should conceivably be. This is a point where Unwin, and Howard before him, can be easily misinterpreted. He often speaks of lowering the density of existing cities, particularly of London, but these comments need to be read in their historic context. Early industrial European cities were intensely overcrowded, and this was before many of the modern amenities of sanitation, public infrastructure, and building techniques were fully utilized. Even the laws enacted to prevent overcrowding still allowed in excess of 40 to 50 Dwelling units per acre (DUA), and the average London unit in 1903 fit 7.6 people. It was universally agreed that this level of density, under these conditions, was unhealthy and positively inhumane.

For Garden Cities,
"The desirable number would be between 10 and 20 houses to the acre, and in this case I refer to the net measurement of the building land, excluding roads."
The closer to the center of town the higher the density ought to be. Unwin estimates that 12 DUA is enough for a commercially viable garden, a comment that underscores the fact that the private greenspace in these towns is intended to be productive rather than simply ornamental. It's also worth pointing out that Unwin is writing this well before any broad-based conception of environmental limits were understood, yet he does leave this possibility open,
"It's not easy yet to weigh the disadvantages that might arise from enlarging our towns to such an extant as would give a much lower number of houses to the acre."
A Prescient Take on the Flat World

Unwin urged a designer or elected body to work with the unique identity, or even "personality", of the individual town or neighborhood. For this reason, he is reluctant to provide precise formulas or step-by-step instructions. He sees the homogenization of housing architecture, street layouts, and public spaces as detracting for the diversity of expression. I find it interesting that years before the International Style of Modernism, which sought to replace local variation with a single global aesthetic, rose to the heights of the architectural establishement and came crashing down again, Unwin was a firm advocate for local vernacular styles.

He did see the writing on the wall for the globalization, resulting from technological progress. He noticed how the "cheap railway carraige" liberated builders from having to use local materials, which was drawing to an end the era when each town had a discernable physical identity. Similarly, the ability to alter physical terrain and natural features, what he calls the Roman style rather than the Greek style, to fit development collapsed the variations immovable objects once created. He saw advantages in the previous constraints,
"from this fact there resulted in a great harmony of colour and style in each village or town; and, secondly, a great variety of colour and style between the different towns and districts."
The diversity of individual buildings ultimately leads to the homogenization of towns and regions. Instead, Unwin sees the modern town as a cacophany of individual buildings vieing for attention.
"The business man at any rate believes that he must shout if he is to live, and naturally desires his architect to help him make his building do some of the shouting for him."
From this, he sees an easy progression to the rise of starchitecture.

What to do about this? He hopes that if planners and architects are properly trained, they will learn to recognize and draw out inherent local strengths. Otherwise, he plays with the notion of form-based codes, to require certain design criteria for a district, but he is careful to include the allowance of variances for special conditions. Landmarks are also a good way to put an individual stamp on a town.

Saturday, July 4

Democracy of American Towns

Unidentified Artist, 18th century. From Worcester Art Museum
"Americans love their towns for much the same reasons that highlanders love their mountains. In both cases the native land has emphatic and peculiar features; it has a more pronounce physiognomy [outward appearance] than is found elsewhere.

In general, New England townships lead a happy life. Their government is to their taste as well as to their choice. With profound peace and material prosperity prevailing in America, there are few storms in municipal life ... The government may have defects, and indeed they are easy to point out, but they do not catch the eye because the government really does emanate from the governed, and so long as it gets along somehow or other, a sort of parental pride protects it. So the sovereignty of the people in the township is not only ancient, by primordial."
- From Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.

Happy 4th of July.

Wednesday, July 1

Children should be able to navigate their world

Somewhere along the line it became conventional wisdom in our culture that suburbs are good for kids. Lawns are supposed to be suitable places for children to play, and the cul de sac supposedly protects them from any strangers who may be passing through. I have to admit that this has always been baffling to me. For one thing, the typical drivable low-density environment is unhealthy ... physiologically. At least that's the conclusion of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who issued a policy statement last month in favor of "building new communities that are less car dependent and making existing communities more dense" as a strategy to promote active transportation. (The AAP also makes note of the excessive death and particulate matter generated by these automobiles as well). But right now I'm concerned with a less tangible story.

After the age of five, most children want to explore the world beyond their own home and lawn. As humans, our sense of identity is often tied up with the places we inhabit, and as a child develops he wants to expand that sphere. Just as adventurers depicted in books and film push out into uncharted waters, to a young child mapping out the neighborhood park or a new street is opening the same kind of frontier. I believe this process inculcates a sense of curiousity and healthy independance that cannot be taught in school or even acquired from eduational television or video games. Can this be replicated in a world where mom or dad are required to provide shuttle service to any of these far off lands?

Children want to navigate their own social world as well. I grew up in a suburb with lots of families. We children essentially elected one kid’s lawn as the play area for sports because it was particularly flat and a little bigger than the others. So essentially we created a de facto neighborhood park, while our dads had to keep mowing our individual lawns that rarely were used (when I was a little older, I was paid to mow, which was cool). I sometimes wonder why the grown-ups didn’t just live closer together and share a real park with real ballfields within walking distance of everyone. That arrangement would seem to have made more sense if it would have been available at the time.

Children want to make their own economic decisions. I was fortunate to have grown up in a closer-in suburb. By the time I was ten, I was riding my bicycle to the Main Street of our town every Saturday with a friend. I could blow my allowance on candy or save up for a cassette tape. It was up to me. I could make my way into the shops along the street and take care of the whole customer interaction myself. It was a great way to wade into the world of adulthood ever so slightly (I was still buying Swedish Fish by the boxful after all). This was six years before I'd be granted my drivers licence, our culture's traditional passport to sudden freedom, but I wasn't going to waste any time waiting for it.

My goodness, reading this, I sound like a crotchety old man. "Back in my day ..."

But, really, I see no reason to believe that our current trajectory toward more isolated, dependent, and obese children is a necessary by-product of progress and affluence. It only takes the will to ask for different kinds of places to live in.