- What went wrong
- The ugly truth — suburban sprawl:-
- steals our time
- wastes our money
- creates social injustice
- driving to the town square ruins it
- The solution – New Urbanism
- Feeling it — The Gilmore Girls, Smallville, and all that
- What you’re feeling is the “Third Place” – your local communal lounge room.
- My suburb almost had it
- James Howard Kunstler: how to build a culture worth caring about
- How to make a physically attractive city
We can literally build ourselves a better future by rediscovering lessons in town planning from the past. If you only have 3 minutes, please stop reading and just watch the following video.
This is not a nostalgic appeal yesteryear but is based on the latest studies into the profound benefits of good town planning that improves traffic, our economy, psychology, health, society and culture. Most areas of life can be improved when you demand to live in neighbourhoods that have everything you need in a beautiful, socially vibrant town square within a 5-minute walk. Your street will be more attractive and functional, your neighbourhood will be safer and more prosperous, and your local town square will become your favourite place to visit, a home away from home.
What went wrong?
How did we lose the town square? What went wrong? The simple answer is we invented the car, and started designing cities that made cars happy. After World War 2, town planners wanted to give every returning soldier a “manor in the country”. Our collective memories of big cities were dirty industrial towns, and the only escape was the country. We wanted to honour every serviceman and woman with a rural lifestyle after the war. The town planners had noble intentions, but it backfired. Rather than create a rural setting plugged into the local economics and rhythms of rural life, we paved over it. The result was neither rural nor urban, country or city. It became suburbia, a freakish system demanding the worship of the car and isolation. The social fabric of trains and trams and town squares was replaced by the isolation of individual cars fighting traffic to arrive and drive down individual driveways. Homes became isolated boxes we go home to sleep in. There are many problems with suburban sprawl, but for me, the destruction of local community is by far the most offensive.
The ugly truth — suburban sprawl:-
* Steals our time:
Suburbia creates traffic jams and wastes time. One of the greatest myths ever fostered on us is the ‘convenience’ of the mega-mall. The reality is you easily waste up to 20 minutes driving there and parking and then still have another 5 to 10 minutes to walk through the gigantic mall to get to the store you want. That’s half an hour just to get there. In contrast a New Urban town square is so convenient you just buy that night’s groceries on the way home from the tram. Or on the weekend you grab your trendy granny trolley and walk down to the town square to catch up with local friends. The convenient, low-stress shopping is almost incidental!
* Wastes our money:
It demands we buy cars, lose productivity in traffic jams and have more expensive land rates. Suburbia spawls across 10 times the land! That requires 10 times the roads, gutters, pavements, plumbing, wiring, lighting, plumbing, sewerage, drainage, internet and transport of goods and services. Suburbia requires vastly more physical infrastructure. It wastes about half our drinking water in leaky pipes stretched over vastly too much land. Not only that, it raises our health bill. It replaces walking with driving, clean air with smog, and those oil particulates increase cancer rates. We become isolated and stressed and fat due to our city design!
* Creates social injustice
Suburban sprawl creates dependence on the car — the most expensive form of transport. This inconveniences the poor and infirm who cannot drive, or who must waste a disproportionate amount of money on travel and fuel. James M. McElfish of the Environmental Law Institute lists 10 problems with suburban sprawl whihc also details the impact on the poor. You can download his 12 page PDF here. Or learn more at the Suburban Sprawl Wiki
* Driving to the town square ruins it!
The town square becomes impossible when building codes demand that every single building have a certain ratio of ‘free’ parking – which works out to be very expensive parking indeed. When we demand to drive to the town square, the town square disappears in a sea of carparks, as Vox news explains.
The solution: New Urbanism
My own definition:
“A town is centred on the town square (or main street), which is an attractive and culturally appropriate public space surrounded by shops and services and a cluster of 6 to 9 walking distance neighbourhoods.”
The town square park is about 30 metres by 30 metres, a vital social space framed by shops and services. It meets most of the weekly needs of the local community. It could be a quaint cobblestone European town square with a fountain and café seating, or an English village green, or the old American main street or wider pedestrian sidewalk in Paris. Whatever it looks like, there you will find the butcher, baker, barber, greengrocer, doctor, general store, dry-cleaner, post office, primary school and high school all neatly framing the square or along the main street. Except that along with the shopping you will also make friends.
These amenities of public life are surrounded by 6 to 9 walking distance neighbourhoods. Each neighbourhood also has their own tiny park and milk bar general store. That’s about 10 to 12 thousand people drawing on their weekly needs from the town square, and a few of their daily needs from the local milk bar. Cars are domesticated behind the primary needs of pedestrian shoppers and public transport. It’s about happy people, not happy cars.
Feeling it — The Gilmore Girls, Smallville, and all that
This is where the town square meets TV. It’s no accident that many American TV series set their stories around a town square or traditional main street. It’s so easy to write spontaneous interactions between characters bumping into each other downtown. Everything is clustered together into an intimate social space. Even though they are just buying the milk they are going to meet neighbours getting a haircut or collecting kids from school. It’s a bit like Stars Hollow from the Gilmore Girls. As well as the main characters fans grow to love Stars Hollow — Jimmy Fallon has said that if it existed, he would move there in an instant! Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Smallville all draw on this intimate country town dynamic.
The key is the rich social fabric that emerges from local businesses regularly serving the same local customers in a town square with a successful “Third Place”.
What you’re feeling is the “Third Place” – your local communal lounge room.
Your “First Place” is home, your “Second Place” is work, and your “Third Place” is Luke’s Diner in Gilmore Girls. Or the local pub in the series “Cheers”. It’s a walkable local venue, for locals. It’s a friendly pub or town square and eating place where anyone can hang out. For locals. Not something anonymous and huge and distant that you drive to – like a supermall that services 300,000. It’s like your lounge room, but public. A broad range of different people just hang there – because it’s fun. The town plan itself fights loneliness and isolation. It’s charming and nostalgic – but many of us do not experience this kind of spontaneous local fun. We live in suburbia. There’s no ‘there’ there.
But real-world studies confirm that the many physical and mental health benefits are real!
My suburb almost had it
I live in a peninsula suburb surrounded by bushland, with only the one road leading in and out. It is like an isolated country town but in the heart of Sydney’s North West corridor. It has some sense of community. We have about 4300 people and manage to support a number of local shops clustered along the main street, like restaurants, hairdressers, a kindergarten, greengrocer, general store, stationery store, bakery, and even a local coffee shop a bit like Luke’s diner. scattered elsewhere are 2 churches, a school, and 3 parks. The parks have their own doggy park communities and the shops sometimes run fairs, but it could have all been so much more if it was assembled all together. Overlapping diverse functionality means more people meet each other more often. Splitting it up by car trips to each separate destination destroys the potential for naturally occurring spontaneous overlapping relationships! EG: The grandparent who buys some groceries bumps into their grandchild coming out of school. The ladies coming out of the hairdresser meet the people walking their dogs. The dog walkers can buy a coffee as they show their canines around.
But all this is divided up in my suburb. What local shops are there do not have a wide enough, attractive enough public space. There are not enough comfortable seats and tables to use. It’s not a successfully designed “Third Place”, not a public living room. We need shops and services surrounding a town square we are encouraged to hang out in because it’s simply pleasant. It’s not rocket science! We almost had it. But because we are car based, everything gets twisted out of shape. As we shall see in the particulars of New Urbanism, driving to the town square ruins it!
James Howard Kunstler: how to build a culture worth caring about!
James Howard Kunstler presents the aesthetic and design catastrophe of suburbia, and the solutions in New Urbanism. He asks if we let suburbia steal the soul of the neighbourhood, is a nation even worth defending? He briefly mentions the link between soldiers dying in Iraq just to free up the supply of oil that maintains suburbia. What goes through their mind as they “spill their blood in the sand”? Is it the ugly billboards and Golden Arches on the side of the highway? Or worse, is it that they don’t even know what they’re really fighting for? Suburbia has robbed them of childhoods with multiple overlapping local relationships that lead to local mentors. The backward aesthetics and broken social fabric have interrupted the very process that builds a culture. We have not just lost our sense of place, but a sense of who we are. James is very caustic, very funny, and very clever. But he is also very angry — a strong language warning applies!
How to make a physically attractive city?
Excellent video: 14 minutes that describes the rules and principles that make a city not only functional but beautiful and attractive and a place of historical value.
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