- What went wrong
- The ugly truth — suburban sprawl:-
- steals our time
- wastes our money
- creates social injustice
- destroys community
- The solution – New Urbanism
- Seeing it — The Gilmore Girls, Smallville, and all that
- How to make an attractive city
- James Howard Kunstler: how to build a culture worth caring about
- My suburb almost had it
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. 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 was replaced by the isolation of individual cars driving in stressful traffic into 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 the store you are actually after. 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 sprawls 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 taxis.
1. Sprawl development contributes to a loss of support for public facilities and public menities.
2. Sprawl undermines effective maintenance of existing infrastructure.
3. Sprawl increases societal costs for transportation.
4. Sprawl consumes more resources than other development patterns.
5. Sprawl separates urban poor people from jobs.
6. Sprawl imposes a tax on time.
7. Sprawl degrades water and air quality.
8. Sprawl results in the permanent alteration and destruction of habitats.
9. Sprawl creates difficulty in maintaining community.
10. Sprawl offers the promise of choice while only delivering more of the same.
Critics of sprawl maintain that sprawl erodes quality of life. Duany and Plater-Zyberk believe that in traditional neighborhoods the nearness of the workplace to retail and restaurant space that provides cafes and convenience stores with daytime customers is an essential component to the successful balance of urban life. Furthermore, they state that the closeness of the workplace to homes also gives people the option of walking or riding a bicycle to work or school and that without this kind of interaction between the different components of life the urban pattern quickly falls apart. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 6, 28).
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 cafe 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.
Seeing 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. The town plan itself fights loneliness and isolation. These shows appeal to us because the writers can inject all sorts of quirky characters into the scene naturally. It’s charming and nostalgic because most of us do not experience this kind of spontaneous local fun. But real-world studies into the social and health benefits of this arrangement confirm that the many benefits are real!
How to make an 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.
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!
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. But 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. Splitting it up by car trips to each separate destination destroys the overlap. Shops and services surrounding a town square — it’s not rocket science! We almost had it, but now we cannot because we’re a car based society and as we shall see in the particulars of New Urbanism, driving to the town square ruins it!
Other New Urban pages:-
More details on New Urbanism, further defining the neighbourhood, town, city, and showing how driving to the town square ruins it, the historical legacy of racist highway development, and how developers want to ruin public spaces.
The Eco-city, bunched in more and covered in trees and bushes.
The Sky-City, 17,000 people in one building!
The Eco-Village: the opposite of the above!
Village towns: incorporating agriculture
Rail: is so much better than cars
How to get there, given we’ve already spend so much on suburbia?
- That’s so typical of Nazi Greenie Control Freaks telling us how to live!
- It’s just lefty propaganda — suburbia is the American way
- Cities are ugly!
- What do we do with the vast suburban areas we’ve already built?
- How do we pay for all this?
Tall timbers: modern CLT lets us build skyscrapers out of wood!
Fast homes: Don’t eco-apartments take a year or so to build, and cities take decades?
- Assembly line homes
- Cities transformed in 20 years