- What went wrong
- The ugly truth — suburban sprawl steels our time and money
- What the solution looks like
- What it feels like — The Gilmore Girls, Smallville, and all that
- The particulars
- The Australian Council for New Urbanism definition
- My suburb almost had it
- Driving to the town square ruins it
- More movies
- How to make an attractive city
- James Howard Kunstler: how to build a culture worth caring about
- The 1950’s super-highway scheme that went racist
- The war: the public space versus developers
- How many Central Business Districts? A thought experiment…
We can literally build ourselves a better future by rediscovering lessons in town planning from the past. 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, it 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 and money
Time: Suburbia creates traffic jams and wastes time. One of the greatest myths ever fostered on us is the ‘convenience’ of the mega-mall. You first drive to the mall and then drive around looking for parking. Call that 15 minutes on a good day. Now here’s the irony. After all that driving, it’s still another 5 to 10 minutes to walk through the gigantic mall to the shop/s you are actually after. That’s 20 to 30 minutes just to get there. In contrast a New Urban town square is so convenient and pleasant that you visit it a few times a week. Gone is the stress of the weekly groceries shop! You just buy a few groceries on the way home from the tram. The weekend shop is just a granny trolley walk away. You will likely buy a few days groceries and catch up with a friend before the suburbanite has entered her first shop!
Wastes money: suburbia wastes money in demanding that we buy cars, lose productivity in traffic jams and raises our municipal rates. Instead of an efficient and cosy town square plan, 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.
Destroys community: As I have already explained above, my pet hate is the effect on community. James M. McElfish of the Environmental Law Institute lists 10 problems with suburban sprawl. You can download his 12 page PDF here.
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).
What the solution looks like
In one word: Paris. In more words, any walkable, high-density area of London or New York or old European cities where local neighbourhoods enjoy an easy walk to a local town square and public transport.
New Urbanism hopes to recreate the successful older pre-car urban environments that are based on making people happy, not cars happy. The winning formula is a densely populated urban environment with many local parks and services connected up with reliable safe public transport. It might look like New York’s terraced houses or the Parisian 5 story high apartments. Whatever the culturally appropriate architecture, the bottom line is that it is dense and diverse, only taking up about a tenth of suburban sprawl and building places that are fun to walk through and visit. If you only have 3 minutes, please stop reading and just watch the following video.
What the solution feels like —The Gilmore Girls, Smallville, and all that
This is where your town meets TV. It’s no accident that many American TV series set their stories in a small town with a traditional main street or town square. It’s so easy to write spontaneous interactions between characters bumping into each other running perfectly natural errands downtown. Everything is clustered together into an intimate social space. Even though you’re just buying the milk you are likely to bump into neighbours getting a haircut or collecting kids from school. It’s a bit like Stars Hollow from the Gilmore Girls. People grow to love Stars Hollow — Jimmy Fallon has said that if it existed, he would move there in an instant!
If the Gilmore Girls is not your show, many other shows also use a small town setting, from Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Smallville. 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 could not be more profound!
New Urbanism is like a Mandelbrot that focusses on 3 scales: the neighbourhood, town, and city.
The Australian Council for New Urbanism charter describes neighbourhoods of about 2000 people (in a mix of terraced houses and eco-apartments) around a general store and daycare centre. Neighbours drop their kids at childcare and buy some milk. If they really get chatting with their local friends, they can buy a hamburger. As always, everything should be designed in a culturally appropriate style. In Australia the general store might look a bit like this.
In Paris, the corner store might be next to a bookstore and look like this.
Wendy Morris from ACNU maps out the neighbourhood as:-
“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 a green English garden park.
Or the ‘town square’ could actually be a Parisian styled Main Street, with shops and services scattered along an ample sidewalk for pedestrians. Cars are domesticated behind the primary needs of pedestrian shoppers and public transport. It’s about happy people, not happy cars. But whatever the unique, culturally appropriate flavour of the town square, it must be surrounded by 6 to 9 high-density, walking-distance neighbourhoods — and meet most of their needs. The butcher, baker, barber, greengrocer, doctor, general store, dry-cleaner, post office, primary school and high school all neatly frame this town square (or are along this main street, but I prefer town squares).
The Avenue in Paris acts as one long main street to the various smaller neighbourhoods off to the left and right.
The ACNU’s Wendy Morris maps out true New Urban Towns as:-
The Australian Council for New Urbanism definition:-
- a built environment which is diverse in use and population, scaled for the pedestrian, and capable of accommodating the automobile and public transport;
- a structure based on walkable neighbourhoods (400m radius/five minute walk) focussed on fine-grained mixed-use town and neighbourhood centres with a variety of higher density housing in close proximity;
- a well-defined and high quality public realm which is responsive to site features and ecology, and supported by a distinctive architecture reflecting the climate and culture of the region;
- a highly-interconnected street network, with traffic management to support pedestrians, cyclists and transit-users.
- From the ACNU New Urbanist PDF
Many towns make a city. The Towns described above are where many people could work, rest and play. Paris again serves as our model, as we see the repeating wedge-shaped ‘towns’ wedging off the Arc De Triomphe.
My suburb almost had a town square
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…
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 only future hope to build an authentic town square in suburban sprawl comes in the form of robot-taxis which can drop passengers down and go off to serve other passengers. We would miss the benefits of the walk home. But robot-taxis might enable a transition to New Urban forms as the old housing stock gradually dies naturally from attrition.)
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!
The 1950’s super-highway scheme that went racist
Indeed, it gets worse. There where some racist ‘Urban Renewal’ projects aimed at driving super-highways though communities of colour. When GM and other car companies formed the National Highway User’s Conference, they convinced the American President to sign in the highway bill which gave highways about 90% Federal funding. The highways cut cities in half, back when they were ignorant of the benefits of walkable communities. The ‘Urban Renewal’ scheme maliciously tore down vital densely populated urban centres simply because they were black neighbourhoods! Suburbia was born in ignorance, grew on car corporation pork-barrelling, and maliciously tore down the old urban competition to itself in large part due to prejudice and racism!
In case you’re thoroughly depressed after that, now it’s time to cover something positive.
The war: the public space versus developers
New York city designer Amanda Burden explains the war between our rights as citizens for public spaces of beauty and comfort, and the constant battle of developers to commercialise the space.