Thank you, Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics, for this righteous and oddly poignant look at the dangers — and drudgery — caused by auto-centric urban design. Bravo, sir. You should get an honorary urban planning degree for this.
Posts from the "Urban Design" Category
This week, Jeff Wood and I get indignant about Miami-Dade County’s misuse of transit funds for roads, and we speculate about why — with the current success of pedestrian projects like Times Square — old-style pedestrian malls are still going belly-up. And then we peek behind the curtain at an exciting new frontier for urban planning: connecting urban form with the feelings they inspire.
And then, just for you: a bonus Valentine’s Day outtake at the end. How could you not listen to the whole thing?
Leave your comments — and your Valentines and pickup lines — below.
I got to know Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett last year, when I interviewed him at the annual meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors. We talked about his realization that he and his constituents (generally speaking) were obese, and how he stood in front of the elephants at the zoo on New Year’s Eve six years ago and announced that the city was going on a diet. He set out to have the residents of Oklahoma City lose a million pounds — and the city achieved it.
In a TED talk taped in April and posted online last week, Cornett tells the story of how OKC went from being ranked by Men’s Fitness magazine among America’s fattest cities to being ranked as one of the fittest.
“I started examining my city — its culture, its infrastructure — trying to figure out why our city seemed to have a problem with obesity,” Cornett says. “And I came to the conclusion that we had built an incredible quality of life if you happened to be a car. But if you happened to be a person, you were combating the car seemingly at every turn.”
Jeff Wood and I talk about the news of the week that most tickled us or burned us — the BBC’s exposé of anti-social urban design features intended to repel people, San Francisco’s social tensions over the Google bus, and the decision by Cincinnati’s new mayor and City Council to “pause” construction of the streetcar. (Update: The streetcar might be salvaged!)
Meanwhile, I wax nostalgic for public space in Havana and Jeff laments slow progress on San Francisco’s Geary Boulevard BRT.
You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes. And participate in the conversation by commenting here.
This will be our last podcast of 2013. Have a Happy New Year and we’ll see you in January!
This week, Jeff and Tanya take on the Atlanta Braves’ terrible, no-good, very bad decision to move their stadium to Cobb County, Georgia. We discuss cities that are (and are not) shaped like wedding cakes, and whether that means you need to smoosh your spouse’s face in it. Tanya makes a pedestrian-rights argument against high-heeled shoes (and Jeff abstains from taking sides). We parse the differences between “shared streets” — without marked-out space for cars, bikes, and people on foot — and vehicular cycling.
In between, we speculate on what DC would look like without height limits, make fun of neighborhood parking bullies, pity the mega-commuters, and most importantly, shame the transit riders who fail to cede their seats to those who need them because they have their heads stuck in Angry Birds.
And PS — I promised we would have an iTunes RSS feed available for you by now and we are this close. Soon, I promise.
The premise behind journalist Charles Montgomery’s new book — Happy City — is a bold one: That the way we design cities can have a profound impact on well-being and mood — in essence, personal happiness.
For Happy City, Montgomery worked with experts in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics to understand the relationship between our environments and our mood. We caught up with him recently to talk about his findings and the mysterious ways in which public spaces interact with human emotion.
Angie Schmitt: What inspired you to write this book?
Charles Montgomery: I was in Mexico City, there seemed to be as much magic and mystery in the heart of the city than I ever felt on a remote island. I attended a conference and got to spend some time with [former Bogota Mayor] Enrique Penalosa. He’s been making these points about happiness in cities for years. I was inspired, but also as a journalist skeptical about this notion that design could inspire happiness.
I started out with this question: What do I mean by happiness? What do any of us mean by happiness? I came to the same conclusion people have been coming to for thousands of years. Each of us defines our happiness differently.
We all agree that it helps to be rich, and successful, and have a big house and a great spouse, but it’s not enough. You need to be engaged with the community.
AS: Did your research compare rural living versus urban living? Or city to city?
CM: I didn’t set up a comparison between cities. I did try to look at how different aspects of cities can make or break happiness by fulfilling our needs. What I did learn is that people report being happiest in cities where social trust is highest. The more you trust strangers, the police, your neighbors, the happier your city.
If you lose your wallet, what are the chances it will be returned to you? It turns out, that is a really good proxy for social trust. Canada’s largest cities tend to be lower trust and so less happy. It was the mid-sized cities — St. John and St. Johns, those are different cities — that had the highest levels of trust.
The message is hopeful. What it tells us is if we make changes to our cities, make them more convivial, more connected, we can build happiness into our cities, even if we don’t get rich.
AS: So how does all this relate to design?
CM: There’s a direct relationship with design. We know that people that live on the exurban edge report lower levels of trust. They’re less likely to have dinner with their families, less likely to read newspapers, and even vote, than people who live in mixed-use communities, or old-fashioned communities.
Urbanists have long told tales of the success story of Arlington, Virginia. Named a gold-level walk-friendly community by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, this Washington, DC suburb made the smart decision in the 70s to develop along the metrorail line. Because of that, Arlington workers drive alone at a rate 25 percent lower than the region as a whole and take transit more than twice as much. With 11 Metro stations in its jurisdiction, Arlington has more transit ridership than the rest of Virginia combined. Five percent walk or bike to work and carpooling is at three times the regional rate [PDF].
But it wasn’t written on the clouds that Arlington would develop this way. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a community with more obstacles to overcome on its way to smart growth — and yet, it’s doing it.
Arlington County, at just 26 square miles, is the smallest and densest county in the nation. But it’s far from homogenous. The main-street-style Arlington with wide brick sidewalks, cute cafes and indie bars — the part people are usually thinking of when they’re lauding the city for its smart development — exists along the orange line in the dense, mixed-use neighborhoods of Rosslyn, Clarendon, and Ballston. These neighborhoods have taller apartment and office buildings than are allowed in DC, creating a lot of density and a semi-urban feel — even though those tall buildings line wide arterial streets with lots of fast-moving traffic.
The parts of Arlington just south of the Pentagon, on the blue and yellow Metro lines, don’t get as much “walking-gold” spotlight. The Pentagon is the country’s largest office building, and it’s a fortress, disconnected from the community by a mess of highways. The “community” on the other side of those highways is a constellation of shopping malls on either side of a wide arterial road. Still, Arlington’s Director of Transportation Dennis Leach said this area has the best mode split in the county, with 20 percent car-free households, and is making more major infrastructure changes than any other part of the county — against all odds.
I was there last week on a walking tour as part of the National Walking Summit. Several Arlington planners were on hand to tell us about the streetcars, green bike lanes and café seating we’d soon be seeing along Hayes Street, but for now, it’s a car-centric hellscape. We stood outside a metro station with covered bike parking, yelling over the engine noise of an idling charter bus sitting outside the Fashion Centre shopping mall. Planner Kate Youngbluth admitted the multimodal project in Pentagon City is still in its “ugly duckling phase.”
In a direct challenge to the long-standing authority of state DOTs to determine how transportation infrastructure gets designed, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) yesterday launched its Urban Street Design Guide.
NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide has already empowered cities around the country to embrace protected bike lanes and other innovative designs that the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has shied away from in its engineering bible, known as the “green book.” The Federal Highway Administration has even endorsed NACTO’s guide, and the agency is currently drafting its own bicycle facilities guidance, which will likely fall somewhere in between.
The Street Design Guide goes much further, giving engineering guidance on everything from crosswalks (zebra-striped, please, for greater visibility) to parklets (go ahead, usurp a few parking spots!) and from contra-flow bus lanes (bicycles optional) to slow zones (speed humps, tables, and cushions). As NYC DOT Commissioner and NACTO President Janette Sadik-Khan said, it’s a new DNA for city streets.
Those are treatments you won’t find in AASHTO’s green book. “Most of the design guidance that we work with on the city side is really targeted toward suburban areas and rural areas and is not really designed to meet the challenges of our streets,” Sadik-Khan told a standing-room-only crowd last night at the Newseum in Washington, DC. “So many things have changed in 50 years, but our streets haven’t, and our design guidance certainly hasn’t.”
All of a sudden, I feel like all anyone is talking about is whether it’s a good idea to raise kids in the city. I’m raising a kid in the city. I feel great about it when she has a blast on the back of the bike, or makes friends on the bus, or gets excited about pressing the beg button at the corner. I feel a little less certain when we toddle down the sidewalk and come upon guys peeing on the dumpster or passed out on the stoop. When I look at the test scores for our neighborhood schools, I get a knot in my stomach.
A few days ago I visited my friends’ new home in Potomac, a wealthy, second-ring suburb with enviable schools. Their new house sits on two acres with a pool and a basketball court. After a few hours sipping beer in their landscaped yard and watching our children frolic in the pool, I had to do some mental gymnastics to remind myself why I didn’t pick this path for myself.
This City? Childless?
But the fact is, despite its obvious allure, that path is being chosen by fewer and fewer people. Even among families with kids, many who could afford 5,000 square feet with a pool are increasingly opting for a smaller house, a pool club membership, a shorter commute, and transit access.
In the current issue of City Journal, Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres pretty much erased this reality — my reality, mind you — with their silly article, “The Childless City”:
Even the partial rebirth of American cities since [the 1960s] hasn’t been enough to lure families [with kids] back. The much-ballyhooed and self-celebrating “creative class” — a demographic group that includes not only single professionals but also well-heeled childless couples, empty nesters, and college students — occupies much of the urban space once filled by families. Increasingly, our great American cities, from New York and Chicago to Los Angeles and Seattle, are evolving into playgrounds for the rich, traps for the poor, and way stations for the ambitious young en route eventually to less congested places. The middle-class family has been pushed to the margins, breaking dramatically with urban history.
“The Childless City” is illustrated with a picture — I’m not kidding you — of “the casts of The Real World and Jersey Shore party[ing] it up at a New York nightclub.” That, to them, illustrates the modern city.
I’d like to take Joel Kotkin on a child’s-eye tour of Washington, DC, a city emptied out a few decades ago by crack and riots and mayhem. Talk about a rebirth.
I’d bring him along to the bilingual story hour at the local library, which is walking distance even for my toddler. I’d show him parents taking the bus with their kids down to the National Mall to see dinosaur skeletons and war planes in our world-class museums. I’d encourage him to play in the fountain in the plaza of the transit-oriented neighborhood of Columbia Heights along with scores of wet, shrieking children of all colors and incomes. And after he got his soak on, I’d even buy him frozen yogurt, Chilean empanadas, vegan cupcakes, or Central American fried chicken from the establishments lining the plaza.
All of these child-friendly urban amenities are invisible to Kotkin. “We have embarked on an experiment to rid our cities of children,” he declares. The rent is too high, the yards are too small, the schools are too bad, the neighbors are too sketchy.
Part One of this interview was posted yesterday.
Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett (R) has made it his mission to make his city healthier and less obese, in part by improving its walkability. The city lost a million pounds during his weight-loss campaign — and then they took a freeway out of the middle of downtown and overhauled its built environment.
I interviewed Mayor Cornett last week when he was in Washington, DC for the annual meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors. In the first installment, posted yesterday, Cornett described the excitement among city officials when the rules changed and they were asked to think outside the car-centric box. He said they built sidewalks and parks and bike trails with locally-raised funds, even over the objections of the fire and police unions. And while he welcomes federal money for projects like these, he’s at peace with other Oklahomans who see things differently — though he worries that less federal funding will result in less equality among cities.
So now you’re all caught up. Here’s Part Two.
Tanya Snyder: It seems like there are more and less successful ways of talking about [livable cities] with different people. You have a pretty conservative constituency. Does it hurt the cause that Michelle Obama is out in front on obesity, and does it hurt the cause that walkability is associated with sustainable development, is associated with Agenda 21, is associated with climate change initiatives — what you’re doing is nonpartisan, you’re just trying to get people fit and healthy.
Mayor Mick Cornett: There is some pushback about — as you mentioned, Agenda 21 and anything that comes out of the White House. But at the end of the day, people elect mayors to get things done. You might elect a Congressman to go up and stop something. But you don’t elect a mayor to stop things form happening. You elect an executive branch person — a mayor, a governor, a president — to do things.
I close with this: “We’re creating a city where your kid and grandkid are going to choose to live.” And they know it’s true.
So I’ve never let that slow me down. I will say that one secret to our success is that we’ve been able to convince the suburbanite that their quality of life is directly related to the intensity of the core. And so they have continually passed initiatives to support inner-city projects, sometimes at the expense of the suburbs.
TS: How did you do that?
MC: Here’s what I do. I try to win an intellectual argument. I stand toe-to-toe with a lot of retired suburbanites who don’t like downtown, don’t like me, are tired of funding taxation. I’m serious, they have more negativity than you could possibly imagine.
And when I’ve lost on every turn and every argument in this debate that takes place in neighborhood after neighborhood I close with this: “We’re creating a city where your kid and grandkid are going to choose to live.”