New Urbanism and the value of mobilityJohn Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee and current president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, spoke tonight to the Rice Design Alliance at the MFA. He mainly narrated a set of slides of good and bad urban form. If I had to sum up in a very coarse way:
- Good: narrow streets with parking, sidewalks, mixed-use residential over retail in multi-story buildings right up against the street
- Bad: freeways, large parking lots and setbacks, single-use zoning, high parking requirements, wide roads
I think New Urbanism needs to realize it is a great paradigm at the neighborhood level, but that those neighborhoods need to be linked together with a freeway and arterial network across a larger region if you want an integrated and cohesive metro economy. The pedestrian and the car operate at totally different scales (3mph vs. 30-60mph), and therefore the right form factors for each are different. You don't build a city around just the pedestrian or just the car, but for both. Getting militant about one over the other makes about as much sense as asking "should our country be built around the car or the airplane?" Well, the answer is both: the car for shorter distances, and the airplane for longer ones - and that means interstates and airports. The same logic applies at the scale of a city/metro-region: you need freeways for longer distances, arterials for medium distances, and narrow streets with sidewalks for very short distances (i.e. the pedestrian district/neighborhood). New Urbanism makes the very valid point that we've sort of forgotten about that last category over the last few decades - and we're now rediscovering it - but that doesn't invalidate the other two scales any more than they invalidated the pedestrian scale.
The value of mobility gets lost in a lot of the rhetoric. Mobility is generally defined as the ability to get from point A to an arbitrary point B in minimal time, but the real-world definition for cities is "I'm willing to travel up to X mins for Y activity - what are my options?" That might be 30 mins for work, 15 mins for a restaurant, or an hour for a museum, concert, or sporting event. Mobility means more job opportunities for citizens and potential employees for employers (which translates into upward career mobility and higher productivity as skills better match jobs). Mobility means me or my spouse can take that new job without uprooting my family and moving, which makes for stronger communities and stronger families. Mobility means retail shops and restaurants can draw on a larger pool of customers, therefore supporting more eclectic diversity. Mobility means more access to affordable housing within a reasonable commute. Mobility means I'm more likely to volunteer at a charity or nonprofit, or attend classes at a local college to work part-time towards a degree.
To quote one of my Chronicle editorials from a while back:
The bottom line is that citizen mobility = urban vibrancy. New Urbanists need to focus on building great neighborhoods and let traffic engineers decide the right way to knit those neighborhoods together into a great city.
"Mobility investments are crucial enablers of quality of life, not detractors. Mobility is the lifeblood of our city. When it deteriorates and going places becomes just too much of a hassle, the loss is subtle but significant: the lunch with a friend not taken, the handshake business deal not made, the romantic dinner forgone, the family outing canceled, the volunteer or charity event missed, or that great little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that slowly dies because customers can’t get to it. Real quality of life is when people can make connections to other people – the true essence of any city. Great cities – world-class cities – are not a closed collection of isolated islands. They are open cities. Connected cities."