Wednesday, February 22, 2006

New Urbanism and the value of mobility

John 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 was pleasantly surprised by his views on school choice (good, because it helps keep upper-middle class families in the city) and Wal-Mart (good, because it helps families on tight budgets). But overall, I find New Urbanism a little muddled. It works great at the neighborhood level (or the small commercial district within a larger neighborhood of single-family homes), but when it becomes dogma for larger metro regions, I think it breaks down - specifically the anti-freeway and anti-suburban sentiment.

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:

"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."

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.


At 5:56 AM, February 23, 2006, Blogger John Whiteside said...

I have a hunch that the problem with New Urbanism as that the people who should like it (like me) really prefer Old Urbanism - the dense, walkable places without the drab sterility of most of the New Urbanist development. Part of the appeal of city life is the mobility within ones neighborhood. Part of it is also living in a unique neighborhood with a sense of community, and most New Urbanist stuff feels like a densely-packed mall to me.

Before we turn transportation planning over to traffic engineers, though, consider that when your tool's a hammer, every problem's a nail. Mobility isn't about moving cars, it's about moving people, and that will always require more than one modality.

(Still in Paris, where's there's not a freeway into the city but it's pretty easy to get there by car or public transit. Well, unless you accidentally get on the beltway-type highway, but that's another story.)

At 10:00 AM, February 23, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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."

Traffic engineers have destroyed America's cities... and that's your solution?

At 12:18 PM, February 23, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> Traffic engineers have destroyed America's cities... and that's your solution?

I would respectfully disagree, but I know they have run roughshod over some neighborhoods in the past. The problem is when they run all levels of scale - but if you take the neighborhood out of their control - and keep them focused on freeways and major arterials - they can do their job well knitting together the metro region.

As far as cars vs. multimodal/transit: I think transit will only be realistic for the masses in the most dense parts of the core. 95+% of trips are made by car, and that's not going to change in the forseeable future. But that's ok, because New Urbanists have plenty of tricks for hiding the parking (inc. street-level retail wrapped around parking garages).

At 3:22 PM, February 23, 2006, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


The problem I see is that many New Urbanists see the car culture as their enemy, and thus want to eliminate parking lots and reduce car ownership dramatically. Cities like New York and Paris are supposedly the model.

But I also don't like New Urbanism because it's faddish and wasteful. We don't need slow, cost-ineffective light rail anymore than we need commuter trains (the latter being a larger boondoggle than the former, although not by a huge amount). Eventually people will tire of the trains, as they did with the streetcars, and then where will we be?

High density development is fine with me, but I'd prefer to let the market decide.

At 9:01 AM, February 24, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For a new urbanist approach to regional transportation, see Peter Calthorpe's The Urban Network: A New Framework For Growth. Calthorpe applied his Urban Network framework in Mesa del Sol, a 12,900-acre extension of Albuquerque.

In regard to the location of new urban developments, they are approximately one-half infill and one-half located on previously undeveloped land.

At 3:00 AM, February 25, 2006, Blogger John Whiteside said...

Regarding "freeway free" European cities: fair point made above, but let's dig deeper. Yes, the major roads are freeway-like it spots. (The ride home to my partner's apartment in a western suburb of Paris involves driving along Champs Elysee and Grande Armee; you can really move along those roads once you get out of the innermost part of the city.)

But those roads impact the areas around them very, very differently than freeways. They don't create massive physical blockages that separate neighborhoods; they're lined with buildings that are part of the surrounding neighborhoods. The entire way you see pedestrians crossing them. Very, very different than something like I-45 running through a neighborhood.

Those two roads connect central Paris with La Defense, a big commercial/business center (think Galleria). What fascinates me is that there are hordes of people working and shopping there, but you wouldn't know it from the traffic on the street (though it's very busy and can be slow at rush hour.) But go into the train station at La Defense and you realize lots of people are getting whisked off on Metro and RER trains and buses). That eases demands on the roads a lot.

I'd say that in terms of moving people efficiently and preserving neighborhoods, it works much better than what we have in Houston.


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