String of Pearls

16. Citywide Functions
17. Transition
18. Let's Get Moving
19. Superblocks
20. The Neighborhood Core

16. Citywide Functions

Every city has it's macroeconomic areas which include downtown and industrial zones of various intensity - the latter include light, heavy and suburban high-tech campus. Light industry is often found mixed with commercial uses on traffic strips in close proximity to housing. Alternatively it resides in it's own separate districts in the same manner as the location of heavy industry.

Suburban industrial campuses are placed near housing but surrounded by large landscaped tracts. That design ordinarily precludes the ability to get to work on public transit or on foot.

Heavy industry by definition can never be part of a neighborhood or compatible with housing and will always be located in exclusive enclaves. Wherever industrial areas do abut residential neighborhoods the greenbelts, by providing a full 200 foot buffer between industry and adjacent housing, insure that impacts are minimal. As in the design of shopping malls and suburban industrial campuses, heavy industry today is located very inconveniently for mass transit and surrounded by seas of parking.

While in all cases heavy industry needs to be in proximity to freeways for access by big trucks, the presence of reasonable transit alternatives can reduce the need for large parking lots and allow for more compact design. This compacting movement can also be aided by returning to manufacturing on more than one level. String of Pearls fosters the viability of public transit for large scale industrial uses through efficiencies similar to those gained when it's design is applied to residential neighborhoods. This is accomplished by separating and coagulating the different elements - factory buildings, parking lots and vehicle access.

This is equivalent to the essential elements of a String of Pearls residential neighborhood represented by a high-density, quality-transit-accessible core surrounded by lower density uses ringed by greenbelts. In an industrial context, a core of multistory factory buildings is linked to the high speed transit system while the parking lots that surround them are accessed strictly from the periphery. Since heavy industrial buildings are often very large these centers might be placed quite a distance apart. Each stop could serve a single industry or several.

It is very difficult for public transit to serve industrial uses in the context of having each sprawling single floor factory circled by vast parking lots. But the picture would change completely if the factory buildings were huddled together around a transit stop. In place of today's pattern in which the use of public transit to reach heavy industry commonly necessitates a lot of walking, this makes the actual workplaces very close to transit.

The situation in regards to high-tech industrial campuses is much the same. The buildings are located very close to public transit while expanses of landscaping and parking surround them. Once again this concentration of activities simulates the transit quality typical of much higher density uses.

The transit corridor through the concentrated industrial district, much as transit corridors through neighborhood centers, offers minimal or no vehicle access. Each stop includes a small traffic free plaza where workers can enjoy lunch outside on a pleasant day. The fact that an individual works in an older type industry excludes them from the most simple urban amenities enjoyed by comparable downtown office workers. Parks and public spaces are never considered for industrial workers.

For instance, across the Willamette River from downtown Portland is the Central Eastside Industrial District. It is a thriving warehouse and light industrial area of about one square mile that includes commercial strips and scattered older housing. In that entire area, except for a Church owned one acre park, the sole public outdoor space is an uncomfortable, difficult of access, 20 foot wide strip between an interstate freeway and the river. It's twenty thousand workers and many thousands of residents are left with a single totally inadequate public space.

While the city of Portland has been active in providing public amenities for downtown to compensate for the deficiencies of the past, as an industrial area the Central Eastside has zero priority for open space. In the future nobody will be left out. The streambed and transportation greenbelts will always be accessible even if new larger parks are difficult to create.

On the other hand it must also be recognized that stream corridor creation in the face of large industrial uses will carry a low priority for some time in the future. The buildings in question are very large and rarely movable. Transportation corridors will also of necessity not reach optimum width until later stages of the outworking of this plan, in which, over time, the space can be gradually cleared as the buildings become obsolete. This will happen partly as a result of fundamental changes in the structure of culture and industry.

In a less acquisitive time people will purchase higher quality goods that last longer. If cars are built to go a million miles with a fraction of today's fuel use and repair need we will obviously need to produce far fewer of them and the fuel that propels them. Sadly there is nothing sci-fi about a million mile car, though it would undoubtedly cost more it is easily doable with the technologies of today. In addition, since people will be using cars much less in deference to the other modes of movement that have been emphasized in their place, they will last a very long time.

When we outgrow the desire and motivation to grow at all costs we'll obviously be producing and consuming less. Advances in technology will enable more goods to be produced by fewer people at the same time that increasing numbers of people will become disinclined to buy without good reason. Taken together we will need a lot less manufacturing space. As that time gradually approaches the space for wide traffic corridors will be easy to clear.

As relates to corridors in, or in close proximity to, the center city they will of necessity be minimum width and require very long timetables to accomplish. The need to separate housing from traffic is not as imperative as in other parts of the city because noise is a part of living downtown, but it still should carry some weight. Housing should not be built on high volume streets regardless of the circumstances, but at the same time standards can not be as stringent in a downtown context. The need for bicycle space is at least as important downtown as anywhere in the urban area so at the very minimum boulevard treatment that safely accommodates bicycles is called for regardless of how long it takes to accomplish.

Citywide functions and the tax revenues that large scale commercial and industrial areas generate are in the sphere of the city government. Since downtown has many residents there may be specific areas of responsibility such as daycare and food banks that can be devolved to a downtown neighborhood government. But it's streets, parks and public spaces are city functions.

17. Transition

Once the basics of government have been established sufficiently to allow the will of the people to be reflected in the city's physical space the time is ripe to reorder, reconfigure, essentially rearrange that space. With public consensus and deep pockets a low density city could be transformed in one to two decades. Since the presence of that combination in real life is extremely unlikely the actual unfolding of the String of Pearls city will take much longer.

The future concept as described here is extremely well suited to a gradualist, long term approach. It is a two stage process in which the first stage should require about twenty years, the second stage about fifty. Except the second stage never has to be completed, it's an ideal which can always include exceptions.

The essence of the first stage is the establishment of electric transit lines through neighborhood centers and minimal boundary traffic corridors necessary to provide free flow of traffic and separate bike paths. The re-creation of natural drainage systems happens as expeditiously as possible but their completion is not essential to the first stage.

The unfolding, actualization of the neighborhood core as envisioned here happens gradually and organically as an outgrowth of clearing space for the traffic corridor concurrently with offering people the benefit of easy access to high frequency transit at the neighborhood center. The construction of new multi-story housing, via government subsidies if necessary, accelerates it's development. It is further aided by offering inducements to small businesses to migrate to the core, though once these changes have begun in earnest, no governmental coaxing is likely to be necessary. Essentially, as an adjunct of creating corridors, buildings and activities will be moved from the periphery of the neighborhoods towards their centers.

Neighborhood boundaries and by definition the location of traffic corridors will in most cases be sited on heavily trafficked streets. Neighborhoods will not often straddle a state or federal highway. But no city is a perfect grid, there will be situations in which boundaries occur on strictly residential streets or in rare cases need to be cut diagonally across the grid. Each situation will be different, requiring a unique and variable response.

The preferred corridor has been established at four hundred feet because two hundred feet of forest provides the buffer necessary to vitiate nearly all of the ill effects of traffic from adjacent uses. The individual living in a single family house across that green space will not suffer a significant loss of livability. The only possible exception to that statement would happen in the case of a corridor that contained a substantial amount of industrial use that drew a large amount of truck traffic. This is not likely to occur often since good planning will seek to isolate heavy industry by providing it with special access. Without use by large trucks, the traffic noise from two hundred feet will hardly be noticed. Even with some trucks, the impacts will not be burdensome.

A grid city of one hundred, one square mile neighborhoods, having a population of one half to one million, will require about two hundred miles of traffic corridors. If we were to purchase and bulldozer clear two hundred miles of four hundred foot corridors in the typical American city of one million, it might cost five to ten billion dollars. At current prices in Portland, a one mile four hundred foot corridor totaling forty acres of land would cost somewhere between twenty and forty million dollars, or one half to one million dollars per acre. That higher figure would, in most cases, also include money for improvements.

The average single family house in Portland goes for about $165,000 but the land itself is assessed at about $35,000. It will cost about $20,000 to move each house and another $10,000 to remove old foundations and return the land to a natural state. There are eight 50x100 lots and a local street right-of-way in an acre. Eight times $65,000 equals $520,000 per acre times forty acres equals about $20 million. There are several variables that can affect that number. If there are fewer cross streets additional property will need to be purchased. The figure quoted for moving houses does not include moving utility lines, a problem to be discussed in the next chapter. Some acquisitions - high priced residential and commercial properties - will cost far more, some - vacant lots and property in lower income neighborhoods - a lot less.

Taking an organic gradualist approach as proposed here, in which only the minimum corridor is secured, the total cost over the first twenty years comes to about one billion dollars or about fifty million per year. The above guesstimate includes only small expenditures towards the cost of traffic improvements which will vary wildly between the high cost of total reconstruction and the minimal cost of adapting existing streets. It would however be enough in just a few years to leave a visible green impression and have a significant moderating impact on traffic.

Even when another five or ten million dollars per mile is added to land acquisition costs for street and bikepath improvements, it is a pittance compared to the cost of freeway building, one fifth to one tenth as much per traffic lane. They aren't freeways and can't serve as many vehicles as expeditiously, but they also have many advantages over them. As a system they provide much greater coverage than freeways. The forests will be beautiful, enhance livability and filter vehicle pollutants. The bike paths and ample space for light rail easily compensate for lower capacity by providing real transportation alternatives.

One billion dollars for the first phase may sound like a lot of money, but stretched out over a twenty year transition it's only a few percent of annual expenditures for a typical city of about one million people. In the city of Portland with a population of 500,000, fifty million dollars represents less than half annual expenditures for transportation, just three percent of the total annual budget. It is not so large an amount, in any case, to preclude finding the resources assuming there is sufficient public will.

Funding moreover does not need to come from a single dedicated source. Since corridors are multifaceted, resources can legitimately be pieced together from budgets as diverse as highways, streets, bikeways, transit projects, sewer projects, parks and community development. This is a gradual process in which each little piece of the puzzle makes it's contribution to the grand plan.

There are, in addition, many ways in which the cost of this plan can be reduced. The only cases in which the four hundred foot ideal is really necessary or important is when the corridor goes through a strictly residential area with no history of through traffic. That is the only circumstance in which the high volume of traffic that comes with corridor designation would create real hardship for land uses less than 200 feet away. And even there 100 to 150 feet would suffice in many cases.

Each different type of land use - heavy industry, light industry, storefront commercial, parking lot commercial, high density residential and low density residential - will elicit a different response in this plan, but only adjacent low density residential uses actually require a wide corridor. In any other situation, including residential streets that have a history of through traffic, the additional vehicles in the transition period may not be appreciated, but still won't be that out of context.

Heavy industry is the most tolerant of the impacts of high traffic levels. The corridor need there is very rudimentary. In this case the only requirement is space for a separate bike path, an optional narrow green strip, and frontage roads where appropriate. In all situations the wide forested corridor is the aesthetic ideal, but thinking practically, this is the last place that actually needs it. Heavy industry makes it's own noise and pollution, and as long as access is not constricted, it is not impacted by heavy traffic.

It definitely would not make sense to take any more space than was absolutely necessary for a minimal corridor from an industry that needed or was actually using it. Fifteen or twenty feet is sufficient to the purpose here. It may be necessary at times to cut off the front of an industrial building and move it back to gain the required space. Once again a minimum necessary response is taken to corridor creation.

Light industry is similar to heavy industry, except when it is located in close proximity to residential uses. In an exclusive industrial area it is treated the same as heavy industry.

Light industry along with auto-oriented commercial can be allowed to remain in the corridors indefinitely as long as two goals are met. In all cases the primary objective is to provide the necessary bike path and pedestrian amenities. When housing is adjacent to commercial-industrial uses in the corridor the aim is to keep those incompatible uses separate. This separation is accomplished by clearing the greenbelt in the outside one hundred feet of the corridor. Elimination of traffic crossover from commerce and industry to housing is an absolute necessity for neighborhood livability.

The only land use that cannot remain indefinitely in the corridor, is not in any measure compatible with traffic use, is single family residential. Even in this situation housing at the outer edge - more than 100 feet from traffic - could remain at least through the first phase of this plan, if not indefinitely, if the owners so desired. One hundred feet may not be ideal, but it is far better than current practice which routinely places housing and traffic in very close and unhealthy proximity. The outer one hundred feet on each side is useful as a transition zone and provides a lot of freedom and adaptability in the implementation of this plan.

Some corridor designations will be simple and obvious no matter how thorough and exhausting the planning process. A heavily trafficked federal highway will most often become a designated corridor. Other designations, as when the only alternative is a residential area, may take much longer, which is essentially not a problem since it's not necessary that the entire city's corridors be planned before the first changes can begin. Rather the changes start where it's easy and by the time the obvious benefits begin to show, the more difficult designations can be attempted.

It may be that some neighborhoods will resist any designation under any circumstances. Population pressures, high property values and any number of other contingencies may lengthen or stymie the process. It may take 100 years to fully realize the ideal corridors. There are no absolutes in this plan and always room for exceptions. Each corridor that is accomplished, as well as each individual lot turned to greenspace, is a good in itself. They don't all need to be in place for individual ones to benefit the city.

In the interim, until corridors are chosen, design standards are put in place that restrict new construction in proximity to traffic relative to existing volumes. For example all new housing is prohibited within 200 feet of freeways and streets serving more than 40,000 vehicles a day. Between thirty and forty thousand per day, it is prohibited within 150 feet. Twenty to thirty thousand per day within 100 feet, etc.. At the least, this provision insures that additional people will not be subject high traffic volumes and new housing will not be built in locations that require it to be later moved or demolished.

Moratoriums on residential construction are strictly upheld. New commercial uses occasionally warrant exceptions as long as there is minimal space for bike and pedestrian amenities. If a street's future use pattern is slated to reflect fewer vehicles then non - residential uses are permissable in transition.

18. Let's Get Moving

As soon as the route has been chosen the city begins by purchasing all vacant lots on the full corridor and they are immediately planted in trees. It may take a long time before sufficient frontage has been acquired to enable the reconstruction of the street and creation of bikepaths. There is no sense in waiting for everyone to receive the benefits of additional trees even if some need to be subsequently felled. If the vacant lot is on the frontage itself it may be used temporarily for parking for adjacent businesses. If on the outside it will be available for transitional use.

Whatever use lies adjacent to the vacant lot, it's environment will be improved. Each additional lot that's acquired will quickly become a mini forest and have it's incremental little salutary effect on the city's livability. Relating to vehicle movement, each additional lot purchased eliminates a potential source of cross traffic.

Subsequent to the purchase of vacant lots is added the purchase of the other properties within the corridor that come onto the market as a matter of course. Within a span of twenty years more than 80% of all real estate changes hands. Concurrently the city makes the following offer to the owners of all movable properties in the corridors. It will purchase the equivalently valued lot of their choice within a reasonable distance and pay all moving costs.

Each type of property, even each individual parcel that is acquired, is handled differently in light of it's specific and unique characteristics. If it is a low density residential structure with any redeeming value it will remain in place until it can be moved. The moving of buildings, the saving of every possible structurally sound edifice of any historic architectural value, receives highest priority. Though the layout and design of the cityscape is completely transformed, the actual buildings, and especially those with intrinsic value, remain the same. A short digression on moving buildings is in order.

The movement of buildings was once far more commonplace than it is today. Portland historical records of the late nineteenth century show examples of very large houses in the way of development being moved more than once. The moving of large objects is an ancient art. In fact, even buildings much larger than a single family house are movable. There's nothing technically prohibitive about moving a six story brick apartment house, it would only be very expensive.

For the typical move of a two story wood frame building the greatest expense is not the cost of physically transporting the structure, it's the cost of making a path through the utility lines in it's way. After cumulating the costs of removing the house from it's old foundation, setting it on wheels, building a foundation at the new site and hooking it up in it's new home, the cost differential between moving it two blocks or ten miles is minor. Here in Portland a two story wood frame house can be moved for about $18,000 if it's new home is nearby, $20,000 if it's ten or twenty miles up the road. But the expense of clearing the overhead utility lines out of the way, at $100 per line, typically adds at least a thousand dollars for every block, or two hundred feet, that it's moved.

Our public rights of way are cluttered with unsightly utility lines. The utilities are essentially granted unlimited use of public air space in perpetuity. When a citizen has occasion to make use of that air space, maybe once in a lifetime, the utilities who thoroughly dislike moving their lines heap on the costs to discourage the process. Whatever their rationale, this is patently unfair and has the certain result of destroying many good old, sometimes historic houses and in turn diminishing the city's charm, ambiance and livability.

There are two possible ways around this hurdle in the short term. Since this plan involves moving a lot of buildings, substantial savings can be realized by moving several at once. Special corridors free of utility lines can also be developed to enable longer distance moving. The fairest way is to make the utilities responsible for moving their wires whenever anyone else wants to use the space by putting the cost in their rate bases. In other words, if everyone benefits via cheaper rates because of overhead lines, everyone should pay for moving those lines on the rare occasions that someone else needs to use the public airspace. The moving of houses, even in String of Pearls, will never be so frequent as to become a truly burdensome occurrence. Spread over the entire rate base the cost to each individual would be insignificant.

In the long term, if technology doesn't render them redundant, they will all go underground. There is absolutely nothing good, let alone agreeable or likable about overhead utility wires. They are ugly personified, occasionally dangerous and far more subject to disruption of service than underground lines. Every significant storm causes extensive utility outages.

Today the expense of putting those lines underground is high and the priority is low. Along with a gradual rise in priority for mostly aesthetic reasons, will come a sharp drop in the cost from this urban revamping. A large part of today's cost of placing utility lines underground involves functioning in confined spaces. This frequently requires breaking up streets while maintaining traffic flow and working around the existing maze of other underground utilities; gas lines, water lines and sewers.

The transportation and streambed corridors provide ample space for the relatively simple, reduced cost placement of utility lines underground. This is the opportunity to make some sense of today's hodgepodge of every street containing half dozen independently designed, totally uncoordinated pipes and wires. A single tunnel carrying all utilities with easy access would tremendously simplify maintenance and upgrading.

If a building too large to be economically moved lies away from traffic on the outside one hundred feet of the corridor it can be grandfathered in. As long as the owners and the occupiers of the building are happy there, whether residential or commercial, there is no reason it can't be worked around. Being in the presence of so much greenery might make it a relatively desirable location in spite of traffic proximity. It's immediate environment can certainly only be improved in the process of clearing and planting adjacent land.

A building that's directly on street frontage will require other solutions. If the space around the building, on the outside one hundred feet of the corridor, is cleared, the bike path can temporarily go around it. In some cases, because of a building's size or various other reasons, it may remain on the frontage indefinitely as long as space for the bike path is secured. Occasionally this may require cutting off and moving back the front of the building. At a minimum, if demolition is the only answer, it would not need to happen before adjacent street frontage is purchased and ready for bike path construction, which once again could take some time.

When working with a street that already has a traffic history it is not necessary to wait until all the frontage is purchased to begin making traffic flow improvements, though the level of those changes relates closely to existing street design. A six lane (four traffic, two parking) street lined with commercial uses will have ample room for four lanes of traffic and separate bike lanes. A narrow street of mixed housing and business will require a slower pace of adaptations.

Bike paths set apart from the street in the greenbelt can appear as soon as a few hundred feet of adjacent frontage has been acquired and cleared, even if the complete reconstruction of the street is twenty years in the future. As soon as a street is designated as a corridor, if it already has an arterial history, vehicles are immediately begun to be directed from parallel collector streets onto the designated corridor street. If it is a numbered highway or major arterial, redesign and reconstruction of the street to increase traffic capacity can begin immediately. On street parking is eliminated. Barriers are placed to prevent left turns and access from local streets. Collector streets that include traffic signals provide the only access to the corridor. Every street that's closed, every barrier to cross traffic has it's incremental benefits.

Concurrently with smoothing traffic and encouraging motorists to use designated vehicle corridors the frequency of public transportation is increased and vehicles discouraged on transit streets that serve the neighborhood centers. A push-pull dynamic is established that entices drivers to use corridors while transit riders are lured to high frequency transit in the cores. People who are dependent on public transit will be strongly attracted to living in or very near neighborhood centers.

If it is a local street the greater part of the corridor will have to be cleared, including the entire frontage, before heavy through traffic can be routed there. A drastic change is involved and people will need a long time to adjust. Still, moderate amounts of traffic might be appropriate in that situation by the time half the frontage is cleared. On in-between streets, those that carry traffic though not intended or constructed for that purpose, changes proceed gradually. Vehicle use is increased and design changes are instituted in tandem with the pace of frontage clearing. If a vacant lot that has been acquired is next to an existing business that needs parking, it can be used for that purpose temporarily. If an unneeded side street is fronted by vacant lots it is immediately blocked off, broken up and planted, unless it is temporarily needed for other purposes.

19. Superblocks

The last major piece of this urban puzzle and the final vanquisher of the grid is the superblock. It answers the question; move houses where?

The archtypical grid city neighborhood has four one quarter square mile parts. There is street access every two hundred feet from all four directions into each quadrant. Vehicles, including a portion who are just passing through and have no legitimate business within the quadrant, nonetheless have easy access to all parts of it.

Once again suburbia has to be looked to for inspiration. Many suburbanites are family oriented, and are drawn by it's quiet, safe streets. The attraction of peaceful neighborhoods, however, is hardly exclusive to families, rather they are the essence of a city's livability. The curved streets, T-intersections and cul-de-sacs of the suburbs are purposely designed to discourage or preclude superfluous traffic. One has to be personally familiar with the area to use it's streets to bypass traffic congestion on a nearby arterial - on those occasions when it is possible at all - which is exactly opposite of the grid where every street is available as a bypass.

Typical suburban design is anathema to planners for a variety of reasons, most importantly the lack of connectivity. Cul-de-sacs preclude purposeful walking, as opposed to recreational, because the person living on the end of one might have to go a long distance round about to access buildings that are, in a direct line, very close. Except for that one point, which is easily correctable with off street pedestrian/bike paths, the dislike of planners is more philosophical than practical. Cul-de-sacs are symbolic of all that is wrong with the suburbs; the isolation, the emptiness, the sameness of massive look alike developments. However, when you elicit the opinion of the people who live there, or for that matter those who reside on the incidental dead ends in the inner city street grid, the urban equivalent, they are clearly preferred as a lifestyle. That is the way most people want to live because it is the epitome of urban peace and safety.

The superblock, representing any neighborhood area enclosed by traffic streets of any magnitude, is the urban answer to suburbia's cul-de-sac neighborhoods. It eliminates almost all through vehicles and is designed to maximize the number of streets that are reserved strictly for local access, that is, confined to the people who live on the street and their visitors. The people on a few streets, the feeders into the superblock, are subject to more traffic, but the total volume within each one is still much lower than in the former open grid.

There is no access to the superblock from transportation corridors. Only one or two entrances is needed from each of the other directions. The local streets are no longer available as bypasses. With vehicle access into the superblock strictly limited the interior street grid is further open to adaptation with the use of dead ends and other obstacles to pass through movement. It has become an island of shelter and serenity in the heart of the urban vortex.

Bicycles and pedestrians on the other hand are never restricted on the former grid. There is no intention of creating private areas that prohibit biking nor any desire or motivation to isolate the superblock from the rest of the city. Pedestrian modes retain unlimited access to the former grid on streets rendered much safer by superblock diversions while those same impediments to vehicle movement make it a hassle to use autos for short trips between superblocks.

Street grids are dull, uninteresting, unimaginative, have no flair, show no sense of style, are essentially non-designs. The curved streets of the suburbs are an improvement on the grid, but one that is feeble and largely disconnected from natural flows their street patterns are imposed on the natural landscape in very much the same blind and insensitive manner that grids are.

The urban superblocks, in comparison, have the ability to exude excitement and interest in their design because each one has the potential to be very different. There will be surprise and attraction around every corner. They will express all of the advantages of the suburban cul-de-sac neighborhood in the context of the intensity, variety and serendipity of the inner city. They also have the great advantage of not having all of their houses created out of the same mold during the same time period.

If only one entrance is required from a direction then the potential has been gained to use the eight vacated street rights-of-way for other purposes. When the superblock boundary is a lightly used collector street redundant pavement can be converted to housing with a minimal setback. When the boundary involves a transportation corridor then vacation of the intersecting local streets creates space in the outer 100 feet away from traffic that can be used temporarily for housing. Temporary in this case could mean twenty years, forty years or indefinitely. The back one hundred feet is an ideal, not a priority - traffic impacts will not be a great burden in that space. If the person living in that house is content in that location, there's no pressing need to move it. Thus the importance of the back half of the designated corridor as transition space.

At the same time that land is cleared to create green space and speed traffic, the other parts of the neighborhood become denser. Vacant land, superfluous parking lots and unneeded street space now contain housing. People who once lived on the neighborhood's periphery are now closer to the center.

The use of short development timetables in urban land clearing always brings hardship and resistance from some of the individuals who are forced to move; they feel indignant and highly inconvenienced. When development timetables are stretched out dislocation ceases to be a significant problem. Within a twenty year period more than 80% of all properties enter the market as a matter of course. The remaining 20% of owners who don't want to leave constitute a minor point of resistance, but having twenty years to mentally prepare and given the possibility of moving a house as little as a hundred feet away on the outside of the corridor, all but the most obdurate and intransigent property owners are likely to be mollified.

Community Education

The superblock is the correct social level to develop community based schools for children up to seven or eight. They would be close at hand and safe for the kids to walk on their own. Parents would also be near by facilitating their opportunity to volunteer and take part in the educational program. Since enrollment would be minimal a converted single family house would most often suffice and be properly scaled for little ones. Today's urban schools, now typically housed in monumental edifices, are alienating and dehumanizing.

For example, a few years back I was an election worker at a poll station located at a neighborhood elementary school. At one point I found myself wandering around perplexidly searching for a bathroom. Eventually I met up with a teacher who set me in the right direction and remarked in passing that it took her quite a while to comfortably negotiate her way around the building. If it disorients a teacher, how's a six year old to feel?


About 80% of the city of Bangkok with eight million people is laid out in a particularly Thai style superblock form. It's street system is as different from an American city's as one can imagine.

One of Bangkok's biggest claims to fame is it's legendary traffic jams. At many points in the city, until recent infrastructure improvements came on line, traffic would grind to a dead stop in the afternoon rush for as much as an hour every weekday. The city's leaders have only recently become aware that it has a stingy eight to nine percent of it's land area devoted to streets compared to the minimum twenty five percent found in the typical western city.

At Bangkok's current development level, with one car per eight people, the lack of local street space is not a problem. The primary reason for it's stupendous traffic congestion is the dearth of thoroughfares and the immense size of many of the superblocks they enclose. It's frequently more than a mile and occasionally as much as three miles between them.

The traffic problem caused by the wide spacing between arterials is further compounded by the surprising and peculiar anomaly that the interior streets within the superblocks rarely connect through to the other thoroughfares. Adjacent streets may connect but only within a small area. Generally the only exit is to the nearest arterial and almost every street either turns into a dead end or branches or meanders to the extent that only the most informed person can negotiate its twists and turns. Their system as it evolved is extremely inefficient for carrying traffic but amazingly good at guaranteeing safe, quiet residential neighborhoods.

It's traffic streets are hopelessly congested, dangerously polluted and way over safe decibel levels (from loud buses, diesel trucks and two cycle motorbikes) but the vast majority of residents, probably over 90%, live on quiet, safe, non-connective streets.

Thus the Bangkok paradox; almost everybody lives in the most peaceful of neighborhood settings in the midst of a megacity noted as having the world's worst traffic. Peace within bustle. Quiet within cacophony.

A further exposition of Bangkok's urban design can aid in recognizing how the American grid might be converted to livable superblocks. Many of it's residences, especially in the older parts of town, are connected through alleys and arms width footpaths. Footpath access would not suffice in America but having spent a year in Bangkok it's easy to understand how buildings can access the street system through narrow alleys and driveways. That experience led me to realize how much of our local street system is redundant; how much of our urban land area is unnecessarily paved.

We could not get by with only eight percent of our urban land area devoted to streets, and neither will Bangkok if/when Thailand reaches developed status and car ownership numbers multiply, but we could easily take a third of the area now allocated to local streets and divert the space to other uses streams, greenery, public squares, housing with no significant loss of convenience but with greatly increased livability.

Many Americans would not accept less than full regulation street frontage for their properties but just as many others would wecome access through narrow, private, hidden driveways, especially if the tradeoff is the conversion of superfluous pavement to streams, playgrounds, and other public spaces; amenities that are now sorely lacking in many urban areas.

Sherritt Square

The Sherritt Square intersection project began as an attempt on the part of local residents to establish a community space. The neighborhood consists mostly of small to medium sized single family houses and assorted apartments in a laid back working class district. As such the 'rustic', driftwood construction of the tea house and bulletin boards do not constitute a problem, at least not to the people who live in the immediate area. However, the use of the tree lawn the area between sidewalk and street - for anything so unusual requires city council approval.

Unfortunately for the square's creators an upscale condominium enclave was developed a few blocks away on the Willamette River. The condos are down an embankment and completely separate from the residential neighborhood. The problem stems from having it's sole access through the neighborhood's streets and that the shortest route to a nearby bridge takes many of the condo owners right through the Sherritt Street intersection.

Several of the condo owners have been positively livid about how ugly it looks, how it's likely to impact their property values and how it makes them embarrassed to invite their friends over - feelings which led them to make a furious fuss down at city hall with the intention of getting it removed. They've also sparred determinedly with the people who built it, use it and thoroughly enjoy it.

It's taken an inordinate amount of city staff time, not to mention repeated lengthy city council sessions, to make a decision on what changes the neighborhood residents are allowed to make to their local street. After a year of wrangling, they were granted a permit to keep the square open on a temporary basis.

There are two essential nuggets of understanding to derive from this imbroglio. The first is the axiom that large self contained developments should have their own access. It's not right or fair for a low density residential neighborhood to have to bear the burden of that excess traffic. Each superblock, each small piece of the urban puzzle needs to be looked at with the goal of absolutely minimizing unnecessary traffic on local streets.

In a String of Pearls city this whole affair would never come to the city council's attention in the first place, it would be exclusively under neighborhood government purview. Whatever the controversy, if it is a local issue it has to be far cheaper and simpler to deal with it on a local level. The square has done wonders for neighborhood participation; the people in immediate proximity are staunchly behind it. To do it right the intersection should be permanently closed to traffic. It's a narrow and totally unnecessary street - no one who currently uses it would be significantly inconvenienced if it never saw another car, they would at most have to drive an additional block or two.

20. The Neighborhood Core

The archtypical neighborhood actually has five superblocks rather than four. The core is distinct and separate from the residential quadrants. High density mixed uses are not compatible with single family housing. The value to society of the residential areas is in the preservation of low density and historic housing in quiet, good-for-kid-raising environments, an outcome that can not be reconciled with higher densities in close proximity.

In String of Pearls, all historic housing is protected. Older houses can not be torn down, only moved. Existing multi-family residential is grandfathered in in the residential superblocks and some new housing, when population pressures warrant, can be moderate density, but nothing is allowed to detract from the primary purpose of perpetuating low density housing in quality settings throughout the city.

The core on the other hand, is medium or high density. Population in the residential superblocks stays relatively constant regardless of population pressure, but the core can fluctuate when macro conditions warrant. In a time of perfect balance, half the neighborhood's people will live in the quadrants, half in the core. In that situation, the core is made up of mostly three to five story buildings. Under exigencies in which the city has to accommodate substantial numbers of additional people, the core can go to a higher density. It's not an ideal solution but better than either densifying the single family residential areas or spreading the city out and urbanizing additional land.

Gradually and in tandem, traffic improvements are made to the boundary arterials while vehicles are slowed down and discouraged in the neighborhood's interior. Eventually parts of the core become traffic free. It won't be climate controlled as in a mall or home to large department stores or megastores but it's range of small scale shopping possibilities will far surpass the mall's and it's ambiance will bring a European sophistication and charm to each neighborhood.

Much as a wide green traffic corridor is created around the neighborhood as a whole, a smaller one is developed around the core to clearly differentiate and separate it from the residential quadrants. This greenbelt is as little as thirty to fifty feet wide. One way circular movement could be used to minimize pavement area. The core will generate a lot more than local traffic, even though it's limited to people who come for specific reasons and vehicle counts are minimal compared to today's. Under any circumstances it will still be too much to allow unconstrained movement between the core and the residential superblocks.

Parking and vehicle access in the heart of the core are restricted when not completely prohibited. All off street parking, whether surface, or in multilevel garages if warranted, is located on the periphery adjacent to the core greenbelt. The core is actually quite small; parking on the edges would ordinarily be no more than six hundred feet from the center, requiring little more walking than is needed from the edges of a mall parking lot to it's entrance.

The final addition to the greenbelt system involves the interior cross of transit streets outside of the core. These narrow greenstrips would be highly beneficial - transit vehicles can operate much faster on their own right of way - though they're the least important part of the greenbelt system. As the transition to String of Pearls progresses, gas stations and other auto oriented commercial uses are gradually moved off the inner cross streets to their more appropriate specified places in the corridors. Concurrently most transit and pedestrian oriented businesses located there gravitate to the core and low density housing is moved into the superblocks.

Much of the frontage is thus slowly being vacated. As long as there is space for two lanes of traffic, exclusive right of way for transit and separated bike paths, then mid density housing and a smattering of small stores might also be appropriate here. Normally all existing storefront activity would be grandfathered in although those located directly on street frontage may have to have their facades moved back from the pavement a sufficient distance to provide quality space for alternate transportation modes. The essential consideration is the diversion of traffic generated by those higher intensity uses away from access to the residential superblocks - no crossover is allowed.

Each neighborhood now has an outer circle of green and an inner circle of green connected by four green spokes and about fifteen percent of the neighborhood's land area is devoted to greenbelts; twenty percent is verdant when streams and wetlands are included. Meanwhile the total population remains unchanged and even many of the houses are the same. The residential areas are as tranquil as any suburb, but there is also a dynamic, exciting, high density neighborhood center within easy reach. Traffic, now extended to all forms of movement, is the utmost of organized, channeled and safe, each mode in it's separate designated space.

Yet as a whole it looks and feels totally spontaneous if not disorderly. There is absolutely none of the oppressive boredom and sterility of the planned, curved-street-suburb with it's three basic building plans. It includes all the best attributes of suburban living in a setting that exudes history, urbanity and serendipity.

In place of both the indistinguishable nature of mass suburbia and the uniformity of a whole city laid out in a single grid, each superblock is unique. As opposed to the blank endless vistas of pavement and sky you see when you look down a street in the grid system, you never know what will turn up when you round the next corner in the superblock. The piazzas of Italy, the alleyways of Asia or medieval Europe can be replicated as part of the adaptations made to the former grid.

The traffic free neighborhood cores will easily equal suburban shopping malls in variety and convenience, and do it in a strictly urban setting with buildings of many sizes, ages and descriptions. Because half the city's people live in the cores they will be active at all hours and in all facets of urban life. Safety is enhanced from activity that puts eyes on the street, and because the existence of strong community increases the number of people who know each other. Security is also increased by door-to-door transit as it provides safe, escorted, all hours service from a single attended bus stop at the center of the core to every house in the neighborhood.

Superblocks bring people together in identifiable communities and make them more aware of strangers/outsiders, which tends to increase safety. During times of heightened urban danger it helps to know your neighbors - suspicion is the unintended byproduct. It is a terribly unfortunate and yet simultaneously beneficial aspect of community. In compensation somewhat for this ambivalent situation is the great diversity of the neighborhoods. In this city of one hundred distinct governmental units, everyone can find a place to call home, a community able to accept them as one of their own or at least tolerate them and respect them for their differences.

Chapters 21 to 25

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