6. Free the Streams
In the past when everything was being laid out in strict north-south, east-west grids the natural waterways and wetlands were only a bother. They were difficult to maintain as natural streams. They were often favored as impromptu solid waste dumping grounds. They could also be open sewers or breeding grounds for mosquitoes. The obvious solution then was to bury the streams and drain the wetlands, with the former riparian areas making space for additional buildings.
Many cities have combined sewer systems in which fresh clean water coming from natural springs and rainwater are mixed with sewage – effluent from toilets – and gray water, that is, wash water. In the early years sewer systems were designed to dump their charge directly into rivers or bodies of water so keeping the two sources separate was not an issue. Today, of course, nearly all sewage in America is treated. The result is that a substantial part of the city's bounty of rain and spring water, which once soaked into the ground or flowed on to a larger waterway totally unassisted by man is now collected, conveyed and treated in a major industrial process. All of which involves large pipes, mechanical pumping over relatively long distances, and costly sewage treatment plants.
Portland has a partially mixed sewer system. The city is currently under state mandate to separate the sources because overflows at the sewage treatment plant result in raw effluent being dumped into the Columbia and Willamette Rivers with every significant rainfall, a common occurrence in the Pacific Northwest. One billion dollars has been budgeted to separate the storm drains. Unfortunately none of it is being spent on daylighting the streams; that is, returning the stormwater to the surface in natural drainage systems. A tremendous opportunity to beautify and exalt city life is being squandered on a complex of giant underground pipes.
In fact a large area of Portland does have free flowing streams. The Southwest district was developed more recently and left more natural because its frequently steep terrain makes it difficult to fill and build on the major streambeds. However, even in that area much of the land that is now being developed in proximity to existing streams is not sculpted for natural drainage. Rather storm water is collected and funneled into underground pipes only to empty into the nearby streams.
Technocratic minds, and Portland is replete with excellent ones, cannot seem to grasp that water needs no help from man to flow downhill and that storm water can get to the streambed entirely of its own accord. The money spent on underground pipes could instead go to improve and enhance the landscape that we all live in and interact with every day. Once again 'grow or die' rears its ugly head. It is anathema within the prevailing economic philosophy to take land 'out of production'. Growth at all costs insists that every parcel be developed to its greatest value and since it's difficult to put a monetary value on green space, it receives a low priority.
Developing land with a gentle touch and sculpting it for natural drainage causes many fewer problems than the current bulldozer approach. A good friend who is a landscape consultant recently drew up a design for an upscale house in a new development. Though it's built on steep terrain, nearly all of the existing trees were cut, which resulted in destabilizing the land and increasing runoff and erosion. The newly planted trees will not provide shade or fix the land in place for ten to fifteen years. In the process of excavating and bulldozing, rich topsoil was buried and organically dead subsoil clay was raised to the surface. Finally, as the subdivision was designed, the new streets and storm sewers are blind to and ignorant of natural water flows and the result is widespread drainage problems.
Current practice of separating storm sewers takes street runoff directly to the streams, whereas environmentally it would better to let it seep slowly into the ground. Driveways and streets are soiled with very small amounts of fluids from combustion vehicle leaks and other domestic pollutants. When percolated and filtered through the earth before they reach ground water or natural springs they are much less likely to cause problems. When those contaminates, small as they may be, are gathered together and sent directly to the waterways, their cumulative effect causes measurable pollution and a clear degradation of ecosystem health. Until local contamination problems are solved every storm drain should be equipped with an individual filter.
Most jurisdictions now build separate systems. There is a further division of wastewater treatment that makes ecological sense. The future will bring separated graywater to our urban areas. More than ninety percent of the effluent that is processed in our sewage treatment plants is wash water. There is no need whatever to build mechanical treatment systems for that water.
Wetlands provide a totally efficacious means for filtering and cleaning graywater, and in the process a great place for birds and aquatic animals is created. However, they also require a considerable amount of space. In the current scheme of things, in which every inch of urban space is under pressure to be developed to its maximum economic potential, there's little room left for wetlands. In the future when cities are thought of in terms of whole ecosystems, graywater wetlands will become an integral part of the wastewater treatment process. Once in place natural drainage is far cheaper to maintain than mechanical treatment systems.
The time has come in most of the western world in which a well maintained natural stream bed or wetland will be respected by the citizenry and grace the city as a thing of beauty. There is a strong and growing environmental movement that is pushing for the cleansing of natural waterways and the preservation and restoration of wetlands. To date, because of excessive costs and the inertia inherent in the preexisting city, urban streams have not carried a high priority. That will change as society's mania for growth and profit is replaced with the desire to beautify and exalt urban life.
Flowing water has a magic feel and is truly wonderful to behold. It includes important recreation opportunities, especially for little kids. Streambed corridors also have very important transportation potential as locations for bike paths. Indeed, they are perfect for providing safe, beautiful and peaceful venues for pedaling. Also, since by their nature they always follow the lowest grade, they relieve the bicyclist of avoidable hill climbing.
The city of the future will be an organic place where water flows freely and buildings are designed to blend into the landscape rather than overcome it. Free flowing water in a natural drainage network will be a priority for the city of the future, but we have a lot of urban undoing before us to achieve that goal.
In the typical low density American city adaptation to natural drainage will not be terribly difficult, though any wholesale change in the way we relate to urban patterns is going to require some large scale rethinking. Re-creating the streams in a city like New York is another story altogether and will have to wait until it has far fewer people and its massive structures have lost most of their value through disinterest.
Streams, of course, are out of place in the grid. They're not straight, they're not square and often, though not necessarily, they take up space that could have taxpaying property on it. The same is true of walking paths. In a natural setting people never walk in right angles; even the gentlest topography will result in paths that have curves.
The first step in breaking the pattern of covering everything in rectangular grids is relatively easy in a low density city. Streams are often small enough to go through back yards, or take up half of a local street, or it is easy enough to move a single family house if need be. Ideally the stream should flow in a minimum corridor that allows for separate walking and biking paths. If any substantial number of bicycles are present then pedestrians and bicycles are not compatible.
As little as thirty feet of green right-of-way can provide a totally safe, quiet, near idyllic alternative to automobile passage through the city. While a minimum stream corridor can suffice for transportation, for purely esthetic reasons - to create a semblance of natural landscape - at least 100 feet on either side of permanent streams should be established as a long term goal. Lesser parts of urban watersheds would be developed with right-of-way appropriate to need in each circumstance.
The process of re-creating the streams as greenway-bikepaths can be undertaken gradually as resources become available by rearranging the buildings in their way. If we have to go around a building that's too valuable or too large to move, that's really not a problem. Re-creating the streams cannot mean going back to the original, everything has changed too much for that to happen.
They can look natural enough but essentially this will be starting from scratch and designing streams as urban, with clear urban purposes, rather than strictly organic and evolutionary as spawned by Mother Earth.
It's not necessary that any part of the change be accomplished in a hurry. The re-creation of the stream itself, and the later establishment of the ideal width corridor can both happen in very long incremental timetables. In the interim every small parcel of land that's purchased and cleared adds its little dollop of green space to the surrounding neighborhood. Each verdant and tranquil addition to a dense urban community becomes a cherished and welcome improvement to its livability.
The city of the future will be an organic creation that manifests itself in a slow evolutionary process. Of course, the sooner the better with obviously beneficial lifestyle improvements whenever they can be undertaken without creating social tension. However, the ultimate accomplishment may take a long time because this is after all working with an existing city, not an undeveloped greenfield.
so it is with the unfolding of all of these suggested blueprints for the city
of the future; they are not compatible with a bulldozer approach. This is a
process which, under most circumstances, happens best when it happens gradually
and organically. Most important is to have plans in place so in times of fast
growth new construction is fit into the future pattern, rather than necessitate
a lot of building moves and demolition later.
With the exception of small college towns the number of people who get around on bicycle in America rarely accounts for more than a few percentage points of total travel. In some demographics that number has actually gone down in recent years; far fewer American schoolchildren ride bikes to school today than in the 1970’s. Yet there is no healthier transportation mode for the world, the nation, the city or the individual than biking. They consume no energy and take up little space. No pollution or noise is associated with their operation. Little financial commitment is required to own and maintain them. They create minimum danger for others and besides they're fun.
What rationale could there be for spending large amounts of money on exercise machines and health clubs when the same purpose could be accomplished on a stimulating and pleasant ride to work or shop. An enlightened citizenry presupposes a healthy citizenry, the two are inseparable. In a less acquisitive world where people focus their lives on spiritual treasure first, bicycling will be a natural accouterment to a healthy life. Our descendents will also have ample free time and less need to rush around; a lifestyle more compatible with the relatively slow, easy nature of pedal power movement.
Today most Americans have no alternative to the daily grind of long distance freeway commuting. It's either a high-stress, high-speed experience with everybody driving too close for comfort and safety, or stewing and steaming in endless lines of vehicles inching along at a turtle's pace. No amount of money spent on roads, when it’s even available, is sufficient to make a difference.
Few people are fortunate to be located in proximity to mass transit in the US culture of urban sprawl. Because of the distances involved and/or the slowness of the medium, most of those who are conveniently placed still spend an inordinate amount of time at transit commuting. Even those of us who like public transit still relate to it as a chore.
Compare the hassle of freeway or transit commuting with healthy, stimulating, danger-free and stress-free bike rides through serene and beautiful, natural green ribbons. The individual's outlook on life cannot help but be immeasurably enhanced by that experience compared to the tension and/or frustration that invariably results from the quintessential freeway experience or from the drudgery of uncomfortable and time consuming transit dependency.
Nothing compares with the speed and cushy climate-conditioned comfort of a private vehicle on an uncongested freeway, but during peak times and ever expanding hours on both weekdays and weekends, that idealistic scenario has increasingly become unattainable. Almost from the time the first limited access highways were opened their flow was choked into sluggishness by excessive demand. Build a new freeway and it is congested the day it opens. The overly optimistic highway boosters of the postwar era couldn't foresee or grasp the essential reality that, in an American context, the freeways themselves create their own traffic morass. The more you build the worse the congestion becomes.
Besides we don't need that cushy life. Far better for our souls, spirits and bodies to get out in the fresh air, get a little exercise and soak in the wonder and beauty - even if it's only an inkling - of the natural world in a greenbelt of trees and flowing water.
In inclement weather or late at night bicycling reverts mostly to enthusiasts. Few people would take kindly to carting little children around under those circumstances. Many others are infirm or too old to be able to hop on a bike for their mobility. The long distances involved in our large sprawling urban areas also naturally inhibits potential users. In severe weather, biking is left to the most adventuresome or becomes impossible. However, on a perfect spring day with the availability of totally safe, separated and beautiful bike paths, the number of people who commute by bike in this well designed, neighborhood-oriented city of the future could easily approach a majority.
Furthermore, there are potential ameliorative steps that can be taken to lessen the discomfort of biking in inclement weather. The more heavily used bikelanes might warrant construction of semi-enclosed paths, even heated or cooled ones in extreme cases. To get people to use bikes on a cold winter day in Minneapolis might, for instance, require a bikepath that included a roof, a single wall to block the wind, and just enough heat to take the bite off of below zero Fahrenheit temperatures. Alternatively, biking in Phoenix in summer would demand at least a roof for shade and possibly placement partly underground for the cooling effect. Room temperature bikepaths would not be called for, rather just enough climate softening to take the edge off of ten below or one hundred ten above respectively.
Climate-conditioned bikepaths would hardly be cheap to construct but it's difficult to imagine how they could cost more than providing the equivalent space and structure required to move the same individual in a car on a freeway, or as a passenger in a light rail vehicle. That's especially true if the necessary right-of-way is already secured and paid for as a result of the creation of natural corridors. Even if the covered bikeway were to account for its actual land cost, it still could not possibly equal the expense of freeway building.
In fact, in The Netherlands, one of the world's most bicycle-friendly countries, thirty percent of all personal trips are on bicycles. While they do have the advantage of a flat country, they also have a cold rainy climate that is often not very congenial to bicycling.
It hasn't come cheaply; they've put large sums of money into making biking safe and enjoyable. In Amsterdam, a compact old city, the streets have been substantially reconfigured for bicycles. For instance, in a dense residential area one can find a street that once had two lanes of parking and two for traffic converted to two lanes for parking and one for movement. With the space gained from eliminating a traffic lane, a separate bikepath between the sidewalk and parked cars is added on one side. When there is no parked car barrier between bikepath and traffic then steel posts are used to create a positive separation. Special turn lights for bikes are included where bike traffic warrants.
In Portland, on the other hand, which is sincere about developing bike facilities and has put a lot of resources, relatively speaking, into allocating street space for them, bikeriders are left with a narrow painted bike lane between parked cars and moving traffic. Far better than nothing, but also far less than it will take for people to feel safe and get out of their cars. Also, in Portland, residential streets are designated as 'bike boulevards', but except for rearranging stop signs and adding 'bike route' signs, they are indistinguishable from adjacent residential streets. Here's a clear safety yardstick: if you wouldn't want your ten year old riding there, then it's not good enough. Better than nothing but not good enough.
Highways in Holland and the Scandinavian countries also increasingly include separate bikehighways. Contrast that with rural America where bicyclists are forced to share fast-paced dangerous pavement with at most a narrow painted lane and pedestrians are left with roadside gravel or dirt.
Hilly cities like San Francisco are also problematical for intensive bike use and will never see them used to the same degree as in a flatter city, though many bikes can still be found there today. In a city of steep terrain the street grids themselves compound the problem. They force a lot of up and downhill movement when a bike path designed with topography in mind would require far less climbing.
A bikeway that was twice the distance but followed topographical lines and necessitated minimal climbing would require less time and take less effort than one that included steep inclines. People who love bicycling and are out for a little exercise are non-plussed by steep hills, but a bike commuter, like any commuter, primarily just wants to get to her/his destination with the least possible hassle and effort. When out for a leisurely bike ride on a Sunday afternoon, hills may not be a problem, but when a person rides a bike to work or to take care of daily business he/she doesn't want unnecessary or superfluous hurdles or challenges.
city of the future will be a natural, organic, healthy place to live in direct
response to a socially and culturally advanced citizenry that considers those
attributes of utmost importance. It will also be small enough and oriented
towards neighborhoods in a way that minimizes travel distance for large numbers
of people. As such, bicycling will be a primary form of transportation.
8. Neighborhood Power
The foundation of the String of Pearls concept is community and neighborhood. While those terms are obviously related, they are individually distinctive and not always interchangeable. Community is a feeling of like-mindedness. While it frequently has a narrow geographical base, a community of like minds can also range the world. They also overlap, an individual can be part of many communities.
Neighborhoods are also communities but they are much more oriented towards a specific geographic location. In many cities what's referred to as neighborhood organizations should be more appropriately termed grassroots community organizations.
What's often lacking in today's cities, and a prime antecedent cause of crime, alienation and antisocial tendencies, is a sense of community. Individuals who lack support from their immediate or extended family, which includes large numbers of people in our highly mobile and often unstable modern society, are cast adrift when adversity hits. They have nowhere to go. There's no community of shared interest to lend a hand.
When we as a society do try to help, for lack of alternatives, it often comes down from above as assistance from city, state or federal governments and because it's an irreducible part of their nature, almost any form of assistance gets mired in bureaucracy. Further, in today’s political context it often engenders social resistance from more fortunate demographic sectors. The best way to avoid those problems and begin to make progress in eliminating the need for that kind of paternalistic and demeaning social assistance is by learning how to function on a neighborhood level.
As time advances and increasing numbers of the world's people reach developed status they will increasingly look for lifestyle improvement outside of the now preeminent material plane. They will have a lot more leisure time and require handy venues and outlets for their extra energy. One of the central avenues for enhancing their daily lives will come through community - a sense of belonging, a platform for interacting, a place to be among friends and neighbors.
All neighborhoods are ultimately, in the deepest sense, culturally based and distinct. After ten years of active community participation in Portland I was able to discern very subtle, yet very real cultural differences between adjacent neighborhoods, though outwardly, superficially, concerning both structures and demography, there was little substantive difference.
In the opposite case very real and obvious divergences stemming from development history can occasionally be seen on either side of a thoroughfare. Surprising and substantial differences can also sometimes occur within neighborhoods. Yet, even in those instances, when looking at the larger picture, it can be seen how the disparate groups came to be assembled into a single neighborhood. Although not intended as homogeneous ethnic, racial or socioeconomic units, just about every one square mile of cityscape in a mid-sized American city (but not in suburbia) includes a range of peoples and incomes, and incorporates the human wherewithal for true self-government.
The first step in the transition to the String of Pearls city is the reorganization of the political structure to create easily-defined, geographically-based, mini-governments at the neighborhood level. To that end physical boundaries have to be set. The delineation and formalization of communities embodies no desire or intention to create barriers. In truth, there will always be much overlap, interaction and movement between neighborhoods. A single distinct urban community, no matter how microcosmic, could never provide a replete experience - we live in the city because of its wide-ranging opportunity and diversity.
The grid system is symbolic of the stumbling block inherent in trying to provide the American people of today with the ability to identify with a specific place. People sometimes have an idea what neighborhood, district or area of a city they live in, but most often there are no obvious, unambiguous markers or boundaries. With every part of the city laid out in indistinguishable grids there's no clear, simple way to differentiate between neighborhoods.
In some cities, neighborhoods are strictly conceptual, no attempt has been make to delineate boundaries. In Portland, where they have been institutionalized they often don't make sense, or are difficult or impossible to recognize instinctively. Boundaries in Portland frequently fall on residential streets; how does one explain in logical terms the anomaly of single family houses on two sides of a residential street being in different neighborhoods?
Neighborhoods do not straddle major waterways. Probably they will not cross a major highway, and usually not a major thoroughfare, but there are liable to be as many exceptions as rules. In the most extreme example they occasionally straddle freeways, a nearly impossible setting for community interaction. Even where an individual strongly identifies with a neighborhood, he/she will rarely be able to know where one ends and the other begins.
In the grid system, everything is everywhere. Except for downtown, a few other district centers which clearly stand out, freeways, large natural features and an occasional park to break the monotony, it's as if the city is poured out evenly over the landscape. Looking at a detailed map of the typical American city, neighborhoods appear to have as little individuality or distinctiveness as sheets of graph paper. Neither is there differentiation between them; their sameness extends in all directions. Each is really culturally unique but in the current fashion they are all melded together in a single overweening cityscape.
The archtypical American grid city has traffic arteries occurring every half mile in both directions. Each neighborhood in that hypothesis encompasses one square mile, and that is a perfect size for it, not least because it puts everything within walking distance. Of course, the perfect grid city does not exist; there is probably not a single instance of a city having even just two identically platted neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the general pattern of arterial or collector streets occurring approximately every half mile holds true in most American cities. Arterials may be closer together in the inner city, farther apart on the fringes, subject to topographical imperatives and otherwise deficient in one direction or the other, but the half mile imprint remains unmistakable.
The typical neighborhood in this mid-sized city will have an average 5,000 to 10,000 people making it large enough in any demographic to embody a universe of local talent. That wide range of people will have sufficient depth to spawn a core of active people capable of staffing and maintaining it as a working political and social entity. Conversely, it is still small enough for the individual to know a lot of the local denizens and if he/she chooses, to be intimately familiar with how it functions.
However, any attempt to empower neighborhoods, except in the largest cities, most often meets with implacable political resistance from municipal leaders. Neighborhood people are said to be incapable of self-government, or the assumption of any substantive role to that end. They argue that local interests are too narrow and lack citywide perspective; that governance is much better left to the technocrats in city hall.
This carries a kernel of truth in the present context since neighborhood representation ordinarily comes in the form of strictly voluntary associations that have no electoral mandate to speak for the community. Since they are self-selected their views do not necessarily represent a cross section of neighborhood residents and thus they can not be rightfully entitled to real power over local needs or issues. Moreover, it is undeniably true that urban dwellers are unaccustomed to and untrained for self government.
However unprepared urbanites are for self government, rural Oregon provides an enlightening illustration of the essential deceit in the inference that neighborhoods are incapable of legitimate decision making and inappropriate constituencies for self-government. Wheeler county, the state's smallest in population, has just 1600 people and its largest town, Fossil, only 450, but both have their own elected governments. They house no urban sophisticates - just straightforward, down-to-earth, small town people - but they have no problem governing themselves.
In contrast, Portland, with 500,000 people is governed by five commissioners elected at large, and that's the only level upon which Portlanders can vote. All governance is at a distance. Even a so-called ‘grassroots’ campaign for city commissioner requires an expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars. There's little possibility in that context that the average citizen can get to personally know his/her political leaders.
In the city of the future, governance will devolve, to the greatest extent possible, to the lowest practical level, the neighborhood. Increasing enlightenment presupposes decreasing need for governmental rules, regulations and controls. Social constraints will become incrementally obviated as people grow towards spiritually-oriented self-control and self-sufficiency.
The place to begin that movement is at the community-neighborhood level. The assumption here, based on the concept of subsidiarity espoused by E. F. Schumacher in his book "Small is Beautiful", is that everything that can be done on a local level should be done there. Governance begins on the lowest rung and jurisdiction only gets bumped up to higher levels one step at a time when necessary and unavoidable. Neighborhood government is strictly limited in its scope and capabilities, but wherever it can be allowed to function it will most often accrue to everyone's benefit.
There are several reasons why this is true. Firstly, it's a level which allows business to be taken care of in an easy, personal, friendly manner. Smallness allows for simplicity, economy, efficiency in organization and the ability to get a lot closer to the desires and wishes of the citizenry. The curse of bureaucracy has become a major bane of our existence. Efficient bureaucracy is at best an oxymoron because even when it is functioning competently it may well be doing the wrong thing. For instance, until recently Portland's bureaucracy required that every local street improvement be a minimum width, paved to a high standard and come replete with curbs, sewers and sidewalks. That was true even when it was a dead-end street with only one house on it and that solitary property owner might have preferred to have a primitive single lane driveway and leave the rest green.
Many urban functions can only be undertaken on a citywide level. A neighborhood is not going to have jurisdiction over a freeway that happened to run through or adjacent to it, though it could have some very minor input in its design phase. Neither would thoroughfares or even collector streets come within neighborhood purview. However, they could easily be given substantial, if not total, control of strictly local streets within their boundaries.
Here is an anecdote from my past as a neighborhood activist in Portland. Several of us spent about three months in weekly meetings giving our input to help the city's development commission draw up a master plan for our one little four acre park. It was an interesting process and we were glad to help. A few months after it went into effect one of the committee members, who happened to live right next to the park, saw a city employee making changes to it in glaring contradiction to the master plan. When questioned, the city park worker responded, "What master plan?"
There's nothing so complicated or difficult about maintaining a small park that demands a generously-compensated civil service worker. That is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with government paying a decent wage. Some neighborhoods would certainly choose to go that route for their park staffs. Others, at the low end of the income spectrum, would more likely use volunteers and/or seek out donations and/or set up work-for-assistance exchanges.
Hardly any facet of caring for a little park either requires or benefits by bureaucratic intervention. Most importantly, there's no possibility that a master plan would be unbeknownst to a park employee hired by the neighborhood.
Getting elected on a community level means the ability to knock on every door and personally talk to the majority of residents. In that scenario people are able to feel a direct connection to their elected leaders and if there's a problem, they know exactly where to go and who to talk to. There's little likelihood that the average citizen would feel intimidated or distant from his/her neighborhood leaders. They're at most a short walk away.
There is a pervasive and growing alienation from and indifference to the political process in America today which constitutes a cogent argument against adding another layer of government. At the same time this may be the answer to getting people involved because this new government would be created on a level in which they can really have input and clearly make a difference.
The second primary reason for redesigning within a neighborhood context is that community-level movement uses minimal energy. If an individual can get around and take care of the business of daily life consuming no more than a little shoe leather and a few extra calories, that person's life has been tremendously simplified and his/her walk is a gift to all of his/her fellow urban dwellers. The benefits include no traffic, no energy consumption, no pollution, no noise, no danger, no urban land consumption for parking space and no personal tension from the stress of driving.
Personal vehicles will of course be vastly changed a century from now. They'll be electric and/or super efficient at least partly from the impetus of energy scarcity. Considering the earth's population, predictable future growth and accelerating economic capability in the light of finite resources, we will unquestionably see fossil fuel prices rise to astronomical levels in the coming century.
Electric vehicles, various organic alternatives to fossil fuels and advances in technology we haven't even conceived of yet will have their impact, but in the final tabulation there will be no turning back the clock to the nearly boundless mobility of today. Current relatively low energy prices based on an ostensibly unlimited supply, allow and encourage excessive and unrestrained use of private vehicles. They will always be part of society but the citizens of the future will need them less and perforce, learn to use them sparingly.
We may be pulled to neighborhood orientation by the simple beauty and health of the lifestyle, or we may be pushed by energy costs that make long distance commuting prohibitively expensive, or a combination of both. The motivation to devolve urban governance down to the local community level is based on the reality of its combined social healthiness and material plane efficiency. It serves economic needs and the personal need for belonging and community within easy walking distance.
The establishment of boundaries giving neighborhoods legitimate status, followed by the creation of mini governments that empower the individual through devolving city bureaucracy are the two initial steps in revising urban design into a pattern based on neighborhoods as the city's fundamental building blocks. However, by themselves, without reordering the physical structure of the city, their effect in regards to livability and efficiency would be somewhat limited.
For instance, in the archtypical grid city neighborhood of five to ten thousand people inhabiting one square mile, there will be arterials every half mile. Streets carrying traffic inscribe a cross in the center as well as define the boundaries. Each of them will be peppered with commercial uses. Because of competition from suburban shopping malls and megastores, inner city commercial activity will commonly be scattered with frequent storefront vacancies or vacant lots. Even where neighborhood commerce is relatively healthy one will frequently see parking lots and spaces between stores. Taken as a whole the effect will be urban activity spread thin over the length of all of the arterials. A healthy concentrated commercial strip will appear in places, even at times an actual neighborhood center, but those will be exceptions.
It is very difficult to create a walking culture – the ability to take care of daily business - in that scenario. The hardware store may be on the north boundary, the barber shop on the south, the bakery in the center. This is clearly not ‘pedestrian friendly’. Even if an individual's destinations are all on the same street, the very nature of a strip places them far enough apart, as much as one mile, to discourage walking.
In contrast, the 20 acres of commercial space that lines both sides of a mile of traffic street, when placed in a cluster, reduces maximum distance between stores from one mile to three-tenths of a mile. Extended further, if all of the neighborhood's pedestrian storefront space is gathered together from all of its arterials and placed into a commercial core at its center then everything can be done in one location. Since no point in the neighborhood is more than one half mile away it is a conducive setting for walking and bicycling - only the people at the edge of the neighborhood would be tempted to drive to the center.
Apartment dwellers tend to be single and without children. Consequently they are likely to be more outgoing, more interested in being around other people and drawn to whatever excitement the city or in this case the neighborhood has to offer. However, apartments in the grid city, much as its commercial activity, are also scattered around, thus causing their urbanizing, densifying influence to be partly nullified. Auto ownership amongst apartment dwellers is only marginally less than that of single family homeowners. Multi-family housing also tends to be located on the arterial strips, essentially juxtaposing the most people with the heaviest traffic; thus resulting in a major downgrade of livability.
In contrast, this urban plan for the future takes ten percent of the neighborhood's land area - as close as practicable to its geographic center - and develops a mini-downtown with multi-story mixed use buildings sufficient to house 50% of the neighborhood's people and almost all of its pedestrian-friendly commercial space. The presence of as many as five thousand people in a small high density core establishes the preconditions and necessary pedestrian critical mass for strong storefront activity.
It isn't imperative that the high density node be exactly in the center, though obviously, the closer it is the more convenient it will be to the greatest number of people. If there's an existing, even if somewhat rudimentary, business area closer to the border of the neighborhood, it would likely still remain the preferred location for neighborhood core creation. Many neighborhoods will have more than one center. There can be no hard and fast rules when dealing with an existing city.
The premise that domicile in the city of the future is by choice - that people will want to be there - requires a consideration of the success of the suburban shopping mall. They will not exist as such in the String of Pearls city because they are stultifyingly sterile; incapable of expressing character and individuality. Equally important they are predicated on an automobile culture that will not and can not exist to the same extent in the future. Nevertheless, they clearly point to where advanced urban design needs to focus if it is going to satisfy people's needs and desires.
What is it that makes them so popular that even many city dwellers will bypass downtown and their local stores to drive far out into the suburbs to shop? Firstly, and most importantly, everything is in one place; you have to park and get out of your car only one time. Moreover, once you've entered the mall there's no traffic with its attendant noise, pollution and danger. Finally, pedestrian areas are wide, uncrowded and adorned with planters and street furniture.
For many people climate control is also important, but this will be least important to the future city dweller. Hot, cold, wet and windy are all parts of a healthy, natural, organic lifestyle, and a fundamental part of existence. Cities of extreme hot and cold will make some exceptions to soften this rule, but regardless, they're not likely to create totally climate-controlled malls.
Applying the lessons of the appeal of the shopping mall to the String of Pearls neighborhood requires that commercial activity be concentrated in a people-friendly central location (or locations) that severely limits vehicle access. This is done by moving traffic, that is, through traffic, to the boundary arterials concurrently with the movement of storefront commercial activity toward the center.
In place of the low density city spread thin with each arterial having a weak smattering of commerce and multifamily housing, each neighborhood becomes a microcosm of the city as a whole with a mixed use ‘downtown’ surrounded by low density housing and then, as we see in the next chapter, green space.
Irrespective of the certain and vast changes due to take place in future personal auto use, there will always be a need to accommodate private vehicles. In some cases - late at night, carrying children, in extreme weather - they'll always be preferred. In nearly all cases, excepting only the largest, densest cities, nothing will be able to discourage a majority of people from owning private vehicles. While this book is predicated on confidence that neighborhood-oriented design can tremendously improve the efficacy and viability of pedestrian, bicycle and transit movement, it is foolish to ever think that the majority of people can be enticed into giving up their cars.
Quite a few of my friends are carless. I admire them; the more people who don't drive the better for all of us. As I get older I derive less and less pleasure behind the wheel. A leisurely fifty mile per hour drive on an idyllic country highway is still an enjoyable experience but hassling city traffic is something I do my best to avoid, it embodies absolutely no redeeming value.
I've spent a lot of time driving including several years professionally. Conversely, my life has been graced with extended car free periods - 13 years all told in settings both urban and rural, home and abroad. For occasional stretches, as long as 3 or 4 months, I’ve been without wheels in Portland. Compared to many equivalently sized cities, Portland is doable via alternate means, but I would not purposely choose that route. The inconvenience, excessive time consumption and immobility that accompany transit dependency are tolerable for short periods, but otherwise I feel deprived without a car. I use it much less than most drivers - won't allow myself to fire it up for short trips - but couldn't be functional without it. I'd be curfewed after dinner and on Sundays and almost every other time I ventured past walking distance. Except for short trips downtown, I'd have to spend an inordinate amount of time going anywhere. There is no practical, realistic, alternative future without private vehicles.
The fundamental dilemma revolves around the axiom that we will never enjoy the presence of, or feel safe being in close proximity to, large numbers of autos regardless of the relatively benign impacts of future vehicles compared to today's. There will always be enough of them around to compel us to devise urban patterns that clearly separate people from traffic regardless of the extent that we may be able to reduce future auto dependence through good design and advancing culture.
The following are three illustrations from my personal experience.
Back in the forties, I was riding with my father on a major street near downtown Cleveland, Ohio that had two parking and at least four traffic lanes. We were going a bit over the speed limit as our car approached an intersection when we hit and seriously injured a man who was dashing across the street trying to catch a bus that was taking on passengers.
In the late sixties, as a New York cab driver, I was out working on one of those sweltering summer days in what turned out to be one of the worst days of my life. I had already had one of those ultimate hack-driver's days from hell, was two hours late for an important date and felt stressed and frustrated in a edge-city state of mind. Driving too fast on my way back to the garage on a mixed-use cross-town street I spotted some kids up ahead playing in the fount of an open hydrant.
A quick and ultimately fateful decision was required - I could stop and close the windows or go through a little faster to try to minimize an otherwise certain drenching. I chose the latter and creamed a teenager running across the street whose fun in the water made him oblivious to my speeding approach. He flew through the air, I broke most of his bones; being fat probably saved his life. The sight of him flying through the air will be with me always.
In the mid eighties my teenage son was riding his bike in Portland on a moderate traffic two lane commercial street that didn't include space for bicycles. A car was coming fast on his left as he approached a parked car whose rear fender was jutting out into the inadequate bicycle area. Afraid to swerve out of the way into the path of the oncoming car he smashed into the parked car and was left with stitches on his leg and a broken hand. A small margin of difference in his reflexes might have had much more serious consequences.
Everyone has their own tragic traffic stories to tell.
These three incidents all point to the difficulty, if not impossibility, of safely combining vehicle traffic with any other form of transportation, or any land use not specifically designed for and exclusively dedicated to vehicle movement. No traffic system can be totally safe, but until we decide that health and safety is important enough to put our resources into a best effort, we will pay with danger and tragedy.
In place of current urban street design which places all modes of movement - walking, bicycling, and all types of motor vehicles - in close and dangerous proximity, greenbelt transportation corridors are created. Within the corridor there is ample space to channel vehicle traffic, bicycles and pedestrians into their own designated rights-of-way with the alternate modes separated from the traffic by sufficient green space to eliminate all impacts. Whenever potential use warrants there would also be ample space to build interurban mass transit.
Greenbelt transportation corridors range in concept from expanded boulevard to urban parkway. Both have restricted access and limited cross traffic. The classic boulevard is a wide street with ample pedestrian spaces, plentiful green areas and rows of trees. Parkways have greenbelts and possibly grade separations from local traffic to enable faster average driving speeds. Boulevards average 35 to 40 mph, parkways 40 to 50 mph.
Depending on the amount and type of traffic involved as well as the surrounding neighborhood in each individual case, the corridor ranges from 100 feet to 400 feet. Four hundred feet is the design standard and long term goal but corridors are likely to be much narrower in the center city. Governments will also tend to make accommodations to existing uses for very extended periods. In place of current urban design in which every arterial carries at least moderately heavy traffic and is fronted by a hodgepodge of scattered uses, all through traffic is essentially routed around the neighborhood into the boundary arterials. Aside from the occasional sightseer, no one without specific business in the neighborhood's interior would chose to hassle the slow traffic there if they could breeze around it on a pleasant, fast, safe thoroughfare.
These corridors do contain some commercial activity, but it’s largely confined to auto-oriented facilities such as gas stations, garages, auto parts stores and fast food outlets, and those activities are eventually limited to greenbelt intersections. Also, depending on the character of adjacent areas, they may contain light industry. However, in no case are those other uses allowed to interfere with the greenbelt's two primary functions of insuring safe passage for all forms of movement and including sufficient green space to protect all in proximity from traffic's negative impacts. Whenever secondary activity is allowed in the corridors, frontage roads are required to minimize traffic slowing and hazards.
Assuming a 400 foot corridor, 200 on each side of the traffic, this allocates about 15% of the neighborhood's land area, about 60 acres, to these boundary greenbelts. Most people activity now enjoys an approximate 200 foot green buffer from traffic. As the greenbelt trees attain maturity and stature they will muffle traffic noise and filter pollutants, not to mention add immeasurably to the city's ambiance. There will also be space for other uses such as community gardens and playgrounds on the outside edge away from traffic.
Some greenbelts could be turned into strip arboretums. As this design for the future will almost always begin with existing cities many greenbelt locations will already contain a wide variety of exotic or ornamental trees. Alternatively each corridor could have its signature tree; for instance, a row of trees of a single species planted on immediate traffic frontage. They would preferably be evergreens to keep a dense green buffer in all seasons. Imagine a couple of centuries down the line, in a place like the Pacific Northwest, a cathedral-like row of towering cedars or firs. These forests also serve as a resource base. As trees die, are blown down in storms or otherwise need to be culled, the city has a potential source of fuel, lumber and craft wood.
If stream corridors are added to transportation greenbelts then as much as twenty percent of the city is reserved as forest corridors. The presence of these natural forests within a few blocks of every resident, even with high traffic volumes nearby, would transform people's subjective response to the city. Now there is relief from, and contrast to, the feeling of oppression that stems from the mass city. The majesty of old growth forests and the feelings of awe that they evoke eventually becomes an essential part of the urban experience. With forests nearby to relieve the pressure of urban living, high density becomes much less problematical and is no longer antithetical to the average person's worldview.
Now autos never have to go 'through' a neighborhood. A fast, convenient, beautiful system of greenways through the city has been established that is no more than one half mile from any residence or activity. Traffic lights occur at no more than half mile intervals. Eventually many greenbelt intersections include simple overpasses to speed and smooth traffic.
Access is limited to major intersections or frontage roads. All cross traffic is eliminated, thus smoothing and increasing flow and reducing danger. For autos driving through, the city will be a relatively congestion-free experience. Plentiful space is available to accommodate any type of traffic upgrade. Today street capacity improvements are often held back by the need to acquire property and the difficulty and expense of working in confined spaces, that is, doing street construction while maintaining traffic flow.
For bicycling, one further addition is made to complete the system. Bike paths on the interior streets that connect neighborhood cores to the greenbelts are added to those circling every neighborhood and to those by the streamsides. It is now possible to go just about anywhere in the city within a few blocks of one's destination without having to mix with vehicle traffic. Truly, there can be no substantial use of bicycles in our urban areas until vehicles and bicycles are kept separate to the greatest extent possible. Yes we can greatly increase bike use over the present few percentage points, but the 20 percent or more that is needed to make our cities truly livable will not be possible without a fundamental revamp of our attitude and commitment.
Corridors also provide ample space for long distance mass transit. With plentiful land available and already paid for, transit projects become much less expensive and easier to accomplish.
Urban freeways have pretty much ended their expansionary days. The combination of very high cost, greedy use of land, extreme disruption of the urban fabric and near universal dislike by all in proximity make new construction nearly impossible. The traffic corridor concept, moreover, is an ideal substitute for any traffic need.
In a relatively compact mid sized city the time differential between using a freeway and this proposed system of traffic corridors will be minor, a few minutes at most on a trip all the way across town. The freeway itself is faster but the corridor system has a distinct advantage in much greater coverage, placing the driver much closer to his/her destination. Many urban locations can be three or more miles from a freeway compared to nearly everyplace being no more than half mile from a corridor. This design also has important advantages in providing alternate routes when accidents or necessary maintenance causes arterial closures or constrictions.
Most importantly the cost differential between freeway and traffic corridor is enormous. One mile of freeway costs the equivalent of ten or twenty miles of greenbelt. Since the corridor roadway, or a substantial part of it, will already exist in most cases, all that may be needed aside from land acquisition is a little upgrading of the road surface, signaling, lane painting, and blocking of local streets. In place of massive, expensive, intrusive freeways that serve only motor vehicles we have pleasant, multi-purpose urban forests that accomplish the same goal.
The only category of traffic which, as long as it lasts, justifies freeway use is big trucks, though even in that case a combination of technological advances and 200 feet of green space ought to eliminate almost all of the impacts to other nearby uses. In most instances big trucks tend to stay in a narrow range of destinations within industrial areas.
If freeways are needed at all, a skeletal system will suffice. In fact, we may find that as the corridor system takes shape, people prefer driving corridors to freeways because it is a much more pleasant and relatively stress free experience. Regardless of any time advantage of freeways, the point will come when, for numerous reasons, many of them will have become superfluous and can be eliminated. All things considered in this design for the future, urban freeways will see a lot less use and have a lot less prominence than today.