I'm not an urban planner, but the subject is something I care passionately about. I think our cities have been diminished by an automobile culture which thwarts human interaction. I'm not anti-car, but I'm opposed to planning for them. Iowa City needs another parking ramp like it needs another downtown shopping mall.
Cities are where people come together to meet, work, enjoy culture and, in general, be social. More and more though, cities (and suburbs) are becoming places where cars come together to sit in traffic and create hydrocarbons. Ever wonder why people will do things to other people in their cars they would never do as pedestrians? There's something about cars, as handy and enjoyable as cars can be, that turn people into islands where they feel immunity from human contact. Add cellular telephone conversations into the mix, together with cars that encourage aggressive driving (SUVs and pickup trucks driven as passenger cars) and you have urban areas that are becoming increasingly unpleasant.
Gasoline should be very, very expensive. In terms of constant dollars, gasoline prices really haven't changed much since 1967. Americans are willing to pay much more for bottled water than they pay for motor fuels. It's no wonder cars are getting bigger and, if you buy one over 8,500 lbs., the Bush Administration is willing to give you a nice tax credit on it if you plan on using it in your business. No wonder so many pimps drive Escalades and Yukons! Perhaps at $8 for a gallon of unleaded we could get into smaller cars (and perhaps stop pushing our interest by going to war in certain middle-eastern countries with the end goal of privatizing their economies). If you think driving a small care is unsafe, think of how many times you've been in a standard sized vehicle with an SUV tailgating you because it's driver doesn't think you're going sufficiently fast--who creates the unsafe situation? Click here for your "I'm Changing the Climate! Ask Me How!" bumperstickers.
Jane Jacobs, Order of Ontario award-winning urban theorist
Planning cities with vehicles in mind is not an effective way to build center cities in which most of us are willing to live. Toronto's Jane Jacobs, an urban planning sage and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, promoted the idea of removing parking requirements for inner city housing projects and adaptive re-use projects. The result of this strategy was to encourage rehabituation of neighborhoods with people who don't seem to care that there's no guaranteed place to store their vehicles. Believe it or not some people actually choose to live without cars. It shouldn't be a surprise that Vancouver, a city with only .64 mile of freeway is such a liveable place--it has terrible car traffic, but if you aren't a driver it's not such a big deal and if you're a pedestrian, streets with slow moving traffic are easier to cross. One of Jacob's tenets is the idea that "new ideas require old buildings." Consequently she opposed what many considered "slum" clearance. Many cities now regret what they've built and are learning to miss what they've torn down. Iowa City demolished many historic and useful buildings--much of its history--to build a now mostly vacant and charmless shopping mall, dreary and dark pedestrian mall and an out of place high-rise hotel; all done using the power of imminent domain which makes it shameful to the tenth power. Government power to take public streets into the private domain of a shopping mall. Sadly, Iowa City is full of Iowans who refuse to look at other cities for examples; in other words, Iowa City is in the process of making the same mistakes it made thirty years ago. Fortunately we have a captive population of students to keep downtown Iowa City alive no matter how many planning mistakes our city leaders rubberstamp. Here's another Jane Jacobs page.
Richard Florida, author of Rise of the Creative Class has some great ideas on what makes great cities who suggests that places that are (among other things of course) welcoming to gay populations and rock and roll bands tend to draw populations that are entrepreneurial.
Sharing the Roads and Sidewalks
I live in Iowa City, Iowa, a city full of undergraduates from affluent Chicago suburbs. Students whose parents regard the purchase of cars for their children a birthright. And those cars are getting larger and taller every year. I have 20 year-old work study employees that can't imagine walking 1/2 mile across campus. The University of Iowa and the City of Iowa City continues to build more parking ramps, enforces traffic regulations hardly at all and discourages the building of high density housing in useful places (like downtown). Iowa City's solution to bicycle traffic is to force it to share facilities with pedestrians, a bad mix of uses, rather than demand bicyclist share the road with vehicles and demand that vehicles give way to those bicyclists. I bicycle in Iowa City almost every day and think of myself as a one-man traffic calming device (those of you who are religious, your prayers are welcomed). Bicycles have the effect of slowing vehicular traffic, a good thing for our cities even if it does inconvenience drivers. Poor drivers.
While Iowa City is encouraging the urban planning sin of sprawl by allowing
minimum lot size developments, The city has also encouraged an example
of New Urbanism to be developed: Houses on small lots, very close together
with multi-family housing mixed in. There are also plans for "live-work"
housing units. The development is called The
Peninsula and I have to say it looks good but... it's not in an urban
area. The development is in a bend on the Iowa River that is at least
2 1/2 miles from downtown Iowa City. There is currently no mass transit
available in the area and there probably won't be for quite some time.
So far, the development is not catching on and I don't think it's because
it's not a good idea so much as the unfortunate location--sure one can
walk around the development easily enough, but to get to shopping or to
workplaces, a car is necessary. This developement should have been built
on land that became available after the Old Capitol Mall get torn down.
Alas, the mall has been bought by some local investors who are prepared
to make another go of it. Read
my guest editorial in the Iowa City Press-Citizen suggesting what
should be done with Old Capitol Mall.
Have a listen to this KUOW
Radio Intersection interview with Alan Durning of NW
Environment Watch about different approaches to sprawl in Seattle,
Portland and Vancouver here
(requires Real Audio player).
Memorial to Iowa City's latest pedestrian fatality--killed in a crosswalk
by an SUV driver. Iowa City continues its lax enforcement
of laws protecting pedestrians.
I'm a proponent of uppity pedestrianism. Not that I want anyone to risk
their life trying to cross the street, but pedestrians need to promote
their own interests. Automobile drivers need to be reminded that, according
to state laws, every intersection contains understood crosswalks whether
they are marked as such or not. Drivers have a responsibility to yield
to pedestrians at the places (and should yield to pedestrians at every
other location). While drivers complain about jaywalking pedestrians,
invariably the same drivers don't yield to pedestrians at places where
they can legally cross. Make it beneficial for pedestrians to cross legally
and they tend to do so as anyone who has visited a city on the west coast
or practically any city in Canada can attest. The last pedestrian fatality
in Iowa City was a young woman hit by (surprise!) an SUV making a right
turn hit a pedestrian in the crosswalk killing her almost instantly. She
was 21 years old and a UI Senior. Here's
a good pedestrian rights site from my hometown of Atlanta (one of the
worst places in the United States to be on foot).