Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A difference of perspective

Recently on Twitter, Steve Mouzon (@stevemouzon) asked his followers how many daily activities they could complete by walking. It's an innocent enough question, but being the internet in 2017, it yielded quite a few aggressive responses from suburbanites horrified of the prospect of giving up their cars.

Thing is, I think a lot of the animosity has to do with differences of perspective. My guess is that a lot of the commentators, when they think of a walkable, urban city, immediately envision Times Square rather than Park Slope or a traditional small town. It's not ignorance, it's just that most suburban Americans have so little experience with walkable neighborhoods that it's difficult even to imagine what it might look like or what it's like to live there. Sure there are fantastic examples of traditional urbanism in North America, but it's so rare that most Americans have never seen it (and even those that do rarely spend enough time or thought to empathize what living there might be like). Walkable urbanism is so far removed from the average American existence that it might as well be the moon.

I used to be one of those people, in a way. While I disliked the suburbs intensely, it was more because of the low quality architecture and hideous strip malls, and while I admired beautiful European cities on photos, I had no idea what it was actually like to be a resident. That all changed when I lived in London and finally got to experience how liberating it could be to live without being dependent on a car for everything. And that's a completely different perspective.

If we want to see more walkable communities being built, we need to show suburbanites that being without a car is not a nightmare, but rather extremely liberating. It requires some adjustments, obviously, but most of them are for the better, in my opinion.

Responding to some of the comments
Amidst the baseless accusations of smugness, F* you's, and other insults, it was clear that many commentators didn't seem to understand that this was a comparison between traditional urbanism and sprawl (where the vast majority of Americans live). It doesn't apply to farmers and others living in truly rural locations. Still, although it's true that in most of the US farmers live miles away from town, this hasn't been the model throughout most of human history. Farmers used to live in rural villages, with their land surrounding the villages. Being a farmer and living in a vibrant social community was therefore not mutually exclusive.

There are a couple of replies regarding how is one to do the weekly grocery trip without a car. In walkable communities, rather than a weekly shopping trip, you stop in at the corner grocery on your way back from work or when you're coming back from errands, buying only what you need for a day or two. It's easy when walking is part of your daily routine, and you get the benefit of always eating fresh food.

Another common argument I saw was along the lines of "no thanks, I don't want to be assaulted" or "I like my peace and quiet". It's certainly very regrettable that many inner city areas, especially in the US, have high levels of crime, but that's a whole different discussion and not related to the inherent values of urban living. Furthermore, there are plenty of residential urban neighborhoods throughout the US where crime is not commonplace. The latter comment is in a similar vein. Both these commentators have clearly never been somewhere like Park Slope, or the many neighborhoods in cities throughout Europe, which are often just as peaceful and quiet as the suburbs. I lived on a terraced street in North London for a few months which had almost no cars driving through, and as a result was more quiet than the suburban street I grew up on in Indiana.

Some people will always need a car occasionally (plenty of people in London have a car), but the point is that it's not needed every day. The car is there for the occasional larger shopping trip, or excursions out of town on weekends, but you're not tied to it for your daily commute and could easily go without it thanks to taxis, public transit, and car sharing.

To all those accusing pro-urbanists of trying to inflict our views on them, don't forget that since the 1960's almost all new development in North America has been car-centric, and in most cities it's very difficult if not impossible to live without a car. So if anything, those who would prefer to walk have for years been forced to live with a car, even if they don't want to!

Making urban living more appealing
If we turn the discussion towards how to better promote urban living for those who are skeptical, another very important missing factor in most debates is beauty. Quite the opposite, in fact, with city officials these days going out of their way to avoid discussing design and beauty, such as when former NYC Planning Director Amanda Burden
said: "We never talk about design. We have never talked about design."

For centuries cities cared about architecture and promoted beauty with various regulations ranging from setbacks to the kind of brick used, but in the second half of the 20th century it became taboo. And we're to be surprised that cities look more and more ugly by the day, or that people then don't want to live in them? Urbanists and planners can talk for hours about the benefits of walkable communities (health, stronger local economies, stronger social connections, etc.) but if they're not appealing places to live, they'll never gain traction. Making more beautiful neighborhoods would also lower the barrier of entry. Right now beautiful historic neighborhoods are prohibitively expensive precisely because they're so rare, but if we built more beautiful new urban neighborhoods, there would likely be less people wanting to move to one of the few historic neighborhoods left and housing prices wouldn't be so extreme (supply and demand and all).

Only a very small fraction of the population (those without a sense of beauty) tolerate living somewhere full of sterile glass boxes. Unfortunately those are the sort of places being built around the world, and it really pains me. Lovable communities must be beautiful, period. Ignoring beauty is a losing game.