…Are all we need to fulfill our desire for livable, human scaled towns and cities. This is the essence of the argument made by Nathan Lewis, an economist who also writes very eloquently about Cities. This post by Mr. Lewis is about how the work of the New Urbanists misses the boat. It’s an interesting read, as are all his entries.
I find this to be a brilliantly simple distillation of many ideas that are out there. Transit oriented development, bike friendly, pedestrian scaled. All of these things are easily accomplished by simply building really narrow streets. How narrow? Think of any great City you’ve travelled to, and imagine the historic district. Rome, Santorini, Venice, Bath, Tokyo-they all have streets that are sized primarily for people to walk. And they wind up being about 15-20 feet wide. The genius of this is that there is simply no accommodation for cars. Cars can pass on some narrow streets, but it is clearly not their environment, so they do not dominate the landscape.
Because the buildings are so close together, it is pretty easy to walk wherever you want. The compact city can fit enough stuff within an easy walking radius. This allows transit to make sense, once the landscape is filled up with buildings and people instead of roads and free (or inexpensive) parking.
Miraculously, no one complains about how crappy these traditional cities are. Would it be at all possible to do something like this in the United States? For whatever reasons, we built our cities with very wide streets, even before the landscape was dominated by cars. Christopher Alexander and his team designed a school campus in Tokyo, and this idea is readily apparent in the photos.
It’s hard to even imagine something like this in the United States. We only have a few cities that have traditional cores, such as Boston. Most of our cities are enslaved by the grid, most have huge roadways and tons of surface parking lots. I won’t even bother talking about the suburban development. Why is this important? Because the entire country seems at risk of becoming a giant automobile slum. For most American towns, does anyone bother to visit them because the town-scape is so lovely? Probably not. Does anyone take pictures of the streets? Maybe the buildings, but surely not the streets. Traditional towns have embedded in them the secret to making significant places. These are places that people care about, that have thriving communities, and that reinforce and establish strong social connections. In the US, we have to dutifully get in our cars to maintain our social connections. And that time has no secondary benefit, and rarely is the journey part of the pleasure. It’s all destination, and they are becoming increasingly costly, both in money and in time.
Here’s a photoshopped image of what a local shopping district could look like if we used the 15-20 foot narrow street rule. Not bad, add some housing above, and a train station down the way, and we might be on to something.