Sunday, June 26, 2011

Suburbs Pt. 2

This is a follow up to my previous post. This talk by James Kunstler says much of what I was trying to say, only much better and with more character. It has a slightly different focus as well. He talks primarily about public space and community.

The Suburbs? No!

This post is a response to a post by Joel Crevier over at Reflect andWonder. In it, he laments the suburbs.
I struggle to understand why people would want to move into a neighborhood where almost all of the houses are cut from the same sort of architectural plan, and every house looks eerily similar (though I am assured by the residents in these houses that their house is somehow unique and different from the others). Regardless, the lack of variation and creativity that is found in your typical cookie cutter suburb makes me gag.

I empathize with his feelings, especially after living in a sub-division just like that during middle and high school. There are many reasons why sub-divisions are less than ideal, to put it mildly, two of the most important of which Joel hits. After mentioning buildings being relatively far apart, and a confusing, winding street network, he points out,

Instead of an atmosphere that cultivates normal communal relationships, the suburbs encourages people to live in isolation from each other without giving them the jarring feeling that they are completely alone and secluded. This is the reason that these neighborhoods are alluring to people.

This is the problem with sub-divisions, they are a hybrid between country and city that tries to give people the best of both, but they fail and are able to neither deliver the privacy and quiet that makes the country appealing, or the dynamism and community that are the strength of cities. They fail because they try to combine two mutually exclusive things, the country and the city.

Since living in the country is not feasible unless we want to go back to an agrarian society of predominantly farmers, the question seems to how can we improve the suburbs to make them more like the best of the city while trying to improve on the weaknesses.

One key to the city is the network of roads. Most modern cities are laid out on a grid, which makes it easy to orient yourself and navigate. It also creates lots of intersections where you can choose where to go and gives you a more direct route from any point to any point than cul-de-sacs and winding streets can. A fine-grained street network does not necessarily have to be a grid. Medieval towns that grew up naturally provide great examples of this. In a sub-division that is full of cul-de-sacs, you don't have many options if you want to go anywhere. Generally there will only be one or two ways out.

Another major difference between a sub-division and a city neighborhood is that there will be a mixture of uses in a city, while a sub-division will only have one. In the suburbs, there will be residential areas with only houses, malls, where all the commercial buildings are, and maybe office or industrial parks. There are schools and churches too. These different areas will be separated. There won't be a store in the middle a bunch of houses and there won't be houses in malls. This is completely different from in a city, where there will be retail stores on the ground floor of most buildings, with offices or residential units, or hotels or whatever really on the floors above. This makes a difference in what brings people onto a street, and how far they have to go for things. In the suburbs, only shoppers and people who work at the stores go to the malls. Only people who live on a street would need to go to that street, especially when it is a cul-de-sac that doesn't go anywhere. Only people who work at an office park would go there. In contrast, on a city street, business men will be walking to lunch or a meeting, people will be out shopping or running errands, the people who live on the street will be going back and forth. This makes the street much more vibrant and interesting. One of the keys to why this is is that things are much closer, so people don't have to get in their cars and drive to wherever they are going. Because people aren't ensconced in a thousand pounds of steel, it is easier to meet and interact with your neighbors in the course of daily life. Most cities don't meet up to the ideal, but it does give some indications on how to improve the suburbs.

Most people don't want to live on really busy streets, but there is no reason that a street with mixed uses can't be quiet, treelined, with buildings that are one or two storeys. Cross streets could have single family homes or townhouses, and there could be small parks where children could play. Mixed-use does not have to be busy or very dense to improve on the current paradigm that governs suburban building. Aesthetic homogeneity would be combated by building that have different uses and needs, so must look different. Also, the constant changes needed to keep all the different uses in balance would continuously diversify the look of the neighborhood. As stores grew or went out of business, more people moved in and larger buildings were built, the neighborhood would evolve naturally.

A neighborhood like I have described is not a cure-all but it can and does exist. Northwest Portland, Queen Ann in Seattle, and the area around Denver University are examples. Personally, I would not want to live in a neighborhood just like this. I prefer more dense, busy, urban areas.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Victoria, Old Women, and Traffic Calming

I visited Victoria, B.C. today. I have visited a few times before, but it's an interesting city that keeps getting more interesting each time I visit. There were two things that I noticed that really surprised me about the city that I hadn't noticed before. One was the large percentage (maybe even half) of the cyclists were in Lycra. There was even a guy in Lycra shorts and a dress shirt. There were definitely some citizen cyclists out there,but vehicular cycling seemed to be much more predominant than in Grand Rapids. Victoria has the highest mode share for bikes in Canada, 4.8% in 2003, while Grand Rapids has a mode share of only 2.1%. In Grand Rapids, most cyclists that I see seem to be more along the lines of citizen cyclists than vehicular. Maybe this is because Victoria is more affluent, so there are more cyclists who do so out of choice rather than necessity? I don't know.

The other thing that I noticed that really struck me was that while riding the bus, it seemed that there was a disproportionate number of middle aged or older women. If mother and Grandmothers are any indication, that population group has a very low tolerance for uncertainty and the impression of danger. BC Transit must be doing something right if they convey safety and reliability that well. I was also impressed by how high ridership levels were.

To close, I also saw my favorite example of traffic calming I have ever come across. It was a residential road with cement planters stuck in the middle of the travel lane; staggered so that cars had to move through single file.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


 A theme, if you will, that I have been thinking and reading about recently has been an emphasis on specificity and narrative, rather than abstraction and data, or rules. This train of thought actually started in the Christian theology class I took this spring, which really emphasized the interpreting the bible in light of the whole narrative arc, rather than by using “proof texts” to make specific points. A key component of this is understanding context.

I am always excited when I find that the intellectual journey that I seem to be on is mirrored by others, so I was happy to find that Patrol has a wonderful, insightful piece by Jonathan Fitzgerald on The Beautifully Ambiguous Bible. In it, he talks about how he wanted to get past all the stories in the Bible so he could find the rules. He talks of how he has grown past that and appreciates the stories and the ambiguity that comes with narrative. When we realize that the vast majority of the Bible is composed of stories, and not lists, or rules, or formulas, it may not change how we believe we ought to act, but the focus of our lives shifts. Tony Woodlief, in a piece from Image Magazine, tries to explain why Christian writing is so bad, says,
“I think we might craft better characters if we accept that every one of us is journeying the path between heaven and hell, and losing his way, and rushing headlong one direction before abruptly changing course to dash in the other, and hearing rumors about what lies ahead, and hoping and dreading in his heart what lies each way, and grabbing hold of someone by the arm or by the hair and dragging, sometimes from love and sometimes from hate and sometimes from both.”
Rather than a strict dichotomy that comes from rules, we can accept the varied richness of experience. The neat tidiness of most modern Christian fiction that is judged “by criteria like message and wholesomeness and theological purity” does not reflect either the working of God in creation or ambiguous nature of the stories in the Bible. Woodlief again astutely points out that “wholesome” art is not not what it claims to be, “because insofar as art is stripped of the world’s sin and suffering it is not really whole at all.”

The books and movies, or paintings for that matter, that have had the most impact on me have always been messy. Even something like The Lord of the Rings, which has very clear distinctions between good and evil, is not cut and dried. Characters struggle with themselves, and even when good has one out, there are still consequences of evil that are not completely rapped up.

I don't really have a point I am trying to make, I suppose this is just something I have been thinking about and felt the need to express it. If you have any thought on the subject, feel free to comment.