Tag Archives: observations

Quick Take: Cars ≠ Freedom

I came across this passage on BostonBiker.org.  The post addresses two main issues that author has with cars.  While coming from a cyclist’s perspective, the post raised points relevant to anybody seeking a more rational approach to our cities.

I though the second passage of the post, on the mistaken idea that cars=freedom, was worth posting in full.  If you enjoy it, and/or have comments, please leave them on the Boston Biker site.   I’m just a messenger.


Human beings have evolved over the eons to favor things that make their lives easy, and shy away from those that make them hard. We are literally wired to enjoy things like sugar, fat, and salty foods, mostly because in the stone age we could never get enough of these foods so evolution wired our brains to search out these “easy” sources of calories. We use our big ol’ frontal lobes to come up with all sorts of ideas to make our lives easy. Farming, domestication of animals, automation, computers, cars…the list goes on and on. Evolution rewards (to a point) those humans that were able to “live the good life” by getting enough food and shelter, because those people had the most kids.

Cars (and more importantly car companies) tap right into that part of us that is seeking out the easier way. Why walk for weeks when you can get in your car and drive there in a day? Why ride your bike for days when you can drive your car there in a couple hours? Why walk for an hour to the store, when you can drive in a couple minutes? And you wonder why there is an obesity crisis?

People are not lazy per-say, they are simply falling victim to the wiring in their head. People don’t get fat because they eat too much, they get fat because we live in a modern world of plenty, but their brains are identical to the stone age hunters that had a very hard time getting food. Their brains tell them to eat lots of salty, sugary, fatty foods, and their bodies are designed to store that up for the hard times, they simply had the bad luck to live in a world FULL of these kinds of food. They suffer from a common problem in modern world, our brains and bodies are not set up for the modern world we have created.

The car culture feeds into that trap. It allows us if we so choose to spend our whole lives without walking a significant distance promoting obesity, and weakness. It allows (and encourages) the development of suburbs, and exurbs, and whatever comes after that, that destroy communities and encourage loneliness. It encases us in a little metal shell that promotes road rage (you don’t feel so bad about honking at the anonymous person in the other car, but would never act that way in an elevator). These are the kinds of things they don’t talk about in car commercials.

Even if you throw out all the physical and psychological negative effects on the human body you are still forced to contend with the fact that cars take up a lot of space. Much of the area in a modern city is dedicated to roads and car parking. Much of that land was taken from things like parks, sidewalks, green space, etc. Putting one person in one car, and then doing that a couple thousand times and your nice wide four lane roads suddenly don’t seem large enough anymore. Lets tear down some buildings and build more roads! Then people see the “ease” at which you can get around, so a couple hundred more people buy cars, and low and behold your 8 lane highway isn’t big enough anymore. Lets try a 16 lane highway! Damn that filled up too, better go with 32! Before long you end up with something like this:

Cars are sold as a luxury, as a path to freedom, to something that will make your life better! But in reality you can’t democratize a luxury. What I mean, is that not everyone can have a luxury item, or else it stops being a luxury and starts being a necessity. Cars are no longer a luxury in many places of this country, in a lot of places if you don’t have a car, you can’t get to the store, or to your job, or to school. Our cities have been designed in a such a horrible way that some people are forced to spend a large part of their work week earning enough money to power the car that gets them to work. Yet car commercials still show a lone traveler speeding through the empty city streets without a hint of traffic in sight.

In short, it’s a lie. The car companies sell freedom and mobility, but in fact offer only gridlock, poor land use, health problems, and global warming.

So what?

So what are we to do? If the “one car one person”, model has failed so fully what do we do to reverse it? The answer is simple, but is going to require a lot of effort. We need to stop designing our lives around cars. That means everything from removing on-street parking, building larger sidewalks, making people pay more for parking, building dense cities, providing good public transportation, and getting more people to ride bikes!

Quick Take: Living in Mrs. Jacobs’ Neighborhood

I came across this post on Planetizen.com.  one of my favorite resources for all things urban.

Living in Mrs. Jacobs’ Neighborhood

Wed, 02/10/2010 – 11:54

A decade or so ago, after reading some of Jane Jacobs’ work, I became aware of the distinction between mixed-use and single-use neighborhoods.  In those days, I imagined that in a well-functioning urban neighborhood, every non-polluting use would be mixed together, and the lion of housing would lay down with the lamb of commerce.

Jane's Toronto House

But for the past few months, I have lived just six blocks from Jacobs’ Toronto house, in the Annex neighborhood.  And in the Annex, I have learned that the distinction between sprawl and walkable urbanism is a little more subtle than the bumper-sticker phrase “mixed-use” suggests.In the Annex, as in conventional sprawl development (CSD), most businesses  are on a few major streets, especially Bloor Street West between Spadina and Bathurst. Although Bloor has a few residences above shops, Bloor is primarily a commercial street.

So how is Bloor different from San Jose Boulevard (the sprawling commercial street of my former neighborhood in Jacksonville)?  Bloor’s distinction rests less on diversity of uses than on street design.

San Jose has a wide variety of commercial activities near some residential blocks, but is as wide as eight lanes in some spots- too wide to be comfortable for pedestrians.  Bloor is only four lanes wide, and is thus relatively easy for pedestrians to cross.  And on Bloor, nearly every commercial building immediately adjoins the sidewalk, rather than being set back from the sidewalk by yards of parking.

As a result, pedestrians can easily access shops, rather than dodging cars on the way to their destination.   And because the nearby residential blocks are part of a grid system, neighborhood residents don’t have to hop from cul-de-sac to cul-de-sac to reach Bloor’s businesses.  In sum, Bloor is pedestrian-friendly less because of mixed use than because of pedestrian-friendly street design and compact development.

The Annex’s residential streets, like those in my old neighborhood in Jacksonville, are at least somewhat single-use: streets with large apartment complexes (St. George and Spadina near Bloor) have very few single-family structures, and other residential streets are dominated by houses and duplexes.  So in a sense, the Annex’s streets are as single-use as a typical suburban subdivision- both types of streets are dominated by one type of structure.

But there are two significant differences between an Annex street and a CSD street.  First, some of the Annex houses have been cut up into small apartments; thus, on an Annex street, single-family houses and duplexes often coexist with very small apartment houses (though not with high-rises).  More importantly, the Annex’s residential streets are more compact than their equivalents in sprawl subdivisions: houses are closer together, and are often duplexes.  Thus, more people live on an Annex street than live on a typical residential street in Jacksonville, which means that the Annex has the density to support good public transit.

In sum, what makes the Annex walkable is not so much that every street mixes uses; rather, it is that the commercial streets are easily accessible from the residential ones, thus creating a mixed-use neighborhood.

NOTE: To see some examples of what I am talking about, go to Google Street View at maps.google.com.  To see Bloor, go to anyplace between 350 and 600 Bloor Street West in Toronto.  To see a typical residential street, go to Albany Avenue, just north of Bloor (Jane Jacobs lived on this stretch of Albany).    To see an apartment-oriented street, go to St. George St. or Spadina Road just north of Bloor.  To see my old sprawl street in Jacksonville, go to 10000 San Jose Boulevard in Jacksonville.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Walking With Jane

Nick, from Hoozdo recently posted the following piece on The Grid:

Walking With Jane

Saturday May 2 saw Jane’s Walk come to Phoenix. No, this wasn’t a charity fundraiser, but a simple Saturday-morning stroll along a pre-determined route through the heart of downtown Phoenix.

Jane is (was) Jane Jacobs, an American-born Canadian urbanist, writer and activist, best known for The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), a powerful critique of the urban renewal policies of the 1950s in the United States that led to the vast unnatural sprawl and isolation that plagues our cities today.

Jane Jacobs Equally well known for her grass-roots organizing and interventions into poorly thought out urban renewal projects that threatened to destroy neighborhoods, her great strength was not simply critiqueing urban sprawl and blinkered urban planning, but offering solutions and proposing radically new principles for rebuilding American cities.

Jane’s Walk is a series of neighbourhood walking tours that helps put people in touch with their environment and with each other, by bridging social and geographic gaps and creating a space for cities to discover themselves. (www.janeswalk.net)

Jane’s Walk Phoenix joined Anchorage, Boston, Cambridge, Dayton (Ohio), Jackson (Mississippi), Moscow (Idaho), New Orleans, New York City, Oakland, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Orlando, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle, Spanish Harlem (New York City), Starkville (Mississippi) and St. Louis on the 2009 list. It drew a healthy and mixed crowd. Organizer Yuri Artibise smartly selected a few locations along the way to stop and talk about related issues or the location’s history, which allowed laggers to catch up.

Mainly, though, the issues, histories and anecdotes flowed naturally through the group’s social interaction, as it snaked its way through downtown. This was no ‘tour’ but rather a series of ambulatory conversations intersecting at the point where people and city merge.

Jane's Walk Phoenix 2009 descends on Roosevelt Historic Park
Jane’s Walk Phoenix 2009 descends on Roosevelt Historic Park

Differing opinions, different perspectives. Frustrations, experiences, hopes. Personal observations; who used to live here; where the best coffee can be had. It was also a great reminder of how much fun an ad-hoc community can be, and how easily and quickly one can be created.

And having worked in the heart of downtown for 6 years, exploring it freely, it was personally pleasing – and suprising – to find new interesting places. This city continues to reveal itself, repaying
but a minimal investment: a little shoe leather. Thanks, Jane – see you next year!

Pictures:
Jane’s Walk 2009 (all cities)

Jane’s Walk 2009 Phoenix – I

Jane’s Walk 2009 Phoenix – II

Thanks Nick, your review captured the essence of what i was trying to achieve in planning the walk.  not only celebrating the life and work of Jane Jacobs and the reemergence of downtown Phoenix, but creating a community and finding the hidden treasures that the city has to offer. I’m glad you had a good time.  Hopefully our paths will cross before next year’s walk(s).

Stay tuned to Hoozdo and The Grid who will be revisiting Jane periodically throughout the year.

Jane’s Listening: What are your thoughts on downtown Phoenix?

As mentioned previous, Jane Jacob’s was a strong proponent of amateur urbanism and urban observers.  Jacobs, and amateur herself, was an outsider with no formal training in planning who was able to turn more than a century of conventional thinking about cities on its head through her own observations.  In this spirit, Jane’s Walk Phoenix is intended to provide an ‘amateur eye view’ of downtown Phoenix.  While we will be accompanied by knowledgeable locals and experts, there will be there largely to answer your questions and highlight  things that you want to here and know more about.  

To help get you thinking,  I have listed a series a questions below to get you thinking of how you appreciate, observe and understand downtown Phoenix.  While you are free to define the downtown area however you’d like, It would be great if you could pay particular attention to the area that we will be covering during Jane’s Walk Phoenix,  between 7th Ave and 7th St, and Van Buren St and the I-10 (i.e. the Roosevelt, Evans Churchill Neighborhoods and ASU Downtown Phoenix Campus).

Please feel free to selected a few questions to answer in the comments section below so that we can start a discussion:

1. What are some important meeting spaces in downtown Phoenix? (important for work, food, thinking, recreation, laughing with friends, local politics – think broadly)

2. What spaces are you most proud of in downtown Phoenix?

3. What are some important green-spaces?

4. What are some interesting short-cuts you take?

5. Where do kids like to play? Adults? Retired folks?

6. Where are some spaces that feel more private, like a small urban oasis?

7. Do any buildings have unusual marks or features?

8. What is your favorite adaptive use project? (older buildings that have been reconfigured into different uses)?

9. Are there any important historical spaces in your neighborhood?

10. Where do you feel most comfortable?

11. Where do you not feel safe?

12. What is a space that you really dislike?

13. What is your favorite mixed-use location (places that mix retail, business and residential)?

14. Are there spaces you would like to see change?

15.  Are there spaces/features you want to see preserved?

And finally:  Is there an important question or idea that should be talked about by everyone?