[Image: A street in Central Park, via Wikipedia].
I went to an event the other night about “great streets,” held in a small theater on Venice Boulevard, in Los Angeles, about six blocks from my apartment. I walked there.
The point of the event was apparently:
1) To discuss the importance of greening the public realm… to make our communities inherently more walkable
2) To identify the most effective methods for funding these projects
3) To better understand the bureaucratic obstacles to creating more environmentally sustainable streets & sidewalks
There was also a fourth purpose: to figure out how urban space can accomodate “bikes, cars, pedestrians, flora & fauna, watershed management, open space, street vendors, retail, recreation & relaxation, [and] transit.”
All of which sounds like a great event to me, with an awesome purpose, coming at an interesting time for urban planning; but the conversation almost immediately turned into something far stranger and infinitely less important – because the moderator turned the whole thing into a kind of “what’s your favorite street in LA?” quiz.
Without going further into why that bothered me – such as the rather obvious fact that an event about “great streets” really has nothing at all to do with “your favorite street in LA,” which both narrows the topic and makes everyone waste time thinking about how they can out-cool one another, coming up with more and more obscure streets that only they have the poetic sense to celebrate – I just want to point out a few quick things.
First of all, I think it was only mentioned twice that a street can be anything other than infrastructure devoted to automotive transport – in other words, “streets” inherently just mean space for cars.
For instance, the moderator reversed his own question at one point and asked: “What’s your least favorite street in LA?” And he explained himself by adding something like: “You know, a street you get irritated on while driving.”
The whole thing was about cars.
Not only did this totally contradict the way the event pitched itself – after all, it should have been billed as a public conversation in which you get to listen to strangers explaining what streets in LA they like to drive on and why (thus attracting a totally different audience) – but it missed so many opportunities in which to talk about great streets.
After all, it was an event about great streets.
Something that become immediately clear, for instance, was that no one’s favorite street was a pedestrian-only walkway through New York City’s Central Park, or, say, Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado (of course, neither of those are in LA – further demonstrating the weird absurdity of limiting a conversation about “great streets” to “cool drives across Los Angeles”).
For that matter, no one mentioned that their favorite street was a walking path on the campus of UCLA or Oxford.
But that’s because people seem to hear the word “street” and they immediately assume it means cars – a “street” means infrastructure for the near-exclusive use of trucks and automobiles.
A street means something I can drive my car on.
In fact, something I think about more and more lately is the possibility that Americans get as nostalgic as they do about college – identifying themselves as graduates of certain universities to a degree, and with a passion, that I genuinely think is alien to most cultures – whatever that means – not simply because college represents the only four years in which they might have pursued their real interests, but because, in the United States, college is a totally different lifestyle.
You walk everywhere.
The campus where you live and study has trees, and paths, and benches to sit on. It’s really nice. No wonder you miss it.
You can go outside and throw a football, or throw a frisbee, and you can ride a bike – and you don’t have to worry about being hit by a truck, or sprayed in the face by several pounds’ worth of carcinogens (such as car exhaust).
In other words – and this theory is transparently absurd, but I nonetheless think that its rhetorical value is such that I’ll give it space here – if you look at the particular colleges in the United States that seem to inspire the highest levels of lifelong loyalty, nostalgia, and even sports team fanaticism, you’ll find places like the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, or UCLA, or my own school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, or even Penn State, or Georgetown – but the unifying factor there is not simply that all those schools have awesome sports teams, which they do, but that they all have really nice campuses.
So you graduate with your law degree and you move to Ft. Worth and you hang Michigan banners all over your office walls – but that nostalgic loyalty is not simply because you miss playing beer pong, it’s because you miss being able to walk around everywhere.
It’s a particularly intense form of pedestrian nostalgia.
In any case, college is like discovering a different world, tucked away inside the United States – and it’s a world that’s been built for human beings.
After all, you get at least a tiny bit of exercise everyday; you wake up, drinking coffee outside on the way to class or to work; you don’t worry about parking, or about auto theft; you see familiar people hanging out, and you can even stop off and talk to them, standing under oak trees.
You can jump around and be a total moron in your own body, outside with the friends who actually know you.
But if you do that now, commuting to work in an automobile, you get pulled over by state troopers, tasered in the face – and then you show up on Boing Boing.
It’s a different world.
It’s not a world built for you anymore. It’s a world built for cars.
In many ways, it’s as if being an adult in the United States really means changing your everyday landscape. Instead of benches, paths, people, and sunlight, you get cars, parking lots, strangers, and road rage.
If you lived in a city that looked like a college campus, you could walk to the bank; you could walk to the grocery store; you could walk to work; you could even walk to the cinema and see Spiderman 3 – and you wouldn’t have to do it alongside cars, or even crossing the paths of cars.
You’d live and work and commute on foot, walking on great streets under awesomely huge and beautiful trees – and there’d be benches to sit on, and people you know outside reading books, and you could actually understand what it means for “a day” to pass by. After all, there’s evening, and there’s mid-day, and there’s morning – and so you’d actually experience the passage of time.
You wouldn’t have to look back at the age of 35 and wonder where all that time went.
Anyway, I don’t care if you’re walking to a church or to a gun range, to a mosque or to a nightclub – the point is that you’re out there walking, feeling proud – you’re not mistaking a linked series of carcinogenic parking lots for the best your nation can do – and streets no longer have to mean cars.
Cars are awesome – I love cars, in fact I literally fantasize about owning a Toyota Tacoma. Which is a truck.
But cars are for highways, and for hauling things, and for escaping wild bear attacks. Cars are for going camping, and for driving to Baltimore because you’re bored and DC sucks.
But cars are not for everyday urban use.
If I can be permitted to go on a tiny bit longer here, let me also mention one more thing.
Living out here in LA, I’m increasingly convinced that Americans simply don’t see how much paved space they’re surrounded by at any given moment.
There’s an intersection in Los Angeles, for instance, just south of Beverly Center – and it’s so ridiculously huge that I think you could fit Trafalgar Square, the Piazza San Marco, Rittenhouse Square, and, say, Berlin’s Monbijouplatz all tucked safely inside of it. In other words, it could be a pedestrian wonderland of benches and trees and places to lie out in the sun, and throw a baseball, and whatever else it is that you want to do out there under the skies of California.
Instead, it’s an intersection – and it’s one of the largest expanses of concrete I’ve ever seen.
I genuinely believe that if you measured the total square footage of that intersection alone, you’d see that at least three or four of the “great squares of Europe” would fit right in. Conversely, if you took all the piazzas, squares, parks, and plazas of Europe, and you turned them into parking lots, even a city like Bologna could look an awful lot like Los Angeles.
In any case, this week’s “great streets” event missed so many opportunities to discuss great streets as if they might be something other than just more space for automobiles – or that the open space between opposing buildings should be used for any other purpose than driving on.
There was no recognition that streets can be places to walk, or bike, or jog, or hang out with your kids, or flirt with foreign tourists, where you can read a book, and get a tan, and throw objects at your bestfriend so that he can catch them and throw them back at you, repeatedly, in a sportsman-like fashion – that would be a great street, too, in other words, and yet cars would be nowhere to be found.
Not even Toyota Tacomas.
As I say, finally, I’m not “anti-car” – despite that fact that we’re running out of oil.
I just don’t think that cars should be even remotely convenient when it comes to personal travel within cities.
It was just depressing to realize that the moderator at the event the other night was obsessed with a new plan out here to turn Pico and Olympic Boulevards into one-way express routes, running east and west across Los Angeles; which seemed to prove, somehow, that the infrastructure of the city should, in all cases, keep pace with car ownership.
What was genuinely never discussed, though, was not the idea that we need more highways and parking lots and one-way express lanes because everyone owns a car, but that everyone owns a car because they’re surrounded by highways and parking lots and one-way express lanes.
What else are you supposed to do in that kind of landscape?
How else can you react?
In other words, the space comes first; with this many parking lots, you can’t walk anywhere.
So, even as it was announced that Los Angeles is the most polluted city in the country, and even as LA is now expanding several highways and investing what appears to be absolutely nothing in cool transportation ideas – such as pimped-out mini-buses or light rail – this event, meant as a way to discuss “the importance of greening the public realm,” so that our communities can become “inherently more walkable,” turned into a celebration of driving in Los Angeles.
Which is great – I love driving in Los Angeles. I even have a few favorite streets here.
1) A “street” is not simply space devoted to automobiles. It’s a place of movement, outdoors, that connects different destinations.
2) Cities could be designed to look like college campuses, full of trees and paths and benches and interchangeable varieties of long walks between different locations – whether those locations are churches, bookstores, police stations, football stadiums, private homes, or hash bars.
3) The reason you need a car is because you’re surrounded by highways and parking lots – it’s not the other way around. City planners need to realize this.
But none of that ever came up the other night. It was a missed opportunity.
Not that I chimed in; lamely, I left the minute it ended and walked home to eat some dinner.