Great streets, campuses, and pedestrian nostalgia

[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.

53 thoughts on “Great streets, campuses, and pedestrian nostalgia”

  1. Hear here.

    I agree the campus-like feeling would be fantastic (I spent a good five years after college clinging to coffee shops because I was afraid of being alone), but any good campus “spot” has a regular flow of traffic (pedestrian, bicycle, car, what-have-you) going past it. I think Jane Jacobs was right (even though its fashionable to criticize here these days) about the mixing of scales of traffic – though I wish cars were much slower and quieter.

    I think $5/gallon gas would fix a lot of these problems…(and now a #$%#$ truck is leaning on his horn outside my window)

  2. Yeah, great post, Geoff. I’m proud to say that I lived in LA for four months without a car and did fine. I walked or biked to work down Lincoln Blvd in Venice every day.

    And I’m definitely with you about driving to Baltimore because DC is boring! Nice dig.

  3. Agreed. So much so that I am hoping over the course of the next 50-years of my life to join and build a community within a major city that abandons cars for daily use and reshapes the nieghborhood/city as a carfree realm.

    Cars can serve an excellent role outside of daily life. Traveling between cities and rural areas where mass transit makes less sense. Traveling around rural areas where vast expanses of nature, unpaved, are connected by automobile travel. Supporting heavy hauling and labor.

    But in town, I dream of a place like JH Crawford’s Carfree Cities. Understand, he is outlining a case study, and the restriction he imposes are not absolutes, but the core idea is inspiring. And you would be amazed at how easily daily life can be accomplished on foot or with a bike, cargo bike, bakefiets, adult tricycle, etc.

    Its time to reshape our national landscape from automobiles and reimagine our lives with truly “Great Streets.”

  4. If you don’t like car-powered cities you should not be living in L.A.! Try manhattan, san fransico or pretty much any city outside the US.

  5. Wonderful post. Spot on, in fact. I went to a similar meeting recently to discuss development in my community. The irony was that a)people complained there wasn’t enough to do without spending money and b) their solution was to build more stores.

    What they didn’t think to consider was that we could live differently – in an urban campus, like you suggest. With public transit to get us to places too far to walk, and former “car-streets” blocked off and replanted, it could be a not-impossible project to change a city in a few years.

    Does anybody know groups or resources I could connect with that are already working on this sort of thing?

  6. The weirdness of this conference you describe is that it’s addressing suburban problems in the context of at least a nominal urban fabric. Having lived in a bunch of other american cities, I just can’t imagine people being so car-focused anywhere else. It’s a great, kind of perverse question — What’s the best street in LA? Where’s the best bagel in Boise?

    In any other context, in any other city, I guarantee that the discussion would be very different. (Even if the cities themselves faced similar problems of congestion and exurbia)

    That being said, I’m not sure if a traditional campus planning style, banishing cars to the perimeter is the way to go either. I have been very impressed with some of the slow speed traffic calming experiments in europe and asia.

    Many thanks for a great blog and a very stimulating topic.

  7. Interesting, Geoff. “Instead of benches, paths, people, and sunlight, you get cars, parking lots, strangers, and road rage.” How true!

    Felix, yawn. The solution to autocentrism is not to move (drive?) elsewhere and stop thinking about it. That is privileged, lazy, and completely denies any trust in imagination or appreciation/awareness of potential(the domain of architects and planners, obviously). LA, and everywhere else, will not always be the way they are today, just as they are absolutely not the same places they were 25, 50, 100 years ago.

  8. Geoff: You are absolutely correct that most Americans are so deeply submerged in car culture that they cannot even comprehend alternatives. This is why urban planning is so stymied.

    Not only the layout of our communities (are most of them really “cities” any more?) but our architecture is completely car-centric.

    I’ve noticed that the scale of common architectural detailing has grown in recent decades. Some of this is an effect of post-modern style, in which classical elements (columns, pediments, etc.) tended to be reproduced in simplified and enlarged forms. And some of it may be related to the grotesque “super-sizing” of everything in our culture: vehicles, meals, etc.

    But I’m convinced that it’s also because newer buildings are designed primarily to be viewed from cars, while older buildings were designed to be seen and experienced on foot. You can’t appreciate the intricate, sculptural facade of a typical 19th-c. building if you’re zooming by at 50-60 MPH. The architectural features have to be made huge and simple in order to be visually grasped from a distance and at high speed.

    Thus our experience of public space is impoverished. These new buildings — malls, restaurants, stores — look bland, pre-fab, and oversized when you walk up to them, because the architects aren’t as focused in our “in-person” experience of them. It’s more about how they look from vehicles passing on the adjacent highway or street.

  9. in a slightly different car lane:

    at first I thought it a bit flippant but was then reminded of Buckminster Fuller’s “World Game”… of course it’s different, but at least it’s an attempt to alter thinking…

    so perhaps a better question could be,

    “what would be your ideal street & how can it become a reality?”

    searching for answers AND implementing them… rather than just another bookmark!

  10. i always though that it was just the US that had this problem with the car. its not. i just spend the last 4 months in rome and let me tell you…they love their cars there more than i see people in the US love their cars. they may be small, but they are everywhere and anywhere. the air feels dirtier than philly air.

    its a world wide problem. not just a US problem. we could all learn a little from copenhagen though

  11. I grew up in Phoenix, which is absolutely autocentric. It’s a suburb of LA. You can see in this & other old AZ cities how the barrios were arranged on an axis to make good use of the sun and shadow, narrow streets for outmoded forms of transportation, etc. and the post WWI growth in these cities suddenly gridding out on a perfect N/E/S/W axes for better auto maneuverability (and better absorption of the sun on asphalt).

    Somehow in the midst of this city of melting asphalt and air conditioned cars, I never got a license, depending on bikes, buses, and carred friends to get around. At 30 I’m the only one I know without a license to drive… like some kind of living fossil…

  12. How many really successful pedestrianized streets are there in the US? Four? Five? Let’s see: Charlottesville, VA; Boulder, CO; um…. yeah.

    The truth is, planner’s renderings might look pretty, but banning cars is an excellent way to kill a vibrant commercial street.

    Pedestrian streets are a failed experiment of 1970s city planning. A perfect example is Westminster St. in downtown Providence, RI. The city made the street into a pedestrian mall around 1980. The street promptly withered and died. Providence gave up on this misbegotten project, and the street has at last begun to recover. It’s perfectly walkable even with cars. The key measures are narrow lanes, on-street parking, and lots of trees.

    For commercial streets, the relevant question isn’t “do cars degrade the street?” Cars do, at least with inappropriate roadway design. The important question is “Is there enough pedestrian traffic to support retail activity by itself?” Too often, the answer is an emphatic no. Cities don’t need car-free streets; they need busy streets designed to balance the needs of pedestrians and drivers.

    This is not, by the way, an exclusively American condition. Americans think about European car-free cities, but usually car restrictions apply only to the oldest parts of the best-preserved towns. Most cities have only one or two shopping streets. There is precisely one in the center of the Hague – it’s surrounded by tall department stores, and it’s really too narrow for cars anyway. Manchester has two. Utrecht, I think, has one. Remember, the street began as a space for traffic of all kinds: foot, horse, animal-drawn vehicles. The car is only the latest addition to the mix. Break the mix, you break the street.

    Pedestrian streets? Necesary for key shopping areas, though they need to be well managed. Otherwise, they’re not really all that much of an improvement over Le Corbusier’s pedantic separation of traffic types or the miserable footbridge rat’s mazes of 1960s New Towns.

  13. geoff we could have coffee!
    if you noticed i mentioned lincoln blvd as my favorite and got some laughs.(lincoln blvd being one of the most hated streets in la by surrounding gentrified communities)
    well the real purpose was to reflect on obsurdity of this my favorite clean street and touch base with the importance of having streets that are less than montana or abbot kinney candidates. spic and span consumer avenues…
    also weird was except a couple of people on the panel, most were proponents of cleaned up and gentrified streets.
    yes now that you mention you were lame.;.) for not saying anything.
    just kidding…
    orhan ayyuce

  14. I suggest anyone interested in this topic reads Cities for a Small Country by Richard Rogers. It’s a book about the problems of sprawl (using the UK as a case study) and about reclaiming cities for people rather than cars, where it has been done successfully and what we can do in the future. It also ties in a lot of other social problems and planning errors, the examples used come from all over the world.

  15. David, I think your comment just proves part of my point, that people only consider paved stretches of the urban grid as “streets.”

    Central Park is full of successful pedestrian-only streets, as are college & university campuses throughout the United States – as is Rittenhouse Square, in Philadephia (even though it’s hemmed in on all sides by traffic), etc. etc.

    Those are all streets; they’re just very narrow, and normally referred to as paths.

    That’s why I use college campuses as an example of successful, pedestrian-based urbanism: you can walk to stores, walk to cafes, walk to labs and doctors’ offices and libraries and places of work and record stores and bars – and you tend not to see high rates of business failure or tenant turn-over. After all, to put it cynically, you have a captive audience.

    For that matter, then, Disneyworld is full of pedestrianized streets – and, as far as it goes, it works just fine.

    Anyway, the main problem I have with the argument you’re offering is that the failure of a pedestrian-only zone usually has less to do with its pedestrianization, and much more to do with larger economic factors – such as what stores are there (if you fill a pedestrianized street with dollar stores and discount shoe clearance warehouses then, yeah, it will wither and die as a commercial entity), where that street is located in the city (can residents even get to it?), what the weather is like in winter, whether it’s been landscaped or just left open as a featureless wasteland, if there’s a place to sit down, etc.

    If you just close down a street to cars and say, ok, here it is, your longed-for pedestrian utopia… then, of course, you get abandoned stretches of wind-swept concrete where no business would want to be.

    But if you create a pedestrian street or district, and you do it through landscaping and benches and even little ampitheaters à la Boulder, Colorado, for performers and so on, then you can create a lively little neighborhood on a human scale, without cars.

    As to your larger point – that streets should be able to accomodate a diverse mix of traffic – I entirely agree with you. As it now stands, however, cars seem to get 90-95% of the attention when streets are designed, whereas that mix should be much more even, in fact much more heavily weighted toward the pedestrian experience – if only for reasons of public health and safety (let alone because it’s fun). That’s when you get into Hans Monderman and things like that.

    Anyway, blah blah blah.

    Orhan, I was way up in the back; I saw your head – but I left as soon as the event was wrapping up. I was hungry and in a bad mood! Are you going to write anything up for Archinect?

  16. no i won’t. even though i taped the whole thing. i might refer to it in the future though.
    do you want it for anything? let me know if you do.

  17. I grew up in Houston, so it’s actually surprising that anyone would be taken aback by the ‘favorite drive’ attitude, especially in LA. Which is good: I like to be surprised like that. 🙂

    I think what’s missing in the comments is that it’s not cars vs. pedestrians or any such formulation. It’s a question of scale. I grew up in an affluent suburb of Houston, where nothing was scaled to me, my family, or anything I wanted to do. For instance, in order to hang out with my friends from school, I had to ride a bike for three miles, or else depend on my parents (buzzkill). Even just to shop for groceries required a mile of walking and crossing two major traffic arteries, breathing in the exhaust of convenience.

    The scale was all wrong, and still is. Fundamental commerce, such as buying food, shouldn’t require the use of a car. We’re stuck in the urban design equivalent of planned obsolescence, because of the way subdivisions were subdivided.

  18. Thanks for this post. A good example of a streets for cars vs people battle that took place in real life is the “walking mall” in Helena, Montana. The walking mall is a three block long pedestrian street (similar to Boulder, CO) in the core of downtown Helena that has been in place since the 1970’s (some great pictures from that time period are here). In 2004, the city and downtown businesses decided that it should be converted to car lanes. mutinied against the city and overwhelmingly passed an initiative that changed the city code to now require a public vote if a use change is considered for the mall.

  19. Hmm, then you probably wouldn’t want to hear that one of my fondest memories of L.A. was driving down the freeway late at night in my ’66 Mustang with the Doors’ “L.A. Woman” blasting.

  20. my comment above, the last sentence should have read “Local citizens mutinied against the city and overwhelmingly passed an initiative that changed the city code to now require a public vote if a use change is considered for the mall.”

  21. I, too was at this mistitled event, and while I was similarly horrified at the absence of real discussion, there were a few tiny moments of intelligence:

    -A recognition that most of the buildings downtown are not created at a pedestrian (or retail) friendly scale at their ground floor, and thus any attempt to make LA have a walkable center will have to involve carving up most of the ground floors.

    -The (muttered) suggestion that part of the problem is people’s demand that their parking spot be immediately next to their destination or origin (and the zoning that supports that mindset). Any kind of “campus urbanism” would have very centralized parking, probably buried (or in a 10-mile spiral in the dead center?)

    -Finally, Katherine Spitz’s comment that the ridiculous bits of surplus street width that LA demands for new construction on certain streets could be reclaimed with bits of street archifurniture (taco wifi trucks with green roofs i guess).

    Next time there’s one of these I say someone organizes an after-hours session that involves real discussion. Perhaps at a coffeehouse? On a campus?

  22. Excellent write-up, Geoff. I’m a big fan of the idea of “traffic calming” – whereby the cars are slowed down, and the paving patterns etc. give drivers the sense that they do not own the ground plane. Cars and peds/bikes/strollers mix very well when everyone is being “calm” and conscious of sharing space. The problem with typical city streets* is that the level, continuous, unbroken ground plane of asphalt implies that cars are the entitled owners of the environment, and peds etc. have to navigate around them.

    *This idea doesn’t really apply to suburban streets; as you say, the environment in the burbs is set up in such a way that pedestrians can barely utilize the ground plane at all.

  23. This was a beautiful post. Quiet and true, all of it. I feel like there’s this elephant in the room, though, an elephant called density. College works like it does at least in part because it follows a semi-Corbusian model: skyscrapers in a field. And while most dorms aren’t built as skyscrapers, exactly, they do accommodate a tremendous number of people in a very small amount of space. Off-campus housing, even in traditional building forms, tends toward similar densities.

    While I don’t think it takes the sort of space constrictions a student is willing to put up to make a truly walkable city, it does take a tighter density than most Americans are willing to consider. Which is unfortunate and stupid, to put it bluntly. Everyone in the country wishes their city had mass transit “like New York,” but when a four (four!) story building goes up they cry “Manhattanization!” People have made enormously negative associations with dense living, associations that are largely false.

    I hated having a car when I had one. The expense of it drove me nuts, and I’m a chronic reader, and driving while reading is a no-go. I just donated the stupid thing and kept on biking, walking, and taking transit, as I has preferred to do all along. It was easy enough in Oakland, and easier still in San Francisco, where I currently reside.

    For whatever reason, though, America’s densest cities are becoming playgrounds for the very wealthy, who seem willing to put up with the inconvenience of having a car in the city to, well, have a car in the city. And they are fighting to have parking where it likely ought not be, often in the name of providing access to services for “all people.” “All people” being, apparently, drivers.

    This is what I like so much about your post. Too often the underlying assumption of all the activities of adult living is that they are going to be driven to, parked at, and driven from again. Adults don’t seem to get that it doesn’t have to be this way, that all the nice places they go to visit are, in fact, functional cities, where people might live car-free not as part of some progressive stance or economic hardship, but because that is simply a very nice way to live.

    Take heart in L.A., though. You guys are secretly building a fine, underappreciated transit system. Ours is crumbling and no one seems to care. No one with the proper timbre of political voice, anyhow. Best to you.

    Apologies for any typographical errors herein. I am feeling too tired to re-read this, to check.

  24. Geough,

    One of your best posts.

    That ‘event’ you attended served it’s purpose, unintentionally, by prompting you to clarify your thoughts and ideas of this post. Something to which I’ve spent many years thinking through in a ‘practical capacity’ as to how to actually make the changes towards such an urban form. It can be done.

    Perhaps a follow-up posting, soon, to keep some dialogue going.


  25. My return visit to UNC for the wedding of a friend who lives eight miles down the road in durham made me realise I could never go back to that area for precisely this reason.
    I was staying in a hotel 500 yards from her parents, but had to get driven there because the interstate was in the way. I took the train from charlotte to durham, then tried to walk to the museum of life and science and was again, scuppered by the interstate and had to get picked up and driven about a mile.

  26. i know he isn’t terribly fashionable these days, but christopher alexander has a great deal to say on issues like this… such as:

    – how many cars you can pack into a given space before it ceases to be pedestrian-friendly

    – the kinds of public spaces people like to use

    – how to encourage pedestrian interaction through good city planning

    his book “a pattern language” is definitely worth a read, although it was written in the 70s (I think) a great deal of the ideas expressed are even more relevant today

  27. Slightly off-topic: Have your ever found it odd that Americans are addicted to their cars, yet enjoy visiting theme parks where they park their cars up, walk around, and can go on a number of different “rides”, experiencing alternative forms of movement and transit?

    All themeparks, not just EPCOT, are laboratories for alternative urbanism.

    Back-on topic: Here in London the proposal to turn one of the busiest roads (Exhibition Road, which runs up from South Kensington tube, past the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the V&A Museum and the Albert Hall, up to Hyde Park) into a shared-street, with no pavement/road divide.

    Taking the woonerf concept and applying it to wide, busy street is either very brave or very foolish. If it works it could be a triumph, if it fails (ie if someone is knocked down on the first day), it could set traffic planning in the UK back 20 years.

    More info here:

  28. Funny you should mention that intersection south a Beverly Center–it’s San Vicente & La Cienega, by the way. I walk to work every day, from West Hollywood to Miracle Mile. It’s about three miles, takes about an hour. It’s actually one of my favorite parts of my day, because it’s just me and the California sunlight and one good album from beginning to end on my ipod.

    Oh yeah, and the cars. For the longest time I walked through that intersection each morning, and it took me literally about ten minutes to do so. It takes two traffic cycles to cross just one side of the intersection, and I had to get to the cat-corner so it was just maddening. Not to mention cars seldom check for pedestrians before turning right, just to make it more dangerous.

    Finally I alternated my entire route just to avoid that intersection. I think my walk takes longer now than before, but thank god I don’t have to deal with that.

  29. Tad Benton: that’s a great point about density being one of the main reasons campuses (campi?) can retain so much walkability. There’s also the fact that everyone there “works” at the same organization – so it’s sort of like if everyone who worked for Sony Pictures lived
    in Culver City. You’d get the equivalent of Victorian factory or mill towns.

    I have noticed a couple of interesting-ish articles that briefly discuss barriers to urban density in The Guardian lately, firstly:
    Can architecture make you fat?

    And then in this article about house prices, I found this paragraph interesting:

    “In 1974 Jonathan Raban wrote, in Soft City, that “London is unique among capital cities in that its middle class regard it as a right to live in a whole house and not in an apartment.” That has not substantially changed since.

    “That’s the English for you,” says Fox. “Everyone with their little version of a country estate. That’s why we are ruining the countryside.” She notes in her book that in the 1990s, more than half the new homes built in France, Italy and Germany were apartments, while in England that figure was 15%.”

  30. I think Tad is right. Density is the elephant in the room.

    But, let’s take a look at density through your college nostalgia prism.

    College is also one of the few extended periods people live in any sort of density. And, for most people, it’s also the period where they accept the least amount of space per person. There may not be a lot of what appear to be overly dense housing on campuses, but there sure are a lot of people crammed into each building.

    I would also add that college campuses are not, in fact, car-free zones. I think it’s even even more interesting to this discussion that almost every (every?) campus in this country has a significant infrastructure for cars and trucks, but it is integrated into a pedestrian-first environment.

    Great post, Geoff.

  31. The whole transformation of a s treet into a carfree zone thing is kinda interesting.

    there’s a regular street closing in Vancouver, i don’t remember what street it is. I was in Scotland for a couple weeks this past winter. ONe not so sunny day i hopped over to Glasgow, and they have a very long shopping street which must once have been a car street but now is just periodically crossed. Sauchiehall st. It was full of people. Part of its success must come from its length, connecting many living places and public transit nodes.

    I think that model could apply many other places. There was talk of closing down St Catherine here in Montreal to motorised traffic. Which would probably be just as well since pedestrians own the traffic signals and you wouldn’t drive there unless you needed to, one way streets in downtown Montreal don’t really make all that much sense.

    i saw many signs indicating traffic calming measures, but not having driven in Edinburg, i’m not sure what that meant since i nearly got run over several times.

    I haven’t read much about bicycle accommodation in the above posts. Reasons? Here we have a habit of closing packets of blocks to non pedestrian traffic for our plethora of festivals, from the electric utility’s midwinter music shindig to the historical re-enactment market in the old port, and the F1 partying on Crescent. The sucky thing is, that to get to these things i prefer to ride my bike, but am never allowed to take my bike with me into the closed off zone, which bites.

  32. College campuses can afford to be “human” and pleasant. Unfortunately, the rest of the world (US particularly) operates on a level that denies responsibility in favor of short-term fiscal efficiency.

    Of course there would be great places to live if everyone did the right thing all the time. Good luck.

  33. I like the post, I like the blog. Funny thing about all public meeting/events is how a conversation can be so easily hijacked or trivialized when an emcee has an agenda – articulated or inchoate – to keep the discussion at a level where real conversation is studiously avoided. Pedestrian Nostalgia is a lovely term and if you don’t use it for your next book, someone will!
    But I do like the trivia “Best Of LA” LA Weekly type “what’s hot what’s not” as much as the next shallow narcissist. Not to dis the LA Weekly – did you see Judith Lewis’ takedown of Witold Ritzywoizc (whatever the spelling) in the LA Times Book Review a couple of weeks ago? Ouch.

  34. geoff,

    as much as i enjoyed your post as many people here, specially your screened sense of humor and honesty, i have one fundemental issue with it.
    you bypass to mention or recognise los angeles for what it is. a city that grew on personalized transportation, aka cars, and ‘pedestrian nostalgically’ dismiss them. it is as useless as selecting your favorite street.

    i wholehartedly enjoy your samples of great streets. and, growing up on some dense, choatic street world, i look at them as my lost childhood! wouldn’t be nice if i grew-up with more trees and some dirt roads around me, kind of a nostalgia…

    i agree with you on the short comings of the culver city symposium (or whatever it was called), but i also find your reaction to it dismissive on recognising los angeles with its freeway teeth and car depended current layout.
    problems of los angeles calls for site specific (context busting) solutions. they sometimes might relay on one way streets, monorail, subway, additional freeways, pedestrian only streets, innovative zoning, gentrification stopping measures, sustainable infrastructures, infraless developments, electric or atomic cars and so on.

    best part of your underlying idea is, perhaps, calling for a pedestrian friendly mind set for future action.
    but i don’t know if that is another article.
    please correct me if i am way off.


  35. A great post, and a great blog! I also enjoyed skimming over all the comments.

    Also, being an American expatriate and college student in Europe, I wanted to say a few words about the European city and the American college campus. The former, I love and feel completely at home in. When I first came here on high school exchange, I got completely addicted to living my life in the inner city, an integral part of that is definitely pedestrian mobility and the social aspects of it.

    Yet when I went back home for my senior year and started looking at American colleges, the campuses freaked me out. Why could that be?

    I think, Geoff, that your comment on Disneyland as a pedestrian environment tipped me off to what bugged me so much about the American campus and sent me hightailing back to Hamburg for college. Most college campuses really aren’t public space – they are the ultimate in control space. Here we have an environment where you must exhibit specific mental and social characteristics in order to be “admitted” into the pedestrian microcosm. You’re paying for the privilege to be there. And if you’re lucky, you might have a “free speech zone” where you’re allowed to express yourself.

    Frankly, the American campus reminded me of a huge, creepy experiment in social engineering, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the big, messy actual city, where you’re actually confronted with a large range of lifestyles and attitudes and abilities – not just people who look, dress, think and live like you.

  36. Well, sounds like Geoff’s favorite street in So Cal. is Main Street, U.S.A. Its in Anaheim, I think. As Reyner Banham points out in Architecture of the Four Ecologies, “Disneyland is almost the only place where East Coast town-planning snobs, determined that their cities shall never suffer the automotive ‘fate’ of Los Angeles can bring their students or their city councillors to see how the alternative might work in the flesh and metal-to this blatantly commercial fun-fair in the city they hate.”

    Is it shocking to anyone else that Banham wrote these words over thirty years ago, and we’re still rehashing the same argument, with Kosmograd playing Banham and Goeff playing the East Coast snob? Maybe its time to rethink the binary opposition b/w automtive and pedestrian city and find a new solution in which they can cohabitat sucessfully. Anyone care to bust out a little dialectic action to synthesize these two opposites?

    Still, Goeff, I have to hand it to you, you state your arguments beautifully and passionately.

  37. Geoff,

    Good insight and interesting opinions, but “Cars are for going camping, and for driving to Baltimore because you’re bored and DC sucks.” is a completely asinine statement! Maybe if you stated “DC suburbs suck” I’d let it slide, however, as someone who has lived in Washington, DC without a car for over 8 years I must chime in here and defend Washington, DC’s beautiful, pedestrian friendly design.

    The last continental colony, as I affectionately call it, is one of the few planned cities America. With urban parks galore (the former mayor once said DC had the most urban parks in the country, but I cannot find the stats to back that up), one cannot walk more than 6 blocks without finding urban green space to enjoy. Each circle, which has its roots not in car culture but in military defense & the city beautiful movement, allows for excellent views of the surrounding areas as well as places for statues, and are hated by nearly every driver who has driven in this fine city! DC has over 20 circles and many are used as meeting points for pedestrians throughout the city, like Dupont Circle. Moreover, the city was designed by L’Enfant, and subsequently the McMillian Commission (which incorporated the city beautiful movement), to be filled with wide avenues to show the grandeur of America and inspire those who traversed them– and before the advent of our current car culture.

    DC is one of the few cities in America where one can successfully get by on the inexpensive BMW— Bus, Metro, Walk. If someone needs something in the burbs, they can take the metro. Only when I am hauling something do I ever need a car (and DC has made special parking spots available for residents who need cars for this use). Aside from that, DC has everything an urban center needs and has the main streets to back them up. Baltimore, on the other hand, might get kudos for it’s inner harbor urban renewal, but it’s still a car-centric city. When I visit, I take the train. The DC suburbs, as stated before, do suck, and it’s because of the same problems that plague L.A.– it’s car-centric, and worse, it’s too affluent (the most affluent city in the Nation being Falls Church, a suburb of DC) to desire mass transit and there are far too many ‘not-in-my-backyard’ residents to allow for mass transit to be built effectively.

    Lastly, you only briefly mention the bicycle as a means for transportation. It’s other B in the inexpensive BMW mentioned above. Beyond cities being pedestrian friendly, bike lanes are important aspect of a city that is less focused on cars, and more focused on sustainable means of transportation. DC has over 17 miles of bike lanes, and being a city that is only 64 square miles in size (and contains one of the largest urban parks in America, Rock Creek Park), it can boast being one of the best cities in America for non-automobile required transit.

    With that said, I implore you think slightly differently when it comes to DC as a city not built around the car, but rather, one of the few cities in America that has successfully dealt with the car by providing more options to residents.

    Nikolas R. Schiller

    If you can’t find something fun to do in DC, I can help you find something entertaining, and most likely without the need for a car!

  38. Nikolas, that was actually just a throw-away comment – sorry if it bothered you. I agree that DC is a good, North American example of accessible urbanism.

    However, I will add that, from my experience living there 9 years ago, DC seemed remarkably easy to get around – but there were remarkably few places I actually wanted to go… perhaps proving that no matter how efficient or accessible a city may be, there can still be a lack of interesting things to do there (though free museums are always a plus).

    On the other hand, things in DC seem to have changed.

    sanstelos, it’s hard to know exactly where to begin with your comment. First of all, I’m hardly shocked that people are still discussing issues of urban transportation today – even though Reyner Banham once addressed the topic. Then again, I’m also not shocked that people are still discussing the perils of personal attachment and ambition 2500 years after the Tao Te Ching was written; or that people are still discussing how to avoid surrendering to state power 2400 years after Antigone; or even that people still wonder about the universe, nearly three thousand years after the Upanishads

    The implication that we don’t need to talk about transport anymore because Reyner Banham already did that for us strikes me as weirdly messianic – and like some kind of Saturday Night Live skit. After all, if Reyner Banham went to Tuscaloosa, does that get me off the hook for having to go there, too? Please? What if he ate broccoli? Can we stop doing that now?

    Meanwhile, you’d probably have noticed that Main Street, Anaheim, U.S.A., with its ample driveways and on-street parking, is just about the last example of successful urbanism I could possibly call upon here to bolster my argument. Surely, Central Park, or even the campus of UCLA, is more likely to be cited by myself as an example of successful urbanism? Rather than Orange County suburbia?

    In fact, did you read the above post? Or did you only see my hardly-flattering comment about Disneyworld before jumping in here and waving Reyner Banham around like he’s the Koran?

    In any case, I just mentioned Central Park – which probably reinforces your Coulterian opinion that I’m an East Coast snob. Oh well.

    It just seems strange to me that even mentioning the fact that human beings can walk anywhere, without the assistance of the American automotive industry, is somehow considered both snobbish and socially conservative.

    To reverse that, the implication is that people who like driving, and who support the automotive industry’s default planning control over the future of American cities, are both democratic and socially progressive?

    I actually think that one of the reasons this argument still goes on today – despite Reyner Banham’s best intentions – is because the instant someone points out that people can actually walk, and that cities should perhaps reflect this simple biological fact, they get pictures of church steeples, lawnmowers, American flags, and family barbecues thrown at them, as if wanting to be outside of a car somehow equates to advocating a return to the 1950s.

    It would seem, rather, that one of the most futuristic and dense urban environments we could possibly build today would be, yep, a campus-like city full of walking paths, outdoor restaurants, wind & solar power masts, rainwater capture cisterns, free wifi, permeable pavement, green roofs, loads and loads of trees, and, why not, amphitheaters and skateparks and soccer fields and outdoor climbing walls – and let’s throw in some medicinal plants and community gardens and urban agriculture – and you’d walk through it. Or bike. Or take a train, or even a bus. Hell, you could even park your car on the outskirts for several days at a time, and then walk in or be dropped off by a tram.

    But who cares – my point is that you can advocate for non-car-based modes of urban transport without becoming some sort of crypto-Taliban force for cultural regression. Cars are not the future.

    In fact, rather than citing Banham’s Architecture of Four Ecologies like it’s a Papal bull, it would probably be more interesting to consider precisely what you point out most enthusiastically: that it was written thirty-five years ago. Surely, the perceived future of automotive transport – and our increasingly urgent need for oil-less alternatives – is different now, at the very least because of dwindling global oil supplies, explosive levels of air pollution, etc. etc. etc.? Banham was writing in a totally different era.

    Finally, exurban escapee, I agree with you that American college campuses have become rigidly controlled political experiments (at least in a few highly publicized cases); but I’m not saying we need to reproduce that. Pedestrian campuses may be tightly controlled, but so is the U.S. highway system – in fact, I strongly believe that the latter is the more closely surveilled of the two. Anyway, I’m arguing that the way in which university campuses are spatially organized – including delivery truck routes, emergency service access routes, peripheral parking structures, walking paths between shops, restaurants, etc. – offers an interesting model for urban design, even on much-larger scales.

    I’m not saying that we need to implement a police state, and build free-speech zones surrounded by chain-link fencing, and charge for entry.

    I guess this also addresses Orhan’s point, to some extent: I’m not arguing for the total pedestrianization of Los Angeles, for instance. Instead, I’m saying that parts of the city – on a site-by-site basis – would benefit if we tipped the balance of power in favor of pedestrians. They pedestrianized 3rd Street in Santa Monica – so why not 4th Street and 5th Street, and so on? Depending on local factors, of course?

    Or why not turn the entirety of Santa Monica Boulevard into a pedestrian route, for bikes and walking, with trees and benches and park space, stretching all the way from the ocean to Silver Lake…? You could run marathons there. And, if not Santa Monica Blvd., then Venice Boulevard, or Pico, or parts of each? I am aware of the traffic issues this would cause; I clearly think a lot of research should be done…

    Or, take Philadelphia: why not pedestrianize Sansom Street, re-zone the whole thing, and give tax breaks for cultural institutions to move in? Or, sanstelos, is that just another path toward snobbery and gentrification? Thus a topic for another post?

    What do you think? Any Philadelphians out there reading this? Should we pedestrianize Sansom Street? Or New Yorkers: should we pedestrianize 2nd Avenue?

    Or should we just build pedestrian & bike superhighways, elevated on concrete pillars, stretching over the rooftops of Los Angeles, accessible to fire trucks…?

  39. Great post.

    Going back to the very first point (by Severn), I also agree with Jane Jacobs’ recommendation to mix car and pedestrian traffic, rather than separate them (pedestrian paths separated from streets).

    It is lovely to stroll through a car-free campus during the day, but at night it can be scary, especially for women. Many campuses offer walking escorts at night. Streets seem safer than campus paths at night, because they are usually well-lit and have more “eyes on the street”.

    So, my favorite street is one that accomodates lots of different types of traffic (including cars)-at all hours of day and night.

    On another note, why aren’t more business parks organized around the campus model? This is one of my pet peeves as a Madison, WI resident: The University has developed two business parks to serve as incubators for high-tech startups that are spinoffs from research conducted at UW-Madison. See

    A lot of the people that work in the high-tech startups either come directly from the university or work closely with university research. It would seem appropriate to build the research park with more of a campus-y feel in order to faciliate interaction between all these start-ups. Instead, the research park is just as bland, sprawling (and deserted at night) as any other business park across the U.S.

    The UW definitely lost an opportunity to build a new and different form of “incubator”.

  40. Uh oh, I seem to have touched a nerve, which I can’t say wasn’t unintended.

    First to clarify: I meant Main Street USA in Disneyland. I don’t think you can drive on it. Its pedestrian only. But I’ll concede that’s not entirely fair, as it does lack the nature atmosphere you sought to evoke.

    Second: I did indeed read your entire post, and as I noted it was beautifully written, but I’m not sure you actually read my entire comment. It seems more that you stopped at Reyner Banham and started waving anti-fundamentalist rhetoric around, accusing me of being some bizarre combination of Ann Coulter, Islamic fundamentalists, etc.

    I’m sorry, but I missed the part where I held up Banham as the last word on LA urbanism. Please point it out to me.

    Perhaps I didn’t state this clearly enough, so I’ll elaborate. The shocking part about the fact that he wrote the statement thirty years ago is not that he closed the case, but that the debate about urbanism is still framed as a binary opposition between pedestrian and automotive transport models. That the standard oppositional response to comments written a few days ago was already made thirty years ago, suggests that the debate has progressed nowhere in 30 years. I think that is lamentable.

    Cars aren’t going anywhere, and they cannot simply be relegated to highways. You’re right they’re not the future. They’re the present, and they’re historically entrenched. And people like driving, as you say. But, I agree with you people also like walking and need walking and like doing it in beautiful spaces.

    So to call for either/or seems pointlessly counterproductive, since its been going on for the last 30 years with no solution (actually even longer). The argument has to be reframed as how can cars and people, automotive circulation and pedestrian circulation coexist in the city? As I posited Banham as an opposition that needed to be synthesized in this reframing, I don’t see how I’m waving him around like papal bull or the Qu’ran, or whatever.

    You’re right its not shocking that people are still thinking about the nature of the universe 2500 years after the Upanishads. It would be shocking and disheartening if the only way that people thought about the universe 2500 years later was still framed by the Upanishads though.

    Finally, to round off an explanation of the overlooked subtlety in my post. I said you were playing the role of the East Coast snob (here I could have clarified by adding the words “in Banham’s construction”), not that you were one. There’s a huge difference. But to see that, you would have had to see me as something more than a Banham zealot.


  41. Sorry… still thinking about this, but this is the last comment.

    Just to clarify my clarification. I see Banham as operating within a framework that concieves of the urban question as a binary opposition with his pro-car stance on one side and East Coast snobbery on the other side. I see you still operating in that binary framework thirty years later, only on the side of the “snobbery.” That the framework is still operating is what I find shocking.

    It is counterproductive to your own aims, because the pedestrian only fantasy does not address the question, “What do we do in our cities, right now, in which cars are already entrenched and the fabric is already designed to accomodate them?” Banishment is such a naively, utopian solution that it can be dismissed by “pragmatists” out of hand, leading to ever more ugly automotive only solutions.

    Further, I am a bit confused about your utopia. On the one hand, it sort of sounds like the old city in the park idea with the latest sustainable technology thrown in. On the other, you promise that it will be dense. If its modeled on college campuses, then the buildings are spread apart between bunches of trees and grass, no? This seems to be a contradiction, but I may be misunderstanding. Please elaborate, if you feel inclined.

    Finally, to claim Central Park as a model for this “pedestrian only” utopia is a misreading of the park. Aside from the fact that as a park it does not have to accomdate residences and businesses, and aside from the fact that rather than representing ecological balance, it is a massive resource consumer, it is not designed for pedestrians only, but to accomodate both pedestrian and vehicular traffic through separate circulation patterns. (I have both walked across it and driven across it). As such, it is actually a model for a third way, and further underscores how unproductive the cars good for city/cars bad for city tenor of the current debate is.

  42. I agree that L.A. is sick. The question of what to build to fix the sickness is tough. I think we need to fund more buses. Buses are the most widely used form of public transport in L.A. Light rail is okay, but the Gold Line was a super expensive project that is used by relatively few people. The subway to the sea is a huge investment that is unlikely to be used in significant numbers, especially compared to the use of buses in the city. Monorails may also be a cheaper alternative to building more light rail or extending the subway.

  43. sanstelos, I should have toned down the anti-fundamentalist rhetoric – apologies for that.

    However, as far as whether or not you hold Reyner Banham up as the last word on LA urbanism, your comment, due to its concision and near-exclusive use of Banham as a cited authority, genuinely sounds as if you think Banham’s book proves that the argument is over. Banham said this; so everything else is just rehash and noise.

    But I do now understand that that wasn’t your intention.

    The only thing I’ll add, though, because I think you have perfectly valid points about mixed-transport urbanism (vis-a-vis public transport and pedestrianization), is that I am not arguing for the total de-carring of cities. Or the total pedestrianization of cities. I’m simply arguing that cars should be substantially less important – even inconvenient! – for the navigation of urban space.

    So this may sound like a joke, but I don’t think that that’s as black & white an argument as you’re saying it is.

    This is what I like about the campus model, despite all that model’s weaknesses: you can own a car… but you can keep it parked for ten days at a time.

    Meanwhile, you walk and bike around everywhere, from shops to bars to restaurants to work to doctors’ offices to the post office to your friends’ apartments to home. Personally, I find that lifestyle really, really fun – not to mention healthier, less expensive, and better for the climate. I like good weather, for instance, and I like being outside. Being surrounded by parking lots and smog, with all my friends at least twenty minutes away by car, strikes me as a surreally unfortunate circumstance to be in.

    In any case, I do like driving; so, as long as it’s geologically possible – i.e. there’s still some oil to burn – the campus model, like Central Park (yes, I’m aware that you can drive in Central Park), allows you to drive when you have to. However, driving is not the central experience; in fact, sometimes it’s so inconvenient that you just walk. But you can walk, and that’s what’s important.

    Half the reason I cited Central Park, though, is because it works as a mixed-transport environment. However, I agree that Central Park is an anomaly in my argument because it doesn’t have housing and so on – and so it doesn’t really fit.

    Anyway, as far as defending my vision of a pedestrian utopia goes, I don’t want to defend it – because, as sanstelos points out, it’s flawed. It’s just a comment on a blog; it’s not some rigorous, detailed vision of a futuristic urban planning model that I both endorse and strive for. Having copped out of that one, however, the basic skeleton of what I like is there, and it is what it is and I still agree with it: I would heavily prioritize non-automotive experiences if I could design a city…

    Also, as far as density goes, I think you’ll find that a lot of campuses, despite all that green space, are really much denser than, say, your typical LA environment.

    This is why I say, only half-jokingly, that a lot of Americans seem literally not to see all that paved space surrounding them; a tiny little avenue of trees and benches on a college campus can feel quite spacious, even huge – but it is, in fact, denser, narrower, more spatially efficient, and smaller than even a typical thoroughfare in residential Los Angeles.

    It’s an optical illusion: campuses are dense. So I disagree with you on that. When you’re on your feet, the whole world re-scales; narrow spaces seem huge – yet you’re surrounded by density.

    Finally, I understand now how and why you’re citing Banham – i.e. you think he has framed the pedestrian v. cars debate in advance for us, 35 years ago – but, even in academia, Banham is far from a widely-read author. In other words, it sounds absurd to me to say that he has already framed the debate and so we’re all just playing in Banham’s sandbox. According to who?

    Do people who get pissed off about having to drive from one parking lot to the other, just to buy groceries and, say, home office supplies, know that someone named Reyner Banham has already framed the discussion for them…? It sounds supernatural to me, and gives Banham far more influence than he really has.

    So I don’t think Banham has framed the debate; in fact, as I said in my previous comment, I think we’re living in a substantially different era now, where automotive centrality has spiraled out of control, where fossil fuels are running out and so cars, love ’em or hate ’em, may no longer be technologically possible, and where widespread use of independent transport has actually altered the composition of the earth’s atmosphere, changing weather patterns over whole continents.

    In light of these facts, then, defending the use of automobiles on what amount to theoretical or ideological loyalties strikes me as irresponsible.

    But maybe there’s a market niche: we need a new Reyner Banham for our age of dwindling fossil fuels, rampant air pollution, and climate change… Deal with that – and, if cars are still something you want to defend, then I’ll read your book with curiosity.

    So I know that cars are here, cars are the present, and cars are not suddenly going to disappear; nonetheless, I genuinely think that if we can show people how walking, biking, tramming, Metroing, light railing, even street trolleying around the city is fun, efficient, less expensive, healthier for you and your kid’s asthma attacks, and even better for national security, then you can change the patterns of urbanism.

    Meanwhile, we can also figure out a way to deal with what Sonia points out, such as questions of public safety.

    Anyway, pedestrianizing say, Santa Monica Boulevard – as just a random example here – doesn’t, to my mind, rehash some stone age, black & white argument about cars v. not cars. In fact, if cars need to be allowed into every single space used by pedestrians, so as not to upset Banham’s urban formula, then why not health clubs and bedrooms?

    Why not just give pedestrians a few streets to walk on – or bike on – without cars? What’s the big deal? You’d then form a kind of urban campus, and you could walk around and hang out with people and get a cup of coffee without developing brain cancer, breathing in truck fumes.

    Cars already have 90% of all street space. It seems like the only way to correct this imbalance – in an ironically Reyner Banham-like fashion – is to introduce pedestrianization into those environments, not to insist that cars need a presence in all pedestrian environments, further tilting the scales.

  44. a ‘great’ street is stereotypically thought of as an aesthetically beautiful street in my experience. champs elysees, the mall (london), st kilda road (melbourne) …. all devoid of any activity on them.

    i posit the greatest streets are right here in melbourne > chapel st, south yarra & prahran.
    brunswick st, fitzroy
    collins st, melbourne (city)
    acland st, st kilda
    smith st, collingwood
    victoria st, collingwood
    little bourke st, melbourne (city).

    why all these? they provide activity of all spectrums along it. parking is absent or behind at strategic locations. ALL have public transport on them. ALL provide a density to sustain a civic quality of energy and dynamism that many towns and cities should be able to sustain, not just largest ones.

    american’s model of a walkable city /neighbourhood is a disneyland / universal studios or sixflags. all the ideas of christopher alexander’s a pattern language can be found in any of those theme parks. car-free, walkable distances, greenery, variety of spaces …. why your cities, generally speaking, can’t be more like that part of disneytecture, is beyond me 🙂

  45. Great post. I am very encouraged to see that Americans are having this conversation. Can anyone tell me about New Urbanism?

  46. What a great discussion.

    As much as I can appreciate car free areas, I don’t think the issue is JUST the presence or absence of cars. A good street is a walking street, and it is perfectly possible to have wonderful walking streets with cars running down the middle. Of course you have to make crossing the street easy, and you have to limit the speed and noise of the cars nearest the pedestrians. (Melrose Blvd is nice this way).

    A good street has to have places to go on it, and this usually means stores. Most people live in one house and work at one location, but they’ll drop into, or at least look into, several stores a day. College campuses take advantage of students having multiple classes, but even they have eating places, coffee places, and most likely a book store. The worst thing a street can have is dead space with nothing to look at or into.

    I still have dreams about great streets, real and imagined, and what makes them great is that they are functionally interesting. Now that I live near Olympic National Park, I realize that there is a similar criterion for hiking trails. There is a reason the Aurora Crest Trail is considered the most tedious trail in the North Olympics, while the Hoh Rain Forest and Hurricane Hill trails are among the best. It’s all Northwestern rain forest, but the interesting trails have waterfalls, overlooks, passageways, staircases, vales, rises and varied flora and topography. As on a good urban street, a good trail has things to do and see.

    I think it has to do with we humans being hunter gatherers. The same mind set that let us remember where to check for blackberries in the right season also let us enjoy a bookstore window.

    P.S. A lot of early 20th century building ornament wasn’t designed for people on foot or in autos, but people in airplanes or maybe urban hovering balloons. Can you even see the Chrysler Building gargoyles from the street?

  47. A few reflections on universities as pedestrian-space from my experience teaching/living/walking/biking at Florida State U. in Tallahassee (where, I should add, I’ve never bothered to get a parking permit because I bike in every day):

    A few weeks ago, there was a column in the Tallahassee Democrat (the city daily newspaper) commenting on the town’s and university’s disinterest in a street renaming exercise that was currently under way (
    Streets on campus are currently being renamed because some streetnames duplicate those used in town and this was creating confusion for 911 responders. The renaming, however, was eliciting almost no public interest because, so the columnist opines, college campuses are not so much spaces of streets (or even pathways, as Geoff argues), but destinations (in particular, buildings, which everyone DOES know the names for). I think the columnist, Gerald Ensley, has a good point. Perhaps what makes college campuses different is not, as Geoff asserts, that they’re spaces where the channels and modes of movement are different than they are in “regular” cities but rather that they’re spaces where the destinations are limited and proximate. (This connects with several bldgblog contributors’ emphasis on the density of college campuses.)

    Now, today’s Democrat has a story that, besides cracking me up, supports both Geoff’s point and mine (and Ensley’s): . This story reports on how FSU has just created a new Braille/GPS system for blind people to find their way around campus. The blind people interviewed in the story all talk about the destinations/buildings that they didn’t know about (that’s the part that supports my point and Ensley’s). At the same time, though — and here’s the part that cracked me up — “The device uses city maps and can be used to give driving directions. However, it cannot give walking directions because it doesn’t map sidewalks.” This, of course, is exactly Geoff’s point from the original post about myopic (sorry about the pun) planning that only recognizes automobile spaces as channels of motion. So, blind people can now get around campus no problem….so long as they drive (or walk on the roads where they’ll be endangered by drivers)!

    I’ll try placing a new post that restates most of this (although it’s a bit late since the thread seems to be dying out). But here it is in e-mail form too in case it once again doesn’t make it through the system.


  48. I agree that walking is a big part of the urban experience, but there's much more to it than just that.

    The urban planners of the modernist movement envisioned a "utopian" future similar to Le Corbusier's "La Ville Radieuse" (The Radiant City); with winding pathways, lots of trees and happy people picnicking. Unfortunately, almost all of their proposals were complete failures.
    You see, the modernists did not take into account the BUILDINGS. They thought nature was the solution to all their problems and succeeded only in creating even greater problems than before.

    A successful urban environment must be one of high density, mixed use, pedestrian oriented, and spatially contained.
    The last point is especially important for one very simple reason. You cannot create a room without walls. Similarly, you cannot create an URBAN ROOM without boundaries and those boundaries are almost always BUILDINGS.

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