Friday, September 20, 2013

To Connect or Not to Connect?


Perhaps it is a natural territorial instinct to wall ourselves into a protected enclave. Much has been written about the late 20th Century phenomenon of gated developments, but that isn't the only time we block access in our neighborhoods. The lollipop cul-de-sac street patterns of many American suburbs are also meant to block; and sometimes older neighborhoods are retrofitted to block auto access, pedestrian access, or both.

As a planner, I see this a lot, but I recently saw it in action in my own neighborhood. I live in an older neighborhood that, for the most part, has a walkable street grid. Slicing diagonally  through the neighborhood is a major piece of underground infrastructure. On the surface, some of this land is occupied by parks, some by parking lots, some is incorporated into adjacent private yards (with the caveat that no structures may be constructed over it), and some is vacant and unimproved. Part of it near me was a park, which was ripped out a while ago when the underground infrastructure was upgraded. 

Our Parks and Recreation Department held a couple of neighborhood meetings to work on a new design for the reconstruction of this park. This all went very well, and the new park is going to be great, but something really stood out to me. The infrastructure corridor continues past the park through a very long block, providing the potential for a direct pedestrian connection to a major street with some great amenities (including one of the best pizza joints in town). Some of us asked for this stretch, which is presently fenced off, to be opened up. Many people in the area have actively fought this connection, though, and it will not be opened.


Why We Block

Why is this done? In a society that is so obsessed with connectedness of the digital variety, why are some of us shunning connectedness in our cities? I have encountered three primary reasons, all of which are rooted in fear.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Major Streets

(Source: Urban Advantage)
Major streets are usually terrible places. Who wants to stroll along a street like the one above? I certainly don't. Streets like that are noisy, uncomfortable, dangerous-feeling, and uninteresting. 

Although this kind of street is a staple of the suburbs, most suburbanites and suburban planners aren't crazy about them. Despite the extreme auto-dependence of the suburbs, suburbanites dislike the noise, fumes, and danger of major roadways that, by necessity, must carry so many cars. Who can blame them? Their usual response is to hide from the monster that they created. They often turn the adjacent development's backside toward the street (creating a terrible tunnel effect) or set buildings back far away from the roadway (creating dispiriting voids).

The Tunnel. Despite the landscaping, this is not a nice place. At all.
(Source: Google Earth)
Urbanists also rightfully despise such streets. They prefer streets like the one below. This is the dream, right? This is the kind of street where I'd like to hang out. In fact, I have hung out there, and it was great. It was peaceful, comfortable, safe-feeling, and interesting. When urban planners and designers try to create a great street, we usually have something like this in mind.