Printer Friendly

Reclaiming cities for people.

THE SUBURBAN shopping mall inspires little ambivalence--one either despises or adores it. To some architecture critics, the mall is a sterile monstrosity; to environmentalists, a blight on the landscape and testament to car-dependence. To many others, however, the mall is a favorite place. Teenagers, for example, spend more time there than anywhere except school and home. Chroniclers of popular culture even have extolled the mall as a reincarnation of the traditional small-town Main Street.

Like it or not, this sprawling, climate-controlled structure is a symbol of the times. Once a distinctly American phenomenon, the suburban shopping mall has proliferated throughout the industrial world and even is invading developing countries. The shopping mall offers a reprieve from the harsh landscape of the modern city. People are attracted to its array of bright, new stores; trees and flowers; fountains; benches; and sunlight pouring in through skylights. There are precious few other places in today's cities, towns, and suburbs where one can stroll around freely and enjoy such amenities.

Why are so many urban areas hostile to humans? They were planned and designed that way--not to be hostile, but to have features that turn out to be inhospitable. After decades of accommodating automobiles first and foremost, city landscapes are scarred by dangerous traffic, acres of concrete and asphalt, and towering, garish signs aimed only at viewers speeding by in cars. Once lively downtowns have lost residents to the suburbs. The provision of parks, squares, and other public spaces has been neglected, and even the few remaining ones often are uninviting and unsafe. Michelangelo had something else in mind when he exulted, "I love cities above all. "

With better urban planning and design, city dwellers could enjoy the qualities they find appealing not only in a shopping mall, but everywhere they live, work, play, and go to school. Streets could welcome pedestrians safely, and people could reach shops and entertainment conveniently without having to get in the car. In animated town centers, sunlight would stream down not through skylights, but through a canopy of trees. Best of all, this environment would not be created artificially, but would have the richness of diversity, informality, and spontaneity that city-lovers like Michelangelo have revered.

Of course, making metropolitan areas more humane requires far more than just a redesign of urban spaces. Deep social alienation and the decline of central cities result from the formidable forces of racial and class discrimination and income disparities. All metropolitan dwellers deserve a more welcoming physical environment. Wiser planning of urban space also can help spark the vital economic development that would address more fundamental social dilemmas, which, in turn, can help stem the flight of people (and tax base) to the suburbs.

Architecture critic Lewis Mumford was a young man when, early this century, he fixed attention on the expanding role of the automobile. Dismayed by the approaches car-infatuated urban planners already were taking, he admonished, Forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends."

Today, it is obvious that few heeded Mumford's advice. City streets are so ruled by motor traffic that they form impenetrable barriers. In the U.S., it is not unusual for a single intersection to have two identical convenience stores of the same chain at opposite corners. The high-speed, heavy traffic divides the intersection into entirely distinct markets. In many places, people can not get to destinations that are within easy walking distance without the protection of an automobile.

Even in countries where few can afford cars, speeding motor traffic shreds the city. In India, a nation with one automobile for every 408 people (compared with at least one for every two in the U.S.), a foreign visitor recently complained of having to hire a taxi just to cross a street.

In cities all over the world, automobile traffic needs to be restrained. A London Planning Advisory Council study concluded that traffic restraint is "the only way of improving the environment of central and inner London." Many European cities have redesigned roads to "calm" traffic. Typically, this entails posting reduced speed limits and introducing strategically placed trees, bushes, flower beds, or recreation areas along or in the roadway--gentle inducements that make drivers proceed slowly and yield the right-of-way to pedestrians, cyclists, and children at play. Traffic calming is most common in Germany and the Netherlands and is gaining ground on numerous residential streets and main roads throughout northern Europe, Australia, and Japan.

Many of the world's large metropolises have reserved their thriving centers exclusively for people on foot--from the bazaars of Northern Africa to the marketplaces of Asia and Latin America to the pedestrian cores of European capitals. These auto-free regions work best where there is a variety of shops, cafes, galleries, and other attractions for people to spend their leisure time. Shade-giving plants and comfortable chairs and tables invite people to linger and enjoy the space. Typically, emergency vehicles and cars belonging to local residents are the sole motor vehicles allowed to enter the area. Delivery trucks are admitted only during certain specified hours.

As the U.S.'s mixed experience with downtown pedestrian malls shows, not all city centers make successful auto-free havens. While pedestrian zones are flourishing in a few cities (including Boston; Boulder, Colo.; and Ithaca, N.Y.), several others have failed because they either were designed poorly or implemented in already declining downtowns. Many have been reopened to cars. One lesson learned is that, in smaller cities where public transportation to downtown is a less-than-adequate alternative, it may be more appropriate to restrain car traffic than to ban it altogether.

A comfortable pedestrian-dominated zone can be created by slowing the motor traffic, expanding space for walkers, and installing traffic lights that allow pedestrians plenty of time to cross safely.

If it is a mistake to turn much of the city into a de facto expressway, it is equally foolish to make the remainder a giant parking lot. The amount of space devoted to parking is one of the most important determinants of an urban region's dependence on cars. Extravagant facilities also have unintended negative effects. Massive expanses of parking foster a hostile setting and deter people from walking by creating long distances between buildings. Moreover, the lure of a convenient parking space leads many people to choose driving, even where the finest public transportation is available.

Zoning and building codes often enforce an overabundance of parking. In the U.S., minimum requirements are particularly lavish--often forcing new commercial developments to devote more space to parking than to the building's actual floor area. Some cities in developing countries also have gone to self-defeating extremes. In Delhi, the zoning code demands that commercial and civic buildings provide abundant parking at ground level. In Lima, buildings in up to 10% of the city center had been torn down for parking lots by the early 1980s.

Several metropolises world-renowned for their urban charm and attractiveness are notable for their modest parking allotments. This may be more than coincidence. For example, Paris and Amsterdam each provide more habitat for people than automobiles--roughly one parking spot for every three persons living in the central area. Conversely, in some of the world's least inviting metropolises, an inordinate share of the central city is given over to parking lots. Detroit has almost 13 parking slots for every central-area resident, and Houston has nearly 30.

Several major European cities are winning valuable space back from parked cars. Paris plans to remove some 200,000 parking spots. Geneva prohibits car parking at workplaces in the city's center (motivating commuters to use the excellent public transport system), and Copenhagen bans all on-street parking in the downtown core. These cities have found that, if parking has to be provided, it best is placed underground or behind buildings. This saves space, helps keep the cities lively and compact, and makes buildings more accessible to people on foot.

Soul of the city

Anyone who savors the vitality of urban life can not resist a great city's informal gathering spots. Vienna has its coffee houses; London, corner pubs; New York, Central Park. From the sidewalk cafes of Paris to the tea houses of Shanghai to the plazas of Buenos Aires, local spaces designed expressly for people to get together and enjoy themselves serve a similar function. "Public space," maintains Peter Newman, an associate professor of environmental science at Murdoch University in Australia, "defines the character and soul of a city."

By that measure, many urban areas are dull company, indeed. Particularly in North America, local zoning codes often preclude diversity in land uses (say, mingling homes with offices, shops, restaurants, and theaters). Yet, it is precisely this kind of diversity that makes urban neighborhoods not only convenient, but convivial places to live. Although the strict separation of land uses perhaps is most pronounced in the U.S., other countries, including some in the developing world, have followed suit. Asian cities like Bombay and Bangkok were more dynamic and had greater internal variety before they adopted Western-style zoning.

Ray Oldenburg, a professor of sociology at the University of West Florida, observes that the homogeneity wrought by compartmentalized land-use planning robs neighborhoods of public spaces that are "essential to community. " He indicates that, "Beginning with a resolve |to promote the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of the inhabitants of [the cited area],' zoning ordinances do as much to promote loneliness, alienation, and the atomization of society."

In addition to a greater variety of land uses, people-friendly cities spring from more careful design of streets and noncommercial public spaces. Worldwide studies of street life in cities confirm that certain common elements make up a welcoming urban scene. Among them are abundant trees and bushes and car-free spaces for walking or sitting together.

In their attempts to attract people to a given area, planners and designers often repeat familiar mistakes. Author and urban social critic William H. Whyte has noted how cities can avoid these pitfalls. For example, to accommodate a greater number of persons on a street, it is more effective to expand pedestrian space, not the room given large vehicles carrying one person each. Relegating street vendors to a single area makes less sense than allowing them to space themselves in small, frequent clusters. A park or courtyard is much safer if it is not walled off, but, rather, made visible from the street. Spikes placed on ledges to ward off "undesirables" provide less public security than do comfortable surfaces that entice people to idle.

In her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs advanced the notion that, by providing "eyes on the street," people-filled areas become less vulnerable to crime. She reasoned, "The safety of the street works best, most casually, with least frequent taint of hostility or suspicion precisely where people are using and enjoying the city streets voluntarily." Compact developments work best to welcome pedestrians and foster conviviality, wrote Jacobs. Also important are short city blocks and a diversity of building types that offer shops, services, galleries, offices, and housing for people of different ages.

In the 1950s and 1960s, massive urban highways were built in many industrial cities, displacing entire neighborhoods and hastening the demise of old downtowns in the process. Since the 1970s, local governments in the U.S. and several West European cities have been trying to lure people back to declining city centers. Whyte warns against one approach to urban revival that several large American cities are taking--building giant, fortress-like commercial complexes. These edifices clash with the downtown ambiance and repel people with their solid, blank walls at street level. Whyte has observed that visitors to a new convention center in Houston drive from the freeway to the center's parking garage; walk through enclosed skyways to various offices, shops, hotels, and restaurants; and then return home "without ever having to set foot in Houston at all."

Despite the popularity of this "citadel" approach with developers, the surest way to liven up a downtown is to have people make themselves at home there--literally. Residents, especially if they choose to live at the heart of the city, can make it come alive.

Frequently, the convenience and liveliness of a genuinely urban setting is enough to attract residents. In their 1984 book, Beyond the Neighborhood Unit, Tridib Banerjee and William C. Baer describe a study conducted in Los Angeles among upper-, middle-, and low-income families that found people want more diversity in their residential neighborhoods than zoning codes allow. All groups demonstrated a strong desire to have markets, drugstores, libraries, and post offices in their residential areas. When asked to rank desirable characteristics in a neighborhood, the respondents rated sociability first and friendliness second. Convenience was placed above property safety, and quiet was ranked last.

There often is ample space to make way for additional apartments and town homes, even in well-established, older downtowns. Abandoned and underused manufacturing structures in industrial settings can be recycled into imaginative combinations of residences and commercial space. Several cities in England--including Norwich, Ipswich, and Cambridge--are in the midst of converting great amounts of vacant space in commercial buildings for residential use under the slogan "living over the shop."

It also is possible to create land banks of tax-delinquent buildings in a process that can turn vacant property in declining inner-city neighborhoods into decent, affordable housing. In land banking, local governments break the typical cycle in which the city forecloses on derelict property and sells it--often to speculators who let the land become tax-delinquent again. Properties held in a land bank can be resold specifically for socially productive uses such as housing.

Applied successfully in several North American cities--including St. Louis; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; and Edmonton, Alberta--land banking not only has increased the supply of affordable residential land, but also has made existing urban space more compact. Camden, N.J., a declining industrial city with more than 3,500 vacant properties, turns dilapidated homes over to nonprofit groups that rehabilitate them. Block by block, the city's neighborhoods are being revitalized. In Louisville, Ky., the Land Bank Authority cancels back taxes on abandoned lots and sells them for one dollar each to nonprofit developers who build low-income housing. Land banking serves a dual purpose, helping the city eliminate blight and generate taxes on abandoned land, and boosting the supply of available, affordable homes.

Urban nature

It generally is agreed that natural green space is pleasing to the eye and soothing for the spirit. Trees, bushes, vines, and flowers also can provide habitat for birds and other wildlife, ease air pollution, and even bring urban temperatures down. Far from a luxury, nature is vital to a humane city. Anne Whiston Spirn, chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania, challenges the view that pieces of nature should be added to the urban landscape as mere adornments. "The city is part of nature," she stresses. "Nature in the city must be cultivated, like a garden. It must not be ignored or subdued."

A growing number of nations are conserving their remaining wild spaces and creating nature reserves. Great Britain's Nature Conservancy Council, a central government agency, supports reserve projects in more than 60 urban areas. A share of the funding specifically is aimed at planting greenery in inner cities and public housing projects, which typically lack such connections with nature.

Many are linking stretches of verdant space along rivers, canals, or old rail lines into continuous pathways for bicycling, horseback riding, jogging, and walking. For urbanites, these greenways bring fresh air and nature closer to home. If designed carefully, they also can create corridors for protecting wildlife. In the US., greenways in Washington, D.C., Seattle, and elsewhere have become major routes for bicycle commuters. An estimated 500 new greenway projects (led largely by citizens' groups) are currently in the works in America. Many Dutch, Danish, and German cities and towns are connected by extensive path networks, and footpaths are common in much of Europe. Leicester, England, is planning to convert an abandoned rail line into the Great Central Way, a car-free route that will bisect the entire city from north to south.

In developing countries, green space often provides opportunities for economic development and even survival. Urban agriculture, particularly in the developing world, produces essential food and fuel on a commercial scale. City farms produce eucalyptus in Addis Ababa, livestock in Hong Kong, vegetables in Seoul, and firewood in Lae, Papua New Guinea. Urban agriculture can provide important insurance against interruptions in supplies of food or fuel and give the poor more direct control over meeting their basic needs. Many Asian cities produce a considerable share of their own food through urban agriculture. China is outstanding both in growing food within urban boundaries and recycling the city's sewage and solid wastes into fertilizer for cropland. Several Chinese cities produce at least 85% of their vegetable supply in greenbelts that also recycle composted garbage and human waste.

Communities in many industrial cities use food-growing plots to restore greenery to barren neighborhoods and supplement the diets and incomes of inner-city residents. Copenhagen's citizens cultivate "allotment" gardens at the city's edge, and schoolchildren in The Hague learn to grow vegetables in communal tracts. Urban gardens are common in many cities in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. New York has 700 to 800 community gardens. More than 2,000,000 gardeners in US. cities--including many elderly, young, and disabled workers--tend neighborhood plots, rooftop gardens, and solar greenhouses. In a particularly successful gardening project initiated by a regional food giveaway program in Peoria, Ill., people who once received free food are reciprocating by cultivating vegetables for the same program.

Where city environments are too polluted for growing food safely, a better means of reestablishing links to the countryside is to devote space to open-air farmers' markets. These are a primary source of fruits and vegetables in cities throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. They enable farmers to sell directly to consumers, expanding their clientele and capturing profit otherwise lost to opportunistic brokers. Low-income city dwellers, unable to pay prices charged by commercial grocery outlets, can benefit from the fresh food available at such markets.

Farmers' markets are making a comeback in the U.S. In 1976, New York City's Council on the Environment--a citizens' organization that works out of the mayor's office--initiated a system of greenmarkets. Currently operating at 10 sites year-round and 20 in the summertime, the greenmarkets aim to preserve farmland and help struggling farmers in the counties north of the metropolis while making fresh fruits and vegetables available in city neighborhoods. The markets offer many New Yorkers their only chance to get local produce without journeying to the suburbs.

In a more people-friendly city, municipal officials, planners, and other decisionmakers would set new priorities. The city is not to be a throughway or storage area for motor vehicles nor a place from which people escape to find pleasant surroundings. It should be an area to make one's home.

Streets would become habitats for humans and plant life; land-use regulations would encourage and celebrate diversity, not reinforce homogeneity; public spaces would recapture the ground they've lost; and nature would become an integral part of the urban landscape.

An important ingredient in this vision of a humane city is a planning and design process that involves the public. Experience has made painfully clear the repercussions of imposing urban land-use decisions without community influence or consent. In the worst extreme, insensitive planning can obliterate entire neighborhoods, as happens in slum clearance projects thinly veiled as urban renewal. Even in less conspicuous cases, planners easily can err in trying to clean up" what they view as problems, thus sterilizing a community's inherent charm or failing to respect its history and character. A more participatory planning process helps avert such losses and is more likely to address the concerns of the elderly, handicapped, children, and other groups with special needs.

Neighborhood organizations can be tapped to provide an effective liaison between citizens and the city administration and planning council. In several U.S. metropolises--including Atlanta, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C.-neighborhood organizations play a legal role in zoning and other land-use decisions. Baltimore gives funding and technical assistance to its neighborhood groups to facilitate their participation in the urban planning process.

Some urban dwellers have acted without waiting for such a formal arrangement. In Dakar, Senegal, a group of young citizens set out to make their city a more welcoming place. After clearing sand from the streets, pruning trees, draining pools of stagnant water, and removing litter, the volunteers turned to beautifying their public spaces. They repainted sidewalks and put up homemade decorations in communal places. As the centerpiece of their effort, the youths created a profusion of Talking Walls"--walls and sidewalks emblazoned with spririted murals depicting national heroes, cartoon characters, and scenes of everyday life.

In most of the world's urban areas, it would be rare to find such a spontaneous display of the will to make a more livable city. Yet, if each city were to create its own version of Dakar's Talking Walls, these no doubt would have much more to say than the uniform walls of a suburban shopping mall.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Advancement of Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:city planning
Author:Lowe, Marcia D.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:1992-1993 Hockey Scouting Report.
Next Article:Corporate communicators on the cutting edge.

Related Articles
Japan grew 9 sq. km in one year due to reclamation.
New Deal anti-crime plan flops; GOVERNMENT TRAINEES PULL OUT.
pounds 1/2m deal to curb crime.
BRUM SHUT OFF BY ROAD DEMO; Thousands block streets in middle of G8 summit.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters