Monday, October 10, 2016

On "The Next American Metropolis" by Peter Calthorpe ***

This was not exactly the book that I was thinking I would be reading. The title suggested something futuristic, dealing with changes in how we view cities and how technology would change our cities. Instead, the book is mostly an urban-planning guide, full of photos and practical points. By now, having read several books of urban theory, I do not find Calthorpe's ideas all that intriguing or different from what is general accepted best practice. Essentially, Calthorpe takes the ideas of Jane Jacobs and discusses how to put them into practice. And he criticizes Le Corbusier and the Garden City movement for its ideas. For Calthorpe, though, the most important defining element of a city is that it is walkable, something I can highly agree with. His ideas than are focused on making things pedestrian sized and friendly: denser communities, buildings facing streets instead of parking lots, creating mixed-use transit hubs, and so on.

What struck me most while reading Calthorpe's introduction was how, if so many are agreed that these are the best practices, other organization continues to happen. Calthorpe dives into this a little. The main issue appears to be that our planning happens piecemeal, and no one wants to give up their piece of control. Private landholders don't want to be told how to develop; towns create no-growth initiatives that essentially have the opposite effect by pushing development outside the no-growth zone and drive up sprawl; efficiency standards are passed for vehicles but people drive more miles as bigger highways are built to allow for more cars, and so on.

But this is, of course, part of the issue with democracy. We all want our large piece of land when we have a family, our piece of country. Or if we own property, we don’t want to be told what we can and can't do with it. Urban planning requires that individuals give up control over their own desires for the greater benefit of all. That's a tough sell on an individual level.

Calthorpe is also big on mixed-use planning, something he says most zoning laws discourage. He isn't talking just about shops under homes; he's also talking--and he goes on about this at length--about homes with in-law suites. The idea is that if we have a family home with an extra apartment, that extra apartment contributes to density--an adult family member can use it or it can be rented out to a single. The greater density would encourage the creation of transit hubs ("transportation-oriented developments"--places where public transport meet with multiuse commercial districts--child care, post offices, grocery stores), which in turn would encourage walking and the use of public transport rather than the use of private vehicles.

And it is this turn toward the private--private roads, private homes, private cars--that kills off our sense of community and actually makes us feel less safe, and thus encourages further isolation.

Calthorpe throws a set of statistics at readers with regard to car use. While population in the states went up between 1970 and 1990 by 20 percent or so, vehicle miles traveled went up 80 percent or so. Sprawl is causing us to drive more and to spend more time in our vehicles. While in Europe, the auto accounts for between 30 and 50 percent of travel, in the States, auto accounts for 86 percent of travel (walking and biking, 33-50% vs. 11%; public transit, 11-26% vs. 3%).

He looks also at certain plans that were proposed by a group that put together a book called Sustainable Communities. This text focused on making ecology part of planning, and it placed nature a bit too front and center, compromising on density. With another set of experts, Calthorpe helped to create another plan that uses what he terms "pedestrian pockets." Here, nodes of retail and transport and greenery make for walkable communities, where said nodes can be found within one-quarter mile of residences. Later, the incorporated a broader plan that allowed for single-family low-density homes. What has been found even more practical, however, is a return to a grid model, where said nodes fit within the grid, rather than a suburban model where residential neighborhoods of cul de sacs feed into single arterial streets. The issue with the latter plan is that traffic on said streets becomes overbearing, as there are few other ways to get around a town. A grid allows multiple means to reach one destination. (The lack of grid and the use of arteries is something that bothers me about Athens, Georgia, where essentially only one street really goes through the town center from the town's edges. This means that one essentially is confined to the one street or to the loop to get around town. It's a mess, and it would be even messier if the town were larger. What gridding exists is in older parts of town but doesn't lead anywhere much after one gets out of the older core.)

Calthorpe turns to the practical means of making plans--forging regional plans, more local plans, zoning, and so forth. He then sets out a set of guidelines. As one might expect from such a set, the reading here is rather dull--essentially laying out in more didactic form much of what has gone before, telling readers exactly how to forge transit-oriented developments: how much land should be devoted to commerce versus residence, how parking should be on the backside of buildings, how land use should be multiuse, and so on. Much emphasis is placed on making areas walkable: keeping traffic slow (less than fifteen miles an hour), sheltering pedestrians with tree shade and street-side parking, providing sidewalks, ensuring walkways go with the flow of traffic and not away from streets, and so on.

The last section provides concrete examples of where the plan has been put into place or will be. Most of the areas are in California (mostly Sacramento and San Diego), with one in Brooklyn and one in Washington State. Unfortunately the urban planning images are generally too small to fully detail what the author is talking about, meaning that readers have to rely on the captions and the general description to sort of get a sense of the plans. As a whole, the book ends up reading like a government manual and failed, for me at least, to fulfill a lot of its potential. Granted, the work was written two decades ago, but other than contemporary planning and design, the author doesn't really go into what metropolises will look like--the title, in other words, was misleading.

Self-driving cars and the like offer us now an opportunity to reconfigure the city. It'll be interesting to see what happens. On one hand, one could envision less space given over to vehicles, because folks won't need personal ones; on another level, one could see more space given over to such vehicles (parking lots of cars waiting for renters), much like rent-a-bike lots.

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