Real towns and suburban myths

Rachel Quednau at Strong Towns writes:

Myth #1: The suburbs exist because that’s the way people want to live. The only reason we have the suburban style of development with its large homes, three car garages, big box stores and wide, fast-moving streets, is because people prefer that sort of living, right?

Busted: The suburbs exist because that’s the style of development that has been regulated into existence and funded by governments across the nation. …

Myth #2: Sprawl is the biggest problem with the suburbs. If we just stopped building so many one-story buildings and winding suburban roads, we’d be fine.

Busted: The problem is a development pattern that is financially insolvent. …

Myth #3: Suburban residents are paying for the cost of their lifestyle. However we feel about culs de sac and strip malls, we can at least agree that the people who live in suburban areas are paying for that way of life, so what’s the big deal?

Busted: Across the country, we see that urban areas subsidize suburban living to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. …

Myth #4: We can turn the suburbs into financially productive places if we just try our hardest.

Busted: No. There’s too much suburban development for this to ever happen.

There’s much more in what Rachel writes that I haven’t excerpted, and is worth checking out especially if the “Busted” answers don’t make sense. I’ve written before on this: A public square is built for people, Conservatives oppose ugliness, The perfect town, Suburbs are mostly disposable, and What suburbs do.

A common sense staircase

Josh K. Elliott writes:

A Toronto man who spent $550 building a set of stairs in his community park says he has no regrets, despite the city’s insistence that he should have waited for a $65,000 city project to handle the problem. The city is now threatening to tear down the stairs because they were not built to regulation standards.

Retired mechanic Adi Astl says he took it upon himself to build the stairs after several neighbours fell down the steep path to a community garden in Tom Riley Park, in Etobicoke, Ont. Astl says his neighbours chipped in on the project, which only ended up costing $550 – a far cry from the $65,000-$150,000 price tag the city had estimated for the job. …

Astl says he hired a homeless person to help him and built the eight steps in a matter of hours.

Astl’s wife, Gail Rutherford, says the stairs have already been a big help to people who routinely take that route through the park. “I’ve seen so many people fall over that rocky path that was there to begin with,” she said. “It’s a huge improvement over what was there.” …

Coun. Justin Di Ciano, who represents Astl’s area, said the spot seems safer with stairs than without them, so he’s asked his staff to leave them for now while plans are made for a city-approved upgrade that won’t cost too much.

“I think we all need to have a bit of common sense here,” he said.

Every aspect of this story is great, maybe most of all because it is subsidiarity in practice—accomplishing good things on the lowest possible level and without needless intervention or interference from higher levels of authority.

Councilman Di Ciano’s plea for having “a bit of common sense” seems strange to me, since Adi Astl’s decision to solve a pressing problem in an immediate, neighborly, and cheap way seems like the most common sense thing imagineable.

Neighborliness in design

The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia has in its rotunda an enormous statue of Benjamin Franklin, the city’s patron.

Notice the aesthetics in this photo: scale, proportion, and modesty. What struck me as I walked past this (for the first time in a long time) a few years ago was just how beautifully the classical aspects of the building complemented its contemporary aspects.

What do I mean? “The doors of wisdom are never shut,” isn’t simply a nicely lit sentiment. That entire panel is a display. The display area doesn’t try to outdo its surroundings. It doesn’t seek to shout over them or demand attention, but it’s there. It’s a part of the room.

The physical and digital should complement one another, not compete for attention. New media meets old forms, and each enriches the other.

Recipe for lively neighborhoods

After finishing Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, I decided I had to read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the great response by Jane Jacobs to all the excesses of central planners and the cult of the expert.

I’ve just finished it. It was surprising how heavily she leans on Philadelphia in addition to New York and Boston to cite examples of good and bad city life. I had imagined it was exclusively New York-focused, for whatever reason.

In this excerpt, Jacobs outlines the “four conditions” that guide her analysis of good city life:

So long as we are content to believe that city diversity represents accident and chaos, of course its erratic generation appears to represent a mystery.

However, the conditions that generate city diversity are quite easy to discover by observing place in which diversity flourishes and studying the economic reason why it can flourish in these places. Although the results are intricate, and the ingredients producing them may vary enormously, this complexity is based on tangible economic relationships which, in principle, are much simpler than the intricate urban mixtures they make possible.

To generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts, four conditions are indispensable:

  1. The district [neighborhood], and indeed as many of its internet parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.
  2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
  3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
  4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.

The necessity for these four conditions is the most important point this book has to make. In combination, these conditions create effective economic pools of use. Given these four conditions, not all city districts will produce a diversity equivalent to one another. The potentials of different districts differ for many reasons; but, given the development of these four conditions (or the best approximation to their full development that can be managed in real life), a city district should be able to realize its best potential, wherever that may lie. Obstacles to doing so will have been removed. The range may not stretch to African sculpture or schools of drama or Rumanian tea houses, but such as the possibilities are, whether for grocery stores, pottery schools, movies, candy stores, florists, art shows, immigrants’ clubs, hardware stores, eating places, or whatever, they will get their best chance. And along with them, city life will get its best chances.

Windows that open

It’s winter, so I’m thinking about summer.

I’m thinking specifically of the warm breezes of summer. I’m thinking of how difficult it is to enjoy natural weather in the summer in modern buildings whose window don’t open for safety/liability reasons as much as because we demand climate controlled spaces.

But these characteristics of our times are probably an example of regression rather than progress, at least in the sense that they degrade the experience of any given place as distinct or diminish the chances of encountering our neighbors or hearing the sounds and smelling the smells of the streets.

I think places should shape how you live. A few years ago I took these photos of a street in Old City, Philadelphia. It’s an example of a specific set of buildings, where one of the older ones retains a feature that newer buildings avoid: windows that open.


Few if any new construction incorporates anything as beautiful as that building’s architectural flourishes, let alone its enormous windows. At the apartment where I lived in Old City at the time we had a wide glass window that provided a great view of the street, but that was a sealed, single pane of glass. Only thin slats near the top opened to let in some of the sound of the street, but none of its noise or breeze on a warm evening.

I think a lot of this has to do with America’s liability culture, and the fear from owners and developers that buildings with great windows like the one above that draw neighbors closer together are also risks for anything from basic falls to darker things like suicide. But making decisions like that makes the exception the rule, and the rule of daily life in apartments like ours is that you can see the street, but you can’t feel the neighborhood. You can’t drink it in.

I think more beautiful, wide-open windows would be a specific improvement that would significantly enhance the character of my neighborhood. What about yours?

Talk to strangers, part two

Kio Stark, author of When Strangers Meet, shares this experience:

A little while ago, I was standing on a street corner—in New York, people often stand in the street when they’re waiting to cross, because you need to save that tenth of a second—and I didn’t realize I was standing over the storm drain. A man next to me turned and said to me: “Don’t stand there, you’re going to disappear.”

At first, I thought it was ridiculous. Did he mean I was going to fall in, or some evil spirit was going to suck me down through the sewer grate? But there was something very caring in the way he said it. So I stepped back onto the sidewalk, and he said, “Good, you never know what might happen—I might turn around, and zoop! You’re gone.” I’ve been talking to strangers my whole life and trying to understand what it’s about, and in that moment, I realized I really existed to the degree that it would upset this man if I disappeared. That notion of feeling acknowledged as a person is one of the core pieces to me.

I’m an advocate for talking to strangers. I wrote last spring: “We raise children ‘not to talk to strangers,’ but we forget to tell them as they get older that most success in life and most of the spontaneous happiness in everyday life—it turns out—comes from talking to strangers.”

Small talk

Karan Mahayana writes on My Struggle with American Small Talk:

“How’s it going?” I ask the barista. “How’s your day been?”

“Ah, not too busy. What are you up to?”

“Not much. Just reading.”

This, I have learned, is one of the key rituals of American life. It has taken me only a decade to master. …

American life is based on a reassurance that we like one another but won’t violate one another’s privacies. This makes it a land of small talk. Two people greet each other happily, with friendliness, but might know each other for years before venturing basic questions about each other’s backgrounds. The opposite is true of Indians. At least three people I’ve sat next to on planes to and from India have asked me, within minutes, how much I earn as a writer (only to turn away in disappointment when I tell them). In the East, I’ve heard it said, there’s intimacy without friendship; in the West, there’s friendship without intimacy.

When I spent time with someone, I want to spend real time with them. I want to speak meaningfully with them, at length. I want to hear things that make me understand or know them better, or think more richly about some subject than I did before, or simply share time in a way that isn’t the equivalent of killing time together.

This can make you seem brutal or unsentimental when you’re curt in a run of the mill commercial encounter. But if you’ve going to get wet, dive in. Count me in as an opponent of small talk.

The perfect town

Joanne Wilson shared Monocle’s insights recently on the characteristics of the ideal community. They’re all worth sharing:

1 – Village Square would anchor the city with grass, flowers, moveable chairs, cafes and a 24-hour kiosk.

2 – Main Street where there would be awnings to keep us from rain or too much sun.  Retail on the bottom and residential homes downstairs creating constant community.

3 – Housing that was small and large from single homes to large family homes with balconies and front lawns for a little outdoor space.  Everyone pays for the upkeep of the public spaces.  The buildings would all be environmentally conscious made with smart materials.

4 – Services that include a hospital for serious situations and a small medical center for smaller injuries.  Certainly a fire department and a police department who would even rescue the local cat.

5 – All shops would be open from 8 – 8 catering to all from a haircut to getting your groceries on the way home.

6 – Local newspaper that reports on everything happening in the town and some national info thrown in too.

7 – Good signs that help brand the village.  Has to be good looking signs from the book shop the barber shop and the cafe.

8 – Weekend farmers markets to buy the farmers vegetables and chickens including home brews and wine.

9 – Local farm where people can always go to purchase from the farm shop on a daily basis.  Keeping the community sustainable.

10 – A beautiful flowing river that moves through the town.  People can fish, canoe and enjoy the river side as well.

11 – Founding myths and folklore about the town to be passed down generation to generation.

12 – A local tennis and bathing club open all year round to the entire town.  More community there.

13 – An artists studio for the young to the old.

14 – A library piled high with books, magazines and easy to download materials.

15 – An artisan quarter for people making furniture or even getting a kitchen chair repaired.

16 – Serious wifi for all.

17 – A grand hotel with amazing food on a leafy terrace overlooking the river.

18 – A primary school that everyone has attended at one point of their life.

19 – Public transportation for everyone.

20 – Festivals held during the year from music to arts.

What do all of these things, more or less, have in common? They’re not the characteristics of suburbs.

Surveillance ≠ safety

A few years ago Penn State began spending millions installing new surveillance systems across its University Park campus. The proliferation of surveillance at Penn State, as in our society in general, changes the character of the community.

Smart, limited surveillance can make sense—but blanket surveillance is a corrosive that changes the character of communities in a damaging way. Its effect is to leave no common place free of cameras, and the effect of cameras watching every public space works to defeat the very purpose of public spaces.

Do you remember childhood? Do you remember what it was like to play when your parents and their friends were with you, hanging nearby but paying just enough attention to interject or admonish on occasion? Now do you remember as you grew up a bit and would meet friends someplace in the neighborhood—maybe a nearby woods or creek or field or dead end street? There was a place when you could truly be alone, or at least be with friends without a watchful eye. Completely different spaces—one public but regulated, and the other a genuinely free.

In the article covering Penn State’s push toward surveillance, an administrator named offers the justification that surveillance is “part of our society.” This is a strikingly unthoughtful remark. All variety of crime is “part of our society” too. What administrators like this are really saying is something like: “Don’t look to universities to do anything other than reflexively embrace the fashions of the culture.”

A community with a high degree of neighborly interaction and trust—that is, a healthy culture—is not a place that requires surveillance.

In old films you’ll notice characters sometimes hop into their cars, pull down the visor, and catch a falling set of keys for the ignition. The car doors weren’t just unlocked—the keys were kept in the car! These were communities that trusted themselves, even while knowing there was always a risk a bad actor might take advantage of that atmosphere of trust.

While networked technology makes things like mass surveillance possible, the paradox is that those networked technologies have the effect in this case of creating thousands of individualized, invisible social moats. They corrode community culture by outsourcing its most vital function, which is to know your neighbor well enough to watch his back.

We can’t create safe spaces by surveilling them in order to assign blame or solve crimes after the fact. What we need are policies that fosters trust and personal relationships. This means towns where you can leave your car open. Campuses where you can trust your dormmates to care enough about you to keep their eyes open for you.

It’s true that surveillance is “part of our society,” but universities especially should know that it doesn’t have to be, and that the safest communities are those without surveillance.

Air rights v. land rights

NPR covered a New York controversy a while ago surrounding new “super tall” towers like One57 just south of Central Park. At issue are the shadows skyscrapers cast on Central Park. One57 is 75 stories, and another soon to be completed will be ~90 stories. As the sun rises and sets, this results in massive shadows that stretch and creep across the park.

The history of Central Park is fascinating. It’s nearly 900 acres of public space in the midst of America’s most populous city. It wasn’t a part of the original city plan, but leaders with foresight surveyed and set aside the land so that residents and future generations would have a bit of nature left near where they would live, work, and play.

While I’m all for private markets, I’m also for architects that respect their surroundings—aesthetically in terms of its neighboring buildings and structurally in terms of the impact of its size. Most NPR commenters seem to view this debate one-dimensionally: “Are tall buildings a new thing in New York city?”, etc. But these super tall residential towers are the first of their kind adjacent to Central Park, and structures this tall are a new challenge for city governments, developers, and residents. You can see the effect of that in the NPR article’s photo. 

Another NPR commenter:

I was surprised this story didn’t mention the city’s past attempts to address this same issue. The 1916 Zoning Resolution required skyscrapers over a certain height to ascend stepwise to let light reach the street (think art deco). It was repealed or reformed or something in the 60’s I think.

Air rights, based on medieval Roman law, will need to be revisited to account for things like super-tall construction of 100+ or even 167+ floor buildings like Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Tower. The ancient basis for air rights was that “For whoever owns the soil, it is theirs up to Heaven and down to Hell.”

Since technological architecture now lets air rights impact the land rights of our neighbors, it seems like we’re due for revisiting that Roman thinking.