Considering unwalkable cities

Felix Salmon discusses an unwalkable part of Jerusalem:

One look at the map and you can tell this is not a walkable neighborhood. Yes, Jerusalem is hilly, but there are lots of walkable hilly cities: San Francisco and Lisbon spring to mind. This area, to the west of the city, is relatively new; it was clearly built with the idea that people would get around first and foremost using their own personal cars.

What’s more, the Holyland development seems to be targeted at Americans, who are used to the suburban lifestyle, like it a lot, and are attracted by developments which can claim to be “surrounded by 15 acres of green park”. Residential towers can be fine things, but they become very bad neighbors when they’re surrounded by nothing.

I suspect that what’s going on here is a classic case of Nimbyism: Jerusalem has a growing population, it needs a lot more residential square footage, but the locals in Jerusalem proper refuse to allow developers to build up. So those developers retreat to the hills, where, attempting to make a virtue out of necessity, they create luxury towers as removed as possible from the bustle of urban life.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this post. Salmon seems to have highlighted just one part of Jerusalem and then tries to expand the conversation to the city level. Here are a few thoughts in response:

1. My guess is that these “unwalkable” parts tend to be more modern and it’s interesting that Salmon notes that this was intended to appeal to Americans. There are cultural differences about what counts as “good” or “desirable” development. I wonder how much Jane Jacob’s classic (which Salmon cites as a model of good development) has been utilized in non-American settings.

2. Perhaps the better question to ask here is what cities have effectively used zoning and other regulations to limit developments like this. Some cities use zoning more than others.

3. The NIMBY conjecture is interesting but it sounds like the reverse of the American context: the large building is pushed to the edge of the city because tall buildings don’t fit the character of the historic central area.

4. This reminds me of a paper idea I had years ago about the grid system found in places like Manhattan. This format is not just physically simpler to navigate or plan but it also reduces the cognitive work pedestrians must do. Because everything is similar and relatively easy to find, the grid is an example of “extended cognition.”

5. Does Jerusalem have walkability scores?

Linking crime rates to poor urban design

The possible effects that urban design has on human behavior is an interesting, cross-disciplinary field of study. In the pages of the Jerusalem Post, an architect and town planner calls for better urban design in order to reduce crime rates:

But the crime problem will not be resolved through increased police forces alone. The function of police is to apprehend criminals, but they can in no major way create or foster security by eliminating the conditions in which most crime breeds.
Also obvious to all is that a panicky response to the problem – clearly evident in the government’s actions in the case of Lod – is unsuitable and sure to prove wasteful. Needed is a far deeper understanding of the roots of the problem, including its social, economic and moral aspects, such as inequality. One important factor, not well enough understood, is simply the physical environment.

Architecture can encourage encounter or help prevent it. Certain kinds of buildings and spatial layouts favor criminal activity. Knowing how to identify problem areas in existing environments, understanding why they have become dangerous, then prescribing corrective measures is essential. Knowing how to create safe new environments, at least avoiding the many pitfalls leading to the creation of dangerous spaces, is the other side of the coin. While architecture admittedly operates more in the area of influence than control, it can be an important step toward preventing crime…

With our rapidly expanding population and limited land reserves, urban renewal and the creation of new medium- to high-density, large-scale housing developments, most difficult challenges have become an urgent necessity. The time has come for the existing professional literature on environmental sociology and psychology – practically unknown or systematically ignored here for so many years – to be given the serious attention and respect it deserves.

These are interesting claims: a certain kind of urban design will reduce crime rates and is a better response (or more measured approach) than panicked crack-downs on crime. This sort of argument is not uncommon: New Urbanists make claims about community life based on their planning principles. Several full communities as well as a number of smaller developments have been built with these particular principles that are intended to counter the sterile life of suburban sprawl. Similar claims have also been made in the United States. Not too long ago, in the era of public housing high-rises, it could often be heard that such buildings prompted more crime. The counter-argument was that plenty of wealthy people live in high-rises without much crime, a contrast that could clearly be drawn in cities like Chicago where public housing high-rises and wealthy high-rises were within sight of each other.

In American discussions of this topic, the conversation often turns to Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In this book, Jacob makes an argument for “eyes on the street” in order to ensure a vibrant and safe community. By this, she meant that a certain number of people, resident, shop owners, walkers, and others are on the street throughout the day, signaling to people that the neighborhood is watching.

I would be curious to know: how many urban sociologists today would suggest that particular urban designs or principles are key factors in reducing crime or anti-social behaviors? While architects and planners make this argument (perhaps to illustrate the important social consequences of their work), how much research supports this claim?