Doing urban planning with driverless cars in mind

If and when driverless cars become the norm, how might places change?

The possibilities are dazzling. If self-driving cars lead to a significant drop in the number of vehicles on the road, parking garages could be turned into apartments or stores. Curbside parking could be converted into rainwater-collecting bio swales that help prevent sewers from backing up. Roads would narrow. Sidewalks would widen…

At IIT, such efforts crystallized in the “The Driverless City,” a 168-page book by Brown and fellow faculty members Lili Du, Laura Forlano, Ron Henderson and Jack Guthman, an adjunct professor and well-known Chicago zoning lawyer. The book serves up visions of the future that read like an update of Verne’s Victorian-era novels, which foresaw the advent of inventions such as submarines. Take this description of future commuting patterns, which is rendered in the past tense:

“On heavily trafficked arterial roads in Chicago and cities throughout the country, human driving faded away as driverless cars become more affordable and widely available. … Collisions and fender benders became rare events. … The clutter of omnipresent traffic lights gave way to smaller furnishings with embedded infrastructure that helped control the flow of vehicles.”

The book also offers a vision of how driverless cars might break down traditional barriers between street and sidewalk, nature and technology. Focusing on a proposed transformation of the South Side’s King Drive, the authors see parking spaces disappearing and vegetation sprouting in their place:

This sounds what like a number of urban planners (such as Jeff Speck in Walkable City) have been suggesting for years: the streetscape could be organized around pedestrians and social life on the street rather than on moving as many cars as efficiently as possible. Americans like their cars and many don’t seem to mind the required changes that must go with it – but this could force their hand regarding urban planning. While American communities are clearly designed with the car in mind, it is interesting that it would take a major technological advance – vehicles that can safely operate themselves – to finally tip the scales toward other street users.

More broadly, driverless cars will likely be sold to the public because of their safety but they could transform all sorts of areas.

Teaching “design thinking” through urban planning

It is popular to teach problem solving skills in schools and at least one group thinks this can be done through urban planning examples:

At a recent teaching conference in Richmond, Virginia, a session on “design thinking” in education drew a capacity crowd. Two middle-school teachers demonstrated how they had used the concept to plan and execute an urban-design project in which students were asked to develop a hypothetical city or town given factors such as population, geography, the environment, and financial resources…

First, he emphasized, design thinking starts with empathy. When designing anything meant to be used by another person—whether that’s a lesson, curriculum, classroom layout, or an imaginary city—the designer must understand what that person (an “end-user,” in design lingo) needs. In the case of the urban-design project, for example, the students can’t just design a pretty building; they must think about the needs of the people who will live there, as well as the available resources, the budget, and the impact that building will have on the surrounding landscape. “The design-thinking philosophy requires the designer to put his or her ego to the side and seek to meet the unmet needs, both rational and emotional, of the user,” Stevenson explained.

Once the student designers have gathered all their research together, they must organize and make sense of it all. Again, in the case of the urban-planning project, after the students have gathered interviews and research about the needs of their city’s future residents, students must figure out what to do with all that information. If, for example, the future residents’ top priorities include affordability and opulence, the student designer is going to have to find a way to integrate the residents’ conflicting needs.

Finally, design thinking requires designers to generate ideas—lots of ideas—and prototype them. In order for this part of the process to work, students and teachers must be comfortable with failure. For many students, particularly those who want to look smart, this phase can be frustrating. “People tend to come up with an idea early on, and know that this idea is it, the perfect idea, and get emotionally invested in that one thing. Then, when their perfect idea fails, they fall apart,” Stevenson said. Design thinking forces students to keep their minds open, to try out lots of ideas early in the process before they let their egos or emotions get too invested in just one.

If one of the purposes of an education is to create better citizens, using urban planning as an example would be a great exercise. My experience with college students suggests that when they arrive at that level of education, they have limited knowledge of how communities came to be or work. Urban planning cannot address all of these issues – I don’t believe, for example, that simply designing a place with New Urbanist techniques guarantees particular outcomes – but it can get students thinking about how environments are shaped by communities as well as shape communities. In other words, communities and physical environments don’t just happen: the interactions between humans and their environment (whether in older or more recent contexts) is a complex and iterative process.

Trying to replicate Times Square in places like Atlanta

Large cities often borrow ideas from each other. But, is it possible to design places like Times Square into being by adding lights?

Some smaller American cities have recently been attempting to mimic this aesthetic, albeit on a lesser scale, in the hope of spurring economic development and a more pedestrian-friendly downtown. Denver’s theater district, for instance, now features an enormous video screen and lighted advertisements peddling the latest in products and entertainment, and Atlanta is in the process of planning such a district for a section of its downtown.

The organization Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) is spearheading the effort to relax signage restrictions so that property owners can go bigger and brighter. “At this point, downtown Atlanta’s zoning doesn’t allow signs that are over 200 square feet, and our billboards are stuck in time,” says Jennifer Ball, CAP’s Vice President for Planning and Economic Development. “We’re anticipating an increase in size as well as the ability to do large-screen video and LED boards.” Atlanta’s City Council will likely vote on the measure in January…

But the larger aim is to bring more people downtown—and for them to experience the area on foot rather than in their cars. Atlanta is known for its incredible sprawl, with its more walkable neighborhoods scattered throughout the city and thus only easily accessed via automobile. The city is aiming to make itself denser and more pedestrian-friendly, and the district is, according to Ball, “a piece of the puzzle.” To further that goal, the bright lights district would also include more housing and ground-level retail outlets and restaurants. “Atlanta wants to have a strong core that is walkable and bikeable and has the level of density to support a lifestyle where you don’t have to be in your car all the time,” Ball says.

Such a multi-pronged strategy is important, as urban lighting scholars caution that illumination on its own doesn’t guarantee an increase in business or foot traffic. Margaret Petty, Head of the School of Design at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology and a historian of electric lighting, says that there’s no evidence to suggest that lighting alone attracts people to an area, unless that area, such as Times Square, is “iconic.” Josiane Meier, lecturer at the Technical University of Berlin and co-editor of Urban Lighting, Light Pollution, and Society, adds that the “if you build it, they will come” model doesn’t really work in terms of lighting and density. “The interdependency runs the other way,” she says. “Density is a prerequisite for the existence of bright lights districts.”

It sounds like the Atlanta plan isn’t just about lights; it is about creating denser, vibrant places with a variety of uses and lights (which both can attract people and highlight existing activity). New Urbanism and Jane Jacobs come together to possibly reshape Atlanta.

Will it actually work? This reminds me of the number of cities that tried to replicate the High Line after it proved very successful in New York City. It isn’t hard to build things to look like someplace else – look at Las Vegas – but it is difficult to create legitimate neighborhoods that aren’t just tourist destinations. Times Square is interesting not just because of the tourists but also because it is at the center of the number one global city (New York City) and and is located in one of the most densely settled places in the United States (Manhattan). A bar/entertainment district with some housing above and nearby may be nice but it can’t exactly replicate the conditions of a New York City or London or Tokyo.

What could a city like Atlanta create that would be more authentic to itself while also increasing density and vibrancy? What is unique to Atlanta that can’t be found elsewhere (besides the sprawl)?

Gov’t plan to reduce infrastructure barriers between communities

Several months ago, the Department of Transportation started a project intended to reverse infrastructure barriers between communities:

Wednesday marks the launch of an initiative from the Department of Transportation aimed at mending some of those old wounds. The Every Place Counts Design Challenge calls on local governments to identify neighborhoods that face barriers to (or created by) existing transportation infrastructure, and to compete to work with experts who’ll assist in knocking them down.

Four communities around the U.S. will be selected to receive a specialized DOT design session in their hometowns, which will offer “in-depth facilitation of design strategies, on-site advice from subject-matter experts, targeted guidance related to USDOT program funds, and identification of resources to address an existing transportation infrastructure project challenge,” according to a federal notice provided to CityLab.

To be eligible, elected officials, urban planners, designers, and a cross-section of local residents must all convene around a transportation project that is already in the works and has the potential to reconnect communities to essential services such as jobs, healthcare, and schools. Applications (due June 3) must demonstrate how the existing infrastructure cuts people off from those needs, and how working with transportation and design experts could help these areas achieve better outcomes.

As this later article suggests, such monies could be used to counter earlier efforts that often emphasized driving (particularly in the form of highways in urban areas) or development at the expense of poorer neighborhoods. There are numerous classic cases of this including the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago between the Bridgeport (white) and Bronzeville (black) neighborhoods or Gans’ classic study Urban Villagers involving an Italian neighborhood in Boston. Instead of enforcing outside interests on existing communities – usually along racial/ethnic or class lines – planning today would often advocate for more community input. At the same time, there are still plenty of current situations where neighborhood and outside interests are not aligned and conflict can arise. Additionally, what may look advisable now may seem crazy in a few decades even as we would often imagine that we would never do something as destructive as post-war urban renewal.

Perhaps efforts like this are simply necessary: while better planning could help limit future remediation, monies should always be available to address past plans that didn’t quite work as intended or that were more misguided.

Cities will need to adapt to self-driving cars

If self-driving cars arrive soon, cities may not be ready:

Just six percent of long-range transportation plans in major US cities are factoring the impact of autonomous cars, according to a report released in the fall by the National League of Cities. That’s a bad sign. “Even though driverless cars may be shoehorned to fit the traditional urban environment in the short term, it won’t be a long-term solution for maximizing potential benefits,” says Lili Du, an assistant professor of transportation engineering at Illinois Tech.

The Driverless Cities Project is developing a comprehensive answer, folding in urban design, landscape architecture, transportation engineering, sociology, urban networks, and planning law. (The project is a finalist for the university’s $1 million Nayar Prize for research with meaningful social impacts.) The idea is to explore current research around the country, along with the more forward-thinking planning initiatives, and fold in their own studies to create a suite of guidelines—including model urban codes that determine so much about city environments—for municipalities to incorporate into their planning.

There’s plenty to consider. For example, we don’t know how parking will work for autonomous vehicles. Should cities be building lots outside urban centers? Is parking still necessary at all? Wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communication will lets cars pack together more tightly, which raises questions about how we fit them onto our streets.

Their autonomous operation alone can obviate the need for traffic signals and road signs. That’ll go a long way toward beautifying city streets, Marshall says, but brings up other problems regarding pedestrian safety, speed limits, roadway design, and the need for and sizes of driveways and curbs. Even further, vehicle ownership and usage patterns will change, once we’re able to summon an autonomous car through an app and then shoo it away once it delivers us at our destination. Who’s going to own and operate those cars, and what will they do when not serving their owners? Park in the ‘burbs? Infinite-Uber-loop?

It sounds like there is a lot of good that could be done in helping to reverse the changes that occurred from the early to mid-1900s where cities were altered in significant ways – wider streets and smaller sidewalks, the construction of highways – to make it easier for cars to operate in the city. Of course, making some of these roadway changes doesn’t necessarily lead to a Jane Jacobs urban paradise. Take downtown Manhattan: you could reduce the size of roads and give pedestrians more space. Yet, the scale of the buildings often would not help; you can create all sorts of sidewalks but if they are shrouded in shadows from skyscrapers, is it inviting? Or, adding more pedestrian space may not necessarily lead to more lively street life if there isn’t a mix of uses to attract people. On the whole, having to emphasize cars less could be very attractive but a lot of additional work would need to be done to truly take advantage of the opportunity.

China introduces plan to eliminate gated communities

Gated communities may be popular in the United States and many other countries but China is looking to open them up:

Along with its ambitions to finally put an end to “weird” architecture, China is also hoping to ban gated communities. In the same directive that called for stricter building standards, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China has also recommended that future residential enclaves be opened to the public. Existing gated communities would also gradually have their once-private streets integrated into the public road network. Not only would the move ease traffic congestion, the government argues, but it would also make better use of land.

But that particular part of the plan has drawn criticism from legal experts and fierce opposition from the public. Lawyers say such a mandate infringes on residents’ property rights, which according to China’s property laws, are “inviolable.” According to the South China Morning Post, the cost of roads and other shared spaces inside gated communities are factored into the price of residents’ homes, so they are essentially considered private property. China’s Supreme Court recently told the Hong Kong newspaper that they will be “paying close attention” to the directive.

Is this a microcosm of a larger debate between a more free market economic system versus more government control? The question of whether developers can build and residents, particularly those who feel they have joined the middle or upper class, can move into gated communities seems tied to a number of bigger issues.

I’m reminded that one tool of power available to governments is to dictate use of land and regulate architecture. Americans tend to prioritize property rights but the United States has a variety of land and architecture regulations, particularly zoning at a local level as well as historic preservation districts. Less frequent is the use of eminent domain, though it has been used regularly in the past for urban renewal which was often about taking land and profiting from new development. See the recent case in Chicago where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has discussed seizing the old post office building to make money for the city.

So how far should governments go regarding regulating land and architecture? A completely free market system would lead to some negative outcomes but too much implies tyranny.

Designing “porous cities” for regular interactions by all people

Sociologist Richard Sennett observes a heterogeneous marketplace in India and wonders why more urban spaces can’t have a broad mix of people:

Nehru Place is every urbanist’s dream: intense, mixed, complex. If it’s the sort of place we want to make, it’s not the sort of space most cities are building. Instead, the dominant forms of urban growth are mono-functional, like shopping centres where you are welcome to shop but there’s no place to pray. These sorts of places tend to be isolated in space, as in the offices “campuses” built on the edge of cities, or towers in a city’s centre which, as in London’s current crop of architectural monsters, are sealed off at the base from their surroundings. It’s not just evil developers who want things this way: according to Setha Low, the most popular form of residential housing, world-wide, is the gated community.

Is it worth trying to turn the dream of the porous city into a pervasive reality? I wondered in Nehru Place about the social side of this question, since Indian cities have been swept from time to time by waves of ethnic and religious violence. Could porous places tamp down that threat, by mixing people together in everyday activities? Evidence from western cities answers both yes and no…

If the public comes to demand it, urbanists can easily design a porous city on the model of Nehru Place; indeed, many of the architects and planners at the Urban Age events now unfolding in London have made proposals to “porosify” the city. Like Nehru Place, these larger visions entail opening up and blurring the edges of spaces so that people are drawn in rather than repulsed; they emphasise true mixed use of public and private functions, schools and clinics amid Tesco or Pret; they explore the making of loose-fit spaces which can shift in shape as people’s lives change.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. These thoughts sound similar to what sociologist Elijah Anderson was getting at in The Cosmopolitan Canopy. Anderson asked of American cities: what happens in the rare public spaces where people of different class, race, and ethnic backgrounds regularly mix? Sennett has asked this of international contexts which have their own unique mixes of people.
  2. Key to the mixing of people may be the presence of “normal” commercial activity. Anderson observed a shopping mall in central Philadelphia; Sennett references an electronics market in India. Prices have to be low enough for everyone to have access and there needs to be a range of mixed use activity with some nearby places to work, shop, and eat.
  3. It strikes me that exclusivity is something imposed by the upper classes. One function of higher priced stores is that it tends to keep certain people out. Gated communities, cited by Sennett, are a function of class. As people acquire more wealth, they tend to design or buy into settings where people below them are minimized or removed. Thus, having more porous cities or spaces within cities would likely require significant changes from those with more power and wealth.