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?

Determining which cities have a future

SmartPlanet looks into an infographic that supposedly says whether “if your city has a future or it’s destined to turn into the U.S. version of a favela”:

Meanwhile, according to the chart from PPS (click on it for a larger version), Atlanta is easily the most massively dysfunctional metropolis ever to be un-designed by a conspiracy of developers and compliant local government. From comedian David Cross (”David Cross Doesn’t Like Atlanta” – NSFW) to peak oil theorist James Howard Kunstler (”The Horror of Downtown Atlanta“), everyone who has ever been forced to live in or visit Atlanta knows that it is a city as ill-equipped for walkability and sustainable transit as any in the U.S., with the possible exceptions of Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and pretty much every other city in Texas.

Many cities are teetering right on the edge of acceptability, by PPS’s measures. Austin, Texas may sound cool in theory, but in the past 20 or so years it has become a suppurating pustule of sprawl and the bane of commuters throughout its metro area. Similarly, university town Gainesville, Florida has a marvelously walkable historic core surrounded by a not-so-tasty shell of tract homes, McMansions and cul-de-sacs…

Ultimately, though, all these efforts are piddling when compared to what our resource and finance-starved future is going to require: shorter commutes, more walkability, and a relocalization of just about all the essentials of everyday life. Everything, in other words, that was present in Brooklyn about the time that the Brooklyn Bridge went up. And despite that city’s incorporation into New York City as a borough, it retains, to this day, the local character that made it such a high-functioning metropolis a century ago. I may be be biased, but when I think of cities that work, Brooklyn will always be at the top of my list.

The infographic seems to be based on New Urbanist-type principles: walkable cities with vibrant street life where the infrastructure serves people and not cars. More broadly, the infographic presents either a sprawl or anti-sprawl perspective.

The discussion hints that cities can change from being on one side of the ledger to the other. But large-scale changes (across an entire city or region) take time compared to neighborhood-by-neighborhood approaches. Particularly in this time of economic crisis and budget shortfalls, how many cities can even have a discussion about big New Urbanist-type changes?

Will anyone bother looking at this infographic in ten or twenty years to see if the predictions were correct?

To build or not to build a 20-story high-rise in Oak Park

While a proposed 20-story high-rise in Oak Park is unique in that it would be built just outside the Frank Lloyd Wright historic district, the conversation about whether the building should be constructed or not is one that may be facing more suburbs in the coming years:

She said the building’s size has been the primary complaint, but there has also been grumbling over the modern design looming over the historic Wright district.

“I think, in the end, a lot of people could live with the aesthetics if it weren’t for the height and the density,” she said.

Officials have been trying to attract new business and tourists by making the village more “walkable.” About $15 million in streetscaping improvements has been proposed, with $5 million already approved by the board.

Village Manager Tom Barwin says the building would help visually draw the downtown district together while creating a “Hey, what’s that?” mentality.

In built-out communities like Oak Park that have little or no open space, projects like this are going to become more commonplace. It sounds like the typical criticisms are being raised: the building is too tall, there are too many housing units (is this tied to the type of people who live in apartments or the strain on city services?), and it doesn’t fit with the character of the community. But the city suggests it has a plan to be more “walkable,” a buzzword among many designers (and perhaps started by New Urbanists), which is supposed to reduce congestion and improve neighborhood and community life.

On one hand, it might be easy to look at the criticisms of the project and suggest that some residents would resist almost any kind of change to their community. They know the Oak Park that they like and they will do a lot to try to maintain that. On the other hand, if land-challenged suburbs are going to experience any growth or change, redevelopment is going to be necessary. Of course, communities don’t want too many projects that are completely out of place but they don’t want to remain stagnant either. The trick is going to be how to balance the character of the community with change that is going to happen. Perhaps it doesn’t have to come in the form of 20-story buildings but I suspect more large Chicago suburbs, including places like Naperville, are going to seriously consider high-rise projects in the next few decades.

Moving? Consider the walkability and transit scores

The Infrastructurist looks at two figures that may become part of the home-buying equation in the near future: a home’s walkability and transit scores.

How much this influences homebuying decisions remains to be seen. I’m sure there is part of the population that wants such a location where daily needs, like parks, food, and transit are within a reasonable walk. But there are certainly others who would emphasize other features, like the size of the home, over the home’s context.

We know that Americans don’t want to walk much more than a quarter mile to get to things. New Urbanists use this information to guide their planning: homes should be within a 5-10 minute walk away from necessities.