MOVING URBAN INNOVATION BACK TO THE FUTURE: Reclaiming the Village and the Street

Q: Why do people live in cities?      

A: Because that’s where all the other people are.

 It’s really wonderful that Mayor Menino has a special group of “urban mechanics” finding ways to put new information technologies to work for the city.  Technology is very cool.  And fun.  And useful.  And has a huge impact.  I spent part of my life in high tech and even wrote a book ‘way back in 1996 called Civilizing Cyberspace:  Policy, Power, and the Information Superhighway about how the emerging digital networks could be used to enhance or stifle democracy

But when it comes to the most important qualities of urban life, the future is behind us.  I don’t mean that we should return to the disease-ridden, economically brutal cities of the past.  Despite the Tea Party’s desire to dismantle our public safety nets and return to the competitive jungle of the pre-Progressive era, our world is much better because of the intervention of governments to provide clean water, require sewer systems, and to reduce the massacre of human wellbeing caused by unregulated markets.  But there are important aspects of past urban life that are worth preserving or recreating that emerge from the presence of both cohesive neighborhoods and unstructured diversity.

The basic fact is that we’re social beings.  We like being with each other; we need to be with each other – people kept in isolation go insane.  Although many people are eager to escape the social confines of small town stagnation, once in the city they seek community and alternative forms of extended family through friendship networks, church membership, or workplace social connections.

At the same time, because they are full of people from many different backgrounds, cities are where the action is…the new ideas, the jobs, economic opportunities, the chance to try new things and even re-invent yourself.  Cities are the engines of civilization, prosperity, and innovation.  Cities are where we bump into new people, people different from ourselves, and have our world’s expand; where new ideas emerge from the clash of differing opinions and facts; where capital and markets meet in the search for ways to profit from new needs.  Cities thrive on social friction – the sparks that emerge from the density of our interactions as we scrape against each other (a process hopefully softened by access to parks and other greenery).

Despite nearly a century of assumption that cities were dying and the more prosperous future lay in suburban growth, despite the horrendous urban destruction caused by the effort to make our landscape serve the needs of moving cars rather than socializing people, despite all the techno-stupid predictions that the Internet would make cities obsolete, urban populations continue to grow.  Cities are still where it’s at, in transportation as well as other fields.

And the cutting edge of urban innovation recaptures those qualities that make cities the center of civilization, the launching place for both personal growth and commercial profit.  Farmers’ markets that reconnect local agriculture with urban shoppers and that get expanded into kid-centered “play streets.” The spread of pedestrian malls and “shared space” with lots of benches to sit on and small shops that revitalize downtowns.  Bike sharing programs along with Community Greenways and bicycle boulevards that extend the tree canopy and parks deeper into neighborhoods, creating safe places for family recreation and everyday commuting.  Reforming parking space requirements.  Think of how the once-empty Kennedy Greenway began to fill with people when the emphasis changed from building edifices to food trucks, carousels, concerts, and play areas.  (Now, we need to get the city to make space for separated bike paths as well!)

Cities are the source of innovation partly because today’s problems are so multi-dimensional.  The location and type of housing and commercial development, shaped by zoning and building codes, impacts the ability of residents to access healthy foods and have daily opportunities to be physically active, which impacts their willingness to spend money in local stores as well as their family’s health and medical bills, as well as….  There is a complicated but incredibly powerful converging of issues – transportation, community development, education, environmental protection, public health, business promotion – and cities are both small enough to allow the cross-departmental interaction essential to addressing situations and large enough to have enough resources to begin doing something about it.

Cities (and states) are especially important these days because of the immobility of the federal government.  The rise of the radical right has ended the past century’s trend of moving innovation upward to centralized national authorities whose distance from local elites allowed for greater flexibility.  (Creating nationwide reforms also prevented business from playing states and cities against each other in a “race to the bottom” that Conservatives now seem to see as essential for competitive freedom.)  Today, once again left on their own, cities and states have once again turned into the laboratories of democracy, although within the increasingly tight limits allowed by the collapse of federal support.

It’s time to make lemon-aide from the sour fruit falling off the federal table.  It’s time to push forward — creatively, boldly, radically – at the local level.

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Urban Motivations and Design

Moving to the city is not a totally personal choice.  Ever since the 18th century British enclosure movement, large scale economic forces have pushed people off the rural land.  A key reason for the mass migration of African Americans northward was the growing mechanization and consolidation of southern agriculture.  Market forces are doing the same in much of today’s developing world.

Still, for all the loss of community and stability that urbanization causes, it’s an irresistible magnetic.  You simply can’t “keep them on the farm once they’ve seen Paree.”  Over half of the world’s population is now urbanized and that will grow to70% by 2050.  In the USA, 82% of the population resides in cities or nearby suburbs.  Cities are where we meet, talk, hangout, work, shop, and play.  Urban populations are growing again, and not just because of aging empty nesters looking to simplify.  New York City, leading the way, has had a growing influx of people from other states and fewer people moving to the suburbs.

So you’d think that we’d design our cities to serve and nurture those person-to-person, human-scale, neighborhood-like qualities.  You’d think we’d embrace the cultural, economic, and civic vitality that density creates when moderated by comfort of visible greenery and safe public spaces. You’d think that we’d maximize opportunities to informally run across each other during our daily routines – running errands, dealing with our kids, going to or from work, relaxing at the end of the day.

But the fact is that we’ve spent the last 75 years, or more, restructuring our cities for automobile traffic in order to allow as many as possible to go as fast as possible through our cities and inner-core suburbs.  It may have once made some sense – there was a widespread belief that cars were the engine of progress and decentralizing our population was the route to a better life for all.  But it’s like having wine with dinner – one or two glasses are wonderful; drinking the whole case gets you sick.

Hitting the Motorized Wall

It doesn’t work.  Our cities are clogged – it’s faster to walk across mid-Manhattan during business hours than to drive.  Our commutes are getting longer – not only because our insane housing and land-use markets keep forcing people to move further and further into former farmland in order to find affordable shelter, but because there are simply too many of us driving too many cars.  Every year it gets worse no matter how many more roads get widened or built.   The current joke is that trying to solve congestion by building more roads is like trying to solve obesity by wearing a bigger belt – they both simply provide more room to spread out into.

The more we use cars, the more we shape our landscape to make car travel efficient, the less it’s possible to travel in any other manner.  Which leads to more cars.  Despite the fact that about 85% of us still drive to work and everywhere else, perhaps we’ve hit the “Marchetti Wall” of automobile congestion — the psychological barrier against spending more than about an hour and a half getting to work or coming home, first proposed by an Italian physicist named Cesare Marchetti “who posited not only that human beings instinctively adjust their lives to avoid travelling more than that amount every day, but that we’ve been doing so since the Neolithic era, even as modes and speeds of transportation have advanced.”

Perhaps, we’ve simply hit the limit of what cars can do given the physical and environmental constraints of our cities.  Perhaps, as our population continues to grow, we’ve run out of room for big machines that carry such small loads.  Whatever, it’s a car catastrophe.

Already, in the more industrialized countries, people are driving less – a trend that started before the recent financial speculative bust drove the world economy (or at least the financial security of 99% of us) into a ditch.   “The distance driven by Americans per capita each year flatlined at the turn of the century and has been dropping for six years. By last spring, Americans were driving the same distance as they had in 1998…. The shift is so gradual and widespread that it’s clearly not a product of any ‘war on the car’ or other ideological campaign. Rather, it’s a byproduct of a stage of development that cities were probably destined to reach ever since the dawn of the automobile age:  Finding themselves caught in an uncomfortable tangle of urban sprawl, population growth and plain individual inconvenience, people, one by one, are just quietly opting out.” (“Are we reaching ‘peak car’?” by Anita Elash

 It’s partly demographics.  Retiring baby boomers typically cut their driving by half once they stop commuting.  More significantly, the generation of 20-somethings is slower than any of their predecessors to buy cars – or even get drivers’ licenses.  Ironically, while driven miles continue to decline, because we’ve outgrown the limits of what cars can do within the space our cities contain, congestion and the time it takes to get anywhere by car continues to increase!

“But If You Act Now…”

Ironically, our past obsequiousness to the demands of the car gods has led us to put aside a huge percentage of our urban land area, preventing it from being used for skyscrapers or other buildings.  Roads and parking spaces are the single largest physical asset owned by most local governments.  And if we stop reserving all that space for cars, we suddenly have a lot of room for people-centered innovation.

What new ideas could those Urban Mechanics tinkering in the back rooms of city hall invent for the public use of that space!  And not just them – we need to invite the city’s thousands of equally creative inventors to voice their suggestions and provide the opportunity for those ideas to be tested out as well.

We need to be creative, bold, and experimental.  We need to pilot and try – not everything will work the first time, or ever.  But we need to try.  And not just in the high-income areas.  We need to spread our improvements around to every part of the city.  It’s not true that every bike lane or neighborhood improvement leads to gentrification – although the possibility requires that we address local issues in a holistic way.  Cities (and to a lesser extent certain states) still seem to understand that public regulation stimulates private innovation.  New York City has led the way – requiring fast food restaurants to improve their offerings, rejuvenating the restaurant business by eliminating indoor smoking, and more.  Boston has upgraded and expanded the lunch trucks, helped regional farmers by buying more school food, and upgraded building design through energy and environmental protections.  San Francisco is requiring greener roofs.  Los Angeles is using zoning to transform food access in low income neighborhoods.  There are many, many local good news stories!

But there is much more to do.  How can we make Blue Hill Avenue as people-friendly as Jamaica Plain and the Back Bay?  How can we extend the calming greenery of our fabulous parks deeper into the neighborhoods? How can we provide alternatives to the car, through improved mass transit and a regional Greenway Bike Network designed for both weekday commuting and weekend family recreation?  How can we expand our Farmers’ Markets and Main Street Festivals, using them as a way to turn key neighborhood streets into Common Grounds – connected by miles of car-free bicycling? There is a huge, even if latent, demand for human-centered places and programs.  If we build it, and promote it, and program it….they will come.

Urban Innovation: finding ways to use the best ideas of today to recapture the best values of the past in order to create the best possible future.

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Other relevant posts:

>THE THREE LEGS OF A HEALTHY BUILT ENVIRONMENT: Smart Growth, Active Transportation, Human-Scale Architecture

>THE COMPLEX INGREDIENTS OF LIVABLE CITIES: Complete Streets to Interior Design, Transit to City Planning, Art to Education

>REDEFINING TRANSPORATION: from Moving Vehicles to Place-Making

>STREETS ARE PUBLIC PROPERTY: Revitalized Streets are a Lever to Revitalize Public Life

>HOW ROADS SHAPE ECONOMIES: Why What Happens to the McGrath/O’Brien Highway, Sullivan Station, and Rutherford Ave. Will Make – or Break – Local Job Opportunities and Community Well-Being In The Entire Metro Area for Decades to Come

>BRIDGES, ROADS & HISTORIC PRESERVATION: Combining Respect for the Past with Preparation for the Future in Transportation

>Why the Public Sector Can’t Be Run “Like A Business”

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