Archive | December, 2011

What is a street?

31 Dec

To answer this question, we must first realize what streets are NOT.  Streets are NOT roads.  Roads are designed to connect two places (towns, cities, neighborhoods, etc.)  They are meant for transportation, typically via a motor vehicle.  Roads do not contain, or sparsely contain, homes, stores, and businesses.

In contrast, streets are located within towns, cities, and neighborhoods, and provide much more than transportation.  Streets are lined with homes, store fronts, and businesses.  Streets are intended as a public place where people can mingle, conduct business, live, and play.  Despite what your mother says about playing in the streets, actual streets are great for playing.  If this seems like a crazy concept to you, I will point you to the following three videos.

The first video is Barcelona in 1908, you will notice pedestrians everywhere, children and adults on bicycles, stores and homes directly on the street.  This street is not the exclusive domain of cars, as we are used to.  It belongs to all citizens despite their chosen mode of transport.  Feel free to skip around these videos if you wish.  It really is fascinating to view 100 year old street life.

This was a very common sight in modern cities 100 years ago.  Here is a video of San Francisco from 1906 with a very similar scene.

Now let’s take another look at the first video.  This time with video from the present-day spliced in as a comparison.  You will see that these are no longer streets, they are roads.  There is little to no pedestrian traffic (or any traffic for that matter, I wonder if this video was shot during a holiday), and the road has become the exclusive playground for motor vehicles.  Pedestrians have been relegated to sidewalks only, and roads have been setup for high speed travel.  Personally, I would not classify this 100 year change as “progress”.

This post, and the previous post, are intended to describe some of the characteristics that I look for in healthy communities.  I look for walkable streets, a good mix of people and modes of transportation, and ease of mobility.  Future posts will begin to look at how we can address the problems of our modern cities and move toward more livable communities.  

Extra:  If you have 15 minutes, here is a Ted Talk from someone much smarter than myself, explaining the importance of separating roads and streets.


Where did you take your last vacation?

28 Dec

Where did you go on your last vacation?  Probably the most popular answer is the beach or some other attraction provided by nature (camping, fishing, etc.).  I am not concerned with these trips so much.  When was the last time that you took a trip a new city?  Where did you go; San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Savannah, Charleston?  Those cities are all very popular for tourism.  Why do you think that is?  It can’t be the weather (Chicago, New York, and San Francisco have notoriously bad weather.)  It can’t be exclusively for high society and culture (as much as I love Savannah and Charleston, I don’t go there for the museums or opera).  What common thread binds these cities?  The most obvious answer that I see, is that they are all old and well planned cities.

NYC bustling with a mingling of pedestrians and vehicles

When we visit places like Savannah, Charleston, San Fran. etc., we go there because they provide an escape from the drudgery of day-to-day life.  Which for many of us consists of lengthy commutes between suburbs and distant work places.  We live in homes where there is no street life or culture, and we travel to soul-less office buildings in downtown areas that shut down after 5pm.  We do all of our shopping at big box stores, fighting for parking spaces and spending a large percentage of our lives waiting in lines to purchase our weeks’ worth of groceries.

Savannah, GA's beautiful historic district.

This is a far cry from those cities listed above.  They all have street life, easy walking between hotels and pubs, restaurants, and grocery stores.  They are laden with parks for people watching and interacting with strangers.  I submit that the street life and walkability of these places is what makes them so attractive as vacation destinations.  It is the only common attribute shared among the cities that I mentioned.

If we are attracted to these places due to their walkability, accessibility, street life, and charm, why do we choose to live in places that lack all of these features?  I’m sure there is whole list of excuses that we can come up with for why we choose to visit these places on vacation, but somehow ignore their design when deciding where we will live the bulk of our lives.  But, is there really any reason that every town, city, or suburb in the USA couldn’t offer many of the same attractive features of these popular vacation destinations?

Perhaps I am being overly romantic and not practical.  After all, if we all lived in places like San Francisco and Savannah, where would we park our cars?

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