Thursday, May 3, 2007

Urban Campus: People-centered cities

Please read Green Streets at BLDG BLOG. I think it hits on a change to our urban/suburban landscape that is both vastly transformative and very do-able.

Imagine a scene: You're traveling to Washington DC, visiting the Smithsonian, perhaps. But you don't drive all the way downtown. Instead you park in a tourist satellite parking lot and hop on the metro into the city. And when you're there, there is hardly another car to be seen. Most streets, formerly for cars, are now exclusively pedestrian thoroughfares, planted with trees and small flower gardens. A few streets are still open for big trucks to make deliveries, and above-ground trams supplement the underground metro. This is a city that doesn't belong to the automobile any more. Its cleaner. Its air is healthier. Its quieter. People have the right of way.

There are many examples of streets closed to automobile traffic in American cities. Streets can close for special events, and car-streets can close more-or-less permanently to become pedestrian walkways. Silver Spring Maryland has a very successful downtown area with one such street, and it is easy to see how the walkway drastically improves the area's appeal.

Cars are divisive in so many ways. Philadelphia is a case study. The Vine Street Expressway and I-95 bound the city on the east and north. I-95 prevents almost all growth beyond it. And Vine Street created, and still maintains, a border between wealthy and poor areas in Philly. They also have a tendency to cast others as obstacles. Other people get in your way in parking lots, in heavy traffic, in drive through lines. There are plenty of places where the presence of others is a boon - a club, a lecture, a play. But its hard to think of situations where the presence of a lot of other cars is positive.

I think the time is here for us to get together with our communities and reduce our reliance on autos. We can develop the technology, the infrastructure and the policy to do it. We just lack the will and leadership, so far, to get together and work out practicable alternatives.

I'm going to spend some time looking for resources, advocacy groups and research that deal with issues relating to this. If you know of good info, please share!

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