May 03, 2003

Interesting urban design ideas from the USA

Brian Micklethwait | Planning

Yesterday I did a posting on a subject that has ramifications in all directions, namely a new trend/fashion/movement/maybe even upheaval in the design of housing in the USA. The subject has been inserted into the blogosphere (a lot, but especially this week) by the 2 Blowhards, who emailed me in my capacity as junior member of the Culture Blog tribe, soliciting attention. It was this article that got my particular attention and I wrote about it on my Education Blog, and now I'm writing about it again here, because in addition to having education vibes, it also has transport vibes, the former being a direct result of the latter.

Briefly, what is being argued is that American houses need to be nearer to one another, to encourage neighbourliness and to enable the young to avoid having to make a leap between young childhood, and older teendom when they have the magic of their own wheels. During older childhood, they are either trapped, or make dangerous journeys into the suburban wasteland or worse, into the big city dystopia. There's no gradual habituation to the danger zones, only dangerous lunges into the unknown or nothing. Followed by those wheels.

Central to the new vision is that if houses are closer together in a (geographically but not numerically) smaller community, the place will be able to support a public transport node that will be near enough for all inhabitants to use and therefore to keep it in business. With public transport, the older kids have a way to go beyond their childhood space, but not too far.

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If you want something cultural to read, I recommend postings numbers one and two of Nikos Salingaros week, over at 2Blowhards. The postings are interesting. But even better, in my opinion, are some of the comments. I've posted tangential comments of my...
Samizdata.net on May 3, 2003

Comments

When I was in Japan (for that whole week!) although the statistics told me that it was very densely populated (especially cities like Tokyo) the actual city itself didn't feel that crowded.

My guess, is that they had less spare space, narrower streets, smaller gardens. Stuff like that.

The point about density and public transport is absolutely vital. Railways, above all, simply cannot exist below a certain density (unless they are heavily subsidised).

Posted by Patrick Crozier on May 3, 2003

I haven't really made up my mind on these communities. The Kentlands one in particular I am fairly familiar with. The times I've been there, during the day, there's NOBODY around. I do agree with Patrick that population density is the absolute key factor in the support of a public transit system, but there's no chance of any kind of rail system going anywhere near there, and the Washington Metrobus system does go on the main road alongside, through all the same traffic that the people do (I'm extremely familiar with the roadway construction going on there), and I really don't see the people there riding the bus.

I think the main reason for Kentlands was to try to get the biggest profit out of this small portion of land in the DC suburbs. The land values go well over $500,000 per acre, and in that development, they were charging up to $1,000,000 per acre (for a 1/5 acre lot, and that's expensive even for that area). If the idea were implemented in less exclusive neighborhoods, where the point was really to get a higher density, and more neighborly feeling (I didn't get a neighborhood feeling there), I think it's a good idea, as an alternative to traditional suburban development. But if it's just going to be another way to make exclusive communities, I feel it will fail badly.

Posted by Highway on May 4, 2003

Kentlands (and other similar 'new' urbanist communities in the U.S.) are so expensive because there are so few of them. The market clearly shows that people want to live in this kind of environment (they're even willing to spend very large sums of money and to put up with the D.C. government in order to live in this kind of environment in places like Georgetown), but for a variety of well-meaning but entirely wrongheaded reasons it's generally illegal for developers to supply the housing product that's in demand in the United States. (A product, incidentally, that should also be more profitable for the developers.)

Places like Kentlands are not expensive in order to be 'exclusive' or because they're built on particularly expensive land; they're expensive because new construction in the United States means, almost exclusively, tract houses on a treeless plain or nasty apartment complexes built to the lowest possible standard.

The inherent cost of building at higher density is lower (to a point), since each housing unit has to pay for less land. If we stop restraining developers from satisfying the current pent-up demand for dense housing, eventually you'll wind up with more low-cost housing -- and it'll be low-cost housing that doesn't require that the residents all either own cars or spend large amounts of time wrestling with a mediocre transit system.

One more transport angle: aside from facilitating mass transit systems, denser neighborhoods make it possible to get places without using any transport at all other than one's feet. In most American suburbs built in the last thirty years (or more), it's nearly impossible to walk anywhere, so every trip out of the house (or office) is necessarily a trip in a car. Just creating a situation where it was possible to walk to a restaurant for lunch or dinner -- much less to a train that will take you into the city -- would be a big improvement.

Posted by Tino on May 5, 2003

I remember an American telling me a few years back that "Americans don't consider walking as a means of transportation". I was too polite to point out the connection between that and the fact she was virtually spherical in shape....

Posted by Tim Hall on May 5, 2003

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