Monday, July 6, 2009

Make No Little Plans

As Chicago prepares to party like it's 1909, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Burnham Plan of Chicago, the WSJ covers it here:
The plan advises: “The city which brings about the best conditions of life becomes the most prosperous.” London’s citizens, it warns, who rejected the 1666 plan proposed by the great Christopher Wren, put their own “perverse self-interests” first and cost the city “millions upon millions in money to repair in part the errors which might have been avoided so easily, besides years of inconvenience and loss due to congestion of ­traffic.”

Some of us even have Burnham awards... cough cough.
Take note Dallas, a City of equal ambition but lacking any direction, forces tugging it every which way. Now quoting from John Norquist's Wealth of Cities:

"...if urban proximity and its efficiencies end because government policy spreads population and markets randomly over the landscape, then the wealth produced in cities dissipates."

Business and improved quality of life in cities are not mutually exclusive. In fact, as cities are the only entity NOT created by political act, as they are evolved from mere aggregations of people facing similar hardships looking for safety and eventually became bubbling cauldrons of cultural foment.

So in this way, they transcend boundaries and are organic constructs. Cities are products of economic activity and as I quoted Mumford here,
"The purpose of transportation is to bring people and goods to places where they are needed, and to concentrate the greatest variety of goods and people within that limited area, in order to widen the possibility of choice without making it necessary to travel. A good transportation system minimizes unnecessary transportation; and in any event, it offers change of speed and mode to fit a diversity of human purposes."

As Norquist goes on to say, this ease of transport, of goods reaching markets, of synergies formed by proximity, create frictionless markets. The idea behind highways was to aid in this movement however, highways, in actuality and ironically, have dispersed us to the point where markets (and our cities) have broken down, becoming so fractured with barely a pulse.

Productivity and synergy are lost as we actually infused increased "friction" between markets that include the cost of construction and maintenance of these highways, the distance between producers and markets, the cost of personal automobility and the energy to get between two places (read: fluctuating and unpredictability of gas prices), and "externalized" costs that somebody has to pay for eventually including pollution, decline of real estate prices, obesity, healthcare and health impacts of collisions, etc.

Highways started as a means of linking cities and aiding in intercity commerce. But the monster has grown beyond its cage into a construction for the sake of construction industry, lacking purpose, a snake swallowing its own tail. They are important in linking city perimeter to city perimeter, but never should have been constructed within city limits, allowing for highway friendly business and logistics uses towards the edge of the city which are often associated with blight, ie nobody wants to be near them.

See my post on Valencia, Spain and the image of a suburb of Valencia shown below:

Moving from West to East (or Left to right), you see highway, industrial/shipping/freight uses, then the train station for passenger and freight, then the remainder of the town full of little blue dots. These dots in a previous iteration of Google Earth indicated images uploaded into google earth. I classify these also as indicators of health because they are indicative of places people love enough to photograph and share with the rest of the world. (Also, note that the highways and industrial uses encroach very little into the actual city of Valencia.)

See the affect the inner loop has on the City of Dallas. Nothing wants to be near the freeways. Note: the only successful piece of urbanism in downtown Dallas is the four-block stretch of Main Street fully buffered by a cocoon of the city from the impact of the freeway.

We should start tearing these out as I suggest similar to the ringstrasse in Vienna. It's good for business.

(Ringstrasse overlaid onto Dallas)
While this is no small plan, it is not something that can be done overnight. As Jan Gehl suggests, these things must be done incrementally. It has taken Copenhagen 45 years of slowly removing cars from the streets and returning them to the people. Now the city is filled with that most precious of urban health indicators, babies.

Step 1 should be about reducing the immediate affect of the highways by taking out all clover leafs in the downtown area, as Vancouver has begun to do here. Thus, making the highways here context-sensitive, meaning responsive and sensitive to their immediate surroundings. There are no one-size fits all solutions as TxDOT will thrust their standards upon cities.

Removing clover leafs and replacing the off-ramp system with more city-friendly "urbanized" streets that hug the highways like frontage roads diminishes the negative impact of the high speed ramping by forcing slower traffic onto the frontage roads. These frontage roads should look and act like urban streets with parking, sidewalks, street trees, etc. Furthmore, by eliminating the space eating cloverleafs, this effort begins to open up land for development that the City in cooperation with the state can turn over as part of a redevelopment RFP for areas adjacent to highways.