Monday, April 18, 2011

Benjamin Button


I received this image from a reader with the attached statement:
I found this photo on Flicker and thought I should send it to you just in case you had not seen it before.

What a sight! Dallas with no freeways. It actually pisses me off now that I look at it. The city needs to be that.

Of course, I don't disagree in the least. What is so interesting about this picture is you see the primary regional transportation technology of the day, the railroads, interrupting the urban fabric but consciously doing so as delicately as possible. They arrive at the edge, spur into the city, intentionally not quarantining off sections of the city as "the other sides of the track." At best, the regional interconnections co-exist with a tangential relationship with the city, allowing connections abroad without disruption. In the image above you see the railroads enter at the very bottom and very top of the image.

Certainly, railroads did have some negative effect on cities. As all transportation, in abstract, operates best without interaction with other forms of transportation. As the larger form typically subjugates the smaller version. However, for transportation of all forms to be useful in any way, they must interact at hubs. Pedestrians, bicyclists, cars, trains, planes, all at some point in time must interface with the larger transportation network. And they must do so as delicately as possible with minimal interruption to neighborhoods and overall connectivity.

Today's predominant transportation technology, highways, are executed with far less awareness of their destructive potential to the foundation of complex, interconnected relationships between people and places that comprise healthy, functional cities. They were built and the ideas concocted at a time where streamlining of industrial processes was in vogue, assembly lines. We built pedestrian networks on a different grade than streets, ie skybridges or tunnels, assuming, this was progress.

I was just reading through Peter Bosselmann's book, Urban Transformation, where he discussed the history of freeways, fighting freeways, and removing freeways. Interestingly, New York, London, Toronto, and New York all successfully prevented at least one freeway from tearing through the heart of the city. I'm quite certain no one misses or regards this as a mistake. Other cities like Paris and San Francisco, have been and continue to repair these scars. When you look at them in aerial form, clearly you can see why they're referred to as scars.

The highway gashes the city, and then afterwards you're left with nothing but decay all around. Even where buildings are the biggest and shiniest, we see similar decay as there is clear evidence that we badly overvalued real estate along freeways, foolishly thinking, "hey, that's along the primary traffic corridor, that is where the value is."

And typically, they would be right. We live upon a foundation of human tradition, a stack of learned history, where traffic volumes did indeed equate to the highest value areas. Just like on the web. The highest traffic areas also have to be designed to handle the most amount of traffic, while being amenable to the user, i.e. not "driving" them away to other sites. This is a healthy system, where a DIRECT RELATIONSHIP occurs between traffic volume and site value, i.e. real estate.

Similarly, this is also translated to the other concept of direct relationship that I often write about, and that is that density should be directly proportional to desirability. Highways undermine desirability. They are repellent because they are unsafe and unpleasant. Highways are the equivalent of some website with a million pop-ups and blinking ads that, OMG I CANT GET AWAY FROM THIS SITE SOON ENOUGH/ DOES MY COMPUTER NOW HAVE A VIRUS?

While I don't disagree that because of the above, and our inherent learning from mistakes, the market does naturally seek out corrections. Unfortunately, this can often take a generation or two before the mistakes are realized.

All of our various forms of transportation must intersect where they do in ways that are fundamentally supportive of the smallest form of transportation, the pedestrian, because while technology is constantly changing, evolving, the one thing that will exist as long as cities do, is the human-scale. Whenever I've asked crowds that I'm presenting to what your favorite city is, they always answer the same cities, the ones that are designed for the pedestrian first. If that is what registers in the collective conscience now, the physical effects of population and investment will soon follow.

We don't want to experience the kind of disinvestment and decay that has happened to Detroit do we?