Photo credit: Heidi Abbasi
I recently had the chance to speak on a panel to a mixed-disciplinary design class at the University of Minnesota. I was invited to speak about urbanism, public/private ownership and street design. My fellow panelists were Colin Harris of Community Design Group and Lars Christiansen of Augsburg University. Colin spoke about Open Streets Minneapolis, a ciclovia event hosted by the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition in which over 2 miles of Lyndale Avenue were closed to cars for 4 hours in order to give the streets back to the people. You can watch a great video on the event here. Lars discussed his years-long involvement in community outreach with the Hamline-Midway and Frogtown neighborhoods as they attempt to take control of the planning process of a proposed Charles Avenue bike corridor, parallel to the future light-rail along University Avenue.
Sketch by Ken Avidor
The most interesting and possibly influential thing about Open Streets Minneapolis (and please, watch the video) is the fact that so many people came out just to walk around. Colin mentioned that many participants found themselves surprised at how much distance they were able to cover in such a small amount of time and effort. It made me hopeful to think that so many people might have been covering a sizable distance by foot for the first time in their own neighborhood. It is important for so many reasons that we start to collectively realize that it is not necessary to get in a car and find a parking spot in order to travel less than a mile; fostering a sense of community not being the least of them. If a one-time event like Open Streets Minneapolis is able to start instilling the seed of walking in to people’s minds, that to me is the most important thing it can accomplish.
There are other, more subversive, efforts underway to extoll the merits and ease of simply walking to where you are going. My favorite recently is Walk Raleigh, an extra-curricular project of Raleigh, North Carolina grad student Matt Tomasulo. In the cover of darkness, he and his team affixed way-finding signs all over the city. The project received national and international attention, and eventually the signs were ordered to be taken down. The value of the signs is now being debated favorably by the city of Raleigh. In a round-about way of getting something valuable accomplished, Tomasulo recognized from the beginning that the proper process of permits and approval is ineffective in order to instigate change.
For many people, this may have been the first, or at least the most overt realization that where they are going really isn’t too difficult to get to on foot. I have countless personal examples of flabbergastedness (that sounds so good that I’m making it a word) when friends and acquaintances hop in to their cars in order to travel obscenely short distances. Inversely, people have been flabbergasted when I tell them “nah, I just walked here”. It’s not that my friends and family are against using their legs, it’s that walking is never really even considered as a means of travel in our culture. The car seems like the obvious and only option.
Open Streets Minneapolis is planning a 2013 event, and I hope even more and bigger ciclovias are in the Twin Cities’ future. In addition to being a one-day boon to local businesses and providing a pleasant afternoon for participants, I am confident that more events will open peoples’ minds to the possibility and ease of walking. It is vitally important for so many reasons, but I will spare you from my diatribe this time around.
From Open Streets archive, credit to Jennifer.
2 years ago I studied architecture over the Spring semester in Jaipur, India. I was looking over my thousands of pictures from the trip today and came across this impromptu photo series that I took at 7 am at the Taj Mahal. We had spent the previous day traveling by bus through the Indian countryside and had stayed the night in Agra in order to be at the gates when the monument opened at 6 am. We were told that the fog would lift. When we got through the first courtyard and on to one of the most photographed-from plinths in the world, this is what we saw:
We walked in the direction that we were promised the Taj Mahal was in and we arrived at our destination.
After exploring as best we could, and using our trained architectural minds to put it all together, I started to notice other things. Mostly, the way that my fellow sightseers were making sense of it, up close. I turned my attention away from the wonder of the world that I had traveled across the world to see, and toward everyone else. This is what I saw:
Here is just one more study that proves everything is related, and the smallest urban decisions can snowball in to a ruined neighborhood. I wrote earlier about Donald Appleyard’s street study in San Francisco, which proved a better quality of life on streets with calm automobile traffic. The City of Chicago’s 2011 Pedestrian Crash Analysis suggests that calm streets also provide a better chance of life.
This correlation between street crime and pedestrian-vehicle crashes can be explained with the help of the Broken Window Theory, introduced in a 1982 article of The Atlantic. The theory, created by James Wilson and George Kelling, explains that the best indicator of future criminal behavior can be predicted by current criminal behavior. It takes its name from the example of a few broken windows in an otherwise fine neighborhood:
Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.
If I’m being honest, I am guilty of this in my lifetime, and I am sure almost everyone else is as well. Who could help, at some point, seeing a boarded up or graffitied building and not feeling the urge to contribute a little to its destruction? It’s one of the less admirable traits of human nature, but it’s there. I would never, however, pick up a rock on a bright summer morning along Grand Avenue and throw it through the window of Cafe Latte.
The Broken Window Theory has a controversial history, and it makes some pretty general sociological assumptions. It was most notoriously employed by Mayor Guiliani in New York City, with great affect but not without angering and alienating wide swaths of the city’s citizens. In an effort to tame New York, the NYPD was instructed to take drastic “zero tolerance” measures against petty criminal behavior such as graffiti or littering. It was extremely effective in cleaning up the streets, but filled the jails and derailed the lives of thousands of young people that made an otherwise relatively minor mistake. However, the theory held true, and in an absence of litter, graffiti, broken windows, and missing hub caps, the crime levels dropped dramatically. The theory’s authors acknowledged that their work could be used as an excuse to discriminatively arrest people for the “‘crime’ of being undesirable”, but this should be contributed more to racism than to the legitimacy of the theory.
There is a flip side to the “zero tolerance” approach to the Broken Window Theory. The Minneapolis Downtown Council, a group of commercial businesses and landowners, formed the Downtown Improvement District (DID) in 2009. The downtown neighborhood of Minneapolis is now full of bright green pickup trucks and helpful Ambassadors in bright blue uniforms giving directions, offering greetings, and most importantly, keeping eyes on the streets. The DID boasts some pretty impressive numbers in three years of operation: over 2.5 million pounds of trash removed, 13,000 pieces of graffiti removed, and over 25 lives directly saved.
The DID is an extremely interesting study of business leaders taking it upon themselves to finance and operate an organization that benefits the community, but as any student of Jane Jacobs will tell you, the benefit is mutual.
This is where the statistics from Chicago become very interesting. It is known that petty crime on the street contributes to a sense of lawlessness, which leads to more crime. Before now, however, I had never made the logical leap off of the sidewalk and in to a car. It is true that in an undesirable area I am less likely to drive a reasonable speed or to feel cheerful toward pedestrians, I might even honk at someone! Next, I take myself back to a pleasant morning on Grand Ave, and I can’t even fathom speeding, blowing past pedestrians or cutting anyone off. Thanks to the DID, I am sure this is much moreso the case in Downtown with 2.5 million less pounds of garbage on the ground. if the correlation on the graph above is to be believed, it could be postulated that 25+ lives saved is an extremely conservative estimate.
Like most environmentally-minded people, I have been excited by electric cars for as long as I can remember. I was especially fired up after seeing Who Killed The Electric Car, a 2006 documentary that chronicled the rise and subsequent sequestration of viable and efficient electric cars in the early ’90′s. It’s now 2012 and we are still
sticking our heads in the sand debating what is the best way to move forward, although the consensus seems to slowly be moving toward smaller, more efficient cars. However, 32 mpg will never impress me, nor should it.
Now that electric cars are seeming more and more inevitable in the United States (on the heels of India, and China, and Italy, and South Korea, and Japan, and Germany, and France) urbanists can start to imagine how the urban landscape will be changed because of them. I have already seen electric charging stations being installed this last summer in St. Paul parking garages (props, Mayor Coleman!). This is a great development, and as urbanists we are used to gladly taking what we can get. I can’t help but wonder though, is this our bone? Will we be pointed over to electric cars next time we ask for multi-modal transportation systems? The internet saved the suburban model from collapsing in on its own weight in the 1990′s, will the electric car keep the suburbs on life support for the next twenty years?
I am a strong proponent of electric cars. They are a much better option than the internal combustion engine, no matter what fuel they can come up with. However, urbanists have to be wary about how much cross-over we allow in the urbanist / electric-car-enthusiast venn diagram. Imagining electric vehicles scooting quietly and fumeless through crowded urban streets is a wonderful thought, but electric cars could also be just what is needed to re-popularize the 50-mile commute.
As electric cars become more accepted by the American public, urbanists need to stay vigilante in their mission to promote walkable and livable neighborhoods. In the not so distant future, a shortage of fossil fuel might no longer be an argument against sprawl and poor planning, but just because it’s possible to travel 15 miles to buy a loaf of bread doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.