Monday, February 17, 2014

Where the Smart Growth zealots got it right - but wrong

Andrew D Atkin:

Smart Growth proponents are always beating up on sprawl, saying it's soulless, unwalkable and ugly. Well I agree - there are many bad examples of it. But you don't need to outlaw it (in any circumstance) you just need to look at where we went wrong with it in the past (when it was wrong) and look at how it can be improved.

In my view (and of course this can only be a subjective appreciation) the key problems with typical sprawl are: Building houses in grids rather than cul-de-sacs; excessively wide roads and inadequate exploitation of one-lane roads; wasted space with large front yards that no-one spends any time in; and running footpaths/cycleways alongside the road as opposed to segregating them into back streets.

The result is a harsh, industrial and often ugly atmosphere where people are living too cosy to roads and cars alround. And it's completely unnecessary. You can easily afford one-lane/way roads in a cul-de-sac context integrated with only a minimal footpath for access (2 feet wide, on one side of the road only) with the main footpath segregated generally behind and in between the properties. Get rid of large front yards and leave the front of the properties only large enough to support adequate off-road parking. You don't have to worry about noise pollution and privacy loss from being close to the road, as these concerns can easily be designed around when constructing a house.

By having the main walkway in between properties the walk becomes far more pleasant, and depending on how you design it more scenic. Cars ruin the walk and the bike ride, and make it less safe.

Ultimately the purpose of this format is to keep cars and traffic away from people more. This thinking was integrated with my ideal for low-density property development based on driverless car technology, but for the most part it can also be applied to new developments today, with or without driverless technology. The following image is an extract from my ideal:

Two other key things in good design (to be sure you don't go catastrophically wrong) is to build houses with big verandas (generally) and avoid primary colours. Take a look at the included image to see the humanising difference a big veranda makes. The top house would look just as nasty as the bottom house if it didn't have the frontage.

Leaving plenty of space for rugged plants, spots of forested sections (not carpet sprawl), plantation boundaries instead of fences, and slight topography modifications with shallow and subtle slopes can all make a vast difference as well. All of this can leave you with a relaxing zero-sterility atmosphere that any high-density model would struggle to compete with in appeal, for the great majority of the market.

You don't need to build new developments as high-density to make them walkable. If distances are too far to walk for some people, then they can bike. If they're too lazy or physically inept still they can use an electric-assist bike or move closer to the shopping centre. Whatever - it's not a problem. But I would argue that the thing that really makes sprawling cities unwalkable (or more specifically, car-dependant) is not the distances and lack of density, but the traffic we have to walk/bike with. Walking just isn't a pleasant thing to do with the way we've designed our cities. And increasing density will and has only made traffic worse and walking less pleasant still. The latter is not a solution.

Realistically, new developments built at scale will soon be supported by driverless cars, either totally or in part. The technology is here. When anyone within the development can default to some form of 'pod-car' as required, no-one can argue that cities must be built at high-density to the end of achieving greater walkability, in any circumstance.

So there you go Smart Growth people. In part you point to a real problem - but your solution is wrong. New-builds should not be forced higher density. You don't solve sprawl by killing it. We should have better-designed sprawl. The problems we see with sprawl today are easily fixed, and without dictating to people a high-density lifestyle (and unaffordable housing).