Thursday, October 24, 2013

Designing Living Spaces for the Future

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Today is Friday, October 25, 2013.

When the automobile was invented, nobody realized how it would change the design of American towns and cities.  Nowadays, a feature of every American town or city is roads that are wide enough to accommodate at least two lanes of traffic, plus parallel parking on each side.  For Americans, parking spaces for their cars are treated as if they were a constitutional right.  In the newer housing developments, the garages are right in front of the house, and a "single" garage (just enough space for one car) is not enough.  In the newer homes, there is space for at least two cars, and preferably three.  Most new homes have a "double garage" plus a "single" off to the side.  Families of teenagers do actually have three or more cars, especially in small towns, where one has to have wheels to get almost anywhere.  And nowadays, Americans treat their garages as storage space.

Cars are convenient, but they are also dangerous, especially in a city environment.  It has been noted that, before the year 1900, no one in America was killed by a car.  In 1907, there were 500 automobile fatalities.  In 1925, more than 200,000 people were killed in auto accidents.The number has been climbing ever since.  In Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, published in 2008, author Peter Norton describes the American city before 1920:
American pedestrians crossed streets wherever they wished, walked in them, and let their children play in them. ... [In] 1914, the Chamber of Commerce in Rome, New York, had to ask pedestrians not to ‘visit in the street’ and not to ‘manicure your nails on the streetcar tracks’—with limited success.
Cars changed the way people thought about desirable housing locations, as well.  In many large cities, you can still see homes that were built for the wealthy in the late 1800s and early 1900s along the larger streets.  Most of these homes are no longer used for housing, today, but instead are used to house government, educational, or cultural institutions, or even businesses.  The wealthy families left the cities and went out to the suburbs to live.

In apartment buildings, before cars came along, the most expensive apartments were located on the ground floor, with servants housed on the upper floors.  Nowadays, first floor apartments are the least desirable and the least expensive, because of the noise factor and safety concerns.  The upper floors (think penthouse) are now more desirable, and more expensive. Even in the suburbs, among homes situated in a cul de sac, the home farthest from the street is more expensive than ones situated closer to the street where traffic flows.

Cars made it possible for people to move to the less-crowded suburbs, but the poor, who tend to rely on public transportation, were locked into the inner cities.  In some cities, notably in the South, public bus service is intentionally absent in the suburbs, in order to keep the hoi polloi out.  Meanwhile, zoning laws, in suburbs as well as inner cities,  have created food deserts – neighborhoods where grocery stores that sell fresh food are miles away, and inaccessible without a car. Gone are the mom and pop corner grocery stores.  These days, most stores are centrally located in strip malls in commercial areas.  You could say that people who live in today's suburbs are actually enslaved by their own cars, because it is nearly impossible to live there without one. 

The thing that strikes people about American cities, suburbs and towns is how wide the streets are.  In fact, I've seen a number of construction projects where certain intersections are being widened to handle the increased flow of traffic.  By contrast, when you visit European cities, the thing that strikes you is the narrow, cobblestone streets that are not really meant for cars.  People's balconies look right out onto the street, and people on their balconies can actually chat with someone in the street.  Another feature of European cities is a central plaza that is within walking distance of many neighborhoods.

Many people bemoan the lack of porches on new houses in America, but as one architect noted, who wants to sit on the porch and watch cars go by?  The reason porches were so nice was that you could sit and watch the neighbors, who would stop and chat as they walked by, just like people on their balconies in Europe.  These days, even in neighborhoods with sidewalks, almost nobody walks anywhere, especially in the northern states, and porches are more decorative than useful.

Cars will probably always be a staple of life in the rural areas, but in the big cities, urban planners are thinking of ways to make neighborhoods more pedestrian and bike friendly by building so-called "pocket neighborhoods," where there is "pedestrian infrastructure" and ensuring that neighborhoods have access to fresh and healthy foods within walking or biking distance.  They are thinking of ways to add parks and plazas to be used as common areas, not only in residential neighborhoods but also along waterways in the bigger cities (rather than allowing private waterfront property). Urban planners are also thinking of ways to add community gardens in the larger cities.

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The idea is to create higher-density neighborhoods that offer more opportunities for people to socialize with their neighbors, promote healthier, more active lifestyles, make play areas safer for children, and make fresh food available to everyone within walking distance. More private homes will face narrower streets not meant for automobile traffic, and more backyards will be connected to common areas. Apartments will be built around courtyards, with balconies looking out onto the courtyard area.  People will park in common garages or live in townhouses that have a garage on the first floor and living space above the garage.  In the suburbs, cars will only be allowed on certain streets, and more homes will be situated around common areas that are jointly maintained.  With fewer main roadways for cars and more pedestrian areas, snow removal in the winters would be easier, faster, and less costly. 

The most important thing urban planners need to think about is why the wealthier, more educated folks left the cities in the first place, and what will make them want to come back.  One way to make cities a lot safer is to find ways to eliminate the need for private cars.  Smaller towns should be thinking of ways their residents can live without their cars, too.  :-)

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