Walking the Walk


Urban design from the front lines

Kevin Klinkenberg

Using urban design to make our lives more enjoyable and create wealth

This site is for all those interested in the making of cities and towns, and especially the lives of the humans that inhabit them. Kevin Klinkenberg is an architect and urban designer who's practiced from coast-to-coast. 

Let it Snow, Let it Snow

This one is especially for my readers in the Kansas City region (but hopefully for others of you in northern climates). I love the snow, and what it does to life in cities. So much of our lives gets consumed by activity and noise, it's refreshing when we're forced to have much of that go away. Mainly, it's wonderful just how quiet the city gets when vehicles can't travel very well. We forget just how much of the noise of life is vehicular, except when a snowstorm comes and takes most of that away. It's so... peaceful. Which of course makes you think.

You may wonder what a snowstorm can say about walkability and how we live our lives. Well, since we own this bit of cyberspace, let me share a few thoughts.

For one, it doesn't take much of a weather event to reveal just how fragile our existence is. And how dependent we are on our machines. For so many, life just shuts down completely. That's not always bad, except that it's a forced choice, not a conscious one.

And it also reveals just how much of the "panic" that comes with a big storm is because of our auto-dependency. For example, if you live in a place where walking is the norm, a storm is just an inconvenience - you can still get to the store, the local bar, to work, and the kids can even get to school. But in a culture where all those things require a vehicular trip, we either shut life down completely or over-purchase on our vehicles for winter driving ability. Again, I kind of like how life quiets down from a storm, but not when it's forced upon us.

Another thing that's been at the top of the mind of Kansas City, MO residents in particular is snow plowing. Yes, the bane of our existence - we live in a city that is inept at plowing its streets (even though most of the same complainers don't bother to clear their own sidewalks). But while I'd concede we live in a poorly managed city, is that really the root of the problem?

Like so many of our fiscal issues, it's impossible to ignore the impact of how our cities are planned and built. KCMO is an extremely spread out municipality, with very low overall population density. This particular pattern of development is extremely expensive to service, with many more lane-miles of roadways than similarly-sized cities that are more compact. While the city contains certain areas (the urban core) that are fairly compact, it has extensive square miles of land that are low-density subdivisions or rural areas. All of those parts of the city still demand municipal services, regardless of their plus or minus contribution to the general fund. It's nothing new or groundbreaking, but the reality is that the pattern of development we've primarily built in the last 50+ years is a money-losing proposition for city governments. It seems strange with all of the fees on new development and new tax revenue to say this, but those are all short-term hits that don't even come close to paying for the long-term expenses of repair, maintenance and basic services.

It's a funny catch-22 that the more compact and walkable a city is, the more likely it is able to provide quality municipal services, such as clearing, cleaning and repairing streets. Even though, you may need your vehicle even less!

Topic for another day: should municipal services be tailored to efficiency of the neighborhood, or in planner jargon terms, to Transect Zone?

So, what is the bottom line? Enjoy the snow. Let life slow down a little. But if you care about how quickly or effectively your street gets cleared, start paying to development and land use issues in your city.

 
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