4 Big Reasons to Care about Urban Design
The interesting and difficult thing about blogging is that you get to react and change in real time. That’s not always a comfortable task. It’s not as “complete” as a book, nor often as well-formulated. Sometimes you just need to get an opinion out, based on events of the day or something that struck a nerve. Today is one of those days for me. I wrote this entire post last night, and was prepared to do a final edit and post it today. This was supposed to be a column about Why You Should Care about Urban Design, as a 101-level topic for my neighborhood association.
But instead I am changing the whole post as a reaction to a movie we saw at the Savannah Film Festival last night. The movie is called “The Florida Project.” It’s essentially about the lives of people living on the edge, based around some roadside motels along a suburban commercial strip outside of Orlando. You’ve seen these types of places everywhere, and maybe you’ve even noticed that many have become weekly or monthly residences instead of actual motels. It’s not an uplifting story. It’s often uncomfortable to watch.
I won’t get into the meat of the movie, but I do want to write about what was going through my head. And that is, what can any of us do that would improve the fortunes of the people in the movie? In fact, is there anything at all? Is this simply a story of human failings and the struggles of people (and their kids) who perhaps haven’t made the best choices? Or, as the designer in me would say, is it also a commentary on the throw-away cities that we’ve built here in the US? Honestly, I really struggled with this – it’s not an easy dilemma. But, I did come to a few things.
I do think that if you want to call it urban design, urban planning, place-making, town planning – whatever, that it can improve the lives of everyone. I’m no starry-eyed idealist anymore; I know that people are going to do whatever they are going to do. I also know that existing situations (like the one shown in the movie) are incredibly hard to change for the better. But here’s why people like me prattle on about the virtues of well-designed and planned cities.
- Access to opportunity. Sometimes we call this “transportation,” as if the point is just moving around in some type of vehicle. No – the point is to be able to access as much of life as is possible – employment, goods, services, recreation, friends, family. Thoughtful planning and design enables this opportunity for everyone, whether you’re walking, riding a bike, taking public transportation or driving. The people portrayed in this movie are severely limited in their access to opportunity, since they live in a place designed for cars, but can’t afford one. And, simply plopping a bus stop down isn’t the answer, either.
- “A city should be a place where every citizen’s heart can sing.” Former Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston is famous for saying that. As an architect, I obviously care about buildings and whether they are beautiful or not. But our public spaces: parks, squares, playgrounds, trails, lakes and more are amenities for all of us, regardless of our station in life. Planners like me emphasize the importance of quality public space because it benefits everyone. Even if you have very little money, the opportunity to visit and enjoy a beautiful outdoor space (and people watch) can be an uplifting experience. It can make life enjoyable, not just a grind. These things matter for actual human beings, and especially for children. Imagine the world that children live in alongside these decrepit highway strips – how does that impact their view of the world and attitude towards it?
- Variety and choice. In this aspect, I think most often about housing. We in planning like to emulate those neighborhoods that have a rich tapestry of choices of places to live, from the tiniest apartments to grand homes. The simple idea is that it offers something for everyone, regardless of age or income. I’m not one that thinks that this can be micro-managed from the top-down, but I do think we can create platforms for making this naturally occurring. And, it’s critical that we do so, or we create more monocultures of the same type of housing. Like any seed crop, those monocultures ultimately all fail at the same time. The people portrayed in the movie now inhabit such a monoculture, and have very little choice in the immediate world around them.
- Safety. Finally, yes, the big “S” word that’s used as the trump card for all arguments. You might be thinking about crime, or especially violent crime. I’m thinking about the sort of safety issues that we face every day, and just mentally tune out. I can’t help but cringe every time I see a child crossing a 6-lane highway, or running out into a parking lot or drive lane. Kids will do these things – it’s not their fault. The fault lies with all of the adults that still believe that big, wide roads designed for high speeds are somehow safe. They are not. In the design professions we have known this for decades. Planners and designers talk about this until we are blue in the face. We know that far more people are killed and injured on streets and roads than in gun crimes or in structure fires. This is not about driver education or law enforcement. It’s strictly a priorities and design issue. It’s eminently fixable. But do we care?
People will make their choices in life. Many of those choices will be damaging, for themselves and for those around them. None of us can “fix” that – it’s part of who we are. But knowing something about urban design and planning can indeed make a real difference in the lives of many. For those of us comfortably in the middle class, we tend to focus on the enhancements – the things that make a street or block or neighborhood go from good to great. But we can also do well to just make more places that are good. I still firmly believe we can’t do it everywhere, and that we need to be strategic. These four items are not the be-all, end-all. But at least for me, it expresses why I think this field can make a real, positive difference for people. For the future of our cities and our country, we need to make the effort.