Post 3: Shorter Commute Demands
One of my favorite bloggers is John Kunstler; a writer on many topics from peak oil to architecture, he travels the country and the globe lecturing and writing on his favorite topics. Mr. Kunstler is a strong proponent and prolific writer on the topic of small scale, walkable urbanized communities that are self-sustaining and not reliant on the automobile. In his effort to shame architects into improving their act, he posts a monthly feature on his blog entitled “Eyesore of the Month” where he opines on a particular structure or urban setting that fails to meet the objectives about which he continuously writes. In just about every single case, I’ve agreed with him, even when a firm I had worked for was represented in this category.
As the cost of gasoline continues to rise, and as the window begins to close on the opportunity to invest serious dollars in the development of sustainable modes of transportation that are reliable and on a scale that’s anywhere near what is required, Mr. Kunstler writes that we must, as an alternative, invest public money in redeveloping our country’s network of railroads and modes of public transit, and not on infrastructure that sustains and prolongs our dependence on automobiles or airplanes as he sees these modes of transportation in particular evaporating within the next 50 years. Of course, concentrating mixed-use development projects around transportation nodes is consistent with Mr. Kunstler’s objectives – providing a key component to small, walkable urbanized communities. “Projects located within reasonable walking distance of public transportation have a much greater chance of success in today’s urbanizing climate.”
What isn’t readily apparent in the articles that I’ve read thus far is that the type of mixed-used development we’re talking about can best be defined as low to mid-rise, in other words a maximum height of four stories. The reason for this is that if the elevator doesn’t work, no one will want to walk up more than four flights of stairs carrying their bags of groceries. So if this type of development truly begins to take hold and begins to reshape our urban fabric, we should begin to see the decline of the skyscraper as a building type. We should begin to see the decline of buildings with inoperable windows. We will begin to see buildings that front onto streets rather than being arranged around the perimeter fringes of massive acres of asphalt paved parking lots.
We’re beginning to see cartoons of this type of development as the shopping mall is being abandoned for the town center concept; cartoon meaning that all of the parts and pieces are present – benches, gas-lit lamps, splashing water fountains – but their implementation and use have been poorly executed. I posit that a reason for the lack of success of these developments to date are due to the lack of pedestrian scale, the materials are cheap, and one often has to drive to one of these places in order to experience them in the first place. We need to study the classic cities of Europe, discover why they are successful, and then replicate their success here. Most recently, Rob and I had the opportunity to visit England. Save for London, virtually every other city that we visited – Canterbury and Bath are two that immediately come to mind – has a successful shopping district that is devoid of cars, literally packed with pedestrians because people want to be there, and not a single structure more than four stories in height. The materials are appropriately scaled to the pedestrian, they are not cheap (we did not see a single building that used veneer wall construction or fake stucco), and the workmanship is well executed.
Thanks for reading my series of posts on the rise of mixed-use development. It will be interesting to watch as architects and developers work together over the next 15 to 20 years to perfect this type of construction and adapt it to American demands.