Thursday, July 28, 2011

Urbanism, On-Campus and Off

In  the final chapter of The Geography of Nowhere, reviewing the repercussions of the "great suburban build-out" of the past 60 years, James Howard Kunstler writes that:

"[a] further consequence is that two generations have grown up and matured in America without experiencing what it is like to live in a human habitat of quality.  We have lost so much culture in the sense of how to build things well. ..."
Although this statement might have been true enough at the time of the book's publication in 1993, since then there have been several changes in the experiences of Generation Y. One of the most notable of these has been a dramatic increase in participation in study abroad programs, almost all of them located in countries and cities where students have firsthand exposure to a car-free life in traditional urban environments.  

In the 1993-1994 academic year, only 76,302 American students studied abroad, a number that had climbed only slightly since the mid-1980s.  By 2008-2009, the number had risen to 260,327, with the result that somewhere around 2,000,000 members of the age group currently in their early 20s to early 30s have spent a substantial amount of time living abroad, most frequently in countries such as Britain, France, Spain, Italy and China.  Many thousands more leave for work or travel.  This is still only a fraction of all Americans in that age bracket, but the number is no longer insignificant and continues to rise.

Mirroring this trend is the widely-reported movement of young people to urban areas in the United States, which many (other than Joel Kotkin) have taken to represent a generational shift.  A semester's experience in Barcelona, Tokyo or Buenos Aires helps make the transition a natural one.

The greatest exposure to something resembling a traditional urban environment is much closer to home, however.  The American college campus itself remains a rare example of a community type where an attentiveness to aesthetics and something resembling formal urban design has persisted without interruption, due in large part to the fact that, except in the case of some commuter campuses, the environment is designed to favor users who will be getting around by foot or bicycle.  The notion that college students are entitled to super-convenient car access, steps from the dormitory, in most places has simply not caught on.

Although the stereotypical American campus with grassy quad and red brick buildings scattered among winding footpaths owes much more to English pastoralism and the design of places like Oxford than to the dense urbanism of, say, the University of Bologna, the campus environment has remained a walkable one, if not entirely car-free, both in urban and rural settings.

As an example, Dartmouth College, located in a small town of around 6,000 non-student residents with an overall density of only 229 people per square mile, has a population density of roughly 3,500 per square mile within the inner green circle shown below, representing a the area within a five-minute walk of the center of campus (the outer circle shows a 10-minute walk):

Although this density is generally associated with suburban areas, an almost complete reliance on foot and bicycle travel means that there is a steady volume of walkers and bikers on paths and sidewalks.  Students are allowed to bring cars onto campus, but they must be stored at a single lot, visible in the upper right hand corner of the image, that is beyond a ten-minute walk from the center.  This insures that the only car trips taken will be those for which a car is absolutely necessary – generally weekend excursions or shopping trips to nearby towns.

Strangely, the significance of this arrangement, in terms of quality of life it offers, seems to escape many students.  Speaking recently with a friend who now swears by his car, I asked whether he'd had one during his undergraduate years.  No, he said, only access to his friend's.  Did he ever use that one?  Less than once a month, for shopping runs.  Was there any inconvenience from all this?  No – quality of life was outstanding, better than he had now.  And yet, he'd hardly given a thought to the fact that he, who couldn't imagine being without his car, had lived an essentially car-free life for four full years.  The design of the campus was so self evidently well suited to walking that, as with many others, it simply hadn't crossed his mind. 

Colleges, despite being lately infatuated with "sustainability," do not typically praise the virtues of this lifestyle in their promotional materials, websites critique schools for inconvenient parking, and campus design remains driven by administration planning officials rather than an Oregon Experiment approach, so it's perhaps not all that surprising that few students dwell on this subject and its implications.

Now, if a college campus seems an unrealistic model for urban planning or even urban inspiration, recall that, from Nathan Lewis' studies of Tokyo suburbs, within the smaller green circle above it is possible to accommodate over 25,000 people entirely in single-family detached homes, a number which can support mass transit.  Attach houses together and the number could rise to 35,000 or 40,000.  Attention to design, to attractive architecture and to public spaces does the rest. Banishing cars to peripheral lots is a technique which has been successfully implemented in some places, such as Vauban, outside Freiburg, but which is for the most part untested in the United States – outside a few colleges and universities, where it appears to work effectively and without controversy.

Overall, the notion that American youth do not have exposure to traditional or car-free living environments seems to run counter to the evidence, regardless of whether students are consciously aware of this fact or not.  Whether this will lead to substantial changes in how the Americans think about density, walkability and the urban environment still remains to be seen.


  1. In the south, the love folks have for Athens and Chapel Hill says much.

  2. The flaw in this argument--indeed, in everyone who takes this position--is the belief that what is good about these environments can be replicated elsewhere and still meet the needs of the residents.

    Students and young people in general, who have little in the way of financial obligations beyond caring for themselves, can afford to live in cities, as I and most people I know did when we were young. The cities met the needs of the young for socializing and career advancement.

    When mating and children bring a new set of needs, cities are no longer optimal, for two reasons, one tangible, one not: 1) They are too expensive; 2) They are not a whole lot fun to grow up in. Yes, I know everyone will now tell about how wonderful city life is for children, but it's not for the average child, who needs freedom and activity.

    If the expense issue could be resolved, perhaps the quality of childhood could be improved. I have friends in NYC who have made valiant efforts, but they have a ton of dough, and have not always been successful.

    The expense problem is insoluble. Big cities in the US are deeply corrupt, even if it is "legal" corruption, and hence wildly overpriced. The relatively few decent schools are besieged by parents fighting for far too few seats. Unless you are rich, the situation is hopeless.

    For urbanists to be successful, understanding and empathisizing with your intended audience is a prerequisite or you'll never get anywhere.

  3. For me, freedom and activity meant being able to walk places. I could never get how people grew up in suburban America.

  4. Do you know what is dangerous, freedom quenching and activityless? Parking lots. And the suburbs and small towns are full of them. And you can't avoid them. Add to that list the 30 to 50 foot wide streets just out the front door. Where I grew up (in a small town built in a suburban model) traffic frequently got up to 40 mph in front of our house. All of that traffic was forced down one 4 lane feeder highway, with a posted speed limit of 40 mph, and an actual speed limit of 55. To see my friends, get to the movie theater, to school, to the park, or to any store, I had to cross this street. There are frequent ONE MILE STRETCHES where there are no stop signs, or traffic signals to cross at. Where there are traffic signals, we freedom and activity seeking kids would have to cross 5 lanes of traffic full of motorists who were thinking more about rushing home at 55 mph than looking out for pedestrians. My mother witnessed a child run down a mile from my house when I was growing up. He was crossing at a walk signal. Cars making a left turn across 3 lanes are looking out for oncoming traffic, not for pedestrians. This was in a town of 30,000.

    The country: No sidewalks or even shoulders in the country, and everyone drives down those narrow country roads at around 50 mph. For a kid to have "freedom and activity," they need to be able to get off the farm from time to time, right? I have family in the country, and the kids only have the "freedom" to go to activities when their parents are able to drive them. Hmmm.... I wouldn't call that freedom, after all.

    I wish I could raise my child on a pedestrian only street in a dense neighborhood with frequent parks, plazas and playgrounds. Good luck finding that in America.

  5. The "freedom" issues of the suburbs, small town, rural America, etc. have been pretty well explained. As for the high cost of living in urban areas, the solution is to BUILD MORE OF THEM! The truly good urban neighborhoods are highly desired, and since there's such a small supply of them, the cost naturally goes up. It's simple supply and demand, economics 101. It's not that dense inner cities are inherently more expensive, quite the opposite in fact, as they are the most efficient use of the available land. They've only been made more expensive because of the artificial supply constraints brought on by heavy-handed zoning laws and government favoritism of dispersed auto-centric development.

  6. I agree with Jeffrey: Terry's comments have little to do with urbanism in general, they are merely a description of the U.S.'s present dysfunctionality. I agree completely that there is practically no example that I know of in the U.S. of a dense urban area (defined as a place where one can live without a car) that is also comfortable for children, families, women and seniors. However, this is quite common in other countries.

    Urban areas, at a fundamental level, shouldn't be expensive. From the simplest physical standpoint, you are using a lot less land, typically a lot less building, and often can live without a car. Transportation distances are much shorter, more trips are done on foot, and the transportation that does exist (electric trains) are superefficient. Utilities expenses are often much lower, perhaps even 80% lower.

    The only real issue is the "artificial scarcity" which comes about primarily because, oddly enough, nobody knows how to build an attractive urban environment.

  7. In response to Anonymous's comment about cities being too expensive:

    It isn't true. The cities that are too expensive are the 'trendy', larger cities, those that attract a lot of attention: San Francisco, Boston, New York, etc. There is a whole swath of mid-sized American cities that are ridiculously cheap to live in. And really, these are the cities most Americans live in (or live in suburbs surrounding them). Sadly, some of these smaller cities squandered their old beauty and gutted their downtowns. I live in a mid-sized Midwestern city that luckily has not lost all it's older glory and is slowly filling in the gaps in it's downtown. I bike to work in downtown. I frequent the many fantastic breweries in walking (and biking) distance to my house. In the winter, I take the clean and reliable bus system. Rent in my area hovers around $250-400 per bedroom.