Urban design

A vision for human-scaled streets

 

aviglucci@MiamiHerald.com

What are streets for?

If your default answer was “cars,’’ you’re probably among the majority of Americans. But there’s not much that’s right about that answer, a symptom of how long and heedlessly we’ve traveled down the wrong road.

Urban streets are — or once were, and should be again — places for people, regardless of mode of propulsion. They’re for pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders, shopkeepers and cafe owners, street performers, for people who are just hanging out and, yes, for motorists, too, properly constrained.

“The street is a pedestrian space through which cars are permitted to move, albeit slowly and safely,’’ write Coral Gables planner Victor Dover and architect John Massengale in Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns, an engaging new manual- cum-manifesto that catalogues and dissects hundreds of very different streets around the world — including some in South Florida — to show how the best thrive by embracing users moving under their own steam.

That common-sense definition may sound radical to car-fixated Americans, but a growing mountain of evidence suggests that streets that make more space for pedestrians, cyclists and transit, and less for private vehicles, are not just safer for all, but function better socially and economically.

And not only that. They also make people happier. Literally. In the groundbreaking Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design, Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery blends planning and the new hard science of happiness to make a persuasive case that walkable, varied neighborhoods in which people mix freely actually boost our psychic well-being.

But that’s not what we’ve been doing for the past 75 years.

Bad drivers

Instead, since the dawn of the mass-motoring era, we’ve given over our public streets wholesale to cars. Street Design and Happy City both amply document how organized campaigns by the auto industry, abetted by government traffic engineers, shoved pedestrians and cyclists onto unappealing, vestigial sidewalks or painted strips, when those exist at all, and otherwise treated them as no more than meat-and-bone obstacles to what has proven a seductive and destructive fantasy: unimpeded, motorized movement through the city.

The consequences are everywhere around us, nowhere more so than in Miami, a city built largely around and scaled to the automobile, not people. From the suburbs to close-in neighborhoods, our streets function as funnels for fast-moving cars that people risk life and limb to cross on foot or traverse on two wheels.

The urban environment defined by these streets is, for people in cars as much as for those on foot, generally ugly, unpleasant and dangerous. Think clumps of strip malls and big-box stores, sterile parking lots and subdivisions separated by broad expanses of highway-like asphalt, a wasteful landscape that forces most everyone into a car, and leaves the car-less to fend for themselves in isolation, like rodents trapped in a sewer.

This unfortunate anti-urban template was imported into urban centers in the 1960s and ’70s across the country by misguided planners who thought they would save cities. Instead they helped create broad swaths of urban desolation, write star architect Robert A.M. Stern and two co-authors at the conclusion of Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City, a massive compendium that posits the leafy, densely compact, transit-connected design of older suburbs as a model for the revitalization of city neighborhoods.

It’s no coincidence that Miami consistently ranks in the top five cities nationally for pedestrian and cyclist injuries and fatalities. And, aggressively bad drivers aside, that’s not a bug, but a feature of the way our streets are intentionally designed — to speed the movement of motorists at the expense of everyone else. No posted speed limit, no spotty police enforcement, can alter that simple fact.

Consider this: Montgomery writes that traffic engineers base their designs on the belief that wide roads clear of trees, parked cars or bends are safer, when the opposite is true. Drivers kill four times as many pedestrians on wide suburban residential streets than in older, traditional neighborhoods, he writes. In streets where objects like trees, medians and parked cars force motorists to slow down and pay attention, fatalities are relatively rare.

Why? Wide roadways encourage speeding, and speed kills, Happy City and Street Design show. And not only does motorized speed kill people, it kills street life, which is the key to urban vitality.

Urban Sprawl

It doesn’t have to be this way. Nor is it a matter of eliminating cars. Take this seemingly counter-intuitive notion laid out in Street Design: Even some of the most bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets, if properly designed, can handle large volumes of cars.

The authors contrast Tamiami Trail in Miami with Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, which has broad medians lined with mature elm trees and benches on which people like to sit. Both handle comparably huge volumes of traffic, or about 40,000 vehicles a day, they write. But few walk along the Trail, and certainly no one lingers. One provides a real sense of New York, they say, the other “a placeless spasm of asphalt.’’

The authors of all three books note that our auto-centric model of urban sprawl is hardly the result of chance or, as apologists would have it, free-market choices. It’s rather the intended result of what might be the biggest social-engineering effort ever undertaken by the federal government, including massive subsidies for highway construction and mortgage deductions and insurance that steered investment away from cities.

And the sprawl model has been enforced by the type of ham-fisted, inflexible zoning and street-design regulations Americans might find intolerable on other fronts. In fact, the predominant rules make the kind of walkable, mixed-use neighborhood most Americans say they prefer actually illegal in most places.

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Luckily, things in Miami and across the country are changing, and fast, as Gen Y-ers, Millenials and retiring Baby Boomers flock back to downtowns, urban neighborhoods and older, close-in suburbs. Planners and municipal officials across Europe and in U.S. cities such as New York and San Francisco are redesigning auto-dominated streets to accommodate broader sidewalks, pedestrian areas and bicycles. Humans require at least a dollop of green space as well, Montgomery writes.

Happy City

At home, new developments like Midtown Miami and Mary Brickell Village that put pedestrians first are a roaring success. So are retrofits of older places that do the same, including the 20-year transformation of downtown South Miami, based on a plan by Street Design co-author Dover’s firm, from dead zone to boomtown.

But the movement has a ways to go. As Miami embarks on yet another development boom, scant attention has been paid to the streets, most of which remain captives of the automobile. Biscayne Boulevard and Brickell Avenue, for instance, remain moats of speeding cars even as resurgent residential districts and new condos, shops and cultural facilities, most oriented to pedestrians, spring up along them.

Citizens, developers and public officials looking for a trenchant diagnosis of, and a range of antidotes to this state of affairs, could do no better than to turn to Happy City, Street Design and Paradise Planned, which together mine hundreds of examples of what to do, and what not, in eminently readable fashion — the latter two with lavish and extensive photos and illustrations. Street Design, jokes co-author Dover, is the implementation manual for Happy City.

The entire subject of the exhaustive, 1,000-page, 12-pound Paradise Planned, meanwhile, is the type of green, humanly scaled and picturesquely designed suburb — often built for the working and middle classes — that was supplanted by the sprawl model of cul-de-sacs and traffic-clogged arterial collector roads. The book, the work of 10 years, documents, often through sprightly anecdote, just about every such suburban and urban garden enclave ever built around the world.

The weighty tome spotlights Coral Gables, which Stern considers among the best of its kind, as well as historic South Florida garden enclaves like Hollywood and Palm Beach. Stern, longtime dean of architecture at Yale, believes the model is ideally suited for rebuilding and reinvigorating city neighborhoods outside downtown and high-intensity districts. It would provide, he says, housing for families in a variety of scales, from detached homes to townhomes to low-scale, multi-family buildings, in graceful surroundings close to work and school.

Middle scale

Those old-line suburbs, in fact, contain what Montgomery says is the “almost ideal’’ human geometry for happy living — a small-lot hybrid between the intensity of high-rise tower districts and the “dispersed’’ suburbs, which fail to provide the human meaning and connectivity that research shows people require for fulfillment.

Yet it’s precisely that convivial middle scale, within easy distance of transit and shops, schools and services, and other human beings, that Miami sorely lacks outside some ongoing experiments, like the emerging townhouse district in central Coral Gables.

But it’s eminently achievable, the authors say. After all, we did it for hundreds of years before the car. “Between those books, anybody really wanting to do a decent town is made in the shade,’’ Stern said of his own work and Street Design. “People love these places. And why not? Must every place look like Levittown or worse? I am nostalgic for things that were good and can be brought back in a new way. It’s a healthy human trait.

“This idea can work. People are sick of living in these sprawling suburbs. It’s crazy.’’

It could also restore the most basic of human freedoms — the ability to move about on your own two feet.

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