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The sorry state of neighbourhood design in America: a mother writes (rethinkingchildhood.com)
132 points by antr on Jan 22, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 154 comments

That's interesting... I was born in Germany and live here in an extremely densely populated, but quite affluent neighbourhood. Imagine 6-story houses, each maybe 60ft long each, standing directly next to each other. Each house has about 20 apartments. Because the city has not been designed for cars, there are far too few parking spaces for all the cars. Many of the houses have an underground garage, but not nearly enough for all the residents. So we have relatively narrow streets with very wide side-walks that are completely filled with cars, usually parking in two rows, sometimes three. When you come home at night (BTW, I don't own a car, but I frequently rent one), it's not uncommon for people to spend 15 minutes looking for a parking spot, driving through narrow streets and in slalom around cars parked on street in the second or third row. And when you eventually find a parking spot, it's quite possible that it's a 10 minute walk home.

Whenever I am in the US, especially in the suburbs, I am amazed how easy life can be. I just get into my car, without the usual 10 minute walk, and immediately drive whereever I want on a nice, wide street. Admittedly, I understand that for kids too young to drive this can be a problem, but for me US suburbs are always a welcome change.

I agree with this. I live in the UK, and work in the centre of a major city - and it's nothing other than a pain.

Driving is hard. You are always starting and stopping for endless traffic lights, and when it's not the lights, you're stopping because you've got to weave around clumps of parked cars at the side of the road.

Everything takes so long! I have a parking space where I live, but not everyone is so lucky.

When I was living in the US (northern Indiana suburbs), I was so surprised at how easy everything was - you just get in the car, drive where you need to go on a street that's wide enough for two cars and not plagued with endless parked cars and clutter, park right outside your destination and you're done.

Well, I live and work in the centre of a UK city (Edinburgh) and I love it. However, the key part is working somewhere where I can walk to work - compared to driving to work which I have done for years before and hated.

You see, that breaks down whenever there is any sort of significant traffic and you get stuck in frustrating bumper to bumper traffic, such as in LA.

LA is hardly representative of the driving experience in the USA.

Most large cities have horrible rush hours in america. NY, Boston, Seattle, SF, etc, etc.

Re crazy parking story: A man says to his doctor "It hurts when I move my elbow like this."

The doctor replies "Then don't move your elbow like that."

E.g. sounds like car ownership is more trouble than it's worth.

I didn't own a car for the first nine months living here. I live opposite a railway station, and work opposite another. Why have a car?

What followed was a period, after about six months of this, of abject depression. I turned up at the station in the morning, went to work, went to the station to come home, and messed around on the internet all night. Going anywhere other than work was not possible, especially in the evenings when the last train is at 9.30pm or so. The railway line I live on just runs into the city where I work, nowhere else, it's a minor branch, so going anywhere else was a lengthy and expensive undertaking.

It was starting to make me ill - I never did anything, saw anyone, just work-home-work. I had to buy a car to enable me to carry on living here, otherwise I would have quit. Now, I have a fairly active life, I have the opportunity to do all kinds of things, and my quality of life is vastly improved.

Not having a car is OK if all you want to do is go to work!

Most cities that have little parking space have got very good public transport (in comparison to American standards). Getting around in Berlin without a car is much easier that with one.

Yes, but as I get older my tolerance for public transport is diminishing. It's ok for commuting to work, but at night I don't really feel really comfortable in public transport with all the drunks and sometimes worse. Also, albeit possible, I wouldn't want to use public transport with a stroller or more than one small kid.

To me, the planning and density issues everyone's taking about feel like a red herring. Plunk this woman down in the middle of NYC and remove her need for a car whatsoever. Is she really going to let her kid go wherever he wants outside? Is she really going to feel a sense of community, or will she be like most New Yorkers and barely know who her neighbors are? (And before you say 'that's because NYC isn't planned well, either,' would these problems truly go away with more parks?)

I'm just theorizing, of course, but I suspect her real issues have a lot more to do with cultural homogeneity and societal mobility. A community with people from all over the place, constantly moving in and out? Low trust and lots of alienation. My whitebread little Texas town, where every church is full on Sunday and the average person's been here for decades? We're completely car dependent out here, the streets are real wide, and for that matter, there's no sidewalks and barely any parks - but there's unsupervised kids running around all over the place, and I can't get through a supermarket trip without being stopped for a conversation with someone I've met. It's nice, and as far as I can tell, it's all without the benefits of urban planning.

There used to be these things called small towns. [1] One wasn't forced to choose between "20 minutes from anything" and "New York City".

Most people talking about the density issue are lamenting the lack of these middle choices. The places where a family would probably still need a car, but it would be conceivable to have a functional bus system to get you from one small town to the next, or into the city. Where you can still own a house with a yard, but walking to corner store wasn't a circuitous two mile hike with intermittent sidewalks.


[1] Before they were largely converted to glorified open-air-malls for the cul-de-sac dwellers to drive to on the weekends.

I do wonder how many of these utopian small towns ever really existed, and when (1920-1950 or so?).

Count up the glorified open air malls in your area and do a little local history.

This can be casually done by noting average home build dates in various neighborhoods. Find a neighborhood with houses from the 40s/50s and note the layout. Then find a neighborhood built in the 70s and note the layout. You can do that with any number of real-estate tools and/or Google Maps.

Just in the county I grew up in there was at least a dozen of those small towns -- each with shops, mainstreets, mixed-use zoning, surrounding homes, often with train stations and/or bus depots (some surviving to this day), all very walkable and livable.

Then the farmland around them was cut up into suburbs in the 40s and 50s.

But even those were notably different from modern suburbs: walkable, smaller lots, still some mixed use with corner stores and restaurants. The cul-de-sac and single-use zoning atrocities didn't start showing up until the 70s, when they basically stitched the old towns and old neighborhoods together into one largely-unbroken stream of Modern Americana.

And again, the thrust isn't that we should all have small towns or that suburbs are wrong for everyone. It's that the old spectrum has been reduced to a binary.

You have suburbs and you have New York City.

The fact that 'US city' discussions always revert to talking about a handful of the oldest cities is itself a tell: if it didn't grow into a city before suburbanization, they didn't really grow into a city. Many look for all the world like a high-rise downtown bolted onto suburban sprawl like an upscale version of a big box strip mall. They don't really "count" as a city like New York or Chicago and we all know it.

Don't know where you live, but we still have boatloads of small towns here in Michigan. Farms and rural townships too. As far as I can tell from my travels, the same goes for the state of New York, too. (And Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana...)

Funnily enough, Michigan.

The small towns exist, some moreso than others, but (at least the ones to which I refer) they don't really exist in the same way. The shops and amenities and zoning that used to make them work aren't there in many places.

In how many could you walk to a local grocery store, rather than having to hop in a car and drive several miles to a 'supermarket' or outright to a big box store? How many have a local hardware store, so you don't have to hop in a car and drive? How many have the apartments and lofts that make the place a viable neighborhood for people who can't/don't have a car? How many have bus routes to get you across town or to the next town? Many still have restaurants and small shops, but even the small town movie theatres are pretty much extinct.

Thank you for conceding they do indeed still exist.

Of course they don't exist in the same way. This is 2013. What you're describing is some sort of semi-mythical pre-WWII world.

Technology changes everything. TV killed small movie theaters. Netflix, etc. killed video rental stores. Amazon killed brick-and-mortar bookstores. Ubiquitous cars killed passenger trains, and meant putting the big shops on the outskirts of town made more sense than putting them in a smaller building right in the middle of downtown.

And guess what? If you live in a small, rural town, pretty much all those changes were huge net positives. (Presuming, of course, that you have a car, a TV, and Internet access.) Sure, you don't have a local theater anymore. But the local theater was the only way you could watch a moving picture of any sort back then. Now you've got 200 channels of TV and cheap streaming movies on a big screen right in your living room. That supermarket you disdain probably has 5x as many products as the old grocery store downtown did, including entire categories of food they probably never dreamed of carrying, and better prices to boot.

All that said, most of the small towns I'm familiar with have a grocery store within city limits -- and they're small enough places that means they are walkable, at least in the summertime. Indeed, every place I've lived since leaving my childhood home has had a grocery store within walking distance, even though I never even vaguely considered that a factor when considering apartments or houses.

Some small towns definitely still exist, but they're the minority exception instead of 'the way'. That's all I was ever saying. You used to have dozens. It used to just be the way that population centers grew. Now you have a handful of conspicuous exceptions.

And technology has little to do with this change. Plenty of places are still trying to run bus services. Because ubiquitous cars still aren't. But all the intervening challenges have made that near impossible to do (cost)effectively.

Similarly the theatre is gone because once zoning presses you into a car to get there, what's the real difference between 5 minutes to the local downtown or 15 minutes to the multiplex at the mall?

The root cause was largely a socio-political failure. Self-segregation, myopic zoning, a belief in perpetual growth all abetted by enough wealth on the part of the builders to not care about long term efficiency.

There are quite a few neighborhoods in NY that have a great sense of community, albeit mostly in the boroughs

I think this is the heart of the matter. Why are people disengaging? I have the same experience as you in central Austin which, while not NYC, is still one the biggest cities in the US. I encounter people I know everywhere I go. The grocery store, theater, bar, etc. But I'm engaged in my community. I think there's something else at play here. I suspect many people aren't interested in engagement and are seeking out ways to retreat. Clearly in your rural Texas town someone could still buy a house miles away from anyone and not engage at all. I wonder if people aren't doing so, or if they do so in such small numbers that you don't really notice.

There is an order of magnitude between the population of Austin and NYC. Perhaps comparing Austin with a similar sized city, Columbus for example, would be a better comparison.

I was comparing to a small Texas town.

Towns are an interesting case where the free market system breaks. The reason is that developers work in units that are too small. If they built whole towns, people would pay more to live in the ones that were walkable and human. But currently developers mostly just build a few hundred houses on the edge of some existing town. Which means they compete with one another at the level of houses rather than towns. Which produces grim expanses of McMansions.

I'm not saying developers should switch to building whole towns. It would be a harder problem. The kind of people who currently build houses might not be capable of solving it.

> Towns are an interesting case where the free market system breaks.

What you're observing isn't the output of a free market; for that, see towns built primarily up until about the 1930s; these are traditional, walkable towns, with a coherent downtowns and organic patterns of settlement.

Since then, zoning laws and land-use planning have drastically altered the common patterns of development and led to the rise of master-planned subdivisions that are all too common today.

If not for the artificial segregation of residential and commercial uses and for equally artificial restrictions on density of development, modern suburbs would likely be smaller satellite towns, each with its own coherent walkable core, instead of megatowns with purely residential sprawl extending great distances away from the only urban core permitted to be developed.

I don't know whether it's the same outside of cities, but based on my limited experience, Japan appears either to have no zoning laws at all or to have such permissive ones that basically anything can be right next to (or, very often, on top of) anything else. Experiencing it after living in the US was a very jealousy-inspiring experience.

You can see similar patterns in dense urban environments built up in the US prior to the rise of zoning, too. New York, as an obvious example. But I bet without zoning, much of the rest of the US would probably look like New England, which had already substantially "suburbanized" well before the fashion for land-use planning took hold on this continent.

I think zoning has a lot more deleterious effects than just creating alienating urban spaces, too. It influences everything from transportation infrastructure to energy consumption to individuals' emotional states to macroeconomic patterns. Out of all the utopian policy innovations that have backfired over the past century, zoning is probably the worst.

One counter example to your claim is Houston. While it exhibits the same urban sprawl, there is no legal master plan that divides the city to different uses.

> One counter example to your claim is Houston. ... [T]here is no legal master plan that divides the city to different uses.

Houstonian here. What you say is correct --- but many, many neighborhoods in Houston have legally-enforceable deed restrictions [1]: When you buy property in those neighborhoods, you are deemed to have agreed to a (typically, very-detailed) set of restrictions about what you can or cannot do with, or on, your property. Local homeowner associations can be pretty vigilant in seeking out and going after violators.

Moreover, some neighborhoods are in fact separate, incorporated cities that do have zoning laws. (I live in one such.)

[1] http://www.houstontx.gov/planning/Neighborhood/deed_restr.ht...

However, they have a legal amount of minimum parking spaces per residence/store, which mandates auto-centric development. If you search for "Houston" in http://www.streetsblog.org/2010/09/01/shoup-to-otoole-the-ma... , there's some good discussion of this issue.

I would have said it's a case where the zoning system breaks. You get "grim expanses of McMansions" because some city planner ruled by decree that this area over here is "residential" and can't have little corner bodegas mixed in, while that area over there is "commercial" and can't include housing. In those few parts of the US that don't have zoning laws, you get lots of mixed use.

Heck even if a neighborhood was originally all just houses when it was first built, unless some bureaucracy is actively preventing it some people will want to work out of their home and provide services for their neighbors.

I would rather say that US cities are broken because of design, not for lack of it. Sure, standardizing signs, and requiring access to parks are top-down design. But nearly all beautiful European cities weren't planned, they have evolved. With individuals adding, and replacing homes and buildings over the centuries in such a way that footpaths were not blocked, and people could go from A to B easily, even if that meant that roads would not be at straight angles, wide, or at fixed intervals.

Besides the ubiquitous grid-pattern in the US, other regulation such as zoning, maximum building heights, plot-sizes, and parking lots, only made things worse.

(of course there is a lot of regulation now in Europe, and there even was some historically, and due to scale increase the market likely would not be able to build beautiful cities anymore (and I am normally quite skeptical of the unbound market) but in this case it might actually have worked at some time)

Pining for a European-style urban environment was one of the reasons I left California and went back to the 'good old UK'.

>nearly all beautiful European cities weren't planned, they have evolved

In the smaller and traditional sense, absolutely, but many major European cities have had horrendous suburban explosions that are just as unappealing as US suburbs (except, plenty of buses and usually a train or two). It seems to be a 20th century thing, in my view, but then I wasn't around to admire the bucolic pasture of the previous centuries where I assume dire poverty was the norm, which leads me to question - at least we have housing for more or less everyone in Europe?

You make a very good point.

Visting cities in Europe is actually a very good way to design versus evolution. Cities that evolved their city are relatively easy to find. However, if you want to see cities that were designed, you only need to find the cities that were flattened in WW2, such as Rotterdam.

It kind of works that way. The developers have to get their units approved by the city, which itself has a master plan of the type of growth/urban mix they'd like. The city government is making that decision to allow subdivision blooms at the city edge.

If the city is content with being a bedroom community, they'll allow developers to build anything. However, if the city wants to encourage more downtown or walkability, they'll only approve projects that offer wider sidewalks, business downstairs/lofts upstairs. Or they'll provide incentives to encourage this kind of growth.

My fathers civil engineering company is working with a small town on their 15-20 year master plan. You can see how they've blended their community values into the kind of development they want to attract (Shandon, CA):


"In order to achieve a compact urban form, the Community Plan encourages floor area ratios consistent with those found in small downtowns rather than in suburban settings."

"The neighborhood commercial areas are intended to serve a neighborhood’s daily retail needs. Uses typically found within these areas include markets, restaurants, cafés/delis,bakeries, ice cream parlors, pharmacies, laundromats, barbershops, hair salons, hardwarestores, gas stations, banks, offices, and other similar uses generally serving nearby residential areas."

Towns aren't free market. We fund roads millions of times more than public transportation. We let developers build infrastructure and then hand it over to towns which get to maintain it. So the free market basically has no responsibility for anything they build. A lot of these issues are really going to come to a head in 8 years when boomers start dying in huge numbers.

But cities do compete - London, NY, Boston, SF all are fairly viable competitors For attracting the best of global talent.

And areas of cities (I think the term is metro-area, including feeder towns etc) compete within the city - Kent is a lot more expensive than east essex and both are roughly the same distance from London.

I am not saying the micro level analysis is wrong - just that only considering commercial house builders as the only agents with skin in this game is too narrow.

Each city mayor will adjust their regulation mix to get the best out of their towns - if we don't like the results that's probably because local democracy needs more effort from us than traditionally it gets - every city could be a pedestrianised beauty if getting elected depended on it.

> But cities do compete - London, NY, Boston, SF all are fairly viable competitors For attracting the best of global talent.

But they compete as governments, rather than as direct builders. That makes it really hard for it to work as a market.

Cities are far more Schumpter-style agents than national governments - look at Detroit for an example of a city that has suffered creative destruction.

Cities can and often do act as independant (global) agents (bidding for Olympic games comes to mind, and offering special sweetheart deals to banks etc). London has a revenue and expenditure of roughly 22BN - putting it around 150th in the Fortune 500, and it is far mnore concerned with attracting and retaining talent from New York or Paris than from Sheffield.

If London fails to provide the right mix of house building and amenities, those people and businesses will (eventually) go elsewhere.

Humans do not physically move often or easily - but cities do rise and fall and compete with each other - they are the right level IMO to look at "good neighbourhoods" and if we want to solve the "livability" of cities, then cities (or possibly sub-city-areas) are the right sized unit for the discussion.

Its not about houses, its about neighbourhoods.

I don't disagree that cities (or, if we must, neighborhoods) are the right unit, but well... you give the example of Detroit and that's not a poster child for a well-functioning economic agent.

There is a problem of indirection, as chez17 alludes to. A "city" is too much: a place to do business, a place to live alone, a place to explore, a place to retire, and so on and so on. Some of these measures are so critical that failure can be crippling. Thus, a city might compete for the attention of international organizations like banks and the Olympic committee... but why? What's the actual value exchange happening there and how does it play out in the details? (I'm not asking "why should they", but "why are they".)

I meant that Detroit is an example of a city that did not meet the needs of the Market and so has effectively become bankrupt / collapsed while those people who could have moved to competing cities - I was trying to say that the competition between cities was working (although it's hardly a perfect market)

In answer to why - tax revenue is one less than compelling answer - my preference is to look back at the city states of Greece - they competed and fought for supremacy, for survival for riches - but mostly they fought because their city was their tribe and their home and the others were enemy. It's pretty human basic stuff I believe - nations are too big to get really worked up about but a city - it's the right sort of size.

>But cities do compete - London, NY, Boston, SF all are fairly viable competitors For attracting the best of global talent.

It's not so much the city as the jobs a person can get. If you get offered a job in Boston or London, the odds are you're not moving to New York no matter how much you like it. Cities do compete a little bit (you get an offer in Boston and London), but overall it's almost exclusively where you can get a job.

It isn't a failing of the free market. It's a failing of zoning regulations which are decidedly not a free market institution. Developers would be happy to be build more walkable communities but zoning regulations like minimum setback, minimum lot size, parking requirements and the rest force them to build low density suburb neighborhoods. People choose the government they get (generally), and many people have a NIMBY attitude towards increased density, thus they seek out such communities.

>Towns are an interesting case where the free market system breaks.

A curious conclusion given the the politicians, bureaucrats, urban planners, and general busybodies that wield government power as a club to impose Their Vision on everyone else.

I'd strongly recommend this book for a case study on how this actually plays out in reality:


> Towns are an interesting case where the free market system breaks.

It doesn't break. It's being broken on purpose — you cannot own a town.

Towns that used to have an invested owner are often famous for their excellent design. See Zamość[1] for example.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zamo%C5%9B%C4%87

Saltaire near Bradford, Yorkshire is a world heritage site: http://www.saltairevillage.info/

It was built around a textiles mill and was designed and planned according to the wishes of the mill owner, one Titus Salt. One of his stipulations was that alcohol was to be unavailable in Saltaire. The first bar only opened quite recently - called Titus's. :)

It might be of interest, but the drab McMansion-ville I live in is was carved out of empty farmland about 12-13 year ago. No local town to grow on the edge of, which necessitated also building a planned town center, with commercial/office/dining/entertainment space.

It's nice to live in the suburbs, walk to a movie, walk to a coffee shop, then walk to get groceries. It's almost as nice as living in a city, just with fewer overall choices, but nicer living arrangements.

I live in a similar project (old WWII airfield), that has the same approach to walkability - but it is only viable because one development agency owns rights to development and ensures there is a strong mix of housing types and utilities - its not perfect, but it is a lot better than say old tenement blocks in industrial towns - my local fish and chip shop in Lancaster was the same faceless tenement house, just that someone had converted their living room into a chip shop. It was the only amenity for 20 minutes. Horrible place.

Anyway, wandered off track a bit - it is possible to build a whole town (2000 homes) with one commercial super-contractor. However it is bumping into local democracy issues already so anything bigger is always going to need a proper mayor. Like a real city.

We ended up with an overall controlling agent, but then a wide variety of developers built various parts of the development. So there's a fairly nice selection of home styles, and builders, from one-room condos to 6500 sq ft super homes.

Utilities are controlled, we get our internet from Verizon (FiOS), trash, etc. but with the controlling agent as the broker and bundle negotiator.

There's a semi-elected board that runs the place, I think 7 of 12 are developer people and the rest are elected from the neighborhood. The condos each have their own controlling boards.

AS the neighborhood gets more and more developed, the developer will be ceding more and more slots from the board to elected officials.

I don't know if there are any plans for a mayor, but I think we'll end up with around 15-20k residents once everything is complete.

It more or less works.

What free market in housing? There are zoning laws, public roads, signage ordinances, building codes, loans and outright subsidies to manipulate businesses into locating one town or another. On the financial side, banks have been (and continue to be) one of the most heavily regulated industries in the nation, next to health care. Government-run Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac now originate a majority of the mortgages in America.

If all that were cleared out of the way, it would be possible for the right kind of person to get the capital necessary to build an entire town. Disney's ideas are probably quite workable, given a truly free market.

I can think of one such example: Celebration, FL. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celebration,_Florida

It's an entire town designed by Disney, built in the 1990s.

Been there, has a strong Stepford Wives type of neighborhood feel to it. But it is a nice neighborhood because of so much being within walking distance. I would consider living there.

The pink flamingo rebel from a few years back had to provide some good laughs.

The Washington, D.C. suburbs have a couple of planned towns about 30 miles outside the city limits: Columbia, Maryland, and Reston, Virginia. Reston does have neighborhoods where one can walk. I don't think that household in either town can do without an automobile. Nor do I think that most residents find them entirely satisfactory. The teenagers of Reston used to call it "Deadston".

I have been wondering why it doesn't pay to build good places so thank you. Do you think that is the only way to tackle the problem? There must be a way to fund and build buildings where you make more money by building a decent one.

Recently I realized something about city/neighborhood design in America on a much more general level: We just don't care, or at the very least, it seems that way.

The contrast is striking every time I travel abroad. I go to London on an almost biyearly basis where this contrast is really pronounced. Things as trivial as the way bathroom stall doors are built, to much more important components of city life, like the airport/roadway/metro signage, reflect the weight that each city/state/country puts on the importance of design.

Comparing London to New York City, it feels as if I'm better taken care of design-wise when in London, like the people running the city actually give a damn about making it easier for me to find my way around the city, with color labeling, maps that are easy to understand, typefaces that are consistent, big and bold for anyone to see. The tube stations are all remarkably consistent in both easily guiding me to the correct subway line, and cleanliness -- two things you definitively cannot say about NYC. The same goes for their respective airports, Heathrow and LaGuardia/JFK.

And I pick these two cities because they're the two big metropolises I've spent considerable amounts of time in, but the contrast extends far beyond them. You can pick Berlin and Los Angeles, if you want!

I don't know why we as a country don't see just how critical good design is. It seems as if it'd be almost un-American to care.

I know the feeling - and I put it down to distrust of government or regulation.

London has fantastic park / green spaces. In the Victorian and Edwardian eras paternalistic legislation required access to parkland throughout London, and it is virulently defended even today.

In New Jersey/Newark, it feels that such legislation should be fought tooth and nail by every right thinking patriot. In New York, they agree except for the nice bits.

edit: not sure I hit the right note - the US approach to such govenrment "interference" can be beneficial, but its really just part of the DNA, not a easy to change choice. I cannot imagine it changing much.

> In the Victorian and Edwardian eras paternalistic legislation required access to parkland throughout London, and it is virulently defended even today.

Sort of ballpark but not quite exactly true, and a story that deserves telling.

In Victorian and pre Victorian times wealthy landholders had extensive private gardens and follies, the money spent on and by top landscape designers to simulate Arcadia (idealised pastorial setting mixed in with follies after classical antiquity) was substantial and the passive aggressive competition to outdo others ratcheted upwards.

In Victorian times a philanthropic movement started to "gift" the concept of private parks and gardens to the public and the unwashed masses (well, to the middle classes more than to the actual unwashed and more seriously socially challenged).

Rather than being government required parks these were more individual gifts and many were passed into local government management using "peppercorn leases" (some of which I've actually handled) which bestowed the land to the public use in return for a nominal "rent" (a peppercorn a year, or somesuch) and under the proviso that the the land use be retained as public parkland ... if it is not maintained as such then the control of the land reverts back to the original owners and their estates (which now, a few hundred years on would be a nightmare of dividing up prime central city real estate between potentially several hundred related claimants).

The parks are a result of paternalistic (and often maternalistic) gestures which used land transfer legislation to ensure continued public access in perpetuity.

Thank you - I have often wondered - do people actually pay real peppercorns or has there been some adjustment in contracts to the equivalent cash?

In the initial days of various parks there are stories of a jar or two of uncracked pepper being sent to the head of the family that granted the land, this was somewhat in light hearted humour and also more or less took care of the rent for a few hundred years into the future.

These days there may well be the odd case in which a centenary celebration for a park might well invite a descendent of the family that bestowed a park and "formally" give them a peppergrinder, I can't think of many off hand.

At some point it may be the case that (say) Hyde Park in Perth, Western Australia becomes delinquent in rent and the descendants of the <redacted> family step up and form a class action demanding the return of the Park to themselves by the City of Vincent (or whomever holds the deed at that point).

The City could settle by simply throwing them a sack of peppercorns to squabble over amongst themselves.

The spirit of the lease is a "forever rental" for a sum of something trivial of actual value ( tea, spice, pepper, etc. once were more valuable in English society ) to make it binding but trivial to pay.

The more interesting case would be if a council did something with the land or a portion of the land that was deemed outside the terms of usage ( a private residence for the mayor rather than a groundskeeper's flat, perhaps ) - if public access wasn't restored then there would be a case to claim back half a billion dollars worth of real estate.

That would be the makings of an epic legal shitstorm and drama.

Thanks - love the technical legal terms "epic shitstorm" and "throw them a sack of peppercorns"



I guess you can find pros and cons for every different design (or non-design). Example: if you know just a little bit about Manhattan's geography, you would have an idea where to find 30th street and how to get there from almost any point in Manhattan. So here's the challenge: without looking at a map, where is Percy St in London?

Many of these "other" places have just had far longer to work out the kinks.

Some parks have all sorts of trails worn bare through the grass so it looks like no one cares enough to use the sidewalks while others nearby have no trails. The others without the trails just wised up and paved where they had been.

Every place that you go away to seems magical. When you live there, the warts show themselves.

Here's a TED talk about bad decisions in the design of public spaces, and how to make them better. http://www.ted.com/talks/james_howard_kunstler_dissects_subu...

The public realm in America has two roles: it is the dwelling place of our civilization and our civic life, and it is the physical manifestation of the common good. When you degrade the public realm, you will automatically degrade the quality of your civic life and the character of all the enactments of your public life and communal life that take place there.

Edit: There was some talk here a while ago about roads that were built by developers "for free" and then given to cities for maintenance. Sounds good on paper but results in ridiculous amounts of roads being built... Anyone remember a good link for that?

City planning in North America always makes me think of Kunstler. I saw him speak at the Winnipeg Art Gallery years ago about peak oil, and bought his book The Geography of Nowhere (http://www.amazon.com/Geography-Nowhere-Americas-Man-Made-La...). That book completely opened up my thinking about how the elements in a city relate to each other, and how community and economic activity are so fundamentally intertwined. Great read!

There is a great Jane Jacobs book about the death and life of American cities. http://www.amazon.com/American-Cities-Anniversary-Edition-Li.... It goes into how architects and other well intended people overthought and did things which destroyed usability of cities.

Also, OT, but "The New Topograpphics" is a great and seminal photographic book about the new American Landscape.

I was going to post the exact same thing. Also I enjoyed related books "ReThinking a Lot", and "Streets are for People"

The funny thing about Kunstler is that he lived in a fairly livable small city/bedroom community with good public spaces (Saratoga Springs, NY) and moved to a gentleman's farm out in the countryside.

Many people reach a point in life where they want to live somewhere with a slower pace of life and less disturbance than the city. That's why suburbs exist.

Living in the country is fine. Living in a city is fine. But suburbs are dumb. They're too high-density to have good privacy or really have a "slower pace of life", and too low-density to have good relationships with your neighbors.

"have good relationships with your neighbors."

Classical optimist / pessimist outlook on neighbors. You're optimistic you'd like your neighbors and so would everyone else. I live in a neighborhood stuffed with teabillies and multiple time convicted DWI alcoholics and sports/tv addicts. I'm perfectly happy not hanging out with the majority of them. Somehow, I'm guessing they're perfectly happy not hanging out with me. Now don't confuse wanting to associate with wanting to respect each other. VERY libertarian where everyone has the opinion "they don't mess with me, I don't mess with them" "no problem for me, means no problem for you". I REALLY don't want to live somewhere non-free where everyone is all into everyone else's business.

Technology means you are not forever enslaved to interact solely with people who's only connection with you happens to be, being nearby you. I like that.

It depends on your lifestyle IMO.

Where I grew up, in the country, about 50% of the people had something to do with the community that they lived in. The other half were people living in the ex-urbs, commuting to the state capital an hour away or some other place.

A 5 acre lot ex-urb is the same as a half-acre suburb, just a bigger lot and bigger lawn mower.

The "city", even low-density parts of a city with say 50x100 lots and detached housing is different. You interact with your neighbors (for better or for worse), share public utilities and your kids walk to a bus stop or walk to school vs. get picked up at the door.

You may think it's dumb, I know a ton of people that love living in the suburbs. To each his own.

Shades of gray, my friend. Saying that suburbs are too high density to have a slower pace of life than a city is a massive generalization (and one I don't even understand as a generalization). I live in Manhattan and grew up in a suburb about one hour west of Manhattan, and the pace of life was most definitely slower there. Of course there are all kinds of cities, suburbs, and rural areas. The density, culture, and pace of life vary to different degrees everywhere.

There's a saying in Florida.

"We don't care how you do it up North."

Sure some of it is just Southern obstinacy. But some of it is an understanding that with a 67 billion dollar tourist economy and 8400 miles of coastline (more than the U.K.) replenishing beaches is a priority and snow plows aren't.

Likewise, European urbanism doesn't scale to the U.S. California has half the density of Germany. Washington is the median state for density it has 1/6th the density.

The ODP soccer program in Alabama regularly requires interested players from all parts of the state to convene at a single location. Alabama is about the size of England. You'd have to be daft to require all the top youth players in England to come to a single location for a one day training. You'd have to be insane to propose 10,000 miles of railroads for a population of 8 million.

U.S. development patterns aren't a function of bad planning. They are a function of distance. Paris is closer to Moscow than St. Louis is to Los Angeles and doesn't require crossing a continental divide.

That doesn't mean it can't be improved. Just that the solutions aren't a priori. They have to recognize the issues on the ground.

The city of Woodbury, Minnesota (the city profiled in the blog post kindly submitted here) is a city I specifically rejected living in when my family moved back to Minnesota from Taiwan in 2001. Woodbury offered some interesting work possibilities for my wife, but when we drove through the city to look around, we were appalled to discover that it was nearly impossible to find a place to live that was within walking distance to any kind of shopping, much less to both shopping and services. In Minnetonka, Minnesota, about fifty minutes away by car across the Twin Cities metropolitan area, the lifestyle is still very car-centered, being far from the urban core. But city planning here in Minnetonka has been very intentional about building a city walking and biking trail system, with links to a regional rails-to-trails biking trail network, such that we can walk to the public library (as we are about to do just now), a mile out and a mile back, and walk to much of our shopping (the same distance in a different direction) by the city trails. My wife can bike-commute year-round, and we are able to substitute a LOT of biking or walking for what would be driving trips in most of the United States. My children are fit, healthy, and fearless. They walk all over the place in our crime-free, friendly, diverse neighborhood. I still like the higher density of Taipei or Panchiao, Taiwan even better, and my oldest son likes living in car-free Manhattan now that he works as a programmer for a start-up, but the lifestyle here is not too bad. We know lots and lots of neighbors by sight, having met them repeatedly while walking, and we see deer, coyote, wild turkeys, and much other wildlife while we are on our walks. The United States has a long way to go to be weaned off of car-dependence, but it can happen, and each municipality's government can help make it happen.




I'd love to hear the logistics of biking to work in Minnesota in the winter. I live in an area with a similar climate and have to give up biking from October through May.

What is it about the winter logistics that keeps you from cycling?

You need a route that has paths or roads suitable for biking, but this is not any different from cycling in the summer. I switch to studded tires in November (http://www.peterwhitecycles.com/studdedtires.asp) and wear clothing layers appropriate for the weather. My thermo tights are good down to 15 F or so depending on the wind. Below that I wear another bottom layer. One to four layers on top, warm windproof gloves, sometimes a balaclava, sometimes goggles. Below -5 F I usually drive. And when it has freshly snowed and the roads are a mess.

Having had a car and also having spent time without one, it creates a striking difference how much you see other people. If you travel by bike and public transport, the places that are easiest to get to are geographically close or with large population densities (= good public transport). You never do "take away" or go to a drive in. At the tiny local hamburger joint between your workplace and home, you might see some people that you might otherwise avoid (you then realize why the drive in was invented) - and you reflect about your difference and are happy that you have a steady job. Or you can hang out with a laptop in a cafe in the city center, bump into an old friend and go somewhere together.

With a car, you're insulated from all that. You drive alone, you order your hamburgers from the drive in and go home and eat it alone. You avoid city centers since there's too much traffic there. You try to get your errands and hobbies done in industrial areas and suburbs by the outer ring roads circling the city. Your car whisks you there effortlessly, covering tens of kilometers in a few minutes. You live in a totally different world.

After a while you notice you haven't seen another person besides family and colleagues up close for a week. Your physical condition gets worse as well. On the other hand, you might get into deep personal talks with your friends while giving them a lift in the night. You don't drink anymore. In theory, you could start a hobby that requires traveling to hard to get places with large equipment, but that might just as well be a fantasy that justifies the convenience of owning a car.

It's a striking contrast in life style. I wish the best sides from both could somehow easily be combined.

(If I didn't live in a North European city, I could bicycle much more. California weather could be ideal for something like that, if only city planning supported it.)

Nobody ever told me that this happens when you get a car?

Two years ago I drove 100miles a day to and from work, put on two stone and nearly broke my marriage

For the past year I work twenty minutes walk from home, see my children for breakfast each day and actually recognise people in the local neighbourhood

It's soooo much better without commuting - by car or not.

The simplest rule of thumb is everything you need for life should be 20 minutes walk away. Schools, shops, doctors, work, parks. It is true of great cities (most of London is like that).

I would suggest that we all get involved in how decisions are made in our local governments regarding the structure of our neighborhoods. It is a lot easier than you think.

Recently I joined a community-based effort in Ann Arbor to create a large civic space / central park downtown. The city is planning to make downtown much more concentrated and I feel that hackers need to get involved in the process and make sure people are thinking about future needs. We've managed to change the direction of the discussion although it is still early in the game!


Every municipality has a mayor, City Council, relevant departments, as well as assorted committees and development organizations. All you have to do is show up with some other neighbors and you are having a big influence. You can bet that real estate developers are involved, pushing their own plans and visions through.

Are you?

Comparing Germany to Alaska seems a bit unfair. If you want to live in a walkable, dense small town in the US, they do exist.

I'd personally prefer to live in a place with multi-acre lots and driving and no kids. Trees are fine, though. The great thing about the US is you actually have everything from dense SF downtown to fairly "German" Palo Alto to Atherton/Hillsborough/Portola Valley, all within the same job market metro area.

There are some choices, but I think you overestimate the amount of choice most people have with American development patterns. Sure, you could live in SF or Palo Alto, if you're well off (my brother pays over $1000 for one room in a shared apartment in the Mission). But if you aren't, you're going to be commuting from somewhere else; your only choice is whether you're going to commute from Gilroy or Fremont or whatever. With different development patterns, that's not necessarily the case: in Copenhagen or Berlin, you don't have to be particularly wealthy to live in a centrally located apartment.

Even if you are poor, you could live in Oakland or San Jose in the Bay Area, or in Fremont/San Leandro/etc for the crappy suburb experience, or south of San Jose or west of the hills for rural.

The cheapest house I could find in Protola Valley is $2.1M:


It does not really seem like a choice...

I'd say extrapolating Alaska to the rest of America is also a big problem in the point the author and her contact are trying to make.

Anchorage could be any random middle american town and it exhibits the same suburban sprawl issues. What problems do you see with the extrapolation?

America is not homogeneous. "Random middle America" I can't speak to, but certainly neither coast fits this article (from my experience). There doesn't seem to be mention of this in the article.

Wow, that's exactly the opposite of my experience. Random middle American towns are a vast, bland expanse of strip malls, big box chain stores, suburban tract housing, and family dining restaurants.

The towns that aren't like that are the exception.

I lived in Mountain View for a while. The walking distance between locations was large, but not too bad. There was a Starbucks and a few restaurants around 15-20 minutes walk from my place. Despite this, I would not see anyone on the streets. I felt odd, almost like everyone was staring at me, when I would walk from my place to the Starbucks. There are large enough footpaths, but everyone would be in their car.

I also lived in a residential neighborhood in San Francisco for a while, and despite being more walk-friendly (with restaurants/coffee shops nearby), I wouldn't see too many pedestrians. The situation was much better than Mountain View, but still very sparse. Despite the housing being more dense, I just don't see people on the streets.

I agree that the streets are huge compared to the rest of the world. Crossing a major intersection in Mountain View seems like an eternity.

Here in Germany it's also pretty normal that even in a densely populated residential neighbourhood there are not too many people on the street, unless there's a larger store nearby or something like that. Otherwise, if you do see many people on the street, that would be a sign of high unemployment...

Mountain View is a straight up exurb. It's more dense than your average neighborhood in Dallas, but it has all the hallmarks of exurban design..including blasted curved streets.

Where were you San Francisco? While I've never lived there, I've done a few month-long stints. It always felt like people were always out on the streets when I've spent time there.

Kunstler's "The Geography of Nowhere" (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/125313.The_Geography_of_N...) examines this issue in depth. Excellent read.

It's a bit disingenuous to make straight comparisons between the neighborhood designs in the US and Germany given that the latter has something like 4% of the area of the former and almost 7x the population density. That said, Americans did consciously choose to make full use of the country's land mass to spread themselves out, prioritizing investments in interstate highways over local transportation and I'd like very much to see those priorities shift.

The numbers you bring up aren't really meaningful. The salient figure isn't total country population divided by total country area: it's population density as people experience it. Vast swaths of land with no one in it aren't really relevent to social analysis.

For an example: imagine the United States now, and then imagine it suddenly got ownership of all of Mars. It would drastically increase the total area of the USA, but it would not suddenly make everyone a nomad who has a hundred square miles to live in alone.

The population density in Germany means that there is at least a small village every 1-2 miles. I don't know if that's relevant to the conversation, but it's definitely a big difference between Germany and the US, and affects the culture of both. (For example, the tradition of travelling tradesmen in Germany probably makes sense because of this.)

The USA has been "urbanizing" itself for decades. More than half the population now lives in cities.

Yeah. In some ways our vast area is curse.

The 5-day drive across the country is beautiful, but it's still a 5-day drive :)

There was very little paranoia about letting kids run loose 50 years ago, when I was walking a few blocks to school, and playing untended in my own back yard or my neighbors'. This was I think in large part because of low key but pervasive surveillance, largely by state-at-home mothers. That few mothers worked outside the home also affected traffic levels in a couple of ways: they didn't commute, and the fathers, freed of pick-up obligations, could carpool. We had in general pretty good schools, partly because there were few professions yet open to women, partly because men who were teachers didn't get drafted, partly because professionals sent their kids to the same schools as everyone else, so there weren't long commutes to a private school--I didn't hear of an elementary school that was other than public or parochial until later.

It was a very homogenous middle class world--how homogenous, and how kept that way, has been documented in civil rights cases in the years since.

I have some relevant personal experience. I grew up in Alaska, where Andrea, the woman who wrote in lived for 15 years and raised children. We lived in the woods outside a small town for most of my early childhood, then moved to a city when I was 11. Now, I live in Florida, I'm dating a German and spend several months out of the year in Hamburg.

I had a great deal of freedom of movement as a child. I could run around in the woods all day by myself if I wanted. In town, I could ride my bicycle anywhere starting from around 6 years old. I may have had a bit more freedom than other kids in the area, but not enough to shock anyone. When I got a bit older, I had access to snowmobiles and three/four wheelers - pretty much as soon as I had the physical size and strength to pull-start the engines and operate all the controls without assistance. This, too was not unusual in that area at that time.

My freedom of movement was pretty good when we moved to a city as well. The city wasn't especially designed to be bike-friendly, but it was possible to get most places without having to ride in traffic. A snowmobile was an option for a lot of things in the winter. Even when we moved a few miles out of town, it was practical to ride a bike to town.

Where I live now, I still use a bicycle for quite a bit of my transportation. It's a good workout and doesn't cost much to operate. There are a few places I ride that wouldn't be safe for a young, inexperienced or slow cyclist, but there are alternate routes available in most cases. Public transportation is not very good here, but it's an option that can fill in some of the gaps.

Germany certainly offers better parity between children and adults as far as transportation. Design may play a role, but it's also important to consider that it's 90 million people in an area smaller than Montana. Not owning a car can work for a greater percentage of people because economies of scale work for a larger percentage of possible trips. That, in turn allows all the infrastructure to be designed for a smaller number of cars per person, hence the smaller streets and multiple grocery stores in every neighborhood. This situation is probably objectively better when you're 12, but may not be when you're 21.

What's really different is parents in this time and place. They're now terrified of things that are less likely now than they were 25 years ago. It's that attitude we need to change more than anything.

The book "A Pattern Language" describes a lot of these problems and solutions. Although its from 1977 I think its still valid. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Pattern_Language

Same thoughts here, I immediately thought of "Connected play" pattern when reading this article. Growing up in communist Warsaw had its downsides but at least my walkable play area was huge so there was always someone to play with (that's more or less the spirit of this pattern.)

link: http://www.jacana.plus.com/pattern/P68.htm

Welcome to our post-WWII 'prosperity'. When we decided that everyone should have a car & own their own home with a yard, we forced ourselves into this suburban sprawling. While Alaska, which the article talks about, might be a rather extreme example the entire western US is built up like this.

Neighbourhood design is one (minor IMHO) component but society and attitudes play a bigger role. When I was a kid in England in the 1980s it was common to be out on your bike all day, to walk to school, to head into the woods, etc. I continue to live in a quaint, safe, rural town and the amount of kids I see out and about is tiny. This is not down to changes in neighbourhood design.

Kids do continue to walk to school (but this has supposedly dropped from 90% in the 70s to 10% now for elementary school pupils [1]). Other statistics [2] note that TV watching is up 12% in just the past 5 years and time 'in front of a screen' is up 40% in a decade. A poll commissioned by the Children's Society shows that half of adults believe the earliest a child should be allowed out unsupervised nowadays is 14(!) - it was incredibly common for children to be playing on the streets from 7 or 8 in the 80s.

I guess all I'm saying is that even if you give Americans (or Brits) cosy neighbourhoods with everything hooked up just right, there's a bigger and more important problem to be dealt with to get kids out and to get parents to let them out.

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/mother-tongue/8623152/Child...

[2] http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/servlet/file/store5/item8233...

You're right, it's not neighborhood design, it's happening all over the western world. The question is why? My take is that it's an out of control spiral, where more kids stay inside to play video games and watch TV, so fewer kids are on the street, so parents become more concerned about kids being on the street, so they don't let their kids out as much, so the kids do more indoor activities etc.

I was born in '86 and I and everybody I knew were basically free roaming kids. I remember being about 5 and taking my bike and ride a kilometer or two away from home, just exploring by myself. That would get my parents arrested today. By the time I started playing video games I was already independent, so it didn't affect me. Got my own keys to the house at 8, came and went as I pleased as long as I call home to say if I'd be home for dinner or not.

I wish I could let my kids out when I have them, but I'm afraid that either they won't want to, or I'll be arrested for not supervising them every minute they're outside. And really, what fun would it be running around outside today? It's completely desolate, void of other children to play with.

.. or I'll be arrested for not supervising them every minute they're outside.

See, I think a lot of parents share concerns like this (I have two myself but they're not quite at the right age) yet I don't think the actual laws have changed (?) so I wonder how fair it is.

I think a key part of the problem, if it's one, is that it's so easy to keep children entertained in the house nowadays and it's therefore easier to do that than let them "risk" being outdoors.

As a geek, if I hadn't had lots of friends, I could have easily stayed in the house playing on my computer all day in the 90s, but most of my friends didn't have such pursuits so had to go outside to alleviate their boredom. And.. all kids have become geeks now (in a sense we may have understood it in the early/mid 90s). Even the popular kid can stay glued to their cellphone or computer on Facebook or playing games for hours every evening without it seeming odd in 2013.

And if they can do that and stay safe in their own homes.. it must be tempting to many parents to let them do that.

I live on a cul-de-sac and it's wonderful for my children. They play outside all the time. There have been various families of our age come and go on our street. We hardly know them because no one comes out of their homes. It's very lonely at times, and yet, we live so close together.

One factor that you are forgetting about is demographics. Compare http://populationpyramid.net/United+Kingdom/1980/ with http://populationpyramid.net/United+Kingdom/2010/ and you will see that the fraction of under-20's has shrunk by about a third or so between 1980 and 2010. There was population growth, but that does not compensate for that:

- Chances are that the population of that neighborhood has shrunk because the average household size has gone down.

- Generalizing, 30 year olds with kids live in new neighborhoods, not in quaint rural towns where only the really well-to-do can afford housing.

>When I was a kid in England in the 1980s it was common to be out on your bike all day, to walk to school, to head into the woods, etc.

When I was a kid in the USA in the 1980's it was this way too. I'd be interested to hear your perspective on this since I've attributed the playing indoors thing to the kidnapper/molester panic that ramped up in the 80's.

So this is not a universal maxim for all of America, remember that America is a big country and we have lots of diversity even in neighborhood design. Some of the older places are really well designed for the raising of children, its just most people don't want to put up with the other things that go along with living in those neighborhoods (congestion , taxes , house design ,... ).

For what it's worth, our neighborhood isn't walkable enough to allow you to function without a car, but it does have plenty of space for kids to roam including elementary and middle schools about four blocks away and lots of businesses with a mile and at most one major street crossing. Plus our 1978 house is good-sized and our lot is nice with lots of trees. It was not wildly expensive or congested.

Edited to add: Just occurred to me it might sound like I was disagreeing, when actually I was agreeing and then some. It's just not that hard to find whatever sort of neighborhood you'd like to in the US, if you're willing to pay the price. (Which might be money, or having a smaller house, or living somewhere that isn't trendy.)

I highly recommend Jan Gehl's "Life Between Buildings", which even though was written at the beginning of the '70s is still very relevant today. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Gehl#Influence)

> Gehl's book Public Spaces, Public Life describes how such incremental improvements have transformed Copenhagen from a car-dominated city to a pedestrian-oriented city over 40 years. Copenhagen's Strøget carfree zone, the longest pedestrian shopping area in Europe,[2] is primarily the result of Gehl's work. In fact, Gehl often uses the phrase "copenhagenize" to describe his vision of how urban centres can embrace bicycle culture and urban cycling.

Being from Texas I can tell you, we spread everything out. Just looking at my Runkeeper logs, it's a quarter of a mile from my apartment door to the nearest street.

North Texas you can choose to live in various environments, from very rural to very urban and various degrees between. Where you chose depends on what lifestyle you and your family wish to have. I can walk to my city hall or train station in 10 minutes or choose to drive to the majority of the area in a reasonable amount of time, traffic withstanding.

When I lived in Dallas we had tremendous trouble finding anywhere to live that was "very urban". Outside of a couple of areas in the park cities (which we could never afford) it was really hard to find. Even Downtown was nothing but large streets with limited retail options. I remember looking at a condo building near McKinney ave. that had as a main selling point "parking for your Suburban". When I asked what was within walking distance they pointed in the direction of McKinney and went "some stuff is that way, about a 10 minute walk".

That was 6 years ago granted. Maybe things are better now?

European settlement patterns are basically a continuation of medieval patterns. In the US, especially in the West we have a continuation of the westward expansion. There are plenty of examples of very livable, older towns all over the US and there are plenty of examples of suburban sprawl outside of the US.

I think the main problem is that too many affluent families actually prefer a minivan-based lifestyle and the growth of online commerce and culture is going to make it even more enjoyable.

For those of us who prefer denser, walkable neighborhoods there are plenty of options but job choice may have to take a back seat to livability. I can see a renewed interest in that type of lifestyle but in the US the trend is driven primarily by younger people and will take some time to show results.

The limited reading I've done on this subject has come from the published works of Christopher Alexander[1]. In short, he espouses a process of letting living spaces unfold (or evolve, or develop, if you like) in a way that mimics nature. He applies this living process from the rug on the floor, to the location of the doorway in the wall, to the layout of the city. I think The Nature of Order series is especially profound.

Read these: * The Timeless Way of Building (1979) * A Pattern Language (1977) * The Nature of Order (vols 1-4, 2002-2005)

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Alexander#Published...

A useful counter blog about ignoring the perceived dangers of the environment is Lenore Skenanzy blog "Free-range Kids - How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)". http://www.freerangekids.com/ Why wait for planning to change and consequent environment change which will take years when you can send the kids to the playground/school/shops now!

Another great resource: http://www.abebooks.com/9780195019193/Pattern-Language-Towns...

Presents the reader with a series of patterns which describe well designed regions, town, buildings, decending right into rooms and living spaces. A fantastic read which has provided a vocabulary to describe the spaces I enjoy.

Also, FWIW, the inspiration for the idea of design patterns in software.

A great book that was recently released that talks about how to "fix" cities is Walkable City by Jeff Speck. Very compelling read.


It's because the design is driven by development companies with profit-motives.

And large urban centers like NYC, SF, and Boston aren't driven by development companies with profit motives?

Blaming BigCorp seems misguided when we practically begged them to build it this way. It's like walking into McDonald's, ordering a dozen Big Macs, and then complaining about how McDonald's makes you fat.

> And large urban centers like NYC, SF, and Boston aren't driven by development companies with profit motives?

They also have to contend with larger local populations, often with a stronger political voice. It's also more capital-intensive and planning-intensive to build in a city than to plop down the same McMansions on cul-de-sacs outside of town, so there's a lot less uniformity. So the answer to your rhetorical question is no, not like suburbia is.

I didn't say they weren't driven in the same way. Most cities can be planned much better.

As a foreigner the one thing that strikes me the most as alienating is that in too many places it's the exact same pattern that is applied.

Same roads. Same neighborhoods. Same places with restaurants and shops and a big parking in the middle of the square lot. Same toilets.

It's alienating because it feels "fake" nearly anywhere you go. Nature, in a lot of places, doesn't have its rights (just look at how some states are "divided" by a straight line: terrifying).

Probably one of the worst place for that is Irvine in southern California.

Even if it's not "cookie cutter" everywhere, all the neighborhoods still look identical.

These decisions may look pragmatic but to many foreigners it feels alienating.

I wouldn't call it pragmatic, but alienating is definitely the right word.

There are few (affordable) places in America right now that you can live without complete car dependence. The poor, elderly, young, and disabled are in fact alienated.

It's easy to understand why this pattern of settlement began when you consider the novelty, freedom, individuality (which can not be understated as something Americans valued), and convenience that came with the availability of automobiles.

Somehow though, we've moved forward through almost a century of such development, placing the car above all else. I'm reminded of Raquel Nelson, charged with (but thankfully not convicted) manslaughter because a hit an run driver killed her child while she was allegedly jaywalking [1].

[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/07/18/woman-convic...

Edit: clarity

Re: the elderly, I think it's also exacerbating the already problematic question of how to care for the increasing number of elderly. There are a lot of elderly who don't really need to be in a nursing home or staffed assisted-living facility, but can't easily live on their own in suburbia because they can't drive. If they were in more urban areas, we might be able to decrease the proportion of the elderly population who need active care, or at least reduce the intensity of care needed.

My mom volunteers for Meals on Wheels (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meals_on_Wheels), and a lot of the people they deliver to are in decent enough health, but just sort of trapped in suburban apartment complexes. They end up surviving through a mixture of charities like that one, and relatives who drive them around and bring them things. But many end up moving to assisted-living facilities after a bit, even though they don't truly need to live in a staffed facility, because the logistics of living in suburbia without a car are just unworkable, and they either don't know about or can't afford a more walkable area to move to.

Also, because Medicare covers nursing homes for people who can't take care of themselves (considered a medical expense) but not the lower-key assisted-living facilities (considered a residential expense, and more likely to be abused), people who run out of money when living in an assisted-living facility may be forced to move prematurely to a nursing home, if they aren't able to go back to living on their own. That ends up both worse for them and more expensive for the public.

I am not sure whether suburbia is really to blame. People who are not able to drive are likely also unable to climb stairs or to walk a mile to the nearest supermarket and carry the groceries back home. Also, I would expect that for people in a wheelchair living in areas that do not have a lot of space can be quite difficult. In terms of accessibility, planned suburban towns are far ahead of older cities that have never been designed with accessibility in mind. Where I live, I can't remember the last time I saw someone in a wheelchair in a supermarket. I guess she wouldn't even be able to get through the aisles because they are too narrow.

I think you underestimate how difficult it is to drive versus walking up stairs or walking a mile.

Just as an example: blind people can't drive at all, but they can walk miles pretty easily and safely. And visual impairments of various sorts are, IIRC, the number one disability among the elderly.

Slower reaction times are similar: they destroy the ability to drive, but they're not a huge deal for walking up a flight of stairs.

Most of the elderly I know who don't have good enough eyesight to pass a driving exam can still walk around ok. My grandmother in Greece was able to do her own errands up until her 80s, for example, even though her eyesight was not good enough to drive. It wasn't a mile to the nearest supermarket, though; that might've been more difficult. In many cities you'll typically find a supermarket within a few blocks, if you live in the city. Here in Copenhagen, I would guess there's a supermarket every 1/4 mile on average.

I don't see many people out in wheelchairs either, and I agree accessibility for them could (and should) be improved. I do see quite a few people with walkers, though.

Unfortunately, most of the urban areas in the USA are not dense enough to offer much of an improvement.

A few places? I can only think of one (NYC) where you can be efficient w/o a car and it's socially acceptable not to own one.

If you can think of more cities, let us know.

I live in Denver and while my wife and I have a car (one) we use it solely as a means to tour the mountains.

Denver is blessed with amazing central neighborhoods. I live in a house with a yard and the whole bit. Yet I'm 11 minutes by bus to Downtown. I generally ride my bike to work (we have an amazing intra-city bike path system) or take the bus. Because Denver is so incredibly compact getting around without a car is easy.

Our neighborhood has lots and lots of restaurants, coffee shops, dry cleaners, etc... so we almost always walk when we go out.

Point being: Denver certainly fits the bill.

It's also rather affordable. I'm a huge fan:)

Boston, Philadelphia, and DC all have substantial car-free populations.

They are small in proportion to the overall populations of the respective cities' urban areas, but that's almost entirely because public transportation has lagged the construction of suburbs and sprawl. Boston's T, or Philly's SEPTA were mostly constructed in the early 20th century so it's only those older areas that are feasible for car-free living. (The DC Metro is an interesting exception in that it's a much newer system, but it too fell out of step with development.)

In fact, I'd say that there's a sort of "car free radius" that's basically the edge of residential areas just before World War II. The suburbs that got built after that are hugely car-centric, ones built before typically aren't.

I lived without a car in Chicago for three years with absolutely no problems.

Also, there is a spectrum from being totally car-dependent to not owning a car. My parents live in the D.C. suburbs and they have more cars in their garage than people who live there. Because you can't even go to the drug store without driving several miles (and this isn't a far-flung exurb, they're only 17 miles from downtown) my brother and I each got a car as soon as we could drive. Meanwhile, I now live in Westchester (a suburb of NYC), and while I own a car I only drive it a couple of times a month (Costco trips mostly). The same is true for Chicago. Unlike in Manhattan, most people do own cars, but a large number of people don't use them that heavily because the suburbs are easily accessible by train.

San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Seattle to name a few.


From my experience I would say only the top 7 on the above list are fit for life without a car. Can't imagine not having a car living in Miami or Minneapolis.

Portland, OR. One of the most bike-friendly cities in the country, also highly walkable, and with a great light rail and bus system. And on the occasions when you need a car, or a truck, Zipcar has vehicles all over Portland.

I agree, but the caveat for any city/town where you can get by without a car is "affordable".

full disclosure: I've lived in NYC without a car for 10 years, but grew up in Ohio completely car-dependent.

Edit: There are in fact many places that do meet the requirements of affordable and walkable, but a new concern in an age of urbanization is keeping them affordable. The desire for such neighborhoods is growing, but the supply is too low as of 2013.

Try Philadelphia. Our current mayor has built more bike lanes than ever and Philly's compact size makes reaching distant neighborhoods by bike a breeze. Anectdotedly myself and several friends do not own cars, some don't even have licenses.

I lived in Santa Monica for a year without a car (intentionally). It's totally doable, but it takes planning.

Ya I'm living in Hollywood right now w/o a car by choice. It's totally functional for me since I live next to a subway stop and my work is also off a major stop. And the neighborhood is incredibly walkable--everything I need or want. Taxis readliy available should I need one.

Although being a single guy here, I think women see it as a red flag (at least from what I see on okcupid). Interested in moving to NYC unless I find somewhere cheaper and still interesting.

Aside from the red flag aspect (which I can understand) does it make certain social activities inconvenient, such that you require a friend to pick you up?

Zip car is in Hollywood.

It feels alienating to many of us Americans, too. Having visited a few foreign countries, I've seen beautiful public spaces, and its disappointing to come home and see how ugly our cities look now that I've seen better. I desperately want to live in a cosmopolitan urban center that is practical, something I have yet to find here.

Chicago or Philadelphia come pretty close.

It felt alienating to me growing up in it. It still does. In most of America I feel like there's a sort of pressure differential sucking the energy out of me.


(Strictly speaking I'm a foreigner too, but I came here when I was 3 1/2 so I doubt it's memories of England that make me feel this way.)

I'm reminded of the Soviet film "The Irony of Fate" in which the protagonist finds himself in the wrong city by mistake, and fails to realize this due to the uniformity of Soviet architecture.


You know, there's something comforting about going just about anywhere and having, at least, a vague idea of how the layout might be, what things look like, and where to find things.

On the other hand though, I agree with you. That same comfort makes it dissatisfying to travel at times. I live in an area of California surrounded by lots of historical smaller cities, but it's nearly pointless to travel to any of them because, aside from a few key features, they all look like the same place overall.

Don't even get me started about housing developments. Once you're lost in one of those, your best hope is to start leaving breadcrumbs.

I'm not sure it's the uniformity. Making a neighborhood or city similar to another neighborhood or city has been common throughout history. It's more the vast disconnectedness of everything in the USA that is alienating.

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