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A Traditional City Primer (andrewalexanderprice.com)
244 points by nopinsight on July 26, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 154 comments



I've always found the "cars are freedom" angle a little odd. There's no bigger interface between your typical middle class American and the police/legal system than the automobile. The very fact of driving a dangerous two-ton machine around on expensive publicly-owned infrastructure spawns registration, taxation, regulation, enforcement (traffic cops, DUI checkpoints, ticketing, traffic courts), etc. A car isn't freedom, it's just the easiest way to get in trouble with the law.

Another thing I find interesting is that suburbia is spawning manufactured human-scale areas. E.g. Atlantic station in Atlanta: http://vccusa.com/i/projects/atlantic_station1.jpg. Reston Town Center in Virginia: http://www.fairfaxcountyeda.org/sites/default/files/photos/r.... They're planning on building an above-street level plaza in Tysons near the new Silver Line stop, because the street level of that area is beyond redemption: http://assets.macerichepicenter.com/FileManager/Tysons/Heade....


Ever owned a car before? How about being able to hop in your vehicle and drive anywhere in the entire country whenever you want just because you feel like it? That's why cars are freedom. Ask any recently-turned 16-year-old what it's like actually being able to go places. You could also just step on the gas pedal, drive across the country and feel the freedom yourself. Your comment has some good side-points to add to the discussion of cars for sure but by far the biggest point has gone about 3,099 miles over your head (Boston to San Francisco). To add to the OP: I think the ideal mix would be traditional cities where walking/biking are the ideal (like older parts of Europe) and then something like the interstate system/cars to allow freedom and mobility across the entire country (USA). I live in a city and ride my bike anywhere downtown, but my car is absolutely essential to go anywhere else. Freedom!


I'll add that freedom, or free-feeling, is more complex than it might seem at first. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, miles outside of a small town, so I've been the 16 year old you describe. I get that.

Other people have taken the opposite point, talking about the freedom of not having to own a car to go about their daily lives. I've lived in a number of megacities with fantastic transit, so I get that, too.

But common to both things is the assumption that there are things you want to get to in the first place. Where are those things? How much effort does it take to get to them? What's the opportunity cost, or additional utility, in making the journey? What circumstances causes those things to exist in the first place?

One of the major lessons of my adolescence was that the ability to translocate from nothing to a much further away nothing is a dubious sort of freedom.


My new apt is next to Balitmore Penn Station. I can be at BWI within 20 minutes of walking out my front door, and from there anywhere in the country. Yeah, the TSA is oppressive, but there's actually very little actual power other than not letting you board the plane. Cops have real power, and they exercise it over drivers. You know how much you hate getting bossed around by TSA agents? Car ownership is like that, except every day.

Then there is the danger: I got hit by an oil truck merging into my lane. Nearly got run off the road by another truck going through Baltimore Harbor Tunnel (asshole didn't realize until the last minute one of the tunnels was closed). Nearly got killed by a tire falling off a big rig while on the highway. Nearly got killed fishtailing on an icy bridge in New York. That's just the last 18 months. On my commute to Philly I see some poor asshole crashed by the side of the road several times a month. In a year, I've never walked by a murder scene in "dangerous" Philly. I've almost certainly passed by more than one fatal accident in that time.

Car ownership brings your average middle class white American into contact with two things they normally don't have to deal with: death and police oppression.

PS: On the issue of 16 year olds having cars--that's absolutely terrifying. What blows my mind is that I seem alone in finding it terrifying. People worry about their kids in the city, but at least you can buy your way out of that danger. How often do you hear of an upper middle class white or asian kid getting shot in Chicago? Meanwhile, about a dozen teenagers die in car accidents every year in the upper middle class white/asian suburban county where I grew up.


Hey man, I share your fear. I hate cars. I hate driving.

I live in the SF Bay Area. I work in downtown San Francisco. When I lived in SF proper, it would usually be faster to walk somewhere than drive, because of traffic. Then factor in finding parking. Then factor in paying for parking (upwards of $10/hr anywhere important). Add the stress of driving in dense areas, moronic pedestrian tourists who wander into the middle of the the streets, cyclists who seem to have a death wish, and other drivers who act like it's an aggression competition

Now I live across the bay (I got gentrified out of SF), and it's even worse. The freeway nearest me is bumper-to-bumper stop and go across 5 lanes of traffic, for 3 hours in the morning and for 3 hours in the evening. Everyone is just as aggressive, but the speeds have quintupled.

Bignaj mentions freedom. Shortly after buying my car, I went up to Portland for a conference. I thought, FUCK YEAH ROAD TRIP. Well, for one, turns out 11 hours of driving in one day is hard. I looked at the radio at the wrong moment and almost killed myself. I burned about $250 worth of gas round trip. And once I got to Portland, parking was $30 a night. After the trip was over, when I came home, I priced out airplane tickets. A round trip for both my girlfriend and myself, was cheaper than the cost of gas + parking in Portland. It would have saved us the better part of a day's worth of time (at Bay Area tech salaries, $400), and it would have given me a 100% reduction in near-death experiences. Maybe it's because I'm Canadian, and used to Air Canada prices, but airline travel is so cheap in this country that, for the vast majority of places people want to go, flying there is cheaper and easier than driving. I don't see how car = freedom in that regard.

I own a car. I wish I didn't, but I already have it. It's paid in full, I have a flawless driving record so insurance isn't that bad. I like going on day trips hiking. I've run the numbers, renting a car every day I want to hike would be cheaper than buying the car, but the car is already bought and depreciated at this point so too late on that. I would've traded my car for a smart car or scooter years ago if it wasn't for that. And I'd be doing without that if I could afford to live in a walkable place here.

Cars are horrible, and most utilitarian arguments for them are terrible.

And P.S.: That horrifies me too. Every 3 months, one 9/11 worth of americans die in motor vehicle accidents. We haven't declared a war on driving yet


The rental option is really compelling. In Seattle, the missus and I use a mix of biking, walking, public transit, Car2go, Zip car, and UberX. Not owning a car, we make a choice each and every time we go somewhere that balances convenience, travel time, and cost. We save heaps of money, and stay in shape by not having a "default drive" option.

When people have already bought a car and paid a flat insurance rate, the marginal cost of another car trip is very low. Thus, people who own cars don't really make a choice very frequently. Their choice has already been pretty much made once at the outset.

Because carsharing services will almost undoubtedly be the first deployments, self-driving cars cannot come quickly enough for me. I think the net effect is that they will drive (har har) more people to adopt carsharing services. Self-driving cars will solve one of the inconveniences of something like Car2go, namely the need to walk some indeterminate distance to a car.

If they can get more people into an a la carte transportation usage model, I anticipate public transit and non-motorized transportation options will benefit greatly. Since trip costs will only be marginal, the choice to do something other than drive will come up routinely.

As self-driving carsharing fleets replace the >90% idle private vehicles of today, we'll need less land for parking. My hope is that on-street land can be given over to wider sidewalks, better quality bicycling infrastructure, and dedicated transit right-of-way, which will make those modes even more competitive.

In part because I've been personally touched by the mass slaughter on our roadways, I left a career in information security to retrain / work as an urban planner focussing on transportation. Oddly, the nearishness of self-driving vehicles is pushing me back in the direction of my former career. I'm bullish enough on the potential of self-driving vehicles to remake the economics and safety of transportation that I'm now pursuing a PhD researching privacy / security aspects of the "smart city"--including on-demand mobility services. If we can get all this suitably right, I think it will be transformative for society.


The rental option is not at all compelling in NYC (where I live). If you want to get away for the weekend, you are looking at a $275 to $350 rental if you go to Jersey to pick it up. Going to Jersey is an extra hour (and $7.50 per person ferry ride), plus once you're over there, you're going to take a taxi to get to the rental place. You could rent in Manhattan, but then you're looking at $500 for the weekend. With all of that, you have to get to the rental place before they close on Friday, and hope the location you are returning to is open late on Sunday.

I got so annoyed when family members would say "just rent a car and come down to visit us". It's not cheap, it's not easy, and it's not fun.

Renting a car in Stamford, CT is cheap, ~$70 a day.


Zipcar. CityCarShare. A number of other organizations.

Zipcar now have differential pricing (i.e. more expensive on weekends), so a 24 hour rent Mon - Fri is under $100.

Expensive, you may say. But... I pay only $70 per year for a full insurance waiver, all fuel is included, and there are no maintenance costs or other hidden costs.

Last Zipcar I got I used almost a full fuel-tank worth in a 24 hour period. Subtracting fuel from the price put the days rental at about $40. And there's a pod across the street from my apartment (and about a zillion other pods nearby, here in Berkeley CA).

I have friends with a 2-kid family in Manhattan and no car. They use Alamo, and claim it's cheap and easy.

Renting is expensive. Owning a car is also expensive, with more 'hidden' costs that people frequently ignore.


You don't have Zipcar? That's what we use for weekend getaways. The cost and convenience of it makes it an okay deal. We also ride share with friends for hiking, take ferries, trains, bikes, etc.


Not every 3 months, every month


You seem to have a very very bad experience with cops. The majority of people are not afraid of driving any more than being ticketed for jay walking. And as you said, if you want to travel without cars you have to deal with the TSA and that nonsense.

Cars are certainly dangerous. You have a very good point there. But people have so accepted the risk they aren't going to change their entire lifestyle to eliminate it. And in a few years self-driving cars will fix it.


>>You seem to have a very very bad experience with cops.

I don't know of anyone who would describe their experiences with cops as "pleasant."


I would. I've had six or seven interactions with the police in the last eight years or so, and they were all pleasant. Well, except for one guy who yelled at me to slow down, but that wasn't really an interaction.


Well, there is a right way to interact with the police, and many wrong ways.

E.g. pull over (waaaay over. Much farther than you think is plausible), hands visible at all times, very slow movements, eye contact, dome lights on, shoulder muscles relaxed, etc. Most people do ~0 of these things unless they have been coached.

Failing to do these things, esp. while being young/male/profiled socioeconomic group, can drastically change one's experience with the law.

[0] http://www.amazon.com/A-Speeders-Guide-Avoiding-Tickets/dp/0...


I've been driving for close to 20 years and never have been pulled over. Equating dealing with cops to dealing with the TSA is moronic.


So you never actually had any experience with cops.

I don't see how that invalidates what I said.


I've had experiences with police, but not from driving. You are forced to interact with the TSA when flying, but you aren't forced to interact with the police when driving. Is it that hard to understand how that makes his entire post pointless? It's like complaining about how you have to interact with the FBI every time you fly because you make jokes about bombs.


I have had numerous positive or neutral experiences with cops, and a few bad ones (including numerous tickets and getting arrested, but in all cases I earned those bad experiences). Overall, I would much much rather have cops than not have cops.


I mean in terms of dealing with them a lot. I do agree they are not pleasant.


The safest speed to go is the flow of traffic. Sometimes that's 15-20 miles per hour over the speed limit. It's rare that cops ticket safe drivers for speeding, but it happens (IME, about once every 5 years). Tickets themselves weren't a big deal if you're a good driver who gets unlucky occasionally, until insurance got involved and started hiking up the prices. Depending on your state and insurance policy, a $100 speeding ticket can end up costing $1,000 or more.

"Police oppression" might be a bit farther than I'd go, because I rarely get speeding tickets. But the speed limits are under-posted and you can get a nasty insurance hit even while driving safely.


You say you are driving 15-20 miles per hour over the speed limit and then wonder why you are getting tickets and higher insurance...

Even if "but everyone else is doing it" was an excuse, that defeats the argument about excessive law enforcement. If anything there obviously isn't enough law enforcement.


Airports are a fine substitute if you're going from one major city to another, but I sure wouldn't have flown from Houghton to Traverse. It was only when I moved to Boston that not having a car meant freedom.


Good points. FYI, Washington, D.C.'s Union Station is an hour train ride away from Penn Station.


> Ask any recently-turned 16-year-old what it's like actually being able to go places. ...

That's a sentiment born of the suburban age. Cars are freedom from suburban isolation. In places where you can get around using your own two feet, cars offer only a marginal sort of liberation, and one that's bound up with all sorts of dangers and obligations.

Cars are the sine qua non of suburbia. The problem is that they are also the non cum qua of cities—cars destroy cities.


Sounds like you have a crap public transportation system if the kids under 16 can't "go to places".

EDIT: You don't need a car to allow cross-country mobility; trains are more than adequate. Here in Europe you can travel from Portugal to Finland on rail, and we can visit up to 30 countries for less than $500 with an InterRail pass.


I live downtown in a major city with relatively good public transport options now (Seattle), but before I lived in small-town New England where public transportation is essentially nonexistent. If you can't drive you're not going anywhere. Most of America doesn't have access to good public transport -- you either aren't American or you know this already and are just spoiled by living in a city. Hey, I am too! :)


> I live downtown in a major city with relatively good public transport options now (Seattle),

Having lived in Seattle, Berlin, New York, Montreal, and San Francisco, I would say that Seattle's transit is unusably bad (as is SF's, the other 3 are rather good).

I think the issue here isn't that cars aren't necessary in the States (obviously they are), rather that that's a result of insanely pro-car anti-anything-else public policy in the States, and not because driving is 'naturally' so empowering. It's hard to think of a wealthy country where a city as large as Seattle would have such terrible non-car transportation, yet Seattle is even above average by American standards.


>If you can't drive you're not going anywhere. Most of America doesn't have access to good public transport

This is the problem. Would cars be worth their expense and inconvenience if there were decent public transportation, walkable cities, or people could generally live near where they worked?


Maybe, maybe not, but that doesn't really mean anything in the context of this discussion. Most of the world doesn't have decent public transportation, in part because it's difficult and expensive to create decent public transportation, and in part because public transportation isn't a great fit for where most of the people of the world live. Unless you're suggesting that everyone should be relocated to arcologies so we could all give up our cars, the fact of the matter is that public transport isn't always an option, and may not ever be an option for anyone who doesn't live in a hyperdense urban area, which most people would consider to be hell on earth (not me, but I have an affinity for big cities).


In the developed world, while there's ample examples for great public transport, I have a hard time saying what percentage of it has decent coverage (whatever that is). Maybe it's as simple as saying it's mostly shit in the US and mostly decent in Europe, with the rest of the developed world also split, so about 50/50.

Most of the world doesn't have decent public transport because most of the world is -- rapidly -- developing. In the same vein, most of the world doesn't have decent internet access (I'm not saying the two are very similar in other regards). It's a bit early to say whether the developing world will end up with decent public transport. They're certainly trying with some success. They're also acquiring cars at an astounding rate, they're going to have to do major infrastructure works at enormous cost either way, hopefully they're smart about it.

As for the rest; living without a car doesn't require anybody to live in an arcology or in a "hyperdense" urban area. Most of the world (ie >50%) already lives in an urban area. There are lots of medium-sized or even big cities that aren't hyperdense by any sensible definition of that word. I don't think most people consider it hell on earth.


> ... Portugal to Finland ...

Not without going through Russia. There is no longer any passenger train connection between Finland and Sweden, so that would require either going through Saint Petersburg or crossing the Baltic by ship. You can however do the trip by car; it's just going to cost _a lot_.


Has been a while since I made that trip, but IIRC the ferries between Finland and Sweden give discounts if you have an Interrail ticket. And they're not that expensivr to begin with, at least if you don't have a car with you.

I'm now living in Berlin instead of Helsinki, and I take trains to go pretty much everywhere in Europe. When you factor in the time of getting from/to airport, security checks etc. it is often nearly as fast and much more comfortable. As I write this, I'm having lunch near the railway station before leaving for a conference in France. Usually I'd eat in the train but now I happened to have the time to spare...


I grew up in NYC and after a number of years avoiding a driver's license, I did get one (but like in 2006). It was "freeing" to own a car, but the glamour of it faded. I moved to Staten Island for a few years, and there, you need to have a car. When I got a chance to move to Manhattan, the real weight of having a car starts to set in:

a. You have to constantly move the car because of alternate side parking (the amount of times it was required, I thought, was overly-excessive in the neighborhood where I lived), b. The fact there is very little space to park which caused me to spend a lot of time just looking for parking (I'd give up and go to the only place I knew that had gobs of space - Riverside and 122nd, near Grant's Tomb :P), c. The cost of fueling the car, mostly used just to find parking, d. The fear of damage, from dings from careless people swinging taxi doors or the time when someone threw a brick through the passenger side window to see if they can find anything in my car, e. The insurance cost (glad I owned the car outright and that insurance was cheaper in Manhattan), f. The fact that parking garages in Manhattan are absurdly expensive ($400-$500/month around where I lived ... only the wealthy can eat that cost).

All this, just to have a weekend drive to upstate NY. That was the only enjoyable part of having the car. Otherwise, the burden was never freedom to me.

Whether it be NYC or where I live now, getting on a bus or train is freedom to me. It's freedom to know that this cost of modern living is off my budget and that when it comes down to it now, I really don't have to drive to get around.

I will say though that this is all really dependent on where you live. It would get stifling if you lived in suburbia or rural areas and can't travel anywhere. My parents had a vacation place in a rural area outside the city. I'd go stir crazy if I couldn't drive to town (I sort of did when we vacationed at the place, when I was much younger.)

The whole point is that this is really contextual. In the end, given cost of living and having to add budget items, I'd prefer things to be simpler. No insurance payments, no car payments, no fuel payments is a breath of fresh air to me.


I just bought a car because I took a job in Greenwich, CT that is only accessible by car. For years I prided myself on not owning a car. I don't like that I have to have a car to get to work, but now that I do I'm making the best of it. I love that my office in Greenwich has a door that closes and a window that opens.

I pay for monthly garage parking. Right now I pay $150 a month in Battery Park City for nights and weekend parking. I will probably end up paying $400 a month in Hell's Kitchen. The thought of driving around looking for a parking space seems like an incredible waste of time.

To be honest, I don't use the car that much to go out of town. Probably every other weekend, I definitely don't run errands with it.


I think we can safely disregard your negative Manhattan car owning experience when deciding on whether to own a car. Anyone who bothers to keep a car while living there is automatically deemed insane.


I was insane :)


There is some confusion here because of conceptions of Liberty and feeling of liberation when using the word "freedom" - you are both correct.


Cars provide an illusion of freedom. Yes, you can get in the car and go "anywhere" on a very extensive and well-maintained road network. A good thing? Absolutely. On the other hand, a saccade in your attention (and those happen to everyone, albeit rarely) can have fatal consequences, you can be ticketed for driving at an objectively safe speed (posted speed limits can be well below design speeds, often by intention) and total costs, amortized, are somewhere near $20-30 per hour of driving. (Gas is only a small part of it.) Then there's parking, which is a fucking nightmare if you go anywhere interesting in a populated area. Having access to a car for a weekend trip is great; the car-dependent lifestyle is the absence of freedom.

Suburbia was supposed to kill the urban "slum landlords" but, for the average "middle class" (actually upper-working class; true middle class starts around 85th percentile) American, the car is the new landlord. So many people work hard just to afford the car they need in order to get to work. It's a huge waste of resources.

Also, I think that the suburban lifestyle is largely about control, especially when it comes to children. The suburban parent has to set up "play dates" and thus gets to control who the kids' friends are and make sure they're only exposed to the "right" social classes. The downside of this is that depriving children and adolescents of so much independence just makes parenting a monstrous, 18-year, chore. The "Calvin and Hobbes" childhood is impossible when the land is cut to pieces by roads. Since the current crop of kids is so controlled by their parents that they need a chaperone just to take a piss in the woods, the result for "middle class" parents is that having children means they no longer have a life. (The true middle class and upper-middle-class suffer less sacrifice; they can afford nannies and boarding schools and such.) It's not a way to live, IMO.

That said, I'm not as much of a booster of the "traditional city" as the OP. You simply can't have a city like New York without a lot of public transit. The wealth generation that comes from large cities (2+ million) is that they allow extreme economic specialization, but you don't get that unless people have rapid access to a large number of people.

Also, as ugly as the 20+ story apartment buildings may be, we're going to need them in order to make housing affordable... and that may just be a losing battle at this point. We also need to stop letting corrupt foreign officials buy real estate in New York and San Francisco, but that's another issue for another time.


Your first paragraph strikes me as disingenuous. Curious, where do you live and how much driving do you do? For most people I know and have grown up around, cars indisputably are freedom. The bureaucratic and law enforcement pieces are such minor nuisances, I don't know anyone that ever complains about them. The true frustrations of car ownership, that crop up on a daily basis, are traffic and parking (and, less frequently, maintenance).

With a car, I can easily drive out of my city and into a spot of wilderness of my choosing, whenever I want. It is freedom in the sense it greatly increases the number of places you can feasibly travel to and the the control you have over how and when you travel there.

Regarding the manufactured human-scale areas, that is the New Urbanism the author mentions. It's a positive trend but the problem is that the city as a whole is still automobile-scale, just peppered with tiny oases, which seems a kind of inelegant shoehorned solution. That you describe them as "manufactured" speaks to that, I think.


>For most people I know and have grown up around, cars indisputably are freedom. The bureaucratic and law enforcement pieces are such minor nuisances, I don't know anyone that ever complains about them.

This says a lot about the people you know, but very little about the subject.

edit: For most people I know and have grown up around, cars are seen as a burden. I was born in a major city, am pushing 40, have lived in a dozen cities, and currently live in the major city I was born in. I have never bothered to get a drivers' license, and have multiple friends and family my age who have just gotten their first car within the past five years, or have given up their cars after moving back into the city from smaller and/or more depressed and/or more conservative towns. I've been dabbling in motorscooters for the past 5 years.

If we're going to be talking about ourselves.


Well that is why I asked about his driving situation, to better understand where he was coming from. And my anecdote was clearly presented as such, I never said it should be true for everyone.

I did suspect that he lived in a major city with ample public transportation. Obviously the advantages of owning a car in that situation are greatly diminished. The primary reason that NYC is at the top of my list of places to move is that I could get rid of my car there. When I'm there I actually get the same feeling of freedom and empowerment that a car affords me in other places.


I was taking it as some sort of justification for calling his first paragraph "disingenuous"; I was trying to understand how a description of the people that you grew up with could make his argument appear insincere or deceptive.


I think he was using "freedom" with the definition of Liberty with a capital L . Or Freedom with a capital F. Both used by Libertarians, where the interaction with the state, police etc is opposed.

"Freedom" with a car is more commonly used to refer to the feeling of liberation. You are both correct.


Thanks for this. I moved from Toronto to Montreal, and am much happier for it.

In Toronto, I felt a malaise. I couldn't articulate why. When I told people why I moved, I would say "Montreal has old buildings, a mountain, bilingualism, and....narrow streets".

No one ever got the streets, and I never had seen much discussion, so I couldn't convey why that mattered. This drives it home. It's the human scale.

I now live in the plateau Mont Royal. It was a neighborhood made possible by transit, but most of the streets are narrow and meant for the use of inhabitants.

I am in the middle of a square grid; on a quiet street. A three minute walk north, east, south or west sends me to a different, bustling commercial district, each with their own distinct flavour. Side streets in other directions have their own shops, and there are residential streets extending ten blocks in any direction.

I spend 90% of my time within a 5 minute walk of my house, and yet have a world of options to choose from. And almost every bit of it is human scale.

Not accidently, rents are highest in this part of town, and this is where the tourist come to experience "charming, European Montreal".

Some people talk about increasing density by building high rises in the plateau. I wonder why they don't talk about building more plateaus.

(Note: Rents are actually quite low across the board in Montreal. A one bedroom can be had for less than $700 per month in the plateau.)


I actually just stayed at a little hotel in the plateau Mont Royal while on vacation in Canada a couple of weeks ago! It was amazing and I seriously think I might move to Montreal someday.

Another thing that Montreal has that they don't have where I live is tons of Summer festivals. While we were there was some kind of festival put on by a clown school and we got to see basically a mini, outdoor Cirque du Soleil performance for free. I don't even usually like things like that very much, but it definitely helped give the experience of a "charming, European" city =P


Have you seen Waydowntown [0]? It's a movie about the malaise of living entirely indoors in a non-human-scale city (Calgary.) You might like it if you haven't already seen it!

[0]: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0219405/


This is my field. I trained as an architect and work as an urban designer (somewhere between an architect, landscape architect and planner). This article hits on some good points but misses a lot of others. Some dot points to keep it short:

* People (especially those with children) often prefer to live in houses with space which are more private rather than in narrow apartments (required if you want low building heights and for everyone to walk everyhwere) on top of their neighbours. Do you really want to hear 3 screaming babies next door every night. Because that's how it works.

* Modern business don't work in low desnity environments like this. You simply need to be as accessible as you can to as wide a market (of workers and other businesses you work with) as possible. Maybe once we are all working on the internet it will shift this way - but it hasn't gone far yet.

* Even the 'traditional cities' shown will have outskirts with houses which are a pain to walk to rather than just apartments in a centre.

* There is no single 'traditional city'. There are differences even across Europe. England has its widened-road market squares. Italy has its hill towns. Places like Japan usually built out of timber (which doesn't last) rather than stone. Etc.

* There are plenty of examples of tower cities with bustling urban environments and low car ownership. Like Hong Kong. Dehumanising? Perhaps. It depends on your definition.

* Most 'traditional cities' couldn't be built for anywhere near the same cost as a modern development.

Overall though, this is pushing in the right direction, just not quite thought through as thoroughly as it might be.

[edit] Perhaps the most successful attempt at building in this vein in the west recently has been Poundbury, England. It was Prince Charles' pet project. It has done some things well (like managing to break the highways codes) but in the end perhaps still isn't as nice as a traditional town or as attractive a location for modern living as other places being built. You can see it in streetview here: https://www.google.com/maps/@50.712904,-2.463939,3a,75y,145....


You don't necerally need high buildings to create density. You can have density with single family homes, if you have narrow streets and less parking. http://www.newworldeconomics.com/archives/2011/061211.html

There is such a thing as sound insulation, not every appartment building is noisy.

Not everything need to be super high density. There are thresholds that make a local restaurant, corner store, transit stop etc profitable.

Not everybody wants to live like this sure, but many do, and these places are sadly often straight up illegal to build. Besides sprawl is incentivised through subsidized road construction, parking minimums, zoning etc.


I agree with all of what you say, particularly with the last paragraph (I strongly believe that road/parking subsidies/legality has stopped a lot of good development and encouraged bad development to the great detriment of cities).

Dense single family housing is great too - I wish it was more common. Apartment living can be great for families too, where there is good public space around it - there are many people with a mental block against it though.

One of the great difficulties is that people can usually either easily afford a house or will struggle to afford one. The former live in grand houses. The latter in whatever is cheapest. Whilst terrace houses may have good amenity and also be space efficient, they are the choice of neither the rich nor the poor for this reason.

The thresholds thing is more difficult. Transit depends on type but more often fails for lack of pre-planning ("oh wait. we have to build a tunnel now. If only we'd reserved some land for this earlier"). Restaurants/corner-stores are great but whats shown in the linked examples is proper centres which terrace houses won't generally support (within 5 mins walk). Its worth also noting that some existing centres can support a store (where the shop owner owns it already and it just ticks over) where it wouldn't be something you'd build commercially nowadays (where developers would want a modern commercial rent, rather than just ticking over, for better or worse).


> * Most 'traditional cities' couldn't be built for anywhere near the same cost as a modern development.

Why is this? E.g. The author points out that narrow streets should be cheaper to build and maintain.

I grew up in suburbia, lived in a typical American city, and now live in a traditional city abroad. My best guesses as to why building a traditional city is more expensive are 1) construction might be more expensive because of the constrained space; 2) lots of roads are cobble stone rather than pavement; 3) maybe infrastructure (e.g. fire hydrants etc)

Are there other more important reasons? I really can't figure it out.


Yes. Its not insurmountable like some of the other points (assuming you throw money at it), but its definitely there. A few examples:

* Most of the examples are hand built of stone. Which is beautiful and lasts forever (by contrast most suburban homes have a ~40 year lifecycle) but costs a fortune nowadays because of the scarcity of material, labour and transportation costs. This goes for the streets as well as the buildings.

* Complex topography is hated by builders. Much cheaper and easier if its dead flat. Also difficult angles. Much easier if everything is square. This is a big one.

* Topography and small streets cause problems for access. Once the street is there, no chance you can get a bulldozer in. Or a cement truck of a large size. You might get a small crane but it will be very difficult. Getting your bathtub delivered or even getting your plumber in and out (when most of his tools and pipes are in the van, which is parked where?). This is a big problem for ongoing maintenance/repairs as well as initial construction (particularly if you aren't building out of stone to last forever).

So if you imagine the same places built square, flat and with cheaper materials you might come close to a more typical construction cost. But its not going to be anywhere near as attractive.


> by contrast most suburban homes have a ~40 year lifecycle

Living in Germany this is kind of mind-boggling for me. Does that mean each generation has to practically rebuild the houses of its parents?

> Much cheaper and easier if its dead flat.

Don't several story buildings pay for themselves as you can sell / rent more flats using basically the same amount of infrastructure?


> by contrast most suburban homes have a ~40 year lifecycle

Does that mean each generation has to practically rebuild the houses of its parents?

It might seem wasteful, but it's not so bad when you have plenty of space and the preferred living locations change over time. There are many houses in Detroit that were in a sense "overbuilt". Actually 40 years is pretty pessimistic even for crappy American stud-and-drywall construction. Recently I saw the home where my mother grew up. It's ready for tear-down, but it's over 100 years old. (Technically it's lathe and mud rather than stud and drywall, but they amount to the same thing.) I'm not convinced that it should be rebuilt any stronger than before, or indeed whether it should be rebuilt. (It's in a really sketchy section of Toledo OH.)


> Does that mean each generation has to practically rebuild the houses of its parents?

Yes. In part its disposable consumerism but also its likely that something built in a period of rapid change (as suburbanism often builds houses on fields) may also be required to change itself after some time. In my area its common to see inter-war single-storey cottages rebuilt anew (knocked down completely with a new structure built from scratch), subdivided into two lots or amalgamated with others to build a block of apartments.

> Don't several story buildings pay for themselves

I mean dead-flat as in no steps in the ground floor within your building. Not as in 'single storey'.


>by contrast most suburban homes have a ~40 year lifecycle

Do you have a source for this number? It seems quite a bit lower than I'd expect.


Its a rough figure I've been told - it probably depends on where you are living and the standard of construction. Every component will of course wear at a different speed and some (kitchens and bathrooms especially) sooner. Often roofs need a lot of work after 40 years or so and sometimes cheap walls too. Theres books dedicated to this kind of stuff. See the following link for some examples: http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/m/article/0,,216991-2,00.htm...


I hear twenty years as the standard figure for an asphalt-shingle roof. But I live on a street with houses that are in some cases 80 years old and more. And the Washington suburbs are full of bungalows built in haste 60 years ago and still functioning--with a new roof, maybe, and with additions, but with an original core.

Bathrooms and kitchens don't so much wear out as go out of style. The grout gets crummy in the bathroom, the porcelain wears, and then a generation that watches cooking shows doesn't want the galley kitchen and electric stove of 1950.


I think streets are the cheap part anywhere. I would imagine buildings are more expensive to construct with the limited access. If for some reason you were tasked with building a 40' skyscraper in the middle of a farm field, it would be massively less expensive than putting it up in the middle of Manhattan. The logistics complicate everything.

My brother is currently managing the construction of a 60 story tower in NYC, and they have a staging area that is able to fit the base of the crane and a single truck at a time. You often see them unloading pallets of supplies into freight elevators by hand. It's unbelievably complicated to do the simplest maneuvers due to the limited space.


As someone who deliberately left behind suburbia and its mandatory car ownership to find a better quality of life in a traditional city i find it saddening to hear you argue against human-friendly urban planning. I find your arguments unconvincing.

* Just because apartments are small doesn't mean you hear your neighbors, or live uncomfortably. I've lived in three different apartments the past decade and the only time i had noise issues was with a neighbor who played techno at full volume at 3 am, which would be an issue in any city design, dense or sparse. The notion that hearing three crying babies every night is just how it works is only true in hollywood movies which fictionalize poverty in the inner city. In real world apartment life you have a mixed habitation pattern, and soundproofing.

* suburbia is even less dense than any sort of city. It's not the density that's the issue, it's the ability to commute. In a city where commuting can be done on foot or through public transit, like many european cities, it's simply not an issue. I walk 5 minutes and then take the tram to work, reading HN while commuting.

* There's no such thing as a traditional city, yet you're arguing against it. The article was quite clear on what is meant by the traditional city.

* Having low density at the edges is a feature, not a downside, because some people prefer the isolation. Anyway, if we built all cities in this pattern, there would be a better density distribution. City edges would blend. In high density urban construction everybody struggles to reach the center and get back out again, every day during rush hour. Having ten smaller less dense cities without suburbs instead of one big dense one with a lot of suburbs seems like it would have fewer traffic problems and a better quality of life. Maybe it's just my personal preferences talking though.

* I've been to NY, as a tower city with low car ownership it is impressive, and i was glad to visit, but also glad to leave. The best living in NY is in traditional city areas like greenwich village. High rise is not the answer to quality of life in urban planning.

* The cost argument is a red herring. We don't know how to build traditional cities cheaply because we haven't done it enough recently. It would solve itself. Business finds a way when forced to.

Anyway, whatever design is used, there is a sort of universal understanding what a city that is nice to live in is like, and it's one without cars. Cars simply don't belong inside a city where people actually live. I hope urban planners everywhere eventually realize this and force cars to remain at the edge, where they belong. Usually the people who want to drive their car inside the city don't even live there.


I definitely am not here to argue against pedestrian friendly environments (which I'm all for) in favour of suburbia and car-domination, just to point out some of the shortcomings of the exact view expressed. The will to change the way the development industry works is great, but you can't do this with naive views.

In this vein, I don't disagree with a lot of what you say, but just to touch on a few counter arguments:

* Historic cities with good public transport systems are great, but building new public transport is not something governments (taxpayers?) seem to want to spend on in the west at present. You have to build public transport before people will stop driving cars.

* I question your point on high-rise living. Why is this bad? What makes you feel bad in New York? New York is not the only possibility of high-rise living.

* The cost argument is definitely there. See my response to another comment.


> Just because apartments are small doesn't mean you hear your neighbors, or live uncomfortably.

Having lived in three apartments in the densest city in America, this is patently false. I can hear my neighbors eat dinner, fart, kick their son out at 2am, etc. You can do sound insulation, but that doesn't mean cheapo developers do!


That completely depends on the type of building. I'm in a NYC high rise that is poured concrete. I can't hear a damn thing. Once in a blue moon the people upstairs drop something and I hear a thud, that's about it.

I have previously lived in some hilariously thin walled places before. I actually think the 2-3 story apartment rows in suburbia are the worst offenders. If you are building a 20+ story building, you have to make it a bit thicker and use steel or concrete.


I wonder how this differs by area and building type. My apartment walls in the Bay Area were razor thin - I couldn't believe how much could be heard. But in the four apartments I've been in Manhattan (all ~50-100 years old), plus a good friend's new high-rise that I frequent at all hours, I've never heard my neighbors.

In fact, in my current apartment I have not once heard my roommate when my door was closed despite the bedrooms sharing a wall.


Like others mentioned, this largely depends on the building type -- e.g. concrete vs wood and gypsum. Most American apartment complexes below 5-6 stories high are usually all wooden with low sound proofing.


For what it's worth, I'm in a newish (2010) apartment building in Berkeley. It's one of those wood and drywall jobs, and we never hear anything from neighbours except those above us if they drop something or stomp.

Perhaps this building might be unusually well built. All the windows are double-glazed for example, which is definitely not needed for climate reasons around here (Berkeley has to be one of the mildest climates on Earth).

Having said that, this building is mostly populated with moneyed students (the garage looks like a BMW/Merc/Audi/Porsche showroom - factory stickers are common). I imagine they're not the noisy type. We're a family of 5 where the kids have done things like use skateboards indoors, so perhaps our neighbours are cursing us for the noise :).


>* Modern business don't work in low desnity environments like this. You simply need to be as accessible as you can to as wide a market (of workers and other businesses you work with) as possible. Maybe once we are all working on the internet it will shift this way - but it hasn't gone far yet.

My impression was that traditional cities are higher density than modern cities. They're less dense than hypertrophic cities like Manhattan, but almost everywhere is.

Paris is 9 times denser than Atlanta, for example, according to Wikipedia. Can you cite any statistics showing traditional cities aren't dense? You might be right, but any place I've looked at that's traditional is also rather dense compared to the median city.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlanta


The examples shown aren't cities of the size of Paris. Paris would be described here as more of the 'hypertrophic city', reliant on public transit, where for the author "When your primary focus is on walking, there is very little need to invest in extensive public transit".

The whole of Europe is full of small towns like the ones used as examples. There has been a big shift in living in the 20th century away from these places as modern jobs have shifted to larger cities.

Your example is right. Perhaps I should have said 'less connected environments' rather than 'low density environments'. Paris is quite dense and connected by public transport. Atlanta less dense, but probably easier to drive around. The amount of people within a 1 hour commute of the centre of either will, however, be hugely higher than the examples shown.


His examples were smaller than Paris, but I think Paris in many sections matches what he was talking about. His emphasis was on small streets.

I picked a couple random areas in central paris on google street view and found this:

  https://maps.google.com/maps?q=Paris,+France&hl=en&ie=UTF8&ll=48.859802,2.360516&spn=0.034502,0.079308&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=42.089199,81.210938&oq=paris&hnear=Paris,+%C3%8Ele-de-France,+France&t=m&z=14&layer=c&cbll=48.858935,2.357198&panoid=KFedUek_xPdwmoxKOlmqLQ&cbp=12,312.34,,0,3.28

  https://maps.google.com/maps?q=Paris,+France&hl=en&ie=UTF8&ll=48.875074,2.338385&spn=0.034492,0.079308&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=42.089199,81.210938&oq=paris&hnear=Paris,+%C3%8Ele-de-France,+France&t=m&z=14&layer=c&cbll=48.875074,2.338385&panoid=JTi6slw3B6yserHz2yLGoQ&cbp=12,291.51,,0,11.39
Paris has transit, and large streets, but it has many, many small streets like that.


Yes. Paris is reasonably dense, low-height has some small streets. This matches some of what the article discusses, but not all. I don't think these of themselves are the most important positives of Paris though, which for me include its great metro rail system, 19th century boulevards (such as the famous Champs Elysee) and beautifully designed buildings (even some of the most mundane). Its not a city without fault, either.


True, Paris was renovated in the 19th century to be made more 'hypertrophic' [1]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haussmann's_renovation_of_Paris


The shift happened when Europeans came to the new world and saw it as 'carte blanche' to invent cities, top down, in their image. The Europeans had wanted to do that for a long time in Europe, but had lived with cities that had grown organically. Paris is a great example because they literally dug up half the city to remake it in a grid, after seeing cities in the Americas with similar structures. The trend continued (and maybe even continues) in South America: take a look at Brasilia, which may be the epitome of the type of city the OP detests.


I'd argue that Paris actually represents the epitome of what the OP detests in cities because they actually replaced narrow, winding alleyways with broad boulevards aimed at road transport.

It's also a clear example of why the author's theory that street width is all important is wrong: central Paris is still very walkable with an incredibly strong sense of "place" because of the broad boulevards rather than despite them, whereas plenty of the "walkable" streets he highlights are either cul de sacs in suburban areas or pedestrianised zones in town centres usually accessed by car.


Apologies for off-topic.

My non-HN reading brother is about to graduate an urban design programme and would love a chat about the field (especially getting started). If you have a spare moment it would be awesome if you could send your contact details to me (ib.lundgren at gmail). Cheers!


I think this is a rather romanticised view of a traditional city. I don't want to live in a city dominated by cars, but that doesn't mean the best alternative is to build extremely narrow streets.

All cities need contrasting spaces. Even the medieval town or city was marked by narrow streets that led to an open piazza or square. The feeling of walking from a confined narrow space into a wide open expanse can give a feeling of exhiliration. It's something architects continue to use today inside buildings. Think of the walk through a corridor into the grounds of a stadium and the excitement it generates. Or the excitement of walking through a corridor in a theatre before you enter the large expanse of the auditorium.

The scale and proportion of buildngs in relation to one another creates a sense of enclosure that can either feel comfortable or uncomfortable. The author calls the extremely narrow streets "intimate" and they are in many cases, but they can also be claustrophobic (especially if you live in them).

For housing, not everyone will want to live in streets as narrow as the pictures in the blog post. Who doesn't prefer long views out of their window? (Preferably of some greenery) That doesn't mean building huge spaces between houses as is often the case in modern car suburbs. But there needs to be enough distance to psychologically feel you have a sense of privacy from your neighbours.

Here is a random Victorian street (in a very expensive part of London) that I think has a good scale. The road is not too wide. Cars are parked on the street rather than in garages. The houses are of fairly high density. This is a better template for housing than modern car susburbs in my view. But it won't be for everyone.

https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@51.556208,-0.165162,3a,75y,36...


This seems partly a straw man. I don't think the author would say not to build open plazas. They're very much a part of traditional cities.

That is a nice street in London. I expect housing prices are high. I also expect housing prices are even higher in areas with narrower streets.

We can talk in the abstract about what people "would prefer", but looking at actual choices is more instructive. Residential privacy is one of those things you can learn to do without. Many people would say that London street has no privacy.

People have different preferences, but I've seen no evidence that people don't like narrow streets, even narrower than the one found in your image.


There is a good reason for the wide street in Chicago or Detroit and that is snow. Or more precisely snow removal.

Those ideas may work well in a mild climate but who wants to trod down a narrow street every day through two feet of snow? Or through downtown Phoenix when its 115 degrees last week?


Believe it or not, you can remove snow from narrow streets too.

Here's a very common snow removal vehicle: http://image.dieselpowermag.com/f/tech/11090507+w799+h499+cr... This type of vehicle is used all winter on the narrow paths, sidewalks, and streets at the University of Michigan. Snow levels at U-M are very similar to those in Detroit. I imagine that these vehicles are probably a lot cheaper than the snow plows used for wide streets too.

While googling for that image, I also found this, which I thought was pretty cool: https://www.arcsfoundation.org/minnesota/news/its-time-annua...


Not at all true. Montreal has much narrower streets than either city. As does Quebec city. And lots of smaller Canadian cities.

You've taken a correlation and assumed causation, without evidence, and ignoring counterexamples.


smaller streets with more people living on them means less snow to move and more people to move it. Also, when you're walking everywhere, snow is FUN rather than an obstacle.

Huge 2-lane roads with 2 foot of snow on them = no school. Narrow walking streets with 2 foot of snow on them = no problem.


This did a good job of highlighting the benefits of a traditional city and an awful job of recognizing why American cities and suburbia are the way they are, which is space.

What's the stereotypical American Dream: a house, a yard, a family, and white picket fence. And while a stereotype, I think most Americans would prefer to have some sense of personally owned space in their domicile. A traditional city wouldn't be very good at providing this.

There's certainly a cost to be paid for this individual space, which the post did a pretty good job of pointing out. But to completely ignore the benefits of suburbs and why the culture created them in the first place is not a recipe for change.


Speaking for myself, I strongly prefer a plentitude of public open space, rather than a little bit of private yard. It would be neat if a city were ever built along the lines of this proposal: http://carfree.com/topology.html It's a proposal for a city housing a million people, which is 80% non-urbanized, and in which nobody lives more than 400 meters from open space.


Yes, yes, charming little streets.

However, having just last week spent a few nights in Weimar, Germany, I can say I do not like it. Weimar is a very little city. It is a perfect example of the OP. Lots of tiny streets, no right angles, nothing over 5 stories, taverns, hotels, children, a little chapel, window boxes with flowers on every window, etc. Truely, it did feel like traveling back in time. Heck, there is even a music school there to honor Bach's time in the city.

And that, the music school, is the exact reason why I disliked every single night there. The SOUND! Yes, the cacophony of practice on 15 different instruments died off at about 10pm. But then all the students went to the bars to knock off until about 2 am. And, the drunker you get, the louder you are. Yes, it is the summer time, yes, it is a music school, that is unique. But I feel the point still stands, the sound is a big problem, not just in Large cities, but equally as in these human scale ones

Don't get me wrong, I love having my apartment. I love that ability, even in LA, to walk across the street or down to 7-11. I like that i have weird neighbors. I like that my cat has other cats to play with. I like having little kids running around. But I HATE the #17 bus at 6am on Sunday. I HATE the Harleys blasting down Santa Monica at 4am. I HATE the damn Ambulance in the middle of a nice romantic dinner or in a movie theatre.

I think that nice reduction and cancellation is the largest step to a better urban environment. Being able to play guitar, at proper volume, in an apartment, without hearing my neighbor's washing dishes, the cars outside, or the newly wed couple 2 windows over is a fantasy. A fantasy that engineers and architects might be able to make real.

Why did everyone move to the suburbs? One, among many reasons, was so you could get a proper night's sleep.


Your hate list can be easily solved by: modern windows that don't let sound thru; police; a policy for ambulances to make noizes only when they must.

It's very solvable if that's what you have in mind.

I live in an apartment block and I'm certainly not "hearing my neighbor's washing dishes, the cars outside, or the newly wed couple 2 windows over". Maybe some people are loud outside in the evening, but nights are usually undisturbed.


I don't know about the police part. I think people should be able to party during the weekend. Maybe it's just my berliner perspective, but if you don't like noise you shouldn't live in the city - I don't want to tip-toe around because someone else can't be arsed to close the windows (and if someone has a single-pane window that's not my fault).

When it comes to buildings concrete is basically the answer; it is an excellent noise insulator.


>> if you don't like noise you shouldn't live in the city

I couldn't agree more. It's unfortunate that it's quite hard for people working in some sectors to avoid cities -- and I feel that the New Urbanites and their opposition for out-of-town developments deserve some blame here.


Same here. What kind of crappy walls let the sounds of washing dishes through?!


What kind of crappy walls let the sounds of washing dishes through

American walls do. As a rule, American residential construction is prefab housing; the exterior walls are chipboard with (usually) wood siding, sometimes brick veneer, the interior dividing walls are sheetrock. Floors are wooden, too, a soundproofing layer between the floorboards and joists is not standard. You could not get brick construction if you wanted to. Not too far from my apartment is a well-to-do part of town. Someone is building a new house next to the golf course there, and the half million dollars that that fellow paid for his new pile still gets him nothing better than chipboard and sheetrock. Apartment buildings are constructed in the same way. With the wrong neighbour, an American apartment can be a gigantic horrortrip.

The poor quality of construction in America goes a long way to explain the allure of suburban living. There is a wide air gap to the neighbours and you have little road noise on your cul-de-sac. It also explains the suspicion Americans have against proposals for high-density housing, they expect construction quality to be poor.


If this is generally true then this is yet another reason I'm flabbergasted by the housing bubble


That sounds terrible. What's keeping builders from offering brick construction?


Actual masonry is much more expensive in labor terms than throwing up some stud walls and slapping some drywall on top.


As far as I can tell, you just made the argument that both narrow and wide streets are loud. Either because of people or because of vehicles. So I'm not sure why you disagree with the OP.


Berlin has a nice trick for this. Trees, lots of trees lining every street. They do a terrific job dampening the street noises, as well as provide shade during the hot summer months.


Aren't some suburbs full of hair trigger car alarms going off all night and some people can't sleep without them? You can get acclimated to noise.

There are also earplugs.


> I think that nice reduction and cancellation is the largest step to a better urban environment. Being able to play guitar, at proper volume, in an apartment, without hearing my neighbor's washing dishes, the cars outside, or the newly wed couple 2 windows over is a fantasy. A fantasy that engineers and architects might be able to make real.

I agree. I don't know how much money or effort that goes into this kind of thing, but it seems like the absolutely most bang-for-your-buck investment if you want to create more liveable city apartments.


Also, I'd bet the sound dampening stuff would act as a great thermal insulator as well.


It was interesting to read this with another HN post in mind from a month ago, https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7965077, a Wired article about the observation that increased road capacity paradoxically does nothing to decrease congestion as people just use the roads more. Road building has a coercive effect in that many of its costs are born by everyone, and there is no way to opt out of those costs if you live in the city. Everything is more diffuse and less pedestrian friendly and moving about the city is more expensive. If you opt out of car ownership, you bear the expenses without enjoying the dividends. People who can't afford to drive suffer a sort of regressive tax. They do not drive but nevertheless live in a sprawling city built for cars with dangerous roads, ungainly parking lots, sprawling commercial districts, and inadequate public transportation.

Roads are terrific for creating distance to separate rich from poor. Those with means can hunker down in their gated community in the suburbs with a spacious private back yard and drive their air conditioned SUV to the parking garage downtown without even suffering a whiff of the common people on the street.

Walkways and public transportation democratize the city. Everyone enjoys the fruit of public investment, and everyone rubs shoulders on the subway or railcar. Common areas create a public forum where an inclusive community can form. The streets and sidewalks and alleys are used by everyone, not just those who cannot afford to drive past them. So it is in everyone's interest to make the city streets a safe and healthy place to be.


Strongly resonates with Christopher Alexander's "The Timeless Way of Building" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Timeless_Way_of_Building


The hills around the bay area could be filled with smaller scale, well built cities like this, if Americans were civilized and tasteful enough to demand them.

But... we aren't. Rather we will get sprawl and ridiculous techno-mansions.

'murica!


>if Americans were civilized and tasteful enough to demand them

Clearly the objective scale of civilization is having narrow streets.


Be the change you want to see in the world, sarcasm doesn't really get anybody anywhere


One thing that gets you less far than sarcasm is condescending pithy platitudes.

Edit: Rather than quote meaningless self-help fodder, you could have pointed out that it is difficult to convince people of the benefits of a different approach by labelling them. It is instead better to point out the costs of what we're currently doing wrong, and the benefits of the proposed way.


> Be the change

You want him to build cities?



I looked at their website. All I can see is a group of moneyed people choosing to live in an unconventional way, in semi-rural environments.

For people earning a wage and living in large cities who have no choice but to rent, it's utterly meaningless.

Please explain how this is anything but a privileged group of white people congratulating themselves on their ability to live precisely how they want.


Actually, I visited one co-housing group in the middle of Atlanta, the people living there just seemed like regular homeowners, not any more moneyed than any other homeowner. Co-housing is something I think you do if you don't have the cash to just build whatever you want on your huge plot of land, but still want to live someplace with amenities. Just share the cost.

So co-housing might well be one way forward here.


> if Americans were civilized and tasteful enough to demand them.

No.


Same ought to have been done in SoCal.


"The only thing you have to do to build a traditional city - an environment where people naturally want to walk - is to build Really Narrow Streets; " Then pictures of several architectures of buildings are shown along very narrow streets, but nothing more than 4 stories high.

My first thought when I read this was, the narrow streets constricts the heights of the buildings possible because if the buildings are taller than a few stories, the windows will not get light and there will be lack of wind, fresh air and sense of openness. When every building has to be short, how can you meet the demand for housing? Perhaps I'm biased because I live in Jersey City, across from NYC with its own share of residential high rises. Where are you going to house all the people who cannot afford to have a place to stay, due to high cost of housing, due to low supply, due to short buildings?


You can have some larger streets between neighbourhoods with higher buildings. Not every single street needs to be really narrow, but you need to have them. http://urbankchoze.blogspot.de/2014/04/japanese-zoning.html


Thank you for that. Have never looked into japanese zoning.


WRT zoning I've lived in three places with that strategy and none really worked.

One is Madison WI with pedestrian only State Street. If the experiment of State Street worked, it naturally should have spread thru the city, or at least thru downtown, over the course of many decades. Instead its mostly avoided other than sorta being an outdoor strip mall of bars, sorta. I dread going there because I no longer live there and know how unfriendly that design is to visitors.

Another example is the small boring river city I grew up in, with legendarily bad downtown street layout, loops of one way streets and no parking and narrow streets and everything a meandering unpredictable cowpath so easy to get lost, aside from only having 4 bridges over the river which cut thru downtown and the river isn't even navigable anymore. It just didn't sell and resulted in economic decline. All economic activity has always pushed out of the downtown into the areas nearby the interstate with easy parking and nobody who could afford it would voluntarily live there. People just didn't like it.

The 3rd example is I live in a suburban neighborhood about 50 years old which was intentionally zoned into quiet (admittedly large) pure residential, narrow (for suburbs) streets, and within short walking distance (oh, maybe a quarter mile) the perimeter of the subdivision is encrusted with retail and commercial and light industrial along major arterial roads. This seems an utter failure in that noone commutes by foot or bike, but I certainly see a lot of cars. In theory this should work, in practice it doesn't. Some of it is expense driven. There are 3 restaurants I could walk to in 10 minutes, but why blow the money on one of three if a 15 minute car ride puts me in reach of way over a dozen restaurants, many of which are better than the walking distance only competition? These arguments all seem to devolve into all retail/service is interchangeable commodity... the marketplace disagrees and prefers choice and competition, even if it requires personal automobiles. If I wanted to only visit 3 restaurants and 2 bars because thats all thats "within range" I'd live rural and cheap, not city prices, especially when the claim is city life means you get a better selection.

There is the meta problem, that in an area with decent public infrastructure, I can work 20 miles from home in a 20 minute commute in my comfy car. In NYC thats what, a couple hour commute in a mix of foot and public trans? I could do it, but the hit to my standard of living would be brutal. Either I'd spend all my life commuting which is a waste of a life, or I'd have to work within a 20 minute walk, which would be incredibly inefficient and I'd be stuck doing manual labor or something like that. Another thing thats rarely discussed but very important is commercial density vs residential density. I work in a 800 person building, and even if you could fit 800 tiny little houses within a short walk, if I got a new job I'd have to move which would be a PITA and we're assuming only a single breadwinner per family, what if we lived within walking distance of my wife's employer not mine?


This is something the OP doesn't discuss well. The "traditional city" provides a sense of beauty and "place" for the tourist, but it's an annoyance for people who live there. Housing gets expensive, quality goes down over time, and building up becomes impossible. Living without a dishwasher, as one might have to do in old housing that can't be economically upgraded, gets old really quick. That's not to say that "traditional city" equals "no dishwasher"; I'm only pointing out that there are some serious hassles (noise, expense) to that way of living.

The driver-centric planning of the US is pretty terrible, because cutting your urban land with ribbons that are dangerous to cross, unpleasant to look at and hear, and utter non-places turns out to have catastrophic effects on urban life, even in objectively great cities like Chicago and New York. I will agree with that. I don't think that four-story buildings and narrow streets are a workable solution. That will just make everywhere decent unaffordable, so you'll need transit or large towers nearby anyway to keep the local economy from falling to shit in bad times.

What we've learned about the car is that it scales horribly. Robert Moses re-designed cities for the car because he was an elitist asshole. At that time, most working class people didn't have cars. "Parkways" were thus named because he intended them as actual motoring parks (for rich people). In the 1940s, cars became affordable to average people and promised to "disrupt" urban landlords-- a hard thing to oppose, as anyone who's lived in New York or London will agree-- by making previously useless land livable. However, we found out that when everyone drives, the result is congestion, misery, pollution, and actually surprisingly expensive. Between insurance and gas and maintenance and parking-- and the suburbs actually failing to be affordable except far away from urban centers and jobs-- the car became the new landlord in suburbia.

I agree fully with OP that suburbia is ill-planned (who doesn't?) and that car-centric cities are a mistake. But the 21st century is going to call for something new and transit will have to be a big part of it. Personally, I think we should tax the tits off of landlords and real estate owners (beyond one house, owner-inhabited) and use the money to build a first-rate rapid transit system. Since their wealth comes directly from inefficiency of geography, we should tax them to pay to fix that inefficiency. It's only fair that those who benefit from a bad situation be called upon to pay to fix it.


Only one pix was taken during winter. No pix of commuters during precipitation. No pix were taken in hot weather (at least the majority in pants not shorts).

For the 1% or so of the worlds surface that never goes below 40F or above 70F and only rains at night, walkable architecture sounds pretty appealing.

For the other 99% of the worlds surface, as soon as economically possible for to own a car, they're going to want a car to get out of the weather.

I say this as a guy who considers hiking/backpacking and walking the neighborhood to be "recreational".

I wouldn't want my livelihood and lifestyle to depend on walking in a heat wave, a cold snap, a snow storm, a thunderstorm. Its fun for recreation but not serious stuff, like living.


Building new urban cities that doesn't suck is extremely capital intensive, but also potentially very lucrative. New cities that doesn't suck needs laws that ensure the city will continue to stay that way to. The economist Paul Romer has proposed the idea of charter city.

I can recommend some of Jan Gehl's writings. The man who made Copenhagen into to one of the most liveable city on the world, with more than 40% of the population commuting by bikes.

Last week I came back after two weeks in the southern parts of France. Visited old cities like Conque, Couvertoirade, Belcastel, Toulouse, Albi and Cordes. Nice to see human scale towns where no two buildings are a like, but still they all look similar.


Wow this is an incredibly short sighted and "get off my lawn" piece. The author completely negates the massive cultural multiplicative affect humans get from living millions at a time together, among many other advantages.

I'm a New Yorker, so I'm biased, but I don't see problems with any of the types of living, they all have their advantages and disadvantages. The author writes as if this is not a preferential thing.

To be honest, this isn't HN quality: it's poorly written, and poorly reasoned. The author is not an expert in city planning and doesn't seem to understand even the basic challenges being solved.


This piece isn't trying to contrast NYC to anywhere in the US, since there are essentially no traditional cities in the US. A more traditionally-built city, and one that's even larger than NYC, is Tokyo.

The couple clusters of traditional urban development in NYC are extremely valuable— the West Village comes closest: https://www.google.com/maps/@40.733584,-74.000469,3a,75y,44.... https://www.google.com/maps/@40.729827,-74.001507,3a,75y,76.... Most of the rest of NYC's oldest neighborhoods have been demolished (or rebuilt as nothing but skyscrapers, in the case of the Financial District).

Brooklyn Heights, DC's Georgetown & Boston's North End are also extremely desirable neighborhoods with narrow streets, at least by American standards. I personally don't spend much time in any of them, since they've become so desirable as to drive out anyone except the wealthy, but they generally absolutely ooze charm.


Well, you could build multi-million cities in a traditional style. You'd need subways, of course, as well as some mayor arteries to get goods close enough to their destination that the rest of the trek is short enough to be easy.

A simplistic solution would be a grid of mayor arteries, NY-style but bigger, and then have the "blocks" of the grid be traditional-style no-car zones with subway stations in the middle.


A great case study for his traditional city movement is Tokyo. Most "suburban" areas are like his future 'traditional' city: 1 car width wide streets, walking-centric. All you need is exceptional public transportation - subway, rail. Drop yourself pretty much anywhere in Tokyo suburbs in Google Street View and you can see how a city of many multi-millions lives this way, no grids or arteries required.

The problem with doing this in Manhattan is that you have pretty hard boundaries for where the city should end, forcing development upwards.


Could you be specific? Because:

>I don't see problems with any of the types of living, they all have their advantages and disadvantages.

could be said about anything. I don't understand your reasoning, and the only thing that I can figure out about your opinion is that you don't like think that there's anything wrong with places like New York because you live in New York(?), but I could definitely have that wrong.


Fellow new yorker here, I'll contribute my 2c:

The hypertrophic city is undoubtedly going to have advantages that suburbs and traditional cities don't (he touched on some of the disadvantages, so I won't repeat them here). The sheer scale ends up being a good thing and a bad thing.

As a random example, if you're really into wingsuit flying you can easily find a sizable group of people who are similarly interested (and then you can arrange trips, etc.) That's much harder (sometimes even just impossible) to do at smaller scales (traditional cities) or smaller densities (the suburbs). Finding a good social cohort obviously has a noticeable impact on quality of life.

I also heavily disagree with his assessment that mass transit discourages walking. The very nature of mass transit is that one must walk to specified stations, and it wouldn't shock me to learn that New Yorkers walk a few miles every day even with arguably the best mass transit system in America. Cities with mass transit systems regularly appear on lists of America's fittest cities (e.g. Seattle, SF).

It seems silly to be arguing that traditional cities are a panacea to all problems when they obviously carry their own drawbacks.


I object to the tone of the piece suggesting that one particular style of living is better as it is clearly preferential outside of any objective measurement (ie: GDP/person, CO2 emissions/person etc.).


You may still lay a metro under a traditional city to permit million inhabitants to get where they want. Occassional light rail on the boulevard.

Istanbul is 2nd largest city in Europe and they still have a huge traditional city core and outskirts are pretty close too. They have some subway and rail and ferries. I can't say I fully understand how they manage without collapsing, tho.


Istanbul is massively massively spread out, and because of that loses many of the economic benefits that non traditional cities have. You really can't have your cake and eat it too here...


Istanbul has some problems that has forced it to spread around... Being in between two seas with the Bosporus strait in the middle takes a lot of directions for growth away. And most of the "traditional city" areas are so full of archeological sites that you can't really build much there.

Those areas are quite lovely to live in, though. I really enjoyed Besiktas and Beyoglu back when I lived there


I disagree - it is very much worth reading. Even without a single word the pictures make a powerful statement. It presents a typology of built environments and makes the important point that human-scaled, walkable environments are found throughout the world and share some important advantages that the recent places we've built do not.


I don't think he says we need smaller cities, just more narrow streets.

I did some Google reverse image search on the example photos in the blog post. Some are from places like Eguisheim (population 1,548) and Kufstein (population 17,497). But others are from Paris, Tokyo, Kyoto, and Quebec City.


Istanbul's Fatih and Beyoglu districts come to mind as an example of a very large traditional city. And it's perhaps the most pleasing place I've been to - in my whole life.

(Not just because it's a traditional city, but still)


I guess this is a divisive topic, but I agree completely. Every time I visited one of these cities in Europe, it Felt Right in a way living in the US never did. "Human scale" is a great way to put it, and I think it's actually a two-way street (so to speak). I feel much more content being a living cell in an ancient, twisted, organic city rather than a replaceable tenant in some downtown highrise or suburban townhouse. You can see it in the decor: the narrow streets of traditional cities take on the attributes of their owners, whereas you'd be lucky to see an occasional window poster in a big US city.

In addition to the traits mentioned in the article, there's one other feature that my ideal traditional city would have: proximity to nature. I want my home to be close to water, to have hills in view, to be littered with trees and greenery. This necessarily limits the size of the city, but I'm OK with that. Smaller cities have the additional advantage of having a tighter community and having better access to things like street markets, which are notoriously absent in the US.

Tangentially, I really enjoy artistic representations of what happens when the two styles mix: http://www.agraart.pl/pics/dziela/091_yerka.jpg. See also Imperial Boy.


I'm not sure that going back to the exact sort of city we had pre-modernity is quite viable or desirable -- but I do think (or rather, hope) that something more "human-scale" is in our future, even if it isn't exactly this.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that self-driving cars are the catalyst. Car services -> Lower car ownership & drastically reduced need for colocated parking -> More easily hidden away infrastructure -> More livable cities.


I agree with most of the author's points, however... isn't it too late to think about that, in the US?

I might be wrong, but I don't think a lot of new cities are still being built there, so it would be necessary to destroy city centers to re-build them in a more human-friendly way? I don't see that happening anytime soon.

Otherwise, I completely agree. The last time city centers were rebuilt here in France in large scale was in bombed cities after WWII, and they were transformed into car-friendly places (some of them really ugly). Only today are we trying to turn them back into pedestrian-friendly cities... but the wide avenues stay, it's better because there are less cars, but it's still not as nice as narrow paved streets (I'm thinking of the recent overhauling of Nantes' center, here).


It's not too late. Cities are constantly changing and reinventing themselves. Many cities have old industrial areas that are being converted to other uses, or very low density residential spaces that are being rezoned to higher density. Any time a neighbourhood undergoes change there's an opportunity to do it differently.

Vancouver's Olympic village (built from old industrial land) is an example of a brand new neighbourhood in a North American city built close to this form. It's not pedestrian only in width, but the streets through it are only a single car width wide.


1) It's never too late to do anything. The idea is not to build a city and for the people to come, but to change places, or make new centres, new places.

2) There are cities around the world (Christchurch, NZ and Detroit US as two examples) which are already suffering for various reasons. Detroit is the centre for this "placemaking" movement - how do we rebuild a failed city?


Its's not too late. Many cities are creating more human scale neighborhoods when it comes time to revitalize a run-down area (think warehouse districts)


>however... isn't it too late to think about that, in the US?

Is it too late to undergo chemotherapy to remove cancer?

It's too important not to try.


I'd love if the photos were tagged with city names


Yes, I found the lack of names frustrating too.

Perhaps we could crowd-source the names?

My identifications are:

21-4 Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France

21-5 Gold Coast, Australia

21-14 New York City, USA

21-18 Kyoto(?), Japan

18-7 Dublin, Ireland

18-8 Quebec City, Canada

9-69 ?, Australia

13-26 Montpellier, France (?)


Pretty sure 11-3 is Grand Junction, CO, based on the highway signs and the mountains in the background.


One of the example "traditional city" photos is actually of a touristy shopping center in Gatlinburg, TN. Taking a photo looking the other direction would show a 4 lane highway running through the middle of the tourist strip.


I took that as part of the argument: a "traditional city" doesn't have to eschew all cars and large roads. Putting some in to access more traditional areas is important. (I think the author suggested 20% of streets be like this.)


I've seen the same kind of narrow streets in LA, which gave the same cozy feeling. I'm talking about places like The Grove in LA.[1] The difference between these and the authentic type of narrow streets is, that the grove is a privately owned estate area, that can set its own rules. Whereas the authentic ones are owned by the city, and don't just close for the night or ban alcohol, or what not.

[1] https://www.google.dk/search?q=The+Grove+LA&tbm=isch&tbo=u&s...


How does this work out for people with physical disabilities?


This is what I thought of too when looking at the first few images. How can they "walk" in those places?.

However, I believe not all of the examples were steep stepped or cobbled but had vehicular access and were level, and the article explains issues about access and ambulances etc - it would work out fine - arguably better in terms of human closeness.


Motorized wheelchairs is what's mostly used in these cases.


The only examples you see are centuries old. There is no reason why you couldn't bild something accessible today.


Those narrow streets are illegal because it's a problem for the fire department.

I have lots of old cities here in my region that stayed small (<10k inhabitants) and only few of the streets are narrow

Another problem is that you're pretty limited in city size if you can only walk: people don't want to commute for more than 1 hour daily


European 'traditional' cities don't burn down all the time. They just have smaller engines, and because they are less sprawling, the fire truck come from a closer place and can afford to negotiate the streets a little bit slower.


I'd rather go completely the other direction -- maybe some tiny clusters of 50-100k square feet of living/work space shared with voluntarily self-selecting people, like a modern farm or industrial park with some nearby housing, but tens of kilometers separating these clusters.


we'll call them "tah-oons"


>> Chicago is over two centuries old, and has street widths that rival those of any modern highway

Chicago wasn't incorporated as a city until 1837. It was the 10th biggest city in the US two decades later, but still, it's much younger than the east coast big cities.


Serious book idea: A treatment of new urbanism as an authoritarian conspiracy theory.


This is fantastic. Great breakdown of the different city types.


It is simply needed to calculate which type of city can support more people/area.

If a large mall can provide more goods to people that smaller shops that take the same area, then it is better.


> If a large mall can provide more goods to people that smaller shops that take the same area, then it is better.

What if the people live better, more peaceful lives in the city with smaller shops? Is raw efficiency the only criterion that matters?


How do you measure that.

As long as most people are happy with television and similar crap( most free time is spent with tv ), city landscape doesn't really matter; at least on the grand scale; the first step towards nicer cities is always removing personal cars.




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