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Saturday, January 15, 2005

Design Flaws

If you are interested in learning about urban design I would suggest that you drive out to the suburbs. I had to run an errand somewhere north of Seattle and the experience has left me practically traumatized. Once outside of the city center, population density lowers dramatically, and with this there is a corresponding increase in the distances between destinations. With the increase in distance there is a greater need for speed to cover those extra miles. Businesses and homes rarely interconnect and most people cannot perform any practical matters on foot or bicycle. For that they need their cars. Mass transit is practically nonexistent.

Standing in a parking lot overlooking a sea of franchise establishments it is impossible to tell if you are in a suburb of Seattle or one belonging to any other moderately-sized American city. Strip mall design is concerned only with the exigencies of the automobile. Even the thousands of acres of free parking in the suburbs do not promote a very inviting pedestrian landscape. Rather than walk from one side of a strip mall to the other, your best and safest bet is to get in you car and drive there.

You certainly couldn’t walk from one strip mall to another; there are no sidewalks. The areas of landscaped trees and grass that separate the shopping centers—put there to promote a false bucolic veneer to the congested four-lane roadways--only serve to create even more distance and thus more driving.

As someone who doesn’t drive often I immediately sense the hostility of the motorists. Because I drive so little I don’t take this intense driving environment for granted. I am keenly aware of the dangers. While driving around a huge cloverleaf interchange I was calculating the number of accidents that must occur in this short section of highway.

What I thought about the most in my brief foray into suburbia was this: How do people who live in this automobile-dominated environment connect with one another? People spend an awful lot of time locked inside their vehicles going from store to store. There don’t seem to be any public areas that aren’t completely dedicated to commerce. The food court at the mall is about the only response to this basic human desire for community. You cannot hope to create a drive-thru community no matter how convenient that may seem.

The most popular areas of Seattle have become popular because the influence of the automobile has been eliminated or minimalized. Pedestrians will gravitate to areas where they don’t have to compete with cars. The main attractions to areas like the Seattle Center, Pike Place Market, Westlake, and Green Lake Park is the absence, or limited nature of automobile traffic.

Cars crowd out much of our lives. For the past fifty years we have accepted this as inevitable, as progress, as the price we must pay for individual mobility. A short drive through suburbia shows that we no longer have any regard for the needs of pedestrians when designing new commercial areas. We have relinquished the planning of our suburban landscape to fast food emporiums and discount retailers.

In the wake of a recent motorcycle fatality on the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle there have been renewed protests to lower the speed limit along that urban thoroughfare. This fetish for speed is what is driving the architecture of suburbia. The exclusive use of automobiles for transportation is costing us dearly in many ways.

What I have written today will undoubtedly come across as superior or condescending to some offended parties. This is not my intention. I feel that most of America trapped in harsh suburban landscapes ruled by cars simply don’t know that there is a better way to build cities. If you have never experienced the joys of wide open public areas relatively safe from automobile traffic you won’t be inclined to demand it in your own city.

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