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traditional urbanism
July 30, 2014 2:22 PM   Subscribe

A Traditional City Primer

Andrew Price on urbanism and the built environment:
"As you read my blog, you will often see me talk about and promote the Traditional City... The traditional city is a human-scale environment. It is extremely compact, walkable, with very little space dedicated to non-places such as parking and driving lanes."

Some highlights from his blog:
*Let's Build A Traditional City (And Make A Profit) (which goes into "What's wrong with New Urbanism?")
*Human-Scale Streets (includes "What About Transit?")
*Places and Non-Places in Cities

Why I Use So Many Pictures:
...even with a common vocabulary with agreed upon definitions, words alone aren't enough to express what you mean. What we think about when we hear the words "city" and "street" can vary significantly based on our personal experiences, even if they all fit into the same basic definition. Ideas can easily be taken out of context and imagined in the wrong situation.

I use a lot of pictures in my blog posts to ensure that I get my messages across in the most effective way possible, and for them to be less likely taken in the wrong context. As an example, just the basic concept of what a town is will differ for people that have spent most of their lives in rural Kentucky, rural Switzerland, Portland, London, and Venice.

previously on MeFi:
*What does a city for women look like?
*a city for the motor age
*america's pedestrian problem
*cities for people
posted by flex (23 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite

 
...I thought of another objection to the "traditional city" -

If you only allow for walking as a means of transport, what are the poor people who live on the extreme north of the city but work in the extreme south supposed to do?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:31 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]


Yes, please. (To traditional cities.)
posted by entropicamericana at 2:31 PM on July 30


Lewis Mumford made a similar case in 1938. I hope more people support traditional cities and get us past the cult of the car.
posted by smrtsch at 2:35 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]


So much great stuff on his blog. Those before and after pictures in the Human-Scale Streets post are especially great.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:46 PM on July 30


This is relevant to my interests. There's a bunch of stretches of streets here in Chicago that are completely non-places and it's very depressing. I'm scared of moving to a place like this again. Or not being able to afford anything else.
posted by bleep at 2:54 PM on July 30


The pictures of "traditional cities" lack a lot of the accessibility features of the more recent construction. Practically every picture of the "traditional city" falls somewhere between annoying to impossible for someone in a wheelchair to navigate. Affordances like curb cuts and ramps are missing from the older cities. I'd imagine that city construction that acknowledges that no, not everybody can walk (or walk easily) would have to be wider and flatter than shown.
posted by ddbeck at 2:58 PM on July 30 [7 favorites]


This is so cool. And the pictures help a lot.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:58 PM on July 30


"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"

Nope. I am sympathetic to his broader perspective, but you couldn't take suburban-level density with zero setback on the houses and have a city where you are going to walk much. There won't be as much within walking distance, and if you have single-use neighborhoods, there won't be businesses to walk to.

Also, by his definition, Tokyo would count as a "traditional city" and as a "hypertrophic city." And a "radiant city" too. As would lots of other places, I imagine.

Christopher Alexander allows for gradients of street sizes in his book A Pattern Language. Not everything needs to be a medieval alleyway.
posted by adamrice at 2:59 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]




Affordances like curb cuts and ramps are missing from the older cities. I'd imagine that city construction which acknowledges that no, not everybody can walk (or walk easily) would have to be wider and flatter than shown.

I would probably look to theme parks for examples of 'traditional cities' that are also modern; still built on a human scale, but aimed at density and accessibility. I always assumed that this style of build would be nice for neighborhoods, but not for entire cities of scale, thats where you start running into traffic problems of all sorts (not automobiles, just….beings getting around).

If you only allow for walking as a means of transport, what are the poor people who live on the extreme north of the city but work in the extreme south supposed to do?

Thats a legit concern, really. Again though, if just neighborhoods were this dense, and connected in more modern style city layouts, that could be really workable. Like, you only need to get to the edge of the neighborhood before you pick up public transportation or whatnot.
posted by furnace.heart at 3:04 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]


I'd like to see him engage a bit more with New Urbanism, and emerging concepts such as Transit-Oriented Development and form-based codes. The first is really explicitly suburban in a lot of ways and car-friendly, just not car-obsequious. A lot of the latter two are explicitly urban and intended to solve a number of problems that developed with poor design of transit and automobile-adaptation, such as requiring too many parking spaces, or San Francisco's problem with curb cuts, which give a property owner a guaranteed parking space but remove one from the street at the same time.
posted by dhartung at 3:10 PM on July 30


The pictures of "traditional cities" lack a lot of the accessibility features of the more recent construction. Practically every picture of the "traditional city" falls somewhere between annoying to impossible for someone in a wheelchair to navigate. Affordances like curb cuts and ramps are missing from the older cities. I'd imagine that city construction that acknowledges that no, not everybody can walk (or walk easily) would have to be wider and flatter than shown.

Where I live was built in the 1100s, and the whole of the old town repaved about twenty years ago. The surface treatment still marks out the footpath from the road with different paving, but is now utterly flat. There is a single set of steps left*, which can be gone around within a minute. The traditional layout is otherwise preserved, showing that old towns can be updated to fit with the needs of disabled people.

*It's due to be replaced within the next few years but with what isn't yet clear. While a ramp would be good there's not much room to fit one in. The area used to be staithes in medieval times and the steps lead from the bridge to the wharfside.
posted by Thing at 3:17 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]


Yeah... if you've read A Pattern Language, it's like, this guy has found one good traditional design pattern, but there's 149 more.

I like walkable cities too, but it takes more to get them than narrow streets. If you can't work there, it's just a dense bedroom suburb... you get a place like my town, Oak Park IL, which is basically residences plus restaurants. Plus, do you really want to walk to the store and carry your stuff home when you need a computer, or sheetrock, or a chair?

Wide streets are just as ancient (they were a favorite of Roman and Chinese cities), and can be quite pleasant. Nobody thinks the Champs-Elysees is dehumanizing.

Plus, the low-rise development he favors doesn't really scale up, does it? 8 million people live in New York; if they were all smeared out in two or three-story traditional city structures, it'd be far larger and have a far worse ecological footprint.
posted by zompist at 3:24 PM on July 30 [7 favorites]


Plus, do you really want to walk to the store and carry your stuff home when you need a computer, or sheetrock, or a chair?

There is such thing as a grocery caddy and for anything piano-sized, there are always y'know, actual piano movers like in the old cartoons.
posted by FJT at 3:58 PM on July 30


What's really needed is a citywide automated container transport system. Build huge storage sheds at the edge of town and have stations where light trucks can pick up the containers for the last mile.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 4:48 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]


I like the ideas here, but there are a few other criticisms I can come up with beyond the ones he posted and responded to:

1. These traditional cities need a huge diversity of businesses to work at all. You don't need cars if you can get the majority of your items within walking distance of your residence.

2. They require affordable living for everyone to exist within this ideal city (or the rich folks live in manors, and transport their servants and goods to their rural residences). If the traditional city becomes gentrified, you're forcing the working class to drive in from somewhere else, then walk to their jobs, cutting their personal time down greatly (yes, this is what already happens, but if we're talking about ideal cities, let's get really visionary).

3. Everyone has to be happy living and shopping in smaller buildings. Personal yards could be counted in the wasteful "non-places," useless space in these dense communities. This might be the hardest pill to swallow for Americans, in the land of white picket fences and a yard for your kids and your dog. And having a Home Depot or Toys R Us take up the ground floor of a single block isn't the best use of space, though it could probably get worked into a more dynamic community.

4. How do you go backwards in an equitable way? Rezoning (or doing away with zoning) wouldn't solve the problem by itself. You still have streets to shrink, and that means additional space that needs to be reconfigured, and buildings need to extend (or get rebuilt) to extend closer to the new narrow streets.

None of this is to say that this dream of a return to traditional cities isn't a good dream, or it is is impossible. It's just that there are greater hurdles than getting ambulances through the streets, or making sure all the joined walls are properly fire-rated for safety.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:01 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]


A couple of random-ish thoughts:

Walkability is not just about distance. Having plenty of greenery and other things which provide shade during the heat and protection from wind during the cold winter months or similar mediation of the local climate makes a space far more pedestrian-friendly. I have lived without a car for several years. I walked (and accepted rides) to cross the U.S. from Georgia to coastal California. I have logged a lot of miles on foot in recent years. Greenery, shade, not overly humid but not overly dry either -- all those things make a huge difference in how long you can stand to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Also, public water fountains in urban environments.

The second thing I want to comment on is about local culture or social fabric and how it interacts with the space.

I moved into an apartment complex where no one walked anywhere. People drove their car to take the trash to the dumpster in the apartment complex and drove to the mailbox (unless they were super close to one of those things). Crime was high and the complex was routinely staked out on Friday and Saturday night by cops. I gave up my car while living there. My sons and I began walking to get groceries. The area ranked really low for walkability on some website which rated those things but there were three or four nearby shopping centers, two on our street. It was a 15 minute walk to our favorite grocery store.

Over the course of a few months, people began walking their trash to the dumpster and walking to the mailbox to get their mail. They began walking to the pool in our complex, something that also had never been done before. And, lo and behold, people began walking to the stores as well.

Pretty soon, the cops stopped staking the place out. The apartment complex suddenly had money for improvements and began doing upgrades, repaving the parking lots and replacing the wall of mailboxes. People said "hi" and it was safe to be on the street from about 6am to midnight. It was only worrisome in the wee hours of the night, not 24/7.

The physical space had not changed. But how people used it had changed, by quite a lot.

The fact that the way people interacted with the space changed actually made it safer for people to be on the street. It actually lowered crime. So the change in how the space got used was not just a case of perception -- of "Oh, if that old fat woman can walk to the store, then, hell, I can too! It can't be that far." It was also a case of "I no longer am afraid for my safety if I am out walking around." That was a real and genuine change which made it, in actual fact, more pedestrian-friendly.

I think those other layers of what a city is all about need to also be addressed. You don't achieve pedestrian-friendliness by simply changing physical measures/distances. It's more complicated than that.
posted by Michele in California at 5:09 PM on July 30 [11 favorites]



Walkability is not just about distance. Having plenty of greenery and other things which provide shade during the heat and protection from wind during the cold winter months or similar mediation of the local climate makes a space far more pedestrian-friendly


You'd thing that was vitally important. Any look at an old European city just screams HELLO URBAN HEAT ISLAND.

But, your intuition is wrong. You can tolerate living in largely paved and greenery deprived residential town if the forests and farm fields begin right at the edge of it, without the ring of suburban dreck. Urban heat island problems are way more pronounced in suburban sprawl than in traditional urban areas.
posted by ocschwar at 6:58 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]


They require affordable living for everyone to exist within this ideal city (or the rich folks live in manors, and transport their servants and goods to their rural residences). If the traditional city becomes gentrified, you're forcing the working class to drive in from somewhere else...

Yep. I've spent some time in a few of Italy's traditional cities and your second point is exactly what happened to Venice. Even Bologna, which is completely landlocked and boasts one of the best-preserved medieval city centers on the peninsula, is barely affordable for anyone lucky enough to live inside the Tangenziale (ring road).
posted by psoas at 7:41 PM on July 30


It looks interesting and quite lovely, but I've been waiting 25 minutes for the pictures to load.
posted by jrochest at 7:45 PM on July 30


Urban heat island problems are way more pronounced in suburban sprawl than in traditional urban areas.

It's basically impervious cover with adjustments for how reflective the colors are, right? So even though average heat island issues might be lower across a suburb (because of the vegetated back yards), it might be terrible in the areas where people walk -- wide black asphalt streets, zero shade, etc. Whereas in a ye olde city there is no greenery, but there is also shade from narrow streets, cooling from public fountains, and covered arcades to keep shoppers happy.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:48 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty anti-car-culture, and for the most part agree with the author -- but none of the author's articles about narrow streets deal with back-of-house issues; how shops, restaurants, and other places receive shipments and organize transport.

In NYC, for example, you have four-lane-wide two-way road or two-lane-wide one-way roads as the minimum width of streets, since you need at least one lanes for one-way movement, and the other lane for trucks to stop and unload their wares, or repair vans to park, or for a crane to be parked, or a dumpster skip to be parked. Even the smallest of bodegas and corner delis need a shipment from a truck every once in a while.

Considering roads as not being for personal cars, but for necessary buses/trucks/repair vans would lead to more fruitful analyses.
posted by suedehead at 11:04 PM on July 30 [3 favorites]


In the "Let's Build A Traditional City (And Make A Profit)" link he starts with a picture of "downtown" Houston which is highlighting the unused areas that could be used to make a traditional city area. I feel like I should point out that at least 80% of that area is next to our bayou system and necessary for flood runoff. That said they've put some really nice bike paths that I ride often through those red boxes in recent years.

I enjoyed the post a lot, and he's got some great ideas, it just cracked me up that he found dead space on google maps there and didn't look halfway out towards the suburbs where there's empty space not being used as flood runoff all the time.
posted by DynamiteToast at 8:02 AM on August 6 [1 favorite]


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