August 21st, 2011

Urban Design in the age of the bicycle

I am fortunate to have been taught urban design by an unusually articulate professor, Barry Maitland: Cambridge educated; now making a buck as a novelist; all round great guy. I hope I can do justice to the lectures he gave us, with this Reader's Digest summary of the field. I am giving this background because I know many people with an interest in bicycle transit, are dilettante urban design theorists, sometimes holding onto received views they would be better off understanding in context. Let's bring you guys up to speed, and into informed discussions.

Urban Design emerged as a field of endeavor during the 1960s, because architects saw they were building very rational buildings, that unfortunately were coming together as silly cities. A modernist H-block is a marvelous thing. Not a square inch of space goes to waste. But a whole wasteland results, if you use H-blocks to build a housing estate.

A consensus emerged among architects, trying at the time to assume a few duties from planners, that new towns needed "urban design proposals". These would be master plans, but in 3-D, and showing the profiles of buildings. The detailed building designs would be done later, by architects commissioned to work at the level of individual building commissions. The idea was to ensure individual buildings—that urban designers hoped would be pressed shoulder-to-shoulder the way buildings are in European old-towns—would all come together in such a way as to create wholes that were more than just the sum of their parts. Giving legible form to the space between buildings was paramount. SLOAP (space left over after planning), would be the trace of bad urban design.

A voice looming large at the time was that of Jane Jacobs. She had everyone desperate not to design indefensible space, i.e., space not lovingly watched over 24/7 by people who would intervene on any behaviour eroding their neighborhoods. If light industry, offices, retail, schools, houses and everything else could be evenly mixed like a stew (no more zoning) and if the urban fabric were low and dense to keep all eyes on the street, then crime and alienation would not have a chance. Every yuppie raising their kids in the city these days, and helping out at the neighborhood garden, and demonstratively bringing their shopping home on a bike, is living the Jane Jacobs dream.

But here's the rub: yuppies—and I am one of them—prefer to live our Jane Jacobs dream in parts of our cities that predate her book (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961). We prefer to cram into the pre-war neighborhoods she admired, than the renewed districts so carefully planned by her followers. There is actually more cred moving into the very estates Jacobs derided (of the 50s and 60s) and getting actively involved in community building initiatives, than moving into an area built since the rise of urban design. Though we are heirs to urban design doctrine, we poo poo projects of the development booms that took place in 1980s and 2000s, that were designed by people who understood Jacobs, Rowe, Cullen, Lynch, Krier, Rossi, etc.

A classic urban design proposal was drawn up for my city, Newcastle, Australia. It was mulled over during the growth times of the 1980s, but not accepted as an official blueprint for development until the recession of the early 1990s. It anticipated a quasi Parisian streetscape, with individual developments, creating a unified whole. But what happened to that plan? It was quietly buried, to allow the land to be sold off in much larger parcels, to developers more interested in smart high yielding buildings, than smart ways to put buildings together. The building boom of the 2000s, saw the construction of free-standing buildings, looking nothing like the intimate ones the master plan promised.

Similar stories can be told of urban design failing all over the world. Unlike most yuppies though, I don't see a problem. The new towns with their big freestanding buildings, that were built on former industrial land during the 2000s, while they lack pedestrian life on the ground, are actually pretty good places to cycle. Most were planned around promenades and walking trails of some kind.

Also, the paranoia driving the low-rise/high-coverage doctrines espoused by urban designers, only really apply in cities with nothing aside from pedestrians and drivers. If you added lots of cyclists into the mix, these new towns would be less forboding. Cyclists are insinuated in street life, just as pedestrians are, yet we can zip around the way cars do. We provide an omniscient presence. Cars zip around, but provide little solace, because it is more natural for drivers to keep going than get involved. I'm not saying all cyclists are great Samaritans, like London's Mayor Boris Johnson who stopped pedaling to save a woman being bashed up by "oiks" (click here for that story). But most cyclists would at least stop and bare witness, or at the very least call the cops.    

Yes, they're the same the world over. Single large developments, that are nothing like what was promised.

Urban design doctrines arose to mitigate deficiencies of the body, in the city, without a bike. That discipline's failings were a great loss for people who have not yet integrated bikes into their lives. But for those of us who have taken to bikes, a kind of city that made profits for developers, could profit us likewise. The fruits of diluted urban design schemes, aren't really so sour.

Inserting a slither of Holland, in a non-cycling city

Copenhaganizing cities where no one living recalls bicycling ever being a mainstream mode of transport, has proven a failure. Short of sending every driver back to be license tested, and at the same time installing segregated infrastructure everywhere, all in one hit, waiting for change will be like waiting for Christ's second coming, and of appeal only to those, who, like the religious, enjoy persecution.

It will be decades before the parts of my city, that cars have stolen, become safe places where I can pursue a safe life riding my bike, with my kids riding beside me. Unless I move to Holland or Denmark, that kind of life is a pipe-dream. But there is an alternative network of space in my city, where we can conceivably build a slither of Holland. What I'm about to describe, could be achieved in almost any former industrial city.

It involves resurrecting the industrial rail routes, industrial rail infrastructure, and the waterways, that were here first but which have been buried by road networks built to please voters who drive.

These built-over networks are all still down there, and can all be revived. I'm imagining elegant, perhaps even nostalgic, overhead structures, at least as elegant as the ones pictured above. Along with paved trails and some bike-first on-grade crossings at roads, they will be the backbone of an alternative city, for people who would rather cycle than drive. Now come for a little ride about Newcastle, and let Angus and I show you this plan.

By the seat of my non-lycra pants

Ladies, if you would be so kind as to avert your eyes for one moment, I have a rather a delicate issue to broach, with my male readers. Gentlemen, what can be done about this? Wearing out lycra shorts is one thing. Wearing out my good jeans is another entirely! On a busy week, I guess I could spend 8-10 hours in the Brooks saddle, the ol' Bishop's bridge wearing away there. All of my jeans are looking like this, blowing out precisely where I most wish they'd stay true (especially given my penchant for billowing boxers).

I have recently taken advantage of some GFC sales Rapha are having, to order two pairs of cycle specific trousers, in the hope they last longer. In the mean time, any advice would be appreciated. The alternative, might be taking my longer rides on a road bike, with hard wearing tires, and normal—and by that I mean lycra—attire.

(p.s. I found my 4th pair today, but am not sure how they might even be shown without get net-nanny involved).