This was a five-article newspaper series published in 2011. With this series I was trying to explore and explain the major subjects of urban design and planning for a lay audience.
All images drawn by the author
I. The Ideal Neighborhood
What we want that we aren't finding
The neighborhood represents a vision of community that is close to American hearts and to Ozarks values of neighborliness, thriftiness and stability. Consider the scene of a mother and child walking down a leaf-strewn sidewalk toward the neighborhood park on a fine fall afternoon. A neighbor couple waves from their porch where they're reading the paper, chatting and just watching the day go by. The street is quiet and narrow, dappled with the shade of tall trees arching overhead. Flags fly from one or two of the porches. Along their route, the mother knows who lives in each of the houses. The small house across the street holds a young couple who just brought home a new baby. Two doors down lives an older woman. In summer she hires one of the neighbor children to rake her leaves, and every Easter she hides eggs in the backyard for her grandchildren. Twice a week she walks to the small grocer two blocks over to buy milk. While she's there she chats with the shop owner, who lives on the same street.
The large house at the corner by the park is full with a husband and wife with four children. The oldest child is almost ready for MSU. The youngest is in sixth grade and walks with his friend to school in the mornings, two blocks down and one block left, just past the church. The wife walks the other direction every weekday morning to the bus stop by the grocer and rides to her office downtown. The husband works nearby, and on nice days he rides his bicycle to work. But today is Saturday, and the smell of a grill is in the air.
This sort of comfortable neighborhood has been an inspiration for Americans for many years, so it is surprising how few of our newest neighborhoods are like this. But building a neighborhood is the work of many years and many people. Developers, civil engineers, city planners, bankers, taxing agencies, homebuyers, neighbors, and many others all affect how our neighborhoods, and thus to some degree, our lives, are arranged. And often their conflicting needs and requirements mean that the comfortable, cozy, convenient neighborhood, the great neighborhood, is outlawed, despised and disregarded when we build new places.
In reality, our ever-larger schools are too distant for walking, and zoning makes the neighborhood store illegal. Parking requirements mean everything is surrounded by a sea of asphalt. Wide streets, instead of promoting safety, promote speeding, which is the most common concern people in Springfield have about their neighborhoods. Vast areas of similar houses keep new couples from living near large families, and force people who want to retire to a smaller house to move far away from their neighbors. Houses with only garages visible from the street replace friendly porch-front homes. Over ninety percent of Springfieldians want the city to take the lead on energy conservation, but the way the city is built forces many people to drive everywhere they go. Less than four percent of Springfieldians walked to work in 2000. Even leaf-strewn sidewalks are scarce, because sidewalks are scarce. But there is another way.
II. Reasons to Care
The Causes and Effects
In the same way that most people would rather fly in an ugly, safe airplane than in a beautiful, dangerous one, the livability and efficiency of Springfield’s streets and neighborhoods are important, regardless of how they look. And while some urban places are both ugly and dysfunctional (how many people have great affection for Campbell Avenue and Glenstone?), beautiful neighborhoods and cities can also function well.
Some common measures of the quality of city form are its social, economic and environmental effects. In an area without sidewalks, a person can still decide to walk, or to let a child walk. However, that decision may subject them to unsafe and unpleasant conditions. In an area with a good network of sidewalks, walking is more attractive and safe. While there is a choice in both instances, a city’s form makes some options easy and some difficult. Let’s consider the social, economic and environmental benefits of a neighborhood which has destinations within walking distance, a network of sidewalks, narrow and slow roads, a variety of housing types, a link to an efficient transit system, and neighborhood-scaled churches, parks and schools.
Some social effects are measurable and others more intangible. Rates of obesity are lower in walkable neighborhoods, because sidewalks and nearby destinations encourage people to walk more and walking is great exercise. Narrow, "traffic calmed" roads reduce danger to both drivers and pedestrians, since drivers respond to narrow roads by slowing down, and lower speeds reduce both the number and severity of crashes. Other social effects such as an increased sense of community and greater access to parks are less measurable but important as well. And the dignity and comfort of growing older and being able to stay in our own neighborhood, even when we need or want a smaller house, is beyond measure.
Further, the design of cities can have economic effects. With busy schedules, a typical family may need to have several cars. In an area where people can walk, bike or take transit, the same family may be able to have one less car, saving around $8,000 per year. Businesses save money with a reduced need for parking spaces. And building fewer roads, or at least fewer lanes, saves public money. Springfield’s roadway expansions cost millions, and there is no end in sight. On the environmental side, reduced driving cuts pollution, carbon emissions from automobiles, and road congestion. Shaping the city to a more human scale also decreases the paved areas for roads and parking lots, lowers total stormwater runoff, and preserves more farmland and natural areas. The Ozarks has a lot worth preserving.
As the positive effects of good design become apparent, the ideas of city planners, urban designers, and related professionals like traffic engineers have evolved. A movement called Smart Growth is involved in many of these issues, as is the Congress for the New Urbanism. And more and more new developments are built with these factors in mind. The Village at Shoal Creek Valley in Kansas City, New Town at Liberty, and New Town at St. Charles are three examples in Missouri, all well worth a look. All of these developments have good points and points where they fall short of the ideal, but all are trying to create safe, beautiful, functional places for people. Springfield has some of those places, and we can always use more.
III. CARS, STREETS AND SIDEWALKS
Walking in a World Built for Cars
Americans love cars. We love the speed, power and independence. Cars feel modern. Feet, on the other hand, are old fashioned. We wonder, why would someone walk if they can drive? Cars dominate all our thinking about transportation, and so Springfield’s newest areas are built for cars. This has had some unintended consequences.
For driver safety, engineers design wide roads without street parking and limit driveways and intersections. But because these roads feel safer, people respond by driving faster, and ironically the old narrow roads are often safer in the end. Similarly, for safety reasons developers create cul-de-sac subdivisions, but the dispersed traffic patterns in areas with older, well-connected grids lead to fewer accidents.
What people don’t like about cars is the noise, smell, and danger. This causes us to turn our buildings and neighborhoods away from streets. The houses on Walnut Street are a friendly series of entries and porches, while houses in newer areas often cower behind two and three car garages. Older neighborhoods blend into each other, but new subdivisions meet the surrounding roads with sound walls and the backs of houses in fear of high speed, high volume traffic. Instead of one city, we end up with a collection of walled cities, loosely connected (and divided) by rivers of cars.
A car-focused area also consumes land. Not only do we devote large amounts of space to roads, but we need thousands of parking spaces, most of them sitting empty most of the time. This has been aggravated by laws which require businesses and housing to provide large amounts of parking on site. Countless parking spaces at homes, offices, factories, stores, health clubs, hospitals, and everywhere else leave buildings stranded in fields of parking, often with more space allotted for the storage of cars than for the buildings themselves.
A city built for cars also raises the cost of living. “Drive till you qualify” means that houses often cost less in remote, spread out areas, but transportation costs there are dramatically higher, straining family budgets. When someone has to burn half a gallon of gas to pick up a loaf of bread, the costs add up quickly. The combined transportation and housing costs are typically lower in a walkable neighborhood. And while we expect people to pay their own way otherwise, no one wants to pay for parking. But the cost to build and maintain free parking is included in higher prices for everything else, like food and clothing. Just because we don’t see the cost doesn’t mean we aren’t paying.
What then of walking? We have demoted it to a leisure activity which people only use for transportation if they have no other option. But children can’t drive, and one in five people over 65 years old does not drive. Also, walking does not cause congestion or pollution, is good exercise, is social, and does not require parking. What pedestrians do need are facilities like sidewalks and safe places to cross roads. Springfield’s wide, fast roads can be dangerous and intimidating for walkers. Pedestrians also need mixed use areas which put destinations in range, which I will discuss next time. In the end, balance is the key. We love cars, but they should not dominate us, or the city.
IV. ALL IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Mixing It Up
In the movie "It’s a Wonderful Life", George Bailey lives in the town of Bedford Falls. Things there are close together. George and Mary walk home from the high school dance. George walks to Mary’s house. George walks to the main street to work at Mr. Gower’s drugstore. Bedford Falls is fictional, but most American towns and neighborhoods used to be like this.
In new areas, on the other hand, houses, apartments, stores, offices, factories, and community facilities are far apart. Sometimes this makes sense, like separating homes from a polluting factory, but usually it does not. Comedian Steven Wright said, "Everywhere is walking distance if you have time." But most people drive when a destination is further away than five or ten minutes walk. A shorter drive is better than a long one, but places have the most social, economic and environmental benefits if they are walkable. At a typical walking speed, this means destinations need to be around a quarter or half mile apart.
For instance, living a few blocks from the store makes it easy to drop by for a two pound loaf of bread without using a two ton automobile. Driving to a large grocery store takes 20 to 30 minutes just to get in the car, drive to the store, park, walk in, pay after shopping, walk back out, find the car, drive home, and park the car again, even to just buy a gallon of milk. At a neighborhood shop we can get milk or a loaf of bread or some flowers, and the person at the counter might even know our name.
A website called Walk Score (walkscore.com) uses modern web mapping to rate the walkability of neighborhoods, based on proximity to various necessities of life. An area with a score between 90 and 100 is a "walker’s paradise", while an area with no destinations nearby gets zero. For example, the 200 block of Walnut Street scores 91. The 800 block of east Greenwood Street, west of Meador Park, scores 65 (somewhat walkable). The 1100 block of west Winkler Street, just north of the James River Freeway, scores 31 (car-dependent). Walk scores are now even affecting home values as real estate agents begin to use them.
Even an environmentally-sensitive building in a car-dependent site overwhelms its benefit with automobile emissions. The new BKD Building downtown has impressive green building credentials, but its sustainable location is just as important. But neighborhood mixed use is difficult to achieve. Zoning rules outlaw mixed use in most areas. And the ever-larger sizes of schools, churches, stores and parks may have cost efficiencies, but these mega-structures generate congestion and are too big to fit into a neighborhood.
To serve the everyday needs of its inhabitants, a neighborhood should contain housing of various types, schools and churches, parks, retail uses like groceries, and even some employment. People can live, work and play in the neighborhood. They can get around more by foot, reducing congestion for those who need or want to drive. A neighborhood should be a place that satisfies people and their needs. It doesn’t have to be Bedford Falls, but it can add to a wonderful life.
V. FORESTS, FARMS AND CITIES
Losing the Countryside
Traveling through older American landscapes, towns alternate with forest, rivers, and farmland in a comforting rhythm. Towns are near to other towns but separate and distinct. This clear difference between developed and rural lands maintains towns’ identities, keeps recreational open space nearby, preserves farmland (and thus access to fresh produce), and saves natural wildlife corridors.
Many of the forests and rivers and much of the farmland in the Ozarks are disappearing. Towns like Battlefield and Nixa are merging with Springfield into one large, undifferentiated area of development. When development is too dense to function as farms or open space and not compact enough to function as a city, it consumes the landscape and makes it difficult to distinguish one place from another. It leapfrogs ahead of infrastructure, clogging roads and lacking proper sewers. While enjoying growth, people across the country from Los Angeles to Phoenix to Kansas City to Atlanta have mourned the loss of their region’s landscape. Few admire Los Angeles’ sprawl, but most regions follow the same pattern of growth.
The best way to protect the countryside is to live in a city or town. There is a long affection in America for the cabin or estate in the countryside. That one house would not cause a problem, but one house becomes 100, and then 1,000, and soon there is no countryside left. Cities and developers and home buyers all make decisions, not necessarily with consideration of the whole picture. For instance, a dislike of density often causes opposition to multifamily development, but lower density spreads out development, taking more land. And fiscal issues such as retail tax base cause cities to approve development which may not be in the best interest of the region, or even their own city, but which help to fund the schools and parks.
One place which has taken action to protect the countryside is the state of Oregon. A statewide land use law there created "urban growth boundaries." These boundaries form the edges between what is urban and what is rural. Cities continue to grow inside the boundaries, the boundaries keep Oregon’s natural areas natural and prime farmland remains viable as farms.
As it continues to grow, eventually the Springfield region will have houses, roads and strip malls spreading from Strafford to Willard to Republic to Ozark. Some people may not see that as a problem. But this sprawling agglomeration is not inevitable. Matched with a regional dialogue and vision about where growth should occur and what areas should remain in farming and open space, strategies like urban growth boundaries and revenue sharing and even deliberate decisions on the locations of roads and sewer lines can have powerful effects on growth patterns. This kind of coordination and cooperation is very difficult, and growing cities which lack it reach the same inevitable result.
The Springfield region is a great place to live. While it may feel, because they have been around awhile, that its streets, neighborhoods, towns, and cities just came into being without help, as if they sprang from the ground on their own. But in fact we built all of this, and we still are. How we proceed will either improve or degrade the region and its towns and cities. It is up to us to make things better.