The Walkable/Bikeable Community: A Journey in Pictures
The "walkable" community is one of those stange issues that stirs a lot of emotion in people. Some recent reflections, with pictures, from my recent trip home to the Netherlands.
In my online interactions, one of the issues that seems to really set off North American conservatives and right wingers is the notion of “walkable communities.” This idea that somehow people on the right need to commit to soulless suburbs and two-hour commutes is strange to me. Everyone seems to hate suburbs. But the moment you suggest that it might be more conducive to human flourishing to walk more, the hostile reactions generally fall into one of two categories: “You are not going to take my truck you commie bastard!” And: “Nobody wants to step over junkies and homeless people. I’ll drive thanks.”
I think to myself often that there is no real reason why cities and towns, and, yes, even suburbs can’t be human friendly and walkable. So why aren’t they, and is there anything we can do about it? As I remind my readers often, I am neither scholar nor specialist. I don’t do footnoted monographs. I have assimilated and forgotten more books than most have read. That said, I have been thinking a lot about this issue lately and two things strike me. There is quite a bit of political overlap when it comes to the physical spaces in which we live. We all want humane places in which to live. Nobody likes suburbs. You never hear anyone singing the praises of suburbia. All of us think they are soul destroying spaces.
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The idea of physical spaces that enhance our humanity and encourage the flourishing of our communities should be a conservative issue. It should be a society wide issue regardless of political affiliation. Yet, so-called conservative leaders seem unwilling to lift a finger to assert any political will and impose upon builders and developers the kinds of standards that would prevent strip malls, huge parking lots with big box retailers, houses that are all garage at the front, massive inhuman high rises, life sucking multi-hour commutes, churches that look like big box retailers, indoor malls and so much more. Instead, we get bromides about property rights and freedom. We all know that ascendant societies show their emerging cultural and social power through the beauty of their architecture. Meanwhile, we live in a built environment that can only be described as soulless. What does this say about us as a society?
So, what are the problems? Let’s stick to the low hanging fruit with this piece. I want to stay away from the classical vs. modernist debate. My quick answer to that question would be “neither.” The first problem I would identify is that of “efficiency.” It is a simple idea, really. Business tends to work towards economies of scale. This impulse tends to want to group as much of the business, manufacturing, cultural life and even residential spaces into ever closer proximity to create ever increasing efficiency. The only problem is that absolute efficiency is an impossible state. As Christopher Alexander painstakingly details in his “Notes on the Synthesis of Form,” all community design involves trade offs and compromises. Better design comes not from pushing one element to the extreme, such as “efficiency,” but rather from finding a balance, like the delicate pH balance necessary to sustain organic life.
While this efficiency might be good for the financial industry or for maximizing the value of residential land, these densities create problems. Too many people living together in high rises creates a whole host of social problems. Congregating all of the white-collar work together in one place results in long commutes for those who would rather not live in high rise apartments or pay exorbitant urban prices for accommodation. The price of this “efficiency” is passed on to the persons who must commute in from the suburbs, exacting a cost in terms of vehicles, fuel, highways, time and cities emptied of people when work is not happening and so forth. Similar costs are incurred by grouping industrial and manufacturing operations together as well.
This is in part driven by the technical imperative. Rational, intentionally designed cities and towns, because their designs rely on technique, have a bias towards “efficiency.” Ellul identifies this quality as integral to the whole nature of the technical. Efficiency will grow to serve the interests of those in control of the design and build process as well as those who stand to make money from the plans: developers and businesses. In response, moving away from an economies of scale model would mean creating intentional inefficiencies in the system for the benefit of the people who live in work in these spaces.
Why the Suburbs?
Wouldn’t suburbs, one might argue, represent just the sort of inefficiencies I have been talking about? They are certainly inefficient, but for many of the wrong reasons. In some sense, they are the most efficient way to give everyone their own little plot of land. At the same time, they are designed around easy automobile travel and parking. What is the rationale for suburbs? To me, it seems there are two main underlying cultural drivers for suburban sprawl. The first is the older impulse, going back to some of the attraction of the colonies in the first place. It was a way to escape suffocating hierarchies, to claim a piece of land of one’s own and act as one’s own lord. Every man in essence becomes his own country lord. Why would someone want to own a smaller detached house than a larger townhouse? It’s the land that surrounds all four sides of the dwelling. You put up a fence, a wall, and you are lord of your own estate.
Second is the culture of the automobile. The car makes this quest for our own space possible. It allows us to drive insane distances every day to go to work, to shop, to worship and to recreate. A lot of advertising and lobbying went into building the roads and highways necessary to make automobile traffic, at least in theory, cheap, easy, fast and, yes, efficient. But we know that building around the car places great pressures on other aspect of life, such as walking or even the way that houses are designed: all garage and no front windows on tiny postage stamp size lots. Demands are made on arterial roads to make them wider and faster and less friendly to pedestrian or bicycle traffic.
The biggest hurdle to the design and creation of livable cities is having the political will to impose a cultural norm upon society. It involves having a moral imperative in which one’s culture must be imposed upon the physical spaces that surround the community. It is hard to escape the conclusion that if you are surrounded by ugly, soul sucking cities, towns and suburbs that this is a moral indictment of your culture. But: freedom! This is simply a cop out for a society that lacks the moral conviction to live out and impose its culture on the world of physical space. It simply lacks the strength and vitality to shape and conquer the world, including the environment in which people live. Or maybe, our lived spaces here in North America is exactly who we are: soulless, a people without culture?
Perhaps the deeper truth of our built spaces is that in many ways we have substituted commercial and economic pursuits over cultural and moral pursuits. Everything is done to serve primarily economic ends. We build cheaply. We strive for efficiency over beauty or balance. We want to maximize economic value over social value. The first alternative would be to push back against these commercial values so as to emphasize social, aesthetic, moral and spiritual values. Cities can be beautiful and encourage human flourishing if we are willing to insist upon it. The question we ask here: is there enough living culture in North America to impose a coherent cultural aesthetic upon society, to say in and through the buildings built and the way streets are designed that this is who we are!
Or perhaps North Americans are soulless suburbanites who deserve the built environments with which they are surrounded? Is this the content of North American culture?
Density, Hubs, and Constraints
Let’s assume that we want to make a change and begin to shape our lived space in different ways. What can we do? It might seem counter-intuitive but bringing back the human into our lived spaces will mean greater density, but not high density. Again, it is about balance. It might mean the use of more row housing, build close to the street with designs that encourage interaction with the street space.
It will also mean using dispersed hubs. Even in larger cities, there will be a nexus of shopping, office, places of worship, schools, parks, restaurants and, yes, even industry within walking distance of your house. Or, at the very least, say 90 plus percent of all your day-to-day needs can be met within a 5-minute drive from your residence. Each hub services about 5-10,000 people. In a city of 300,000, say, it might mean you have 30 hubs of various sizes.
The biggest challenge that I see in the North American context to this is not so much in the design, but rather the imposition of constraints that are not physically there. We spread out because we can. Again, we bias a libertine approach to property ownership and property “rights” ahead of the overall spiritual wellbeing of the people. The automobile is the means by which we threw off the more human limits of physical space. We spread as fast and as far as we could in the name of freedom, using the automobile as the tool of our emancipation. This gave us the impression that we could build without limits. Once freed from the idea of limits we spread out and we shot upwards and we also crammed ourselves together thoughtlessly. When we honor the idea of constraints, of limits, we are forced to ask questions centred around the compromises that these limits impose upon us.
Culture, Not Design
I am going to throw a wrench in here and argue that when it comes to building a walkable or bike-able city, you cannot by design make people want to walk or bike. In the “mid-sized” city of which I am a resident, our city government is busy building horrendously designed bike lanes that no one uses. Why? We are just not a people who bike a lot. There is no bike culture. Buildings and streets and their design should be an expression of a living culture. Technique wants us to believe that we can impose these changes upon people by putting the right systems in place. This is what the post-Rousseau world tells us, that if we get the design of our society right, if we address all the systems, this will produce changes in the lives of people. Empty bike lanes and sidewalks in so-called walkable neighbourhoods tell another story.
So, where will these constraints come from? Unless there is some kind of religious like conversion among the people in regards to walking and biking, it will likely be forced upon us by rising fuel costs. It is strange to think that so many of these changes in the way cities, towns and suburbs have been designed and built have really all occurred in the last 100 years or less. Three generations, perhaps four. Few remember a world without cars, but it has not been so long that we have entirely forgotten. And much of this culture was imposed upon us by the propaganda of advertising and through government projects like the building of limited access highways: the 400 series highways and the Interstate system.
Beginning with Culture, the Dutch Approach
What spurred this piece was my recent extended vacation this past summer in the fatherland, which for me is the Netherlands. Other than visiting with friends and seeing the sights, one of the tasks I set for myself while there was to document how culture and grappling with constraints has produced city designs that express the cultural values of the people while trying to accommodate the automobile. The solutions are not perfect, but they do highlight many of the things talked about above.
I will say that we simply cannot copy these designs here. They are not “universal” values. These are Dutch designs for Dutch people who share a Dutch culture. This is one of the first things you will note. The Netherlands is still 75% ethnically Dutch. This is not the number of “white” vs. “brown” in the ridiculous parlance of North America. Three quarters of the population share a single ethnic and cultural heritage going back to the end of the Roman period in some places. The United States is 57-61% “white” depending on how you calculate those of Hispanic extraction. Of that sixty percent, how many are “ethnically” American, able to trace their roots back to before the revolution? This lack of homogeneity creates problems. What does a uniquely “American” architecture and city design look like? I am not sure that an easy answer presents itself. In a place as big as the US is, it would probably mean multiple different architectures. Here in Canada, the most “Canadian” designs are often variations on Victorian or Georgian styles brought over from England but with brick colours unique to the clays here. Natural yellow brick is a thing here. In contrast, Dutch architecture is everywhere, and it looks identifiably Dutch, whether newer or older. Yes there is modernist dreck, but much of the architecture retains an essential Dutch feel to it. New buildings look remarkably like old buildings, especially in the residential areas.
The Netherlands also has to deal with the reality of constraints. The country has a population just under 18 million people living in space that would fit comfortably inside Lake Ontario. At the same time, they are one of the most productive farming countries in the world. You notice immediately that there is very little wasted land. There is not much in the way of land speculation. Farmland is mandated to remain farmland. Very little new development happens. As a result, there is a housing crisis. Many live in apartments and flats and if they want to buy a new build, can wait years on waiting lists before something comes available. That said, there is very little unused land. You will find animals grazing in the oddest places right next to suburban neighborhoods that abut productive farmland.
Because of the scale and the relative flatness of the country, you discover very quickly that the whole country is a patchwork of interconnected towns and hubs where everyone bikes everywhere. Young and old, they all bike rain or shine in all kinds of weather. Even your Domino’s pizza is delivered on a bicycle. As is the mail delivery. The big cities look like big cities and have big city design problems, but they have also retained many of the elements and features you see in the countryside. Get on a bike for 30 minutes out in the country and you can be in the next town. Even in a big city like Amsterdam, you never seem to be more than a 10-minute walk from the grocery store.
Bike-able and Walkable Spaces, a Journey of Pictures
What I want to do next is show a few pictures and maps, well maybe more than a few, that will hopefully convey how the Dutch have translated their culture into design elements that create a cohesive whole. Its not perfect, but it makes the urban and suburban spaces work in ways that they do not here in North America.
We stayed with friends on a farm outside of Zierikzee, a town of 11,500 that received its charter in 1248. Below you can see the local supermarket. I am starting you off easy. This looks remarkably like any big box retailer here, but with significantly less space for parking. Remember, constraints. It is built on the edge of town, but is still less than a 10 minute bike ride from anywhere in town. We were in the countryside and it was still only a 15 bike ride away. They do use cars, even in a walkable city. You will notice a disturbing lack of 4x4s.
I Google mapped the bike ride to the grocery story from the very other side of town: 10 minutes.
Or, alternatively, they have a smaller version of the same grocery store, but in the downtown area. A six minute bike ride.
Walking the same? About 18 minutes.
With the downtown grocery store in the center of town, you are less than a 20 minute walk from anywhere in town to buy groceries at a chain supermarket.
What if you want to buy clothes or do your other shopping? Well, here is where most Dutch towns and cities get interesting. They don’t have malls. Your downtown is the mall. You drive to the mall, get out of your car and walk across the parking lot and into the mall and around the mall while you do your shopping. Here you do it outside. And because your city centre is your “mall” it has many of the same characteristics of a mall. When was the last time you stepped over a homeless person in the mall. When average people use the spaces regularly they don’t tend to devolve into fringe only indigent spaces. And in most Dutch towns and cities there is parking integrated into the cityscape. It is close and convenient, but not free. But, hey, public bathrooms aren’t free there either. If you want to shop in downtown Zierikzee, you can either bike into the downtown, or you can walk, or you can drive and park here:
From there it is less than a five minute walk into the downtown shopping district.
Wouldn’t you rather shop here, than in the mall? (The car would need a special access pass to drive in the main square)
But what about a suburb in a bigger city? Breda has about 180,000 people. One of the wealthier suburbs where there is more land around houses and thus more of what you might thing of as “sprawl” still shares these same design elements. I picked a house at random (our friends live in a different part of the city) and Googled the nearest grocery store. This is what came up:
Wow. Out in the suburbs and you are all of two minutes by bike from a grocery store. I just picked a random spot, first try and this was the result. This is how it works. Want to walk?
Nine minutes! Wow. You can drive too, if you want. What they did, as this old town was swallowed up by Breda, is that they converted the city square into a parking lot. So this is the result:
All surrounding this square are all the essential shops and businesses you need for most of your day to day life. This is the supermarket:
That whole corner was recently redeveloped and they incorporated existing styles so that the supermarket would be more or less “hidden” by the surrounding buildings. There are flats and offices above the stores. You also notice the garbage and recycling bins? They have underground conveyors to take away the garbage. This gives you an idea of what a “hub” style neighbourhood could look like and how it could function.
There are a whole host of other design elements that allow a culture of biking and walking to work seamlessly, as long as you know the rules (which most tourists do not).
This is typical of the visual clues of a neighbourhood in Veere, a town of 21,000. You notice the different tile types and colours to mark who goes where. The sides are supposed to be for walking, but they are so overgrown that you have to walk in the street. Cars are respectful, but you need to be mindful that you are walking in a bike and car space. Yes, this is a two way street.
Here things are a little more complex. The signs on the side indicate you are leaving a pedestrian only zone. Its in the old part of the city so bikes and cars are just expected to share the road and get along.
This is downtown Goes. You can see how the space is marked out. Locals know that there are two outer pedestrian areas, a bike lane and then a middle space for cars at certain times of the day. The tourists don’t know better and so will get angry comments and looks from Dutch cyclists.
Here again you can see how the tiles tell you where you need to be, depending on whether you are on foot, bike or in a car.
Here is downtown Goes, a city of 40,000. If you work downtown, this is how you commute to work. This is your shopping and business district. Coming in from outside town for a meeting, you park, like we did, at one of the handy parking garages and walk the rest of the way.
This is a more “exurb” type situation. Well to do houses at the edge of town with sizable lots for the Netherlands. Again, every road, even the highways, have bike paths next to them.
This is in Middleburg, a city of 50,000, just off the main downtown. Here you have the area behind the main streets where people would ordinarily walk and all of your car centred architecture is at the back of the house. Parking lot. Garages. They are at the back of the house behind very private garden spaces. The streets are made for people and human centred interactions.
The front side of those same houses. All of them are fairly recent builds, but they are built to retain Dutch architectural notes and themes. And, yes, every house has a tile roof. Notice, because this is a newer street, who is supposed to be where is clearly indicated by the color of the tile. This is a two way street where cars and bikes share the same space.
Here in this picture you can see that same street with car traffic. Again, this shows how newer buildings are build in harmony with Dutch aesthetics.
This is in suburban Rotterdam. You notice how the bike lanes have their own colour. The double line means that you cannot cross this line. It’s an exit. The bike in that lane cannot cross back. It’s a reminder that you are committed to the exit.
Here again, suburban Rotterdam in this neighbourhood’s downtown hub. Bike and car lanes are clearly marked by different colour pavement.
In keeping with the idea of using every bit of land productively, the tops of dijks often have bike paths which can at times make it easier to get around on bike, than with a car.
Here is something interesting that you don’t see in North America: highway signs for bikes. You will also notice the markings on the pavement. Those triangles indicate who has the right of way at an intersection or a round about. There are almost no stop signs in the Netherlands. When you get to an intersection, you use your brain and do the right thing. In this case, the bike path has the right of way. Both bikes and cars approaching from the right and left must yield.
This is shows off how a grocery store is integrated into a suburban context. Here you have a full size supermarket. Trust me, I was in it. It’s big. But it looks like a house integrated into the streetscape. There is a parking lot with cart returns. It is a supermarket. That looks like a neighbourhood.
Here you can see the loading docks and the neighbourhood. The two look like they belong side by side. The commercial space does not feel alien.
On your right is the grocery store made to look like fake houses. But from here, can you tell the difference? The real houses start down the street that seamlessly meld into the grocery store. Oh. You can walk there from your house, across the street.
Here is the other side of the block. The grocery store is on the main floor. Upstairs is a full service hotel. A nice one. We stayed there. Again, notice that the design makes this hotel and grocery store almost completely seamless with the surrounding neighbourhood. We could do this in North America. But we don’t. Why?
This is Amsterdam. It just gives you an idea of moving around in the old city. Bike, pedestrian and car are jammed together. They get along and it works. Mostly. Frankly, Amsterdam was my least favourite Dutch city of this trip.
Here is a unique design element that is very much “Dutch.” It does highlight that the bicycle is king. You walk on the right and you better stay out of the bike lane on the left or you will get run over. They are not joking about this. If you don’t want to hear old angry Dutch ladies hiss nasty things at you as they make you jump out of the way, then stay out of the bike lane if you are on foot.
Again, all the rules you need to stay safe while walking or biking around town are all there on the ground. This is a suburban space in the Netherlands that is built more to accommodate the ease of driving. But the bike and the pedestrian are integrated into this environment. The triangles tell you who yields to whom. The colours dictate your lane. Its all very orderly and quite safe. I did not see a single accident or even a near accident in my time there. Two last pictures. Here is how your pizza will be delivered:
And your mail:
Over all, everywhere we went you felt like you were in a cohesive architectural whole. The buildings, the roads, the bike and sidewalk lanes all give expression to Dutch culture and reinforce their social values. There is a compromise with the automobile and tensions do exist. But overall, it worked and it never felt forced. The built space is an expression of the character of the people. Almost everywhere you went felt livable and humane.
Some more articles for further reading:
Justin Lee: "Screaming into the Architectural Void"
Christopher Alexander "Making the Garden"
David Wang "Ellul on New Urbanism"
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The word “crime” appears nowhere in this article? Come on
As the other commenter said this is all about selecting neighbors
There are plenty of places like this in the US--they are where the very wealthy live. They are not "in" the big cities (usually-- there are some exceptions) but in the "suburban" communities that ring the cities, especially on the East coast e.g. look up Doylestown PA outside of Philly (and don't believe for a minute the income numbers wikipedia tries to pass off, lol). Or Leesburg or Fall's Church outside of DC. Those are just the ones I'm personally very familiar with.
As for the decision of many/most Americans to live in traditional suburbs as opposed to places like this, part is cost, but then again, it is a revealed preference vs a stated one. When people have the choice and are actually confronted with the trade-offs, they choose the 'burbs. The notion "nobody likes the suburbs" is belied by the simple reality that the "freerer" the choice, the more people choose them. The worst thing about living in a place is often the neighbors, and if in the 'burbs, you can either more or less select them (via HOA), and regardless, they are farther away (and Suburban houses in the US are uniformly far larger than townhomes, I don't know what it's like in Canada).
All that said, I grew up in the suburbs. Their charms aren't illusionary, the Talking Heads songs are not irony poisoned, they are earnest if oblique.
Would people choose the Doylestown/Netherlands life over the standard 'burbs and malls in the US if cost weren't a factor? Maybe. But it's a pure hypothetical. Unless we extirpate the homeless and ghettoize the lumpenproles, it wouldn't happen here. And the "cultural" force necessary to do that would, as you seem to get, butt up against our most strongly held cultural value--freedom.
Is it worth trading freedom for culture? 3 years ago I would have leaned towards saying "yes, to some degree", since seeing the Covid response and its disproportioned consequences in "cultured" areas, my opinion has switch to "Fuck no! (pumps shotgun, drives 8 miles to Applesbees)"