Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'


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How does one define what is walkable or not?

City planners of late have tended to answer that question in the form of safety: Minimum sidewalk width, maximum block and crosswalk length, maximum wait and minimum length of signals for pedestrians, separation between pedestrian and motor traffic. The good thing about these stipulations is that they create environments that are safe places to walk. The bad thing about these stipulations is that they don’t, on their own, make walkable places.

I was struck by this while sitting in a bubble tea parlor on Mott Street after seeing more options for food, drink, clothing, hardware and all manner of tchotchkes and sundry in two blocks than I did in the entirety of the edge cities along the Harlem and New Haven MetroNorth lines.

If you look from a distance and squint your eyes, the urban form looks broadly similar in both areas: Copious street frontage, a consistent street wall, and buildings around four to five stories tall. But that is where the similarities end. Cities like New Rochelle and White Plains boast a recognizable form, provided you look at them from bird’s eye view a la Maxis’ SimCity, but they’re dead on the street.

(Metro Stamford, CT: Clean, safe, bright, dead.)

When confronted with the problem that there are still no pedestrians, the planners are in a bind: People don’t want to leave their cars but density isn’t high enough to promote public transit. So they encourage developers to heighten density, which the developers duly interpret by increasing height, but still nothing. They suggest urban malls, complete with anchor stores, and still nobody comes. Why?

I’ve walked in cities like this. Houston had block after block of small city streets, wide sidewalks, tall buildings and huge, inviting department stores, but couldn’t achieve more than two blocks of actual people walking, and those were the blocks from the hotels to the bars. It was plain to see the problem: Have you tried walking by a department store on the outside? It might as well be a blank wall. For the most part, it is exactly that. Even the shortest of blocks – say, Portland’s 100-foot mini-blocks – becomes a hike when there’s nothing there.

Planners have a limitation in this sense: It’s quicker to build big than build small, so when they’re trying to renew downtowns, massive developments get plonked down on empty or underutilized city blocks. The planner then surmises that the block is boring, so architects attempt to variegate the street wall: That may be one building, but its façade changes every 25 feet or so. However, that’s not the problem. Simply put, nobody’s really looking at the buildings.

(Willow14 in Hoboken, NJ: A variegated façade does not change the fact that most people will drive here.)

The architecture in Chinatown is practically incidental to the street life. The folks aren’t looking up; they’re looking for what they came for. Streets are functional: They provide the most efficient means for traffic to navigate around buildings. Buildings are functional: They provided the most efficient means for goods and services to be completed. The best means for a street and for a building, when it comes to traffic, is to be as porous as possible. The busiest streets are the ones that give the citizen the most options. If the next 100 feet has only one entrance for one purpose, then it doesn’t matter how safe it is or how nice it looks: Nobody wants to go there.

Somehow planners have deigned to variegate the façade but not the offerings. There’s a good reason the larger storefronts tend to be popular in new developments: Bigger tenants are better renters. It will take a lot to run a bank or a national chain out of business. Paradoxically, however, they kill the street life. If all you’ve crossed in three blocks of walking is a Barnes & Nobles, a Staples and a Cold Stone Creamery (to say nothing of a municipal parking garage), you’re not going to walk next time. In Chinatown, every 12 feet or so is a new business, a new ingress for a mini-mall or an office complex. Not one inch is wasted in providing service to anybody walking by. Planners don’t need to tell new developers to make their buildings useful: Maximizing investment here naturally means subdividing the property as much as is humanly possible.

(Narrow sidewalks, no on-street parking; demand couldn’t be greater)

So, then, what’s the difference between this scene in White Plains, NY:

And this scene in Chinatown:

They’re both fantastically boring buildings with practically no facade at all. The White Plains building has better street furniture, better lighting and a more upscale appearance. The Chinatown building, however, has twice the businesses per street footage. We have found creative means to hide the suburban nature of new construction in a means of reviving our erstwhile American downtowns, but there’s only so much one can do with underground parking garages and extended awnings. If you want an urban reality, you need true urban density.

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