Language of the City.

28 Dec

Every day when we walk out of our homes we spend the day being shaped by the built environment around us. No matter where we are going or how simple the task, we at the very least are subconsciously influenced by what we experience or see. If we live in a dense city with sidewalks and necessities nearby we will walk because it’s the most convenient. If we live in the countryside, we may only retreat to our barn or garden to get supplies. If we live in suburbia we will drive because we have absolutely no other choice. These experiences and lack there of will shape our lives. Of course the power of humanity determine the form of cities, and in turn they shape the individual.

Just as the city is built on many scales, so is this theory. One of the most influential professionals on this topic, Jan Gehl, a Danish urban designer, gives the example of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. One of the major arteries into the cities that was constantly filled with traffic was destroyed. While its re-construction was being planned there was no alternate route – cars were simply not as welcome into the city. Traffic did not increase but public transportation use did. San Fransisco soon realized they didn’t actually need a new highway. Users had simply adapted their behavior to the situation. Upon realizing this the city replaced the highway with a boulevard – less cars, more pedestrians and public transportation. Everyone still gets to work!

A highway San Fransisco before and after the Earthquake. Where would you rather spend your time? Now this public space welcomes public transport, cars, and pedestrians. Shops and restaurants can now operate in an active public space required for business. The neighborhood has been brought new life.

You might ask, why is it better to have less traffic? Of course no one likes to sit in traffic, but I would argue the benefit of welcoming all users (drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, people-watchers, pigeon-feeders, school children, street workers, cafe-dwellers, and postmen) promotes city life and a strong community. More people will sit and perhaps speak to the person next to them, they might bump into an acquaintance on the street a chat, and they might be more likely to support local organizations. There are so many benefits to street life and activity that I will explore in this blog every week. And of course, we cannot forget to mention the environmental benefits…less traffic, more pedestrians = less pollution, healthier people.

Obviously, it should be the goal to form socially and environmentally sustainable people and places. But in order to do this we really must understand the language of the city. The city or any development is made of many pieces, at every scale, that work together. For example, the street layout and how they connect with one another, blocks, plots of land, buildings, how buildings meet public space, open space like squares and parks, sidewalks and street design. These must all work together seamlessly. An argument can be made that if each one of these elements is well-designed, a sustainable city will emerge. Further reading: check out Kevin Lynch’s “The Image of the City” or Ian Bentley’s “Responsive Environments.”

Think about this post when its easy or difficult to cross the road, hard to park your car on a busy Friday evening, or when you can’t find a place to sit in a square to have lunch. How would you make changes in the built environment around you to make your life easier or more convenient? And what are the changes that could happen to make you life your life in a healthier and more responsible way?

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