When I was a kid, I used to sketch out designs for futuristic cities in my notebooks. Complete with domed arenas, skyscrapers and fantastic highway intersections, they looked a lot like, well, a lot like this:
This is current-day downtown Atlanta, as seen from a hotel in Midtown.
Atlanta, like so many American cities is visibly awash in automobile infrastructure – wide streets, freeways, on-and-off ramps and parking. Lots and lots of parking. Take a close look again at the photos and just notice how much real estate is given over to temporarily storing cars. And, this is a city with a fairly robust rail transit system. MARTA certainly has its flaws, but as the last true subway/heavy rail system built in America, it’s more than most cities have.
When I took these pictures a couple weeks ago, and when I was walking around, I noticed something else. Or, I should say, I noticed the absence of something. In the middle of a typical weekday, in the largest city in the Southeast, there’s virtually no one walking around. Despite a fantastic array of economic activity (the sheer numbers of hotel rooms, bars, restaurants, offices, apartments, etc is more than impressive), there’s little to no LIFE.
If we were honest with ourselves, we’d just admit that the entire system is designed for that to be the case – it’s no accident. The roadways are all sized for the 10 hours a week that people scurry on and off the freeways to get to far-flung destinations. (incidentally, that’s 6% of the week, leaving 94% of the time they are dramatically over-designed for.) Garages are all sized to handle the load of cars at the peak time. Transit systems are designed to deal with what is left – those who cannot afford to drive, and the handful of people who choose not to. Sidewalks are an afterthought at best, as the pedestrian environment is really only for conveying people from a parked car at one end to a destination a short walk away.
I can say with experience – most of the walking in this area is depressing. If you don’t have to walk, you wouldn’t, as you are presented with a series of blank building walls, panhandlers, wind tunnels and cars zooming by at 30-40 miles per hour on city streets.
We assume every trip is a car trip, and then design our systems to assure that’s the case. This is the modern city. This is the dilemma.
At one time, even this part of this city was a walkable, vibrant place. But over the course of a few decades, it was transformed into a place with great numbers of stuff, but no people. No joy. No wonder. No wonder, in fact, that people don’t walk.
Without life on the streets, there’s very little reason to want urbanity. Eventually, people realize that they’re making a trade-off that’s not enjoyable, and will simply choose to live or work somewhere else. If you don’t have the upsides of vibrancy, excitement and convenience in the middle of the city, all you have are the downsides (noise, traffic, expense, lack of space).
Those fantasy cities of my youth were fun to draw and imagine, but even then, I never imagined them as being devoid of people. We can certainly get carried away with the flavor-of-the-moment in terms of urban fixes (stadiums, highways, entertainment districts, high-rises), but we should never forget the fundamental element that keeps people coming back to cities: other people. Without that basic element of life (other life), we might as well sit at home and watch TV. Cities are not statistics.
As we conceive of the next wave of urban repair, I’d encourage every planner, every architect, every elected official to ask: what does this do to actually get people out on the streets? Would I walk more or less because of this change? What would it take to get me and my friends and family to walk more? Until we examine every project and detail through these kinds of lenses, our cities will not give us joy and pleasure, and they will in turn never return the kind of investment they aspire to.