Follow us on Twitter

Thoughts from “How Cities Work: suburbs, sprawl and the roads not taken”

There have been so many excellent books about transport and planning come out in recent times: perhaps with Straphanger and Human Transit the two most exciting books for 2012 in that respect (at least in my opinion). But the book I’ve been reading recently is a little older, first published in 2000 – called “How Cities Work: suburbs, sprawl and the roads not taken” by Alex Marshall.

I’m rubbish at doing book reviews, so I’m not going to try. Instead there are a few really good passages in this book which give us a hint of its flavour – a flavour that I like. One of the really interesting elements of the book is the author’s distaste for “New Urbanism“, which is interesting because generally I’m quite a fan of New Urbanism though I found myself agreeing with many of the points made against it – such as below:

As it stands now, New Urbanism is more destructive than not in its effect on city planning and design. It often represents the worst of America in its hucksterism, in its promise of avoiding difficult choices, in its proffered option of buying one’s way out of problems, in its delivery of image over substance.

Many New Urbanists resist recognising that the communities they admire and copy were produced by transportation systems that no longer exist. One cannot copy the design of such communities – Charleston, Annapolis etc. – without copying the transportation system that produced them, or building some modern facsimile of it. A neighbourhood of place lives within the transportation system that spawns it, and can no more escape this dynamic than a creek can escape the watershed it is part of.

These two paragraphs encapsulate, I think, why it seems we seem to end up with bad urban outcomes no matter how hard we try to avoid them. Just look around the recently built (and still being constructed) parts of Auckland and you can see these points at work:

  • Stonefields has a nice internal street grid and many other “new urbanist” design elements but it’s still horribly disconnected from the city around it and therefore feels isolated and somewhat claustrophobic.
  • Flat Bush will also have a great grid street pattern in the future, clever use of open space, a town centre that’s designed down to every last little detail but this can’t hide the fact that it’s in the most car dependent part of Auckland and therefore ends up with massively wide roads and exceptionally poor options for those without a car.
  • Addison near Takanini has every good design detail you could hope for from a recent subdivision but hardly has a single thing within walking distance so you still need your car for every single trip.

I do find myself ascribing to the general belief that transport drives land-use outcomes far more than the opposite. This is a really major theme of How Cities Workand comes through perhaps most clearly towards the end of the book:

 The layout of a region’s internal transportation will determine how people get to work, how they shop, how they recreate, how they live. The standard choice today of lacing a metropolitan area with big freeways for purely internal travel means we will have a sprawling, formless environment. Simply getting rid of freeways – forget mass transit – would establish a more neighbourhood-centred economy and dynamic. But we don’t have to forget mass transit. Laying out train lines, streetcar tracks, bus lanes, bike paths, and sidewalks – and foregoing freeways and big roads – will mean a more place-oriented form of living. Both the drawbacks and benefits of such a style dwell in its more communal, group-oriented form of living. You will have the option of not using a car. But to get this option, you have to accept that using a car will be more difficult.

That last two sentences capture the crux of the issue perfectly and lays bare something that I think we are often too afraid to confront. If we want a city with a better range of transport options, where people have a genuine choice of not driving everywhere, it is inevitable that driving will be a bit less pleasant. While the intelligence of public discussion on transport issues seems like it has come a long way over the past few years, the trade-offs are something that we still shy away from – but I wonder at what cost (both financial and in terms of damage to the kind of city it seems most people want Auckland to be) this unwillingness to confront tough issues comes at.

23 comments to Thoughts from “How Cities Work: suburbs, sprawl and the roads not taken”

  • To be fair there is nothing ‘New Urbanist’ about Stonefields or Flatbush. They’re just auto dependant distant suburbs really. And I guess that’s his poin.

    The best examples of New Urbanism recently in Ak are the shared spaces, which have confronted some hard choices, well removed auto priority and parking spaces, which is always hard in Auckland.

  • Greg N

    “Stonefields has a nice internal street grid and many other “new urbanist” design elements but it’s still horribly disconnected from the city around it and therefore feels isolated and somewhat claustrophobic.”

    It might seem “somewhat claustrophobic” now, just wait until its fully built with houses – then see how claustrophobic it feels.

    Yep, Stonefields is crap design, always has been, always will be, no matter if you call it “New Urbanist” or “the same old car-based crap design” or whatever other name.

    It will stay that way until the proper transport links it so badly needs are put in place by council at our (ratepaying) expense – sometime in the future.

    Basically, no matter how you gussy it up – Stonefields is pure and simple a giant cul-de-sac, the only roads in and out all come off the same arterial road – that runs across the top of it (College Road extension).
    And isn’t that against modern good design principles as it discourages linkages?

    You can’t get to other roads except by going out of the hole it is onto College Road, then you can go somewhere else – but go where and how?

    Anywhere of use (even the local supermarket) is massively too far away to walk to/from, you have no choice but to drive
    - there is no decent bus service within that actually goes where the people want to/need to.

    Thats not fostering good connectivity or urban linkages. Hows that good design?

    No its just poor urban design – gussied up as something else, and called “New Urbanist” – Stonefields is a design only intended to stuff as many houses in a hole in the ground, as they could get council planners and environment court to agree to using whatever fancy hucksterism LandCo could get away with to sell it to them. Shame is that the planners and Environment Court swallowed it (w)hole.

    And if it wasn’t for the stalwart efforts of the Volcanic Cones Protection society – we would have had Stonefields developments built a fair way up the side of the volcanic cone mountain behind as LandCo originally wanted to do.

    In essense is a giant storm water cess pit at the southern end, It has to be as its the stormwater drain for most of the surrounding suburbs downhill/east of One Tree Hill.
    Yep, they pretend its a wetland, but go there, see how much life in that pond there is, apart from masses of algae.

    All up it has few redeeming features – and most of those were left behind by the volcanic eruptions of nearby Maungarei (Mt Wellington) some 11,000 years ago and were too massive to be turn down or modified by the developers so they left these features as is.

    I’d caution anyone wanting to call this any kind of exemplar of “good” design or “modern urban form”.

    And if you disagree, then tell me why anytime you go down there – the place is full of parked cars on most of the roads – cars from locals who are not flocking to the limited PT options council give them to get around, no they vote with their right foot, step on the accelerator and use their cars to get around.

  • Luke C

    I remember having similar thoughts studying some on the new urbanist developments built in the US/Canada. Yes they were much nicer internally but just as car dependent as the cities/suburbs they were built in had awful land-use patterns.
    Thats why I think sometimes we concentrate too much on housing sprawl, and not enough on retail/employment sprawl. The retail/employment sprawlcauses much more issues, as really entrenches car dependency. Lowish denisty suburbia can have a high quality PT service as long as the trip patters are based on a small number of nodes. Examples are the tramline suburbs (Dominion Road etc) and their focus towards the CBD.
    However in East Auckland there jobs are scattered throughout Highbrook, and this there a multiple malls scattered around like Pakuranga, Botany and Highland Park. Even within this mall areas there are often multiple distinct centres with now easy path between them, especially the 3 corners of the intersection at Botany.
    To really reduce car dependency need to control land use by keeping office developments out of industrial parks and developing any new centres as mixed use areas with jobs, retail and leisure together.

  • jonno1

    I agree that Stonefields is rubbish, as is Hobsonville Point, but in the end the market will decide. My prediction is that in 10 years’ time you won’t be able to give away a terrace house in Stonefields – although I’ve been wrong before; it will depend on population growth and the alternatives I guess.

    But I’m still puzzled why so many posters on this blog appear to be anti-car. Sure, by all means promote options such as walking, cycling, buses or trains for repetitive activities such as commuting, but cars will always be a major transport mode. Some posters have said they don’t own a car, and good on them, but most of us do, so why not use it? I don’t actually drive a lot, but some destinations simply don’t have practical alternatives. And my car does such low mileage that I sometimes take it out for a spin just for fun.

    • This is a lazy accusation: to be anti auto-dependency is not to be anti car. To accept that we have gone too far in the direction of designing places for the convenience of car use for the good of the city is not to fail to accept the usefulness of cars. To understand the impacts of excessive auto privilege on economic vitality of place is not to ‘hate the car’.

      Can I be any plainer?

      I drive a car, I walk, I ride a bike, I use Transit… all are needed and should be supported but in the last 60 years it has got horribly out of balance in Auckland as is the case in much of the west, and frankly it is urgent that we sort this out. The shortest route to achieving that is to roll back the excesses of the previous age; yes restricting vehicle access is the key to improving the utility and vitality our city. But this isn’t an attack on machines or drivers as such; just an attempt balance place values with auto ones.

  • Malcolm M

    The looming elephant in the room is the oil dependence of the economic unit (city or nation). As oil becomes progressively more expensive, a strong net oil importer has to work a lot harder to maintain its oil addiction than one with a lower oil requirement. In California as its energy production has fallen, it has to export a lot more (movies, apps, other IP) to simply maintain its standard of living. As an example, Gregor MacDonald, a private oil market analyst, has recently moved to Portland Oregon because of its cheap electricity and good public transport infrastructure. Its public sector budgets are under much less pressure to maintain enormous road networks, and are able to support other services such as education. Bright Gen Y’s and Gen Z’s will likewise be attracted to locations such as this.

    http://gregor.us/

    • Yes indeed, and Gregor is a really good thinker about these issues, but people seem to be even more irrational and emotional when discussing finite resources than even car parking. If that’s possible to imagine!

  • Luke E

    If/when Addison gets the train station nearby that Papakura Local Board is calling for, it will likely be far more attractive than it currently is.

    • Luke C

      that local shopping centre on Great South road is still appallingly bad and auto dependent. It has very poor pedestrian environment so will probably put most people off walking their from Addisson.
      I know the Great South road buses arent far away in distance, but due to nature of GS Road will be unpleasant to cross for those heading north.

  • Kevyn

    It’s unfortunate that the Government’s response to the citizens preferred option for rebuilding central Christchurch was to dismiss all of the elements that will attract gen X & Y as an unaffordable “wish list” and have chosen to imitate Detroit’s failed downtown reviltalisation strategy that operated for hald a century from 1949. Fortunately over the last ten years Detroit has developed an active network of community groups and property decelopers who see the lack of modern office buildings in downtown and the huge areas of vacant residential lots in the surrounding residntial areas as positives rather than negatives. A core of historic office buildings ripe for conversion into apartments and open plan offices of the type favouerd by geek companies surrounded by acres of green space ripe for reforestation or urban farming complete with biking and hiking trails. That gives Detroit a critical point of difference for competing with other software/electronics cities such as Portland, Toronto, Chicago and Seattle which have all used redevelopement of abandoned waterfronts to attract the high tech industries and their well paid young single workforces. Unfortunately the GFC has put the brakes on detroits plans.

    One other thing that Christchurch and Detroit have in common is that it was a boom in skyscraper construction conentrated on a few blocks around the hub of the transit systems that began the slow death of their inner cities. Had the skyscraper office space been scattered throughout the central city the same way as the older office space then central city retailers would have enjoyed increased foot traffic instead losing that vital element of their success. Reinforce that skyscraper concentration mistakes with government policies to move people from overcrowded inner city housing into roomy suburbs and its not surprising the shopkeepers decamped to the suburbs. Detroit experienced this in just half a decade when the mega-skyscraper frenzy was nipped in the bud by the great depression, leaving a quarter of the central city’s buildings demolished in preparation for the building boom that never happened. The temporary use of these lots by car park companies became permanen, decades before the freeways were built into the CBD. Attempts to consolidate lots to entice developers in the 1970s and 80s led to another quarter of the buildings being turned into carparks. Some of these are now covered by a casino and a baseball and covered football stadium. But there’s never been any attempt to createattractive inner city living space so the downtown anchor projects have just created an entire downtown drivethrough. The Government plan for Christchurch is all anchor projects and commercial buildings and some abandoned blocks. No housing mixed in the core, no slow roads, no cycling or walking connectivity with the rest of the city. What a wasted oppotunity to provide a local example of what this forum is all about.

    • Yes ChCh and Detroit did suffer from the same late 20th century malaise: the Donut City, cities that decamped their activity to their periphery to leave hollowed out cores. The fashion for buildings designed to be primarily accessed by drivers and largely blank to the street along with the privileging of the formerly bustling city streets for speeding cars [one way system in particular] all contributed. In Christchurch’s case the removal of the University to the suburbs was a particular disaster and one that Auckland only narrowly managed to avoid. So it wasn’t the height of the buildings as such [ugly though the new ones were in Chch] that were the problem but the lack of any street life and mixture of uses that kills a city core, as you say. Central Chch became a sort bogus noddy town with silly ye olde trams and heritage buildings with little or no current uses.

      Unless these problems that Chch faced before the earthquakes are addressed in the rebuild it will never take the opportunity that this tragedy offers. Sadly the government are of course forcing their hopeless and badly dated top down programme onto the rebuild is a disaster. Casinos, Stadia, and Convention Centres, fed by motorways and acres of carparking will make for a soulless and failing faux city no matter how many parks or expensive ‘iconic’ buildings are built. This is a recipe for disaster. And a huge opportunity missed.

      It is a good plan to make the Avon banks into a long and beautiful park, indeed to really make Chch live up to it’s Garden City name, and to re-build to 21st environmental building and neighbourhood standards and ideals [eco-city] but the urban core cannot be a car fed events centre with no real life and local vitality. This is vested interest old-men-in-suits thinking and just won’t work.

      It needs to be full of people and with a Transit system at its core and a through routing one not a ‘transport centre’ model; this is Transit as designed by car drivers. And especially it needs to function on its own merits and be dependent on car commuting from the suburbs or there’s a good chance it won’t have sufficient appeal and those people will stay in those suburbs. Few cities prosper without a vibrant core and means people, people, people.

  • Kent Lundberg

    This is a great book. While the decimation of the suburban homebuilding industry in the US has made the criticism of New Urbanism moot, there is still a lot to take away from Marshall’s understanding of ‘how cities work’.
    You can’t create urbanism out of thin air. It is difficult to attract people to places, as opposed to simply accommodate them where they are in the first place. It is difficult to insert transportation options into places without the structure to support it.
    These are some of the functional aspects of cities that I like to investigate.

    • Peter M

      Yeah I like how he really hammers home the point that we spend far too much time ignoring the elephants in the room when it comes to planning (such as Stonefields ignoring the elephant in the room of its pathetic connections to the rest of Auckland, which I’m sure would have been used by an example if he were aware of Auckland and if Stonefields had happened by then).

    • TimR

      “You can’t create urbanism out of thin air.”

      You’re right on the money Kent, there’s the nub of it. I’m into the functional challenges that stem from that as well, but I’m even more interested in the social underpinnings they represent. Cities are people; urbanism is the longterm outworking of collective behaviour.

      I see the common error of trying to establish something from thin air as one of the key elephants being ignored in the room. But it’s the inverse condition that is the real big elephant – many of the communities that do have some thriving urbanism in Auckland seem unwilling to deal with the dynamic social mix and physical change that comes with great urbanism in their backyards. It’s telling that many places criticised above are away from established centres, but it concerns me even more that society seems unable to plan and execute expanding or maximising the benefits of centres like Kingsland, Mt Eden, Takapuna etc.

      Peter quotes above, “Both the drawbacks and benefits of such a style dwell in its more communal, group-oriented form of living”. If we can’t make urbanism out of thin air away from centres -and it seems to prove itself this way- we’ve got to work on the inertia around how our centres evolve.

      • Kent Lundberg

        I’d like to hear more about your thoughts on Kingsland etc. I agree with you. A lot of the places with good bones need to adapt. This is where we get the real ‘urbanism dividend’

        • TimR

          Ideas for places are important but they are relatively easy to come up with; its really the quality of the debate and engagement that concerns me. Lets keep pushing for it…

  • RHArris

    WEstgate is robably another one that has alot of new urbanism buzzwords but doesn’t seem right. Too isolated.

Leave a Reply