Travel diary: New Urbanist town centres

The last few weeks I’ve been on holiday in California, visiting friends and family up and down the length of the state. As always, I’ve been surprised at how familiar – and how different – the state seems. In some ways, it’s ahead of New Zealand. In others, it’s behind. And in many more, it’s simply off on a quite different path of development.

One thing I noticed was the surprising ubiquity of New Urbanist town centre upgrades. Cities and towns up and down the state are upgrading sidewalks, adding sharrows (or even painted bike lanes), installing planter boxes and parklets, and doing up historic buildings in old downtown areas. This seems to be a bit of a new trend – or at any rate, I don’t remember it being so common when I was growing up in California.

So, for example, here’s downtown in Walnut Creek, a suburban city in the San Francisco Bay Area. It sits at the junction of two freeways, but there’s also a BART station, a rails-to-trails cycleway, and public parking buildings that allow less surface land to be devoted to parking. As a result, the core of the shopping centre is surprisingly walkable and leafy:

Walnut Creek town centre

However, Walnut Creek hasn’t always been developed this way – here, for example, is retail frontage a few blocks over. It’s the pretty classic Californian design of big parking lots out front and big boxes in the back (plus a few street trees). But the city seems to have undergone a transition away from building more uninviting carparks and towards walkable, efficient places.

Walnut Creek car-based retail

The same ideas are also being implemented in smaller places. Here, for example, is the historic town centre in Grass Valley, a town of around 13,000 people at the foothills of the Sierras. A decade or so ago, many of the shopfronts were empty, but now they’re full of various boutique-y shops catering to tourists. (Including a lot of wine tasting rooms – there are a number of wineries in the area.) They’ve installed complementary retro-kitsch like the clock on the left side of the picture:

Grass Valley town centre

We saw similar things in other small towns around the place. But the small towns generally also illustrated the limitations of New Urbanist town centre upgrades. Unlike Walnut Creek, which is larger (and more affluent), they didn’t usually succeed in drawing back in major retail chains and supermarkets, which continued heading for suburban shopping centres. Hence the tourist-oriented retail in Grass Valley.

Finally, New Urbanist design is hardly a panacea or a remedy for other ills. Take this development on the main highway in Torrance (in Los Angeles). It conforms to many New Urbanist strictures – traditionalist building design, ground floor retail facing the street, etc. But because it’s also included a great big parking garage with two gaping entrances (one of which is pictured), it hasn’t gotten rave reviews. Apparently the neighbours, some of whom live in condos or apartments themselves, have cited it as an example of why it’s necessary to “protect” the area from “overdevelopment”.

Torrence New Urbanism

As an aside, I quite like the way that LA strip retail is built. Major at-grade highways in the older areas of the city are densely packed with street-front retail. The building styles are eclectic and entertaining, and the businesses within are usually pretty varied as well.

Redondo Beach PCH retail

Read This: Happy City



Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery’s Happy City is an attempt to understand the various forces at work in our built environments through one over-riding idea. And what a great and important idea it is: Happiness. After all isn’t that really the ultimate aim of all effort around urban change; the pursuit of greater Happiness for all?

In many ways the book can be seen as a extension of previous work that have all been trending in this direction by like Ed Glaeser’s analysis of the economics of cities in Triumph of the City, David Owen’s slamdunk on urban sustainability in Green Metropolis, and Walkable City, where Jeff Speck showed that in the end almost all urban benefits can be summed up by the degree to which a place is walkable.

The difference here is that Montgomery takes an even higher altitude view by viewing places, their histories and effects, though the lens of what is understood to produce happiness in people. To do this he analyses ideas about happiness from philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, and applies them at detail to different living environments all over the world.

And the great news is that he find evidence from all sorts of places that very real improvements can be gained by simply changing our priorities in how we shape the built environment. He starts and ends with the man he calls the Mayor of Happy, Enrique Peñalosa, who revolutionised the quality of life for the citizens of Bogota, but he also seriously considers the views of those for the city is a hell that is only there to be escaped:

“The modern city is probably the most unlovely and artificial site this planet affords. The ultimate solution is to abandon it… We shall solve the City Problem by leaving the city.”

-Henry Ford 1922

An attitude that persists to this day not only in the minds of many denizens of that ubiquitous demi-monde that Ford’s industry did so much to invent, suburbia, but also in the escapist utopias of both back-to-the-land Greenies and armed-to-the-teeth Survivalists.

Perhaps for me the best chapter comes at the end of the book and is simply called: ‘Everything is Connected to Everything Else’. Which is summarised like this:

“In fact, just about every measure I’ve connected to happy urbanism also influences a city’s environmental footprint and, just as urgent, its economic and fiscal health. If we understand and act on this connectedness, we may just steer hundreds of cities off the course of crisis.” -p258

This interconnectedness means that positive change has a multiplier effect. The evidence is mounting for the effectiveness of the measures and priorities of what, for the want of the a better term, is know as New Urbanism, going way beyond their own area. In a kind of virtuous vortex it seems the every time any one New Urbanist measure is undertaken then the improvement ripple just keeps expanding. And when done quickly, consistently, and with vigour these changes can have hugely transformative effects. The changes Peñalosa enacted in just three years in Bogota, for example, not only improved the access of the people near the new busways and cycleways, but also increased school enrollments [by 30%], significantly improved conditions for drivers [despite taking money earmarked for new roads and spending it on transit and active modes], reduced crashes, injuries, and deaths, even the murder rate fell by half!, air quality of course improved, and real estate values picked up. The health of the citizens improved with all the new walking and cycling, and, crucially, just plain made people happier: “Twelve years ago 80% of us were completely pessimistic about our future. Now it’s the opposite. Most are now optimistic.”

This chapter also has my favourite sentence in the book: “There is no such thing as an externality.” This is an argument for breaking down the artificially siloed thinking of the modernist era. Transport planners and traffic engineers, for example, must not be allowed to only consider the outcomes of their work within narrow confines of ‘level of service’ or ‘travel times’ but also must include all the other factors that they influence and that are too easily dismissed with the idea that they are mere ‘externalities’. Nothing is external.

The culmination of this literature on urban life means that we now know how to improve the lives of millions and millions of the earth’s inhabitants, and the great news is that it doesn’t involve sacrifice or self-denial, the old dialectics of economy versus the environment, building for people or for business, equity or wealth, are gone.

In other words doing the right thing for either the health of citizens, or for growing employment, or the improving living conditions, or the quality of public space, or building the most efficient transport systems, or making a great businesses environment, or reducing pollution, revitalising depressed precincts, or attracting young talent, or reducing crime, improving cultural activity, increasing visitor numbers, spreading democracy, improving education, or increasing equality,  are all the same thing. And this can, in short, be captured by the idea of the Happy City.

If you feel sceptical about this conclusion then you need to: Read This Book.

“The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is the right to change ourselves by changing the city.”

-David Harvey 2008


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.