I just stumbled on a fascinating post by Mathieu Helie over at Emergent Urbanism about the contemporary practice of street engineering. The whole thing is worth a read, but the basic idea is simple: before the proliferation of personal automobiles, streets weren’t engineered or thought of as infrastructure, they were just the spaces between buildings. And of course, pedestrians shared these spaces with people on horseback, in carriages, or riding bicycles.
Now, streets and parking lots are thought of in terms of infrastructure, so they are designed strictly to handle the amount of traffic that developers would like to have. As with water pipes or electrical grid, engineers figure it’s better to overbuild than to go back and have to rebuild, so the spaces between buildings are dominated by asphalt and concrete, with a few token trees.
But if instead developers and planners placed buildings with enough public space between them, and then built the streets and parking lots as needed to accommodate traffic, in effect subtracting from open space to add more streets or stores, we’d have places as opposed to developments. Mr Helie offers plenty of examples, from both Europe and America, to illustrate the difference.
In most American cities today, we’d have to start by removing lanes from streets and spaces from parking lots. And there are plenty of spots where it would be completely appropriate to do that. We should certainly take it further and see which streets could be closed off entirely to create pedestrian areas. As Christopher Alexander discusses in A Pattern Language (see image above), a network of walking paths can be slowly built within a street grid, so that we’re not merely providing a ribbon of concrete on which to stroll next to traffic, but we’re creating places for walking.
San Antonio has places for walking, known as the Riverwalk and the various greenway trails. I’d like to see this expanded slowly into more of a network. The rivers and creeks offer an obvious place to do this: they create natural, meandering paths, and people like walking by water.
But there are possibilities other than using waterways and closing down streets. For instance, in my neighborhood there is a large, empty field that used to be a train yard. You’ll see it in the upper left hand corner of this map. If you look closely, there’s a line that runs from this unused field across Nogalitos and South Flores to the intersection of Lone Star and Probandt. That line is empty space that used to hold train tracks. The city could potentially turn that field into a park, with a promenade running almost all the way to the Lone Star Brewery. From there, a pedestrian can easily walk up Probandt to Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, or continue down Lone Star to the brewery, the Riverwalk, or Roosevelt Park.
This is just one idea. But when we start thinking of pathways that aren’t primarily for cars, lots of ideas like this start presenting themselves, and we can begin to see a city that operates on a different scale, and with a stronger sense of place.
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