The last few weeks’ posts on Old Urbanist made me think about what urban forms people prefer, and how it’s affected by what they are familiar with. Rather than speculate on what people in my social circle prefer, I yield the stage to you. What type of urban environment did you grow up in, and/or influenced your thinking about cities the most? And what form of urban development do you find most desirable?
I’ll start: I grew up in the Old North of Tel Aviv, a dense (about 15,000/km^2) neighborhood whose residential stock is almost exclusively four-story Garden City apartment buildings. Buildings are not attached as rowhouses, but instead are set back a few meters from the edges of the lots; typical apartment size is 120 square meters. The neighborhood is upper middle class – indeed, North Tel Aviv is used as a metonym for latte liberalism – but is not uniformly so. Growing up, I knew plenty of people in the neighborhood who were middle middle class, a few who were working class, and a few who were outright rich. This somewhat distinguishes North Tel Aviv from some surrounding suburbs that are nominally equally rich but are more uniformly upper middle class. In the 1990s, it was also stable rather than gentrified; there were, and still are, people living in the same neighborhood, sometimes the same apartment, for multiple decades.
As a result, I never grew up with the association of detached houses with wealth. Hebrew even distinguishes words for houses in general (house/home) and words that denote wealth (villa, cottage) but has just one word normally for an apartment; English, which distinguishes an apartment or a tenement from a condo, is exactly the opposite. Having a car is important for social status in Israel, but the idea is to drive it a short distance to work, as my parents did. Driving 20 kilometers each way would be strange. At the same time, I took some measure of walkability for granted, making me uncomfortable with sections of the city that were built after the 1950s and were designed to automobile scale. I did not think of public transportation as a normal means of getting to work, unless one couldn’t afford a car, but it was nifty for getting to school.
The ideas about urbanism I’ve developed out of that experience, followed by Manhattan, are:
1. Street width should be close to building height; for the purposes of this discussion, street width is measured from building edge to building edge, and building height is the average height of the continuous street wall. A height:width ratio of about 1 or slightly higher is best. Below about 1/2, it’s too open; in Providence, where the ratio is about 0.6, measured from the top of buildings, I already walk in the middle of the roadway, as if the streets were naked. Above about 2, which exists on some streets in such pre-industrial cities as Florence, it feels like an alley. As a corollary, very narrow streets are suitable for low-traffic cities, whereas high-density places should look more like Manhattan.
2. Every normal neighborhood amenity should be reachable on foot, on streets that are designed to be used primarily by pedestrians. If you need to take mechanized transportation or cross a highway to get to the supermarket, there is something wrong with your neighborhood.
3. Bicycles are a form of private transportation.
5. The street network should be porous. The closer to a regular grid, the better. The Old North has a grid of arterial streets, but the local streets terminate in T-shaped intersections, like this, and it’s not always possible to tell a local from an arterial street on sight; in addition, the grid is not really continued into other neighborhoods, making walking there confusing. I found Manhattan much more walkable than the Old North for this reason.
I will now exit the stage and make this an open mic.