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A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

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D&L 7: How cities (and suburbs) foster diversity

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Chapter 7. The generators of diversity

This is a fairly short chapter, and I am about to embark on a week-long trip, so I’ll keep this relatively brief. While the last several pages of the chapter reference the four generators of diversity, the bulk of the chapter discusses how “big cities are natural generators of diversity and prolific incubators of new enterprises and ideas of all kinds.”

This fundamental message — from an economic perspective, big cities are more than the sums of their parts — is strikingly on point; I’ve have seen it echoed in more recent publications. Ryan Avent’s Gated City, which I read several months ago, cites Vietnamese restaurants as an example of the kind of diversity that only big cities can support: small towns and cities can only support businesses with relatively mass-market appeal (and, unless you are in southeast Asia, this is probably not a Vietnamese restaurant); on the other hand, a large city can support multiple Vietnamese restaurant because of the collection of people together. Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City makes a similar, broader point that the value of cities in civilization is in the sheer concentration of human capital.

Other parts of this chapter are unfortunately less perceptive in hindsight, in particular Jacobs’ dismissal of “the much-heralded postwar exodus of big offices from cities” as “mostly talk.”. She touts how Connecticut General Life Insurance Company’s move to a headquarters “in the countryside beyond Hartford” — aka the CIGNA campus in Bloomfield, Conn. — required them to build “inherently inefficient” facilities, contrasting this negatively to the shared facilities available in the big city that companies therefore don’t have to build.

As we all well know, decentralization of office space into the suburbs has proceeded rapidly since Death & Life‘s publication year of 1961. Suburban office space* forms about 40 percent of total office space in metropolitan New York and about half in Chicagoland and greater Boston; about 70 percent in greater Atlanta and 85 percent in South Florida. As I mentioned earlier this week, I’ve been reading Rybczynski: one of his critiques of Jacobs is that she essentially ignores the postwar migration to the suburbs. Here, she may not have ignored it, but she was perhaps a little bit blind to upcoming trends.

Overall, though, this chapter’s role is as an opening salvo to the four arguably most important chapters of the book. In that respect, it sets the stage well. We’re convinced of cities’ roles in fostering diversity — even if, perhaps, their monopoly on generating this diversity has been ceded to the suburbs quite considerably since Jacobs’ time — and we eagerly anticipate the explanation of the factors that create this diversity.

*These exclude downtowns, secondary downtowns and “urban envelopes” in the report linked to. While some of the office spaces is located in edge cities such as Naperville, Ill., most of these Naperville-like edge cities would almost certainly not be perceived as a city by Jacobs, and much of the employment is located outside of walkable areas of these municipalities, if they have one. Most of Naperville’s office development, for example, rings I-88 and is not found in the central, pedestrian-friendly core of the city.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 23, 2012 at 8:00 am

Pedestrian safety and million-dollar parking lots

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I just returned from a trip to New York and am still getting my life back in order, but after I do I’d like to give a roundup of some of the urbanist/transit-related things I was able to see there. In the meantime, the last couple of days seem to have been a bonanza for pedestrian safety and parking news, so a roundup:

Both the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times covered pedestrian safety recently. The Tribune‘s study finds that four-fifths of car-pedestrian crashes happen in crosswalks, that drivers turning left unsurprisingly are involved in the highest percentage of crashes at a signalled intersection, and that fatalities have declined in recent years.

The Times‘ piece discusses how Florida, and the Orlando metropolitan area in particular, is one of the most dangerous places in America for pedestrians. Excessively widely spaced crosswalks, large arterial streets and poor transit make for a very difficult environment for pedestrians. The story also mentions the Raquel Nelson case, which I mentioned in a blog post last month about how drivers cross streets.

Pedestrians in the Times’ story also comment on aggressive drivers actually speeding up when they see them. I remember reading once that drivers are less likely to collide with pedestrians when pedestrians don’t make eye contact with the driver, because the act of making eye contact serves to acknowledge that the pedestrian has seen the driver, who is then more likely to charge ahead*.

I have to admit that I’m one of these individuals: I certainly don’t blindly step out into intersections without looking at all into the street, and when I cross at a corner I am almost always aware of who is coming into the intersection. But I have found that even here in Chicago, a relatively pedestrian-friendly place, drivers will ignore crosswalks and turn right in front of pedestrians already in the street.

It goes without saying that pedestrian safety is something that’s vital to walkable and transit-friendly cities. A transit system is only as good as the pedestrian network that surrounds it, or the “last mile” problem. As the Times mentions, many of the bus stops in Florida and other pedestrian-unfriendly places are places where passengers would be hard-pressed to try to cross the street or really walk anywhere.

It’s ironic, in a way, that Florida boasts some of the most pedestrian-unfriendly communities in the nation, as it’s also known for being a haven for senior citizens. The Times recently painted a rosy portrayal of the lives of some of the elderly in Manhattan: rent control and affordability issues aside (and it’s a big aside, as that helps to drive up rents for those not lucky enough to be part of it), New York’s walkability and transit system help to make it relatively elderly-friendly. In most of this country, including Florida, when you stop driving, you lose your freedom to get around. It’s a cruel irony that a place with much softer winters and many more elderly citizens is so unfriendly to them as well.


In somewhat pedestrian-related news, a 10,000 sq ft. parking lot in Manhattan has apparently sold for $21 million, a staggering $2,100 per square feet. My guilty favorite the Daily Mail has a characteristically loud headline screaming, “100ft by 100ft PARKING LOT in Manhattan sells for $21million in latest sign of real estate madness returning to New York,” while the subdued Wall Street Journal just lets us know that the parking lot has sold for $21 million.

This is certainly a really high rate, and the Mail‘s headline in particular is incredulous that a parking lot would sell for so much. But it makes sense, if you think about it: a surface parking lot is a spectacularly poor use of land in the most urban environment in the entire country. It doesn’t do anything for the pedestrians who walk around it, and the tax revenue that a hotel or other business venture could bring in would be far more valuable than the parking lot.

*This might have been in the excellent Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, but I’m not entirely sure.

Written by Andrew ACG

August 16, 2011 at 10:04 pm