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…On New Urbanism.

Posted by Steve on October 19, 2008

In his alernate history novel 1824, the writer Eric Flint has a character (one Zachary Taylor) musing about the ever loathsome John C. Calhoun. To wit:

It sometimes seemed to Taylor that John C. Calhoun’s madness had no limits. Had the former senator from South Carlina suffered from simple dementia, the dementia itself would have conscribed his sphere of action. But Calhoun’s disease was a mania, more than maniacalism as such.

So – Heaven grant mercy – it possessed theories. Notions. Schemes. Delusions of certainty, and convictions that were unshakable in direct proportion to their lack of bearing on reality.

I absolutely adore that last sentence. It’s a wonderful sentence: charming in its wording, and applicable to so, so many living people.

Like Peter Calthorpe, Andrés Duany, and their disciples in the Congress for the New Urbanism. Any group that calls for the rejection of functional classification is suffering from “delusions of certainty, and convictions that [are] unshakable in direct proportion to their lack of bearing on reality.” Ditto any group that thinks “context sensitive design” means you put road diets everywhere, regardless of what the context actually is. Ditto any group that thinks having streets operate at LOS F is going to improve the pedestrian experience and increase pedestrian activity, as if threading your way between gridlocked cars as you listen to their idling engines and inhale their exhaust is somehow more pleasant than the alternative of flushing them out of the area quickly while waiting an extra twenty seconds for your turn to cross the street.

Theories and notions have no place in the design of the built environment. Dogma has no place in the design of the built environment. Philosophy has no place in the design of the built environment.

In short, architects have no place in the design of the built environment. Especially as regards any more of the built environment than the facade and interior layout of a single building.

3 Responses to “…On New Urbanism.”

  1. Architects have no place most places.

    On the other hand, engineers have done their share of damage as well. Having a LOS F is no good, but neither is constantly laying more and more pavement to try to get a LOS AAA+. Somewhere around C or D is preferable.

    I do think traffic engineering orthodoxy and suburban street design have hurt a lot of communities. Both engineers and architects have the same problem: they are specialists. All architects think about is how things look on graph paper. All engineers think about is how things look mathematically. Neither seems interested in the actual experience of the built environment.

    As you said, dogma is not what we need. There ought to be some middle ground, where we consider the whole picture.

  2. Steve said

    Jeff, you made me laugh and smile. No place most places, indeed.

    As to the overconstruction, true in part, but not entirely. There’s an element of truth to the image of the 1970’s era highway engineer with an attitude of “Pave, baby, pave!” That’s something of a historic artifact, though, if for no more reason than that laying more and more pavement is just too damned expensive in most cases. Which is not a jest: an alternatives analysis between five or six designs can very easily have the two or three alternatives which will perform best rejected due to the expense of construction, and if it didn’t cost about a quarter million to put a signal in at an intersection, there’d be a lot more of them in the world. Then there’s that the induced demand phenomenon’s been identified and described to the point that there’s much less interest in the lay-more-pavement approach to improving performance, except in situations like putting in an additional turn lane (which to some extent is a safety matter as much as a performance one, especially on high-speed roads) or a road that’s getting 35,000+ vehicles per day driving on it but’s only got 2 lanes for them to drive on. Not to mention, shooting for LOS A, while we’re always thrilled if we can achieve it (in a “Yeah, we pulled that off, we rule!”) isn’t really the goal. The sentence we learn quickly is, “LOS D or better is generally considered acceptable.” Now, citizens at a public hearing, planning commissioners, and city/county council members might not agree as to the acceptability of LOS D, but citizens, commissioners, and council members don’t necessarily understand the basis of LOS and the (sometimes lack of meaningful) difference between, say, a C and a D, or a B and C. (As one of my professors liked to put it, “There’s only two levels of service for an intersection: A and F. Either you wait too long or you don’t.”)

    Anyway… guess I’m just trying to say, any engineer whose only – or even main – concern is “how things look mathematically” as opposed to “the actual experience of the built environment” is going to be a crappy engineer.

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