Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Space and Freedom, Part Two

last time, on Acts of Minor Treason

People will always need to get around. Even if we withdraw into ourselves, hide in our bedrooms and use teleoperated robots to do everything that needs to be done under that ball of fire known as the "daystar," those robots will always need to get around. Transportation planning is, thus, one of the more important roles of a government - and I feel it needs to come down to a government, since it's far easier to get a government to look at the long-term than a private, profit-centered agency.

They'll need to get around, and they'll need places to live/control their robots from. One of the concepts that's been tossed about time and again over the twentieth century is the death of the city - the idea that we're poised on the edge of a technological revolution that'll finally make concentrations of people, businesses, services, and infrastructure obsolete, and allow us all to live in low-density sprawl scattered across the land; sometimes so scattered that you need a personal helicopter to get anywhere in a reasonable time. In reality, though, the cities have proved resilient. Even those cities that were hollowed out by white flight in the mid-20th century have at least survived the rise of suburbs that have done their level best to strangle them. But there are still people, like The Province's Jon Ferry, who believe that suburbs need to be encouraged even more - that all of us want a life that, to me at least, seems like something as relevant to the modern world as Leave It to Beaver.

The problem is that, whether by an active memetic engineering campaign, cultural drift, or both, the term "suburb" has pretty much come to be associated with the typical city-fringe, spread-out, low-density areas - I hesitate to use the term "neighborhood" in the context of such a suburb - dominated by houses, local businesses generally limited to strip malls and big boxes, with limited public transit options and a general dependence on automobiles in order to get around in a reasonable manner.

Suburbs such as these, in the Levittown mold, are artifacts of the twentieth century - remnants of a time when fuel was cheap, land was cheap, and there was a strong, healthy middle class that could afford what The Onion called "ant-like conformity." Honestly, I don't think those factors will prevail in the twenty-first century like they did in the twentieth. As demand ramps up in the developing world, and as oil speculators prove themselves time and again to be panicky squirrels willing to drag the global economy to the brink of ruin because of what a civil war in Libya might do to supply, petroleum and gas will become steadily more expensive. Electric cars could feasibly pick up some of the slack, but not nearly enough - we're still a ways away from being able to convert from an oil-based transportation model. Suburbs tend to be built on good agricultural land; as transportation becomes more expensive, we'll need all the agriculture we can get as close to the cities as we can get it, to cut down on transportation costs.

That doesn't mean, however, that I think we've got no option but to huddle in urban sardine can apartments. There's more than one way to build a suburb, even if we've been using the same blueprint for seventy years now.

A Metro Light Rail train passes through Tempe, Arizona

A hundred years ago, there were suburbs - streetcar suburbs, made possible by the streetcar lines that then criss-crossed major cities across North America. Places like Parkdale in Toronto and Kitsilano in Vancouver still retain the character of that early suburban push, a push that made it possible for people to walk from their home along a side road to the streetcar, and take it whereever they needed to go. It was the proliferation of automobiles after the Second World War, and the resultant collapse in ridership, that saw streetcars disappear from all but a handful of North American cities.

Today, we might do well looking at this concept in a different way - a concept which I'm sure someone else has already come up with before me, but if that's the case, it means it's more than just disorganized neurons firing. Light rail villages - combining the space and freedom aspects that are attractive about suburbs, but avoiding the sprawling, dehumanizing, atomizing effects of modern suburban sprawl.

Start with a village square. There will be a light rail station here, and a small business area - the sort of thing you'd expect to see in a small town's downtown, or what you still see along the main streets of surviving streetcar suburbs. Beyond this, side roads radiate out to the residential areas where you'll find houses with big yards and plenty of space - but not that endless rows of them. This is supposed to be a village - only a couple of thousand people would live here. The village would be surrounded by a small greenbelt, perhaps of forests or farms - the light rail would connect to additional villages in both directions, and ultimately to a transit exchange or major urban center. There'd still be roads, of course - but the point of the design would be to reduce the degree to which an automobile is a necessity, to make driving a choice.

It is all about choice, in the end. But when there's only one dominant option, it's not much of a choice at all.

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