August 24, 2012

Pedestrian paradise in commercial and residential areas

[I hoped to split this into two posts, one for each kind of space, but they're too inter-related. I'll leave this up for awhile to let people read it, and hopefully that'll allow any discussion about this important topic to last longer.]

One of the sadder ironies of the past 20 years is that, while everyone has increasingly been promoting or at least paying lip-service to sustainable green communities that are easily walkable, their consumer behavior has fueled the sprawl of ever more strip centers and big box centers. This is true even among those who are liberal, wealthy, and educated, except that their dumpy strip centers are called "lifestyle centers" that offer a salon/spa instead of Supercuts, and that their alienating big box centers are anchored by a Walmart for yuppies, aka Target.

Make no mistake -- this isn't a case of the majority pushing for sprawl, which then causes a separate minority to push back with policy recommendations for sustainability. That person who complains about suburban sprawl is the same one who makes frequent car trips to their local lifestyle center, and who even hops back in their car after hitting up the Starbucks at one end to drive to the yoga studio at the other end.

The fundamental barrier to a pedestrian-friendly environment is quite simply automobile traffic, hence the more a location is exposed to roadways, and the thicker the width of those roadways, the more the pedestrian becomes fenced in and opts instead to drive. This makes strip centers the worst, and malls the best structures for pedestrians.

It all boils down to the desire of people going to strip centers to be isolated from other people during their trip (else they would congregate in more bustling locations). No given center can be very big because that would draw too many other customers buzzing around them like mosquitoes. The smaller size leads to a less diverse array of choices in any given center. Why? To be profitable, each smallish center will feature mostly low-risk places like fast-food restaurants -- you can always count on people being getting hungry -- and just one or two riskier, more niche stores like those for hardware, books, clothing, etc. This means that a typical patron will have to visit several shopping centers to meet all of their needs and wants.

The resulting archipelago of strip centers is defined by each center having heavy exposure to roadways -- parallel to the length of the center, and flanking both ends. There are generally no pedestrian walkways even behind the center, which may not be hemmed in by a roadway, but is usually backed by another strip center facing the opposite direction. Each center also has its marina-sized parking lot, where cars are not simply on display but creating another source of traffic that disrupts walking flows. And since each center has its own buffer of space that's set back from the curb, the combined footprint of the archipelago becomes a bit more inflated and sprawling, and thus less inviting to walk.

That buffer space also opens up a niche for parasitic bike riders who colonize what was intended as a walkway. A pedestrian only has to watch out for cars at intersections, but if there are bikes traveling in both directions on sidewalks, they can be pestered by wheeled vehicles at any point in their journey. Plus bike riders are usually self-important jackasses, far ruder than a driver, making strip centers even less friendly to walkers.

Now, this extensive, chunky lay-out with lots of buffering spaces around each location can be ideal for residential land, where each "center" would be a house, cluster of houses, or small apartment building, and where the parking lots and setbacks would be more like front lawns, back yards, and breathing room in between houses. Some degree of spaciousness and physical separation from neighbors makes it more comfortable for the occupants.

And since residential areas do not regularly draw large crowds of in-comers like a commercial center does, we don't have to worry about the average person having to traipse over such vast distances, and being threatened by cars, during some non-existent daily trek all over the neighborhood. Also for that reason, even crossing streets is usually no big deal in a suburban neighborhood, not like crossing those that wrap around busy strip centers.

This simple exploration shows that residential and commercial spaces operate according to different, perhaps opposite laws of how human beings think, feel, and behave. We can therefore reject the New Urbanist credo that the future of mankind lies in heavily mixed-use developments, where stacks of apartments and offices rest on a base layer of shops within a single building. Working and living spaces should not be that close together, certainly not within the same building -- the opposing forces of work and leisure would prevent each space from coming fully into its own.

And as with strip centers, no single building will house a diverse enough array of stores to meet someone's needs and wants, so the residents will still have to traverse an archipelago of mixed-use buildings, still across car-filled streets. Only now they'll also have given up the spaciousness and comfort of living in a nice suburban neighborhood where dwellings are not crammed together live cells in a hive. (Bad suburbs, the more Levittownian ones, are sadly very hive-like.) The New Urbanist dream would in practice be the worst of both worlds.

The residential ideal was mostly achieved with the suburban model of lowish-density housing separated into blocks for comfort, which avoided the off-putting endless string of housing that characterizes Levittowns (where the string is horizontal, one house-and-tiny-side-yard adjacent to another), as well as high-rise apartment complexes (where the string is vertical, each floor-room-and-ceiling stacked on top of another).

What about the commercial ideal? That went the opposite way, stemming from the profoundly different natures of the two realms of life. It had components that were highly concentrated, and that were housed within a single over-arching structure -- namely, the mall. It's been fashionable to hate on malls for 20 years now, not just among elite groups who actively dismiss them in articles, books, documentaries, etc., but also among the masses who simply deserted them. That can give their supporters an "under siege" mentality, not to mention those who are merely nostalgic for part of their childhood or adolescence.

Nothing wrong with that of course, but they don't really convey why malls are superior to other commercial structures. Here I'll only stick to why they were better for pedestrians (and to the dorks: yes, we're aware of the double-meaning). I've been meaning to write about malls vs. the alternatives for awhile, so I may go into other areas later on.

Because the mall is architecturally the opposite of a strip center, is counteracts all of the major problems for pedestrianism posed by them. Most obviously and importantly, the shops are housed within a self-contained whole space, so that none of it is carved up by roadways or bike lanes. You don't appreciate how special it is to walk around such an expansive space in three dimensions (if the mall had more than one level) until you're plopped back onto city streets, where regulations and lighted signals attempt to control the antagonism among drivers, and between them and walkers. So much fucking aggravation that the mall-goer is protected from by the fortress-like walls.

Have you ever been to a fake mall? One that was outdoors and that allows vehicle traffic to cut through the space? There's just nothing more disruptive functionally to the flow of pedestrians who are just heading purposefully from point A to point B, and disruptive psychologically to the wanderers who just want to get lost in the moment without being jarred awake by a car zipping in front of them (with honks and curses for added disruptive effect).

It's true that mall-goers have to face traffic in the parking lot, but that's not part of the main journey. It's outside the mall, on the other side of that transitional portal of double doors. You could spend uninterrupted hours inside, and only have to deal with the parking lot once before and once after that fun time. Moreover, since the mall has so many different types of stores -- even stores within stores, like the department store anchors -- you don't have to visit more than one of them, so you don't repeat one parking lot navigation after another.

Owing also to the higher density of shops, malls are frequently build upward, with two or sometimes three levels. The horizontal concentration is already good enough to make three or four would-be strip centers all adjacent to each other, and then with the next level up, you've got another three or four -- and all it takes to visit that other level is walking a flight of stairs, or if you're tired, an escalator or elevator ride. Not walking across multiple city streets.

Similarly, the parking lots that would sprawl out across the strip center archipelago are often stacked into a parking garage for the mall. Occasionally parking garages for malls are built underground, further reducing the footprint taken up by parking, as well as removing the eyesore of parking lots and garages from the ground-level view. Underground lots may not have been the majority, but they were at least feasible for malls, whereas strip centers do not enjoy the same economies of scale and only rarely build large underground parking lots. Submerging parking lots underground would be a great boon to walkers, whether they were patrons of the location or just passing through.

These diverse benefits of (limited) vertical building separate malls from big box centers, which only occasionally stack one layer on top of another for the departments within the big box store. You generally don't ride escalators or elevators in Walmart, although I've been to some Targets that are two stories. For multi-level parking, they seem to be between strip centers and malls. For walkability, big box centers aren't as miserable as strip centers. What makes malls superior to big box centers lies more in the greater diversity of experiences and of creature comforts and amenities that big box stores skimp on, but that malls provided in abundance.

Speaking of creature comforts, we shouldn't overlook those when measuring how walkable an area is. Strip centers leave the pedestrian exposed to the elements -- have fun walking around even a single strip center, let alone several of them, when it's raining, snowing, beating down heat, or blustering winds. Some strip centers, I'd guess built in the more humane 1970s and '80s, had covered walkways that protected pedestrians somewhat, and that also served to unify the center structurally. That's about as good as they got, and they're damn rare to find these days anyway. Big box stores offer protection within each one, although not between the other stores in the center.

The mall, however, kept out inclement weather all the way through, while sumptuous skylights poured sunshine into focal areas without over-heating them. Seating was far more generous in the mall than in any other public space ever built, other than stadiums and amphitheaters -- benches, chairs, upholstered booths, and even the edges of the ubiquitous ponds and fountains were made wide enough to rest on. Escalators and elevators offered some relief for your feet. No such horizontal people-movers are to be found in any of the horizontally sprawling commercial spaces, only in airports.

And don't forget even more basic amenities like water fountains and restrooms, which are important for pedestrians in a way that they are not for those who can shoot off in a car to find one somewhere else, or go home. You don't appreciate how generous the mall was in providing them until you find yourself walking through a strip or big box center where the owners are usually stingy and inhospitable. If they even have a fountain or restroom, you'll have to buy something first. Malls enjoyed economies of scale, so each store didn't need to provide its own, just a couple that were maintained by a tiny contribution each from all the stores.

There are all kinds of aesthetic superiorities that enliven the pedestrian experience for mall-goers, but they aren't that central to getting around comfortably on foot, so I'll save that for later.

Everyone always asks how a certain type of architecture could improve the human condition, i.e. by affecting -- shaping -- how people think, feel, and behave. Unfortunately the causal arrow points the other way around -- there are sea changes in the emotional make-up of the society, and in our social patterns, that gets reflected in the architecture. We build and re-shape the environment to suit our present desires, so designers and planners cannot keep a lid on what they see as some undesirable aspect of human behavior, unless the people themselves are moving away from it as well. In that case, that particular architect/planner is in the right place at the right time. Otherwise, they're out of luck, and a rival with the opposite thinking will enjoy greater success among audiences.

Over the past 20 years we've moved back to a mid-century zeitgeist of suspicion of normal people, cocooning, emotional restraint, and a devotion to rational efficiency optimization by gigantic corporations and the federal government. That was reflected in the everyday architecture back then with their drive-in restaurants, hive-like Levittown residential developments, and strip centers (like this one) that are laid out just like they are in our neo-Fifties world today. (The idea of a bustling mid-century Main Street is mostly a myth.)

Before that, during the Jazz Age, the ideal was a comfortable neighborhood in the suburbs, not houses packed side by side but separated into blocks, where their bungalow would have a front porch expansive enough to socialize with passersby or entertain guests. And the commercial ideal was definitely not a strip center but, in some parts still a Main Street, but increasingly the majestic department store. Department stores are a whole 'nother post, but they were like the mall before there was the mall, both distinguished from big box stores by the variety of atmospheres and experiences within, and again the greater creature comforts.

Squeezed between the two cocooning ages was the New Wave age of the 1960s through the '80s and perhaps early '90s, where the residential ideal moved away from Levittowns and back toward spacious suburban blocks, and where the commercial ideal was epitomized by the mall. The All-American community was lived that way, no matter if it was in southern California (Saved By the Bell), the Midwest (Family Ties), or back East (somebody help me out with a reference here, like a portrayal of the NYC-metro suburbs).

The mid-century infatuation with automobiles has repeated itself in our time, and so have their car shapes. But I trust that the next time the crime rate starts picking up, it'll be tempered down the way it was during the Reagan years, when it went back to the Jazz Age usage as a symbol of independence for adolescents, and a thrill-seeking device for everyone, but that didn't keep people from wanting to mill about in traffic-free public spaces.


  1. "or back East (somebody help me out with a reference here, like a portrayal of the NYC-metro suburbs)"

    "All in the Family" (it did not touch much in "urban geography", but some scenes and episodes gives the idea of neighborhood of small houses with frontporches and the neighbors knowing each other)?

  2. Your previous post was on Transparency vs Mystery (others might substitute "Obscurantity/Obscurantism" in the dichotomy). I hadn't remembered at the time, but that's pretty important for Straussian theories of intellectual history.

    The New Urbanist ideal is supposed to be Jane Jacobs' Greenwich Village. And what's the problem with it and its mixed-use buildings? My understanding is that lots of people want to live there.

  3. Japan, China or Singapore are all about huge pedestrian malls. But you don't like Asians of course.

  4. Spandrell, do you have any mode of communication other than passive-aggressive huffing?

    "The New Urbanist ideal is supposed to be Jane Jacobs' Greenwich Village."

    We have to keep in mind she wrote her major book in 1961, before the crime wave went into overdrive. That's always been a weakness of high-density residential areas -- they're more crime-ridden.

    So during the mid-century when crime was falling, it was attractive and fashionable for vulnerable young women to pile into New York City to live and work. TIME's original Silent Generation article talks about that, and how they were so eager that they'd pool resources and live with an, ugh, roommate just to live in New York. Grace Kelly's character in Rear Window is like that too, a socialite and woman-about-town, a foil to the more solitary Jimmy Stewart character.

    Anyway... that's all familiar from the past 20 years of re-colonization of high-density cities by whites.

    But what happens when the crime rate rises? Then they make a bee-line for their escape pods and let the city rot behind them. So, high-density residential spaces are highly unstable, where the slightest perturbation toward greater instability sets off a positive feedback loop toward deterioration.

    They lack all of those redundancies and buffering spaces that make the suburbs so much more resilient to stressors. Probably the most famous of those redundancies is in the number of eyeballs watching out for you and yours -- and your stuff. Neighbors just do not, perhaps cannot, watch out for neighbors in such high-density residential areas.

    And a doorman and high-tech security equipment ain't gonna help keep the bad guys afraid.

  5. Another telling sign that the New Urbanist program cannot work is that they almost never offer lots of concrete examples of places that are close to their ideal, other than a handful of very wealthy and insulated neighborhoods. Or even refer to a generic type that we all understand.

    By contrast, when I defend malls, yeah there are better ones and worse ones, but people mostly know what I'm talking about because they thrived just about everywhere outside of rural regions. Same with the suburban neighborhood broken into blocks, or cozy bungalows with large front porches. Those were everywhere at one point.

    And more importantly, they were there for the average American, even for skilled members of the working class.

    The New Urbanist dream-nabes have always been vanishingly few in number, and as you mention very high in demand, hence incredibly expensive and unavailable for basically everybody.

  6. In these discussion, perhaps could be useful to differentiate between general observations and American peculiarities.

    Things like "people fleeing from the city because of crime" or the association "residencial zone = low density; mixed-use zone = high density" are, I think, largely American peculiarities; in Europe, the residential-only, high density, suburban areas are common (example), and are these areas, not the cities, that are considered dangerous and crime-ridden - living within a city and "close to everything" (and distant from the insecurity of the suburbs) is considered a desirable thing, and the main reason because people live in the suburbs instead of in the city is because city houses are too much expensive (not because a preference for the suburbs)

    [I know that I commenting in an American blog talking mainly about the USA situation, however I think that particular discussion could benefit from a outside vision]

  7. Right, my point about residential areas is that higher density leads to more anonymity, neighbors who do not look out for each other, etc. So in those Lisbon suburbs, it's the high density that makes them so unattractive.

    I've never been there, but I assume that most of the desirable buildings in the city are not high rises with 40 floors, but at most 5-10 floors, often fewer than 5 floors, and so where people are not living in such sardine-like conditions.

    Also, the attractive European cities were built long before cars, so their lay-out is already more friendly to pedestrians. From what I remember of living in Barcelona, there are large parts of the city center that are either closed to cars, or the streets are so narrow and winding that a driver would be crazy to try driving through them.

  8. Enclosed malls and strip malls are really two very different beasts. Stores in enclosed malls keep the same hours, there's usually a central information desk, there often are mall-wide promotions and sales, and the mall itself runs advertisements. These cooperative elements are lacking in strip malls.

  9. Yeah, the stores in a mall were like team members, and not in that new, lame managerial jargon. The cooperative stuff extended to offering community spaces, whereas strip centers don't offer places for groups to meet, and of course public celebrations like Christmas, Easter, etc. You don't see that at all in stingy, narrow-minded strip centers.

  10. Minor point: "There are generally no pedestrian walkways even behind the center, which may not be hemmed in by a roadway, but is usually backed by another strip center facing the opposite direction."

    The back side of most strip centers is the delivery truck access, which makes it *even less* friendly to pedestrians than the parking lot in the front.

    Smallish strip centers where all the stores are along one wide frontage sidewalk seem to do ok - they're basically one block, and if the sidewalk is decently wide, there's plenty of room for pedestrians to get from one store to another without dealing with cars. Problem is that these usually have only a few stores, so the draw isn't greater than the sum of the parts, unlike an enclosed mall.


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