American communities tend to beat around the bush or otherwise mince words when their spokespeople proclaim they would like to “improve the quality of life.” But we are often left hanging by such proclamations. How do we promote quality of life? What are the details?
To me, it is quite clear how a community achieves and maintains a quality of life.
The most profound influence on community quality of life is directly related to how much effort the community puts into catering to cars. And the astonishing fact is this: Most all of us either don’t realize, or are too timid to point out, that there is an inverse relationship between happy cars and happy people. That is, the happier we try to make cars by building wide, multi-lane, high-speed roads and enormous (and unpriced) parking lots, and setting buildings an enormous distance away from these now hostile roads, the worse conditions become for people.
This is not to say that “we need to get rid of all cars,” the common red herring whenever someone points this out.
Not at all. What it means is that we must return to the timeless design tradition that our societies adhered to for hundreds of years. The tradition of designing to make people happy first, not cars.
Instead, cars must be obligated to behave themselves. To be slowed down. To be driven carefully. Attentively. To be subservient to the needs of people. For when we make cars our imperative, they dominate and overwhelm everything else, including the habitat that creates happy conditions for humans.
Clearly, the communities most of us recognize as having an awful quality of life are the places where design for cars has been most prominent. The Houstons. The LAs. The Detroits. The South Floridas. The Anywhere USA places, in other words, that have been overwhelmed by big roads, big parking lots and big setbacks.
Solving their quality of life problems is not primarily achieved by “cleaning their air or water.” Or “reducing crime.” Or “creating more open space.” Or “protecting wetlands.”
No, the essential key is to restore the human habitat. So that pedestrians are not inconvenienced or in danger. So that going for a walk is a joy. Primarily, that means incrementally putting roads on diets (removing travel lanes on 5- or 7-laners, for example), replacing parking lots with buildings (preferably higher density residential mixed with office and retail), and reducing building setbacks to restore a human scale.
It is no coincidence that walkable, human-scaled new urbanist developments have become so popular and carry such a premium price. Nor is it a coincidence that the towns and cities that are most loved in the world—Rome, Paris, Florence, Venice, Charleston, Nantucket, Key West, Vienna, Copenhagen, Amsterdam (and other places with “old” urbanism)—all feature, most prominently and importantly, the taming of cars and the emphasis on making people happy instead.
With modest, human-scaled (not car-scaled) dimensions. With quiet streets that have on-street parking. Streets that are low-speed and narrow. With buildings that face the street and are ornamental. That are pulled up to the street to form a highly satisfying, enclosed outdoor room. With a magnificent tree canopy enveloping the street. Parking is modest and parking lots are unseen. The overall size of the community is compact, higher density, full of small and healthy markets and shops. Vibrant with sociable pedestrians and mixed in use. Housing types and household incomes are diverse.
Each of these commonly recognized, admired features are incompatible with designing for happy cars.
Which is precisely the point.
Quality of life, if we don’t beat around the bush, is largely the quest to use the timeless tradition to design for people first, and to ensure that cars—while certainly not banished—are obligated to behave themselves when they are within the people habitat.
Note that I recognize there are a number of people in our society who enjoy the suburban, car-happy lifestyle. I am just unable to bring myself to acknowledge their values when it comes to a question of defining what “quality of life” means. When it comes right down to it, even though I strongly support the new urbanist “transect” concept (that says we need to design for all lifestyle choices), I am unable to accept the “durability” of the car-based value system. In other words, I am convinced that when gas prices go to $8 per gallon, there is no free parking, and there is no public money for widening gridlocked roads anymore, very, very few people will continue to value a suburban, auto-dependent lifestyle. Indeed, the great majority of us will be either urbanists or rural-ists.
My latest book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here.
You can schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
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