Always willing to try something new, last Thursday The Cosmopolitan Charlestonian decided to attend a meeting on new urbanism. We jumped on our bikes and zipped over to 39 Rue de Jean, downtown Charleston, to pile into a room full of architects and town planners to enjoy an enlightening hour with the former Mayor of Milwaukee and current President, John Norquist, of The Congress for New Urbanism.
Feeling a bit like those lonesome island-like neighborhoods we’ve written about here, we found the presentation timely. Since giving up our Jaguar, we have become frustratingly aware of the bad design of our urban landscape and its complete reliance on the automobile. We wanted answers (and some hope) quick! Although we live downtown, our personal quest to crush our dependency on oil has segregated us from normal society in the same way any one of those gated communities sits – stranded, alone, miles of asphalt between you and it. Our friends are still part of normal society. And they live and party in those communities, tethered to the main artery by long, long roads, parkways, avenues and highways. And they still drive cars. Oh, how we miss them.
We made a choice. We kicked our car to the curb like an X (pick up Divorce Your Car by Katie Alvord when you get a chance). By Saturday night, that choice along with 50 years of urban sprawl caused us to miss our dear friend, Eddie Bush’s impromptu birthday party…a result of our damned global warming/peak oil/reduction of mass consumerism choice. And, of course, the party was, like, fifteen miles away, in a neighborhood on the outskirts of town with a bus line running no where close. So we immediately phoned a cab company, only to be told that a one way trip would equate to a Grand Total of $35.00 (plus we would tip another $7). Had our community been Newly Urbanized in the same fashionable manner the urbanist, forward-thinkers presented, we’d have been able to attend the party and would have been transported there on a reproduction electric trolley car. Who couldn’t just love this idea?
We’ve gotten around with no car and no trouble in cities like Amsterdam, London, New York, Washington D.C. and L.A. In Europe, even small cities (roughly the size of Charleston) offer wonderful public transit. The public transportation was so thorough and user-friendly in Jönköping and Huskvarna, Sweden, we even saw dogs on the bus sitting with their masters! In Amsterdam there are multiple lanes on every street - one for cars, one for electric street cars, one for buses, one for bikes and one for pedestrians. And they have giant bike parking garages! If you are an idiot and find yourself in the wrong lane, it is your own fault and people shake their heads in disgust while mumbling cruel Dutch words under their breaths. The New Urbanists appear to simply desire a return to the sensible architectural studies thrown away in a rebellion against two World Wars. Thus, the birth of Urban Sprawl, otherwise known as U.S. In car world there is little to be debated over with respect to urban design. However, the meeting did provide some hope for future connectivity.
The New Urbanist focus was on many of the issues we’ve already pointed out on this blog. Pedestrian unfriendly, disconnected neighborhoods segregated further by restrictive zoning laws have sprawled into a suburban nightmare reminding us constantly of James Howard Kunstler’s Eyesore of the Month. In most cases, this setup leaves anyone outside of a car subjected to a nice walk in the gutter (or over someone’s landscaping as we’ve pointed out in the past). America’s reliance on cheap oil, which is now obviously dwindling, has fueled more than just our vehicles – it has fueled an entire architectural movement toward big box theory flanked by giant parking lots devoid of human life. It’s no wonder the general population “looks down” upon those of us trudging over the beaten down footpaths carved into areas where a sidewalk should have been planned. We’re walking in gutters looking like we cannot even afford so much as an old klunker to deliver us to point B.
On a more positive note, we can fix this. A focus on infill development with a keen eye on urban design can save America from endless urban sprawl. Developers interested in green building must give great thought to the placement of their future buildings with rooftop gardens. There is no point in building green if the residents of said building must pollute for miles and miles driving to their new green homes. You too can join the Congress for New Urbanism for a mere hundred dollars. Their next presentation here in the States is to be held in Austin, Texas.
As far as the party, we hope to figure out additional alternatives for the future. Eddie – Happy Birthday! We hope you had a wonderful time and our thoughts were certainly on your special evening. We’re still figuring out the carless lifestyle. Cheers!