In Praise of Mid-Century Modern Planning

Richard Reep decries the New Urbanists for ignoring the era from 1945-1955, when cars were part of the landscape but not the dominant force. He believes the planning of that time could be a perfect middle ground.

Reep writes, "With building fronts set back just enough for parking, yet still close together to give a pleasant pedestrian scale, these little districts remain abundant in the landscape of our towns and cities – nearly forgotten in the fight over form, perhaps because they are doing just fine. They were built when everyone was encouraged to get a car, but before the car became a caveman club pounding our suburban form into big box 'power centers' and endless, eight-lane superhighways of ever-receding building facades. These districts were developed before the local hardware store was replaced by Home Depot and many remain intact, thriving, and chock-full of independent business owners. Many of these are true mixed-use districts – with light industrial, second floor apartments, retail and other uses peacefully coexisting."

Full Story: Beyond Neo-Victorianism: A Call for Design Diversity



Michael Lewyn's picture

Out of fashion

It seems to me that these kind of midcentury suburbs are precisely the sort of neighborhoods that are going into meltdown in many regions. (Certainly in Jacksonville they do not seem to be in much demand).

Unlike the 1920s neighborhoods beloved by new urbanists, midcentury suburbs cannot attract people who crave walkability. And unlike newer suburbs, they cannot attract people who crave newer, bigger houses. Thus, they are, I think, becoming less desirable over time, and seem to be on a one-way train to the ash heap of history (William Lucy's books discuss this point, adding enormous statistical detail).

So why replicate a failing model?


Look at the street cross-section that he gives as his case study, and you will see that his ideas are clearly anti-pedestrian.

It is a fairly normal street: each side has 8-foot parking lanes and two 11-foot traffic lanes, and there is a 12-foot turning lane in the middle.

But one side has a 6-foot wide sidewalk, with shopping facing on the sidewalk.

And the other side has an additional 31 feet to accommodate diagonal parking between the street and the shopping. It has just a 5-foot pedestrian sidewalk between the shopping and diagonal parking, and no sidewalk at all next to the street. What do pedestrians do if they want to walk a couple of blocks along this side of the street, where there is no continuous sidewalk next to the street??

It would obviously work better for pedestrians if the shopping on both sides were up against the street and the parking was behind, rather having than diagonal parking in front of the shopping on one side.

Does he expect us to believe that people are comfortable walking across the street, with the extra 31 feet for diagonal parking in addition to the traffic and on-street parking lane? That sort of excessive street width is a sure way of producing aggressive traffic that ignores pedestrians.

Of course, you can forget completely about bike lanes. No problem adding 31 feet for extra parking, but there is no way we will add 12 feet for those pesky bicyclists.

And how about wider sidewalks? A 6-foot and 5-foot sidewalk leaves no room for trees, much less for sidewalk seating. On sidewalks this narrow, people cannot even stop to talk without getting in the way of pedestrians - if only there were any pedestrians.

Charles Siegel

Browse this commercial

Browse this commercial center with Google Earth. While this area might 'work' in a strictly utilitarian sense of the word, it is - and I don't think this is unfair, objectively ugly. I'm not so sure we want to emulate this. As others have said - this is not a good example of the car and the pedestrian living in harmony, as there is nothing pedestrian-friendly about this place.


"1945-1955, when cars were part of the landscape but not the dominant force."

STFU, this has to be a joke, this was the height of auto worship... this was certainly not the time of "middle ground" with pedestrians and automobiles (try the teens and early 20s- see Country Club Plaza, or most communities developed then). This was the time of tearing down buildings by the entire neighborhood for parking lots/garages/new arterials, widening every existing street, of sidewalks with 100 foot long curb cuts, urban bridges/overpasses without any sidewalks, dingbats, downtown street grids turned into high speed one way thouroughfares with lights timed to 50 mph, the elimination of most streetcar lines (many specifically eliminated to allow for widened faster streets), urban renewal of the most urban walkable neighborhoods in a city, street corners made into no-stop high speed auto turning lanes, blank wall street frontages, everything set back (even in the heart of downtown), monotonous building facades and absolutely no consideration of any mode of short distance transportation other than the automobile. Despite what most people think, by the 1970s people were questioning and implementing alternatives to the supremacy of the auto, while it was earlier than most think that most of the damage to urbanism, pedestrians, transit was committed. Hell even Park Avenue in NYC was widened for auto traffic in 1909 at the expense of the park space. Read "Fighting Traffic" and you'll see that pedestrians were kicked off streets by 1930.


It's this kind of obtuse thinking that ruined many of our villages, towns and cities.

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