Before moving to New York, I'd viewed street design through a fairly simple lens: narrow streets good, wide streets bad. By and large, I still hold this view. But after living here for a few months, I have learned that not all wide streets are equally bad. The wide roads of the South are generally terrible, but New York has made some of its wide streets a bit more pedestrian-friendly. To see why, go to Google Street View and examine three addresses: 5019 U.S. 23 in Chamblee, Georgia, 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, and 107-43 Queens Boulevard in my current Queens neighborhood of Forest Hills.
It is conventional wisdom in some circles that “comprehensive planning” and sprawl are polar opposites- that planning is the enemy of sprawl.
But in fact, a comprehensive plan is almost as likely as a zoning code to be pro-sprawl. Many of the land use policies that make suburbs automobile-dependent (such as wide roads, long blocks, low density, single-use zoning, etc.) can just as easily be found in a comprehensive plan.
A few months ago, I updated a city rating system (available at http://lewyn.tripod.com/livable09) that evaluated cities' "livability" by rating crime rates, transit-friendliness, and cost of housing.
Plenty of cities did very well on the first two criteria. For example, New York is now safer than most big cities, and of course is by far the best city in the U.S. for public transit. But its housing costs are dreadfully high. The same was true of Boston and San Francisco (which, if only crime and transit were considered, would rank second and third for livability).
A few months ago, I was talking to a faculty colleague who lives in a part of Jacksonville even more sprawl-bound where I live, an area about a mile or so from the nearest bus stop and with a single-digit Walkscore. He said Jacksonville was "safe and clean." I was a little surprised: "clean" is one word I would never* use to describe Jacksonville. When I walk down the sidewalks of San Jose Boulevard, I notice litter aplenty - and from what I know of Beach Boulevard (the grim commercial strip near my colleague's house) I doubt that it is much better.
Last week, I was busy trying to turn my paper on sprawl in Canada (available at http://works.bepress.com/lewyn/65/) into a speech. In my paper, I define sprawl in two ways: where we grow (measured by growth or decline of central cities, controlling for municipal annexations) and how we grow (measured by modal shares for cars and transit). As I was proofing, I asked myself: why these particular measurements? What presuppositions underlie defining sprawl based on, say, modal share as opposed to the growth of a urban area's land mass?
The Brookings Institution's "State of Metropolitan America" database (at http://www.brookings.edu/metro/StateOfMetroAmerica/Map.aspx#/?subject=7&ind=70&dist=0&data=Number&year=2009&geo=metro&zoom=0&x=0&y=0 ) contains a wealth of information both on central cities and their metropolitan areas. One issue I was curious about was the economic gap (or lack thereof) between cities and their suburbs.
I recently finished reading Foreclosing the Dream, by William Lucy. The most interesting parts of this book are the first chapter and the last appendix, both of which tell us where foreclosures are (or at least were in 2008, before the foreclosure crisis morphed into an international economic downturn). These figures seem to me to debunk at least a couple of the more popular explanations of the foreclosure crisis, such as:
Myth 1: "Its all the fault of too much lending to the urban poor."
Census data is already in for a couple of dozen states, and already blogs are starting to speculate about their lessons for American cities. Some commentators look at the continued decline of Rust Belt cities like Chicago and St. Louis, and suggest that suburban sprawl continues (and will forever continue) unabated. But reality is not quite so simple.
My sense is that most new urbanists and smart growth advocates were happy to see Barack Obama elected President two years ago. While John McCain opposed Amtrak and had not been overly supportive of local public transit, Obama created an Administration full of advocates for transit and urbanism, and high-speed rail is one of his Administration's signature programs. So the Obama Administration will slow sprawl, and will make our cities more transit-oriented, prosperous and walkable. Right?