Monday, March 8, 2010

Urban Humanism

Last week I attended a presentation by a representative from Regional Transportation District on FasTracks. Somebody commented how surprised they were in 2004 to discover that women over 65 voted FOR the tax increase to support construction of the new transit system. The surprise came from the fact that this population group lives on the fixed income and is historically unlikely to support new and progressive project. It was an evening of surprises as I found that comment striking. More on that later…

During last 50 years city planning revolved around cars. Large city blocks allowing for long acceleration and deceleration lanes, multi-lane streets, highways, drive-thru restaurants, banks, pharmacies and lots and lots of parking (4 parking spaces for every car on the road today!). Because of the way zoning codes are written today it is standard procedure for an architect or engineer to start designing a site plan by determining parking requirements. Then we look at setbacks; finally the little space left is used for the building. Little or no consideration is given to pedestrians. Our cities are designed for the cars, not for the people.

In the recent years we came to realization that car-centered city planning leads to catastrophic consequences. I will not get into the discussion of energy crisis or environmental implications. I want to focus on social outcome instead.

For thousands of years people walked or rode their horses. The size of their world was limited by how far they can walk in one day. If they needed information they asked their neighbors. A corner store carried all basic goods and was within walking distance. So were the school, the church and the doctor. A street car would take you to the downtown. There were no gyms and no obesity. There was a lot of neighborhood gossip but no social anxiety or depression. Active children were told to play outside, not medicated for ADHD.

Progressive minds of today talk about new ways to create modern, sustainable developments. New urbanism, new communities… I want to go back to those little old ladies over the age of 65 who voted for FasTracks in 2004. I’m not surprised by their vote at all! They remember the days before cars took over our lifestyle. For them there is nothing new or progressive about public transportation or livable and walk-able communities.

Many cities (including Denver) adopt new kind of zoning codes. The Form Based Codes. Unfortunately the word Form relates to the Building Form. I’m still waiting for yet another generation of codes: Human Form Based Codes. City planning based on human scale and human perception. City planning that considers questions like these:
  • Can a mother with three children safely walk on this sidewalk? (note she only has two hands)
  • Would you let your 8-year-old son ride a bike on this bike trail independently?
  • Can children walk or bike to school in this neighborhood?
  • Can a 65-year-old woman walk or take a local bus to the light rail stop?
  • Where do you get your milk?
  • Can you live in this neighborhood for a week without driving?


  1. I was at that presentation too, and found the answer why 65+ women favored FasTracks in '04 -- because they wanted to take transit downtown for lunch -- off base. Older women are not going to feel comfortable "meeting up" in downtown Denver or anywhere, coming in various directions, via mass transit. Instead, I think your suggestion makes more sense. It's about a less car-centric culture.
    P Hyde

  2. P, thank you for reading and your comment. Hoping to see you tonight.