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Thread: Let's Talk Frontier!

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Earl Finkler's avatar
    Aug 2001
    Barrow, Alaska

    Let's Talk Frontier!

    In response to: Let's Talk! posted by Daniel Zack on 04 January 2000 at 11:51:33:

    : It looks like I have submitted the first entry of the new centruy! Cool! Here is a subject that I've been pondering lately that we can talk about: why do Amricans despise cities so much? It seems to me that most people would rather eat broken glass than live in an urban environment. And I'm not talking about LA or Atlanta, I'm talking about an URBAN environment, like North Beach in San Francisco or Greenwich Village in New York... dense, intense, mixed use, sustainable, vital, exciting urban environments.

    One theory is that the suburban environment was seen as an escape from the horrors of the 19th century industrial city, with it's muddy streets full of horse dung and industrial pollution. This is valid to an extent, but those problems don't really exist any more.

    Another theory is that Americans are obsessed with the fantasy of frontier life, and that we view our detached single family homes on the edge of town as our make-believe "little cabins in the woods."

    The horrors of the old industrial city and the fantasy of frontier life are all distant cultural memories, though. Four or five generations of Americans now have lived their lives without ever experiening the 19th century indistrial city or life in the wild west. But we have all experienced the horrors of the 20th century auto suburb (breathing problems caused by crummy air, spending half of our lives in gridlock, 50,000 auto related deaths per year, etc), yet some people still cling to this way of life as if it is the key to eternal happiness.

    What's the deal? Any ideas?

    Great to see some posts as we start 2000 and happy holidays Perry and Daniel and other planners across the globe.: Wow!

    Some good points Daniel. Ever since I first moved to Alaska in 1969, I've noticed that residents all talk about living the frontier lifestyle, with open space and minimum government restriction. Yet there are many sections of Anchorage, Fairbanks and other communities that are very dense and have some of the worst aspects of urbanism ---narrow streets, no sidewalks, litter, lack of parks, etc.
    It seems like people want efficient and profitable urban living out their front door, but a vast, untouched wilderness out the back door. Oh and two huge Sport Utility Vehicles in the garage, along with snowmobiles, four wheelers and a lawn tractor.
    Hard to figure.

    Have a great 2000!


  2. #2

    Let's Talk Frontier!!

    Earl said: "It seems like people want efficient and profitable urban living out their front door, but a vast, untouched wilderness out the back door. Oh and two huge Sport Utility Vehicles in the garage..."

    I agree. Everybody does seem to want this. But if we were more efficient with our urban land, we all COULD have vast, untouched wilderness outside of our back doors! Now we have vast, low density suburbs ourside of our back doors which day by day eat into that wilderness that we all want. I visited my aunt in Sacramento (who's downtown is really booming right now) a couple of months ago and she was complaining about all of the new stuff going in on the edge of town. She also complained about the skyscrapers going in downtown. I pointed out that every one of those skyscrapers (they're only about 20-25 stories high) means one less office park taking out a farm or a meadow. Now she thinks downtown development is pretty cool.

    This really made me realize that people have conflicting views about what they think they want out of a city, just like Earl pointed out. I saw this just last night at a public workshop that we held. (I am a planner for the local MPO and it was a workshop about long range regional transportation.) Everyone wanted bike paths and sidewalks and light rail... all of which I think are fantastic things. But what they don't realize is that you can't superimpose (for a reasonable cost) urban convience on a suburban layout. If we here in Fresno (and most of the USA's metro areas are layed out in a similar fashion) are going to make a shift away from an auto dominated transportation network, then we REALLY have to do it. Not everyone is going to have a half acre of grass in front of their house, there isn't going to be a parking spot in right by the front door of the store very time you shop, and you will have to look at other people (not all of whom are exaclty like you) sometimes. None of these are bad things, and people in good cities (I mean CITIES, not necesarily any town or suburb that incorporates and calls itself "the City of Ebeneezer Howard, PA") have enjoyed life under these conditions for hundreds of years, but they run contrary to everything that most Americans consider vital in life. These values must change on a large scale before we can enjoy the bikepaths, light rail, and sidewalks that people think they want.

    What is sad is there is a portion of people who would appreciate urban living. Those with the big bucks have Manhattan, San Francisco, Seatle, and some of the other wonderful urban places that Jeffery pointed out. The rest are screwed, because most zoning prevents urban neighborhoods from being built anywhere else.

    If we could somehow help those values change, then we would all be better off. Even those who like the "frontier" life would have more frontier around them if it wasn't all being chopped up into ranchettes. Jeffery was very correct when he pointed out that we need to build good cities. People need to realize that what they saw on the latest Snoop Dog video isn't what urban living is all about! But we must not try to make the city suburban, with parking galore, huge landscaped setbacks for every building, and 6 lane arterials cutting through every neighborhood. That is sure to fail. Bring the buildings to the sidewalks, make the streets narrower that 150 feet, make the sidewalks wider than 2 feet, put a cap on parking. Allow different uses on the same block (hell, the same BUILDING for that matter!), and even allow housing for different income groups near each other. If our urban places are more urban, than our rural places can be more rural!!

  3. #3

    Let's Talk Frontier!!

    Ah, now we're coming to the hard part. Reducing sprawl requires increasing density. Mass transit and efficient use of public utilities also require high density. But how the heck do we sell that to the public? People who live in existing single-family detached housing are ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIED of allowing anything to be built next door except more single-family detached housing. Guaranteed sprawl. And height seems to be a problem, too. There is a rapidly-growing small city in my region which recently limited building heights to four stories, in order to maintain their "small-town" appearance. It does not seem to have occurred to them that if development can't go up, it must go out. And what really drives me nuts are the people who seem to believe that low-density development is actually a form of conservation. Nothing could be further from the truth--low-density subdivisions may provide a little habitat for deer and raccoons (which quickly become regarded as nuisances), but they sure aren't "wide open spaces." And they aren't productive farmland, either.
    So how do we get people to accept higher density? Design is the key. Cities must be safe, efficient, and beautiful. I think beauty is especially important and does not get the attention it deserves. You know, we planners take much of the blame for the decline of urban areas in the U.S., but I think we should give some to the architects.

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