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August 15, 2003

David Sucher, Day Two

This is Day Two of our conversation with "City Comforts" author and blogger David Sucher. For Day One, click here. To visit David's site (highly recommended!), click here. To read his blog, click here.

2B: The town where I grew up was a small town that was in the process of being turned into a suburb. These days it's gone beyond that. And now it's really just a drive-through place with a bunch of cul-de-sacs.
Yup. I been there.

2B: How do these things happen? And once it has happened, what can be done to bring it back to something more livable?
I think it's a slippery slope. Take a traditional Main Street from the '20s or '30s or even earlier. Now itís the 1950s. There's a vacant lot, and somebody says, I might as well set my new building back and use the front for parking. And no one gives it a thought. And it's probably benign because the rest of the block is traditional Main Street. Then over time, the State Highway Department comes along and says, We don't want on-street parking. It becomes busier and busier and they start to restrict parking hours.

2B: Or they broaden the streets.
It becomes a practical necessity to park onsite. I think it happens in a way that's invisible. We're like frogs in boiling water. Nobody realized it was happening. If you look at social commentary from the '30s to the '60s, to my understanding, nobody noticed. It was so subtle -- lot by lot, property by property. The way to reverse it, as with most important things, is to start with a consciousness change. But first, let's be clear about something: no one wants to give up their cars. They want both: they want the car, but they also want commercial areas that are pedestrian-oriented. That latter desire is a big change. It isn't universal, but compared even to 20 years ago, it's quite a difference. Today, you have people talking about pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. Nobody was talking that way 20 or 25 years ago.

2B: Minds are changing.
There's the development of a large shared goal: changing cities. So now people are grappling with how to do it. They're talking about it at the most complex level possible: Let's develop a regional plan -- mass transit, growth management. I'm saying, You may want to do these things. You may decide that an urban containment policy is a good idea. And you may decide that you want good public transit. But those per se don't get you pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods. The Washington D.C. transit system is a good example of that. Where there were dense neighborhoods, there are still dense neighborhoods. But where the trains go out into the suburbs? There's a huge parking lot. Out there, it hasn't created a dense neighborhood, it's facilitated suburban expansion.

2B: Not what was expected.
Not at all. We've associated high-density cities with public transportation -- trains, a subway. Somehow we think: oh, we've got trains, so now we'll have an interesting high-density neighborhood. No, wrong. That's not the way it happens. Density is a byproduct. For example: people flock to places that are interesting. You don't have to encourage them. The most striking example would be shorelines. In Seattle, we've got a long shoreline. Most of it's single-family. We could probably fill up most of that shoreline with high-density, multiple-family buildings in a matter of 10 years. And people would be delighted to live in high-density. You don't have to encourage people to live in high-density on a waterfront because the amenity value is so high; you have to stop them. Density is a by-product of lots of people wanting to be in a particular spot.

2B: What's an example of a small thing a town or neighborhood could get started with?
Reforming the public works department. In most cities they're very automobile-oriented, and they're very difficult to deal with if you want more concern for pedestrians.

2B: I get the sense when I visit my old hometown that the local Traffic Department actually runs the whole county.
That's exactly right. It reflects to some degree real politics. It's what people value. But if I were a local mayor, I would try to defang them. I'd try to do what I believe the Corps of Engineers has done. They've recognized that their own long-term survival depends on adopting environmental values -- restoration of wetlands and so on. There aren't going to be lots more dams to build, but there's lots more restoration to do. With traffic engineers, I'd say, Hey, your future is with traffic calming. I want you guys to internalize how you traffic-calm a city, so the traffic flows easily yet you can live there. That's a large, mayor-council level thing.

2B: Pretty ambitious in itself.
Right. But there are hundreds of much smaller ideas. Install more public seating. Make use of traffic circles. Put up clocks and water fountains.

2B: You've got me thinking about suburbs. The debate there is often between extreme libertarians who say, These places exist because this is how we like living, and the Greenies and lefties who say that suburbia is a hell too many people have been sentenced to.
Suburban expansion doesn't particularly bother me except when it comes to the commercial areas, which are awful. The residential areas are oftentimes very pleasant. People get on their high horse about it, but a nice new house, 1800-3000 square feet -- I mean, as long as they're paying for it, why not? People can go overboard, but --

2B: But why pass a law against it?
Yeah. It may not be a good thing, but the cure is worse than the disease. Suburbs? I'm indifferent to them. I don't live in one, but I understand why people do. I don't want to visit their commercial areas though. And I'd like to visit them. There's really nothing wrong with them except that they don't follow the Three Rules. Everything I say comes back to these damn rules. The key thing is to flip the location of the building and the parking lot. Do that, and you'd have a very different world. Move them so the building is on the front of the property and the parking is behind -- it's such a simple thing.

2B: But it sounds pretty physically ambitious.
It doesn't have to be that big a deal. I'm a builder, so I look on the world as a plastic place. It looks solid but it's not. Demolition will take care of a building in a few minutes. Things are constantly undergoing change. So I don't look at the form of the suburbs as being fixed. Its buildings typically don't have much substance to them. Many of them are nearing the end of their useful life. You can just tear them down. The reason I'm optimistic is that on a commercial level in the suburbs there's more parking than is required. There's a lot of opportunities to put in more buildings. We've changed our notion of what a reasonable parking requirements are. It used to be that we had five or six parking spaces per thousand square feet of building. That's changing

2B: It's funny how few of the critics are concerned with this kind of background perceptiveness and thinking. Yet it's the background against which the flashy stuff occurs.
I don't know that they're very well-informed. They may not have much knowledge of the process of building, whether from the point of view of government regulation or parking. I was talking to an architect years ago. I asked him, Did you ever work on a skyscraper, or a really large tower? And he said, yeah, he'd done that early in his career when he worked for a big firm. And I said, It must be incredibly complicated -- because I was really impressed by the difficulty of our little project. He said, Not really, it's not difficult at all. Most of the difficult stuff is done by structural engineers. The main thing the architect figures out is how to get the cars onto and off of the site.

2B: That's great.
I said, Really? And he said, Really. The human circulation is pretty easy. You can do that with steps and ramps and elevators. But cars are much more constrained. So the design of buildings depends on the car question to a surprising degree. He pointed to our own project. What were we concerned with? What's the first thing we're looking at? We're trying to figure out, What is our parking ratio? Where are the cars going to come in? Where are they going to park? That's where we start the design process.

2B: If you could get the architecture press and academics into one room, wouldn't it be great to tell them a few of these things?
I suspect that they know it, but for some reason they don't want to talk about it. Though I know one guy who writes in Seattle who's down to earth and does a good job. He'll probably never write for the New York Times. (laughs)

2B: I woke up to architecture about 12 years ago. My eyes just sprang open one day. I realized, Wow, you can look at the entire built environment as a museum, and at everything in it as an artifact on display. The whole world became a lot more interesting. So on the one hand I'm stunned by how many people don't pay attention to their environment. On the other hand I'm hopeful, because it seems like some people are waking up a bit to their surroundings.
I'm also struck by how people aren't aware of it. It's astonishing. One of the things I'm disappointed about right now is that Martha Stewart is in for a tough time. I was hopeful that she was eventually going to start talking about the space outside the house. She has a wonderful bully pulpit, and her sensibility is such that she could have been a very positive educational force.

2B: It ain't rocket science. It's about quality of life.
And quality-of-life things have gone through such a change in the last 25 years. Food has gotten much more sophisticated in this country. There's no comparison to what it was like 30 years ago.

2B: Somehow the food world got people paying attention to how they were eating. Is the same thing beginning to happen with the built environment?
I don't know. I think it's true, but I don't think people know what to do. It's social -- it's a public good.

2B: It's out of their control in a way that their eating or dressing isn't.
Right. And that's part of what's tough. I'm looking at this residential street I'm on -- it's pretty nice, built in the '20s or '30s. I'm using it and enjoying it. But I don't have control over what any individual owner does. That's one of the things that makes the single-family house so successful -- it gives people a zone of autonomy. They don't have a townhouse or condominium association, which a lot of time have incredibly dumb rules about the color of your blinds or where you can store a bicycle. And those things are part of life in higher-density neighborhoods. It's one of the reasons why it's so difficult to get people excited about new high-density neighborhoods. The best ones are the old ones. We don't seem to be able to figure out how to build them new.

2B: So it's partly a matter of control?
Yes. You have to go through local government. The public right of way in Seattle -- and I don't think Seattle is too unusual -- is roughly 50% of the city's land area. Roughly 50% of the land area in Seattle is public right-of-way.

2B: I had no idea the percentage would be so high.
It's a lot. So the engineering departments and the various public-works departments are essentially in control of huge areas of the city.

2B: They hold your fate in their hands.
Exactly. And say you're a commercial property owner and you want to put up awnings. Awnings I think most people would consider to be a nice public amenity. In Seattle -- and I think this is fairly common -- if you want to put up an awning to extend over the sidewalk, something with a steel frame, you have to get a permit. Now that's not bad, because there are structural issues involved and we have to be mindful of public safety. But they charge you -- and not just for the permit but for the street use. They charge you an annual fee. You'd think people would say, "Awnings, great! We're going to inspect them, and we're going to charge you for the cost of the inspector coming out and making sure it's attached safely." I think that's a good consumer-protection measure -- I'm all for good building codes. They aid everybody, and businesses should be thankful for them. But with this awning -- it's perceived that you're taking public space for private benefit.

2B: Instead of serving the neighborhood in some way.
Right. You're actually making a more attractive public pedestrian environment. Yet with their fees, they're discouraging you from doing this.

2B: I could be deceiving myself, but it seems to me that the web is a hopeful development. People can find City Comforts or the New Urbanism so much more easily now. In your more upbeat moments, what makes you feel hopeful?
That there are so many more people interested now than there used to be. And a lot of it is getting fairly sophisticated. When you start noticing things for yourself, things change. When you start noticing red cars, say, suddenly you're seeing red cars all over the place. So I could be kidding myself too. It could be that it's just because I'm interested in the subject that I'm noticing people who are interested in what I'm interested in. But I've been interested in it for quite a long time. And I do think there's significantly more interest now.

2B: A few people are waking up?
Yes, although not enough. Right now in Seattle we're having a battle about whether the University should be allowed to lease more office space off campus. In the past it's done an indifferent job at best of expansion, which is why people are wary of them now. But people aren't asking the key question: How are they going to expand? Everybody's just taking it for granted that they'll do a bad job. Why don't we say instead, OK, if you want to expand, you have to take part in building a nice, pedestrian-oriented neighborhood.

2B: Instead of scoffing, insist they play by desirable rules.
Exactly. As long as you're going to build by these rules, then you can expand as if you were a private property-owner.

2B: I'm so often struck by the fact that the rules for building nice neighborhoods and nice parks are known. Not only is it not rocket science, it's not a secret. Yet people get confused. And they seem to want to think it's a complicated thing. Or perhaps that the rules have yet to be discovered.
That's why I keep coming back to the Three Rules, and their sub-rules. That's where it all starts. And that's in the design process -- it starts with the location of the parking lot. With a lot of this stuff, we seem to want to make it more complicated than it has to be. Do we want to do this? I don't know.

2B: Maybe there's something about the human mind that wants to overcomplicate things.
It sometimes seems like it.

Our thanks to David Sucher.

posted by Friedrich at August 15, 2003


I'm squarely in your target demographic--we found the only part of Dallas that has pedestrian-friendly streets, with commercial parking behind the buildings--but I think there is a danger of overgeneralizing. Lots of Americans hate to walk. This was long noted by foreigners even back when horses were the alternative to ambulation, but the trend is moving even more in that direction as the population ages. My mother, for example, lives in a new development for older people with an attached shopping center. She wants to park in front, go into her target store, and leave. Here in Dallas, the brutal heat over half the year discourages all but the dog walkers (and nuts like us) from hoofing it. So you have the population breaking into niches, with uptown-loving pedestrian yuppies, usually with no kids, who like wandering the commercial streets on foot and everyone else, who wants to drive and park. That's fine--to each his own.

The only compromises that can draw some of both groups are the traditional malls and the newer pseudo-urban outdoor malls like West Village in our neighborhood, or Universal City Walk in LA. These privatized solutions seem much more desirable to me than plagues like "traffic calming" (really "driver exasperating").

Posted by: steve on August 15, 2003 08:38 PM

Two of the most successful revitalization projects in Southern California are both regular city streets that have been restructured to have a dominant pedestrian, rather than automotive, presence. Interestingly, both projects turned significantly run down areas into "hot spots" virtually overnight. I have been astonished over the past few years that there has been so few attempts to copy this obviously successful formula on a broader scale. Is it a lack of insight on the part of real estate developers, or will the local governments simply not play along? It's a mystery.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 16, 2003 03:13 AM

I'm familiar with a number of pedistrian areas in cities between New Orleans and the Pacific. Parking lots are everywhere, big ones, but the Mexicans and Central Americans seem content to walk across hot parking lots from discount stores to their bus stop.

I'm just saying.

Posted by: j.c. on August 17, 2003 02:13 PM

Thanks David Sucher and 2 Blowhards for this discussion. I live in a 25 year old condo development near the Jersey shore. After reading your discussion, I appreciate our sidewalks even more. However, hardly anyone strolls the community. We have a convenience store, pizza shop, Starbucks, and Target within easy walking distance. Only the teenagers walk over there; adults drive the quarter mile. Our community is quiet and safe with lots of green and landscaping. Can't figure out why so few people stroll around.
Our townhouses all face towards the parking lots. This is a good thing because, that's the only time you see your neighbors: walking to and from the car.

(A sad note: They tore down the old neighborhood movie theater to build the Target.)

Posted by: valine craig on August 19, 2003 10:29 PM

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