I’ve written before about the need to cultivate walkable streets, where pedestrians and bikers have route choices and aren’t forced to travel along the same paths as automobiles. This idea is sometimes described as making “human scale” cities, and this Planetizen article discusses, among many other things, the utility of streets with differing widths.
But as I look at Provo’s layout, I’m struck simply by how wasteful it ends up being. In other words, walkability aside, we’re throwing away a lot of valuable real estate.
That picture is an overhead view of the south Joaquin neighborhood (near my own home, actually) and is realitvely indicative of many parts of the city, particularly older and downtown areas. The picture shows an area about 0.3 by 0.3 miles, or, very roughly, 2.5 million square feet.
You may need to click on the picture to really see the detail, but what’s interesting is that the center of almost every block is filled with parking lots. Some blocks are certainly worse than others, but only one of them isn’t covered in large swaths of asphalt.
The number of long, narrow apartment complexes is also significant. Many of these apartment complexes were built quickly (i.e. cheaply) in the 70s, 80s, and even 90s. Many of them look more or less like this sad example near my house:
There’s much to be said in favor of this mosaic of apartments and homes. Jane Jacobs, for example, praises architectural diversity over and over again in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Apartment complexes also increase population density, which in turn improves walkability, diversity, sustainability, etc.
But the particular mixture of diversity and density in downtown Provo is problematic. For one, cheap apartments like the example above — and which can be seen all over in the grid picture — are widely hated by longer-term residents. They are perceived as lowing property values. They rarely attract long term residents themselves, and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that they’re not architecturally “loveable,” or beautiful, in the sense that Kaid Benfield is discussing here.
The parking lots cause similar problems, inspiring hatred among residents and lowering property values. Even worse, they waste space, reduce density, and likely contribute to urban heating and runoff problems, among other things. Look at the grid above for any time at all and it’s quickly apparent that most of the space isn’t habitable, it’s simply paved. This is exactly what Chuck Marohn was talking about in this video when he mentioned wasteful infrastructure and “living beyond our means.”
So if we can agree that the ugly apartment complexes and parking lots in downtown neighborhoods are a problem, what caused the problem? And, looking to the future, how can we solve it?
As I look at that overhead view of the neighborhood, the answer seems obvious: the grid itself is to blame.
First, the grid leaves a considerable amount of land with no street access or frontage. Historic Provo neighborhoods used to be filled with large, luxurious lots, but as those lots were developed the rear sections became parking lots because other structures wouldn’t have been accessible in the middle of the block. (A block near my home actually does have an apartment complex in the center and it’s ugly, difficult to access, and despised by many in the neighborhood.)
The deep lots with limited street access also incentivized the construction of narrow apartment complexes — like the one above — that turn a blank, dull wall to the street. Think about it: a single homeowner could tear down her home and replace it with a long and narrow 10+ unit apartment complex without ever acquiring any additional land. That’s a lucrative and very tempting prospect. I could do that right now to my own house, and make a lot of money (though I won’t).
Many people gave in to that temptation — including many non-resident investors — creating a dull hodgepodge of ramshackle, low-value apartments. More thoughtful zoning laws could have mitigated the problem, but the reality is that the grid gave people relatively large parcels of land with very limited street access. Because people need to go to and from dwellings, limited street access is a problem.
But imagine if the grid was altered to have additional streets running down the center, as represented by the orange lines in the image below:
The streets bisecting the block above could be much narrower than those around the perimeter, but would still open up the center of the block for the development of single family homes, street-fronting condos, apartments or town homes.
The green boxes represent hypothetical new lots in this scenario. Note that some of the boxes are as big or bigger than several existing homes in this image, even though the homes running along the right side of the block are quite large. I mention this fact only to point out that this concept could be used to implement a variety of development types. I’d personally perfer relatively high density, high-quality town home-type development — say, brownstones — but that’s by no means the only approach that would work and ideally there would be a mix of structure types. If people preferred, this approach could also certainly be used to put in a lot of nice, single-family homes as well.
Some urban planning schools of thought dislike roads because they see them as inherently wasteful. But in this case, the addition of even a couple of simple, narrow roads would eliminate wasted parking lot space, increase density, and could potentially have an extremely positive impact on surrounding property values. In other words, more streets might actually mean less pavement.
This concept could also realistically allow Provo to develop pocket neighborhoods like the ones discussed in this post. And of course, narrow “human scale” streets cutting through the block would be a huge boon for walkability. This idea can, and should, be seriously considered with respect to downtown because, as Jacobs argues, short blocks and frequent streets offer real economic benefits.
I’ll get into Jacobs’ attitudes in more depth in a later post, but its worth noting that she devotes all of chapter 9 in The Death and Life of Great American Cities to the importance of small, frequent streets. Significantly, she mentions that
“… frequent streets and short blocks are valuable because of the fabric of intricate cross-use that they permit among the users of a city neighborhood.”
Obviously this post is something of a thought experiment, and making this concept work would require overcoming many obstacles.
But unless our goal is a city filled with massive and frequent parking lots, the current grid is wasteful and counterproductive. And ultimately, the collective problems plaguing Provo’s built environment, or that of any city, don’t exist simply because people act foolishly or selfishly — in this case tearing down homes and putting in parking lots. Rather, foolish and self-interested action is symptomatic of a system that incentivizes such behavior. In Provo’s case, that system starts with problems in the grid.