If you look at the history of urban spaces, the way people travel through them is a major factor for determining the size, layout, and infrastructure of the city. If two cities are compared, you can learn about how both function, simply by differences in travel methods, by deducing how those differences impact other things. Considering this, we should be able to control how urban spaces develop by reconfiguring the ways people travel through that space.
Urban travel is informed by making space for transportation technology. Therefore, the way to solve problems in travel design is making it modular.
In this post, I will reconcile the tension between the fact that method of travel informs an urban space, and the fact that so many methods of travel are the result of historical happenstance.
I will propose a method of urban transportation that’s heavily modular, so the modes of travel develop in line with technology. That way, there can be several grades or planes, that all have different modes of transportation, and they can be replaced by different modes easily, if needed.
For example, there could be street level pedestrian streets, elevated freeways for cars, and subways. But they could also be designed so that these different travel ways can be easily modified to facilitate another mode of travel.
Compare your average American city, especially in the west and/or south, with your average European city. It would be immediately visible not only how the layout of the cities are different, but how travel has informed that layout. You see much more car travel, in much further distances in Houston compared to Amsterdam. The layout of roads and buildings will be informed by what method people use to travel through that space.
For example, here’s a graph that shows transport-related energy consumption compared to urban density:
This graph shows that more density corresponds to less transportation related energy use. This is common sense, but we can see more specific details. For example, Copenhagen and Amsterdam are both known as compact, Northern European cities with massive cycling cultures. These cities use less energy in travel than their German counterparts with similar population density.
What is somewhat surprising is how geospecific the graph is as. The graph neatly progresses from American cities, to Australian, to European, to Asian, from most consumption and least density, to the opposite. Also, North American cities are always on the more consumption side of the parabola. Australian cities are always on the less consumption side.
As a sidenote, this graph is from 1989, and Toronto is no longer as densely populated as it was, because in 1998, the city annexed numerous suburbs around it.
It also stands out, considering this data is from 1989, the end of the Soviet Union, that Moscow is represented. Moscow was able to be much more densely populated than capitalist European cities. Not only that, but it has less energy consumption than capitalist Hong Kong, which is over twice as densely populated.
This graph might make you think something like: more biking is the solution. That is part of the solution, but it can go deeper.
The urban utopia would not be restricted around any mode of production. American cities are formed around automobile transportation. The houses and businesses are organized around streets. Freeways move cars, with little mass transit buses. Neighborhoods are suburban with insufficient sidewalks, and nothing to walk to except other ranch-style houses.
We can also look at New York City and see a highly dense example of space shaped around car travel. The grid that Manhattan is known for is designed for cars. Of course, Manhattan is accommodating to pedestrians, and the grid of Manhattan existed before cars. However, we now know the American grid has proven to be great for car travel, and Manhattan’s street layout has been modified to accommodate car travel as much as possible.
The issue is the grid is a rigid form to build around. The road layout is a container and the buildings we put within the layout are modular. We design cities where methods of travel are concrete and the things between it, the places we go, live and work are modular.
It’s not just grid-based street layouts. For example, we could look at Amsterdam, mentioned earlier, which has a layout based on the placement of canals, ancient walking and cart paths, and landmarks and monuments. This layout is better for pedestrians, but also, it has the same issues as the grid layout, because the buildings are placed due to, and around, the modes of transportation, whether it biking, walking or driving.
Another example on the previous graph: Hong Kong was by far the most densely populated city. However, the main reason is due to Hong Kong being a mountainous island / peninsula. The city is massive buildings hanging to the sides of cliffs. Hong Kong’s density is a good thing to emulate, but the density is still a side-effect of geographical limitations, much the same way Amsterdam’s urban limitations come from historical side-effects of canals, and Manhattan’s limitations come from the rigid grid.
The Foundations of an Urban Utopia
So, considering all of these things, what could make an urban utopia? Based on the geographic and historical planning restrictions of a city, I feel the best foundation to making an urban utopia, is to make a society where means of travel are modular, rather than the buildings between the modes of travel being modular.
The idea is to plan the placement of architecture, parks, open space, markets, housing etc deliberately and then plan transportation around that. This is the opposite of how a grid-based system works.
But it’s not just the placement of means of travel that cause problems, but the type of travel. Under this idea, imagine a pedestrian path, but it’s planned in such a way that it could easily be converted into a road, or a mass transit track.
Imagine Houston if the main street systems (ie freeways and boulevards) were built using infrastructure that can be modified for mass transit. Or, imagine Houston if medium shopping streets (ie two-lane streets) could be easily modified into pedestrian streets. This alone would make it easy to improve transportation speed, frequency, and variety, which would consequently, improve density.
But again, this alone wouldn’t be enough for a true urban utopia, because Houston is already established as having tremendous sprawl. If you doubled the population density of Houston, it would still be less densely populated than American cities like Santa Clara CA, Anaheim CA, Allentown PA, Hartford CT, and New Haven CT.
This is why it’s not only necessary to make the means of travel modular, but also to make them unobtrusive to the parts of cities where people live and work. A necessary way to do this, is make the streets for car travel more about mid- to long-distance travel rather than intercity travel. Car roads aren’t ubiquitous to everyday life, they’re complementary. The best way to do this, is to make cars, subways, and people exist on different grades.
The size of center cities
The way to layout an urban utopia is to first determine how to set up the central business district, then design transportation around it. My idea is to first have a center city core that is about 3-5 km2 – about 1.8-3.1 sq mi.
To give some context for real world analogues, Center City in Philadelphia is about 3.3km2. The Loop in Chicago is about 2.54km2. The City of London (the central district City of London) is 2.9km2.
What we’re doing for our city, is making a central business district that can be as dense with skyscrapers as one could imagine, because there’s very little need for things to be on the ground floor in a business district.
In the US, if you were developing a 3km2 urban space, you would either design a grid, and then slot in buildings, or design a suburban web and then slot in ranch homes. However, we are going to design the buildings for our central city district and then build transport around it.
First, I would layout dozens of massive skyscrapers and large complexes.
Then, I would design a highway ring around the urban center. There would be routes that branch off into the city center, to parking garages, cargo areas, etc. The further you get away from the freeway, the less likely you’ll encounter car roads, because the more they’d be obscured in alleyways, and potentially underground.
Then, I would design a subway system that intersects strategically with the road system. They would have stops right by parking garages, and points of access. In the city center, it would be a very tight grid of subways, that are all close enough together that they’re more less connected by vast underground pavilions.
And now, with most cars designated to elevated travelways, and tucked away from the main points of interest, as well as an immense subway system that is almost as thorough and uniform as a city grid, then the surface level of the city can be much more designed and hospitable to pedestrians.
What if, instead of roads, traffic circles, and crosswalks between our most remarkable skyscrapers, there were instead massive parks and plazas. The world would feel much more welcoming to pedestrians, and generally freer. If you need to get across town, each side of the plaza would have different subways going in every direction. You go down, ride one for a couple minutes, and emerge at a different plaza, also entirely free of cars, while also very close to car access, and other subway systems.
A dense, level system
The goal of this graded, multi-level, modular system is to not only change which mode of transportation is used on which grid, on the fly, but also to make the city evenly distributed in population. It would make travel easier and faster. It would also reduce the importance of cars quite dramatically.
If you look at a city like Seattle, there are neighborhoods of the city that are fairly densely populated. Some of these have always been relatively densely populated, and some are newly, increasingly dense due to population growth and focused zoning changes. But the geographical majority of the city is still detached, single-family homes.
What would be more ideal, and much more easily achieved in this fantasy city, is if population was more evenly distributed.
The more a city’s population is dense but distributed, with a dense subway system, the easier commuting becomes. The easier general travel around the city becomes. It would also help build more active, social communities.
Another example of what should be avoided is something like the Portland MAX system. Here’s a map:
Their system is more of a commuter system. In downtown areas, the lands converge, and follow the same paths. As they go out, they split paths to reach different commuter areas.
These problems are even more amplified by the fact that downtown Portland is in the SW quadrant of the city, but most people live in, and most points of interest are on the other side of the river. This means the entire transportation system is very much a spoke-and-hub model, where downtown is the hub and everywhere else is a spoke.
This is a poor model for building community, reducing car dependency, and easing urban travel.
Imagine that same amount of track, but distributed fairly evenly across a densely populated area.
Ultimately, this post didn’t exactly go where I wanted it to. When I started writing on the idea of a modular, graded utopian city. However, I quickly realized this is a book-length topic.
So this post went in a bunch of directions and didn’t exactly dwell on them. I will probably write more posts on this in the future.