Regional Transportation Vision Statement Response

By a BVSCA Member (May 13, 1998)

The Development of a Living Urban Core


Much has been said lately about the development of urban villages and urban cores. Many philosophers and political leaders have advocated the development of such urban cores as a way to reduce the dependence on the automobile. In recent American history, some have said that the urban cores (the cities) of America are obsolete and that the automobile-dependent suburbs are the wave of the future. They say that people do not want to live in urban cores any longer, that they want to live in detached homes in low density suburbs, and that this is the age of the suburb. The problem is that there exists no urban core that competes with the suburban areas in crime rates, educational facilities, and bureaucracy and taxes. The urban cores of today do not manage themselves in a way that they are not only are truly livable but also world class to the extent that they can be compared to the great cities elsewhere in the world. The rest of this discourse describes in a general philosophical sense what urban cores need to do to compete effectively with not only their suburban areas, but also with the great cities of the world.

Essential ingredients of an urban core

Successful living urban cores come in all shapes and sizes. It is this fact that makes the world so interesting to explore; one could spend a lifetime exploring, comparing, and contrasting the makeup of the great urban cores of the world. Each core developed the way it did in response to the physical and cultural environment in which it resided. Despite the fact that each urban core is unique, all cores share a number of features that ensure them a successful and sustainable existence.

The most important feature of a living urban core is gross density. The density of population and development must be so that everyone can live in and utilize the urban core, no matter what their degree of mobility is (i.e., their means of transportation). A major shortcoming of American cities is that often the only way for its inhabitants to live in and utilize the city is with their automobile. This is fine if everyone has an automobile and can use it safely. In reality, however, large numbers of people do not have the ability (financial or physical) or desire to own and operate an automobile. Unless the facilities they need are within walking distances of their residences or on a public transit network that is itself accessible to their residences, they will be isolated from the services which they desire and need.

Even if there is a sufficient density of people or development within an urban area, the style of development must be such that the various uses of land area are present and sufficiently mixed so that the residents and visitors can efficiently use an urban core's services. There are four major types of land use that need to exist in a post-industrial urban core. They are residential, office, retail, and entertainment. In too many American cities, these four land use components are separated and not easily accessible from one another. The most obvious example is the downtown area that has much office and some retail development but hardly any entertainment and no residential development. Such downtown areas are abandoned after business hours and become breeding grounds for crime. A living urban core must have all four of these uses present and must have them intermixed at a sufficient density.

Once a living urban core is established, the local leadership must make a long-term commitment to the sustainable growth of the urban core. This can be done physically in two ways. The first is by expanding the land area of the urban core. This is done block by block in a way in which the density and mixture of uses are preserved. Whether or not this can be done, a living urban core can grow in the third dimension - up. Different uses can be laid on top of one another. An example of this is a building devoted to mixed use; e.g., one that has offices and retail establishments on the lower floors and residences on the upper floors. Such a building, if large enough, can function as a mini-core in its own right. A large cluster of such buildings and developments are the foundation for the best type of living urban cores.

At some point, an urban core reaches a critical mass at which it can function as a distinct and livable place. This can be seen in two equal and opposite ways. The first is the critical mass of office and retail development that will attract visitors from outside the core and retain those who reside in the core. From this viewpoint, the American downtown is such a core that has achieved critical mass. People commute into the downtown from the suburbs to work in its offices and maybe to shop at its retail stores or visit its entertainment facilities while those who already live there have the variety of services and entertainment to be able to live the bulk of their lives in the urban core without feeling that they are deprived of something in their lives. For this core to truly be a livable place, however, it has to achieve a critical mass in another way. It has to attain a critical mass of residents in order for the other uses to be able to function outside normal business hours profitably. A large downtown that does not have enough residents gives its office and retail establishments little incentive to stay open outside of business hours and encourages its abandonment by the few residents who do live there. Combining these two views of critical mass, a livable urban core must achieve a critical mass of office, retail, and entertainment facilities such that its residents are able to live the bulk of their lives in the core without feeling confined and of residents to ensure that the other uses have a means of support so they can make a community.

A living urban core must not only provide for its residents, but also provide for its visitors. These visitors must have a way to enter the core from the outside, navigate around it once inside, and exit it efficiently. This must be done by supplying several layers of transportation on top of one another. Public transit that is in use in most American downtowns provides services for those that have access to the transit; however, there are many people that do not have access to transit. They will arrive in their cars. Although cars are a nuisance, they are, at least in the near future, a reality. Facilities for these visitors must be provided for. They must have easy access into the urban core through the use of limited access highways that enter the urban core from the suburban areas as well as from outside the metropolis. Once inside the core, they must be encouraged to park their cars and not drive them until they leave the core. This means that there must be adequate parking facilities interspersed amongst the rest of the development. There must exist signs along the roadways not only entering the urban core but also throughout the street system directing these drivers to the parking facilities. These signs must also be bold and easily seen. Once they have parked, there must exist shuttle transportation throughout the urban core to transport people to facilities that are beyond walking distance from one another and people that have large loads to carry. In addition, wheel carts should be made liberally available to visitors and residents alike. Such wheel carts should be a part of the household of any urban core resident. Parking in designated garages should not be restricted in terms of the length of stay and should be easily accessible to hotel space if the visitor plans to stay in the core for more than one day. Finally, while the fees for parking can be structured to reflect the situation in the urban core, parking must not be restricted to users of one business or a group of business.

How different type of people can be attracted to visit and live in an urban core

A successful living urban core should not only attract a critical mass of residents, but it should also attract a wide variety of different types of people. With the exception of unrepentant criminals, nobody should feel excluded from an urban core. The great cities of history were inhabited by people of all races, colors, creeds, religions, and philosophies. The right to self identity should be the most basic right for and resident of any livable urban core.

While the urban core should attract all, a living urban core will attract different types of people in different ways. While some features, such as low crime and presence of cultural facilities attract all types of people, other facilities and features must exist to attract certain types of people. While an urban core that has low crime and the necessary availability of shopping, eating, and cultural facilities will attract visitors of all types, it will only attract those residents that can exist on these types alone. These people include those such as singles, child-free couples who work in the urban core, the elderly, and those who have physical and financial hardships to the extent that they cannot drive cars. Several cities in the United States, most notably New York City, have made considerable progress on this front. While these cities are to be commended for their progress in reducing crime and rebuilding cultural and entertainment facilities, they need to realize that this is only the first step in rebuilding living urban cores.

Even in the cities that have been most successful in reducing crime, the reforms necessary in attracting families with children have not been made. To attract these people, a livable urban core must have good and affordable schools, whether they are run by the private, government, or nonprofit sectors. Even if an urban core has every other amenity but has poor or nonexistent schools that are accessible to middle class families, people will leave the urban core when they bear children and those children reach school age. Granted, parents have a responsibility to control their children so as not to infringe on the rights of others whether they reside in the urban core or elsewhere; however, an urban core that wants to be livable must provide the basic educational and child care facilities to attract the middle class families that can conceive of living in an urban core.

If the provisions described in the previous two paragraphs are made in an urban core, that core has a real claim at being considered livable. Most urban cores would probably be satisfied with progressing to this point. For a core to aspire to being truly world class, however, it must be hospitable to still more groups of people. These people include artists, alternative cultures, and non-criminal eccentrics. This requires a commitment to the right to self-identity. All great centers of civilization that have grown, prospered and guided humanity to higher levels of development have granted tolerance to those who do not fit into a society's definition of mainstream. To insure this right to self identity, the legal, political, and religious establishment needs to realize that while combating crime is a vital ingredient in building a livable urban core, their attitudes must not become so extreme to consider lifestyles that are not mainstream (and sometimes even controversial) criminal. As long as such people do not threaten to harm others, they at worst have no negative impact on an urban core, and at best can enrich the cultural makeup of a city.

This is a very simplistic way to look at the problem of building great cities, but by looking at the basic philosophy of how cities become livable urban cores, an understanding can be gained of what needs to be done.

The metropolis containing multiple urban cores

In recent years with the automobile becoming the predominate mode of transportation, the metropolis has undergone a metamorphosis into an urbanized area with more than one urban core. When more efficient modes of transport became available, people began to more out from urban cores (i.e., downtowns) into suburban areas surrounding the core. This migration continued for more than half a century, starting with the wealthiest, and later accelerating with that of the professional, middle, and even the working classes. Eventually, the suburban areas surrounding the downtown became so large that the trip to the core was becoming inconvenient to the residents of the outermost suburbs. It was at this time that employers and services that once located nearly exclusively in the downtown area started relocating in the suburbs. This eventually resulted in the development of urban cores outside the downtown. With the development of these new urban cores, commuting patterns became much more complex; instead of people commuting from the suburbs to downtown, they began commuting to the many new urban cores that were being built in the (formerly) suburban areas.

While commuting habits changed, the transportation infrastructure supporting community habits did not. In every metropolitan area, the transportation system in existence was developed to serve a population that commuted from the suburbs to downtown. The reason for this was that the system was developed to reflect its era, and the planners of the system did not realize that the structure of the metropolitan area would change in the near future. Once the population changed its metropolitan travel habits, the existing transportation system (roads, highways, railways alike) became obsolete. What is worse, in metropolitan areas bisected by major rivers, oftentimes aside from maybe a single beltway, there are no ways to get across that major river for miles. This forces traffic to one or two overloaded crossing points to get from one urban core to another. This results in extreme traffic congestion. If for any reason the bridge fails, the entire transportation network fails. A case in point, the Washington, DC metropolis:

The Washington, DC metropolis is an urbanized of about 3.5 million of people inhabiting an area on both sides of the Potomac River in Maryland and Virginia. A bypass highway, the Capitol Beltway, was built in the early 1960s, at which time the urbanized portion of the Washington metropolis ended inside the beltway path. The beltway crossed the Potomac River at two points. West of downtown DC, the beltway crosses the river at the Wilson Bridge, near Old Town Alexandria, VA. Since that time, the urbanized area grew to extend about 15 miles outside the beltway. During this time, no circumferential highway or railway was ever built. This has caused traffic going between Maryland and Virginia to use either one of these two bridges. Notice that the next crossing upstream from the American Legion Bridge is USR 15 between Leesburg, VA and Frederick, MD. This bridge is about 40 mi west. It is a country road that is in no way convenient to any traffic that wants to stay in the metropolis. The next crossing downstream from the Wilson Bridge is located in the Northern Neck area of Virginia. This bridge is more than 50 miles away and better serves long distance traffic between Richmond, VA and Baltimore, MD. Note that the American Legion Bridge is the only way to get between Fairfax County, VA and Montgomery County, MD, two very affluent counties that have more than 800,000 people a piece. A similar situation exists with the Wilson Bridge between Fairfax County and Prince Georges County, MD. If anything happened to either one of these two bridges, the result would be a transportation and economics disaster for the entire metropolitan area.
This obvious solution is a change in the basic structure of the metropolitan transportation system. Instead of the hub and spoke highway and rail system that served a one downtown metropolis, a new system that better serves and is designed for a metropolis with many urban cores is needed. This can be accomplished in two ways. The first is a grid system; this is best for a newer metropolis that did not have a very large downtown area before it received its other urban cores, the other is a spiderweb system with many beltway routes around a central urban core; this is better for metropolises that had large established downtown areas before extensive suburbanization and the development of new urban cores in these suburbs. This solution would be more appropriate for a metropolis like Washington, DC. Failure of metropolitan transportation authorities to design and build their transportation systems to reflect the culture of their metropolises will result in their eventual economic stagnation of the entire metropolitan area including its urban cores if not worse.

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