In his essay ‘On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings‘ the American thinker William James relates a trip across North Carolina in which he passed a series of valleys whose forests settlers had torn down in order to make room for simple log cabins and a patch of land to grow corn on. James was horrified:
“The forest had been destroyed; and what had ‘improved’ it out of existence was hideous, a sort of ulcer, without a single element of artificial grace to make up for the loss of Nature’s beauty.”
Yet a brief yet revelatory conversation with his driver caused him to see the valleys as the squatters saw them, and caused his attitude to be reversed:
“Because to me the clearings spoke of naught but denudation, I thought that to those whose sturdy arms and obedient axes had made them they could tell no other story. But, when they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was personal victory… The clearing, which to me was a mere ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very pæan of duty, struggle, and success.”
We each have our blindnesses to what is valued by others. This post is about a kind of blindness that may be extremely common amongst urban planners and about why very predictable cultural changes mean that blindness has to be overcome.
This article contends that the ‘sense of enclosure’ generated by following certain ratios of street height to street width is based on a valuable perception of what makes a satisfying place, but that the ratio theory is the wrong interpretation of that valuable perception. Consequently, by following the ratio theory we risk making developments that focus on concerns that may be unimportant to street users, and thereby make mistakes. In its place I’ll try to offer an interpretation of why some places that are said to ‘offer a sense of enclosure’ are satisfying that is both simpler and fits the data better, and which is constructed from two principles grounded firmly in known principles of how we perceive a place.
Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is an important trend in how our cities are being built. According to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, TOD “refers to residential and commercial districts located around a transit station or corridor with high quality service, with good walkability, parking management and other design features that facilitate transit use and maximise overall accessibility.” It’s seen as a way to ameliorate a number of modern social ills, from the ugliness and inefficiency of urban sprawl to dependence on oil to obesity. It’s also something I’ve long supported. However, a gentle walk on fields outside Chesham that would be a prime TOD site on London’s Underground rail network (were anyone insensitive enough to allow development there) provoked thoughts about the cultural significance and value of TOD and, as in my post on Michelangelo’s David, whether or not it represents an ideal that already is passing away. In other words: is TOD culturally sustainable?
The Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has recently generated buzz with his book extolling the virtues of city life, The Triumph of the City. One of the former Manhattanite’s arguments is that restrictions on the permissible height of buildings in a neighbourhood effectively also sets a ceiling on the supply of space. A constrained supply of space, coupled with a desirable neighbourhood, tends to make demand outstrip supply, with predictable consequences on the cost of property in the area.
Glaeser is a reluctant critic of Paris’ exquisite mid-rise urbanism, linking the constrained supply of housing to astronomic property prices that force out ordinary people. Whilst admiring the skyscrapers of suburban La Défense as an “inspired” solution to the lack of space in Paris, Glaeser regards the undesirability of building skyscrapers in central Paris as an extreme case due to the city’s charm, and urges cities in the developing world, such as Mumbai, to build up rather than out.
Yet Glaeser, as befits his profession, looks at cities mainly with an economist’s eye.
What thrills him about La Défense, for example, is that “it seems to have all of the economic excitement that we would expect from such a mass of skilled workers.” Another telling comment is:
“La Défense is as vertical as central Paris is flat. It has about 35 million square feet of commercial space and the feel of an American office park. Except for the distant view of the Arc [de Triomphe], administrative assistants drinking lattes in a Starbucks there could easily be in a bigger version of Crystal City, Virginia.”