Chicken, Egg

Chook2 Well, I’ve been at this for almost two weeks, so it’s about time we had a whiff of conflict!  From Vancouver-based transportation economist and blogger Stephen Rees, on my post about “transferring“:

What is
REALLY good for a city is when transfer points are made the centrepiece
of good urban design – or “development oriented transit” as Sam Adams
calls it. Talking about transportation as though it is a stand alone
topic and not one intimately involved in the urban fabric is a good
indicator that the writer has not taken the care to study the impact of
decision making on how people live
Transport is a derived demand – and
currently we demand far too much motorised transport because of our
disdain for urbanity. Transit systems need to be seen as part of a much
bigger picture of remaking our urban places.
  (emphasis added)

Nothing to argue with here, except the sentence I’ve highlighted.  But that sentence raises a really important issue.

Of course transportation is completely bound up with urbanism, and demand for it is derived from other demands of urban life.  We can reduce the need for transportation, for example, by putting things that people need closer together.  That’s an important point that always bears repeating.

But that doesn’t mean transportation planners shouldn’t discuss their craft as though it’s a “stand-alone topic.”  After all, by the same token, urban planning is completely bound up with transportation, but that doesn’t keep urban planners from discussing their craft on their own terms, nor would I want it to.

Yes, sometimes transportation planners, talking only to each other, lose track of an important urbanist principle.  But it’s equally true that urban planners, architects, and developers, talking only to each other, can sometimes lose track of important transit principles.  I’ve often been the transit planner who had to deal with the resulting mess, typically a development that requires transit but can’t be served efficiently because of its location and/or design.

In my view, the relationship between transportation and urban design is a chicken-egg question, in which all bids to elevate one over the other are vain and tedious distractions.  Urban designers, architects, and developers are place-makers, whose job is to create a sense of “there”.  Transportation is the contrary impulse, responding to the needs of people who must resist being “there” because they need to be somewhere else.  This dualism as at least as old as Augustine’s distinction between Being and Becoming, and it has millennia of life in it yet.

Can anyone really say, with a straight face, that placehood is more important than movement?  Aren’t these simply poles of the dynamic out of which all the joys and struggles of urbanism arise?  Think of a great urban space, perhaps your favorite city park or public square.  Is it really just a place where people are?  Isn’t it also a place where they move?  Isn’t the dialogue between the contrary impulses of being and movement — “being here” and “needing to be there” — at the foundation of what makes great places, and for that matter great cities?  (I might even suggest, as I did in an essay long ago, that many of the delights of great urban places occur at the moment of arrival, and arrival implies transportation.)

Which is more important, placehood or movement?  Urban design or transportation?  To me the question sounds like “Is light a wave or a particle?”  Or for that matter, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”  We’re both right, so let’s move on to the real issue:  How do we serve both placehood and movement at the same time?  How do we make them dance together?  That question is always there behind any great urban planning, whether it’s Allan Jacobs’s theory of Great Streets, or great civic “crossroads” spaces like Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, or motivating regional visions like Metro’s Region 2040.  That’s the work that urban designers and transportation planners must do.  And they can only do it together.

3 Responses to Chicken, Egg

  1. Stephen Rees May 8, 2009 at 9:31 pm #

    Not “chicken and egg” but two sides of the same coin. I think some of the best placemaking
    I have ever come across is by the Danish architect Jan Gehl who realized that it is not the
    buildings that matter so much as the spaces between the buildings. And that city streets are
    not for people to get through as quickly as possible on their way from one place to another,
    but places for people to meet and interact – and above all to stop, and watch the other people.
    In North America we have been distracted trying to accommodate cars instead of people. It is such
    an obsession in Vancouver BC that the the City council has just dodged – once again – the idea of
    turning over two traffic lanes on a bridge to cyclists – to reduce conflicts with pedestrians.
    That is sad enough but the council’s stated objective was to create the “greenest city”. We still
    try to keep rapid transit grade segregated from cars – which just leaves the cars free to move where
    they will. The very idea of streetcars seems revolutionary and we have not one pedestrian street.
    Yet we keep being told we are the most livable city in North America. High praise for a low standard.

  2. Gord Price May 12, 2009 at 5:04 pm #

    Ah, that’s why I read you, Jarrett: a planner who quotes St. Augustine in defense of a principle.
    Much the same issue came up when we at the City Program asked an artist, Bernie Lyon, to try to capture our sense of place, located as we are in downtown Vancouver. You can see what she came up with here:
    What’s noticeable is that the movement of people through our place defines the place itself.

  3. Doug Winnings October 7, 2009 at 3:36 pm #

    Completely of topic-ish, but ….it continually blows my mind how Vancouver is always taking credit for being such a green city, but other than a walkable downtown that’s choked with cars, there are almost no other places in the entire city you can walk to or between. Transit is useful to an extent in the central part of Vancouver proper, but it’s sprawl-o-rama with the occasional highrise condo after that. I guess the number of eco-warrior cyclists in all weather gear battling traffic in the rain makes a place ‘green’.