Monday, February 09, 2009

Why Urban Planning

As regular readers of this blog know, I have very strong opinions about concernnig land use. Well, I am finally doing something about it. I am trying to become a city planner. Part of the application is a letter stating why I want to study urban planning. Below is my first draft of that letter.

Why I Want to Study Urban Planning.

I grew up in Palo Alto and Mountain View, California, two suburban communities. Every house I saw was a single family detached house. Every house had a lawn. We drove every where we went. We barely knew the people who lived next door. But on television I saw Sesame Street. Every one knew everyone. The buildings were tall and right up against each other. Mr. Hooper's grocery was right across the street. Even as a child of 5 and 6 years old I could see that that way of living was better than the way I was living in the suburbs. The only thing I experienced that was close to what I had seen on Sesame Street was Castro Street in Mountain View. But Castro Street in the 1970s was neglected and it had boarded up buildings, the life having been sucked out of it by a shopping mall a mile away, and by more car friendly shopping destinations along El Camino Real.

But in 1979, when I was 10, we moved to Ukiah. And that meant we had to drive through San Francisco. It was my first time to see The City. Even though almost the whole drive through San Francisco was on an elevated freeway (Since destroyed by an earthquake and not replaced.) what I saw enthralled me. I saw skyscrapers! I saw town houses and factories and offices. And every where there were throngs of people. People on foot, on bikes, on buses. And I was fascinated.

After that first drive through San Francisco I memorized the map of San Francisco in the World Book Encyclopedia. I began watching the local news out of San Francisco (the cable system in Ukiah carried the San Francisco stations.), and I began to learn about cities. So by the time my 6th grade class went on a field trip to the San Francisco financial district to go on a tour of Chevron's world headquarters I was nearly inflamed with desire to actually stand on my own feet in The City. And when I finally got there, and ascended to the 28th floor of the Chevron building, and ate a hot dog in the plaza at the end of Market Street, under the roar of that now gone freeway, I was in love.

Later, when I was a seventeen year old private, stationed at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, I was given a 24 hour pass. I rode a bus to New York City. And I saw majesty! I walked up Broadway from the bowery to Canal Street, and then down an alley, and then down some stairs, and across an empty basement to a lighted glass door covered with a red curtain. Behind that door was an illegal Vietnamese restaurant where I had fried imperial rolls, pho, kung pao prawns, fried jelly fish, contraband Vietnamese beer, and the best coffee of my entire life. I walked and walked and walked. As evening approached my buddy and I wandered into an open air clothing market. There I bought a sweater, and had my first ever experience of haggling over a price. I had my first mixed drink near Times Square. I was yelled at by Dan Rather ("Hey, do you mind getting out of the shot?") while walking in Central Park.

Later when I was out of the Army and living in another Silicon Valley suburb - this time Sunnyvale, just next door to Mountain View- I passed by a computer store in a mall that happened to be demo-ing Sim City. I watched a guy play it for about fifteen minutes, and when he got up I sat down. And that was the first time it occurred to me that someone has to plan a City. They don't just happen. So I began thinking about what makes a good city.

I observed that both San Francisco and Manhattan had narrow streets, wide sidewalks, tall buildings, no lawns and no space between buildings. I also noticed that unlike the suburbs I lived in, a person didn't have to drive. Cars were not needed to get around. Everything was close at hand. It was possible for a person to find everything he needed to live within a few blocks of where he lived. And if one wanted to travel farther than legs could comfortably bear him, there were buses, taxis, cable cars, and subways.

And then I began to contrast The City with the suburbs I lived in. Cars were a necessity in Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, and Mountain View. There was no way to shop, get to and from work, go to a restaurant, to the movies, or anything without a car. Even along the main commercial area of Mountain View, there were tremendous distances to cover. God help the person who wanted to get from a store on one side of El Camino to a store on the other side of El Camino. First there would be the walk from the store across the parking lot to the side walk. Then there would be the walk to a cross walk, but the blocks are very long and it could easily be a quarter mile to the nearest cross walk. Then there is the actual crossing of the road. Left and right turning lanes, three wide forward lanes, a planted median, three more wide forward lanes, and two more turning lanes. That is El Camino through Sunnyvale. Most people only have time to cross to the median before the light changes, then they have to wait for another green light. Then there is the quarter mile walk back to the store, and another long walk across a parking lot. But Market street, the main street in San Francisco, and Broadway in New York were different. Both of those streets carry 10 times the traffic of El Camino Real through Silicon Valley, yet they are much narrower. Along its busiest stretch, through the Union Square shopping district and the Financial District, Market street is merely 4 narrow lanes. If one wants to go from the Sheraton Palace Hotel to the shoe shine stand across the street one only has to take 35 steps.

For a couple of years, at the beginning of this decade, I had the sublime joy of living in San Francisco. I knew my baker. We actually ran into each other at the grocery store once in a while. I knew my dry cleaner's kids and he knew mine. I was friends with several of the bartenders on my block. The girls at the taqueria knew my name. The Sisters of Mercy walking their girls to school got to know me - we passed each other on the side walk every morning. I knew all the people in my building. Because I was on the sidewalk and not in a car, I met new people everyday. Some I liked. Some I didn't. But every day was an adventure. I was living on Sesame Street.

For 20 years I have been griping about suburbs, how ugly they are, how wasteful they are (what is the point of a lawn if there are no sheep?), how they poison the well of culture (San Jose, a suburban city has about a 20% larger population than San Francisco but only 1/5th the density. It has no culture to speak of.) and how they require ugly architecture (garages as the dominate feature on houses, Wal-Mart, Home Depot). I got tired of complaining. I want to help fix the problem. I want to be the bureaucrat who says "yes" to developers trying to build mixed-use, pedestrian friendly, high-density developments. I didn't get to live on Sesame Street but, maybe, I can make it so that other kids can live on Sesame Street.

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