I recently came across this quote from Kirkpatrick Sale’s 1980 book Human Scale and it succinctly relates a fundamental truth about the purpose of cities.
Cities are meant to stop traffic. That is their point. That is why they are there. That is why traders put outposts there, merchants put shops there, hoteliers erected inns there. That is why factories locate there, why warehouses, assembly plants and distribution centers are established there. That is why people settle and cultural institutions grow there. No one wants to operate in a place that people are just passing through; everyone wants to settle where people will stop, and rest, and look around, and talk, and buy, and share.
Cities, in short, should be an end, not a means. Rationally one wants to have traffic stop there, not go through, one wants movement within it to be slow, not fast.
Sale goes on to list four ways in which cities should think about slowing traffic down:
- Cities should not try to move people to facilities but provide facilities where the people are.
- Cities should be small enough so that inter-community trips, when necessary, could be managed either on foot, by bike, or with some simple subway or trolley system.
- Cities should attempt to slow down the flow of traffic, particularly with plenty of squares and plazas and parks, places where wheeled vehicles are forced to halt, endpoints that invite stopping and resting.
- Cities should try to bring home and workplace back together.
Update: Some alert readers let me know that Kirkpatrick Sale is a left-wing secessionist, which has brought him and his various organizations into contact & cooperation with racist hate groups and white supremacist organizations. I’m not going to link to it, but he’s written some stuff recently about how the Confederacy and slavery weren’t so bad (with tired arguments like white slave owners treating their slaves well) for an organization dedicated to exploring the “Southern tradition”. The white Southern tradition, mind you — there are no black voices or faces represented on their site as far as I can tell. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader as to whether that changes how you feel about his views on how to fix cities.1 (thx, edward & @paulbeard)
For me, it does. It’s fine to advocate for more bike transportation & workplaces close to home, but cities can accomplish that in a way that takes into account lower income communities (which in American cities are often made up of PoC and immigrants) or not. Everyone who lives in the West Village working close to their house and being able to walk to the store is fine — and perhaps if you’re Sale, you’d say “mission accomplished” — but if the restaurant busboys, teachers, shop clerks, dry cleaners, store owners, plumbers, firefighters, and all the other people that make that neighborhood actually function can’t afford to live anywhere close to the neighborhood and are still spending hours every day commuting on the subway to & from Queens, the Bronx, or Brooklyn, I would argue you really haven’t solved, or even begun to solve, the problem of moving home and workplace closer together.↩