Where Did You Grow Up?

The last few weeks’ posts on Old Urbanist made me think about what urban forms people prefer, and how it’s affected by what they are familiar with. Rather than speculate on what people in my social circle prefer, I yield the stage to you. What type of urban environment did you grow up in, and/or influenced your thinking about cities the most? And what form of urban development do you find most desirable?

I’ll start: I grew up in the Old North of Tel Aviv, a dense (about 15,000/km^2) neighborhood whose residential stock is almost exclusively four-story Garden City apartment buildings. Buildings are not attached as rowhouses, but instead are set back a few meters from the edges of the lots; typical apartment size is 120 square meters. The neighborhood is upper middle class – indeed, North Tel Aviv is used as a metonym for latte liberalism – but is not uniformly so. Growing up, I knew plenty of people in the neighborhood who were middle middle class, a few who were working class, and a few who were outright rich. This somewhat distinguishes North Tel Aviv from some surrounding suburbs that are nominally equally rich but are more uniformly upper middle class. In the 1990s, it was also stable rather than gentrified; there were, and still are, people living in the same neighborhood, sometimes the same apartment, for multiple decades.

As a result, I never grew up with the association of detached houses with wealth. Hebrew even distinguishes words for houses in general (house/home) and words that denote wealth (villa, cottage) but has just one word normally for an apartment; English, which distinguishes an apartment or a tenement from a condo, is exactly the opposite. Having a car is important for social status in Israel, but the idea is to drive it a short distance to work, as my parents did. Driving 20 kilometers each way would be strange. At the same time, I took some measure of walkability for granted, making me uncomfortable with sections of the city that were built after the 1950s and were designed to automobile scale. I did not think of public transportation as a normal means of getting to work, unless one couldn’t afford a car, but it was nifty for getting to school.

The ideas about urbanism I’ve developed out of that experience, followed by Manhattan, are:

1. Street width should be close to building height; for the purposes of this discussion, street width is measured from building edge to building edge, and building height is the average height of the continuous street wall. A height:width ratio of about 1 or slightly higher is best. Below about 1/2, it’s too open; in Providence, where the ratio is about 0.6, measured from the top of buildings, I already walk in the middle of the roadway, as if the streets were naked. Above about 2, which exists on some streets in such pre-industrial cities as Florence, it feels like an alley. As a corollary, very narrow streets are suitable for low-traffic cities, whereas high-density places should look more like Manhattan.

2. Every normal neighborhood amenity should be reachable on foot, on streets that are designed to be used primarily by pedestrians. If you need to take mechanized transportation or cross a highway to get to the supermarket, there is something wrong with your neighborhood.

3. Bicycles are a form of private transportation.

4. Stoplight phasing is critical.

5. The street network should be porous. The closer to a regular grid, the better. The Old North has a grid of arterial streets, but the local streets terminate in T-shaped intersections, like this, and it’s not always possible to tell a local from an arterial street on sight; in addition, the grid is not really continued into other neighborhoods, making walking there confusing. I found Manhattan much more walkable than the Old North for this reason.

I will now exit the stage and make this an open mic.


  1. John

    I grew up on the far NW side of Columbus, Ohio. The neighborhood was almost entirely single family homes built around 1985, but with some apartments clustered on their own in the west half of the neighborhood. The area was pretty middle class, although data seem to show that it is probably upper-middle class now. The total density is moderately high for a Columbus suburban area (6,000-8,000 people/sq mile). There are many curvy streets and cul-de-sacs typical of auto-oriented development, but still an underlying interconnected street network.

    The strip mall on the west half of the neighborhood along Sawmill Road was about a mile away, and included a grocery store, a candy shop, a World Gym, a hallmark card store, and a Burger King. Buying baseball cards at the candy shop was a popular destination. We biked almost everywhere within the neighborhood as kids, including to the strip mall, but were generally forbidden by our parents from crossing the major arterials surrounding the neighborhood.

    Parents drove children almost everywhere outside of the neighborhood. School was the exception to that. Although there are two schools within the neighborhood, they are not within our school district (the boundary bisected the neighborhood), so we were bussed to schools farther away instead of walking to the ones across the street. As soon as we turned 16, we got driver’s licenses, cars, and stopped biking.

    There was no public transit to speak of, just a couple of rush hour trips per day on an express bus to downtown. I can’t remember ever riding a transit bus until I went to college at age 18. I think the ability to walk and ride transit for almost all trips in college made a strong impression on me, but I didn’t take up biking again until grad school at age 22. Now, I really prefer a car-lite lifestyle. I can’t imagine ever choosing to live where I grew up. I really enjoy walking, biking, and the low stress of riding the train to work.

  2. jim

    I grew up in Southampton, England in the ’50s and ’60s. Our neighbourhood was semidetached houses with narrow frontages and short setbacks, mostly built around 1900. Surprisingly dense. There were some newer houses, but most of the bombsites hadn’t been rebuilt then. My grandmother lived in a four storey rowhouse near the docks. It had been upper-middle in the nineteenth century: there were still bell pulls in the main rooms and the indicator in the back kitchen. The top floor bedrooms had been servants quarters, but my father was the youngest of seven, so all rooms were pressed into service. I was at Leeds University 1967-8; many students lived in houses cut up into bedsits or in back-to-backs. When I moved to New York, I first lived in apartments in brownstones on W 22nd St and W 76th St. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that we moved into a real apartment in an apartment building (a walkup near Baker Field). So I don’t really think of cities in terms of architecture or streetscape. Just as dense clusters of houses. Houses with surprising numbers of people in them.

    Southampton was walkable and bicyclable. There used to be a pair of chain ferries across the Itchen. At rush hour one would see a couple of cars on them and maybe a couple of hundred bikes. My school was across town from my house. As soon as I was old enough I rode my bike: down the hill to the chain ferry, round the old docks, accelerate along the sweep of the New Dock Road (past the liners), then over the humpback bridge across the rail line and up (the aptly named) Hill Lane to the school. There was good public transit: the timetable for the number 9 bus (which I also took to school) said it came “every two or three minutes” during the peak morning hours. I used to go to a folk club that met in a pub near the center of town. After the pub closed we’d sometimes continue the evening at someone’s house. By the time we’d be done, the last buses were long gone and I’d have to walk home. I always could. Even in New York, I’ve walked from Baker Field to Columbia. So I think of cities as compact and comprehensible.

    In Southampton, I knew people across the city, but not the people living three doors down the street (and only one family the other side of the street). In New York, I knew the Armenian couple across the landing (because we’d intervened when they were having trouble with the landlord) and the family across the courtyard whose daughter babysat for us. But when I was undergoing my security clearance, the investigator kept asking about the Larouchist on the fifth floor; I didn’t even know what she looked like. Now, in my quasi-suburb, I know everyone on my street, even though I don’t go to Civic Association events. Urban is where social relationships aren’t forced by contiguity.

  3. mulad

    I grew up in Byron, Minnesota, a small town several miles west of Rochester which had originally been founded to supply the railroad line (Chicago and North Western still operated there when I was young, but it changed hands to DM&E and now Canadian Pacific). The population grew from around 1,700 to roughly 3,500 in the 20-ish years I lived there, and it’s probably past 5,000 now. The roads felt like a grid to me as a kid, though they weren’t quite like that. The city was just a little too small or too young to ever have a traditional main street, though several businesses remained clustered in the center of town when I was a kid. I usually walked or biked to school, first to the elementary near the center of town and later to the high school out near the western edge. After school, I often got asked to go pick up something at the town’s grocery, which was only a round-trip of about 25 minutes on foot.

    My parents drove to work in Rochester, and the family would often pile into the car or van to go into town for shopping. I remember many, many hours of boredom staring out the window watching farmland go by as we made the jaunt into the city. Of course, it did actually get dark enough to stars from time to time, and I remember watching the Hale-Bopp comet several nights. But mostly, I remember being bored out of my gourd. There wasn’t a whole lot to do in my hometown, and being dependent on the parents to get into the city was pretty frustrating. I did occasionally see the commuter bus to Rochester wander through town as I walked to school, so I often wished the buses ran at other times of day so I could get around on my own.

    Rochester has sprawled pretty badly for a long time, and sprawl has begun to hit Byron pretty hard too. A new elementary was built on the east edge of town when I was in high school, the grocery moved out to the highway frontage road a few years after I left, and a new high school appeared way out on the north edge of town around the same time (“the land was free”, my mother keeps telling me). There are at least 30 businesses in town which could make for a pretty interesting little downtown if they were actually located next to each other, but they’re mostly spread out along the frontage road (which is on the wrong side of the tracks from the majority of the town’s population, making walking distances significantly longer).

    I jumped from small-town life to the University of Minnesota, one of the biggest campuses in the country. Probably a bigger leap than I should have taken, but I managed to survive. After dodging through packs of students and cramming onto the campus shuttles for a while, it became much more apparent how spread apart things were in my hometown, suburbs, and other places.

    These days, I’m actually amazed at how close my home was to where my parents worked, even though it felt ridiculously far to me as a kid. Their commute distance of about 9 miles would probably be envied by many in the Twin Cities and other metropolitan areas.

  4. Kyle

    I grew up in western Massachusetts in a very large town (land-wise) with only 900 people. We owned 22 acres, which was one of the smallest lots on our street. We had the quintessential old New England town center about four miles away, to which I would ride my bike to on the weekends or after school.

    Now I prefer to live in densely packed urban areas. I live in Somerville, MA in a two family house without a driveway; we haven’t owned a car in over ten years. I prefer streetcar suburbs with four – five story apartment buildings, triple deckers, or two family houses that are all close together. I prefer to live in an area where I can take public transit or walk anywhere, I only occasionally need a Zipcar when going skiing on the weekend or picking up a lot of groceries. If I didn’t live in a streetcar suburb, I would prefer to live directly in Boston. I prefer the old urbanism style of Boston where the buildings aren’t setback and the streets are always lively. I get the same social and lifestyle feeling in Somerville or Boston and couldn’t live in a place where a car was required to get around. We may buy a car at some point, but I don’t want to be forced to buy a car to do the day to day tasks of going to the library, work, or the local pub. There is something special about the lifestyle of living in an old urban style city like Boston, nothing else compares.

    I could never imagine living in the town I grew up in.

    • Kyle

      Also to add, Somerville is the most densely populated city in the country. So, while it can be considered a streetcar suburb, the word suburb in this context shouldn’t be understood as anything relating to the modern sprawl suburb.

      • Kyle

        I mean densest in New England and sixth densest in the country. I’ve replied to my own post twice now, so I’ll stop.

  5. EngineerScotty

    I grew up in a rural part of Oregon City, Oregon (an edge Portland suburb), in a neighborhood of half-acre lots that predates Oregon’s famous land use laws (the neighborhood I spent most of my childhood in would be difficult to replicate under current state law). Oh, and it was located a good mile down a dead-end road from the nearest major street, and several miles from ANY commercial storefront. Commerce and development have inched closer, but you still need to travel about two miles to reach any shopping or services. Biking and walking were strictly recreational activities (or things done when weather brought driving to a standstill); obviously, the neighborhood was not walkable.

    At the start of the 80s, Oregon City was more of an exurb than a suburb, and like many Oregon towns, was based on the timber industry. At the end of the 80s, when I graduated from high school, it was on its way to becoming a bedroom community, as the timber industry in Oregon died. It was rather politically conservative, at least socially. My parents, one from a small Midwestern town and the other a refugee from Los Angeles, loved living there (and still do). Myself–not so much.

    Like many who like to be closer to the city, my childhood experience was much the opposite–I’m definitely in the camp of those who want something different than they grew up with.

  6. BBnet3000

    I didn’t grow up in an “urban” area at all, except by the ridiculous definition you hear in demographic statistics. I grew up on the south shore of Long Island, in Nassau county, but from the time i was a kid i always always fascinated by cities, mostly New York due to that being the only one I really visited, but I even remember being excited when i visited Albany as a kid, where I later lived when I was in college. When I went to college I had planned to move to the city afterward, and certainly never go back to Long Island. It was actually in Albany where I got my first taste of urban life, in a small city, even one that has many of the problems of the rust belt. I had a car, but had a grocery store right around the corner (though I usually drove to a better one). We had a great beer bar down the block from us (and I have yet to find another beer bar I like as much). I drove because I was lazy and I had a car, but I didn’t even have to, I could ride my bike or take the bus pretty darn easily. The bus system there is really pretty good, we explored the city and even outside of the city by bus very easily. Another small-city feature that many American small cities lack is something approaching an urban-rural boundary. We could ride our bikes from the very urban part of Albany and be going by cow pastures and woods within a very comfortable bike ride that anyone could do.

    After college I moved to Sacramento (with plans to save money and then move to San Francisco), which was a bit of an eye opener as there’s a very small urban area there surrounded by sunbelt sprawl, most of which makes Long Island look practically responsible. Note that I had rather naively gave my parents back the car I had in college. After 8 months in Sactown, my girlfriends car died, and instead of buying another one we moved to Berkeley, which is cheap but has decent transit access to the East Bay and San Francisco (we originally planned to move to San Francisco after making some money in the Bay Area, but we are taking classes in Berkeley now). Essentially, we didn’t want to pay the full costs of a car, which are huge, and theres no way to live without one long term in Sac, as even though we lived in Midtown, theres very few jobs there or in downtown. The few jobs left are in a concentric ring way out in the sprawl. After getting laid off from a job in San Francisco I started to pursue urban planning as a career, and im taking some classes part time at UC Berkeley and hoping to apply to grad school after this next semester.

    Presently I live in Berkeley, which is basically a streetcar suburb. I have everything I need within walking distance as you would expect in an urban place, but it is definitely suburban. I work in the real burbs, which involves BART and bike (I have a folding bike), a fairly miserable bike portion of the commute definitely informs my thoughts about planning, as does my good and sometimes bad experiences on BART. I am going pretty stir-crazy though not being in the city. Berkeley has everything I need but is boring and has no street life. We used to take nighttime walks when we first moved here but we got bored of nothing but streets full of houses and stopped.

    Interestingly, we have talked about getting Zipcar for so long but we need it so rarely that we dont want to spend the money to sign up. We are renting a car to go backpacking this month though, and since I work at a car rental place (thats right, I ride a bike to work to drive cars all day) we get a ridiculously cheap week-long rental. I think Zipcar et al are an incredible service and an important part of the future of our cities, because providing for off street car parking in an area that wants to be urban is an incredible folly. At this point I also know that I will never go back to the suburbs, not even a streetcar suburb like Berkeley, though I consider it a model for possibly sustainable suburbs where driving is optional, not mandatory. The energy usage might still be too high with the percentage of fully detached dwellings if this wasnt in the Bay Area though, where theres very little need for heating or A/C.

    I allow a fairly wide range of cities to be ideal. I havent even ruled out skyscrapers. Im fine with the density of the upper east side, as well as 3 story rowhouse neighborhoods. Id like to check out the heavily built parts of Vancouver to see how skyscrapers really work in a city (as well as maybe Sao Paolo or something along those lines).

    If theres a single ideal city neighborhood, I have to say its probably 3-7 story apartment buildings with businesses on the ground floor, built out fairly uniformly. Back from main streets many buildings would probably have ground floor apartments, raised a half story or with high windows. This sort of buildout is fairly common in Europe (which, pretension and Europhilia aside, really does have great cities that we should be looking at emulating), and something not too different can be seen in some older places in the US as well as in some newer buildings going up in the past 10 years in the US. In places where they are going in as infill we have yet to see a commitment to a full buildout of this type though for the most part, due to density being hamstrung by the automobile.

    • David Alexander

      most of which makes Long Island look practically responsible

      Admittedly, that’s the one thing I’ve noticed about living here in Nassau County. In theory, it’s bad suburban sprawl, but compared to what’s seen in other parts of the country, you can get away with a short trip on a bike here in a reasonable amount of time to go a convenience store, take-out restaurant, or in some cases a supermarket. The problem is that 90% of time, one is simply too lazy to do it. Arguably, density would probably spike up tad if the town governments would legalize two family homes with less strict regulations and higher taxes, and allow apartments on top of the mini-malls on the main roads.

  7. Matt

    I grew up (late 70s thru early 90s) in an inner ring suburb just north of Milwaukee. At 6400/mi^2, it was actually denser than the city itself (admittedly without as much business/industry as the city). Lots were generally small (0.1-.015 acres) by suburban standards, but they got larger as you got within a couple blocks of Lake Michigan. It was almost entirely on the city grid (8 blocks/mile N-S, 16/mile E-W, with wider streets at 1/2 and 1 mile intervals). Residential streets were quite wide (1 lane each direction for both parking and travelling) with 3ft sidewalks plus a 3 ft of grassy right-of-way between the sidewalks and the streets. Almost entirely detached single family homes. A couple apt buildings and one townhome development, plus the odd duplex.

    A couple small business districts, but nothing major. A decent mall two blocks from my house just on the other side of the town line. Freeway on-ramp to the city <1 mile away, but also connected to downtown via a road fronting the lake, another mostly paralleling the freeway, and another going through the East Side of MKE. Two bus routes into the city (one via freeway, one via arterials). Schools, shopping, etc were bikeable / walkable.

    I thought it was great. If more suburbs were like it, suburbia wouldn't have the bad name it has. More businesses would be nice, and more rental options would make things a little more dynamic, but otherwise pretty idyllic.

  8. Alex

    Nice idea for a post.

    My family moved around in suburbs of Minneapolis – we lived in 6 places in 4 “different” suburbs – but now that I think about it we always lived in neighborhoods that were built in the 60s (except for once). That means I never had to ask to be shown the bathroom at houses I visited – you could guess it based on other houses of the same model you’d been in. Only one of the four municipalities I lived in had a mix of socioeconomic classes – the rest were almost exclusively upper, lower or middle, and these were township-sized municipalities 6×6 miles square. In all four, where socioeconomic variation existed, it was that the poor people and minorities lived in multifamily buildings.

    We walked, biked, and got rides for transportation, but we were all waiting for the day we’d be able to drive. I did live on an all-day bus line once, but I wasn’t allowed to use it because my “liberal environmentalist” mother thought the bus was dangerous. About half the places I lived had neighborhood retail in walking distance, but in the other places it was 2-5 miles away.

    Not sure what turned me against the environment I grew up in – my mom always said she felt socially excluded because she was a single mother, my family imbued me with a sense of social justice and environmentalism to which the suburban lifestyle was antithetical (not that they noticed), and I may have been turned against cars by the death of my grandfather at the grill of a negligent truck driver. Anyway I moved to “the city” – streetcar suburbs are the closest thing we have in Minnesota – as soon as I moved out of my mom’s house.

    I think the basic lesson I drew out of the postwar suburbs of Minneapolis is that you need to have a basic level of density in order to ensure basic mobility for people without cars and to encourage a level of interaction between classes. Based on Minneapolis I’d say that’s somewhere around 4-5 households per residential acre, but more like 8-10 households/acre for a better quality of transit, which corresponds pretty well with the ITE’s transit service thresholds.

  9. EBS

    I grew up in a suburban part of a midsized coastal city, Santa Barbara, California. The downtown area is actually relatively dense and walkable, on a strict grid, and has ‘okay’ bus service. My neighborhood did not. I noticed the difference.

    I only realized this in retrospect, but perhaps the most relevant factor was the weather. Santa Barbara has fantastic weather, even for California. Rain is infrequent and light, I never owned an AC or season-specific weather. The thing that bothered me about a 2 mile walk was not the distance, heat or snow, it was the streetscape.

    1. Where we build is as important as what we build. We probably should not be building in areas where, if necessary, people couldn’t walk or bike to work most days of the year. Densifying cities in California (and other places where walking doesn’t require people to give up what they consider 20th century lifestyle conveniences like AC and heat) is far more important than building up comparables cities elsewhere. Both when it comes to energy use and when it comes to getting people to switch to an urban lifestyle. I think the weather factor is somewhat overlooked in discussions among urbanists, but it comes up an awful lot when I’m talking to someone else.

    2. Requiring a fixed architectural style is not an inherently bad idea and can create a sense of place. Santa Barbara was built in a faux-Spanish style, but it was done tastefully and coherently enough (the dense downtown grid helps) that Europeans are willing to pay large sums of money to come visit. That’s to say, everything else held constant, 10 slightly different buildings in the same ugly style is better than 10 completely different ugly buildings. That’s just a personal preference, but a fairly strong one.

  10. betamagellan

    For the first few years of my life, I lived in North Andover, Massachusetts, which is an exurb of Boston but with a very rural feel. Where I lived it was pretty auto-oriented—although there were older main street/old New England town-type areas nearby, to get anywhere beyond my family’s subdivision required a car. Upon returning to North Andover a couple years ago, I was shocked at how close everything was—many of the places I frequented as a child were within easy walking distance of my house, but the lack of pedestrian infrastructure and dangerousness of nearby intersections made walking impossible.

    However, for as long as I can remember I considered myself a Bostonian, and my parents would take me to Boston or Cambridge once or twice a week. We’d park somewhere downtown or near Harvard (where my father did most of his research, though he taught at a college in North Andover) and walk everywhere, and would usually end up taking the T to someplace else in the city, so using transit and being an urban pedestrian have always been completely normal to me, and I fully expected to live in an apartment in the city when I grew up. I was also very aware of what New York was like, mostly from TV and visiting Manhattan, which reinforced my impressions of what a city was like. What I thought of the US, I thought of the northeast.

    Then we moved to Milwaukee, or more specifically Shorewood, the first suburb north. It’s an old trolley suburb, dense by midwestern standards (~900 people/km^2) with multi-story apartments and older retail and apartment buildings on its main cross-streets, albeit interspersed with surface parking (although that’s been disappearing over the past fifteen years, as have the gas stations). It was also laid out on a grid, and 95+% of the streets have sidewalks. So, everyone walked to school, to get groceries, to go shopping, and to get ice cream. Furthermore, Shorewood’s very close to Milwaukee’s dense East Side (also ~9000 people/km^2, but with less parking and more retail), but it—although the street life’s not at Boston’s level, it’s still pleasant and you can always find something to do. If my family needed something and it could be found in Shorewood or the East Side, we’d go there rather than the more auto-oriented suburban centers. So even though Milwaukee isn’t nearly a vibrant a city as Boston, the ease of access to get to a real urban area—ten minutes on city streets versus 40 minutes on I-93—meant that I actually led a much more urban life, and I’m incredibly grateful my family moved.

    One of the first things I asked when we arrived in Milwaukee was when we were going to use the subway; Milwaukee’s now a bus-only city. I was there for the rancorous, racially-tinged light rail debate, which piqued my interest in transportation planning, and in high school I came up with monorail and PRT schemes (inset virtual blushing). However, as noted before the fact that walking was something I did every day made up for that, and Milwaukee’s also a great city for biking—there’s a grade-separated dedicated bike path going from Shorewood through the East Side to downtown, which really facilitated my ability to get around (although I mostly used it for exercise). Much of my transportation was via car, though the fact that I did most of my driving on congested East Side streets has resulted in me being very comfortable parallel parking but very uncomfortable on urban freeways. I’ve probably taken only a total of three round trips on Milwaukee’s bus, all of which post-date my time in Chicago (which turned me into a frequent bus rider)—usually when I head home I rely on family and friends for transport.

    So, I guess my key lesson is that living in a big metropolitan area doesn’t guarantee a metropolitan lifestyle—my everyday life in Milwaukee made me more of an urbanist than my weekly jaunts to Boston.

  11. F

    I lived the first five years of my life on the third floor of a nine-story building in a leafy southwestern part of Moscow. There was a playground in the yard that I think was shared by several apartment buildings. Of course, no one there had a car at the time; looking at the area on Google Maps, we must have been about 300m from a commercial boulevard. The blocks look very large but you could walk through them more or less willy-nilly. This was the only area I lived in before now that could really be called urban.

    After that, we moved to New Jersey, where we lived in a two-story apartment building in a car-oriented part of Hackensack. Across the street there was an empty lot which was home to a groundhog. My dad would take the bus to Manhattan for his job, and my mom would walk me to school for the first year (afterwards my parents sent me to a private school that would bus me there) but we drove basically everywhere else.

    When I was 9, we moved to Palo Alto, CA, and for the rest of my childhood we rented a single-family home with a fairly large yard. The area was gridded (at least locally) and very bike-friendly, but also pretty auto-oriented. I would bike to school and wherever I needed to go by myself, and occasionally to the grocery store, but my parents would drive everywhere else. I almost never used transit; a few times I took Caltrain and BART to San Francisco and Berkeley. Berkeley is a long way from Palo Alto, but you don’t notice this quite as much in a car.

    Then I went to college in Pasadena, CA. The surrounding neighborhood was mostly California-style two-story apartment buildings on one side and large opulent detached houses on the other. When not fed by the school I would walk to the grocery store, and LA’s much-maligned but really pretty good transit system was the first I used extensively at a conscious age. This is where I became interested in — indeed, aware of — transit. My interest in urbanism is an extension of my interest in transit, which itself originated as an extension of my environmentalism. (When I was little, I made up a race of aliens who all lived in treehouses and holes underground so that their cities wouldn’t disrupt the ecosystem.) But often we would still go in friends’ cars if we wanted to go somewhere.

    Now I live in Hyde Park, Chicago, which is walkable and urban but green. I live in a three-story apartment building with space for big old trees in front of it, which is typical, but there are both much taller buildings and detached houses within the neighborhood. It’s dense enough that I’ve very rarely been in a car, but I’ve also seen rabbits and opossums and raccoons walking around. On the other hand, the streets are fairly wide — I live on a one-lane one-way street that’s about 10m wide — and there are alleys in the middle of blocks that make them almost redundant. There are many stop signs but cars roll through them and still go fast because they’re influenced by the width of the streets. I feel like a second-class citizen when I’m forced to walk through snow on sidewalks while streets are plowed. I think if I were to design a neighborhood for myself to live in it would be similar to Hyde Park, but somewhat more dense at the expense of asphalt and perhaps building upwards and not of greenery, and hence much harder to drive and park in. I’m not sure if such neighborhoods actually exist in the real world.

    I’ve sometimes wondered whether my ideal is influenced by the very first place I lived in. I’ve never seen anything like it discussed on urbanist websites — people seem to be enamored of this style where everything is either paved or a building and there’s hardly any room for trees, like in SF or Manhattan. Everything where there’s open space appears to be tarred with the Le Corbusier brush.

  12. lpetrich

    I did much of my growing up in State College, PA, so I had a lot of experience with small towns. I used to bike all over my neighborhood, despite its hills. My family’s house had a sizable backyard, and my mother did a *lot* of gardening in it.

    In my teens, some of my family went to Philadelphia, and I lived in some northeast-Philly apartments, then in an apartment in Bryn Mawr, a suburb to the west. From NE Philly, I’d go to school by bus and train, and from Bryn Mawr, by two trains. I’d usually use the Norristown Trolley and the Market-Frankford train, because they were closer and cheaper than the Regional Rail train, though they were slower.

    Then Ithaca, NY, another college town, and then Livermore, CA, a Bay Area suburb. I never succeeded in learning how to drive a car, however.

    But despite my upbringing, I think that the most pleasant place for me would be some apartment near a major transit line.

  13. Benjamin Hemric

    Alon Levy wrote:

    The last few weeks’ posts on Old Urbanist made me think about what urban forms people prefer, and how it’s affected by what they are familiar with . . . . What type of urban environment did you grow up in, and/or influenced your thinking about cities the most? And what form of urban development do you find most desirable?

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    I think there are at least two different approaches to talking about cities: 1) discussing whether a city (or a city district) works in terms of one’s own personal preferences (perhaps the most common approach); and 2) discussing whether a city (or a city district) works in terms of a city (or a city district) being a successful “system” over time — i.e., one that is capable of weathering change and capable of self-regeneration, etc. The questions that Alon has asked in his post seems to me to embody the first approach.

    While everyone is, of course, entitled to choose whichever approach they prefer, I think it is important though, in order to avoid confusion, to at least point out that there are, indeed, these two different approaches.

    Personally speaking, it seems to me that the first approach is a dangerous one that leads to people trying to impose their own preferences on others, to the homogenization of various human settlements and, ultimately, to the creation of unsuccessful cities and city districts — as cities and city districts become increasingly based upon, and shaped by, politically annointed personal preferences (of those who are the most politically adept) instead of upon “unexpected” real world functionality and preferences. The second approach seems to me to be a more “live and let live” approach, and also to be the approach that is more compatible with emergent urbanism and market urbanism (and the one also likelier to lead to healthier city districts and healthier cities).

    Benjamin Hemric
    Friday, August 5, 2011, 10:29 p.m.

  14. Benjamin Hemric

    I’d like to quickly add a P.S. to my post of 10:29 pm:

    I didn’t mean to be a “spoil sport” here, as I think these are actually a fun set of questions — and ones that can also lead to insightful thoughts as to what makes for successful (and unsuccessful) city districts and cities. But I did want to point out that there are these two different approaches to discussing cities (so it seems to me) and that, unless people are made aware of these two different approaches, these questions would seem to “naturally” lead to the first approach rather than the second.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Friday, August 5, 2011, 10:59 p.m.

      • Benjamin Hemric

        Thanks for the comment and feedback!

        If we’re thinking about the same thing (and I believe we are), I very definitely agree that “talking about one’s cognitive biases might be more helpful than not.” Furthermore, reflecting about one’s life experiences can also lead to useful insights about urbanism — and I think it’s fun for both the writer and the reader to share these experiences. (Don’t have time right now to write up my own experiences — but eventually hope to do so.)

        But I think it bears repeating that so many people (not only here, but pretty much anywhere one goes on the internet) seem to unthinkingly assume that in discussions about urbanism we are all talking about the same thing, when, in fact, some people are talking more about what’s healthy and viable in cities (whether they actually it or not) and others are really talking more about what they personally like and don’t like. I feel this is an important point to add into the mix.

        Benjamin Hemric
        Sun., August 7, 2011, 11:45 a.m.

        • Benjamin Hemric

          P.S. — Ugh! I see that while editing my comment (11:45 a.m.), I unintentionally deleted the word “like” from the following phrase: “whether they actually like it or not.”

  15. Danny

    I have quite a few interesting experiences with places where I have lived/worked.
    Suburban Poverty Trap: Lathrop/Manteca CA
    Walkable small town: San Luis Obispo CA
    3rd world large-ish city: Tegucigalpa Honduras
    Mid Sized walkable city: Salt Lake City UT, San Francisco CA
    Ghetto city: Cleveland OH, Stockton CA, Oakland CA
    Exurban small city: Mentor OH.

    My ideal urban atmosphere has the following features:
    -Reasonable and real protections against police abuse
    -A government culture with values nearly the opposite of the status quo found in the US
    -A government priority of lowering the true cost of living (I know I am a conservative, but trust me, I’m not just talking about lowering taxes…if done intelligently, raising taxes can lower the cost of living)
    -Large degrees of economic freedom, with an intelligently established method of regulating externalities.
    -A lowest-common-denominator approach to infrastructure prioritization: pedestrians > cyclists > public transportation users > taxis > private automobiles.
    -A focus on removing subsidies that benefit anybody but the poor.

    I realize that some of those may not sound like urbanist prescriptions, but I can guarantee you that every single one of those points has directly affected urban form in at least one of the cities where I have lived or worked.

  16. Joseph E

    It looks like I’m from the most rural area, so far. I grew up in a “town” of 350 people, with only one general store/diner/post office. Our house was on 4 acres, and many properties were even larger. The nearest real town, with a grocery store, clinic, high school, lumber mill, and 1000 people, was 18 miles down-river. Only 40,000 people lived in the entire county (Siskiyou), which at 16,500 square kilometers is large than Connecticut. My K-8 public school had 80 kids when I started, but dropped to about 40 kids in 4 classrooms by the time I left, after the mill closed and logging jobs left the region. The only thing you could walk to was the one or two houses; the store was 1.25 miles away. It took longer to walk there than to drive to the next town. You needed a flashlight to visit the neighbors after sundown, but we did have a little trail to get there.

    The nearest urban area was Ashland, Oregon, about 1.5 hours drive away. It has a few blocks of walkable storefronts, next to Southern Oregon College (now University) and the Shakespeare Festival. We also visited family near San Francisco or Los Angeles every year, though we mainly stayed in suburban areas.

    The only bus was the local schoolbus. Some days I would ride my bike to the school, since the bus took about 30 minutes to get there due to all the loops to different houses. In high school, I was once banned from the bus during 10th grade, and had to hitch-hike the 18 miles home for a month. Staying late for sports practice meant getting a ride. I got my drivers license 1 month after age 16, and a crummy car, which was very liberating.

    When I sold my beloved 1982 Ford Escort and moved to Berkeley at age 17 (for college), I remember being delighted by the streetlights. You could walk around at night without a flashlight! I rarely used the buses, which were not frequent enough to be faster than walking or biking, but we all used BART (the urban/suburban train system) to get to “the city” (San Francisco). I bought two bikes while there, but usually walked the 10 minutes to class, having decided that the time required in bike maintenance was not worth the shorter trip time versus walking 1/2 mile.

    For the past 7 years I’ve lived briefly in the suburban hell of Orange County (CA), as well as in 2 or 3 storey apartments in streetcar suburbs in San Diego and Long Beach. Though I drove everyone for a few years, the past 2 years I have been taking the bus or bike almost everywhere. Long Beach is only slightly bikeable and walkable, but with some determination we have decreased our car use to almost nothing.

    I would love to live in a city designed for people, with few or no cars, but there is nothing like that in the United States yet. We are moving to Portland, Oregon next month, to a single-family home in a 1920’s streetcar suburb, near a MAX station. I would have preferred a townhouse or garden apartment neighborhood, but there isn’t anything like that in Portland, at least not for under $2500 a month.

    Lately I’ve been reading New World Economics and Old Urbanist, discussing narrow streets and traditional city types. I would love to see such a neighborhood created here, especially if supported by quality transit service (and good bike infrastructure – though that’s not necessary if the transit and walkability are high enough).

    But based on existing reality, I think improving bus transit with modern practices (bus-only lanes, off-board payment, proof-of-payment, all doors boarding, no union work rules, etc), and building more, cheap bike infrastructure is the affordable, fast solution for existing North American cities. Light rail and FRA non-compliant regional rail would be great, too.

      • Joseph E

        I’m almost embarrassed to say that well be living in Laurelhurst, 1/4 mile south of the Hollywood/NE 42nd MAX station. It’s actually a fairly walkable area (the Walkscore is 89, I think, even accounting for the freeway), despite appearing very suburban, but it’s a big change from living near downtown Long Beach. I tried to find a place to rent on the other side of the station, or near North Tabor or the Lloyd district (these areas would also have been less expensive). But there are no 3 bedroom places for rent in those areas, at least not this month.

  17. Joseph E

    Reading Alon Levy’s background was helpful. I’ve always felt this blog (and Alon’s posts on other sites) were Manhattan-centric, but I now realize that the experience of growing up in Tel Aviv, and of living in different Asian and European cities, is also relevant.

    I think sometimes Alon Levy has too much of a view toward mega-cities, such as NY, LA, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, etc.. While these cities have great potential and are very important to the global economy and to urbanism, and their numbers are growing fast, only 7% of the world’s population currently lives in Megacities of over 10 million people (defined by urban agglomeration), like Tokyo/NY/LA/Paris. And only about 15% of the world lives in urbanized areas of over 3 million people, like Tel Aviv, Montreal or Berlin, despite the fact that 50% of the world now lives in urban areas. The biggest category is mid-sized cities from 1/2 to 2 million people like Porland OR, San Antonio TX, Munich, or Stockholm, which have almost 15% of the world’s population now. And even smaller urban areas, between 20k and 500k, are another 20% of the world population. http://www.demographia.com/db-worldua.pdf

    Urbanism needs good solutions for large cities and megacites, but it also needs to find ways to build walkable, livable neighborhoods and cities for the majority of people who are living in small to mid-sized urban areas. These are the places that need to aim for elevated or surface light rail, or busways, bike infrastructure, and small lots on narrow streets to get a good quality city and walkability, while remaining affordable for the average person. Manhattan, Paris and Hong Kong will remain exceptions to the mean, at least for our lifetimes, and their appropriate solutions (big streets, tons of subways) may not be right for the average mid-sized or small city.

  18. Stephen Smith

    I grew up mostly around Philadelphia. My dad lived in Bryn Mawr, PA my whole life and my mom living in Roxborough, Philadelphia in the ’90s, back to Bryn Mawr a few streets down from my dad in the early ’00s, and then Bucharest, Romania from 2004-today, though recently she and her second husband also bought a house in Villanova, PA, close to Bryn Mawr.

    My dad’s house in Bryn Mawr (and my mom’s in the early ’00s) was on the Main Line, which has a pretty illustrious history, but overall it was a very walkable place that has essentially been retrofitted for automobile use. It has great transit access for being a suburb, but everyone drives. There are essentially two parts of town: south of the railroad tracks (the “Main Line” the area’s named after), which is small-town commercial and dense single-family (sometimes double-family) detached homes. This is where I lived growing up, where my dad’s and mom’s houses in Bryn Mawr were. When I was growing up (and when my parents bought the house), the area south of the tracks was largely working class white and black, and the houses were definitely cheaper than the ones with lots of land north of the tracks. Now though, it looks like they’re evening out at most, and the walkable neighborhoods south of the tracks may even be overtaking the post-war ones north of the tracks in desirability.

    My mom was the director of design at the Philadelphia Housing Authority in the ’90s (that’s why we lived in the Roxborough, which at the time was a kinda rough-and-tumble working class white neighborhood, and now is rapidly gentrifying), when all they were doing was tearing high-rises down. Roxborough and Manayunk are pretty walkable areas, but at the time it was inconceivable to me that anyone would ever do such a thing. There was a regional rail line near my house – the same type as divided the Main Line – but I don’t think I ever rode it. It was always sort of mysterious to me.

    After she moved to Romania and married her high-school sweetheart, they bought a house in the US, in the same general area as my dad’s house and her old house, but on the north side of the tracks, in auto territory. She also moved my grandmother, who still drives, into that house from nearby Wayne, PA (my grandmother is Romanian, but was scarred by her life there and won’t move back, even though my mom lives there now). To be honest it’s going to be a disaster when my grandmother can’t drive anymore (she’s 80, but in very good health), especially if that happens sooner rather than later and the non-walkable real estate market hasn’t rebounded. She refuses to return to Romania, and claims that she wants to die in that house (she’s pretty morbid given that she’s got at least another 10 or 20 years, IMO). My mom’s life in America has always been very auto-oriented which influenced the housing choice (namely, buying north of the tracks rather than south), and I think even she’s realizing at this point that the house was a bad purchase, though she still thinks my pro-urban ideas are insane.

    As for Bucharest, there’s really too much for me to say, but I’d highly recommend reading about Ceaushima if you’ve never heard of Ceaușescu’s mutilation of the city.

    Who knows what I learned from any of it, to be honest. The truth is that I didn’t really become aware of any of this sort of stuff – even the fact that the railroad tracks were the dividing line in the town I grew up in – until relatively recently, maybe two or three years ago.

    • Stephen Smith

      …oh, and then I’ve lived mainly in DC since 2006. Georgetown/Burleith for the first four years, Trinidad/H Street since the beginning of this year. Hopefully moving to NYC after my lease is up Dec. 31, but that might be a pipe dream.

  19. Alai

    I enjoyed reading these. It brings to mind the moment of realization you have as a child: “oh, other people live quite differently from the way I do.”

    I grew up in San Francisco. We lived in a streetcar suburb (though nowadays people don’t call it a suburb) where there was a mix of single family and apartment buildings, all built up to the street, three stories tall, 25 feet wide and right up against each other. We lived in my grandmother’s ramshackle 1920s rowhouse where we were three kids in one room, although we had a giant attic and a rec room as well, so it wasn’t exactly cramped. My grandmother wasn’t an easy woman to live with, so eventually my parents saved up to buy another house nearby, where I’ve lived to this day, with interruptions. It’s a walkable neighborhood, but apart from walking to school or the park, most of our shopping and family trips were by car. We would drive out of the city fairly often. When I got to high school, I started biking every day, and never really stopped. Oddly, now that I think about it, there was a bus line that would have been just about perfect for me, but the thought never occurred. In any case, I didn’t get my driver’s license until sometime in my twenties. For a while we had two family cars, but now it’s down to one shared by four adults. We all bike.

    I also spent a few years as a child living in a suburb of Stockholm– a very different experience. There, we lived in an apartment block (one of thousands) which had a courtyard and a playground, similar to F’s Moscow apartment. I walked to kindergarten and we took the subway to church on sunday, and to the waterpark. We also lived in a rural part of Sweden, but even there we would travel a fair bit by bicycle, and this was not uncommon.

    It’s been very gratifying to see San Francisco gradually become more accepting of bicycling, and I feel that there is a gradual but inexorable shift in public opinion, from “how do we change the city to accommodate all the cars we need” to “cars are nice but probably won’t work out for most of us, so let’s work on other solutions”. That said, there’s a lot of inertia, and the city is really held back by its inability to reliably run a transit system. But there’s good reason to be hopeful, and I have a hard time imagining that I’ll live somewhere else.

  20. GoGregorio

    First time poster, but lurker here, figure I’ll throw in my thoughts. I grew up in the Vacaville, a city that is epitome of California suburban lifestyle. Despite being a city of over 90,000 residents, it has only four very irregular bus lines (none of them intercity), and life is largely auto-oriented. It is a 45 minute drive west of Sacramento and east of Oakland. Unlike nearby towns, it was not built off of the railroad, but instead grew up around I-80. However, it’s development is fairly unique in that it sprawled away from the highway. As such, it’s not reasonable to use the freeway to travel from any point in Vacaville to any other point in Vacaville. As such, despite the fact that I saw a car as absolutely necessary for the first 20 years of my life, I also grew up with the idea that freeways are not for inner-urban travel (a belief that vexes my friends where I live now, in San Jose).

    Vacaville is nearly all single family, detached homes, so living in an apartment is seen as something only done by those who don’t have the means to live in a house.

    I abandoned my car and went to college in San Francisco, where I developed an obsession with public transportation and density. I occasionally rode in cars with friends, but found that the convenience of using a private vehicle dissipated because of how difficult it was to find parking. These experiences circling block after block in the Castro has had a lasting impact on me, as I now believe that the best way to discourage driving is to limit parking availability.

  21. Gary Gunnels

    I grew up in a number of places:

    rural Mississippi; rural Oregon; rural Alabama; suburban Florida; suburban Oregon; suburban California; and suburban Michigan respectively (though not in the order).

  22. Pingback: Cities and Multiple Equilibria | Pedestrian Observations
  23. Nathanael Nerode

    Huh, just found this.

    Grew up in Ithaca, NY. Still here. Still like it. It needs more sidewalks. It needs intercity train service. It needs its streetcars back.

    What did I learn about urban form from Ithaca? Good question; Ithaca is plainly weird. I learned that expressways suck, and that non-expressway roads should never have more than one through driving lane in each direction. I learned that you should always leave room for farmers’ activities.

    When young, I also lived in San Diego, CA (needed urban rail — has it now; had enough sidewalks; needed commercial areas to be closer to residential/university areas); Boston, MA (needed more traffic law enforcement and better crosswalks; good distribution of residences and commerce, though).

    • Alon Levy

      Great, now you’ve sent me scrambling to try recalling four-lane arterials that work for pedestrians. I can name a lot, but those are urban roads framed by relatively tall buildings and replete with crosswalks. Outside inner-urban areas the only ones that come to mind are upper Hope Street in Providence, which isn’t very pedestrian-friendly, and some passing segments of the mostly two-lane Moyenne Corniche between Monaco and Nice, which I’ve never experienced as a pedestrian but which seems to be fine in its urban segments, which are strictly two-lane.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.