No one, on the morning after economic collapse, breaking scandal, or other such meltdowns of public importance says, “If only we’d known less.” We can argue all day long about what-will-fix-it and what-will-break-it, but at the end of the day an informed disagreement is better than uninformed consensus.
It is our civic duty to be informed. I am convinced of this.
Transportation has been on my mind a lot lately, as San Antonio tries yet again to get some sort of rail system off the ground (or on the ground, rather). As I’ve begun cultivating my own Curious Urbanite, here’s what I would recommend to anyone looking to do the same.
Jacobs, J. The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Really, everyone should read this, period. It’s dated, but eerily continually relevant. Jacobs was a prophet in the wilderness for how we were destroying our cities, and her influence on planning has been markedly more successful than other wilderness prophets before her (at least among their contemporaries).
Her main arguments are that we need lively, usable sidewalks where diversity breeds community. She has great things to say about parks, district-making, gentrification (which she calls “unslumming”) and automobiles. As transportation has origins and destinations as its raison d’etre, it’s helpful to learn about them in context.
Speck, J. Walkable City
One of Jacobs’s disciples, Speck has basically produced a modernized version of her work. His goal is to point out first, why walking should be our preferred mode of transport (health, ecology, economy, community and safety), and then gives ten suggestion for how to create a walkable city. He’s funny and irreverent, and incredibly easy to read. Neither book is by any means dry jargon, but Speck is of our time and his humor is current.
Your Local MPO
A Metropolitan Planning Organization, (MPO) controls the transportation dollars for every city over 50,000. They are the ones who dole out funds for the potholes you hate, the bike paths you love, and the frontage roads on which you’ve become dependent.
In San Antonio, our MPO has a 45 minute introductory presentation, and anyone in the community can make an appointment to visit the office and hear it. The engineer are incredibly friendly and eager to be understood. Which seems unusual for a government agency assigned with designating monies.
My feild trip to the MPO was enlightening. I learned about walkable neighborhoods, urban greenways, and railroad rerouting. More importantly, I learned how those decisions are made. I learned the term CAVEpeople: “Citizens against virtually everything.”
And at the end I got some decent swag.
New York City
Even if you’ve already been to America’s transit/walking sweetheart, go again with transportation in mind. After reading Jacobs and Speck, you’ll see the city through new eyes. Geekier eyes, yes, but it will elucidate some of the mystery that haunts us as we wonder, “Why can’t my city do that?”
A walking/running/biking tour of your area. In San Antonio, for the sake of transportation, I recommend River City Run. It’s a three mile loop around downtown that helps participants understand the important landmarks as well as the walkability of various areas of downtown. With glimpses of dead zones, sprawling lots that interrupt the landscape, and other gaptooth issues in need of civic orthodontia.