Top Ten Characteristics of a Healthy City

Klyde Warren Park, Dallas

1. Fixed transit, preferably rail, above and below ground. Subways along all major travel corridors; buses or trams on all secondary corridors. Fixed-rail transit helps to guide development and keep the streets busy. When development happens around fixed-transit, it is easy to get around on foot because everything is closer together. On the contrary, when transit isn’t fixed, as with a diesel bus route, or it is designed around the auto, transit becomes impractical because everything is further apart. New York is an example of a walking city that grew up around fixed transit. Dallas is an example of an auto city built up around roadways. It is very convenient to get around without a car in a walking city built around fixed transit. This makes it so there are more people on the sidewalks, and businesses can thrive from walking traffic, without the need for parking. Fixed-transit can be light-rail, a subway, or a bus that operates from overhead wires. A busway built for diesel buses is also fixed transit, but because the bus can leave the busway it doesn’t have the same positive impact on development and density as other forms of fixed transit. If your city doesn’t have fixed-transit, advocate for it. It will take a long time to change the way things are built, but a convenient walking district can spring up in little time when fixed transit and high density are established in an area.

2. Mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods. Mixed-use neighborhoods solve many urban ills. By intermingling commercial, residential, and civic functions in the same neighborhoods, you reduce dependence on automotive transport, since destination facilities are always close at hand: one can walk to the market, the salon, the library, the bar, school or university, administrative offices, what have you. This means denser development is possible without reducing living spaces (you reduce street pace, space dedicated to the automobile, instead); it also means more tax money for more amenities and social programs, since streets don’t pay taxes and parking lots don’t pay much tax, but homes and businesses do. Yet, since there is less road infrastructure to build and maintain, and utility infrastructure is more efficiently configured (eg. 100 feet of sewer pipe serving hundreds rather than tens of users), such neighborhoods need less tax money to support their basic functions. This means one could then either lower taxes, or apply them to more desirable civic amenities, such as parks, squares, concerts, etc. More people walking also increases community feeling, reduces opportunity for crime (“eyes on the street”), and allows for more interaction among the citizenry. It increases ridership on public transit, making it more efficient.

Mixed-income neighborhoods not only increase urban variety by mixing types and sizes of housing; they also increase the cohesiveness of a community. People from different walks of life come to meet and know each other, however superficially, and are thus less likely to make political or personal decisions based on stereotyped views. Rich, poor, and middle can discover common ground and not base their attitudes toward each other on envy, disdain, or spite. It’s a matter of hybrid vigor: purebred ideas, like purebred animals, tend to be delicate, weak, and subject to “genetic” infirmities. We learn not by congregating with those similar to us, but by meeting those who are different. You could say it’s the sexuality of the intellect: just as animals who exchange genes evolve into more efficient forms more rapidly than those primitive creatures that don’t, so do societies whose members exchange ideas, social concepts, personal philosophies, what have you–even just gossip.

3. Buildings of different age, condition, and size.  Too often in the last half-century urban developers and city officials have approached revitalization by assembling multiple parcels, bulldozing what existed, and building new. This happens in commercial and residential areas. It is standards set by suburban development and a desire to compete with suburban development that leads to this practice. This will not, however, lead to a healthy city. Wherever you live, a walk around town is sure to show the liveliest areas are the places that have many small parcels with different owners, a mix of new and old buildings and some buildings that are in better shape than others. The mix of old and new buildings provides an interesting streetscape. Older building in poor condition provide the incubators for entrepreneurs to start businesses. The newer buildings provide locations for the more established merchants to ste up shop and serve as drawing cards for a business district. The mix also serves to provide residential dwelling units of different size, condition and price making it so the neighborhood is mixed economically and providing places for both the business owner and grocery clerk to live.

4. Living spaces everywhere, especially near downtown. Many cities that developed after World War II or were redeveloped after World War II mirror suburbs in that there are some areas where people live, others where people shop and others where people work. This leads to people moving in mass at different times of the day from one area to the other. Downtown in the morning to work, to the shopping area after work or on the weekends and home at night. This creates needless congestion, streets empty at some times and overcrowded at others. When the places people live are spread throughout the city, many will choose to live near where they work. Stores will locate where people live. Many small stores will serve to supplement or even replace larger stores. The downtown streets, which in many cities become deserted after the workday ends, will become busy later and later into the evening. Lively downtowns are downtowns that are filled with not only office buildings and shopping districts, they are filled with apartment buildings, condos and other places where people live.

5. Large or small public squares at all significant intersections. The automobile has arrogated nearly all public space in the US to itself. It has stolen from us the places where we used to be able to meet and mingle as human beings, and replaced them with channels for sealed metal cells whose operators stare grimly straight in front of themselves as they manipulate the controls of the car. We need to have places where we can be people together, whether we talk to one another or not, where we can pass among each other on our way to our daily chores, acknowledging our common humanity with a glance or a nod or a word; places where we can linger if we feel so inclined, where we can enjoy the day and partake of a feeling of community, a feeling that we’re all in this together, helping each other, tasting life together, creating the city. Places that we feel we won, as individuals in a polity, and that we do literally own. Public space: our space. Not some landlord’s or management company’s.

Public squares, unlike public parks, are also thoroughfares for pedestrians, and usually support businesses on their perimeters. They acknowledge that we all bear responsibility for the working of our society, and that we all take pleasure in it too. Motorists isolated in their cars will never feel this way–the car is sold by fostering the delusion that is frees one from responsibility. People crossing each others’ paths in a square may not speak to each other, but they know that they occupy common space.

6. Lots of people coming and going (immigrants, people moving in from other places, and people moving out to other cities). A city is more than just a collection of people. It is an incubator of ideas. A certain stability is good for a city, but an influx and out box is even more important. I like to use the analogy of a college. How productive or useful would a college be if the same students were there year after year after year? The best colleges, like the best cities, pull people from far away places. This brings together the widest array of ideas, interests and backgrounds. As important as it is for cities to attract diverse people from far away places, it is important to send them out again. Cities, especially industrial ones suffering from a loss in population often lament the loss of residents who leave. But just as it is important for colleges to send students into the business world and other academic institutions, this sending out of your product and the transplanting of native people is also productive and leads to other cities being healthy and energetic places. It can also lead to economic growth when a person with a background in say metal fabricating leaves and initiates activities elsewhere or gains knowledge that will improve processes or establish new markets. People leaving a city sends out messengers with the knowledge needed to make it part of activities elsewhere.

7. Street trees and rooftop gardens for pleasure, and to ameliorate temperature extremes and reduce need for HVAC. Trees and gardens save energy and money and give pleasure to people, living space to animals and birds. Rooftop gardens provide better insulation than any amount of fiberglass batting and can grow food as well; trees provide shade in the summer and obligingly drop their leaves in the winter so sunlight can warm homes and offices, and their transpiration also helps balance local temperatures.

8. Light rail or a rapid train connection to the airport. Freight and passenger rail depots in town. Making different forms of transportation work together will be a prime challenge in the 21st Century. There is no need for much of what exists around airports in the United States. The shopping areas, acres of parking lots and hotel accommodations at airports can be eliminated. Further, in the future, people will be able to begin their journey near their home and end it at their destination, without checking the baggage twice. To accomplish this cities need to establish airport connections via light rail to downtown. This will allows passengers to leave their cars at home, or to get to the airport without the use of a car with the assurance they will be able to get to their destination without financing a cab ride or renting a car. Further, high-speed rail lines should be built to replace smaller airports and accommodate passengers traveling less than a few hundred miles. Amtrak should be funded and operated by commercial airlines and establish train stations at airports. (In Europe, for example, Lufthansa provides rail as well as air service.) This will allow for seamless connections and transfers between trains and planes in order to complete a journey using a single ticket without hassle.

9. Working farms adjacent to or (better yet) within city limits. The farther food is grown from town, the more it costs and the worse it tastes. Local farming means less fuel and road use, which is good for the earth and reduces need for taxes to support road infrastructure and fuel subsidies. Shorter transport times means food can ripen longer on the branch, so it tastes better and is more nutritious. The necessity to fit farms into numerous smaller spaces in town means fewer big agribusiness operations making their money on economies of scale; instead you have a greater number of small producers, which would lead to more variety of food, more accommodation to local tastes, and more competition (thus better service and lower prices), as well as making commercial organic farming economically feasible. This would again reduce stress on the earth and help minimize dependence on petroleum. Urban farmers’ markets bear all this out, providing higher quality food than the supermarkets, yet charging less for it.

Also, the presence of farms provides green space for the citizens and reminds them that all, regardless of pretensions, are tied to the earth.

10. Shops that open onto the sidewalk, not onto parking lots. All automobile parking is underground or mid-block, not between street and shop. Shops that open onto the sidewalk encourage pedestrian traffic, and pedestrians are better able to window shop than drivers. Walking of course is exercise too, and people who are walking are more likely to meet or make friends or other social, even commercial, contacts than drivers can. More pedestrian traffic therefore makes for a healthier and richer city. Shops set back behind vast parking lots foster the delusion that they are separate from the city and bear no responsibility to the community that supports them. They practically require driving, which increases civic infrastructure costs and increase social isolation. Sidewalk shops encourage friendly social contact and simply make life more pleasant.

Putting parking in mid-block structures or (better yet) underground accommodates those who must or prefer to drive without fragmenting the city to make room for vast parking lots.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me