Monday, June 15, 2009

The cacophony of the power-tooled suburbs

I live in the suburbs. Low density with lots of greenery, and that is the problem. All that greenery has to be whacked and manicured in order for the suburban image to be achieved and maintained. Grass has to be cut in summer, leaves blown in fall, snow plowed in winter, trees and bushes pruned in both spring and fall. None of this is done slowly and quietly by hand. No. Brute, electronic force does it all. My neighbors, each with the carbon footprint of a medium-sized African city and the mechanical clout of a small European army, wield an ear-wracking array of power tools. They use these on the weekend. During the week the hired gardening crews marshal their own arsenals of landscaping weaponry whose decibel levels resemble sticking your head three feet from the jet engines of a 747. The end result is a neighborhood filled with the electrified screech and aching whine of the machine.

The manicured lawns and precision cut trees of suburbia rely on noisy machine power. Because I do much of my work at home, I get to listen to the landscaping firms who work during the week and then also to hear my neighbors exercise their right to make as much noise as possible on the weekend with a battery of ever-escalating domestic machinery. Unlike the big central city where there is a constantly high level of background noise, the leafy suburbs go quiet in the late evening, but that makes the daytime noise all the more difficult to take. Not inured to the constant noise of the city dweller, the suburbanite who lives in the suburbs, rather than just sleeps there, has to experience the deafening weekday noise of professionals as well as the weekend warriors. Because of the constant drone of the power tool, the suburbs are leafy and green, but definitely not quiet.

Photos: John Rennie Short

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Comfort of The Grid

For the past 10 days in Milwaukee my journey to work is a 15-minute walk from an apartment complex to the university library. It is an easy path to chart as I follow the rigid grid system of the street layout. Now the concept of the grid has come in for a lot of criticism over the years, particularly regarding the notion of an “unfortunate” triumph of geometry over geography, of an artificial human-made network with unforeseen consequences imposed on the natural landscape. And yet the grid system also has its advantages: for example, it is a great comfort to visitors in a new city, easy to understand and simple to navigate. I contrast such ease with my experience in Tunis last August, when I wandered through the tortuous street layout of the old Medina, hopelessly lost and pulling a suitcase through the crowded, narrow walkways. Arabic curses filled the air behind me as my suitcase bumped against unsuspecting legs. Disorientated, sweating profusely and on the verge of panic, I reached my hotel more by sheer luck than guided skill. In contrast to the unknowable layout of this centuries-old organic street pattern, the grid is a friend to the visiting stranger.

North Prospect Avenue, Milwaukee

My commute is along North Prospect Avenue through a neighborhood of dwellings built as the 19th century turned into the 20th. What I like about this area is the quality and quantity of usable public space. From the edge of most houses, there is a porch that extends about 10 feet, an unfenced front garden of about 30 feet and then a sidewalk, of around 20 feet. The early summery weather coaxed people onto to their porches and into their gardens. The porches and gardens are semi-public spaces, as people using them become part of the total street scene. The street reminded me of a remark by Jane Jacobs, the grande dame of Urban Studies, who noted that the more people we have on the street, the safer we feel. This neighborhood contrasts with many of the new up market areas, where despite the sinuosity of the street pattern (a contemporary reaction to the grid), the amount of public space is minimal; many affluent areas have no sidewalks, and few have the generous public and semi-public space along North Prospect.

We need more usable public space. It is not police that make us feel safe in public but the presence of lots of people going about their everyday business. Other people make us feel safe. And to use public space we have to be generous in our allocation of usable public space. We need to avoid design determinism, forms of design facilitate rather than cause human behavior. But the quality and quantity of public space does have an affect on the livability and conviviality of cities.