Some of us in the urban creeks restoration movement were treated to the first signs of the last throes of an automobile/land use fad as big as the country it transformed. Recently, (November 6,2006) members of the community activist group in Berkeley, California called Citizens for a Strawberry Creek Plaza met with one of the representatives of the car culture that rocketed to prominence after the Second World War and is now approaching a sputtering turn around.
The local story is that our group wants to bring back a block of Strawberry Creek to the city’s downtown, while the University of California has recruited a hotel developer to build a project that would place a building right up to the present street line, rather than setting the building back in various places to make room for a creek and plaza.
Our guest at the luncheon meeting and a local businessman, and in addition a recent student of the computer graphics application called SketchUp, showed us simplified renderings of a possible creek “water feature” heading down Center Street with a lane of traffic along its edge. He repeated more than five times that hundreds of pedestrian malls in city centers were disasters – he’d traveled the country widely and did some research on the Internet to confirm that. When many of us present pointed out that there were many successes as well as failures and added that there are many pedestrian streets that are extremely successful and well loved in Europe and other parts of the world, he explicitly said models from outside the country were irrelevant since Americans love their cars.
He referred to the effect if the creek were not very shallow as a “revine,” and so, presented an almost straight line channel to carry some fraction of the creek water in a trench one to five feet deep symbolically through the city center, while out of hand rejecting any discussion of shifting the building footprint.
Well, that’s exactly what the group is all about: defining the building footprint so that there could be a creek and pedestrian plaza to grace the city center. He did do a good job re-convincing us that trying to create anything that looked remotely like a creek within the present street edge would look terrible. I said I’d rather have no creek at all than a trench with water that would give a bad reputation to creek daylighting in the future (daylighting meaning bring up buried creeks into the light of day).
But more importantly, there is the larger historical perspective that the discussion brings up.
While writing the following in a note to my fellow creek activists it dawned on me that expositions like our guest’s show a massive historic trend, powered by oil and the absurd build out of suburbia to the strained limits of both, both oil and suburbia, that is now turning around before our very eyes. Here’s what I said in my note to Citizens for a Strawberry Creek Plaza:
Our guest reiterated many times that there are hundreds of mall failures in the US and precious few successes. I think he exaggerates on the negative and also that precedent, though often helpful, is not strictly required. Berkeley can be creative and can actually take the lead here, as it has in a number of other instances – first creek “daylighting” in the US, first Ecology Center, first to disinvest in Apartheid South Africa, first Styrofoam ban, first dog park, first police car radios! and many other firsts. Berkeley could do something that isn’t precisely modeled in the past, like our Strawberry Creek Plaza which we propose would be a combination creek opening, pedestrian street part of the way and a plaza set into the environment. Do we really need an exact precedent here? Partial precedents – and leadership again for the city – are good enough.
But perhaps why so many malls failed should be mentioned and our guest’s observation of that is at least partially true, if incomplete in omitting the many successes. The failures generally cited happened to be at a particular time in recent history and people have been generalizing every since without pointing out the time frame. The really large spate of failures was because of a disinvestment in the downtowns and new investment in car-dependent sprawl that occurred between the Second World War and about the beginning of the 21st century. Many other disinvestments contributed to killing whole town centers along with their pedestrianized streets, too. In fact I would say it was heroic for people to even try city center malls in the circumstances. They were conscientious people doing everything they could to save something very valuable.
I know a brilliant planner and author named Ken Schneider who is known only to people who have been searching for creative answers to urban problems and people who have followed the history and theory of cities for a long time. His books were published in the 1970s and 1980s. He was one of the heroic planners in the 1960s of the Fresno Mall, a project stuck in the middle of the worst time in history to be working for the pedestrian. I tell his story in my book, Ecocities. The Fresno Mall is frequently cited as a disaster – and it was, but not for the short-sighted reasons generally stated. The real reason was that at the same time planners there were struggling to attract people to the center, the city made decisions to close a large downtown hospital and a large hotel and move them way out of the downtown area. The IRS also set up its center three miles from downtown. Thus thousands of employees were decamped to the suburbs as well as placing the people far from the center in new low-density, car-dependent development. And by now we are all familiar with the big box destruction of city centers in towns everywhere epitomized by Wal-Mart.
One can say – “Hey! People love their cars so that’s just the way it is.” But no such phenomenon as the Fresno Mall failure is happening in communities today. Except for on the distant fringes of megalopolis sprawl and around smaller towns, there just isn’t much room left and commutes of more than two hours a day are just too ridiculous. Cities are now surrounded by such vast areas of sprawl you can’t just build new sprawl three miles in every direction – it’s already there. You can’t even build ten or fifteen miles in every direction because there are Bays and coast and parks, etc. thank God!, as well as sprawl already soundly established.
Moreover, as we approach and pass Peak Oil production world wide we will see gasoline prices continue climbing and alternatives will prove to be expensive or very destructive. Ethanol, for example, is about the price of gasoline now and millions of acres of farmland are now being impressed to feed cars instead of people. This is a social justice issue as well as an ecological one.
Finally, the “love affair” with the car is growing a bit old, stuck in traffic jams, wasting thousands of hours every year, paying enormous bills for the habit, gagging on pollution and worrying about global heating and being run over by humongous SUVs. Times have changed and we’d better grow up beyond that old courtship stage, which many of us enjoyed in the back seats of our now aging, if still voracious car culture.
Basically people ARE reinvesting in downtowns, as we see in housing, conference center, hotel and museum coming to downtown Berkeley and such projects coming to many other places in the country. This is a historic opportunity of a very positive sort. Let’s welcome it and take the lead – the historic moment is now!