February 28, 2023

I Studied Urban Planning for a Week

Aerial shot of downtown Austin.

Well, that was the plan at least. When I typed “urban planning” into YouTube I expected to get videos about the minutia of tree placement, curved vs straight roads, where to place parks – all the decisions made when planning the urban. In reality, what you find is a sea of people in agreement that US cities are shit due to their dependence on cars. I decided to go with the flow and focused mostly on that, while also touching on ancient city design and a few other topics.

Ancient Cities

Learning about the ancient cities of Athens, Rome, and Baghdad inspired me. Athens with its central agora where everyone went to do everything from buying/selling goods to debating philosophers. Rome with its architecture and technology. Baghdad with its unique circular city and thirst for knowledge. Perhaps I was looking through rose tinted glasses because I focused on the great things they had and not that they wiped their asses with stones:

This Greek red-figure pottery depicts a man utilizing a stone in a unique way

Still, these cities are inspiring, and not just because of the beauty they were able to create with limited technology, but also for how each city was unique and reflected the values of their people. For example, Athens valued democracy and exploring philosophical ideas, which was reflected in their wide open agora where anyone could meet and share ideas. I wish more US cities would have unique identities, but maybe that’s a tall ask in the current climate where everyone hates each other and can’t agree on anything. But I don’t know... what if we just plagiarized Athens for now. I feel like in order for a city to figure out its identity people need to have a dynamic public space to get together and share ideas, goods, art, whatever. It’d be more interesting than most current cities where you just drive downtown to visit a restaurant, eat, then drive back to your suburban home.

The Case for Walkable Cities

After all my research I would say walkable cities are: good. Cars are expensive, cause accidents, and hurt the environment during production and use. Being social is pretty important for human happiness, and a dense city that's not spread miles apart helps foster that. Walking or biking is healthier than sitting in a car to get places. The infrastructure needed to maintain a dense city is cheaper than making sure water, electricity, emergency services, etc. can reach the sprawling suburbs.

Some potential downsides are things like higher rent, crime, air/noise pollution, and overcrowding. I didn’t hear as much about the negatives because no one seems to talk about those, which doesn’t seem good. Still, all the current cities I would want to live in are walkable (or at least have good public transit), and their existence proves it’s possible to avoid many of the negatives. Counterpoint: my image of many current walkable US cities is filled with those restaurants where they serve your food on a slab of wood and hang strings of light bulbs from the ceiling. If that’s the best we can do then maybe I’ll pass.

Should I Move to a City?

I currently live in an Austin suburb too far away from anything to walk. If I moved downtown, I’d first of all still need a car to get places outside the immediate city center. So more annoying traffic whenever I’m driving to and from my apartment 👍 Then the idea of never escaping the city noise frightens me, so I’d want an apartment that’s really high up or sound proof or something. Finally, I don’t get the sense that downtown Austin is particularly unsafe, but I feel like it has to be more dangerous than living in a gated community in the middle of nowhere. At the end of the day though, if rents were equal I would at least try out living downtown.

To evaluate what I’d be in for, I went downtown with my week of urban planning expertise to perform an inspection. We have a really nice trail along the city’s river, but walking through actual downtown with all the buildings feels a little dissapointing. The roads seem a little too wide and traffic is a little too fast. Things feel a little spread out even in the densest parts, so there’s no sense of getting lost exploring. I’m sure it gets packed sometimes, but it feels like every time I go there’s not that many people just walkin. I wish there were more pedestrian only streets where people flood the whole thing instead of cars getting in the way in the middle. That happens on 6th street at night, but 6th street is pretty small and filled with drunk people looking for excuses to practice their BJJ.

Expanding my imagination beyond Austin, the best cities I have personally visited have not been in the US. I recently took a trip to Scotland, and made the conclusion that if I lived in Edinburgh instead of Austin for a year I would be a better person. It was walkable, filled with beautiful architecture, and it felt safe to walk around most places even at night. The biggest positive though was that the people weren’t fake as frick. When you’re in a genuinely friendly community you can’t help but slowly become more friendly yourself. There’s also a layer of understanding between people that I’m not used to. There’s less need to over explain myself because people are better at reading the room. I’m sure places like this exist in the US, but I wish it was the rule and not the exception.

Closing Thoughts

Compared to my other “ I Studied ____ for a Week” blogs, this one felt the least satisfying since I couldn’t think of a good way to implement the skills I had learned. I did try to play Cities Skylines for a bit, which actually did teach me a few things, like how putting a house in the wrong place means you’re gonna have to bulldoze it later to make room for a cool park:

Screenshot of a park near residential homes in Cities Skylines

It gets you thinking about things, but obviously you can’t trust the simulation enough to know you’re making realistic decisions.

Despite the lack of a satisfying conclusion, it was nice to learn about something that seems to be on the internet’s mind these days. I only wish the community didn’t have so many doomers listing “car dependency” as another reason the world is broken beyond repair. “Look at this wide ass stroad and sea of empty parking lots. America is so shit.” I can see problems in my own life that are directly caused by car dependency, but knowing that there’s a problem is the first step to fixing it, and contemplating the possibilities of a better future leaves me excited. Reach for the stars! 😁

The one thing I started this week that I plan to continue is reading the book Happy City by Charles Montgomery. While many of the videos on YouTube make the conclusion [walkable city = good] and run with it, this book takes a step back and really considers what a great city can and can’t do for a community. Moving forward, I’m also interested in studying infrastructure more closely. I spend most of my time in this man-made environment and still don’t understand how half of it works.

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