An often overlooked urban comfort

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library” – Jorge Luis Borges

Urbanists are apt to decry the loss of “public space” and by “public space they tend to mean sidewalks, plazas, pocket parks, etc. and they are right to oppose these things. Yet I seldom see urban planners or urbanists get up in arms over the dwindling numbers of public libraries. Those are inside, I suppose, and not Of The Streetscape, which I think renders library beneath the attention of most urban advocates. Yet many libraries are public spaces, spaces where anybody can go and read a book. Benjamin Franklin’s vision of the library was a worthy one.

I suppose for my younger readers, the Web has supplanted the library. A pity. Because while the web can be a commons, it is not a place where anybody can sit and take comfort. Those are, indeed, becoming rare–unless you buy a $4 latte.

Odee’s list of 20 “Most Beautiful Libraries” inspired me to thinking about this. To the above right here is the George Peabody library in Baltimore (I believe of the same Peabody’s that yielded Mrs. Barbara Bush; it must be rough).

My first library was in Lamont, IA. It was decidedly more modest. But I was hooked for life; it was a democratic place, even if dirty books were discretely kept from little hands, and I will be forever grateful. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is as restful to me as browsing in a library, or settling into one of the chairs to read. It is one of the fundamental pleasures of urban life—a shared common place, where ideas are about you.

Holla Back! at street harassers

Holla Back gives people the opportunity to “out” public harassment. Go check it out. It’s all over.

This reminds me of one of my favorite transit stories of all time. I was on the Paris metro when I was pretty young (early 20s) and a man was pestering me, and he began doing something that really is best left for private, and this tiny little French woman–somewhere between 80 and 200 years old–leapt spryly out of her seat and began to wallop the guy with her umbrella as she shouted at him in French. I’m not talking minor, little old lady whacks, I’m talking full swings that would make Manny Ramirez take note. My harasser leapt off the train at the next platform and I was free to take the rest of my ride in peace.

Congestion and the walking city

Paul Krugman notes on his blog that while he is favor of NYC’s move to turn Times Square into a walking only area, he’s not sure who the move is for, as “nobody goes there-it’s too crowded.”

Krugman references my favorite quote about congestion from Yogi Berra. As Brian Taylor pointed out in a very good paper in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Berra captured an essential conundrum from urban economics for urban planning newfound efforts to “contain sprawl.” That contradiction comes down to a) congestion is a sign of a successful place within cities (the “it’s too crowded” part), at the same time b) that same congestion and place intensity provides the demand for decentralization–the “nobody goes there” part.

This contradiction makes it difficult to deliver on the “congestion relief” promises that many people make on behalf of compact urbanization— one of the key elements of sustainable city ideas. Los Angeles may be everybody’s favorite whipping boy for auto congestion, but DC, New York, Boston and Chicago all have congestion both on the road and elsewhere: there’s never a seat any Starbuck’s off DuPont Circle, for example, and the sidewalks are uncomfortably crowded in New York at certain times of day. The Mexico City subway or the trains in Japan–or in most global cities other than LA—are simply jammed.

I’m not saying that auto congestion is the same for the environment as these other forms of congestion–it’s not–but as Taylor points out, places that we sustainable urbanists love–like New York–have pretty bad traffic congestion, and that traffic congestion is part of the place’s vibrancy and a measure of its success–not its failure.

Thus our sustainable cities of the future are likely to be crowded–very crowded if population growth continues. Most Americans, even those who live in New York, have no idea what real megacity crowding is like. The the demand for decentralization will grow stronger as we densify, even as we try to pack a whole bunch of amenities into our compact, walkable new developments, so long as there is income and wealth to support purchasing more space in a crowded world.

Taylor, Brian D. 2006. “Putting a Price on Mobility: Cars and Contradictions in Planning,” Longer View, Journal of the American Planning Association, 72(3): 279-284.