Urban Design in the age of the bicycle

I am fortunate to have been taught urban design by an unusually articulate professor, Barry Maitland: Cambridge educated; now making a buck as a novelist; all round great guy. I hope I can do justice to the lectures he gave us, with this Reader’s Digest summary of the field. I am giving this background because I know many people with an interest in bicycle transit, are dilettante urban design theorists, sometimes holding onto received views they would be better off understanding in context. Let’s bring you guys up to speed, and into informed discussions.

Urban Design emerged as a field of endeavor during the 1960s, because architects saw they were building very rational buildings, that unfortunately were coming together as silly cities. A modernist H-block is a marvelous thing. Not a square inch of space goes to waste. But a whole wasteland results, if you use H-blocks to build a housing estate.
A consensus emerged among architects, trying at the time to assume a few duties from planners, that new towns needed “urban design proposals”. These would be master plans, but in 3-D, and showing the profiles of buildings. The detailed building designs would be done later, by architects commissioned to work at the level of individual building commissions. The idea was to ensure individual buildings—that urban designers hoped would be pressed shoulder-to-shoulder the way buildings are in European old-towns—would all come together in such a way as to create wholes that were more than just the sum of their parts. Giving legible form to the space between buildings was paramount. SLOAP (space left over after planning), would be the trace of bad urban design.
A voice looming large at the time was that of Jane Jacobs. She had everyone desperate not to design indefensible space, i.e., space not lovingly watched over 24/7 by people who would intervene on any behaviour eroding their neighborhoods. If light industry, offices, retail, schools, houses and everything else could be evenly mixed like a stew (no more zoning) and if the urban fabric were low and dense to keep all eyes on the street, then crime and alienation would not have a chance. Every yuppie raising their kids in the city these days, and helping out at the neighborhood garden, and demonstratively bringing their shopping home on a bike, is living the Jane Jacobs dream.
But here’s the rub: yuppies—and I am one of them—prefer to live our Jane Jacobs dream in parts of our cities that predate her book (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961). We prefer to cram into the pre-war neighborhoods she admired, than the renewed districts so carefully planned by her followers. There is actually more cred moving into the very estates Jacobs derided (of the 50s and 60s) and getting actively involved in community building initiatives, than moving into an area built since the rise of urban design. Though we are heirs to urban design doctrine, we poo poo projects of the development booms that took place in 1980s and 2000s, that were designed by people who understood Jacobs, Rowe, Cullen, Lynch, Krier, Rossi, etc.

A classic urban design proposal was drawn up for my city, Newcastle, Australia. It was mulled over during the growth times of the 1980s, but not accepted as an official blueprint for development until the recession of the early 1990s. It anticipated a quasi Parisian streetscape, with individual developments, creating a unified whole. But what happened to that plan? It was quietly buried, to allow the land to be sold off in much larger parcels, to developers more interested in smart high yielding buildings, than smart ways to put buildings together. The building boom of the 2000s, saw the construction of free-standing buildings, looking nothing like the intimate ones the master plan promised.
Similar stories can be told of urban design failing all over the world. Unlike most yuppies though, I don’t see a problem. The new towns with their big freestanding buildings, that were built on former industrial land during the 2000s, while they lack pedestrian life on the ground, are actually pretty good places to cycle. Most were planned around promenades and walking trails of some kind.
Also, the paranoia driving the low-rise/high-coverage doctrines espoused by urban designers, only really apply in cities with nothing aside from pedestrians and drivers. If you added lots of cyclists into the mix, these new towns would be less forboding. Cyclists are insinuated in street life, just as pedestrians are, yet we can zip around the way cars do. We provide an omniscient presence. Cars zip around, but provide little solace, because it is more natural for drivers to keep going than get involved. I’m not saying all cyclists are great Samaritans, like London’s Mayor Boris Johnson who stopped pedaling to save a woman being bashed up by “oiks” (click here for that story). But most cyclists would at least stop and bare witness, or at the very least call the cops.    

Yes, they’re the same the world over. Single large developments, that are nothing like what was promised.
Urban design doctrines arose to mitigate deficiencies of the body, in the city, without a bike. That discipline’s failings were a great loss for people who have not yet integrated bikes into their lives. But for those of us who have taken to bikes, a kind of city that made profits for developers, could profit us likewise. The fruits of diluted urban design schemes, aren’t really so sour.


  1. Anonymous says:

    bikes in the city behooving moving

    Thank you very much for your article. I have been intersted and involved, first as an acitivist and now as a town councillor, in planning and rubran design. Although I am a classic car collector, I cycle as much as I can when going to town and also for recreation or making calls. I have been doing it in this town since 7,m but have been doing it more consciously and determined the last twio years, i.e. always choose to cycle inestead of raking the car to town or meetings. It is now a lifestyle.

    We are planning a whole cycle network for our historic town (est 1679. Not easy but we are pushing ahead.

    Kindest Regards
    Dawid Botha
    Giant Cypress (hybrid with 28″ wheels)

    • Steven says:

      Re: bikes in the city behooving moving

      Hi David, you’ve left me intrigued. I would love to have a look at how you’re going about this. my email is steven [bla bla, you know] behoovingmoving.com

  2. Anonymous says:

    I am exactly as you describe – a person with an interest in bicycle transit, a dilettante urban design theorist, and a yuppie crammed into a pre-war neighbourhood who demonstratively brings their shopping home on a bike. Hell, I can even trump that – I demonstratively carry my children around by bike. I’ve also read Jane Jacobs.

    And I’m trying to follow your argument here, which seems to be that cyclists should attempt to reclaim both the 50/60s developments that Jacobs derided, as well as the “failed urbanist” developments of the 80s and 00s. I can see that those developments are slightly better for bike transit than suburban auto-centric development, and that mass cycling would make them less sterile and forboding, but mass cycling would make auto-centric suburbia less sterile and foreboding too.

    And were those newer developments really planned by followers of Jacobs? How could a follower of Jacobs possibly be a “planner of districts” when two of Jacobs fundamental points were that buildings should be a mix of ages, and that cataclysmic torrents of money into a district are destructive. Any large scale development will by its very nature never be like the urban form that Jacobs espoused.

    • Steven says:

      The high density “urban renewal” developments we watched go ahead in the past decade, are mostly on former industrial sites that flank rail trails and former industrial waterfronts, ie, the places where bicycle trails are being built, out of cars’ way. That is the unique appeal of these places for cyclists, and why I think their future development should be focused on cyclists. They haven’t so far, but it developers realized we are a growing market, with no better place to live, I think that might change.
      For people like us, who want to ride our kids to school, car-land is a wasteland. We’re about as welcome there as Priscilla is in the desert.
      Jacobs only has frustrated followers: urban designers who apply her ideas as much as governments and clients will let them. I’ve not met an urban designer, or architect, who wasn’t influenced to some extent by her thinking.
      Does any of that help? I really appreciate the chance to think matters through with an interlocutor 🙂

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