Growing up in the NYC area, I’ve been fortunate to see just how big of an impact the design of a city can have on the everyday life of its citizens. Over the past few years in particular, I’ve been fascinated by the power of proper urban planning, and its role in the resurgence of cities all over the US.
Below, you’ll find my take on what I think is the ideal design from a transportation and housing perspective, from the city core level all the way to national travel between cities. I emphasize my use of the word “ideally” throughout this post, as I know a lot of it will be logistically/financially difficult to implement. I may not have an urban planning degree, but my years of experience playing SimCity tell me this will work fantastically.
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Subways and density. Time and time again, these have shown to be the hallmarks of a prosperous city core.
Taking after their European predecessors, this was how many American cities were originally designed. After WWII however, city planning shifted to a very car-centric model (thanks alot Robert Moses). This is what led to sprawl, highways cutting through the middle of cities, and parking lots sometimes taking up entire city blocks.
While cars have plenty of advantages, a space inefficient mode of transportation has no place in a dense core. One could even argue that parking spots in city cores should be limited to emergency services and commercial deliveries, with the rest of the current parking spaces used instead for rapid taxi/Uber/Lyft drop offs. This prevents those services from having to stop in a lane to drop off passengers, disrupting the flow of traffic.
American cities need to heavily push modernization and expansion of their subway systems, and they need to be done right. That means the following:
- Grid layouts so you can travel north/south just as easily as east/west
- Spacious platforms and entrances to prevent crowding, and escalators/elevators at every station for accessibility
- Enclosed platforms to allow climate control and to prevent people from jumping onto the tracks or throwing trash
- Ideally a frequency of every 5 minutes
- Build lines with multiple level tunnels, rather than a one-level line that has to stop at every single station. This would allow each level enough distance between stations to accelerate to faster speeds
- Maglev or eventually Hyperloop for lower noise levels and increased reliability
Without a proper subway system, cities will simply suffocate under the weight of car traffic.
From a housing perspective, cities should institute height minimums on buildings within a certain distance from stations to take advantage of the transit. Politically, NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) initiatives to block development should not have the power that they currently do, as it essentially says that cities belong more to current citizens than they do to newcomers.
While density is important, I want to be clear that I do not advocate taking it to the extreme and sentencing people to a life packed into micro apartments like sardines. There should be reasonable sqft minimums for apartments and retail spaces alike.
Finally, cities should increase the number of trees lining streets every 50 feet. It’s shown to improve people’s mental health, and is simply more aesthetic.
The areas you pass as you transition from city to suburbs have often been filled with compromises. They don’t have the convenient density and transit options of the cities, but they don’t have the living space and ample parking of the suburbs. These are essentially the “jack of all trades, master of none” of the urban planning world.
It doesn’t need to be this way however. In fact, these areas can serve as vital hybrids for young professionals looking to transition away from city life, while not yet ready for the full leap to the suburbs.
It is in these areas where subways should terminate, and suburban commuter rail begin to predominate.
Because of the safe distance from the skyscrapers of the city core, this tends to be where airports are located. As such, ample connections from both subways and commuter rail to airports should be seen here.
This is the part of cities where parking spots can begin to appear, and rather than trying to brute force suburban lifestyles with shoebox sized detached homes, modern townhomes like the ones below are the happy mediums that belong in this area.
Ah suburbs. They’ve been a controversial topic for decades. One side of the spectrum thinks they’re the worst thing to happen to America, while the other thinks suburban sprawl is the only way to live.
Because of the massive amounts of land available in the US, there’s no reason suburbs can’t have their place in urban planning, they just need to be more efficient.
The way they’re currently designed, things are way too spaced out, resulting in a lack of community within towns, and soulless strip malls dotting the landscapes. I feel this can best be solved with walkable town centers surrounding commuter rail stations. Ideally, suburban commuter rail should be heavy rail on elevated tracks, as opposed to the slow and low capacity streetcars that are often used.
As you can see here, no suburban region has more extensive commuter rail than Long Island, and as a result, it’s best suited to be the prototype for the walkable town center model. The closest example currently under construction is the Ronkonkoma Hub:
These town centers allow each neighborhood to have its own unique plaza where neighbors can dine, shop, work, and be entertained. Currently, you’d have to head into the city or fight for a parking spot at a mall for anything close to this experience. When shopping and offices are concentrated at these centers, it frees up real estate along roads for businesses better suited for street access, like drive thrus or car washes.
Being able to hop from one suburban town center to the next by train will take thousands of cars off highways, further alleviating traffic. In coastal cities, the option to take the train to the beach from suburbs is invaluable when the alternative is spending 15 minutes searching for a parking spot.
Perhaps the best reason why now is as good a time as ever to pursue this model, is that it provides retiring baby boomers options to downsize to low-maintenance condos. This frees up single family homes to young professionals starting families.
When zooming out to inter-city travel, as it currently stands, your options are the incredibly slow and expensive Amtrak, or the hassle filled experience of flying.
For distances greater than 500 miles, flying will continue to be the most logical option for the near future. Regional travel between neighboring cities however, can greatly benefit from high speed rail. Whether it be Maglev or the future Hyperloop, the ability to get between cities at speeds upwards of 300mph can absolutely revitalize regions, for both passengers and shipping.
Adding this fast, convenient, and affordable option for regional travel will free up congested airports to focus on longer haul flights. Coupled with the transit networks I detailed above, those living in all three city regions can get from their homes, to the airport, and off to another country without ever stepping foot in a car.
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And that’s all folks!