I suggested at the end of yesterday’s post that walking is a form of deviance in the US. Challenging the hegemony of the car is quite hard work. Dealing with the strange looks and social disapproval is one thing, but there’s also the physical infrastructure – or lack of it – that makes walking difficult here. It’s not unusual to be strolling along a sidewalk/pavement that abruptly ends and find yourself on the hard-shoulder of a three-lane highway. It happened to me today as I walked from the Days Inn at Hicksville (Long Island) to the train station: possibly the first person ever to do so.
There’s a serious planetary side to this of course. ‘Sustainable urbanism’ is the holy grail of city planners, but it’s nothing new. The Garden Cities movement pioneered in the UK by Ebenezer Howard (crazy name – crazy guy!) inspired many of the design principles that attempt to organise where and how we live in such a way that we don’t have to jump in the car every time we want a pint of milk. Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, the only two places built under Howard’s direct supervision, spawned numerous imitators around the world, including Radburn, New Jersey, where I am now. It was built in 1929 as a ‘town for the motor age’, with the aim of integrating and balancing the needs of pedestrians and drivers in an environment that combines the benefits of town and country living. Radburn is lauded in planning literature, but having seen it, I can’t understand why. I’ve had this experience before – exemplar housing developments that don’t live up to their reputation. Radburn is unusual. The houses are almost hidden within the tress – cottages in the woods linked by narrow, often overgrown pathways that link to parklands – it’s all very bucolic and I’m sure it’s great for the people who live there, but it has nothing to do with urbanism and should be deleted from all books on the subject. At best, such places are exceptions that cannot overcome the rule of ‘big box’ retail parks and car-oriented development.
Earlier in the day I visited a similarly exclusive place, Forest Hill Gardens in Queens, NYC. Coming out of the nearest subway/tube station it was immediately apparent that here was something out of the housing and urban ordinary. On a slight incline were buildings designed in the style beloved by architects who think we should all live in medieval German hill towns. Forest Hill Gardens was built in 1908 and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. whose dad was responsible for Central Park. Again, the cross-fertilisation of ideas from garden cities is clear. The houses are lovely, huge, incongruous and expensive – about $2 million, so this is not the answer to our affordable housing crisis. Worth a visit though, but as with all four of the places I’ve visited so far, where’s the pub? It’s perhaps a weakness of mine that I navigate by and gravitate towards pubs and bars, but among many other things (not all positive), they can bring the elusive quality of civility to a place.