9.11.2008

Interesting Things to Look At - Like You

I moderated a panel last night on transit-oriented development, and
one of the panelists made a point in a very clever way. He said that
when he's in Manhattan, he'll walk 20 blocks without a second thought.
In Center City, it might be 5 or 6 blocks. In the suburbs, if you
have a Target next to a Best Buy, you'll drive from one to the other.
Auto-oriented places are simply inhospitable to pedestrians, while
good urban places become walkable because there are interesting things
to look at.

Of course, the two most interesting things to look at go hand in hand:
retail and other people. Well-kept, unique-looking retail stores
catch the eye at the street level; who knows, maybe you even go in and
spend some money. And it's always fun to people-watch, not to mention
that there's safety in numbers on the street. These two things go
hand in hand, of course, because people gravitate to retail and retail
locates where there's foot traffic.

Contrast this "more is better" dynamic with the "more is worse"
dynamic of the suburbs. In low-density, auto-oriented places, more
people means more congestion, more people fighting for your parking
spot, or more parking to accommodate everyone, which just makes
walking even harder. And while I hesitate to say that we are
hard-wired to shop, I do think it is safe to say that we are
hard-wired to enjoy looking at other people.

I'll leave it for another day to discuss the tangible policy
implications of this, but let's just say that if you're playing Sim
City, make sure you make your urban metropolis pedestrian friendly,
with retail corridors and other unique people-magnets to draw foot
traffic and kick-start that "more is better" virtuous cycle. We may
like our cars and our autonomy, but ($4 gas notwithstanding) we like
looking at interesting things - especially other people - even more.

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