I recently figured out why I think living in neighborhoods with real streets is so important. Before I get started, I want to disclaim that I am not an urban planner, New Urbanism expert, population density wonk or really even that good at reading a map. I’m not some nut job who wants to turn every navigable roadway into a tree-lined pedestrian mall. I am just an average guy who loves living in the city.
I was telling my friend, a Gilbertian, that I walked from my friend’s house at Century Plaza to join friends at Fez. As I was telling her about my short walk, I noticed that I knew the names of all the streets between the two locations, and that I had a pretty good idea of what was located on each. This is in stark contrast to the experience of visiting my friend in her comfortably cul-de-sac’d neighborhood with one way in and one way out. My friend in Gilbert couldn’t name any of the other streets within a block of hers, because there was rarely, if ever, a reason to drive on them. As long as she knows her way on and off of the arterial road (in this case it is euphemistically called “Drive”) she is fine.
I used to think that what made the city special was the convenience of walking to and from the coffee shop and bumping into my pierced, artistic friends who just happened to be there at the same time. In fact, what I realized is that one of the biggest distinctions between Downtown and the suburbs is the way you drive in them. When I come home to my place in the city, I can choose one of 25 ways to get to my driveway. There is a complete grid of streets from which I can chose the most labyrinthine combination of turns to get to my destination, if I want to. I can choose how I want to experience my neighborhood in my car. I can choose what businesses I want to drive past, which types of buildings I want to drive by and which coffeehouses I want to drop in on.
In contrast, the suburban experience is all about control. Neighborhoods only have one way in and one way out. There is only one freeway exit within a reasonable distance of home. And, because you can only take arterial streets to get to your destination, you are cursed to drive past the same chain restaurants and stores that you would see on any other suburban arterial street anywhere else in the country. The suburban experience controls where you shop, where you drive, what it looks like. The suburbs tell you how you are supposed to experience your neighborhood.
The controlled experience of the suburbs is especially ironic since suburbs were originally designed for the freedom of country living within the reach of city dwellers. Just the opposite has happened. The suburbs are restricted places, and the core of the city is liberated.
Of course, of you already live Downtown, you know this. What I would encourage you to do is to take a different way home every day this week and experience your city the way people who live on streets with names like “Vista Del Mar” could never dream to.