Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Why go downtown at all?

Shanghai at sunset, as seen from the observation deck of the Jin Mao tower.
The sun has not actually dropped below the horizon yet, rather it has reached the smog line. Photo Suicup - Creative Commons 

Unpleasant, polluted, and uninteresting downtowns trigger an exodus of legitimate eyes on the street. Without that it's impossible to achieve a critical mass of fun things to do: play chess in the park, go to bars, bicycle to music events, lounge on street furniture, listen to music from buskers, and people-watch during a relaxing stroll.

What empties downtowns?

For one thing, pollution. This week, yet again, there were more headlines about life-threatening smog choking Chinese cities, smog that comes from, no surprise, polluting industries and millions of gas guzzling, carbon emitting vehicles.

Madison Square Gardens streetscape. New York has worked on improving the downtown experience. Colors and lights play an important role. 

Tied to air pollution is suburban sprawl, another poison to downtown life. Bound as it is to excessive driving and greenhouse gas emissions, American sprawl triggered the exodus from downtowns and led to inner city crime.

Today a friend sent a YouTube of a historic video from the 1960s. It tracks the genesis of the expanding suburbs long before we knew the impact of large expressways and acres of free parking on acres of asphalt surrounding thousands of new shopping malls.

Toronto enhances the downtown pedestrian experience with modern and attractive light rail options. Photo Kallan Lyons

The video shows life at the very beginning. City centers were in rapid decline, crime was skyrocketing, and after a decade of romance with drive in eateries, there was a new love affair with convenient drive-in everythings. Nobody walked anywhere!

It was the beginning of the sprawl generation. The video is set in St. Louis. Ferguson is a 17 minute drive away. How little some things change.

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