Monday, March 8, 2010

City Planning Fail

Order is nice, but not if it doesn't make sense.

City planning is a classic example of simplistic type-A thinking gone dangerously awry. Especially in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century, many of the most influential ideas in planning came from people who disliked the messiness of cities. Blocks full of varieties of uses in a variety of architectural styles, used by a variety of people at a variety of times, seemed unseemly.

And so a tendency emerged, especially when planning large initiatives, to cluster similar uses together. For an example in Philadelphia, see the Avenue of the Arts. In one stretch can be found the majority of the performing arts theaters and centers in the city. It makes a certain simplistic sense in that if you want to see a performance you know where to go.

Unfortunately, such ideas do not respect the actual forces which govern what makes city life vital. Exactly the disarray of diversity which the planners scorned is necessary for economic viability, for safety, for anything but quite literally oppressive dullness.

I have read about these concepts in Jane Jacobs's seminal 1960 work on city planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But I was reminded of them this weekend when I encountered exactly these deficiencies on a visit to Washington, D.C.

My friend Pat and I set out to go sightseeing, with a mind to visit national monuments as well as museums at the Smithsonian. All of these are located in the same general area referred to as the National Mall. Here the impulse toward order and uniformity I mentioned earlier is made manifest. Whether you want to see Lincoln's or Washington's memorial, whether the Hirshhorn Museum or the Museum of American History, you go to the same general area.

I would be remiss if I did not point out the advantages to such a layout. Pat and I started at Arlington National Cemetery and were able to spurn the metro in favor of a lovely walk across the Potomac River in the emerging spring sunshine. Without effort we soon found ourselves amazed by Lincoln's second inaugural address as inscribed on the wall of his memorial, and in short order humbled by the names of Vietnam veterans on their memorial. Later we met with a friend at the National Gallery of Art, where we didn't intend to visit but where was just a short detour from our planned destination.

All of these things were made easier and happily car-independent by virtue of each place's proximity. For monuments and memorials, proximity may make a particular amount of sense, since each is not likely to occupy attention for more than half an hour, and would not draw nearly as many visitors as in isolation. Just ask Thomas Jefferson.

However, we were starving.

From the Vietnam memorial, we intended to walk into the neighborhoods and find a place to eat. We walked and found nothing but a food truck which would have been shamed out of Philadelphia for its inventory of hot dogs and bad soft pretzels. Walking farther we found ourselves in the midst of a complex of Federal office buildings, which on a Saturday were perfectly deserted.

Further walking brought us no more options than clones of that same sorry truck from before. We finally broke down and bought candy bars, hoping the carbs would be good for something.

Soon we met my aforementioned friend at the Cascade Cafe inside the Gallery of Art, which we passed up on account of our desire for food other than coffee and gelato.

On our way to American History I remembered that my family and I had the exact same problem years ago. At that point we turned to a lone popcorn vendor to be sated. No sooner had I recalled this fate than we found ourselves facing the exact same vendor, unchallenged and unchanged in a decade. More popcorn followed, along with more hopes for the sufficiency of carbohydrates.

Finally, two hours later, after thoroughly enjoying the museum, we found ourselves at Dupont Circle for dinner. By this point my hunger pangs had turned into a roaring migraine, and ironically I found myself unable to eat. My friends ate hurriedly and we left, headed not to Stefanie's for dessert and catching up, but home for darkness and Advil.

In short, the overuse of segregation in planning the National Mall led to a shortage of viable food options, which led to a headache and a missed chance at seeing two old friends.

Though without certainty, I can guess at some of the roots of this situation. The dearth of respectable food trucks around the mall leads me to suspect that the networks which allow such vendors in Philadelphia to stock up and sell cheap food at a profit do not exist in D.C. The dearth of any commercial restaurant leads me to suspect that such a presence is deemed undesirable in the presence of such hallowed grounds and thus barred, despite its considerable utility.

Moreover, as the metro station's thronged state at 5:30 pointed out, there is virtually no good reason to be at the mall outside of monument and museum hours. In the void left by good reasons, bad reasons creep in, and I would not be surprised if the area is dangerous during such times.

Next time we will be sure to remember our peanut butter sandwiches.

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