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Web www.startsandfits.com
Sunday, September 02, 2007
Urban and Suburban Sidewalks

Here's a photograph of a bookstore in downtown Manhattan, or more precisely, the sidewalk in front of a bookstore. Every morning, employees from the store drag out racks of bargain books. The goal, of course, is to catch the attention of people walking by and get them to come into the store, look around and buy a more expensive book. And as you can see from the photo above, this probably works pretty well. There is a tremendous amount of pedestrian traffic on that block with people going to South Street Seaport and the many offices, apartments and stores in the area. So people who are walking past with no intention of shopping for books often serendipitously find themselves browsing inside this cavernous store. The rack feeds off of, and reinforces, the urban milieu that Jane Jacobs called an intricate sidewalk ballet. The diverse mix of offices, stores, restaurants and apartments all draw people out to the sidewalk at different times and for different reasons. And "In cities," she wrote, "liveliness and variety attract more liveliness; deadness and monotony repel life."

People have taken Jane Jacob's words to heart in many places, including many parts of suburbia that are in need of a good sprucing up. Below is a satelite image of the suburban shopping plaza where I bought my first copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It was always easy to find parking here, and the parking never cost anything.

Unfortunately, a result of the 20th century planning orthodoxy of single-use zoning, the plaza isn't connected to anything other than retail. There are no apartments nearby, nor offices. Just stores. If you happen to live in the house on the adjacent property to the south, there's a fence preventing you from walking over.

On the western wall of the plaza there are three stores: a small liquor store, a pharmacy that takes up a little more space, and the bookstore where I made my purchase, a giant place that takes up three quarters of the frontage. Between these stores and their parking lot is a raised concrete platform that you might be able to call "a sidewalk." But it's really just a border zone, a vestage of the city. There's no reason to be on it unless you are going into one of the stores, and you wouldn't be there unless you drove. The bookstore so dominates the plaza that there's no reason to be on the sidewalk in front of the bookstore unless you're going to the bookstore. But funny enough, certain urban habits have been adopted out here, where they fail to stimulate the same sidewalk milieu.

Just like in downtown Manhattan, every day, employees of this bookstore put out a cart of bargain books. As if someone would just happen to be wandering past! Below, the results of single-use zoning, auto-only transportation planning and wishful thinking:

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