Dinner without the Subway


“New Yorkers, widely considered to be tough and selfish, are suddenly eager to share cellphones, drink beer with strangers at their local bars, and to cook meals at home — since without subways there is no way to go out for dinner and get home easily.”

Mitchell Moss, CNN.com, October, 30 2012

The statement that a New Yorker can’t go out to dinner without the subway is perplexing, all the more so  in that it comes from an NYU professor of Urban Policy and Planning who presumably has spent some time living or at least working in Manhattan. The comment was a footnote in a much longer article which had an entirely different focus, but as a former Manhattanite it was enough to catch my eye. In a city with a Walkscore of 85 (99-100 on most of the island) you can hardly step out your door in many neighborhoods without stumbling into a restaurant or at least a take-out joint. Of those neighborhoods that lack restaurants within walking distance most also lack quick access to a subway station. The idea that the subway is necessary for most New Yorkers to “go out for dinner” is odd claim. Was this a quickly written oversight on behalf of the professor? Perhaps he is just exceedingly picky about which restaurants he frequents. You could presume he meant go out to dinner with friends but then the issue would be more the location of his friends than the location of the restaurant and cooking at home wouldn’t solve that problem.  I should note of course that his account accurately reflects that for many city residents taking the subway to your favorite pasta or to catch up with an old friend over fries is much more convenient than taking a taxi or driving a car (if you even have one). However for the many residents who bypass the kitchen on a daily basis, when it comes to simply getting fed, nothing beats walking down to the end of the block.

ImageThe subway closure has been labeled “debilitating” and this is in large part true. Thirty-seven percent of New Yorkers rely on the Subway system daily to get to work. In addition to the 1.6 million who live on the island, another 2 million commute into Manhattan from elsewhere (I couldn’t quickly turn up a commuter number for the whole city). For some Manhattanites, taking the subway is as much a convenience as a necessity. Ten percent already walk to work. On an island 2 miles wide and 10 miles long, many more likely live within a 20 or 30 minute walk of work or school, which is quite a luxury in a country where the vast majority of citizens are lucky to live within a 20 minute walk of a bus stop. And of course many could take the bus (the horror!); granted the number of buses required to get every New Yorker to work would be unwieldy as evidenced by the overcrowded buses Wednesday morning.


Walking to School

Certainly the subway is the lifeblood of the city’s economy (and to some degree the nations as home to Wall Street other national headquarters). But the daily chores of those who actually live in the city limits, as represented by visits to the grocery, the diner, a few local shops, the hardware store, local schools, playgrounds, and usually at least one decent sit-down restaurant, can actually go on without much fuss without subway because the city is composed of a dense web of walkable neighborhoods. Of course other storm issues such as power outages and delivery delays may prevent those local businesses from actually providing service during a crisis, but the issue is not the lack of a subway to get residents to the door.

What kind of impact will this event and its media coverage have on the hearts and minds of potential transit users and car ditchers across the country? Will some fear becoming too reliant on public transportation? Manhattan always makes a good news story so there’s an over-reporting bias that risks leading some to believe they have abundantly more challenges than the rest of us. Of course suburban systems are vulnerable too. When Hurricane Hugo hit my suburban neighborhood 45 minutes inland in 1989, downed trees made it impassable by car. Schools remained closed for up to two weeks. We were thrilled when we regained power and were given the green light to drink tap water without pre-boiling. There are certainly huge implications of the subway shutdown and any sort of long-term closure would be hugely disruptive, but the picture that all elements of daily life are disrupted by the closure is misleading. Perhaps part of the problem is that the city that never sleeps, and increasingly the country that never stops working, expects normal life to resume so soon after disaster strikes.

One thing I think we can all agree on, it never hurts to be within walking distance of your local bar & grill.

Update: A fellow urbanist, John Massengale in New York, informs me that going out dinner is in fact an issue for those living south of 40th street due restaurants suffering from “no electricity, no refrigeration and a shortage of staff.” There are also issues with credit card processing and ATMs. Store shelves in lower Manhattan are sparse.  Of course as another colleague noted if the restaurant on your block doesn’t have power, your kitchen probably doesn’t either. Uptown in contrast the restaurants are full and the shelves are stocked. Downtowners do have the option of walking a few miles uptown, cabs are available and buses are returning.  If you have a gym membership a walk uptown could also mean a hot shower.  I would also note that Moss’s distinction between beer and restaurants may be valid. Better drink it before it goes sour! Highlights and challenges: A brick oven pizzeria in the Village able to operate without power gives away free pizza. A restauranteur considered opening by candlelight but deciding against because of lack of functioning bathrooms.

Articles & Updates on City Life During and After the Storm: 

The author is a former resident of Manhattan and weathered Hugo in Summerville, South Carolina.



Stupid Environmental Tricks #2: Bamboo Fabrics

One of the many products that makers claim to be environmental but is fundamentally flawed.

Bamboo textiles (i.e. clothes, towels etc). Sure they are nice and soft. But in terms of environmental performance, they are a form of rayon (which means chemically laden). Bamboo socks may be no worse than any other synthetic socks you buy, but they are also no better. “Bamboozled” on Grist

Using bamboo as a wood substitute is a completely different story
and may be a good choice.

Stupid Environmental Tricks #1: Free Gasoline

I was already planning to document some products that are marketed as eco-friendly that fail miserably when this story crossed my radar.

In order to promote its “EcoBoost” truck, Ford is hosting a contest for which the prize is free fuel, not only to the driver for a year, but to an entire city for a little over 2 hours. Now, 2 hours of fuel isn’t going to suck dry the wells or tip us into permanent smog but it certainly sends the wrong message.

I won’t get into the question of whether the “eco” label should be applied to an oversize truck to begin with; some people legitimately need these types of vehicles for work. But as Steve Mouzon is fond of saying: the most energy efficient machine is the one that’s turned off. Hybrid cars will do the environment no good if we drive them twice as far and efficient gadgets won’t help if we leave them on four times as long. The worst thing we can possibly do for the environment is give away or artificially lower the cost of fuel or energy. If people are going to be wasteful at least let them pay their own way (Libertarian alert).

A better plan might have been to follow SmartCar’s lead and promote a bicycle, but I can see how that might not appeal to their customer base.

Now of course people buy fuel efficient vehicles for different reasons. Some don’t care about the environmental impact at all but rather about saving money on fuel. But in this case given that they are placing the “Eco” label on their truck this is an incredibly silly/(disingenuous/vacuous) promotion, almost as bad as politicians requesting a Gas Tax Holiday in the summer of 2008.

I Want You … for the New Urbanism

Please come hang out with us. You’ll find the New Urbanism is hardly a static system. Debates abound. What we don’t do is constantly rehash our premises. This allows us to move forward instead constantly revolving in circles questioning our first principles.  Let others seek a deus ex machina in flying cars or argue about “flux;” we’re busy refining our solutions.

While academia can be content to publish theory, we have to commit to a path in order to implement change.  We are racing against suburbia, climate change and obesity. We must implement imperfect systems now while debating more perfect solutions for tomorrow.

We fight for recognition because we need more hands on deck, skilled ones. We face enormous challenges—environmental, economic. It pains us to see young, desperately-needed talent wasted on Corbusian revivals.  The savvy among us often have to educate ourselves in traditional urbanism because the academy has denied us.  Many architects are left to practice kitschy historicist or postmodern architecture because the public doesn’t want modernist design for the vast majority of the urban fabric.  So these architects who were never taught the skills necessary to design high quality traditional, vernacular or classical architecture, are forced to navigate their clients desires making do and playing catch up.  Finally, the classicists and the urban designers are blamed for the poor interpretations of traditional architecture resulting modernist educated architects. Are young architects-in-training given a choice? Are they merely allowed an illusion of choice of a dozen different architectural styles so long as it excludes classicism and vernacular (like the false variety of our multi-colored supermarket shelves with thousands of products all made of same 3 industrial ingredients)? Where is their free market?

As far as the landscape urbanists, as schoolyard as it sounds … they started it. Here’s to the new new urbanism.  http://www.cnunextgen.org

This is a slightly expanded version of a response to comments on: http://www.metropolismag.com/story/20110414/new-urbanism-the-case-for-looking-beyond-style

Reprinted: Introduction to “Populating Urbanism”

(The following is an updated version of the introduction to “Populating Urbanism,” published as an essay in Living Urbanism, Issue 1, April 2008; the full text can be found here )

With various degrees of success, architecture creates a framework for community, for environmental responsibility, and for health. However, reaching these goals ultimately requires people—warm bodies—and empowering normal people to live out their daily lives in a reasonable way. A minimum population, or critical mass, is needed to support the businesses and civic uses within a neighborhood or town. Conversely, sufficient businesses and activities are necessary to allow a reasonable proportion of individuals to live without daily reliance on the automobile.

This paper suggests a method for determining an appropriate population numbers and densities for neighborhood/place development. It uses the viability of transportation modes to suggest minimum population and density, and uses amenity/services levels to suggest maximum density. The purpose is to suggest a methodology, but not to determine final numbers; all calculations and numerical assumptions are used primarily for illustrative purposes.

Setting the stage

Two ideas from a fellow CNU member inform this work. The first is that the main body of New Urbanist development has a “bloated T3,” that there is too much in New Urbanist projects of the sub-urban (T3) zone, however well configured it may be. The second is the concept of “Living Urbanism” presented at the fourth Next Generation of New Urbanists congress in 2006 (Preston). To the first point, I am interested in understanding to what degree our T3 is “bloated.” Regarding the second point, defining a “Living Urbanism” is essential to identifying functional standards describing the population needed to enable a high level of functionality and vitality.

The car is an active player in this analysis and some of my colleagues may find this methodology too beholden to drivers. However, I suggest this will push us in the right direction whereas a refusal to acknowledge the car in a methodical way risks leaving us righteous and stagnant. We must understand how to push the New Urbanist model to its breaking point, not that we would desire to abide there but so that we do not let ourselves be pushed over it. Compromises had to be made and will continue to be made in order to bring New Urbanism to a mass audience. However, the nature of those compromises should change and be re-evaluated as we progress. Where we can no longer afford to compromise is in creating beautiful, well-configured places that simply do not have the critical mass to come “alive.”


Continued here.

A Hierarchy of Places

(The following is an edited, abridged and updated version of the section LEVEL OF AMENITIES DICTATES A MAXIMUM FOR DENSITIES from “Populating Urbanism,” published as an essay in Living Urbanism, Issue 1, April 2008; the full text can be found here)

See introductory notes here.

Intuitively we understand people crowd onto the island of Manhattan because it provides global level amenities. Residents pay high prices for small dwelling units in exchange for easy and frequent access to an incomparable variety and quality of services and opportunities. Conversely, we would not expect individuals, by choice, to tolerate such densities where comparable amenities/services are lacking. In other words, places with a R6* level of density should have R6-level amenities and residents of R3 places should not expect to get R4, 5 or 6 level amenities.



Places should not expect to get a quality and quantity of services and amenities well beyond the population’s ability to support those services and amenities. Returning to the Manhattan example, in order to gain access to the global level of services, in addition to submitting to higher densities on the island, the city must tolerate a large numbers of interlopers, both daily commuters and out of town visitors. Many urbanists would argue that the massive allure of such central cities for visiting populations is the lack of supply of urbanism elsewhere in the area; I would agree that is part of, though not the whole, answer.

I will propose that service level for a town, village or neighborhood could be classed by the frequency with which we need the top-level services offered:
R6-G: Rarely
R6: Occasionally
R5: Monthly
R4: Weekly
R3: Daily/Limited
(R2: Rural; R1: Natural – Limited service)


We have started with an anecdote at the global level, now we jump to the opposite end of the spectrum. Every urban neighborhood should have services sufficient to meet daily needs. Only truly rural places should not be within the ordinary catchment** of a center with daily services. In a place with only daily amenities, residents should expect to easily fall below the low levels of auto traffic suggested by Appleby and Lintel.

What comprises daily services? Today in the United States that would likely mean the corner or convenience/drug store.  A coffee shop, a gym, daycare, school, laundry or an Automated Teller Machine may also fall under this category.  In Europe, daily needs could be the butcher, the baker and the pub.  What we consider our daily needs is not entirely fixed; it varies between cultures and even between individuals.  The key however is that such a neighborhood should not expect to draw in a great deal of traffic from the outside, because most of the services present are not unique. Every other neighborhood should have and be able to support the similar services and therefore the incentive for cross-travel is low.

The "Third Place" restaurant in Haile Plantation

Haile Plantation

This analysis of “daily services” is admittedly blind to one thing most of the population does every day, which is go to work.  As our society is constructed today, whether traveling by car or transit, most people do not work in the same neighborhood where they live.  This analysis does not attempt to resolve that.  As one goes up the ladder from R3 to R6, just as variety and number of services improves, the likelihood of being able to live where you work increases.  The acceptable balance of this mismatch is related to “visitor population” tolerances addressed in “Populating Urbanism”.

Realistically many working Americans do little on workdays other than go to work and return home so there are very few needs that are truly daily (whether this is a result or a cause of the lack of neighborhood services is open for debate).  In fact some of the most common services offered in many new urbanist town centers, like boutique clothes shopping, are monthly or yearly needs.   This may help explain why town centers in many new urbanists neighborhoods often struggle; the fact is that most residents don’t need the services offered all that frequently. Similarly the willingness to make trade-offs (e.g. live at higher densities) to be able to walk to those services low.


R6-G: Rarely – a nationally recognized Opera, The United Nations, Mann Chinese Theater
R6: Occasionally – Community theater, Courthouse, Sports Venue, Local Symphony
R5: Monthly – Movie theater, Discount Retailer, Clothes shopping
R4: Weekly – Grocery Store, Pharmacy, Doctor’s Office
R3: Daily/Limited – Cafe, Daycare, ATM, Laundromat

Weekly needs could include large grocery stores in the United States, banks and restaurants. As the level of services increases people should expect to experience increased outside traffic (this after all is where those who live in “daily services” neighborhoods come for their weekly needs) and to live at increased densities.  It will also be more desirable for individuals with more disposable income, who take advantage of expensive services more frequently, to live in such locations.  These neighborhoods should include all the daily needs, likely in greater quantity and variety, plus all weekly needs.  Inman Square in Cambridge, MA (primarily 3 story structures), provides not just one corner store but one on virtually every block in addition to a wide range of other services.

At the “weekly” level it is still conceivable that users within the neighborhood could support most of these businesses.  However, if we assume that some places do not have these levels of amenities then that implies that those who live in “daily need” places will take advantage of some of the services available in “weekly+ need” places. Therefore these outside users must be taken into account.

Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA

Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA

At a macro-level one could calculate how many “weekly need” places must exist to serve a certain number of “daily need” places while ensuring that the residents and streets of the “weekly” needs place are not overwhelmed by visitors.  Auto and pedestrian users both have relevant considerations.  Total visitors is the number of people walking down the sidewalk (after they get out of their cars, off their bikes, off the train or even after walking from another center) who do not consider this place their home territory.  Too large a visitor to resident ratio will start to break down the character and identity of a place and make it dysfunctional from a retail standpoint. That ratio should be different for each place type  (in a weekly neighborhood it may be 0.5 : 1 at any given moment and in midtown Manhattan it may be 10:1–perhaps this is why many Manhattan residents avoid midtown).

Since each visitor only patronizes the neighborhood weekly, there can be many more “dependents” than actual residents but they are not present all at the same time or if they are it is in concentrated bursts, such as weekdays or events. For example, if the “daily need” places have ½ the population of the “weekly need” place, then a “weekly need” neighborhood could support 7 “daily need” neighborhoods in addition to it’s own population. These numbers are not prescriptive but are intended to give a rough idea of the potential magnitude of these relationships.

These calculations of visitor population must be paired with calculations for supporting business. The combination of visitor and resident population must be able to support the level of amenities without the ratio of visitors to residents being too unbalanced.  Whereas for weekly need places it is conceivable that the local population could support most of the businesses based on higher population density,  in higher categories–such as “occasional needs” places–visitors will be required to maintain business viability. As amenity level increases, residents’ tolerance for living at higher densities and for motor traffic, pedestrian traffic and visitor population also increases. These factors are related to one another: as density and pedestrian traffic increases, strangers become less distinguishable and motor traffic becomes less imposing. At higher amenity levels we can also assume that visitors’ willingness to walk greater distances from adjacent neighborhoods for weekly and occasional needs increases.

Managing the cars

Visitors who arrive by car will count against the maximum number of car-dependent users that a place can support. This is the total number of visitors arriving by car AND those who consider this neighborhood their primary commercial center / home territory but travel to it primarily by car.  The number of people that can arrive by other means of transportation, such as bicycle or public transit, is more flexible though the maximum comfortable visitor population still applies.

At this level, it is logical for transit to enter into the conversation. We have discussed limits on visitor population without fully distinguish among visitors traveling by different modes.  If most visitors come by car then tolerable visitor population may be effectively lowered unless transit is provided; if those additional visitor are required to sustain a certain level of business/civic activity (e.g. R6) then transit becomes necessary. Even with increasing local density and traffic, eventually the level of amenities will require more users than can comfortably either live within walking distance or arrive by car. This will very likely be the situation for any place with monthly, occasional or rare services. Thus transit can increase the pedestrian density and visitor population without increasing the motor traffic levels. This is not the only time that transit ought to be available but it is the level where it must be available.

Intermittent Services

One interesting idea for accommodating a wider range of services for a small population is the idea of intermittent services.  This could include a weekly farmers or trade market.  A colleague travelling in southern France remarked that the weekly or biweekly market held in the towns was the equivalent of supermarket and Walmart in one.  It could also include more rare travelling events such as a circus or fair or local events such as town festivals.  Especially as the economics of building place become more restrictive we should consider programming flexible spaces for such activities, sometimes in lieu of permanent buildings.

This article has suggested a hierarchy of places based on intensity as well as some considerations that are necessary to maintain these places in appropriate balance. Much of the information presented here may ring familiar. The goal is not to present and entirely new concepts but to provide an alternate way of thinking about ideas we already understand intuitively.

Additionally the earlier paper from which this is excerpted  provided a logic for minimum densities. The concept of minimum densities and minimum population remains foreign to many planners, decision-makers, and citizens outside of New Urbanism and a firm logic may help them to understand and accept it.

FURTHER RESEARCH: Empirical tests or economic analysis could suggest the appropriate relationship between density and amenity levels and research could classify different services by frequency of use in order to classify specific services as part of daily, weekly or rare usage categories.

*As noted by Bruce Donnelly and others “transect zones” are intended to describe parts of a neighborhoods whereas people commonly misconstrue them to mean parts of a region. It would seem that in my original paper on this topic I made that very error or glossed over it. As such I have replaced, where appropriate, the mentions of T1 through T6 with R1 through R6.  R1 – R6 does not represent an agreed upon taxonomy.

**The ordinary catchment here means the type of village or area described in “Populating Urbanism”, consisting of the population within walking distance of the center and a limited number of auto-dependent users.

NOTE: These suggestions are beholden to Christopher Waller’s Central Place Theory and Christopher Alexander’s “Web of Shopping” (Pattern 19). However, they do not necessarily incorporate all the related assumptions of those two authors.

References: http://www.cnunextgen.org/wiki/index.php?title=Publication/Living_Urbanism/Harris_-_Populating_Urbanism#References: