Here’s some heresy for you: People like cars. They like to drive them; they like the freedom that cars afford.
Dense cities often discourage cars and the people who prefer them, and deal with the result. The people who don’t want cars will move in; people who like cars will say “Well, I know when I’m not wanted” and move out.
But if a community is already arranged around the car, it’s silly to punish drivers. Any rational transit proposal should have options for those who don’t have — or don’t want — a car. It should have pedestrian paths, bike lanes, buses that appear more often than Halley’s comet. If people like to drive to Target and load up groceries and bales of bathroom tissue and a lawn chair and a case of beer because everyone’s coming over on Saturday for a cookout, it is futile to tell them to take the bus.
People like cars, and they’re not getting out of them anytime soon. That’s what the ongoing redevelopment around Southdale recognizes. It also shows that designing with cars in mind can be … beautiful.
Of course, even car lovers would admit that the aggregate effect of an automobile-based culture is ugly, especially in the suburbs. Parking lots are necessary, but they’re not appealing. This just doesn’t matter to most people. No one parks and walks across the Target lot thinking, “This vast expanse of asphalt really keeps the area from establishing the sort of architectural compression that makes for interesting, vibrant neighborhoods.”
Why? Because it’s a Target parking lot.
Suburbs are built around atomized, disconnected destinations — towers set back from the road, low-slung office buildings from the regrettable 1960s and ’70s marooned in an expanse of white-striped blacktop, big box stores on the shore of a harbor where the Tahoes and Hummers are docked.
It’s not intended to form anything cohesive. No one is thinking “The architectural details of the Office Depot facade really offer an interesting counterpoint to the signage of the Fuddruckers,” because this isn’t that kind of place. It’s built to service people in cars, and it prospers because lots of people like cars.
It’s a fact of life, even though many New Urbanists believe that everyone — in the suburbs as well as the cities — should live in dense housing with walkable retail. There are people who live in dense nodes of the suburbs (the West End in St. Louis Park is an example) and they should be applauded. Suburbs, like cities, can be improved by projects that bring classic urban accents and ideas to areas that used to be bland expanses.
Another example is the Penn American project in Bloomington. It’s more interesting to drive past the retail/apartment complex than the auto dealership that occupied the space before, but no one mistakes it for Soho or Paris. They could fill all four corners of the intersection with apartment buildings, and the street would still be ruled by cars, by the broad river of Penn Avenue S., the massive ramps to the freeway. And the car would be still be king in this part of town. Why?
Because people like cars.
This was an accepted fact in the late ’50s, when Southdale was built, when the idea of a climate-controlled enclosed town square was the height of New Urban design.
If you read the stories about Southdale by critics who survey the shaky state of malls today, there’s a rueful note about Southdale’s idealism. Its designer, Victor Gruen, believed Southdale would be part of a new way of living — parks, schools, hospitals, apartments, all would arise in this Utopia carved out of dirt fields. The articles always conclude that the vision failed.
But it didn’t. That’s exactly what happened.
Fairview Hospital holds down the north side of the Southdale area. Point of France was the only housing structure for a long time, but now apartments rise on Xerxes and France, as well. Centennial Lakes provides the park; a winding path between the big box stores accommodates the pedestrians. There are benches, too, in case you want to tarry and admire the way the Westin tower catches the sunset.
It took a half a century, but Southdale is becoming what the dreamers wanted.
The other day I drove around Southdale, past the tall colored lights on the median that splits France; swung around a roundabout (a traffic-calming tool suburbs have adopted to great effect) and entered the new Lunds & Bylerlys project at France and Hazelton. It boasted big blocks of apartments with beautiful landscaping, a grocery store that comes right up to the corner instead of sitting back at the end of a dead, baking parking lot. Like much of what’s going up around Southdale, it accepts the car without resigning the streets to bleak utility.
When you state the simple fact that people like cars, your options are either to argue that they shouldn’t, figure out ways to change their minds, come up with schemes to force them out of their cars, or seek a design recipe that recognizes reality.
Suburban areas like Southdale — with dense housing that, yes, has big parking lots and side streets full of flowers and greenery — are morphing into a new style of city that reflects how some people want to live. You want to drive? Drive. You want to walk? Walk.
Giving the two modes of transportation equal weight is what troubles some New Urbanists. But people like cars. Insisting that they shouldn’t doesn’t change a thing.