The Intersection of Smart and Growth

Do we judge the quality of our community by the length of its streets, or the number of its intersections? Before saying “Both, of course”, or “Neither”, let’s look closer.

Can a street without intersections even be a community? Hmm.

Perhaps not, because a street without intersections has no PLACES, no ORIGIN. We call streets without places highways, parkways, or thruways because they are on the way to places, rather than being places themselves. So a street cannot become a place without an intersection of some kind:

  • of street with address,
  • of street with another street,
  • of neighbour with neighbour.

If we accept that a community is a place, then it follows that the origin of community is the intersection, not the street.

Having led you this far down the path, how shall we then proceed to measure the quality of these, our “communities of intersection”?

Let’s start with Quantitative Analysis. Always convincing, that idea of counting things. Plays well in the council chamber, too. Soooo, the community with the most intersections is the best community? Most intersections per square kilometer? Per citizen? How shall we go about this?

Now oddly enough, (and thanks for playing along so far) there is measurement of exactly this sort going on in the halls of academia. It turns out that “intersection density” is a key measurement of the walkability and indeed the quality of our communities! Interested readers might googlestroll “intersection density”, and spend some time wandering among the results.

In essence, it seems that the dismal background to planning decisions is catching on to some streetsmart research that goes like this: more street intersections in a given area increase connectivity for pedestrians, and make for more choice. The length of blocks is shortened, making a variety of routes and destinations easier to attain with the same effort. All of this creates more pedestrians! It leads to more foot traffic and better opportunities for business offerings and incidents to serve those walkers, more fun for everyone as the crowds come out; slower, calmer car traffic navigating more intersections on the pedestrians’ terms; more neighbours meeting each other; better satisfaction with our cities; less energy use, more safety, small business opportunity; and on and on.

Reid Ewing and Robert Cervero, urban planning academics at the University of Utah and U.C. Berkeley respectively, conducted a meta-analysis (read: “a review of the available studies”) and published “Travel and the Built Environment” this past summer, in the Journal of the American Planning Association. Of the many measures of built environment, they found that increased “intersection density” has the largest effect on creating walkable communities. More than population density, or distance to a store or to a transit stop, or jobs within one mile.

Now if you’re still along for the stroll here, I want you to fire up the computer once again, and do a little analysis of your own. Looking down from the omniscient heights of GoogleMap, how does your neighbourhood look in terms of intersections? Like Venice Italy, at 1,500 intersections per square mile? Like downtown Los Angeles, at 150? Or the suburbs of Irving California, and some of our own, at 15? Ewing and Cervero cite these examples in their study. (Here’s a graphic courtesy of PedShed and the Study). What happens when a community has 100 times more intersections than our own? We get on a plane and visit it! (I know, I know, European example, so it’s useless, but bear with me).

The vast majority of our communities, constructed by the “live here, play there, work somewhere else” planning-slash-land-development-profits braintrust, have nothing like the density of intersection required to make walking anywhere a practical choice. Consider that a corner store in one of our suburbs (even were it tolerated, which it is not) serves a few people, with each following the serpentine maze of the street to reach it. That’s a corner store that’s out of business. The same store, in a neighbourhood of intersections, can be reached by many times more people in the same walking distance, because they can get at it through choices of route and the use of intersections.

Try it! Use GoogleMaps to zero in on a 1970’s suburb (you can tell it by its winding maze of streets that guard its central cul-de-sac as though it were a prize worth stealing) and mentally place a corner store somewhere in it. Now look at the neighbourhood walks that must be made to get at it. Hopeless.

Now pan over to a pre-1950’s rectilinear neighbourhood. You can tell that one because the streets are named “street”, the blocks are shorter, and are usually named after trees (Oak, Chestnut, Walnut, etc). Stick a mental pin in one intersection (your corner store) and look again at how many people can walk to it. I think you’ll find that many times more people are within walking distance, since they can quickly attain that destination.

What has all this to do with our future, you ask? Well, quite a lot, actually. Let’s not forget that here in Canada, under our Ontario provincial Government’s so-called “Smart Growth” plan, 40% of residential growth will happen within built-up areas. Sounds good? Well, put another way, 150% more residential growth will happen outside of our present urban footprint than within.

Not so good.

In fact, it’s terrible. In addition, employment can continue to locate itself at the periphery. It’s not subject to the 40% rule. Take a drive around Northfield and University in Waterloo, for instance, and you’ll see the future. And I mean drive. It’s practically the only way you can get there.

We’re in for a lot more car-oriented growth. In fact more than half again as much as the “smart” kind. It will require more roadwidth, more expressway, more parking lots and asphalt landscaping, and endless more tax subsidy. The planners and politicians would have you believe that big changes are coming, that we will return to building urban form that pays for itself through the taxes it generates.

As they distract us with the “Smart Growth” bouquet in the right hand, the left will be behind the back, accepting the usual cash and planning applications that come from plowing the farmland under. The Ontario Municipal Board (our province’s appeal board for planning decisions) will continue to reinforce business as usual.

All of this while our population ages. All of our children, and more of our seniors, will find themselves without car keys, and unable to move through the landscape they will be subsidizing. If we were truly an intelligent community, we’d be trying to figure out how to create more intersections, not less, and we wouldn’t be settling for a future with more suburban sprawl than growth of any other kind.

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