Friday, May 11, 2012

An Apparent Inconsistency Addressed

Ideas about what 21st century will be like keep evolving, with technology offering new possibilities in energy, transportation, and commerce.  Meanwhile, the ideas also evolve about how urbanism can help communities provide productive, meaningful, and joyful life choices.  The two combine to challenge urbanism observers to continually reassess how they comprehend and describe urban strategies.  And if the observer’s compositional skills are less than perfect, misstatements can occur.

Which is a roundabout way of admitting that I recently walked myself into a logical blind alley.  Today, I’ll try to extricate myself.

In a recent post, I gave kudos to the residential neighborhoods near downtown Napa, describing them as places of possible urban lifestyles and encouraging the community to use wayfinding to direct visitors to walk through the architecturally interesting neighborhoods.

Then, in a separate post, I expressed disappointment that Walnut Creek for having allowed their downtown to be redeveloped as a de facto lifestyle center without residential in the downtown core.  Instead, residential development was directed to the periphery of downtown.

I praised Napa for having residential near downtown and then excoriated Walnut Creek for doing no better than having residential near downtown.  Can the two be reconciled?

They can, based on timing.  Napa, like many cities, developed with the initial residential areas surrounding the downtown.  The homes that I praised in Napa are probably within subdivision maps that date back a century or more.   Perhaps Napa’s biggest success of the past two decades was not allowing downtown to spread into the surrounding residential, pushing residential beyond convenient walking distance.  And Napa has compounded that success by preparing a specific plan that calls for reintroducing residential into the downtown core.

In contrast, the Walnut Creek residential of which I was critical is recent.  And it followed the failure to include residential in the downtown core at a time when many observers were calling for downtown residential.  I can’t speak to the pressures under which the Walnut Creek decision makers worked, but they seem to have missed a clear opportunity.

Could I criticize for Napa for having failed to include residential when the existing downtown buildings were built?  I could, but I wouldn’t find it fair.  The criticism would be mostly for having an imperfect crystal ball.  Much of the downtown was built when the vision of the future still included completing our chores in private cars.  It was a flawed vision, but it was the common vision of its time.  And I’m hesitant to criticize past generations for falling into line with a broadly shared vision.

It’s part of the bargain that I’m trying to strike with posterity.  I’m sure that some of the positions I’ve espoused in this blog, and in my life, will be proven short-sighted, or even wrong, in the future.  I’ve done the best I can with the information at hand, but I’m sure that my crystal ball is imperfect.  So, I’m asking posterity not to judge me harshly for my shortcomings.  In exchange, I won’t judge past generations for their failure to see the future with perfect clarity.

Of course, the generation from whom I’m seeking absolution hasn’t yet been born.  So I’m trying to document the deal I propose.  I do so by not being critical of past generations if their failings were mostly the result of conforming to the zeitgeist of the era.

(By the way, I exempt Robert Moses from my amnesty to the past.  He was an intelligent man with enough information to have done better.  And he was excessively devious in imposing his wrong-headedness on the citizens of New York.)

Circling back to Napa and Walnut Creek, whatever mistakes Napa may have made were in the distant past and their recent decisions have been quite consistent with the growing vision of new urbanism.  In contrast, Walnut Creek’s missteps are quite recent.  I’m comfortable making a distinction between the two.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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