“Near-burbia,” Walkability, and Poor Urban Design

My partner G and I live in Albany’s Center SquareHudson/Park area, a wonderful, walkable neighborhood with vibrant street life, diverse 19th century architecture, and street scenes like this. The one thing it lacks, though, is an organized Jewish life. As Sabbath-observant Jews, G and I don’t drive to synagogue on Shabbat, so we have taken to staying over with families who live closer to our preferred community, Ohav Shalom, for Shabbat once a month or so. Our decision to locate downtown, rather than in the kind of heavily Jewish neighborhood we both grew up in, was motivated by our desire to live in a really wonderful urban neighborhood (and ours certainly is one), by our experiencing a little bit of burnout from organized Jewish communal life after 20-some-odd years of intensive involvement in it, and not least by the little irritants of suburban-imitation urban planning that characterize the Albany neighborhoods closer to Ohav Shalom.

Though within city limits, the southwesterly areas of Albany are accurately described as “near-burbia,” a term I’ve heard people who live there use to describe them. Though from afar it gives the appearance of being organized on a relatively logical grid system, the area is in fact characterized by all kinds of impediments to true walkability, making living there basically aut0mobile-mandatory. We encountered many of those issues on our walk back to our host family’s place from dinner (which we had eaten with another family) on Friday night. Though the two houses are only about 4/10ths of a mile apart as the crow flies, getting between them on the shortest route requires tromping through a backyard and clambering over a fallen wire fence–not a pleasant experience when there are two feet of snow on the ground. And why is that tromping through a backyard necessary? Well, because the far-sighted urban planners of 1950s Albany didn’t see fit to connect two streets that run within a few dozen feet of each other (we’re looking here at Berkshire Boulevard and Kakely St.).

Given the miserable experience of slipping and sliding through all that snow on the way to dinner (which was actually very lovely!), we decided to take the “long way around” on the way back, taking surface streets all the way even though, due to the ridiculous disconnections in the grid, it would be far, far longer (at least 3 times the distance). The graphic below represents our walking path choices: red is the path we took to dinner, orange the way we got home, and the purple the path we should have followed had we known the neighborhood better. (click on the image to embiggen)

path map

This, of course, was a Big Mistake. It took us nearly an hour and a half to get home after dinner. The first thing to understand is that, as of Friday, Albany had roughly 2 feet of snow on the ground from previous snowstorms. Friday also saw a rapid warming, with temperatures reaching into the mid-40s, and several intense bands of rain moved through the area in the afternoon. After dark, temperatures crashed back down below freezing, making the entire town basically a solid sheet of ice. As one can imagine, struggling through 1.4 miles or so of ice and snow is not fun, especially for a big dude like me whose center of gravity is substantially away from the spine (G had an easier time than me, though still difficult).

More to the point of this post, though, our issues with the ice were made far worse by the poor planning of the area and the even worse stewardship of the urban environment by the city and the residents of the area. The primary problem, of course, is the ridiculous mock-grid way in which the neighborhood is laid out. Streets appear to randomly terminate rather than running up or down hills, without even pedestrian connections between sections. Legally, it is literally impossible to walk the .4 miles between the two houses we were shuttling between in less than 1.2 miles (according to Google Maps, at least). Faced with that kind of idiocy, OF COURSE city residents are going to abandon the idea of pedestrian living and take to their cars for every task. It’s a built environment that nods towards being urban while really embracing the suburban idea of a mandatory car tax, an unfortunate location for an observant Jewish community. We might call it the STROAD of “urban” neighborhoods.

The minor aspects of planning and custodianship in the area are depressing as well. Many streets in the neighborhood don’t have sidewalks (something which should, of course, be automatically illegal in urban areas), and those that do exist were, as mentioned, a completely solid sheet of ice. I don’t think we encountered a single property on our walk that showed signs of having been salted to prevent ice from forming, even though the icing was predicted well in advance. I ended up walking in the street a lot (because of car traffic, it was generally less icy than the sidewalks), and tromping through snowbanks at other times because getting snow in my shoes was preferable to falling on my ass on slick sidewalks. Many of the street lamps were out, making it hard to see ice at many points (my understanding is that the local utility is responsible for these, not the city, and that they’re not very responsive–another issue). It was a total exhibition of how not to care about an urban space. And I think that speaks a little bit to the sense of civic duty shared (or in this case, not shared) by the residents of the neighborhood. In Hudson/Park, whenever a property particularly egregiously neglects its duty to clear sidewalks of snow or ice, messages fly back and forth on the neighborhood listserv trying to fix the situation, because–GASP–people actually USE the  sidewalks. In an area where poor planning mandates car use over walking, citizens are less invested in maintaining a safe, usable pedestrian environment, thus the utter lack of salt on sidewalks and community apathy over non-functioning street lamps and absent sidewalks. I think planners often struggle to articulate exactly how the built environment impacts citizen mindset; this seems to me to be a particularly good example of the kind of vicious cycle that can set in when we neglect the pedestrian environment. We might envision the cycle something like this:

Poor initial planning of the “grid”–>residents of the area forced into cars–>residents neglect and fail to organize around making safer the pedestrian environment–>pedestrian environment is unsafe–>reliance of residents on cars is reinforced.

Though the cycle has in the intervening years taken on a life of its own, the initial mistakes of planning made in the neighborhood’s development primed the pump for its beginning. The process is a sobering reminder to planners of how fundamental mistakes can have ramifications far in the future.