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A Contrast in Urban Design

23 Apr 2003

I’ve been to Denver many times, and whenever I ask someone what to do while I’m there, they respond, “Go to Boulder…” And that’s exactly what I did on my way home from Minneapolis last week. Today, I’m in San Antonio, Texas. Every region in this country is different, of course, no matter how homogenized American culture becomes. On the surface, things like accent, food, and architecture jump out immediately. But the more subtle qualities of a new city can be even more interesting.

I was staying in the Old Town district of Boulder, and it’s a case study in human scale, livable urban design. There are examples everywhere, and they ripple out from a pedestrian mall at the village-like center of town. At the core, benches, sculptures, and small public meeting spaces are arranged to encourage a pedestrian traffic flow that enables interaction. There are subtle design cues such as pathway intersections or semi-circles of benches that allow a comfortable mix of private space and random interaction.

Moving out from this center, transportation is designed at a human-scale (rather than vehicle scale) moves people to the mall. For walking, curb extensions and raised crosswalks make crossing streets safer. Dedicated bike pathways are set off from both the street and sidewalk by landscaping. Neighborhoods are close in – not zoned into suburbs – to make walking or biking to the store or out to dinner easier than getting in the car.

Finally, for those who must drive, they’ll be going a lot slower downtown than they typically would. Almost every block has either speed bumps, traffic circles or other devices that physically slow down traffic, making streets more livable and discouraging auto use.

San Antonio has a completely different philosophy. We’re staying outside of town on a “highway access road”. Like many US cities, San Antonio experienced a lot of its growth after the installation of the Interstate Highway System. Thus, as people moved away from the city center, a loop – or bypass – would form around the core. Retail would develop at the intersections and offramps, where auto traffic was highest. Roads and highways were designed with the goal of moving vehicles most efficiently, using metrics like average speed and minutes per trip as a gauge of success.

The experience of being in suburban San Antonio has been a series of short, high-speed car trips. Yesterday, we took a one-way, five-lane access road a few miles north to a bridge over the interstate, then back down the other side at 50 miles per hour to our client’s office. It took just a few minutes, but we traveled 6-7 miles in our car to get to a destination that would have been a 15 minute stroll. But we couldn’t walk. There were no sidewalks, crosswalks, or any other way of being a pedestrian. Without a car, you can not participate in society in San Antonio.

The irony is stark here. Downtown San Antonio is economically depressed, yet hosts a manufactured tourist destination known as the “River Walk”. There, sunken below the city streets away from any urban blight, a fantasy world of theme restaurants, bars, and boat tours lures visitors to a place that, strikingly, is a parody of the very human-centered design I appreciated in Boulder. The same private/public spaces connected with walkable paths and mixed use retail. Tourists stay in hotels on the river, walk to the restaurants, and interact with one another in open community areas. And it all feels so “different” from the suburbs, with planned communities and SUVs zooming from errand to errand. Again, striking.

Coincidently, the USA Today outside my hotel room door was headlined, “City, suburban designs could be bad for your health.” ​


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