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A Naturalist’s Ode to Urban Density

Guest blog by Doug Kelley, Associate Professor at University of Rochester

I grew up doing a lot of hiking and backpacking in the woods of Alabama. Being outside connected me to a world that seemed more fundamental, more enduring, less corrupted by the mistakes of humankind. I felt empowered by the ethos of backpacking especially, that my own two feet could take me through the world from one beautiful place to another, and when I was gone, I would leave no trace, so others might enjoy the same beauty. I could forget daily stresses in favor of long conversations with friends, basking in sunshine and endorphins. I was (and am) a naturalist. I chose a college in the Appalachian mountains, and spent summers back in the Alabama woods, a counselor at Camp McDowell, quick to volunteer to lead kids on hikes.

Over time, my passion for being outdoors led to an idea that seemed surprising at first: for a naturalist like me, who wants to spend as much time outdoors as possible, the best place to live is not in the woods but in a densely-packed city center. Urban density allows me to live close to my workplace and commute by bike or public transportation, so I’m outdoors for an hour every day, routinely, without committing extra time. Urban density means there’s a small market a block from my house, a pharmacy two blocks beyond, a library within five blocks, a hardware store and supermarkets easily accessible by bike, and a huge number of restaurants, cafes, bars, and coffee shops nearby. In a city center, sidewalks and bike lanes and bus routes offer dense connections. When traveling to all these places and more, I can be outdoors, enjoying the same sunshine and exercise as on those Alabama trails, years ago.

Headed home from work on the River Trail, I enjoy fantastic views of downtown Rochester daily. (Credit: Doug Kelley)

Without urban density, neither I nor my neighbors — who I see often on sidewalks and porches — could benefit from so many amenities. If lots were bigger and residences weren’t arranged with as much density, our destinations would be pushed further away, often too far for walking or biking. In fact, many destinations would cease to exist. Markets and restaurants and shops are businesses that rely on having enough feet cross their threshold daily. Urban density puts customers close. Or, from the customers’ point of view, urban density puts businesses close.

A naturalist’s first instinct might be to live far outside the city center, near trails and hills and streams. Wistfully I can imagine myself stepping out of a house abutting Mendon Ponds Park, a favorite place to ski and hike and cycle, ready to start an outing without even getting in a car. But to gain that privilege, I would have to trade away countless hours of outdoor time enabled by my city life. Living by those trails, I’d be cooped up in a car every time I commuted, every time I needed groceries, every time I wanted a restaurant meal. RTS buses don’t go that far out. Altogether, that life would allow me far less time in the outdoors I love. Much better to drive to the trails and live in the city.

A favorite hiking destination at Camp McDowell was St. Christopher’s Pool, at the head of a canyon and beneath a waterfall near the edge of the property. But in those years, St. Chris’s was badly defaced, its rocks and water turned a sickly shade of orange by runoff from the coal mine upstream. The Rev. Mark Johnston, executive director of Camp, waged a legal battle that ultimately brought the mine’s owners to remediate the stream, largely restoring St. Christopher’s. Mark also reminded campers and staff often that though the mine owners were culpable for property damage, all people are responsible for being good stewards of shared resources, and we ourselves contributed to the damage when we used the electricity produced by that coal. It was a tough lesson, and an important one.

That lesson, too, leads naturalists to value urban density — because it seriously reduces our own contributions to the human damage of natural places. New York City has the highest population density of any large area in the United States, with 27,000 residents per square mile. New York City also has a vastly smaller per-capita carbon footprint than typical American places: in 2015, an average resident produced emissions equivalent to 6.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide, less than a third of the national average of 19. Likewise, an average New York City resident uses far less energy and produces far less waste than an average American. It’s no coincidence that urban density reduces carbon footprints, energy use, and waste. Density enables car-free transportation, which burns little or no fossil fuel. Density also makes residences more efficient, because apartments are insulated by their neighbors, and because smaller residences almost always require less heating and cooling. And as anybody who’s cleaned out their garage knows, having more space inevitably leads to accumulation of more stuff — not all useful!

Reflecting more deeply, the lesson of stewardship and the naturalist’s leave-no-trace ethos are fundamentally about equity, and urban density promotes equity, too. Beyond leaving natural places untrammelled and less-damaged by climate change, density makes healthy and pleasant lifestyles available to all, even those who never spend time in the woods, either for lack of interest or for lack of opportunity. Regardless of social and economic status, almost everybody can walk and bike, which opens a myriad of possibilities in a well-designed city center. Public transportation is more broadly affordable than personal automobile ownership. And density matters even more for people with disabilities, for whom nearby amenities are no mere matter of convenience.

Rochester, NY (Credit: Joe Wolf on flickr)

Obviously, Rochester is not as dense as New York City, but at 6100 residents per square mile, its density exceeds many American cities, including Austin, TX (3200), Cleveland, OH (5100), and even the famously bike-friendly Portland, OR (4800). Most of Rochester proper and some suburbs boast sidewalks and gridded streets, making walking and biking easier and more enjoyable. Gems like the Canal Path and River Trail connect pedestrians and cyclists to more amenities over greater distances. Regional bike infrastructure is being steadily improved and expanded. Many neighborhoods in our region are great places for the urban naturalist lifestyle.

Some of Rochester’s density was automatic, because the city predates personal automobiles. But now, building and maintaining people-friendly city centers requires conscious choices, good policies, and ongoing input from citizen-naturalists. Reconnect Rochester has made major efforts to encourage urban density and make outdoor city life more pleasant and equitable. The work continues, and you can help. For starters, Rochester’s zoning laws have put limits on density, but are now being reviewed for revision, so leave a comment supporting urban density. Urge leaders to implement and expand bike master plans. Nearly every local municipality has one, thanks largely to the Rochester Cycling Alliance (for example, see the City of Rochester plan). Or get involved with Complete Streets Makeover for hands-on projects making outdoor urban spaces more practical and beautiful. Get plugged in to Reconnect Rochester’s work so you can learn about opportunities to volunteer for hands-on projects, attend public meetings, sign petitions, and be part of the effort.

The tulip trees on Oxford Street are among the many everyday delights of my bike commute, made possible by urban density. (Credit: Doug Kelley)

In the end, my bike commute may not have the same grandeur as summiting one of the Adirondack High Peaks, but doing it every day makes it more important to my life, health, and peace of mind. On the River Trail in the morning, I see groundhogs and rabbits frequently, and also deer, turkeys, hawks, and occasionally a fox or heron. In the afternoon, I enjoy a grand river vista of the Freddie-Sue Bridge with downtown buildings towering beyond. For one precious week every spring, I revel in an explosion of color when the Oxford Street tulip trees bloom. And knowing that urban density not only helps me enjoy the outdoors, but also helps me leave no trace and allows many others the same benefits — that makes these natural experiences sweeter still. 

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When Streets Were Equitable

Written by Arian Horbovetz and originally published on The Urban Phoenix blog.

“Dude, get out of the road,” you yell in an enraged state fueled by someone’s blatant disregard for the fact that you woke up late and are traveling 10mph over the speed limit only to encounter a man “jaywalking” across the road in front of you. Your displaced anger bubbles over as you find yourself inconvenienced for a whole 9 seconds.

We’ve all been there… getting behind a car that’s traveling 10mph under the speed limit, trying to pass a cyclist with no shoulder, or yelling at a pedestrian who crosses the road outside of a crosswalk with no regard for your time.

Let’s step back in time to 1906. Jaywalking, or the illegal crossing of a street in a non-designated crosswalk, was 20 years from being a thing. The automobile was just beginning to assert itself as a semi-regular addition to city streets that accommodated a multi-modal construct. Can’t imagine what this looks like? Let’s look at this amazing digitally remastered video of a 1906 San Francisco street car ride.

The most important thing to note in this video is how diverse the street traffic is. Horse and buggy, trolley, automobile, bicycle, pedestrian… they all move at approximately the same speed. The well-to-do owner of the car travels at a speed that is similar to the pedestrian and cyclist. While the driver may be able to enjoy an independent, stress-free commute, he or she is subject to the street congestion caused by many different forms of mobility. And while this low-speed chaos would likely be psychologically catastrophic to the car commuter today, it presents some incredibly meaningful lessons with regard to our streets and their effect on society.

Multiple Modes of Mobility

Trolleys, carriages, bikes, cars and pedestrians… count the number of different forms of mobility in this video. The streets were truly for everyone, regardless of speed, size or socioeconomic status.

Similar Speed

Equitable transportation is rooted in the idea that anyone can access jobs and resources equally, regardless of their socioeconomic status. In this piece of video, pedestrians, mass transit and cars move at a similar speed. The difference in velocity between the most exclusive form of transportation and the most humble form of transportation is negligible. Today, the average 15 minute commute by car is likely to be over an hour by bus. The prioritization of the automobile has completely eradicated equitable access to jobs and resources.

Density and Community

Slower, more equitable mobility leads to greater, more efficient urban density. Suburban sprawl has created an inequitable construct based on “pay-to-play” access of upwardly mobile resources. When multi-modal transportation is encouraged, more efficient and equitable communities are possible.

In the video above, the fastest form of transportation, the cars, are moving about 2-3 times the speed of pedestrians. Sure, that difference might be a great deal more on an open road, but the top speed of between 30 and 50 miles per hour for the average Ford… not to mention you needed oil every 250 miles, and the fact that highways were just a glimmer in the hopeful eye of an urban enemy. A humorous note, just two years earlier, a driver was given the first speeding ticket in Dayton Ohio for going 12mph in a 5mph zone.

At such low speeds, the prospect of “sprawl” was horribly impractical. As a result, cities remained unquestionable centers of equity, efficiency and productivity. Because cars were just a slightly faster mode of transportation in a sea of other mobility options, 15-20 mile car commutes were simply not possible.

But cars became faster. Car and oil companies became the dominant lobbyists in the United States. Highways were built to allow for greater sprawl, all subsidizing people’s desire to create exclusive communities outside their city centers.

In Conclusion

I shared this video with a number of friends. The comments back marveled at the clothing, the trolleys, the horses, the man sweeping horse droppings, and the maddening chaos of multi-modal traffic. But when I look at videos like this, I see what cities were like when mobility was far more equitable. Sure, our cities were dirty, crowded, smelly and sometimes scary. Sanitary amenities, cleaner energy and a host of other legal and environmental issues were still hurdles for cities 1906.

But the power of the city as the social, economic and equitable hub of humanity was far greater than it is in the U.S. today. Architecture hasn’t changed all that much, save the skyscraper. Street layout is pretty much the same. The big difference is the fact that the formally diverse streets featuring slow traffic have been replaced with exclusive automobile access, allowing those who own cars to speed to their destinations while those who must rely on public transit are subject to maddeningly underfunded networks, long wait times and inefficient commutes.

The video above shows what streets were meant to be. They were havens for diverse mobility instead of space that is solely dedicated to speed and exclusivity. Our cities have paid the price for this massive mistake, and as a result, equity and upward mobility continue to lag compared to much of the rest of the industrialized world.