Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Edward Abbey the Urbanist

Dateline: 12:01 pm November 17, 2007 Filed under:

The first thing I like to do when I arrive in a new city is drop my bags and head out for a stroll to discover the place. I like to pound the pavement and take in the sights, sounds and yes, even smells of a new city. I have many vivid memories of walking through a city for the first time, like King Street in Alexandria, Virginia, M Street in Georgetown, Polk Street in San Francisco, the warehouse district in Austin, and even downtown Pittsburgh. There is no better way to do so than on foot.

Oddly, the same argument can be made for wilderness. Indeed, my favorite writer, Edward Abbey, writes that the wilderness and our national parks are best seen on foot. He proposes banning all automobiles from the national parks in his seminal book “Desert Solitaire.” Abbey asks why, if we don’t allow cars in our cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, bedrooms and other sacred places in our culture, do we allow them in our national parks?

Interestingly, Abbey also acknowledges efforts to keep cars out of central cities. Keep in mind that he wrote Desert Solitaire in the late 1960s, around that time that numerous cities did ban cars and create pedestrian malls and car-free districts. Some worked, many failed, but even today the best areas of our cities are places where the automobile is mitigated or banned. Even the congestion pricing scheme in London helps control traffic in the central city, much the way Abbey wished for traffic to be controlled in the national parks. But I digress.

The greater point is Abbey’s argument that people’s enjoyment of national parks and wilderness is greatly enhanced when they are not trapped in their automobiles. He writes in Desert Solitaire, “A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.” He’s right. You may hear a bird call, pause to notice a shadow cast at sunset, smell decaying leaves in a forest or simply feel the weather and better understand the climate of a place. You can’t do that in a car.

The same thing can be applied to cities. I make sure to walk through a portion of San Francisco every time I visit, and during the course of a one mile walk I may stumble upon a great bookstore or cafe, smell an unusual dish being prepared at a restaurant in Chinatown, or discover a fantastic view of the bay from high on a hill. Drive the 101 freeway to San Jose and the experience begins to wane.

Abbey also advocates for the wise utilization of a place, a topic easily applied to cities as well. He argues that fewer motorized vehicles make the same space feel larger. He describes a lake one mile wide and ten miles long and explains that a motorboat could circumnavigate it comfortably in an hour. Ten motorboats begin to crowd it and fifty would create mayhem and make enjoyment of the lake impossible. Make all 50 boats nonmotorized canoes and suddenly enjoyment returns. Anyone who has been to the BWCA wilderness in Minnesota understands this – and a truly rare and wonderful wilderness experience it is!

An attractive, albeit narrow city street can accomodate hundreds of cars an hour, but that can be unpleasant for pedestrians. Put everyone on a bicycle and things are perhaps less chaotic, and certainly quieter, but if those very same amoun of people per hour traveled by foot down the street instead of in their car, it changes the experience mightily. Indeed, it is then possible to actually enjoy that street. Be it Main Street at Disneyland, Pearl Street in Boulder, State Street in Madison, or Trafalgar Square in London (there are hundreds of examples), the urban experience (OK, fake urban experience in the case of Disney) is greatly enhanced when cars are mitigated or removed from the scene.

Abbey explains that the national parks truly wild again without cars, “a venturesome minority” will set off alone on foot. “Let them take risks,” he writes, “for Godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches-that is the right and privilege of any free American.” The rest of us will need guidance to “saddle a horse, read a topographical map, follow a trail over slickrock, memorize landmarks, build a fire in rain, treat snakebite, rappel down a cliff, glissade down a glacier, read a compass, find water under sand, load a burro, splint a broken bone, bury a body, patch a rubber boat, portage a waterfall, survive a blizzard, avoid lightning, cook a porcupine,….” The list goes on, but Abbey believes this guidance should come from park rangers whom he feels (he should know, he was one) are too often pushing paper in air conditioned offices and in fact not actually “ranging.”

Maybe all we need are urban rangers. I do not recommend banning cars from cities. No. All I ask is that we are mindful of the automobile’s mostly negative impact and that we seek more efficient methods of transportation so that we may better enjoy urban life. So, like Abbey recommends for national parks, pehaps what we need are rangers. Urban rangers. Ranging. Besides better planning, architecture and the like, perhaps we just need a little direction. A lot of people appear helplessly lost in cities without their cars. Urban rangers would help us navigate our cities better on foot. They would give us maps and recommend “trails” to take, or better yet help us fine tune our skills so we can “follow our nose” and discover the city for ourselves. Rangers could help us find that cafe we seek, barter at a street market, learn to “stroll” and “people watch,” understand how to pay transit fare, carry groceries without a minivan, appropriately guide a bicycle through city streets, enjoy density,…. The list goes on.

Go out and discover your city. Walk a route you usually drive. Let your legs and heart propel you. Go see, smell and hear the city like never before. Jay Walljasper’s book “The Great Neighborhood Book” recommends just that. You may surprise yourself at what you discover, but walking through a city is the one true way to experience it. Enjoy the place you love. Make Edward Abbey proud.

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