Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tunnels and Skybridges: Street-killers or an Enhancement to City Life?

Dallas can be often insecure about itself. Many people in my home city seem to feel that their city gets no national respect nor is it the recipient of much aprobation from outsiders. Maybe I get this impression from hanging out with my own kind too much, such as other architects who love to bloviate more about the problems of cities than about the art of building. Admittedly, many architects are stimulated by idealized images in their minds of the perfect place to be in. Some are so confident as to what makes a great place that they are often willing eliminate essential means of transport (cars) and modes of building to achieve their goal. As you can imagine, bring up the topic of Dallas to a bunch of designer and urban planning types it will almost always be met with groans. For these people, Dallas can do nothing right and is guilty for having ignored all the valuable lessons of sound city planning.

For young designers fresh out of school, Dallas is an unattractive place to begin one's career. Its image embodies little of the urban values they were taught at school. As I have recently learned from my experience trying to recruit new graduates from architecture school, Dallas does not have a desirable 'cache'; it is not 'hip' and the only major reasons a person would consider moving there are mostly pragmatic (its low cost of living and affordable real estate, its abundant job opportunities and good wages, etc.) Although they offer scarcer jobs, inflated housing costs, and even fewer parking spots, cities such as Boston, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle adhere to the principles that, to them, makes great places to live in. They also presume that such cities are much more hospitable to progressive (i.e. not exclusively functional) design.

In contrast to those much older and beloved cities, Dallas is distinctly twentieth century. Except for the historic core which spans several blocks, most of that city's fabric was developed after the main-streamed use of the car. Its structure and scale is reflective of an anti-pedestrian auto-dependent approach to city planning. There are many neighborhoods with no sidewalks and driving on its seven-lane boulevards criscrossing the city ensures swift point-to-point travel. It has experimented and applied many of the innovative urban planning ideas that emerged in the early twentieth century, ones that endorsed the Modernist notion of breaking away from historical tradition. Urban spaces would be scaled for the automobile, from the abundant freeways and wide traffic arteries, to large half-acre residential lots beginning not far from the city center and even larger more minimal iconic office towers. Classic notions of the street from the point of view of the pedestrian, such as the proportions of buildings to sidewalk, the engagement of storefronts, more welcoming hardscape and landscaping and the placement of residential units within downtown blocks were almost completely neglected for a span of about fifty years.

More interesting are the kind of distinctly twentieth century urban fads that Dallas did embrace. Downtown Dallas features an extensive underground city, with labyrinthine tunnels connecting many of the major office towers as a subterranean network of pediestrian 'streets'. There are also numerous skybridges that especially tie together all of the major office and hotel towers in the eastern half of downtown. Together they enable a person to walk through a great swath of downtown without ever going outside. They represented less a complete rejection of the traditional street than an supplementation of it beyond its normal spatial limits of a ground plane framed by buildings on both sides. A remnant of piecemeal efforts from local building owners to maximize leasable area add thru-traffic at the base of their properties, sympathizers of the tunnel argue that it was a practical response to the long hot summer days where temperatures average above 90 degrees for about 6 months out of the year, since no one seems to want to go out in the heat in their business suits.

In spite of the ignorance of most Dallas residents who do not work in the central business district, thanks to deliberate efforts by city officials to never mention they exist, the tunnel and skyway network is the lifeblood to convenient life downtown. All kinds of retail and restaurants are located in the tunnels, including large food courts catering to every taste as well as shops that sell opticware, office supplies, tax consulting, pharmacies, haircuts and even massages. National chain tenants are more likely to be found underground than on the street, which is defined mostly of independent family-owned delis that are often run-down and struggle to fill their tables. Unlike the stampede of office workers that pack the downtown sidewalks at lunch hour, Dallas at the street level is by comparison nearly a ghost town. A quick ride on the lobby escalator going to the basement level reveals where all the people went, as long queues of people form outside many of the eateries, and packs of working women put on their sneakers to do their walking exercises during the lunch break. This is not a 24-hour city by any means, since everything closes at 6 in the evening, but it is quite efficient, since the businesses open only for the predictable rush of foot traffic and close as soon it ceases for the day. For new workers in the central business district, the tunnels and skybridges are a revelation and quickly take advantage of the convenience, even though few explore the extent of the tunnels beyond their building. Not having to deal with the elements and not having to look out for cars and wait for red lights makes the tunnels an attractive option when trying to meet some simple needs quickly.

But they also suck the life out of the street. After many years of standing by and observing the continued commercial success of the tunnels, city leaders are determined to restore to prominence the relatively vacant street storefronts. Lovers of cities such as the planners and concerned architects encourage a policy of either ignoring the tunnels or outright demolishing them. It is hoped that the rapid growth of residential living in downtown (where it has become common to convert long-vacant office buildings into apartments) will help revitalize street-level businesses and achieve the ideal of a 24-hour neighborhood. The city government actually subsidizes a grocery store to ensure that this crucial amenity will attract more downtown residents. It seems obvious that the tunnels make it twice as difficult for street-level businesses to succeed. With the fundamental unit of the urban experience (the street) having been euthanized by an invisible network of secret tunnels, the disgruntlement of urban planners and architects is justifiable.

Dallas at the beginning of the twenty-first century finds itself trying to catch up on some belated classic urbanism after having permitted a few of the more modern alternatives to thrive. An urban renaissance of sorts is indeed currently taking place with numerous constructions cranes dotting the skyline. Pockets of open-air walkable districts have recently been built or are on the drawing boards. It has allocated tremendous resources into establishing a fairly extensive light-rail sytem in the hope of generating tranportation oriented development (TOD). Urban parks are being planned (including one to span over a major freeway underpass) with its overlooked drainage ditch of its central waterway, the Trinity River, being due for a major transormation into a supposedly world-class park system. Most Dallasites welcome these changes, even as the inevitable improvements in liveability will only continue to gentrify the city as a whole at the expense of the middle and lower-middle class.

In trying to ensure that these plans succeed, it is still important to consider why the extra-urban systems like tunnels and skybridges seem to work well and remain popular to local downtown workers and even residents. In particular when, even though tranditional urban life is trending in the positive direction, it is still struggling to establish itself. Apartments and condominiums continue to sell slowly, with some proposed new towers being put on the shelf due to a lack of committed tenants. Convenience is important in attracting downtown dwellers, especially when it fosters an advantagious ease of mobililty. It's hard to beat a pedestrian pathway that is air-conditioned year round and that transcends the sometimes frustrating coexistence with car traffic and urban noise. Since they are private, they bypass much of the urban riff-raff and no obstacles such as construction fences, litter or tripping hazards. It very much is reminiscent of the early Modernist obsession of the separation of uses, of eliminating the unpleasantness city life, of isolating pedestrians form car traffic. Visionaries like Le Corbusier (the interior street in the sky), Sant'Elia and the filmmaker Fritz Lang all envisioned a future where people would perform many of their pedestrian functions in enclosed paths and spaces in multi-functional giant buildings while leaving the rest of the car/ship traffic to physical or virtual super-highway systems.

The dynamics of the 'unpleasantness' of the city has indeed changed, as contemporary cities are now much cleaner now that the traditional nuissances are more regulated. Street-life has become sanitized to such a degree so as to become appealing to many people. It's obviously a benefit to city dwellers to be able to enjoy the street. But it is in my view an additional benefit to make use of tunnels and skybridges, in that they add an additional dimension to urban life with regard to innovative ways of circulating and connecting blocks together. They provide an important additional choice in how one moves throughout a dense area and the degree to which convenience and time becomes a priority. They also supplement new perspectives, allowing the pedestrian to view the kind of things that are visible only from a bridge as compared to a sidewalk, or to explore and discover a secret world below ground. To better enhance this choice, I would favor that the tunnel systems and the street complement each other rather than compete as they currently do. By expanding the choice of mobility and experiences, it will distinguish Dallas from other cities that rely on streets. It is this very complexity of paths that make life in the big city rich in experiences but also liberating in their ease of mobility.

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