Over on CityLab, Andrew Small has a piece that parses out Jane Jacobs’ ideas about “border vacuums” and how they affect life in cities. Like many urban planning ideas, you already know what Jacobs is talking about from experience even if you are not familiar with the concept. A border vacuum is a space in a city that cuts off activity and separates neighborhoods or districts. They could be elevated highways, like I-345, which effectively creates a trench between downtown and Deep Ellum. Or they could be urban features that carry less of a stigma, like parks. In many ways, Fair Park is as much of border vacuum segregating the north and south of Dallas as I-30 is.
The entire piece is well worth reading, particularly if you are not familiar with Jacobs. Small applies Jacobs’ thinking to prominent contemporary examples of border vacuums, including San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway, which is one of the most famous and successful example of urban highway removal. He also highlights one of Jacobs’ most important points. Often, the reason urban planners and policy makers don’t recognize the potentially devastating impact of various city projects and improvements is because they are constantly looking at cities from a bird’s-eye view. From 30,000 feet, border vacuums can fit neatly — almost satisfyingly — within the geometry of a city grid. But that, of course, is not how we experience spaces. At ground level, well-connected, porous spaces, even if aesthetically unappealing when viewed from above, are the secret to attracting pedestrian life:
Even a street with scattered border features can survive small spots of urban blight so long as people can move freely amidst small city blocks on narrow streets. A border vacuum emerges when some kind of barrier seals what otherwise be accessible space to pedestrians. Ideally, parks need to be accessed from multiple directions to succeed.
Dallas’ urban landscape offers a case study in how the allure of top-down, 30,000-foot urban planning can shape a city clogged with border vacuums. Despite a long history of inviting some of the best planners in the world to take a shot at shaping Dallas into a great city — from George Kessler to Kevin Lynch to William Whyte to Michael van Valkenberg — Dallas is still a city that is defined by a lack of connectivity. Even our biggest success — the much-touted Klyde Warren Park — still suffers from being cut off from adjacent neighborhoods by an urban landscape that doesn’t allow for easy-to-navigate routes in between the park and into other parts of the city. No wonder Dallas’ supposed big urbanism win has a parking problem.
We certainly have plenty of highways and roads and other urban features that most typically constitute border vacuums. But with Dallas, simple scale has often been a contributing factor to pedestrian impenetrability. When was the last time you walked from Klyde Warren Park to Uptown, or from one end of the Arts District to the other, or from Deep Ellum to Expo Park? Walking between these pseudo-walkable neighborhoods, which are each situated within a proximity that, in any other city, wouldn’t ever feel like a long walk, is to encounter a litany of border vacuums — from roads with too many lanes, to long block faces, to backsides of buildings, to complicated intersections, or, simply, ugliness:
As Jacobs put it, “Almost nobody travels willingly from sameness to sameness and repetition to repetition, even if the physical effort required is trivial.”
In the 1980s, William H. Whyte made a documentary called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces which offered a simple, if profound observation about the way city’s work. Paying attention to the small ways in which people interact with urban spaces offer clues into how to design spaces that will allow for vibrant urban life. The trick is to design from the street level, not the view at 30,000 feet.
Perhaps the title of Whyte’s documentary offers the biggest clue as to why Dallas, even when attempting to apply progressive urban planning ideas to create places like Klyde Warren Park and the Arts District, has continued to design as a patchwork of isolated urban moments surrounded by boarder vacuums. Whyte extols careful study of small spaces. But this is Dallas. Big things happen here.