Monday, January 18, 2016

The golden cage trap

There is a revival of interest towards urban design in the West right now, that much is hard to deny.  Much of it is the result of a lot of individual realization of the attractiveness of traditional urban designs, whether they be European villages, American small towns, traditional streetcar suburbs or big city downtowns. Meaning that people raised in soulless suburbia face an awakening when they experience for the first time a human-centric urban design, either on vacation, or while out of town for their studies or for their first job. (My own personal awakening comes from a trip to Japan, hence my focus on the country over and over as a model)

Typical suburban commercial strips
Old Montréal
Main street of Saint-Jovite, an old Québec town
A lot of people who have had their interest in urbanism piqued by such experience frequently ask the same question: "Why can't we build more places like that where I live?". Their focus however is on reproducing the experience they had, the feel of the place, the shape of the buildings, etc... This leads to an architectural or superficial urban planning bias, where the most important is the look of a place, form over function.

As a result, there is this intense focus in most urbanist discussions on the "feel" of a place rather than how it sits in a perspective of a functional, sustainable city. When developers and architects design areas based on that impulse, then they often fall into a trap, what I call the "golden cage" trap.

The "golden cage"

A golden cage, for me, is a neighborhood which feels very pleasant to live in, that offers a lot of comfort to residents. It's calm and peaceful, generally with a lot of greenery and trees, and maybe even bike paths and other infrastructure for outdoors activities. That is the "golden" part... the "cage" part is that the neighborhood is also isolated and cut off from most major economic activity centers. There are few jobs in the area, few stores, except for a few small ones, and poor transit mobility.

As a result, very few people can live and work in the same neighborhood, and people have to leave the area frequently to accomplish most tasks of modern life like shopping, working and social activities. As a result of that and the lack of transit connection to the rest of the metropolitan area it is a part of, more trips require cars, which kill the life on the street and community areas, as most of the population is either in their private home or out of the neighborhood at all times.

Examples of golden cages

The most common example of the golden cage is the typical North American suburb, at least, well-designed ones. They often have parks and plenty of trees, sometimes offer bike paths and pleasant areas to walk through...

Images from Boucherville, where I grew up. Nice place to have a walk or a bike ride, with plenty of parks, but nothing within walking distance and poor transit service, jobs and major stores are located at freeway interchanges outside the suburb itself
However, many New Urbanist developments are in fact not that much better. Since redeveloping areas is long and difficult, often, New Urbanist thinkers prefer greenfields development where they can build an entire neighborhood or small town from scratch, trying to replicate the success of old towns. However, these areas often end up being isolated and poorly services by transit, with poor access to the rest of the metro area.

Seaside in Florida is an example of New Urbanist small town, designed from scratch... 92% drive or are driven to work, 5% work at home... 0,4% walk
Seaside town center

Seaside residential area
I referred in my last post to the example of traditional American small towns as an example of a good, walkable development from the past. Seaside notably takes a direct inspiration from American small towns. However, these towns existed in another era where people mostly lived their entire lives, work and shopping included, in the same, small community. The modern world is not like that anymore, not at all. Ours is a world of massive economically integrated metropolitan areas with hundreds of thousands of people living, working and shopping there. As a result, it is essential for a well-functioning neighborhood to have reasonably fast access to other areas of metropolitan areas. If you don't offer good enough transit to offer that, then people will be forced into cars, and once they are into cars, then they will need parking, and once most people require parking, then every store or office will be isolated by an ocean of parking, contributing to the "golden cage" problem.

Indeed, many small towns in America and in Europe suffer from that, they have badly withstood the metropolitanisation of urban economies and have seen their residents start shopping and working outside their old downtown core. They have been hollowed out by this competition from job centers and stores on the periphery. If they want to preserve their vitality, they would need to have a car-less mobility option that could connect them efficiently with the rest of the metro area, not only for residents wishing to access the jobs and services of the rest of the metropolitan area but also for residents of other areas wishing to access that town's jobs and services.

What doesn't help is that in most cases, transit is often seen as a municipal service, not a regional one. So transit companies tend to only cover cities and offer only limited interconnections with various urban areas or towns in the same metro area. The absence of regional intercity transit in North America is one of the biggest problems we face in my opinion.


What I'm getting at is that an urban area's vitality depends on access, both the residents' access of other areas and other areas' access to it. An area cannot thrive only on good design. Take for example the 1980s' trend of pedestrian malls. Many cities in North America decided to create pedestrian-only outdoor malls from commercial arterials and invested a lot of money in good design to draw people in. These worked only for a while, but when the novelty effect ran out, they were largely abandoned... except the ones who were conveniently located and easily accessible by transit.

Rue Prince-Arthur Est in Montréal, a pedestrian mall that is facing high vacancy rates, the problem is that the subway is a bit off, and on the way there, people walk alongside...
...Saint-Denis street, which is a vibrant commercial area with much better transit access and that gives access to a big urban college campus (UQÀM), even if the design is worse, the much better location makes it a winner
Good urban design needs to be a second consideration after the issue of access, both to and from the area. A lot of architects and urbanists love talking about good design from the ground up, as if they had to build a city from scratch, but often the only areas that fulfill these criterias are isolated areas with poor access, exactly the kind of area that should not be prioritized for development projects. The real challenge and way forward is not greenfield development of that kind though, it is in redeveloping areas with good potential thanks to existing good access. In which case, often we are stuck with past decisions and must learn to deal with them. If you love rear alleys and the area doesn't have it, then you must find a way forward without alleys, and vice versa.

Also, the issue of offering better car-less access across metropolitan areas and between regions is crucial and is one much too often ignored. All in all, we need to recreate the links between urban areas or to create new ones to increase transit accessibility, to open up the golden cages. And until then, we should avoid building new ones.


  1. This is the problem with many of the English villages around here. The bus service is often terrible. And they could have created high quality cycling infra, but didn't (because British engineers still haven't figured out how to do it, even copying the Netherlands defies their abilities).

    So everyone tries to live in Cambridge as much as possible.

  2. Using Seaside, which is a resort and a prototype as a critique of New Urbanism, is old and tired. Go to, and see if the critique works for these 30+ examples.

    1. Seaside is a bit unusual do to being a resort community, so I'm not sure how much of the population commutes and what that captures. When I visited it did seem like there were a fair bit of people walking around the town centre area, so even if they weren't walking to work they were at least walking to stores and cafes. (Is there actually mode share data for just Seaside rather than just census tracts which would include many other communities? That's the best I could find)

      However, there are plenty of new urbanist developments on the suburban fringe with high auto-mode share, often auto-mode share comparable to the non new urbanist developments nearby.

      Your link seems to show mostly infill, typically in more centrally located areas, so those should have better numbers.

  3. Walkability isn't worth much if there are no or few destinations worth walking to (the "purpose-driven walk"). I think there is some sort of 80/20 rule lurking in here, where you can provide 20% of the types of destinations that people would want to go to, to meet 80% of their needs, and put those within their walk sheds (grocery, schools, cafes, etc).

  4. Nah, it's a cargo cult

  5. this is a great illustration of when to, and when not to, use one way streets. Like beauty and art, using one way streets depends on the context.

    Mr. (Ms.) Urban Kchoze,
    Could you comment on making transportation better for kids?

    kid city
    Joseph Lambke, AIA, LEEDap | Feb 4, 2017

    Of course you know that if transit works well for kids, it makes the city way better for the elderly too.

    Thanks for the good work!