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This week, I briefly visited Philadelphia.

I had to loiter for a few hours before meeting a friend in Bella Vista, so I hung out at the Starbucks at the corner of  9th and South.  I’m now typing this from the Starbucks at the crossroads of Ponce De Leon and a highway that was built as a turnpike in 1804. I’m not proud of sitting in coffeeshops so much, but I love the connection to places.

South Street is one of Philly’s great party districts.  Party districts never spoke to me, even in college.  I do enjoy the variety and festivity of the streets cape, even if I’m only interested in the Atomic City Comics and the Starbucks.The funny thing about South Street is that its nowhere near a college campus that I can think of.  Its also almost a mile from the central business district and convention center*.  But it is straight down the road from Penn and Drexel, and almost as directly connected to Temple’s campus.  Checking a map, I see that the University of the Arts is a few short blocks from South Street, but 2,000 art students can’t support the frolics of South Street, even if they do have Camile Paglia.

Not that a Penn student would, but they could easily walk down Spruce and across the South Street Bridge to get their drink on in sybaritic glory.  They would not pass through any neighborhoods that were obviously dangerous or bombed out on the way over.  This may not have always been the case in the 1980s, but its been so for at least the last decade.  

Many people have a hard time traveling through neighborhoods that are different from their own, either because they do not want to, or they are not allowed.  The speed of traffic or biking can insulate from the neighborhood you are moving through, but many trips are routed to stay in the same kind of neighborhood as the home of the traveller.  I wish I had national data for that, or something better than conjecture.  At this point I am only stating a hypothesis.  Yet another thing to find data to test someday.  I’m sure its already in the literature.

The class of neighborhoods is defined by things like wealth, safety, investment in buildings and provision of services.  Cities provide more for neighborhoods with people that can call friends at city hall.  Counties put things that everyone needs but no one wants near neighborhoods where no one has time to monitor requests for proposals, environmental reviews, or public meetings.  Neighborhoods rarely just fade into each other, there is usually some barrier that enforces the line.  This can be a rail gulch, a highway, or a block of vacant, unsuccessful buildings.  It can also be woods that were never developed.

These lines are much easier to define in the suburbs, however.   Suburban neighborhoods are usually built as subdivisions connected only to arterials, not each other, and the arterials are separated from the neighborhoods by a gray band of parking.  I’m sitting next to a 60 car parking lot on an arterial, and I would guess there are 700 parking spaces within a mile of me.  A mobile home park, single family homes built in the 1960s, homes built in the 1920s, townhouses and garden apartments are also within that mile, but they are all in separate subdivisions.  However, I would not know about the apartments if I didn’t decide to get a little lost last week and discovered them among the houses.  

Within that mile are tens of thousands of square feet of retail and commercial space.  I’d bet the wages of most of the jobs in those places don’t support the rents or mortgages around here.  So all the people who live here get on the arterial every weekday to get to jobs lucrative enough to support those rents, and all the people who work here get on the same arterial to come to jobs lucrative enough to pay much cheaper rents elsewhere.

Its all very easy to do, as there are about 100,000 miles of traffic way in this metro, but it’s not cheap.  Where I live, the traffic is legendarily bad.  I’ve arranged my life to avoid that traffic, by choosing a home near where I work.  I can tell from the traffic every morning and afternoon that mine is not a universal choice.  

My design goal is to make places where people have the choice of living and working within walking distance, instead of needing to commute driving distances.  I understand this is not for everyone, but right now a traffic commute is mandatory for most job-housing pairs.  I’ve Identified where we could reasonably offer that choice **.  The place where I’m sitting is at the edge of one of those areas.  This place, next to the arterial, the 600 parking spaces, and the Wal-Mart, could offer so much more.

Mind the Gap

* Another special circumstance of South Street is that it was slated for destruction in the 1950s and 1960s.  This may have made the real estate so cheap that it was easy to do crazy things without worrying about making rent.

** Thanks to the EPA’s Smart Location Database, which I’m currently reworking in GIS.  America is a big place.