Steven Dale on ‘The need for mixed primary uses’ – The time spread of users

Chapter 8 of D&L could easily be called The need for a time spread of users because in many ways, Jacobs focuses equal time on this issue as she does with the titular need for mixed primary uses. In many ways, the two concepts are simply extensions of one another but I’d like to focus on the Time Spread of Users as I think there’s a interesting and overlooked economic argument in favour of it.

"Timelapsed Downtown Toronto" by Sam Javanrouh

The essential idea behind the Time Spread of Users is that a healthy neighborhood or district requires a spread of diverse users utilizing a neighborhood or district throughout all times of day. That spread of users is driven, primarily, by a diverse mixture of primary users within said neighborhood or district.

So why is this important?

Putting mere aesthetic concerns aside, the Time Spread of Users ensures efficient and economic usage of public resources and infrastructure. Consider for a second how much public money is spent on infrastructure utilized for very limited periods of time. The ones that immediately jump to mind are things like highways, public transit and parking garages designed solely to cater to daytime commuters. They’re heavily used for a maximum of 4 hours a day and eerily vacant the rest of the time.

But also consider the parks, roads, sidewalks, flower beds, street lights and electrical grids installed at great public cost to service employment districts populated by workers for only a third of the working day – five out of seven days of the week. It’s a shameful waste.

And lest you think such waste is specific to central business districts and employment areas, contemplate how barren most residential areas are most of the time. Without the traditional roles of parents, grandparents and children populating those areas throughout the workday, retail and recreational uses decline and the areas become little more than open-air flophouses where an exhausted family crashes to sleep after eating overpriced take-out chicken dinners in front of the television.

Please understand that this isn’t me calling for a return of The Company Man & The Barefoot-And-Pregnant Wife. It is, however, to ask if our current system of using our homes as nothing more than an increasingly unaffordable bed-and-breakfast is the most economically efficient means to craft a neighborhood and build livelihoods.

It used to be that the home was a generator of economic activity. From the vegetable garden, to the free childcare,  to local social networks, to the swapped recipes and left-over cookies, the home was a massive generator of informal economic activity that built wealth for families and communities. Garages, spare bedrooms and basements, meanwhile, provided the tinkering spaces necessary to create the workshops, offices and incubators necessary for future inventions and innovations.

All these economic uses of the home animated residential neighborhoods, attracted commercial and retail uses, and were arguably a more economically efficient use of public resources than our current situation of infrastructure as the primary mediator of a life spent in what feels like perpetual commute. Restrictive, non-inclusive zoning practices; insanely high home prices; and the virtual extinction of single income families (not including single parent families) have only reinforced this condition. We used to build a handful sidewalks to be used constantly throughout the day. Now we build many sidewalks to be used intermittently and occasionally. To some extent, the rise of the telecommuter and the house husband have provided some glimmer of a return to the former condition of dense use of a community but that’s about all – a glimmer.

The Time Spread of Users is also not merely a question of hours during the day, but whole seasons. Anyone who lives in an extreme weather city knows exactly what I’m talking about here. Too often planners, architects and designers dream up districts, parks and areas that should work well in June, July and August but are utterly doomed to barrenness during the other months of the year.

A downtown street in Seville, Spain during summer. CC image by flickr user SantiMB.

There are, of course, the rare examples of cities embracing their extremities to wonderful results. The Spanish city of Seville provides an interesting such example:

During the summer months of July and August, Seville is insufferably hot with daytime temperatures often hitting 40 degrees celsius. This is the kind of place you think of when talking about the motivation behind the Spanish mid-afternoon siesta. But instead of turning their backs on their downtown core to catch a nap, the locals have transformed it into a strange open-air mall by stretching linen awnings between the buildings. The awnings protect the downtown from the sun while still allowing heat to escape. They also create a wondrous golden glow that illuminates the streetscape in an utterly original way.

Is it anyone wonder, then, that the downtown is constantly populated – even during the blistering midday sun? Sadly, such four season design thinking is the rarity in most urban planning and design.

To maximize a city’s Time Spread of Users is to maximize a city’s economic usability. The more usable a city is to more people during more times of day, the more economically efficient a city will be. It’s just logical.

Random Thoughts

  • The Two Income Trap by Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Warren and her daughter Ameilia Warren Tayaqi present a remarkable thesis about the end of the two income family and it’s dramatic impact on our urban form. It is intelligent, non-partisan and incredibly worth the read.
  • I utterly love how Jacobs is clear to use the term “user” in this chapter. When we begin to think of ourselves as users of a community we’re likely to demand a better product to use.
  • As you read Jacobs describing the chess game of office towers, opera houses and the like; admit it – you wanted to play that game right now, didn’t you?
  • Continuing with the theme of extreme weather cities with amenities that are basically barren and useless for most of the year, let’s consider Toronto’s new Sugar Beach:
Toronto's Sugar Beach in summer. CC image by flickr user Eric.Parker.
Sugar Beach in Winter. Note the icicles hanging ironically from the sun umbrella. CC image by flickr user silk cut.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Steven, we may be seeing the dawn of the urban renaissance. It’s happening in many places in the U.S. and probably North America. You’re also seeing the rediscovery of these mixed uses.

    Many central business districts have been adapted to include housing, and this is helping to set the stage for the “ground-floor” appeal of these neighborhoods. Also, the coffeehouse as business incubator is a ubiquitous phenomenon. Even small towns and suburban towns have dedicated old town business districts as retail and entertainment districts. These aren’t diverse economically, but they are serving as gateways.

    The next step is suburbs “turning outward,” as in reorienting buildings to either put their front or side to the street, instead of a parking moat separating the public sidewalk and road from the business.

  2. Dave says:

    Good article and insight on time spread. I fail to see the purpose of the link to the chicken place. Does citybuilderbookclub get a cut when I click on it?

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