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There are a million examples around the world of how to do urban expansion the wrong way: auto-dependent sprawl, cul-de-sacs, single-use development, leapfrog development, commercial strip development, giant carparks seemingly eating everything else… and so on. Most often the general feeling is that these situations have occurred through a lack of planning, but ironically they have tended to occur over the past 50 years when we have done more planning than ever before – and often it is the planning rules that inadvertently support and reinforce such poor urban outcomes.

Just looking at street patterns to give us a general indicator of what a place might be like, Baba City has a few areas that could be considered ‘auto-dependent sprawl’. Here’s an example:

The cul-de-sacs suggest an auto-focused street network, based around a traditional hierarchy of arterials, collector and local roads – with little effort put in to thinking about pedestrian connectivity (although that’s always possible by connecting the ends of cul-de-sacs, this tends to create alleyways that don’t feel particularly safe). On the plus side, the main road network is fairly legible and in a rough grid – suggesting that a logical bus network could exist. While the details of density, mix of uses, the quality of public transport provided and a myriad of other factors would determine whether this area feels like yet another soulless piece of sprawl or something more interesting and sustainable, we wouldn’t exactly think of here as best practice for how to do urban expansion.

As the by-line for this blog indicates, one of the purposes of these posts is to use the analysis of a fictional place – which frees us of preconceptions of the city we live in – to assist in developing our thinking about real places. So in a way that’s a bit removed from thinking about reality, how might that look? Particularly as it feels as though we haven’t done ‘best practice urban expansion’ (whatever that might be) for quite some time. There are some hints in the work done by New Urbanists, while the need to integrate with high quality public transport (being “on the way”) also sits high in my mind. Melding these ideas together with “Transit Oriented Development” seems like a general way forward – with specifics obviously tailored to each individual situation.

Interestingly, perhaps a part of Baba City which gives us some clues about how to do urban expansion well is located almost directly east of the suburbs shown in the map above. We need to zoom out a bit to fully encompass the area:

The rail corridor (the purple line) has been the focus for development, with the four main suburbs (Hawkinsville, Carnoustie, Levendale and Kervotte) being centred on train stations. Obviously there’s only so much that’s immediately obvious from a street map, but we have most of the streets that people would live on being at right angles to the railway line, meaning that all the streets kind of “feed into” either a railway station itself or into a street that will take them to a station. For those beyond walking distance, east-west arterial roads would carry feeder bus services, once again feeding people into the rail network for trips connecting them to the rest of the city. The contrast between the street layout of the area around the rail line with the more auto-dependent area in the northwest becomes quite starkly clear.

If I was to refine this area even further perhaps, I would probably be looking at way of having an even more connected street network, making the town centres a bit more obvious (and illustrating how density, mixed use and retail would be focused there) and ensuring that all the rail stations were at points where a major east-west arterial road crossed the tracks – to make transfers between bus and rail an easy and quick process. But overall, we can see that through basing our suburbs around train stations, having a legible grid to feed people to train stations and well placed arterial roads for feeder bus trips, we can end up with what’s probably still relatively low density suburbia being something other than your typical car-dependent urban sprawl.