Considering Curbs

This is one of many test runs I have created for the basis of my Senior Paper for my successful completion of the Urban Studies B.S. in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.  Enjoy the many alliterative curb related titles. 

Roads in the United States all have one key similarity, and this similarity is the basis for which many concepts about road safety, community cohesion and livability, transportation, and all related realms for how we think are cities should look.  The curb is the most mundane and purely functional piece of roadwork that exists throughout our entire latticework of roads.  It is the conduit for rain water, snow melt, human spit, garbage, dirt, sand, grime, and all types of refuse which the public wants in the gutter immediately before it gets on something worth anything.  Curbs, and all related installations, bound the road so well that the refuse we never want to see is gone so quickly that the design is now set into stone.  Despite all of the curb’s rigid standards and functionalities, there are so many things that curbs control which are not immediately understood upon a glance.

The Curb Construct: Community and Conversation

For communities to thrive there certain elements that can inhibit or entertain the prospect of a vibrant place and of these things there are many things which we can assume already exist – people interested in interaction, an established system of movement, and the existence of buildings which facilitate public and private operations.  In communities with streets which are narrow, people can freely cross the street to engage a neighbor in a conversation, and as such these street can be seen as an asset to the community, because the street negotiates the movement of traffic on the street, while not inhibiting small intra-neighborhood movements.  In a stark comparison, communities with wide streets may limit the movement of people across the street on a pedestrian level, but this community can have the same level of engagement and social fulfillment for the members of this community.  This concept is easily comprehended, because the communities previously described have design standards which may have drawn a person to that community for reasons which match their values.  Although, there are a number of ways in which the decisions about how far apart curbs are, and who can travel within those curbs, greatly affects the make-up of a place.

Community cohesion is not dictated by the distance between curbs, but community cohesion and social engagement can be greatly affected by the series of decisions which determine how far apart curbs are to be placed.  To provide a context to this proposition, a look into decisions made by transportation planners in the past can greatly inform how curb distance affects neighborhood and street safety, community sociability, and neighborhood recognition.  Interstate 94 cut through a number of neighborhoods in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and showcases the worst for how the distance of curbs affects the previous criteria.  Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood in Saint Paul, which has now been repurposed into a number of other neighborhood’s fringes, was dissected by Interstate 94 and curbs which span an entire city block or more.  For Interstates, curbs are less of a straight line or a definitive functional structure as they are for city streets, but the visual wall is much more pronounced.  A previously cohesive street system, which allowed for residents to walk across the street or down to the block to visit a friend, was erased for the sake of the macro-system grid.  This new Rondo Street curb alignment constructed walls and eight lanes of non-passable traffic, which is a Federal crime to attempt to cross, and essentially erased the community as it was known.  The communities which now exist in lieu of the Rondo neighborhood are now bounded by what was once the center of the now defunct neighborhood.  Further, the previous center located residents near Rondo Street or Central Avenue, aptly named because it was the centrally located street in Saint Paul, are now the rusted fringe of two forcibly created halves.

Interstate 94 in Saint Paul is an extremely example, but it allows a very tangible insight to how streets, and more concisely the distance of curbs, can affect the cohesion of a neighborhood.  Taking that example and transmitting it to a smaller scale can provide the same type of realizations about how curbs can affect the safety, enjoyment, and livability of a place.

Curbing the Suburban Collector Curb

The creation of Interstate 94 was an incredible move in the timeline of transportation planning in the region, but there are areas in the Twin Cities which were designed with this type of transportation included as an integral piece of the design.  Suburban subdivision development touts community, and homogeneity of interests and values.  This is the allure of the subdivision, a community created for the creation of a new community of people who like community.  Right?  In contest to this idea is the suburban collector road.  Subdivisions are parceled inside of the suburban super-system of collector roads which are identical to the urban grid system, but on a much larger scale.  The suburban collector road is the ultimate community killer and it has the same effect as Interstate 94 in Saint Paul.  The collector road, at 100 feet to sometimes 200 feet wide, assumes that once a person leaves the subdivision they are driving 50 miles per hour and going someplace quickly.  Further, the collector road separates the communities by a much greater distance, because once the distance between curbs goes beyond 50 feet, a road is almost impassable without a car.  The collector roads assumes that one person in Community A will not meet or want to visit person in Community B without having to driving there, despite the actual distance to be one that if the person in Community A lived in the city, the distance would be easily traversed on foot.  The collector road literally indicates that if you do not drive on this road, you will be in danger when trying to pass across it.  The curbs, which indicate the end of the vehicular platform, are sadly dislocated and too far from each other to probably communicate a happy crossing for anything beside the automobile.  In this case, the curb by design limits how people will engage with each other.  There is no sob story about a community lost in the Suburbs as there is with Rondo in Saint Paul, just a sad story of community dislocated from each other by the distance of safe space for people, delineated by the curb.

Robbie King is an undergrad in the Urban Studies B.S. program in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities graduating this Fall 2011. 



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