That old saying about assumptions
There are times when the size of the bubble in which I live becomes very evident. The issue is that it’s generally after I’ve already made an incorrect assumption and subsequently made an ass out of u and me (mostly me).
I first heard the word “Permeability” while in University in the context of neighbourhood design that I assumed it was the only use of the word. I heard someone use it in a conversation years later in some other context that escapes me now and thought out loud about whether he used the word correctly. He politely ignored me and kept talking after shooting a glance of pity at me and my lack of intellect, and I immediately aimed my reddened face at my phone to pretend-text someone – aka see where I went wrong.
Sure enough, permeability has a bunch of other uses unbeknownst to me:
Note how the only context to which I thought the word applied is not among the top 5 options. Devastating. I started to put together a defense (in my head this time) that centered around the fact that my education was in French during the time that I would have normally learned the word, so the word I learned was likely vastly different than the English version and threw me off. Not my fault at all! Blast my parents for forcing bilingualism on me! This seemed like an air tight comeback, but with a severe case of not wanting to look unintelligent twice in such a short span, I double checked the hypothesis:
The word permeability in the context of neighbourhood design comes from the principles of New Urbanism, a movement in response to modern suburban neighbourhood development. It falls under the principle of Connectivity – making sure pedestrian networks connect destinations together to make walking to them an actual option. This is best achieved in a grid pattern of development, because there are lots of potential pathways a pedestrian can take to reach their destination, and routes are direct. This makes walking appealing and convenient, as illustrated below in two local Edmonton neighbourhoods:
Home is 500m from the school (as the crow flies), and the two quickest paths are shown as A and B. Route A is 685m long, while Route B is 720m long; meaning both are within a 10-minute walking distance (800m). Compare that to a non-grid situation:
Once again, a house is 500m from the school as the crow flies, but this time the two quickest paths are 890m (Route A) and 1030m (Route B) long – neither of which are within a 10-minute walking distance. Using a standard 5km/h walking speed, this means a student walking to school in the grid patterned neighbourhood gets to school 3 minutes before the student from the non-grid neighbourhood if they left their houses at the same time, even though their houses are the same distance from the schools. If those students were anything like me and were often rushing to school to avoid being late, those extra minutes count.
3 minutes does not seem like a lot, but over a larger distance the chasm between the two students becomes grows (a 30-minute walk in the grid takes 39 minutes in the non-grid, for example). The longer it takes, the less likely people are to walk to their destinations.
I was recently in Los Angeles for the very first time, without having learned from my past missteps involving assumptions. L.A. is a city renowned for its urban sprawl and traffic issues. I got a taste of it first hand as I was going from L.A. to San Diego to visit friends, and had the choice between driving the 190km down what appeared to be a nice coastal highway on Google Maps, or flying for 45 minutes. Naturally, I chose the rental car/coastal highway option because the thought of having an ocean breeze through my hair in December is completely foreign (December in Edmonton usually requires warm headwear because the breeze going through it comes from the Arctic, and all nearby water is frozen). Plus, my palm-robot was telling me it would only take 1.5 hours to make the drive. Also naturally, I assumed traffic would be only marginally worse than it is back in my bubble (it was not – Assumption #1).
What I experienced as I sat in what can only be described as a 10-lane parking lot on the 405 wasn’t quite what I had expected, and it took me nearly 4 hours to make the drive. When I arrived and explained what I had just experienced, I was met with indifferent nodding instead of the shock I assumed I would be getting (Assumption #2). Traffic like that is standard procedure around these parts, once again making me see that there is, in fact, a world outside my bubble.
While in Los Angeles I stayed in Sun Valley, a suburb north of Los Angeles which is described by locals as “up and coming” or “in transition”. Basically, families are moving in, but there are also homes with bars over the windows.
Sun Valley has a Walk Score of 54, which falls on the low end of the “somewhat walkable” scale. I come from a city whose Walk Score is 51, so naturally I assumed this would be an upgrade over my usual situation (Assumption #3). I thought I would keep it simple to start, and visit a nearby park from where I was staying that was only 500m away. If families were moving into Sun Valley, the kids need a park in which to play, and the Jamie Beth Slaven Park is the largest one within reasonable walking distance.
Of course, the Elementary School (in blue) is technically closer, but the schoolyard is almost entirely concrete. And my mom would kill me if I came home with ripped pants.
I was late leaving the house for the walking adventure, so I only had time to check the route options once before leaving, and selected the best route based on that last-minute check:
The preferred route was fairly direct (545m) and relied on a cul-de-sac that appeared in Google to provide access to the main road that would take me under the freeway to the park. Perfect.
I got to the end of that cul-de-sac and was shocked to find it completely blocked off from the main road with a fence and a very direct sign that simply read “End”, as if teasing me for assuming there would be a connection (Assumption #4).
I stood there and stared at the sign in disbelief. I rechecked Google and found that my assumption could have been avoided had I zoomed in a little further into Google:
Oh well, I thought to myself, this gives me an opportunity to check out more of the neighbourhood. I recalculated my route and saw the next street over seemed to have a road terminate at the main one I was trying to reach:
Once I got there, though….
What is with these condescending End signs? I get it, I assumed and it backfired; you don’t have to rub it in.
By this point I was getting frustrated and decided to see if the entire neighbourhood was this poorly connected to the outside pedestrian networks. There is a linear park that runs alongside the freeway (Strathern Park West), with cul-de-sacs all along it. Getting to that linear park would give me a direct route north to the freeway crossing. Surely one of those 9 cul-de-sacs would provide pedestrian access to the park?
Short answer: Nah, bro.
I checked the first two cul-de-sacs to no avail.
Cul-de-sacs 3-5 had signs warning me that I was trying to do the impossible:
But after that it got progressively worse. The sidewalks got worse…
…and there was even an intersection without curb ramps at the corners for accessibility:
It was really starting to feel like someone didn’t want me to get to that park. I checked every cul-de-sac along the way without finding one access point to the linear park, meaning the park was basically 800m long with only two access points at either end.
The line around the park represents the enclosed fence, while the arrows represent the two gated accesses.
Anyway, I took the neighbourhoods symbolic middle finger to my desire to be a pedestrian in stride (nailed it) and took the only route that was left to get to the park. This route included walking right past my starting point. I was now over an hour into my journey that should have taken 10 minutes.
In total I walked 3.3km to reach my destination.
Before crossing under the freeway, I stopped at the impenetrable Strathern Park West to see what all the secrecy was about:
Woof. It’s basically an enclosure. A few benches off to the side, a dirt path, and large-scale barriers on either side. Really throwing around the term “park” loosely. It’s also possible this is a new park that is transitioning like the neighbourhood around it and I shouldn’t be so critical. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Upon arriving at Jamie Beth Slaven Park, I thankfully saw there were actually a lot of kids in the park. This of course meant that I couldn’t take any pictures of the park itself, other than the empty basketball court:
So here is an overhead look with labels instead:
There are accesses from the park to the surrounding neighbourhood, but the freeway is a major barrier to kids from the west side of the neighbourhood visiting the park. That may explain the number of cars parked adjacent to the park.
Increased permeability in this neighbourhood would have absolutely shortened my expedition, but for a neighbourhood that is becoming increasingly populated by families with small children, it seems the city should seriously investigate the quality of both the park spaces and access to them to increase the appeal. Areas in transition can be hyper successful when investment is being made in the private properties as well as the public spaces. Assumptions that led to the neighbourhoods design got it to this point, I’m interested to see where it goes from here.