Cumulatively, these human-centric design decisions work together to create a place that’s inviting to people who are not in cars. It’s easier to establish connections with each other. But the opposite is also possible: Cities can adopt design priorities that have the opposite effect…and this is why I found myself crying in a Waco neighborhood.
That sign on the fence might be just a silly sign in the style of some Texas humor, but it amplified something I had been feeling ever since moving to Waco. I couldn’t name it at the start, but looking back I realize the things I had been lamenting the most over the past sixteen months were design decisions or attributes that have cloaked the city in an unintended air of hostility.
First, there are the various highways that cut through the city; including I-35, which borders various neighborhoods with cement walls, effectively turning those areas into dead zones. There are the trees sliced and slashed for utility lines, a lack of code enforcement lets trash accumulate in yards and poor, auto-centric, wide street design that facilitates high-speed racing through neighborhoods with children.
Then there are the stroads and abundant parking lots that coexist alongside unconnected bike lanes and truncated, broken sidewalks. Downtown is full of parked cars, but the public square remains empty of people. Within the neighborhoods, the abundance of gates, fences, and aggressive dogs create a perhaps unintended, but visceral sense that I am an intruder wherever I go.
I know Waco strives hard to be welcoming. I know Waco is home to many kindhearted people. I know that many people living in those fenced-in homes and driving those fast-moving cars are friendly, hospitable people. Many are my friends and neighbors. I see many of them hanging out at the Farmer’s Market on Saturdays where I work a few weekends a month. I see them at cafés chatting with each other, I see them at church.
Our cities didn’t become inhospitable because someone intentionally set out to make life miserable for everyone not driving a car. They became this way because people with power during the mid-20th century made decisions around a certain set of values—privacy, convenience, speed, and profit—and then baked those values into the design, governing, and financing structures of our cities. Fast-forward seventy or so years and our cities have become paradoxical places: full of hospitable people, yet hostile by design.
Building thriving cities requires thinking about this paradox and asking ourselves what it would take for our private hospitality to be expressed more visibly. What would a hospitable approach to land-use, transit planning, and infrastructure look like? What kinds of places would we create if our goal was to be inviting and welcoming? What kind of design policies would encourage the development of social ties and the emergence of a neighborly culture?