America.. One Big Aesthetic Crime Scene

Roswell and North Fulton have beautiful, spacious parks.  We rave about the river, playgrounds and the trails.  Several cities are working on new parks and squares around their city centers.  It’s evident that we care about our public space.  But.. we are forgetting something.

We are neglecting the most abundant public space we own.  We are neglecting our streets.  By sheer area, our streets and roads dwarf our parks and greenspace.  Some may say that our roads and streets are fantastic.  They are wide, well maintained and orderly.  I agree, when I have my driving blinders on but when you take a look around, you realize that once you get out of your neighborhood, you are driving on an enormous automobile sewer system.  

The Swiss would probably marvel at how focused our DOTs are on ensuring the streets are functional.  The hierarchy of local, collector and arterial is beautiful in its logic.  The potholes are usually fixed quickly and the streets are generally clean.  They get paved on schedule.  That said, order and proper maintenance does not build character and foster a sense of place.  Our lanes are too wide, our setbacks are too far and our street trees have become glorified weeds.  All of this has been done in the name of safety and standards.  

The roads and streets all around this country have become one gigantic aesthetic crime scene and they are only getting worse.  Road signs seemingly multiply like gremlins.  For goodness sake look at the number of signs adorning the historic square in Roswell.  We have Tree City USA signs, Yield ahead signs, road intersection approaching signs, duplicate no left or no right turn signs and they just seem to keep coming.  Cross into East Cobb from Roswell on 120 and the signs are like a heavyweight uppercut.  Power lines are everywhere but at least they aren’t proliferating.  Pay attention to all this incoherence and it will blow your mind.

Even policies that are supposed to be a good thing have become victims of over engineering and an inflexible focus on ensuring standards are upheld rather than ensuring that the design is contextually appropriate.  Who hasn’t seen a bike lane that abuts a 45 mph road? How about the fact that every turn lane off a state highway will now have at least one and usually two no parking signs.  I love the two no parking signs on the southbound on ramp to 400 from Haynes Bridge.  What about the fact that just before almost EVERY intersection you now see a big yellow sign telling you that that intersection is approaching.  EVEN WHEN IT IS IN PLAIN SIGHT!

Worst of all, we have no idea what the difference between a road and a street is anymore.  Streets capture value and roads get you from place to place quickly but what we have created across much of suburbia is a nasty STROAD hybrid that does neither well.  

We need to start capturing value with our streets again.  The people who built Canton Street knew how to do exactly that and they did it before zoning codes and red tape.  It’s the most well known street in North Fulton and the great part of it isn’t even a half mile.  Canton St didn’t become great because of wide lanes, road signs or bike lanes.  It’s great for many reasons but the narrow lanes, sidewalks and shorter building setbacks create a sense of place like an outdoor room that people in cars, on bikes or on foot just feel comfortable in.

Our focus on wide lanes, road signs, and tiny street trees is a crime committed against our places and ultimately against ourselves.  Our streets should be places, not sewers.  Our streets should have an overabundance of art, not an overabundance of signs.  Our streets should make us want to get out of our cars and enjoy the place that they shape.