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Car as prosthetic

I spent a lot of time in the suburbs over the holidays and it got me thinking.

For all the talk about intensification here in Toronto, adapting our car dependent suburbs to become, well, less car dependent is going to be an enormous challenge. Once you’ve built out an area around the car, it’s almost impossible to go back. 

One of the biggest challenges is going to be figuring out how to turn the suburbs from inward to outward. If you think about it, the suburbs are an incredibly inward type of development pattern.

Retail plazas typically have their entrances—not off main streets—but off internal parking lots. And residential areas often have backyards facing the main streets because nobody wants a house fronting on a major thoroughfare. These are the design principles we’ve used to create our suburbs.

But the result is that we’ve created environments that are inhospitable to pedestrians. What enjoyment would you get out of walking along a street where everything has its back turned to you? This is the anthesis of animated street life. And in this case, Margaret Thatcher would probably be right: I would feel like a failure taking the bus.

To compensate for this kind of environment, we’ve made it virtually mandatory to have a car. It’s the only reasonable way to get around. Writer Rebecca Solnit put it best when she said:

“In a sense the car has become a prosthetic, and though prosthetics are usually for injured or missing limbs, the auto-prosthetic is for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale.”

And that’s precisely it. We built around the car and not around people. And in doing so, we made ourselves dependent. I don’t know about you, but there’s something liberating about being able to walk to all the things I commonly want—food, money, coffee and so on. But maybe that’s just me.

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