From time to time I ask residents and guests at Las Catalinas, "do you wish cars were allowed on the streets here at Las Catalinas, so you could park right at your house?"
The response to my question is usually laughter…
For the majority, the very question seems silly. Now that the pattern is established and people are seeing the benefits of NOT having cars on our streets, it is pretty obvious how important that is to the quality of life here.
Making our streets car-free is the most radical design decision we have made at Las Catalinas. I assure you plenty of people tried to talk us out of it.
The decision can seem more radical or less radical depending on how you look at it. For example, you certainly would not expect to park right at your hotel suite in a fine resort hotel. That would make it a motel – a rather less prestigious thing. But for valuable individual private homes, not parking right at the house is radical indeed. The cars aren’t far away, they are clustered in parking lots located close to the public road that comes through town. But they are not driving on our streets in Beach Town. Within the town people either walk, ride a bike, or hitch a ride on our readily available electric concierge vehicles to get to their houses or other destinations in town.
We see many advantages to our community by keeping the cars a short distance away.
If there are no cars, you don’t have to worry about getting run over. This is hugely important, especially for children. Also, there are many potential crimes that become rather difficult to commit without the presence of a getaway vehicle. Think about it…
We are loaded with beautiful plazas at Las Catalinas. What if they were full of parked cars? I don’t even want to think about it. There are plenty of ways that one can try to beautify parking areas, and in fact we will do all we can to beautify the parking areas at Las Catalinas, but one can only go so far. Imagine Plaza Escondida full of cars. Yuck. This applies to streets as well. At Las Catalinas our streets are fully optimized for people, pedestrians. No compromise needs to be made to accommodate cars. The way our buildings address the street is totally different as well. It all makes a tremendous difference in the beauty of the place.
Space and Distance
By the time you factor in parking, maneuvering space, and the required buffers to set buildings back from the moving cars and make things feel decent, the land area required for a given neighborhood at least doubles when you add cars. That means everything is twice as far away, and there are only half as many interesting things within a comfortable walking distance. That is a big deal all by itself.
If the first few steps of every trip are on foot, it is amazing the impact that has on the sociability of a place. This concept hit me like a tons of bricks when I went to visit East Lake Commons, a co-housing development in Atlanta, on a cold winter morning circa 2001. The houses there are all built on one nice pedestrian street. On my first visit I think I met more people in my first hour there than did in my first five years in a more typical Atlanta neighborhood.
No cars, no car noises. No booming bass lines at 2:00 am. No muffler-less motorcycles. Just the sea, birds, monkeys, frogs, and people.
Better looking buildings
It is a whole lot easier to design a nice looking house if you don’t have to accommodate a garage, and the smaller the lot, the more powerfully true this is.
By now I think it is well understood that building more compactly is one of the most important factors in preserving ecosystems, improving air and water quality, and reducing all types of raw material usage. Building car-free amplifies all of that.
The health impact of walking is a topic that is very much in the news and on people minds these days. The fresh air is good for you, as is the sunshine (in appropriate quantities), the exercise, and the human interaction and socializing that happens while walking in a place like Las Catalinas. It sure makes me feel better.
What this all adds up to for a well designed car-free place is a sort of supercharged walkability. For years I have preached that in order to be walkable a place needs to be safe, it needs to have places to walk to, it needs to be interesting, and it needs to be beautiful. As we just discussed, purposely designing a place to be car-free means a place is automatically safer, with more places to go since distances get cut in half, more interesting, and more beautiful. Supercharged Walkability!
Who benefits the most from all of this? There is no question – it is the children. In Las Catalinas, more than anywhere else I have been in a very long time, kids can be kids. They can go out and play, explore, knock on a friend’s door, go to the playground, get a smoothie at The Green House, get an ice cream cone at Pura Vida Ride, climb a tree in Plaza Danta, build a fort in the beachfront park, talk to the security guys, chase a lizard, collect alemendro nuts, splash in the fountain at Plaza Escondida, find a frog, talk to monkeys – all on their own. For kids of the ages three to sixteen, who typically in today’s world only rarely get to do any of these things unescorted, it is profound.
Of course it is not just kids who benefit – fun, beauty, sociability, and safety are not just for kids. But we have always emphasized the importance of the child’s experience in all of our thinking about Las Catalinas. They suffer the most in the isolated, drive-everywhere, chauffeured play-date world that we have created in so many places. At Las Catalinas we want to create an antidote to that. And if we do, I am totally confident that it will be wonderful for adults as well.
I think there are very important lessons in the car-free experience of Las Catalinas, and I hope that they will spread far and wide. In a follow-up post I will share some thoughts about how these lessons might apply outside of Las Catalinas.