Sunday, May 31, 2009

Drive-Through National Parks: Cars as Interfaces Between Humans and the Built Environment

On Friday AJ and I were in Vicksburg, MS looking for a scenic grassy area, possibly with an interesting history, as a venue for our picnic. She had a vague memory of the battlefield (National Military Park) from an elementary school field trip, so we decided to check it out. We found the entrance, paid the $8 entrance fee, and followed the sign that said, "picnicking only at Tour Stop #12 and Cairo Museum." About four miles later, we realized we were stuck in a nightmare of '50s car-culture-meets-'00s -SUV-culture: a drive-through national park being appreciated by aging baby boomers who remembered the park from their childhood and suburban parents trying to introduce their kids to the nation's (south's) history without ever leaving the comfort of their car.

I'll spare you the agony of being stuck behind 2 mph crawlers reading about the exploits of the 108th Infantry Division and Logan's Farthest Advance. In my ire (magnified by hunger as our picnic sat untouched in our trunk), I began thinking of cars as an interface between humans and the built environment. They were invented as a means of transportation, which became a lifestyle, and an environment was built to accomodate this lifestyle. The environment was built with the expectation that its users would n0t only have cars, but prefer to stay in their cars as much as possible. What started as an empowering tool soon became a necessity, as car-culture and auto-centric design created a positive feedback loop.

I'm not the first person to notice this by any means. But I'm not trying to publish original research, I'm just writing a blog. My question is this: if this is a desirable architecture (relying on cars as an interface), is the interface designed properly for human interaction? The ipod taught us the value of ergonomic interfaces. Do cars meet the requirements of human-centered design? How about this: are you comfortable interfacing with the world through a car? In practice, most of us are because it's what we know. But in theory, do you like that idea? I don't.

Americans aren't going to stop using cars in the next 10 years. They will continue to interface with their surroundings through them, but I propose that the built environment should offer its users a choice of interfaces. Make them car-, bike-, and pedestrian-friendly (not to mention wheelchairs) . It's been done before, including by Randy Brown at Village Point East, where he put a parking lot in front and a sidewalk leading to the back (or perhaps the other front) from a nearby residential neighborhood. It can be done, and it has been done, and it is being done. I just wish it was a lot more common.

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