Urban form: Lakewood vs Petaluma

Over the weekend I made a flying visit to California, attending one old friend’s wedding and visiting another for the first time since, I think, 2006.

I spent most of my time near the far fringes of the San Francisco Bay Area. Friday afternoon and Saturday I was in Petaluma, and Sunday I zipped down to Santa Cruz before a red-eye flight out of SFO. I saw more of Petaluma, though both towns (in addition to their inherent attractions) made an interesting comparison with my adopted home of Lakewood.

Giant-size electrical outlet in Petaluma

Found in downtown Petaluma: kitschy, sure, and PG&E is also a horrible company, but this installation is fun all the same

Both Petaluma and and Santa Cruz seem like reasonable points of comparison, being similar in population to Lakewood. All three have fifty-some thousand people at last count. Of course, Lakewood is in the lower end of that range and probably still falling, while I’m guessing that both of the California towns are growing. Also, and this touches on one of the interesting thoughts that my visit prompted, I think both felt like larger cities.

Geographically, I think both are larger; Petaluma in particular has a lot of suburban sprawl around its “historic downtown” core. But it also felt like there were considerably more businesses—certainly when the downtown is combined with the suburban mall landscape surrounding it—than found in Lakewood.

Assuming that my perception was correct, I can only guess at why. Possibly the typical citizen of Petaluma, CA has more money to spend than his or her counterpart in Lakewood, OH. Probably, both Petaluma and Santa Cruz benefit somewhat from their surroundings. From looking at an atlas (in addition to firsthand observation) it seems like both Santa Cruz and Petaluma have more of a “hinterland” around them, the inhabitants of which likely participate in urban centers’ economies even if they aren’t counted in their population figures. Whereas Lakewood is surrounded on three sides by completely built-up landscapes; the inhabitants of Cleveland and Rocky River have their own shops and salons and restaurants, and on net Lakewood’s economy is probably no larger than its formal population can support. (Given that the fourth side, Lake Erie, doesn’t contribute a lot of consumer dollars either.)

I think the most interesting observation sparked by this trip, however, had to do with the arrangement of these towns’ development. This is a great example of why travel is inspiring, probably; I have lived in Lakewood for several years and yet only after I had wandered around downtown Petaluma for a couple of hours did I realize that Lakewood is not very good for wandering around.

This was something of a surprise, as I have long thought of Lakewood as an example of the most walking-friendly communities in America. I still do—in fact compared with the car-dependent part of Petaluma where I stayed it’s no contest—but I have concluded that wandering-around is a different criteria.

In Petaluma’s core you can wander around. You can turn corners and explore, you can meander and even get a little lost, theoretically. In this regard it’s like a faint echo of e.g. Tokyo, which is probably the best city I’ve ever visited for wandering around with its endless maze of streets and alleys, all filled with something or other to discover.

In Lakewood… the concept of wandering around, in this sense, doesn’t really apply. Most of the points of interest are lined up along two parallel corridors, separated by perhaps 2/3 of a mile. In between, and on either side, it’s mainly just long straight lines of houses. Many of these houses are pretty, but all the same this is not a landscape of wandering around but a landscape of moving back and forth along a linear path.

This is basically the dynamic that prompted my creation of The Great Lakewood Pub Crawl Map more than five years ago, in fact. It just never occurred to me until now to compare this with cities where non-residential development is an area rather than a corridor (or two).

Now that it has, I’m not sure if there’s any further conclusion to draw. Is potential for wandering around really all that important, at least at this scale? Even if it is I presume that there is little to be done; Lakewood has the form it does by design, and just as its origins as a “streetcar suburb” mean that it can’t really be optimized for all-private-automobile movement now even if one wanted to do so, it probably also can’t really be optimized for meandering around.

Short of Haussmann-scale rebuilding (which is not going to happen), Lakewood is basically optimized for a life where most people walk north or south to an east-west boulevard, and then move along it in one direction or another on a linear transit service, like a streetcar line.

Absent that, I suspect that the next best solution is just making do, aided by the simple fact that (within Lakewood) you’re probably never more than a mile or two from where you want to go anyway.

Still, food for thought.

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation