Sunrise in Villahermosa, when I watched from a bus as a teenager died

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

Villahermosa, Tabasco – August 18, 1970

One Summer In Mexico – Part 43

Which is more important . . . sociological theory or human lives?

Image Above: This pencil sketch was made from a bus window, shortly after the accident.

The current Covid19 Pandemic gives serious challenge to the belief that all mankind was meant to live like rats in densely developed cities. I began to have secret doubts about this urban planning orthodoxy long ago, when I watched a lad bleed to death, because the ambulance could not reach him in a city that would be the ideal living environment, according to many theorists today.

Forcing people to live in densely developed, pedestrian-oriented cities that were dependent on public transportation, was supposed to be the solution for sprawling late 20th century metropolises that were racially and economically segregated.   The mixing of people from different ethnic and economic backgrounds was a stated objective of every “urban” and “newtown” project I have worked on.  In truth, though, as soon as these projects became successful, the real estate prices and rent chased out most of those residents, who were not affluent.

Urban design conceptual (virtual reality) image for Parsons Alley in Duluth, GA. The design team included Bellfounder Consulting, city of Duluth, Fabric Developers, Frederik Brauer, Kronberg Wall Architects/Planners, TSW Planning/Architecture/Landscape Architecture and Vantage Realty Partners.

Over the past two decades, a basic religious belief of the new generation of architects and urban planners is that denser is better.   Wikipedia tells you that the idea was first articulated at the “First Conference on New Urbanism” in 1993, but the initial projects were developed in the early 2000’s.  Horse manure! 

The exact same theology was the mantra of my generation of designers, who were learning their craft during the Hippie Era. In fact, I produced the conceptual designs of three of the best known “old” new urbanism in the Southeast,  the Midtown Atlanta Urban Design Plan, the Asheville, NC Downtown Revitalization Plan and the Smyrna, GA Downtown Development Plan.   

All along I was a hypocrite, though.  As the Midtown Plan was being completed, we moved from Midtown to Buckhead. A young woman, our age, had been murdered next door.  We heard her screams.  Then a man with artificial legs, was mugged in our apartment building’s front yard on a Sunday afternoon.  Twice, the car windows had been smashed. Within a year, we began to tire of the air pollution, constant burglaries and traffic gridlock in Buckhead then fled to Asheville.  By the time, the Asheville Plan was completed, I was living on a farm in the Reems Creek Valley, 10 miles north of Downtown Asheville.

By that stage in my life, I wouldn’t have considered living in Smyrna, but was living in the Georgia Mountains, the whole time, I was Smyrna’s planning consultant. When Smyrna was named the Outstanding Downtown Revitalization Project of the Year by the Urban Land Institute, it was somewhat embarrassing to me to admit to a ULI official that I lived 55 miles to the north.  LOL

In truth, what we architects, urban designers and planners were pushing was really is an alternative life style choice for students, young single professionals, childless couples, retirees and a celebrities, who also owned multiple “weekend” homes in scenic rural areas.  New urbanism forces most residents to be renters or at least buy a condo apartment.  So in fact, rather than moderating differences in wealth, it concentrates wealth into the hands of landlords. New urbanism never would be the first choice for many people in other stages of their lives.  Nevertheless, here is what the New Urbanism Congress adopted in 1993: 

“We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.”

The accident occurred in an upscale neighborhood almost identical to this one in Orlando, FL

The incident in Villahermosa

I was jarred from my sleep when the accidents occurred, so I can’t say exactly what happened for certain.  We were in a recently developed, upscale section of Villahermosa. I wouldn’t be shocked if the architects for the project in Orlando, FL above, copied this chic neighborhood in Villahermosa.  In other words, we were in a neighborhood like what some people want all the United States to look like.

Apparently, a red car, going very fast, ran a red light at the intersection of two one-way streets and slammed into a car filled with passengers.  I saw the driver of the red car run off, but there was at least one person inside the red car.  This was before the days of mandatory seatbelts in cars.  The other shredded car was filled with bodies – some moaning, some not moving.   Also, apparently a young man tried to weave around the wreck with his bicycle and was hit by our bus.  He was moving a little, when I first looked out the window, but blood was spreading across the pavement around him.   

Beautiful, wealthy señoras and señoritas, stood on the broad, tree-scaped sidewalk in their fashion designer dresses with their servants slightly behind and beside them . . . just watching the horrific scene.  A few men in business suits did likewise. No one tried to help the injured.  Our bus driver did pull out his mobile radio to call for an ambulance.

I saw a first aid kit, mounted beneath the driver’s dash panel.  In pigeon Spanish, I tried to tell the driver than I had first aid training from the US Navy and of course, the Boy Scouts.  He would neither let me take the first aid kit nor exit the bus.

For at least 20 minutes, we heard an ambulance siren behind us.  Because of the traffic gridlock, the ambulance was being forced to drive up the sidewalk.  It reached a point, blocked by a tree about 200 feet behind the bus.  The paramedics had to walk the rest of the way in order to check the conditions of the injured. They soon returned with several rubber body bags and gurney.   They first put the now dead bicyclist in a bag and laid it on the sidewalk.  They then brought back on the gurney a teenage girl, whose head was shaking back and forth.  

Simultaneously,  two policemen came on the scene by riding bicycles on the sidewalks.   Before the paramedics again returned to the accident scene, the policemen had persuaded several drivers to pull their cars onto the sidewalk, so our bus could drive around the wreck.   Yes, it was one of those experiences in life, like seeing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, that never leaves your brain.

New Urbanism sounds good on paper and looks “flashy” in architecture magazines.  However, cities are complex organisms.  Unless vehicles are completely removed from an urban area . . . which ain’t gonna happen anytime soon in North America . . . building density immediately results in traffic congestion and lots of people being very close to each other on the sidewalks.  Both in the case of traffic accidents and pandemics,  those two typically unanticipated characteristic of dense real estate development can be very hazardous to your health.

Midtown Atlanta – Arts Center Area Urban Design Plan
The concept of Atlantic Station Development in Atlanta was originally for a tract of land two miles to the north for which in 1974, I wrote an article in “Real Estate Atlanta” Magazine, called “The Urban Village.”
Over the past 40 years, Downtown Asheville has evolved to an appearance almost identical to the original Downtown Revitalization Plan in 1980. It was the first public project to bear my architect’s seal.
The Smyrna Downtown Revitalization Project was so successful that several blocks had to be added to the “Downtown” per request of the property owners!

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