When engaged in urban exploration, there are a few patterns that come up after enough time. There are no fast and hard rules about how cities and towns are constructed. As I have said before, most stereotypes about communities and how their socioeconomic status affects their physical appearance fall apart under investigation. Be that as it may, there are some things that are useful, or at least fun to think about.

One of these is a simple sign of the socioeconomic status of a community: how curvy the roads are. Put simply, straight roads are usually in low status areas, and curvy roads are in high status areas. There are many caveats about this rule, the foremost being that I come from the United States of America, particularly the Western States, so this may be a regional matter. Also, the function is not directly proportional, I am not claiming that the very, very rich live in places swarming with hairpin turns. But suburban and residential areas do usually have windier roads.

There is a prosaic explanation for this. Expensive homes are often built around bodies of water or hills, areas that naturally don't present themselves to flat, even roads. This in a way leads to a begging of the question, because the reasons why bodies of water or elevations should present themselves as prime locations for real estate are not immediately obvious. However, I would also hazard that the prosaic explanation is the only one. From my own observations, I have noticed in a few places where developments, sometimes infills, have placed expensive homes in otherwise poorer neighborhoods, that the roads into those areas are set slightly crookedly. The other day, while visiting the newly built Wilsonville Transit Center, a transit center in a high-income suburb, I noticed that the sidewalk around it was noticably curved, as if to say "Don't worry, you can take the bus, it doesn't make you poor". I may have been biased in what I noticed, so I encourage people to examine this for themselves.

I believe that there is a non-prosaic, symbolic reason for curved roads. Quite a number of them, in fact, one of the more obvious being that straight roads are much easier to survey and patrol than curved roads. But for me, the foremost symbolic issue is whether the residents are supposed to accomodate themselves to the road, or whether the road is accomodating itself to the residents. In a low-status area, the instrumentality of production is foremost, and the world can intrude on people's lives as needs be. Roads are meant to transfer goods, people and commerce, and that is the foremost priority. In a high status area, on the other hand, people's needs and habits come first, and anyone who wants to use the area must accomodate themselves to that. The purpose of a curved road is that it is purposely crippled, announcing to those who are using the community that, as important as they may think their business is, they must slow down and put the preferences of the community first. It is a way for a high-status community to show that it is above instrumentality.

This is a somewhat ambitious theory developed out of nothing but my own, perhaps biased evidence, but I would encourage other people to look around them and see if it makes any sense.

Chiming in from Tampa --- looking at a street map of my fair Bay Area, one could very well draw the very same conclusion about street curvature and SES. Taking the immediate area of Tampa where I live (centered around the University of South Florida, bounded roughly by Bruce B. Downs on the north, 56th St. on the east, Fowler Ave. to the south and 15th St. to the west, this idea holds up:

Zipcode Pop. (2007) CoLI (2008) Med. Household Income (2008) % below Poverty Level (2008)
Seminole Heights 33602 9,915 99.9 $36,023 34.9%
Seminole Heights 33603 23,193 94.8 $38,853 21.6%
Sulfur Springs 33612 47,567 97.5 $34,563 20.4%
'College Ghetto' 33613 33,601 98.2 $34,200 21.2%
Temple Terrace 33617 44,162 95.5 $43,974 13.7%
University 33620 2,803 N/A N/A N/A
Tampa Palms 33647 29,109 101.7 $84,670 5.8%
State of Florida - 18,251,243 100.0 $47,804 12.1%
  • Seminole Heights (Zipcodes: 33603, 33604) --- another relatively low-SES neighborhood, directly to the south of Sulphur Springs. Some curves and bends here and there, but it still dominated by grids.

  • Sulphur Springs (Zipcode: 33612) --- a low-SES residential and commercial community about six miles to the southwest of the University. Grids all the way through, in keeping with its status as an impoverished neighborhood.

  • 'Suitcase City' (Zipcode: 33612) --- an impoverished neighborhood to the west of the University, right across from Bruce B. Downs Blvd. The streets are in a rigid grid, with few curves and not a whole lot of trees. People are unjustly afraid to walk here at night, although that fear was eminently justified ten years ago (and sometimes still is today).

  • the 'College Ghetto' (Zipcode: 33613) --- the informal name for the residential neighborhood immediately to the north of the University, populated mostly by students and employees of USF, as well as the nearby University Community Hospital. The main roads going through this area: 37th St., 42nd St., Skipper Rd. and 46th St. are straight as arrows, but the roads branching off from them are often a crazy tangle, as they're all pretty much access roads to the dozens of apartment complexes in the area.

  • Temple Terrace (Zipcode: 33617) --- an incorporated town to the east of the University area, similarly populated by USF students and faculty, but not nearly as wealthy as Tampa Palms, since many, many working class families live here as well. The streets are still quite windy, but there's still a lot of the grid-based plan to be had there.

  • University (Zipcode: 33620) --- winding streets are the rule, and the only real straight streets are the main arteries that run through the campus: Magnolia Dr., Maple Dr. and Holly Dr. Even these streets have their kinks. Warning to drivers: this is a pretty pedestrian campus, and if you dare drive down Leroy Collins during the week, prepare to stop for roving hordes of students crossing between the east and west sides of campus. Also, there's enough speedbumps on the roads here to break axles if you're too generous with the accelerator, and they're not easily seen, especially at night.

  • Tampa Palms (Zipcode: 33647) --- a wealthy suburb to the northeast of the University, populated mostly by students and faculty, as well as a number of middle-class professionals. Tampa Palms Blvd. winds around in a squashed circle off from Bruce B. Downs, with numerous similarly-winding side streets branching off from it. The streets themselves are lined with trees. Nice place to go for a run, and the cycling trail's not too bad, either.

With the same intellectual humility as our comrade in the Northwest, I'd conclude the same thing from looking at a street map of the Tampa metropolitan area.

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