Wednesday, October 28

A piece of Lawrence Halprin's legacy

The landscape architect Lawrence Halprin died on Sunday, leaving behind some of the best-loved public places in America. This news has prompted me to think about the Charlottesville Downtown Mall, a public space that Halprin designed in 1976.

I feel like I live in a luxurious house, because the downtown mall is my living room. The fact that I share the room with thousands of other people only makes it a better place to live. This picture was taken this morning on my walk to work, when the place is relatively quiet. A few patrons sit outside with cups of coffee to read the morning news before work, and a homeless man finds a seat under the trees. Some people seem to just be out on morning walks. Then the mall becomes an entirely different place in the evening, when the hundreds of cafe seats are filled with friends having a drink or a meal. It's the high school hang out and a place for their grandparents to walk around and take in all of the excitement at the same time, not any easy thing to accomplish.

It would be wrong to say that the mall was simply the creation of a master designer. It had to be grown and nurtured by a community, city planners, businesses and developers. It has taken steady reinvestment and the perseverance through a period of stagnation, when it could have been just another failed experiment in urban design. Instead, the design has grown into itself just as the trees have grown and reached out over the buildings. Yet nothing gets started without a vision, and Lawrence Halprin laid the groundwork for a truly remarkable place.

Tuesday, October 27

What kinds of homes are we buying?

The Senate appears to have agreed to extend the federal tax credit for first-time homebuyers. It's not very surprising that federal stimulus programs have taken the form of providing money to buy homes and cars, the two essential components of the conventional American Dream. What is surprising, to me at least, is that there has been no discussion about what kinds of houses we would like to be promoting as a nation through the subsidies.

One of the stated purposes of the Cash for Clunkers program over the summer was to encourage the purchase of more energy efficient vehicles. An independent report last month concluded that costs of the program exceeded benefits by about $1.4 billion, or $2600 per car, and many people wouldn't have minded a free bike or transit pass thrown in for good measure. Nevertheless, at least a cursory attempt to encourage the consumption of cars that are more within our national interest was made. As far as I can tell, the same reasoning is not even on the table for home purchases.

Could we not ask for a certain degree of energy-efficiency in home purchases? This would have to be measured in objective terms, but it could cover both the costs of heating and cooling the space and the locational efficiency of traveling between the home and other activity centers. I understand that some economists don't like meddling with the "purity" of subsidies to achieve desired outcomes, as if these forms of government intervention were not already interfering with the market. That doesn't make sense to me. If we're pitching in for these homes, we should have some say in how they function.

Monday, October 26

Whole Earth Discipline: from the land back to town

"Cities are probably the greenest thing humans do."

This quote comes from the man behind the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand, in an interview with NPR's Marketplace. As a luminary for the back to the land movement from the 1970's, he wrote the original catalog to provide the tools necessary to live self-sufficiently. However, it was only a few years after adopting the rural lifestyle before he and many others in the movement went "back to town." He has now published a new book Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto to, among other things, disabuse his fellow environmentalists of the notion that surrounding oneself in greenery and mimicking a primitive way of life is sufficient for meeting global environmental challenges.

Brand's version of environmentalism seems to be about the opposite of that of Thoreau and his followers. Instead of passively folding ourselves into the ecosystem and trying to interfere as little as possible, Brand sees the human role as much more active. We have the responsibility of being gardeners (more aptly geoengineers in his parlance) and we ought to avail ourselves of whatever tools we can. You see the general industriousness and reason from the Whole Earth Catalog, only magnified to a much larger scale. Cities just happen to be the best tool for energy and resource efficiency around.

Brand is quick to point out that humans don't have to be forced to live in cities; we generally want to. He notes that this is as true for Bismarck, North Dakota as it is for Lagos, Nigeria. The ongoing trend toward urbanization has gone on unabated. He has a special appreciation for the squatter cities evolving on the periphery of every city in the developing world. Formerly rural families want to better their lives by moving closer to the dynamic wealth-creation agglomerations while still shaping their environment as independent agents. They naturally form vibrant, walkable, mixed-use communities with both strong social ties and personal liberty.

In terms of design and development, he falls firmly on the side of self-organization over rational planning.

"To a planner’s eye, squatter cities look chaotic. To my biologist’s eye, they look organic."
I've wrestled with this question here before and mostly believe this laissez-faire approach is less helpful for the fully modernized West than it is for the developing world. But Brand doesn't see much of a future for the aging residents of the West, hence the scant attention.

Not that he has to cover ever single issue in one swing, but this would seem to be an oversight. Much of the world's consumption will still be in the West into the foreseeable future, and, as he notes, the slums will only gentrify in time raising the same issues. Then there's the fact that almost everyone reading this book will be from affluent nations. Knowing that sustainable and prosperous slums are emerging somewhere else doesn't strike me as particularly ecopragmatic in terms of managing our own challenges.

The Whole Earth Discipline seeks to slay several sacred cows of environmentalism. I can't speak to any of the others, but it is certainly refreshing to hear a person who has been a figurehead for romantic ruralism endorse vibrant human settlement so unequivocally. The first line of the book could easily be read as commentary on Genesis 1:26 (with emphasis on the "as"):

"We are as gods and have to get good at it."

Stewart Brand offers cities as a helpful tool toward meeting this responsibility of stewardship.

Thursday, October 22

This year's great places in America

The Squares of Savannah are a Great American Public Space
The American Planning Association has released this year's Great Places in America awards. This is a wonderful program, now in its third year, that recognizes the practice and preservation of good urbanism in a positive way. (Sort of the other side of the James Howard Kunstler coin). Every one of the winning neighborhoods foster a vibrant community with walkable scale and design. Each one of the great streets are multimodal and have more purpose than simply conveying vehicles from one place to another quickly.

Rob Goodspeed previously noted that the 2007 and 2008 selections give the impression of what he calls a "New Normative Planning":
"For a profession long maligned for a lack of clear identify or vision, the group of winners from 2007 and 2008 form a remarkably coherent group. Including such iconic places as Philadelphia's Society Hill and Washington, D.C.'s union station, but also more obscure sites like Cleveland's West Side Market and downtown Sheridan, Wyoming. In general the winning neighborhoods, streets, and public spaces are resoundingly urban and historic. None of the winners are strip malls, 1970s planned unit developments, or conventional suburban residential neighborhoods."
The 2009 awards certainly continue the trend, only with noticeably more attention given to smaller cities and towns than before. Places I had never heard of, like Bath, Maine and Charlevoix, Michigan, find their place on the map. Not only does this give some deserved attention to communities that have worked hard to become highly livable places, but it underscores the notion that urban design principles are not just applicable to big cities.

I'm remembering this list for the next time I travel and need a place to stop in and visit.

Monday, October 19

New Localism without traditional towns

I can't help but respond to Joel Kotkin's idea of New Localism from a Newsweek piece and his blog post today. He presents statistics showing that Americans are moving less than they had been in the past and suggests this could be an a sign of enhanced local identity and stronger social capital. I can honestly say that I want to agree with Kotkin's overall premise for increased rootedness in place, but he weaves so many inconsistencies into this story it leaves me wondering how he intends to fit it all together.

The reader is drawn into this Norman Rockwellesque world of small town charm, only it is transplanted directly into the modern metropolitan context of low-density, high-mobility lifestyles. It's not clear to me how suburban localities can simply make community identity happen without addressing the scale of transportation and economic realities, or the shape of the built environment itself. He dismisses the whole idea of walkable neighborhoods ...

"Nor will our car-oriented suburbs replicate the close neighborhood feel so celebrated by romantic urbanists like the late Jane Jacobs."
... yet he wants drivers to feel a strong sense of community with each other as they gaze through the windshield while waiting for a green light on their way to the office park. And they're supposed to shoot the breeze with the cashier at the local big box store, which is still dominant in Kotkin's story. I'm getting some cognitive dissonance here.

His real point is to advocate for a Tocquevillian sense of local governance, except airlifted into this thoroughly modern metropolitan context:
"The majority of Americans still live in a patchwork of smaller towns and cities, including many suburban towns within large metropolitan regions. There are well over 65,000 general-purpose governments, and with so many "small towns," the average local jurisdiction population in the United States is 6,200."
What he doesn't reveal is that very few of these suburban "small towns" are actually small towns in any sense of the word. They are lines on a map that differentiate one housing subdivision and strip shopping center from another with no cohesive identity. Just a quick glance at the commuting patterns reveal that most residents either only sleep or only work in this particular jurisdiction. What Tocqueville appreciated about New England towns was that the governance was closely aligned with a self-contained and functioning community. This is worlds apart from the fragmented patchwork of local special interests spread across the typical metro area.

Kotkin wants the traditional feel of a small town where neighbors all know each other, which also happens to be what the majority of Americans have consistently identified as their home locational preference. Only he remains committed to the economies of scale, radically individualized land development, and high levels of personal mobility inherent to the 20th century suburban lifestyle. How that leads toward New Localism, I'm not sure.

Friday, October 16

Visualizing 3D Cities one building at a time

Philadelphia Skyline from Google Building Maker

The folks at Google have set for themselves the ambitious goal of modeling every building on earth. Rather, I should say that we have been given this challenge. On Tuesday, Google launched a new tool, Google Building Maker, that allows users to create a simple three-dimensional outline of structures and map aerial photos onto it. If Sketch-up is the powerful modeling tool, this is the quick and dirty method of populating the world's cities with complex texture. From the looks of Philadelphia this evening, only three days into it, these cities will be growing quickly. I modeled the Philadelphia Museum of Art pictured in the foreground, but someone else beat me to it. Many of the individual houses in the surrounding neighborhood are already completed.

The tool isn't perfect. Trees that obscure the sides of buildings get mapped onto the structure itself. Complex buildings with ornamentation are difficult to capture. However, Building Maker integrates nicely into Sketch-up, allowing these inconsistencies to be improved with time.

Thursday, October 15

Manhatta Project presentation

Eric Sanderson delivered this fantastic presentation at the TED international conference and it was posted a few days ago. The Manhatta Project he has been working on uses historic and ecological research to recreate what Manhattan would have looked like when Hudson first sailed into the bay. An online map allows users to explore the island down to the individual blocks and compare the natural ecology with its current urban function.

In the last two minutes of the presentation, Sanderson takes the message in a different direction than you may expect. The implication is not that the pristine natural state is superior to human civilization, but that they mirror each other. They are both "interconnected, based on diversity, and having resilience." He imagines a world where a more compact city, traversed by bicycles and pedestrians, would be interspersed with the natural world.

"This is the future we need, a future that has the same diversity, abundance, and dynamism of Manhattan but learns from the sustainability of the past, the original ecology of nature with all of its parts."
I'm hesitant to say that global cities like New York are the only kind of place we need, but certainly his overall idea of blending the natural ecology of a place with human needs would be pretty universally relevant.

Tuesday, October 13

The three responses to congestion

David Owen, whom I referenced a few weeks ago, opened up a major can of worms with a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal: "How Traffic Jams Help the Environment." As the title suggests, he argues that congestion compels drivers to shift to alternative modes, and therefor there is no reason to attempt to alleviate it. Randal O'Toole, of the Cato Institute, jumped in right away, seeing confirmation of his long-held suspicion that the "anti-auto" crowd are really only interested in making life as miserable as possible for the greatest number of people. Finally, Ryan Advent also joined in criticizing Owen, only from an entirely different angle. He favors congestion pricing as a way to encourage efficient use of the existing roadways. To me, these three posts create a very instructive framework to view the issue.

Breaking the problem of congestion down into the most simplistic terms, I can only think of these three ways to deal with it. They strike at an age-old dilemma in political philosophy, concerning the distribution of any scarce resources (think health care, for example).

  1. Build more Supply – This is O’Toole’s preference, to keep paving until adequate automobile mobility is achieved, presumably in perpetuity. In dense cities, this would require large government expenditures and liberal use of eminent domain (a strange position for a self-professed libertarian to take). Of course, the more you pave the more demand you create, thus the more you pave …

  2. Manage Demand through Queuing – This is Owen’s preference, to distribute the scarce resource of urban roadways by requiring that users wait in line to use them. This has the advantage of egalitarianism. The BMW and rusty, old Ford Escort wait in the same line. But it's not very efficient, either economically or environmentally. The engine is still running while the driver sits in traffic, and she's late for work.

  3. Manage Demand through Monetizing - This is Ryan Advent's preference. As an economist, he sees a price point at which the use of the roadway can be optimized to carry enough traffic to justify its existence but not so much as to generate congestion. There are equity considerations that must be faced with essentially auctioning the resource to the highest bidder, but presumably transit expenditure or other safety net programs can help mitigate this problem.
Contrary to O'Toole's characterization, most advocates for livable streets support congestion pricing (and similar policies, such as performance parking). Letting congestion increase is not some nefarious plan that urbanists whisper to each other behind closed doors, I can assure you. Frankly, it's mostly the journalists who are drawn to these kinds shocking idiosyncrasies ("Chocolate is actually good for you!"). Most of us really mean it when we aspire to enhance transportation options for everyone.

Monday, October 12

Remembering Urban Renewal

Almost every community has their own stories from the urban renewal of the 1960's and 1970's, when a combination of federal policies and local action lead to clearing whole neighborhoods of urban fabric in order make room for the modern, motorized city. Charlottesville has Vinegar Hill, which still conjures up deep memories of racial divisions. In this case, not only were hundreds of residents displaced and moved into public housing, but the area chosen for demolition happened to be the heart of the black community.

A couple of researchers have put together a website that explores this history: Vinegar Hill, memoryscape. For this project, a timeline of aerial photos is narrated by newspaper clippings, which give an explanation of the step-by-step process and aftermath of the change. We see how much of the land that was expected to be redeveloped actually sat vacant for over a decade, with only a brand new high-volume roadway cutting straight through. Even today, the majority of the land serves as surface parking lots, something the grand schemes of urban renewal often conveniently left out.

One thing that would be a great addition to these maps and pictures would be audio recordings of stories people have told from living in Vinegar Hill and seeing their community being renewed. I know an archived recording was made in the early 1980's, but I don't know if it's still around anywhere.

Wednesday, October 7

Not really cars, not really transit, what is it?

I generally do not indulge in high-tech fantasizing, mostly because I believe that an expectation of technological salvation too often substitutes for doing the best with what we have right now. Traditional ideas and machines (bicycles, passive solar design, organic growing) have evolved specifically to be energy-efficient and they're cheap solutions. But I'm going to now break that rule.

The Boston Globe published a nice overview of the the resurgence of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), a concept that has floated in and out of vogue for the last fifty years. For those unaware, the idea is to construct a system of individual pods, like cars, that will drive themselves between various nodes on the network. The occupant need only submit a destination and let the computer sort out the route. The pods would be powered electrically, and they would be equipped with sensors to coordinate movements with other pods. Because a new system is set to open in Heathrow Airport and a few others a being proposed, PRT is starting to raise eyebrows.

I'm not exactly sure why the tracks have to be elevated, other than adding some futuristic cache and avoiding current roadways, but that seems to add some unnecessary expenses and aesthetic problems. Otherwise, leaving aside the issue of feasible implementation, this does seem to match many of the positive attributes of transit with benefits of cars. Since the stations would be fixed, you'd think the land use effects would be more like transit than automobiles, promoting walkable density around the cores. Furthermore, eliminating the need for parking is an incredible benefit to facilitating transit-oriented development around stations.

The energy consumption would probably be similar to light rail. On the one hand, you have lower capacity cars. On the other hand, you only have to run them in proportion to fluctuating levels of demand. Apparently, someone secured a grant to study the potential of building solar panels into roadways, but it's difficult to provide protection from heavy trucks. Perhaps the idea of a solar-powered roadway would be more suitable for PRT. The power would go directly into the pods themselves.

Safety seems like a potential concern, but I'd have to defer to the engineers on that one. It couldn't be any more deadly than highways currently are.

And, of course, the convenience of not having to wait for departures and the ability to travel directly to any destination station cannot be underestimated. Unlike owning an automobile, PRT users would not be able to display their social status through the type of vehicle they drive, although I'm sure that human nature will be able to adapt to that hurdle with, say, very expensive clothing.

I'm not an convert yet by any means, just batting around the idea. Do you think PRT would work in certain metropolitan areas?

Monday, October 5

Charting the reinvestment in central cities

The 2008 American Community Survey data was released a couple of weeks ago, and the analyses of trends are starting to come out. One of the big stories is the notable increase in bicycle mode share in several cities, including huge one-year increases in the two leading cities: 42% in Portland and 78% in Minneapolis. Others have teased out the preliminary results of the recession from this data.

An ongoing trend of reinvestment in central cities is evident as well. After several decades of decline, central cities in the U.S. have, on average, been rebounding for the last several years. Bill Lucy has been tracking indicators of this trend for quite a while. He and David Phillips published Confronting Suburban Decline and Tommorow's Cities, Tomorrow's Suburbs, and a forthcoming publication from APA Planner's Press under the working title of Foreclosing the American Dream will continue observing the shifting fault lines between cities and suburbs.

The 2008 numbers reveal a steady continuation of the reinvestment in the cores of metropolitan areas. Lucy charted the differences between a sample of central cities, as defined by traditional political boundaries, and their metropolitan areas for a number of indicators: per capita income, median home values, and income of non-hispanic whites (to account for racial variations).

The money is still flowing outward in a few formerly industrial metropolitan areas, but most metropolitan areas are swinging in the other direction. Washington D.C. has, for the first time in decades, arrived at income parity between the city and its suburbs. The relative housing values in the District jumped between 2007 and 2008, making them now considerably higher than home values in the suburban counties. Other cities have also shown a notable reversal in recent years.

Hiking through Arlington County

Last weekend I hiked along the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah National Park, and this weekend I hiked the Arlington corridor, outside of Washington D.C., from Ballston to Rosslyn. These are both beautiful places in very different ways.

It seems like everyone in the country is watching Ken Burn’s series on the National Parks. It really is a remarkable homage to some of the most spectacular pieces of natural landscape our country has and the ideas that have developed to conserve them. I’ve lived for two summers in a national park, and I don’t take for granted the fact that these places have been preserved. Yet there is also something a little sad about locating our culture’s primary experiences of transcendence so far away from where most of us live our regular lives. Attributing to wild nature god-like qualities, means that god is always “out there,” only reachable by getting in the car and driving away on vacation.

John Muir was a great naturalist, but 300 million people cannot, by definition, live the John Muir lifestyle. It’s a self-defeating ethic when pushed to universal proportions. Many people have pointed to an urban aesthetic as well as the natural, one that celebrates not the absence but the presence of other people and their artifacts. This why we need Jane Jacobs, the Muir of cities, to give description to this other form of beauty:

The order of the city is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance – not a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.”
I picked up a brochure in Arlington County for "walkabouts," short, self-guided tours that allow residents and visitors to explore streets and neighborhoods. Any national park visitors' center would supply trail maps, why not Arlington County?