Saturday, August 30

It's a fused grid after all

I've been playing with the idea lately of a street system that allows different levels of connectivity for different modes of transportation, and I just discovered from reading a Planetizen post that there's already a name for such a thing: a fused grid.

I've sketched out how it works.

The traditional system is highly connective. Traffic is able to flow very efficiently, because there are so many different options for traveling between two points. This diffusion of traffic is a benefit to cyclists and pedestrians, who can opt for the lower-volume roads.

The Suburban pattern, on the other hand, offers a high level of privacy to those living in residential areas. All of the thru traffic is confined to particular roads. The downside is that the major roads can become congested and there are few choices available to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Could the fused grid be the best of both worlds? Automobile connectivity is limited, while the bicycle and pedestrian parkways (indicated in green) still give access to these modes of transportation. It's a win-win situation. Not only are homeowners insulated from the negative effects of automobiles, but the incentive to use alternative modes of transportation is strengthened. Hopefully, as a result, congestion could be relieved as well.

Friday, August 29

It's drinking AND driving

The national drinking age is back in the public spotlight, thanks to the Amethyst Initiative signed by over a hundred college presidents. Naturally, the presidents say they only want to "open up dialog," but, shorn of the academic hedging, their proposal really is to lower the drinking age to something like 18. It's an unusually bold move for these presidents, but they all have to deal with this question on a regular basis.

Reactions have been flooding papers all over the country. The first to strike back was MADD, pointing out the obvious fact, bolstered by scores of studies, that drinking and driving don't mix. What I find interesting in these reports is that the causation is considered in only one direction. So in a San Fransisco Chronicle editorial,

"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that since 1975, laws setting the drinking age at 21 have cut traffic fatalities among 18-to-20-year-old drivers by 13 percent, saving an estimated 19,121 lives."

I don't doubt this statistic, but why is entire burden of the 19,121 lives places on the use of alcohol and none of it on the fact that these teenagers were operating vehicles. Suppose a teenager were to get drunk, find his father's unlocked handgun in the closet, and accidentally shoot his friend with it. Surely, the national reaction would be to toughen up gun control laws. But in the case of automobile accidents, why are cars given a pass when they are used by irresponsible people as weapons?

Interestingly enough, Europeans usually react to these tragedies from the opposite direction. According to a Washington Post article,

"The accident bore the familiar details of a drunk-driving tragedy. Six young people, age 16 to 20, had been out late at a club. On the long ride toward home early on a Saturday morning, their small car smashed into a bridge pillar, killing everyone. Witnesses said the driver, 20, appeared drunk as he left the club.

The Nov. 20 accident in Sausheim, a town in eastern France, shocked people across the country. But in a society in which the legal drinking age is 16, the resulting public debate focused not on how to keep alcohol from young people, but on how to enforce highway rules more strictly and crack down on errant drivers. News coverage took particular note that the driver had no license or insurance."

On the other side of the Atlantic they take the drinking as a given and work to curtail the driving. We take the driving as a given and work to curtail the drinking. It seems there should be a way to approach this multifaceted problem from both angles. Perhaps groups like MADD could team up with architects and planners who are working to make cities more accessible without automobiles. I, for one, would much rather have a late night encounter with a drunken college student on bicycle than in a Buick.

Wednesday, August 27

Why naked streets work

I've been coming across a bunch of references to a new book called Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt. It's all about how humans and automobiles interact with each other, something that's been a common thread on this blog. I haven't read the book yet, but this article of Vanderbilt's in the Wilson Quarterly is fascinating. Vanderbilt explores the ideas of a pioneering Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, who insisted that "less is more" when it comes to traffic signage. He managed to remove most traffic signals from two Dutch villages in order create a social environment between different road users - and with demonstrably positive results:

"Without bumps or flashing warning signs, drivers slowed, so much so that Monderman’s radar gun couldn’t even register their speeds. Rather than clarity and segregation, he had created confusion and ambiguity. Unsure of what space belonged to them, drivers became more accommodating. Rather than give drivers a simple behavioral mandate—­say, a speed limit sign or a speed ­bump—­he had, through the new road design, subtly suggested the proper course of action. And he did something else. He used context to change behavior. He had made the main road look like a narrow lane in a village, not simply a ­traffic-­way through some anonymous ­town."

Tuesday, August 26

Family life in small spaces

Michelle Obama briefly mentioned last night at the Democratic convention that she grew up with her parents and a brother all sharing a one-bedroom apartment on the south side of Chicago. She warmly remembered the time they spent as a family, with a working father and mother who was able to stay home with her children.

Most middle-class Americans would now look back at living arrangements like these with something like pity. We've convinced ourselves that each member of the family needs their own bedroom, that there ought to be space enough in a house for each person to be off on their own, whether its watching television, cooking dinner, taking a nap, lifting weights. We feel that we owe it to our children to have a privatized patch of grass for them to play on. Since we have, as a culture, internalized these requirements as the default "home," we have been required to make the necessary sacrifices to "provide for the family." This means that we have to live far away from cities where the land is cheap and commute every day. And perhaps we would scold Michelle Obama's mother for not working herself so the family could have more space.

But where did these laws come from? Is a spacious house really necessary for a family? Or, better yet, is it even healthy? Architect Sarah Susanka wrote a book a few years ago, Not so Big House, that managed to not only become a bestseller but launch a veritable movement. Her idea is pretty simple. Houses ought to be constructed at a human scale. Children implicitly understand that small spaces just feel to fit them better, but adults are often taken by notions of status and forget what they really need. Social psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated how constricted spaces are much more conducive to social interaction than large ones, where the collective human energy is lost. This, of course, also happens to be the most effective way to minimize a carbon footprint. (Consider for a moment the concept of an "eco-mansions"). It's also the only way to fit into urban ecologies, which require densities to be high enough to sustain their vibrancy and feasibility.

So when did we start assuming that we should live in as big a space as we could afford? Why do we feel we owe it to children, who don't really want that much space anyway? These burdensome social requirements have certainly not always been in effect.

Monday, August 25

Making sense of population decline

Charlottesville's Daily Progress has reported on some noteworthy demographic census data just released, specifically that the African American population in the city is in decline. The actual drop has only been around 1% in the last year, which could be viewed as statistically insignificant (researcher Qian Cai was quick to point out that these numbers are estimates) if it were not for the fact that a similar rate of decline has been going on for seven years. Sure, nothing cataclysmic is happening, but a slow trickle is definitely worth keeping an eye on, especially for those who value a diverse environment and the rich cultural traditions attached to a place.

This would seem to be the results of gentrification happening here, as it is happening to other cities around the country. At least that's how mayor Dave Norris is interpreting the numbers. As those who have the ability to choose where they want to live decide to live in city centers, the ones who more at the mercy of market forces get pushed out. That's the simple story, but the details are pretty complex to sort out.

Friday, August 22

A Fifeville Bike Route?

In a previous post, I alluded to the idea that connectivity of streets is the one infrastructure improvement that would help cyclists most. When there are many different routes that can be taken through the city, it's much easier find a way to stay out of high traffic areas. Folks in residential districts are understandably wary of allowing cars to shortcut past their houses, but there are ways to keep out car traffic while allowing pedestrians and cyclists through.

Here's a little suggestion that I think would help my neighborhood of Fifeville.

Suppose a cyclist wanted to traverse through my neighborhood between the two points A and B (Ridge St. and JPA). Right now the only possible way to do this is by cutting down to Cherry Ave. and following it to Shamrock. But Cherry, with its sharp curves, narrow lanes, and heavy traffic, is simply inhospitable to bicycles. So there really is no feasible way to make this trip.

The city could widen the entire stretch of Cherry and put in bike lanes, but there would seem to be an easier and far less costly way to forge a route through Fifeville.

What if exclusive bike and walking paths were placed on the spots indicated by dark blue (between Grove St. and Grove St. extended and between Grove St. extended and Thomas Cr.)? With just this small tweak a perfectly fine bike route emerges that allows cyclists to avoid Cherry entirely. Why not put this in?

Thursday, August 21

Charlottesville pedestrian mall

I snapped some photos of the pedestrian mall yesterday morning. I really do think it is one of the better public spaces in the United States.

The fountain by Zo-ca-lo cafe is a great place to sit and read, relax, or catch up with friends.

Across the street, a crane looms above two banks. The new Landmark hotel is under construction.

Hundreds of tables in the center are awaiting the summer evening crowds.

Bicycles stack up outside the Obama headquarters. You have to walk your bike on the mall.

The municipal government offices are also right on the mall.

Thomas Jefferson would be proud of the "free speech wall" erected on the east end of the mall. I also wonder if some controlled chaos here may help deter graffiti on other walls.

Finally, the outdoor pavilion music venue anchors the end of the mall.

Wednesday, August 20

De Botton on architecture

I've often enjoyed reading Alain de Botton's take on things, so when I stumbled upon his new book on architecture last night at the downtown library I quickly became engrossed and had to take it home. De Botton has a talent for mining some basic philosophical insights from all over the canon of Western thought and applying them to contemporary situations.

A thought gleaned from John Ruskin serves as a departure point for the book. Buildings serve two purposes; to shelter us and the speak to us. Modern architects, confronted with the collapse of an agreed aesthetic standard, sought to banish all questions of beauty from the table and concentrate on function. However, De Botton contends that even the most stark modern structures were not successful in eradicating meaning - they just replaced it with an alternative vision, perhaps a hope in the progress of technology or the simple transparency of democratic institutions. Either way, buildings still say something to us.

Here's one experience De Botton shares from a rainy day in London. He stepped into a Mcdonalds franchise to take shelter. You don't need his description to picture the setting.

"The setting served to render all kinds of ideas absurd: that human beings might sometimes be generous to one another without hope of reward; that relationships can on occasion be sincere, that life may be worth enduring. The restaurant's true talent lay in the generation of anxiety. The harsh lighting, the intermittent sounds of frozen fries being sunk into vats of oil and the frenzied behavior of the counter staff invited thoughts of the loneliness and meaninglessness of existence in a random and violent universe."

Maybe marketers for McDonalds could consider the "random and violent universe" angle for their next campaign. Just a thought. Next, he stepped outside the Mcdonalds and walked across the plaza to Westminster cathedral.

"After ten minutes in the cathedral, a range of ideas that would have been inconceivable outside began to assume an air of reasonableness. Under the influence of the marble, the mosaics, the darkness and the incense, it seemed entirely probable that Jesus was the son of God and had walked across the sea of Galilee. In the presence of alabaster statues of the Virgin Mary set against rhythms of green, red, and blue marble, it was no longer surprising to think that an angel might at any moment choose to descend through the layers of dense London cumulus, enter though a window in the nave, blow a golden trumpet and make an announcement in Latin about a forthcoming celestial event."

Is this a universal reaction that these two buildings evoke? Probably not, but I remember having a very similar experience while following a typical tourist circuit through New York city. We went immediately from Saint Patrick's cathedral down fifth avenue to the FAO Schwartz anchor store. It did not necessarily put me in the mood to purchase any giant stuffed animals. There may be more of a connection between our physical space and our mental state than is readily apparent.

Monday, August 18

Tragedy of the Anticommons?

I remember studying the "tragedy of the commons" in a college decision theory class. It all fit together so precisely. A group of self-interested individuals would each exploit any limited resource that was held in common ownership. If a medieval town held an open pasture in its center, inevitably the various farmers would scramble to cultivate as large a piece of it for themselves as possible. Since no one individual had any incentive to preserve the land for future cultivation, eventually the commons would be overused and destroyed. One of the ways to avoid this outcome is through privatization. Ensure that each of the farmers will have to be responsible for their own piece of land, and they will have more of an incentive to care for it responsibly.

But what happens if the tragedy of the commons is reversed? What if excessive privatization leads to a level of fragmentation that prevents the land from being used to its fullest potential?

The New Yorker just published a review of a new book by Micheal Heller that explores just this possibility. It's entitled The Gridlock Economy, how too much ownership wrecks markets, stops innovation, and costs lives. He makes the case that if ownership is fragmented into a number of smaller pieces, each individual owner becomes a "gatekeeper." Any initiative that involves the use of many properties at once must seek and obtain permission from all of the gatekeepers before moving forward. Sometimes that requires an absolute consensus which endows each of the gatekeepers with significant amount of leverage - and the power to stop everything completely. From the review:

"When something you own is necessary to the success of a venture, even if its contribution is small, you’ll tend to ask for an amount close to the full value of the venture. And since everyone in your position also thinks he deserves a huge sum, the venture quickly becomes unviable. So the next time we start handing out new ownership rights—whether via patents or copyright or privatization schemes—we’d better try to weigh all the good things that won’t happen as a result. Otherwise, we won’t know what we’ve been missing."

Voilá, gridlock. And this has everything to do with urban placemaking. The urban form is extremely complex, an organism with overlapping uses from thousands of different interests. With so many people inhabiting such a small space, even the simplest project requires a high level of collaboration. Developers facing these costs may just eschew the whole mess and spread outward further where there are less interests to please. Ultimately, a fragmented system of ownership will tend toward a fragmented and inefficient system of land use, that is suburban sprawl with individual plots each spatially set off from each other in discrete chunks.

Eric Freyfogle attempts to tack between the two "tragedies" in his book On Private Property,

"These two tragedies, of the commons and of fragmentation, provide good background for looking at the pluses and minuses of allocating power over land to particular individuals. How much power should individual owners have, and how stable should their power be? How much managerial freedom should they possess? On the other side, what power should the community as such retain so it can constrain disruptive land uses and otherwise coordinate activities for the good of all?"

Friday, August 15

My problem with bike maps

In recent years, city governments and various organizations have sought to encourage bicycle commuters by publishing maps of the area with bike routes clearly identified. Don't get me wrong; this is good. Anything that can send the message that cyclists are welcomed and accommodated for in transportation planning can only help people feel more comfortable riding. The trouble is that the actual maps that are published end up being less than helpful, in my opinion. Here are two maps that I've looked at to help me navigated around Charlottesville (available here and here):

The lines that are designated as bike routes are typically along major roads. Sometimes there are actual bike lanes painted on the roads, but other times these "bike routes" simply amount to a sign placed cautioning drivers to share the road. It's great that cities are making efforts to turn high traffic areas into multi-modal transportation routes, but anyone who regularly gets on a bicycle soon realizes that its best to avoid the high traffic areas altogether, official bike lane or not. The safest, most comfortable, and sometimes quickest route from point A to B is more often than not along the lines that are not highlighted on the bike map.

The issue here is that bicycles follow an entirely different feeder pattern than cars do. Designing roads for cars has been the art of funneling the traffic from low-volume residential roads into specific arterials, which are designed to carry much larger volumes of traffic. Eventually an entire hierarchy of streets emerges, from the tiny residential street to the interstate highway. The purpose of this system has frankly always been to manage the nuisance of automobiles and meet their space requirements. Nobody wants to live or work on a busy street, so the traffic is cordoned off to designated areas. Directional efficiency is sacrificed to gain the benefits of a pleasant environment. Not a bad deal.

But bicycles operate differently. Since they are not as large, noisy, or dangerous as cars, there is really no reason to discourage the use of residential roads. Rather than compete with drivers on congested arterials, most cyclists would rather find a nice quiet street, even if it means going a few blocks out of the way. Unfortunately, none of the bike maps that I've seen offer much help in finding these peaceful alternatives. By and large, they are simply repetitions of the basic car feeder patterns.

Wednesday, August 13

From Missoula to Charlottesville

I started this blog about a year ago as a semi-public way for me to hash out my personal thoughts about urban form and community. An intellectual journal of sorts, available for others to correct and hopefully fine-tune. But before long I realized that the most interesting posts, as well as the ones that generated the most discussion, were those based in my particular city of Missoula. I discovered what should have been obvious all along: issues like transportation and zoning are pretty boring unless they are about the particular roads and lands that real people use. That's where the action is.

I found myself involved in some fascinating local discussions at other Missoula blogs, especially 4 & 20 Blackbirds. And Carol at Missoulapolis also had some pretty reasonable things to say from a Conservative perspective, even if I found some of her regular commenters a little exasperating. New West online, the Missoulian newspaper, and occasionally the Independent did a good job pushing planning issues into the public spotlight, often with front page exposure. Missoula also hosted a myriad of non-profits and community organizations with their eyes on improving the city.

All of this is to say that moving away from Missoula has been somewhat of an identity crisis for this blog. My first impressions of Charlottesville are very positive, but it's hard to have much to add to local dialog as a sojourner. So, I'll probably sit on the sidelines for a while, and go back to posting on some general philosophy and principles of urbanism. Maybe I'll also delve into some policy issues with a national scope. We'll see what comes out.

I miss all of you in Missoula, and I've learned so much just from living there.

Friday, August 8

The Center of Bismarck, North Dakota

The "Where is the center?" project is a series of posts based on my visits to various towns across the country. My goals are to determine where local residents consider the heart of their own town to be and make some outsider's observations about it. Do you live in this place? Please weigh in on your answer to the question.

Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota, with a metropolitan area population of roughly 100,000. I spent about a week there and asked a number of different residents where they would consider the center of their town. A few responses emerged as the most common.

A - The Capital

North Dakota's Capital building is very distinctive. Built during the depression, state legislators opted to conserve resources by adopting a modernist style and using concrete. Dubbed the "skyscraper on the prairie", the capital is the dominant landmark on the horizon for miles around the city. This makes it a good visual focal point.

The capital, once well to the north of downtown, is now quickly becoming closer to the geographical center of Bismarck. This is because the lion's share of new development, mostly in the form of big box stores and suburban subdivisions, is occurring on the northern end of the city around I-94 access points.

One young man, who works as a photographer, added that the capital grounds have become a cultural and social center. He said you can always catch a frisbee game there if you want to. Shakespeare in the park was playing on the capital grounds during my stay. Bismarck takes a lot of pride in their system of city parks, and the capital grounds may be considered a capstone in this system.

B - Main Street area

Several people mentioned a few points in the general area of main street, around the historic downtown. The Radisson hotel was mentioned specifically as a landmark that could constitute the center of downtown.

One obvious feature of the downtown area is that it has over time been retooled to meet the needs of automobile users. Two huge parking garages seemed out of proportion with the size of the downtown, and on a regular business day many of the parking spots were unoccupied. As a pedestrian there one afternoon, I spent quite a while going from bank to bank looking for an ATM I could use. The only one I could find was a drive-thru teller, which led to the surreal experience of waiting in a line with cars in order to use the machine.

There are some nice historic neighborhoods in the vicinity, but often there is no pleasant walk available to downtown. Custer park, for example, is a wonderful city park in a residential section, but the route to downtown goes through two blocks of abandoned buildings and rundown auto part shops. It appears as if most people drive there.

There are efforts underway to revitalize the historic downtown. The state-wide renaissance zone project allows for the rehabilitation of buildings on the national historic register. Since most of these are in the downtown area, it amounts to an economic boost to this infrastructure. There is also a street fair and market called the Urban Harvest which was taking place during my visit. The brochure states that the central intersection of 4th and Broadway is usually very quiet. Urban Harvest transforms this spot into a lively public square. It is fairly small but very well attended, which suggests that it will grow in time.

C - Kirkwood Mall

One person mentioned the mall right away, but another person I asked just as quickly said "not the mall!" without any prompting. So this one is a bit controversial.

Unlike most malls built in the 1970's, Kirkwood mall was not placed on the periphery near a major highway but rather right in the center of Bismarck. It's a suburban styled mall in an urban setting. A civic center arena has since been built adjacent to the property. In recent years, it has been losing its retail dominance to the newer generation of retail box stores, which, as I mentioned, have all been concentrating to the north of town.

Thursday, August 7

End-times architecture

I thought this building near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, once one of the largest in the colonies, was pretty interesting. It was the meeting house for a religious minority group founded by Conrad Beissel, now known as the Ephrata cloister.

Note how the windows are placed without any pattern or symmetry. This is because Beissel and his followers were expecting the return of Christ at any moment, and they had no expectations that the building would last beyond its immediate use. Measuring windows was too much trouble. The irony, of course, is that the building is still doing fine three centuries later, during which time generations of modern structures have been built and torn down. And the funny little windows are an interesting quirk.