Sunday, November 29

Why children like small things

Presuming that cities are meant to be used by people, it stands to reason that their elements ought to be scaled to human comfort, movement, and legibility.

Rather than attempt to describe what architects define as human scale (or at least how I understand it), it may be quicker to pull out two photos I took in Albany, New York. These two places are a short walk from each other.

Although there are technically humans attempting to coexist with this place, they doubtlessly feel as if they are walking across the canvas of a Piet Mondrian painting, ruining its elegant simplicity with the awkwardness of their human bodies. And it's such a long way to walk with nothing to do.

This alley, on the other hand, is one of the streets that the people who work over there go to voluntarily for lunch. They apparently enjoy being here. It has nothing to do with one being new and the other old. It mostly is a reflection of scale.

The tendency to feel at home in places that are designed to fit our bodies seems to be hard-wired. Children are just as much drawn to spaces that are sized according to their own smaller perspective. Over the weekend I visited the Winterthur estate, the museum outside of Wilmington, Delaware that houses collections from the Dupont family. A couple of years ago, landscape architects created a garden on the property designed exclusively for children called the Enchanted Woods. Like J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy world of the Shire, built around three-foot tall hobbits, the Enchanted Forest has many traditional forms whimsically sized to be experienced by short people. A bird's nest is blown up in proportion as a kind of tree fort , while the cottages and benches are shrunken.

I brought this up to my wife, who knows all about small children, and she understood exactly why they love this place. In a world built for adults, the Enchanted Woods is a place where they can navigate forms that are familiar yet still somewhat alien to them in a much more secure way. This is the same reason why they play-act as adults all the time but need to have smaller tools and settings. Check out any toy store for the miniature lawn mower or playhouse. It's the phenomenon of coziness. It just fits.

I don't think we outgrow this as adults. It just gets a little bit bigger. Many outdoor places today are built around the needs of automobiles, with buildings pushed away from each other and aesthetics meant to capture our attention in 4 seconds as we speed by. In the same vein, they are built for economies of scale or politics of intimidation, such as warehouse shopping experiences that exist for the purpose of maximizing the efficiency of highway trucking networks or the massive squares at the center of every communist bloc city built in the last century. There's a reason why we gravitate away from these places. They just don't fit.

Tuesday, November 24

Emergency response times and sprawl

A study on emergency response times to vehicle accidents from University of Virginia researchers has been published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. Here are the results:

"Urban sprawl is significantly associated with increased EMS response time and a higher probability of delayed ambulance arrival following motor-vehicle crashes in the U.S. The results of this study suggest that promoting of community design and development that follows smart-growth principles and regulates urban sprawl may improve EMS performance and reliability"
Dr. Matthew Trowbridge, an author of the paper, discusses:

The medical profession has been paying close attention to the health implications of land use patterns and design in recent years, and this paper's finding adds to the growing body of literature with similar conclusions. Health Impact Assessments are being used by many communities to apply some of these results to specific places.

One of the benefits of the national conversation about health care we've been having for the last six months is that the public is becoming more aware of how comprehensive health care really is. We've come to understand that no strategy for reducing costs can be successful without paying attention to preventative care. Sadly, the most advanced treatments available may not be of any help if the ambulance is 5 minutes late.

Sunday, November 22

The walking paths of Brasilia

The City of Brasilia, conceived and built in the 1950's and 60's, is the exemplar of modernist urban planning. It's got it all: extreme separation of uses, access only by motor vehicle, mid-rise boxy buildings set in vast open spaces, and a conspicuous absence of any history before the mid-twentieth century. There are no traffic lights or sidewalks in the city (at least in the original design), and almost every four-way intersection is a cloverleaf interchange. The design ensures that motorists will never have to inconvenience themselves by stopping, and pedestrians don't mind because they theoretically don't exist. It all fits together like a machine - actually an airplane, by resemblance.

But when the city is viewed from above we can see incursions of organic human life superimposed on top of the plan. The picture below is near the center of the city, where the wings meet the fuselage of the plane. A network of paths are clear evidence that pedestrians have crossed the open field where they are not suppose to.

These rogue pedestrians don't have an easy task. Virtually the only way to access this space is to cross at least six lanes of traffic and then cross another six lanes to exit. The width of the open space is 1/4 of a mile, which is exactly twice the width of the national mall in Washington D.C., and there is no shade or amenities whatsoever. They still make the journey.

Drawing the human use on the map reveals a complex network of activity very different from the plan.

This is the network of function over geometry. The paths are trodden out of convenience, but they also gently meander. Lewis Mumford recognized this unviersal tendency back in 1961, just as Brasilia was under construction.
"the slow curve is the natural line of the footwalker, as anyone can observe as he looks back at his tracks in the snow across an open field."
Not only do the curves shift the field of view slightly offering some aesthetic variation, because of topography they can even be the most energy-efficient route. (Unless, that is, you have a bulldozer to eliminate all preexisting topography.)

Although it's hard to prove conclusively, it looks like safety concerns played a part in determining where the highways were crossed. Several paths seem to converge at points where on-ramps and off-ramps are separated from the main flow of traffic. Crossing at these points allows the pedestrian to have breaks of median before having to make the next step. It looks as if some people have been willing to sacrifice a certain degree of time in order to cross a little more safely at one of these points.

Interestingly, these points of convergence are analogous to the forces that led to the origins of medieval Paris. The only difference being that Paris was formed at the easiest crossing point of the Seine river, where an island reduced the distance, and residents of Brasilia are attempting to cross a river of automobile traffic at a breaking point. If I were in the hot dog stand business (and it were allowed) I'd know exactly where to set up shop.

Lewis Mumford explained further what he admired in medieval cities,
"Organic planning does not begin with a preconceived goal; it moves from need to need, from opportunity to opportunity, in a series of adaptations that themselves become increasingly coherent and purposeful, so that they generate a complex final design, hardly less unified than a pre-formed geometric pattern."
yes, this happens even in Brasilia.

Wednesday, November 18

My working definition of "Planning"

The field of Planning just celebrated its 100-year anniversary last year, but most people, especially planners, aren't really sure what it is. Debates over the most basic outlines of the identity of planning have been ongoing for at least a few decades. A well-known essay was published by in 1973 entitled, If Planning is Everything, Maybe It's Nothing. Lot's of responses have been written with various iterations on this title, including Bill Lucy's If Planning Includes Too Much, Maybe It Should Include More. Orienting the center of the definition has been problematic.

Then there's always the question of whether "Planning" is even the right term, rather than something more specific like "urban planning" or "land use planning." There are certainly problems with using a term that is so generic ("I'm planning on washing my car tomorrow"). Even many of its more specific applications are obviously outside of the purview of the field (financial planning, family planning, wedding planning). However, I'm treating this word as a given because it is already institutionally entrenched and not going anywhere. On the positive side, four of the top five Google hits, our age's arbiter of language, for "planning" fit what I'm thinking of quite well.

How can the word "Planning" be used with enough exclusivity to have meaning yet with enough inclusiveness to follow out enough of it's various tentacles of causality? Not to mention the various ways the word is actually being applied professionally. Although I'm not so presumptuous as to speak for an entire discipline, I'd like to throw out my own working definition of the term here in hopes that it can be somewhat wikified. Does this fit your own conception of the field? Do you think an agreed-upon definition is useful or even possible?

"Planning is working toward the deliberate improvement of the spatial organization and design of human settlement and human movement."

Explanations of the Components

Working Toward. This definition of planning hinges on the intentions of planners, not necessary the actual results in every occasion. The phrase "working toward" implies an ongoing process.

Deliberate Improvement
. The discipline of planning is an applied, not a pure, science. Although original research may be conducted, it will always be intended for incorporation into a teleological framework informing workable practices. The word deliberate implies a rational analysis built upon empirical data, although this may include recognition of the limits of human reason and disagreements over fundamental values.

The word improvement implies values, whether ethical absolutes or preferences of a particular community. Therefore, planning includes the process of discovering these values, whether through ethical reflection or through interactions with the particular public relevant to the improvement in question. Inherent to this discovery process is the job of working toward resolution of conflicts which have always arisen over differing visions of values.

It should be noted that this definition does not conscribe planning to a specific means of achieving improvement. Sometimes rational planning (“from above”) is contrasted with the emergence of systems (“from below”), and planning is associated with the former. It’s seen as the concentration of power into government bodies over and against the dispersal of power into private agents. On the contrary, planning can make use of either of these means or a combination of both to achieve improvement. But planning cannot rely on the self-organization of private actors exclusively.

The word improvement is inherently future-oriented, which does not preclude restoring or building upon traditions of the past. It does necessitate working for a future that is better than the present, rather than maintaining the present conditions into the future.

Spatial Organization and Design. Planning is built upon geography, and thus all planning activities relate in some way to the spatial relationships between people and places. Space, for planners, can be conceived in a variety of scales involving human use, from a neighborhood to the whole world. However, relatively small scales intended for exclusively private ownership and use are not within the purview of planning.

The word organization references the analysis of spatial data, whether economic, political, sociological, or environmental and how the data will impact the human use of space. In this sense, planning functions as an applied social science, making use of the scientific method and empirical observation to achieve improvement in spatial organization. Among other factors, the spatial distribution of socio-economic and racial differences among a population will figure into the overall analysis.

The word design references the aesthetic and functional properties of specific constructed spaces. Design cannot always be easily quantified and measured, and will typically be valued subjectively. Like architects and landscape architects, planners engage with the human experience, as well as the material reality, of constructed space. Planning is distinct from architecture, landscape architecture, and other design fields in that it only functions on scales larger than places of exclusively private ownership and use.

Human Settlement and Human Movement. The word human distinguishes planning from the natural sciences that study and apply ecological processes outside of human intervention. Although environmental planners will draw heavily from the natural sciences, environmental planning will always deal with the spatial interface between humans and the rest of an ecosystem. Even if the purpose is to minimize human intervention through land or water conservation, it is still the human intervention that remains the focus for planners.

The word settlement references the use of land, specifically those uses that are constructed or legally committed and therefore involve a certain degree of permanence and investment. Movement references transportation of people or goods for human use. These two spheres are intertwined and effect each other with feedback loops, so planning must analyze both as a whole.

Because of the overlap between many other fields, planners will inevitably function as generalists, helping to translate between the different professional languages and build institutional connections between them. At the same time, they will be specialists in one or more of the elements of the definition.

Sunday, November 15

What will a recovery look like?

The Urban Land Institute and PriceWaterHouseCoopers has released their 2010 real estate forecast, a market analysis considered by many to be the most reputable in the industry. The first line gives a good impression of the tone of the report:

"More investors recognize massive losses—value declines will eventually total “40 to 50 percent” off market highs, propelled by lagging impacts of the deep recession."
Other descriptive words from the first page: "savaged," "debacle," "even worse," "enveloping gloom," "doom," "anemic demand," "carnage," "comatose," "mammoth value busts." (I didn't see "apocalyptic" but I didn't read the whole thing). You get the picture.

However, some smart growth advocates are seeing a silver lining in the fact that urban infill and redevelopment projects have shown to be more resilient than the typically housing on the exurban frontier of metropolitan areas. Kaid Benfield pulled out this quote from the report:
"Next-generation projects will ori­ent to infill, urbanizing suburbs, and transit-oriented develop­ment. Smaller housing units-close to mass transit, work, and 24-hour amenities-gain favor over large houses on big lots at the suburban edge. People will continue to seek greater convenience and want to reduce energy expenses. Shorter commutes and smaller heating bills make up for higher infill real estate costs."
On the one hand, I see this as a hopeful sign for movement toward a more sustainable economy. On the other hand, I'm a little reluctant to cheer too loudly during a recession. The million dollar question, in my mind, is not what the best investment bets are during the low period (could these not simply be inferior goods?) but what kinds of development will usher us out of the recession entirely and into a new economic paradigm.

The news media is filled with pundits prescribing a way toward "recovery": by which they usually mean resumption of the status quo - getting our savings rate back to zero, pushing the Per Person Vehicle Miles Traveled back onto its upward climb, getting the average square footage of houses back onto the upward trend (and by implication the average screen size of the televisions, so you can see them from across the room). But I don't think this is the only shape economic growth can take.

Jane Jacobs differentiates between "expansion" and "development",
"Expansion and development are two different things. Development is differentiation - new differentiation of what already existed. Practically every new thing that happens is a differentiation of a previous thing. Just about everything - from a new shoe sole to changes in legal codes - all of those things are differentiations. Expansion is an actual growth in size, volume, or activity. That is something different."
Development for Jacobs is the "creative destruction" of innovation, taking the raw materials of what we already have and making it better. In many ways the analogy of exurban expansion and urban infill fits these two models of economic growth very well. Instead of growing outward in size, consuming new land and leaving the internal remnants of a disposable core, a sustainable economy would continually augment the developed land. This is not a "steady-state economy" or some other fictitious narrative. The economy would be an organism that evolves, not simply to grow in size and energy consumption, but to grow intelligently to adapt to the conditions of its environment.

I understand that values are not normally welcomed in a discussion about economics, but Wendell Berry lays out the contours of such an economy with the succinct language of a poet,
"We must learn to prefer quality over quantity, service over profit, neighborliness over competition, people and other creatures over machines, health over wealth, a democratic prosperity over centralized wealth and power, economic health over 'economic growth'"

Tuesday, November 10

Safety for all street users

Over the past several decades, transportation engineers have been able to introduce scores of automotive safety provisions, from roadway clearance measures to elements of the vehicle design itself. Street trees are removed from the sides of roads to prevent collisions. Families have long since traded up their station wagon for a larger, safer SUV. Some of these improvements have likely slowed the annual increase in traffic fatalities, and with a little help from the recession the total number of driver deaths even dropped in 2008 to 35,000. The Wall Street Journal declared last month that "driving a car has never been safer." (this statement is true only if you ignore the fact that Americans today are forced to drive more miles than they have been before).

Amidst the constant ratcheting up - faster cars and wider roads necessitate safety improvements which lead to faster cars and wider roads - there is a constant, external variable that often gets left out of the equation: that is, people. Pedestrians do not have airbags or anti-lock brakes installed. They are not now, nor ever have been, enclosed in steel.

Transportation For America just released a new report, Dangerous By Design, assessing the nature of pedestrian deaths in U.S. metropolitan areas. 76,000 people have been killed while walking along or across American roadways in the last decade and a half. According to the report:

"These deaths typically are labeled “accidents,” and attributed to error on the part of motorist or pedestrian. In fact, however, an overwhelming proportion share a similar factor: They occurred along roadways that were dangerous by design, streets that were engineered for speeding cars and made little or no provision for people on foot, in wheelchairs or on a bicycle."
While pedestrians make 9% of all trips in the country and comprise 11.8% of the traffic fatalities, less than 1.5% of all federal transportation funds are spent on improving safety for walking. It should comes as no surprise that the highest proportion of these deaths, in urban areas at least, occur on major arterials, roads designed exclusively to carry large volumes of cars quickly. 41% of all deaths happen in places where no crosswalk is even available.

While some people choose to walk, many others do not. They are either too young to legally drive or too old to be behind the wheel. They don't have enough money to buy a car. They have epilepsy or they are in a wheelchair. What does it say about us as a society that the most vulnerable road users, and those least able to inflict harm upon others, are not cared for to the same degree as the rest of us.

The report recommends four federal policy actions to reduce the number of preventable deaths:
  1. A national Complete Streets policy, a piece of legislation that is already included in a proposed transportation bill reauthorization package
  2. Increase in the current Safe Routes to School program
  3. A Fair share of federal funds given to pedestrians for safety
  4. Federal accountability measures to ensure that states spend funds as they are intended

Thursday, November 5

Planning has come a long way

While rummaging through the municipal recycling bin the other day, I happened to come across an old textbook from 1991: Contemporary Urban Planning, Second Edition. Remembering that reusing is one notch better than recycling, I grabbed it and skimmed through some of the chapters. Chock full of photos of gleaming skyscrapers and various megaprojects, the textbook is a relic of a different age when the modern motor city was expected to wipe out traditional urban fabric altogether. I had to doublecheck the date to make sure this was really 1991, only 18 years ago. Planning has come a long way since this was written.

The chapter on transportation is fantastically bad. The following words are not in the chapter at all: bicycle, pedestrian, neighborhood, beauty, human, love, happiness. Instead, it's declared that "adequate circulation [of automobiles] is and traditionally has been a major planning goal" and the bulk of the chapter describes the models used to plan roadways to facilitate optimal traffic flow. What happens next to the lanes of fast-moving vehicles is inconsequential. Environmentalists get a little shout out, but only as obstructionists who thwart the rationally optimal siting of new highways. There's a couple of paragraphs on public transportation tacked on to the end, mostly to describe how it's unsuitable for suburban densities and thus must be "heavily subsidized" to exist. On the other hand, "the fact is that in a direct sense automobile transportation is paid for by those who use it."

The chapter on growth management lays out the tensions of limiting growth on suburban fringes quite well, but the idea of allowing more density in some areas to relieve the pressure in others never crosses the radar screen. The mantra "separating incompatable land uses" is sprinkled throughout the book, showing up in a chapter on urban design, another on community development, and in the introductory what-is-planning-anyway paragraph. Jane Jacobs' ideas of diversity are given a brief reference but she is drowned out by sheer volume. The chapters on history tell the story of urban disintegration and suburban triumph, ending with the notion that technology may be making cities obsolete altogether.

What distinguishes this era from our own? First, the New Urbanism movement had not influenced planning yet. Compact, mixed-use, and walkable neighborhoods were still something planners should be replacing, rather than preserving, or even creating. Second, global climate change and a focus on sustainability have pushed energy efficiency issues from the periphery into the center of planning.

Reading through this book gives me more insight into some of the negative perceptions of planners that are floating around certain circles. If that's where you are, just pick up any copy of Planning magazine or skim through Planetizen for a while. I think you'll see a very different picture.

Wednesday, November 4

Getting to the bottom of Vélib vandalism

The New York Times takes a rather pessimistic view of the future of bike-sharing in Paris:

"Just as Le Corbusier’s white cruciform towers once excited visions of the industrial-age city of the future, so Vélib’, Paris’s bicycle rental system, inspired a new urban ethos for the era of climate change."
That is: an idealistic vision that has come crashing into reality ... the problem of vandalism in this case.

The reasoning behind this indictment is not the popularity of the program - it attracts between 50,000 and 150,000 trips a day depending on the season - but the costs dealing with the vandalism and theft. Thousands of the bicycles have been damaged, including 80% of the initial stock of 20,600 bicycles. Apparently, dispossessed residents of the Parisians suburbs have come to view these bicycles as symbols of the glamorous lifestyle of central city that they are barred from. This leads to resentment.

A couple of responses:

First of all, the Le Corbusier analogy is off. Vélib promoters may have been overly-optimistic about human nature in the implementation of the program, but the radiant city was a terrible idea at its core that was disastrous to the extent that it was successfully implemented.

Second, the 80% destruction figure is less shocking then it may seem. The Vélib program was initiated in July of 2007, meaning the initial bikes have been in constant circulation for over two years. Surely, one would hope for a life span of more than two years from most of the bikes, but a certain number would need to be replaced anyway based on wear and tear from hundreds of different individuals.

Third, while the Times reports that these bicycles are treated as "accoutrements of the 'bobos,' or 'bourgeois-bohèmes,' the trendy middle-class," this isn't inherent to the technology of bicycles by any means. Motorists in the early twentieth century were pejoratively known as "joyriders" because they were typically affluent and out on a recreational drive. As motorcars became more democratized in use, and older vehicles could trickle down to poorer households, this image has somewhat faded. Paris has recently expanded the program to 29 surrounding towns with 4000 more bicycles. There is no reason the image problem could not be change in time as the program is expanded to a broader cross-section of the public.

Paul Demaio sees one solution to Vélib's troubles in drawing those who are most angry into the program itself,
"Instead of ad campaigns telling people to respect the bikes, JCDecaux and the City of Paris should be using the bikes to respect the people, if they aren't already. The very same individuals who are damaging the bikes should be employed by JCDecaux to repair them. Until the super high unemployment rates decrease, the social unrest will continue and bike-sharing as a representative of the City will be a pawn in their battles."
Sure, a bicycle-sharing program cannot solve French unemployment, but it could be a catalyst for positive social change beyond the direct function of proving low-cost transportation. And even a gradual shift in the image of Vélib could go a long way in resolving the vandalism issue.