Thursday, July 22

The kinds of places we used to build

I snapped this photo of the Church Hill neighborhood in Richmond the other day and immediately wanted to live there.

Tuesday, July 20

From whether you live to how you live

Science writer Fred Pearce has been taking up a worthy cause over the last year: persuading the environmental community away from a focus on population growth and toward a focus on managing consumption. There is his book on a stabilizing global population (which I haven't read) and then a column in Grist, for yesterday's World Population Day, another in the Guardian, Prospect Magazine, and so forth. Then there's the Daily Show appearance. In other words, the message is being heard.

The basic point he's making is a rebuttal to the Malthusian line of reasoning that has popped up here and there throughout modernity. These are the guys with charts purporting to show all hell breaking exponentially loose as a result of people giving too much birth and not dying enough. Pearce thinks this threat is not only overstated - in fact, global population is likely to stabilize at around 9.2 billion due mostly to economic conditions - but, more importantly, it can divert needed attention from how we in the West are living to the mere fact that people in growing developing nations are living at all. And there are the unethical situations, the draconian sterilization regimes and such, that 'population control' advocates consistently find themselves tangled up in, whether justified or by perception alone, that do the environmental movement no good.

Pearce's detractors think he is creating an either/or dichotomy out of strategies that should be held together. It's the old I=PAT equation from the 70's. To get environmental impact (I), you multiply population (P) by affluence (A) by technology (T). Averting the environmental crisis involves a combination of all three strategies to mitigate the effects (presumably all negative) of humans living on earth. This equation may work in the abstract, but messing with the P variable becomes less than useful in practice for a variety of reasons.

Most importantly, it doesn't scale well. Population control really only makes sense at a global scale, but most sustainability solutions must be forged at much smaller scales. As a case in point, the Smart Growth Manual by Andres Duany et. al. states the very first principle as: "Inevitable Growth." This is because,

"No-growth campaigns, even when successful, tend to last one or two political terms at most, and often serve as an excuse to avoid planning altogether. When such policies are eventually reversed due to housing shortages, growth quickly resumes in its worst form."
Localized or nationalized no-growth groups may frame their message in terms of population stabilization when functionally their platform is anti-immigration. As it plays out, it becomes more about the distribution of the population - just not here - more so than the overall number of people on the planet. Far too often, the no-growth "environmentalists" lock horns with the pro-growth "capitalists" and what you get is a compromised mash-up that pays little attention to the most efficient distribution of land use and resources. Per capita consumption gets lost in the brawl.

Secondly, managing consumption is more within our realm of control as individuals and as communities than population growth is. To be effective, environmental rhetoric has to find that balance between actionable concern and despair. Like a blackjack player who's played the hand too far, once you've reached assured doom the rational response is to "eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die." Why should I remember to turn the lights out when I leave the room if the world will be crushed under the weight of billions of people I will never meet? At least in the West, this approach merely externalizes the problem removing it from the realm of potential actions I may take.

And although population is expected to stabilize, there's no end in sight for consumption. As another Brit George Monbliot writes,
"People breed less as they become richer, but they don’t consume less; they consume more. As the habits of the super-rich show, there are no limits to human extravagance. Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits the buffers."
This trend helps explain why studies have shown a correlation between the countries with the fastest growing populations and the slowest rates of carbon emission growth. Shifting blame to population growth in the global south is not only counterproductive, it's not true at all.

As I see it, urbanists are environmentalists who are unashamedly pro-human.  Cities are machines for energy, land, and water efficiency and people are their lifeblood. The fact that the global population is rapidly urbanizing, having just passed the 50% threshold, is cause for optimism about our potential to live within the earth's means at some point. An urbanist's ideal vision is not wilderness everywhere, but cities throbbing with human vitality here, productive rural areas over there, and pristine wilderness yet again over there. Humans are neither the parasites of the earth nor the paragons of the ecosystem.  Every human life is good (population) but humans do not always perform good actions (behavior) - that is where the focus needs to be.

Friday, July 16

Great streetviews

Allan Jacobs Great Streets is the definitive guide to good street design. As I'm working my way through it, I'm compelled to find the examples in the book on google streetview to get a closer look and explore the surroundings. The hand drawings and plan-view diagrams in the book are classic, but you can't beat the online tour for detail. Of course, I'm still logging these places away until I actually get a chance to visit some of them in reality.

Residential Street: Roslyn Place, Pittsburgh

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Still Great Medieval Street: Via dei Giubbonari, Rome, Italy

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Grand Manner Boulevard
: Paseo de Gracia, Barcelona, Spain

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Las Ramblas, Barcelona, Spain

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Great Residential Boulevard
: Monument Avenue, Richmond, VA

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Central Commercial Street: Motomachi, Yokohama

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I'd love to add more, but this may already be too intense with the bandwidth.

Tuesday, July 13

Following the gas tax storyline

New buzz about the federal gas tax is in the air.

A USA Today report found that American motorists are now spending the lowest amount of money per mile to maintain infrastructure since the advent of the automobile.

"Americans spent just 46 cents on gas taxes for every $100 of income in the first quarter of 2010. That's the lowest rate since the government began keeping track in 1929. By comparison, Americans spent $1.18 in 1970 on gas taxes out of every $100 earned."
This interesting finding leads the Washington Post editorial board to connect the dots and call for an increase in the federal gas tax rate, which has not been touched since 1993. While almost every group interested in transportation policy supports some sort of levy on driving like this, it still is a tough sell with the general public. A choice comment on the editorial illustrates this well:
"Since when must citizens pay for the "privilege" of driving on OUR roads? Should I thank Obama for allowing me to drive to work today?"
Reading between the lines, I can only assume the gods of asphalt and rebar have gifted this regular American citizen with motoring freedom, and the government should just get out of the way. What he might not realize is that the Highway Trust Fund is almost bankrupt, and the tab is being picked up by general revenues (read deficit) this year - $19.5 billion, as it was last year - $7 billion, and the year before that - $8 billion. So, this gentleman need not thank Obama, but he might want to thank his grandchildren for the privilege of his drive to work.

Where the Highway Trust Fund is headed (in billions) from Congressional Budget Office.

One interesting twist on the public perception front is that new polls have shown that Americans are more receptive to a gas tax if they can be assured the revenues would go toward reducing climate change. It seems that there is a sizable segment of the population that agrees, in theory, that externalities from driving should be paid for, but worries that more funds would just set us back on the course of business-as-usual highway building. Check out the full 19% spread in approval of a simple .10 gas tax and the same gas tax with dedicated environmental goals.

Survey Results from a gas tax poll, June 2010 from Mineta Transportation Institute

To wrap this up, Brookings' Robert Puentes offers an astute reaction to the Washington Post call for higher gas taxes. He's principally concerned with this trend:

Graph compiled from FHWA Traffic Volume Trends 2000 - 2010

Vehicle miles traveled plateaued between 2006 and 2008 and we seem to be dropping off the other end of the curve. With Americans driving less and less every year (and driving more fuel-efficient vehicles when they do), pinning the bulk of infrastructure revenues onto gas taxes alone is boarding a sinking ship - while jabbing more holes in the hull all the way down.

"So while near-term gas tax increases are necessary on the federal and state levels just to stay afloat, we need to be thinking about a range of other options to raise transportation revenue such as pay-as-you-drive charges, tolls, congestion fees and -- most significant -- a carbon tax."

Tuesday, July 6

Two helpful lectures

Neither of these are brand new, but they're new to me.

Ezra Klein calls attention to a TED talk given by Ellen Dunham-Jones on retrofitting the suburbs with urbanism:

And Doug Farr speaks to Case Western University more generally about sustainable urbanism. This is a full-length lecture, not as polished in production as the TED ones, but still a very good introduction to Farr's work as a green architect and writer.

Monday, July 5

Learning from Fulton Mall

The Fulton Street Mall is a pedestrian street that runs through the heart of downtown Brooklyn. A new book Street Value by Rosten Woo, Meredith Tenhoor, and Damon Rich follows the retail strip from its budding growth along transportation corridors, to the mid-century urban renewal schemes, and finally to the current era of gentrification/revitalization. The authors recount the many efforts to "fix" the mall launched over the last fifty years, but this book asks two simple questions:

1. Is it broken?
2. Fix it for whom?

The department store was king in the early years, anchoring the retail street with the kind of opulence that sold social identity along with cuff links and trousers. Fulton Street, conveniently situated at a major transit hub, became the destination for white middle-class Brooklynites. However, this all changed with the demographic shifts and rise of the suburban retail malls. Black and Puerto Rican shoppers began to outnumber white shoppers, and before long the whites who did show up would come in through the back and avoid Fulton altogether.

The department store owners were nervous and began to search for ways to reinvent the shopping street to meet their picture of success. This included closing it down to private vehicles and implementing some basic streetscaping. The interesting twist, however, is that Fulton was throughout this period, and remains to today, an incredibly popular and highly profitable retail corridor. In fact, it's still by some measures the third most financially successful commercial street in the country, with ground floor rents commanding over $200 a square foot. The national chains have stayed away because the rents are too expensive. The authors suggest that the perpetual calls to "revitalize" Fulton may be more situated in particular cultural values than anchored to actual numbers,
"Fulton Mall continued to be judged not by the literal value of the goods sold but by the cultural value that the mainstream applied to them, thus trapping its public image as a failure. Given these terms, what could success look like?"
Rosten Woo surmises that the real motivation behind the various revitalization schemes has not been to create a more successful retail environment, but rather to create a public amenity attractive to the new affluent white residents moving in to the brownstones and condos around it. This situates the Fulton Mall right in the middle of the heated Brooklyn gentrification debates, only it's shoppers not tenants who are being threatened with displacement.

To be perfectly honest, the street, as it stands, really does break a lot of the design principles planners usually work with. There are buildings with historic character that are covered with false facades. Many of the signs seem to be trying to scream louder than the one next door. The stadium-style lighting does little to define the character of the place. There's few places to sit and congregate.  Upper floors are boarded up, and many of the property owners are reportedly absentee. Not much for mixture of uses. The Business Improvement District is in the process of overhauling the streetscape and addressing many of these concerns.

In other ways, Fulton performs very well by most planners' criteria, with an incredible diversity of small-scale shops that have grown up organically around each other, some of the best transit access there is, and plenty of interesting transparent ground floors to keep the attention of pedestrians. There are a fair number of street trees. These are all assets the BID does not have any intention of doing away with.

But the question this book raises is a very searching one: are these values that we typically espouse as good placemaking culturally contingent or are they widely shared across cultures? Just as Robert Venturi attacked the standard negative aesthetic reaction to suburban strip development in the 1970's, Street Value asks how we can be learning from Fulton rather than trying to change it. From this perspective, attempts to improve a place may really have a subtext of shifting power and ownership from one group to another - in this case from blacks traveling in from Bedford-Stuyvesant to the whites moving into adjacent Brooklyn Heights.

I'm personally less willing to travel all the way down Venturi's path toward cultural relativism. One hint of a more unified aesthetic is a survey of shoppers administered by the Pratt Center for Community Development researchers a few years ago. One of their findings:
71% of our respondents considered Fulton
Street Mall, “an important place that could be improved”; a further 17% considered it, “an important place that should continue just as it is.”
Many of the problems mentioned above were also cited by the mostly black shoppers given the survey. The authors of Street Value may go too far in their assumptions that the black community wants Fulton to stay as it is. Even the construction cones are praised as interventions positively contributing to Fulton's grittiness by keeping it in constant flux. Language like this is out of sync with the instinctive tastes of any culture. It's probably better to fix things quickly and move the cones away as soon as possible, I would think. It might not be too naive to envision a place like Fulton Mall serving both of the communities around it in with a consensus of some values and a kind of ad hoc compromise for those values that do diverge. It need not be a zero sum game.

Quibbles aside, the book does drive home a few good, general lessons.
  • Historic preservation is more than just restoring pretty buildings; places get embedded with social meaning and the collective memories of those who use them. Nostalgia is a strong emotion that should be accounted for in any planning decision.
  • The scope of gentrification reaches beyond housing and into the changes that take place in public and commercial spaces.
  • Design is probably less important than designers make it out to be. Any physical space can be successful with enough access and prior social momentum from a community.