Monday, December 28, 2009
On any trip of mine, I like to think of myself as a professional loiterer. Anytime I come across a "No Loitering" or "No Skateboarding" type of sign, I like to hang out there until I figure out what it is about that place that would attract life. Outside North America, these signs have not been invented, so I'm glad they appear frequently in the most random places here. These signs are handy indicators of the subversive Flaneurship of skateboard-loving teenagers and otherwise automotively liberated folks. However, I consider it a somewhat rude surprise to encounter these signs in brand new development. The pre-emptive strike is unfair...and, quite frankly, tactless. How do you know that your new development will successfully attract the sportive activities listed there?
I spotted the sign above in a park in Greenville, SC's new Verdae development. Verdae is a top notch New Urbanist development, with only a few model homes completed...so young, so smug, so self-confident.... Ah but, alas, it is probably right about its future. It sports a grid plan with community greens, a promised variety of housing types, and a complete streetscape with bike lanes and landscaped roundabouts. The park in which the sign above is located is Legacy Park, the signature element of Verdae. Surely, New Urbanists, you created this place... I just hope the intolerant folks doing the guidelines posting can ease it up a little, ...just a little... to allow your vision to take root. Just let the life have a fair chance to grab a hold on first...before you throttle the sucker. Maybe you do want dogs chasing frisbees across that wonderful rolling green. Maybe you'll discover you don't need the sign. Maybe the community will love the Park just enough to respect it and watch over it without being overbearing. Just a hunch.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
I began playing the Settlers of Catan in Jerusalem, where a friend, Sharon Alley, introduced us to the game after her trip to northern Europe. Some of my favorite memories include the long hours of play I had among my expat friends in some winter school breaks in Tiberias, overlooking the Galilee. Part of the beauty of the game is the combinatorial board's simplicity, so simple, indeed, that the fact that the instructions and development cards where all written in Danish (or something) somehow did not hamper us much. It was in the play though that things got very interesting quickly. Right from the start, when players take turns placing their pioneering settlements, the game immediately makes Monopoly seem monotonous.
Thinking back on what motivated me as an architecture student to focus on urban planning, I seriously list the influence of the Settlers of Catan. One reason why my educational tract veered into the Department of Urban Studies + Planning during grad school was the theoretical analogues the game presented me as I studied the roles and interrelationships of transportation, trade, politics and industry in improving urban development and regional competitiveness. By a combination of diplomacy, haggling, and economic resourcefulness, players are forced throughout the game of Settlers to fight for competitive advantages over a simplistic board of resources. This is the only game I know where direct competitors can actually trade game (resource) cards in open negotiation after each dice-roll. (Imagine, for example, what would happen to chess if a player could haggle with his/her opponent to convert a rook to the other side in order to get back his/her queen). This simple and ingenious alteration to the board-gaming norm forces strategies and impromptu alliances to become fluid, crafty and subtle. Some of the dramas of Poker are manifested. Any player of Settlers develops both a an economic resource strategy beholden to the fate of the dice roll as well as a political strategy to deal with his/her opponents. The best players, therefore, can't help but to gain a sense of the underlying politics and economic strategies influencing regional competitiveness in the real world. Part of the value of the game is that it teaches you to think about the resources of cities in systematic, simplified, physical terms while allowing you to see the value of the soft and open social/political dynamics involved that promote development in more non-deterministic terms.
During my run yesterday, I thought about Settlers as I reflected on my work as a transportation-focused urban designer. (Curiously, as my friends well-know, I was always a Settlers player that favored a road-building strategy over a city-development harvesting/mining focused resource strategy). I suddenly realized that the game could use a rail and transit-oriented development strategy to make it more reflective of the life and health of cities. Here then are my rules for "rail-road" building in Settlers, Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Version:
All the rules are the same except for the following additions:
...Test it out, Settlers playas, and tell me how it works. I believe these rules can serve as a useful analogue to teach your friends about the value of rail.
The rules above may need adjustment because of the new dynamics it adds. It may be necessary to play Settlers TOD to 12 points (instead of 10) due to the fact that players will be drawing more cards toward the end of the game and you may want more time to have interesting scenarios play out. That's another thing Settlers teaches planners, btw: all things must have their balance and sweet spot. E.g. you want settlements connected by rail, but you don't want that at the expense of drawing development cards. Cities are full of caveats. Codes and planning rules should not over-emphasize one thing at the expense of another thing necessary to the civic life, health and competitiveness of a city.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
This week I had opportunities to attend two events featuring smart people here in Charlotte. At one event, Charlotte Viewpoint's "A Smarter Charlotte", co-hosted by Civic By Design, we spoke about the disconnect that arose in Charlotte's position between two recent national rankings of cities. One put Charlotte in the 6th overall position as the "brainiest" city in America in terms of college degree attainment, while the NRDC ranked us as only 38th overall on its "Smarter Cities" list for large cities, which evaluates cities for sustainability. We had a wonderful discussion, sometimes tense and lively, as my fellow attendees and I pondered various reasons why Charlotte's educated populace seems to consist of many cutthroat "rugged individuals" who avoid civic engagement and who pursue lifestyle choices that impede adoption of a city-wide, corporate vision for sustainable living in Charlotte.
So...poignantly to me, the session topics at the next event I attended, BarCampCLT2, seemed to feature two striking themes: the world of social media entrepreneurship (which aims to cater to the world of online - sometimes civic - communities where autonomous and private life seems to be in rapid retreat) and sessions on sustainable living initiatives and technologies that were led by CPCC's and gdwell's damned intelligent and agitatively so D.I. von Briesen (here below - one of the most remarkable characters I've ever encountered in Charlotte, I hafta admit).
The collective IQ-rubbing and agitation/perturverance/"destruction" (inside joke) at an event like Barcamp is always a visceral pleasure for me. Especially when evaluated in light of the Smarter Charlotte event's lamentations. Barcamp 2 is a wonderful manifestation to me that indeed there is hope for Charlotte. In people like D.I. and the Barcampers, there are present among us smart souls willing to take upon our greatest challenges by steeping themselves - with seeming abandon - into the very social dimensions ...and technologies!...that will create a truly smarter, civically cooperative and economically prosperous Charlotte. I feel like Charlotte is in great hands. You just have to look in the marginal places and corners of our city to find these busybodies, but, indeed, they are here and gleefully at work.
Monday, October 12, 2009
With the advent of Insta-Virtual Urban Design (a typical example here), I believe that we Urban Designers today are at a critical juncture in terms of our personal cultivation of design intelligence. The intellectual investigation afforded by the examination and perfection of the drawing hand is being displaced by the primary reliance on visualization tools such as Sketchup and Photoshop. I am very afraid that many young gifted designers are quickly losing not only their manual sketching, modeling and rendering skills, but their ability to explore their world in terms of the whole, lived-in experience. A kind of design mastery is gained from experiencing the urban world through the discipline of sketching it and, in turn, imagining urban spaces creatively on the drawing board or notebook. Despite the promise of virtual design becoming more "manual" and the tantalizing possibilities still latent in digital media, hand-sketching culture is languishing, and I am not sure that our virtualization tools are good surrogates.
An important thing to develop design intelligence is to exercise the mind to mentally translate three-dimensional space into perspectival understanding, transforming cityscape into a place of memory (an experienced environment). There is a hard-earned intelligence that is gained only by slowly honing the drawing craft. Drawn spaces are remembered spaces. Spaces you've taken from image to memory.
I discovered Edouard Vuillard in the National Gallery of Art last month, and I've been doubling my sketch-training efforts since, in an attempt to recover some of my atrophying drawing abilities. Don't get me wrong, I see the usefulness of Illustrator, yet, I definitely feel the eroding of ability that comes with primary reliance on it. Vuillard finally made me aware about what I have been losing.
As Donald Goddard reflected about viewing Vuillard's work: "Not only is everything, including human figures (women), given equal importance, as most writers notice, but everything is given special importance in an infinitely various world that is also an integrated whole". Vuillard's art fills out thus the rich space of perspectival memory. As Goddard continues, I reflect over what we urban designers are losing in engaging the disembodied virtual spaces we are now inhabiting day by day.
There are distinctions but no gaps, even when there are disruptions. Vuillard painted Place Vintimille, the park he saw from his window in Paris, three times for decorative works. The last time was in 1915-16, when the sidewalk was being torn up and renovated in the middle of World War I. We are confronted directly by the trench that stretches across the foreground (perhaps a reference to the battlefield) where workmen prepare the new sidewalk. Still, children play in the park, people sit on benches, the trees spread out singularly but in abundance, and through them can be seen the line of apartment buildings on the other side of the park. Near the very center of the painting are the tiny figures of a man and a woman seated on a bench on the far side of the park, the man reading a newspaper, the woman wearing a red skirt. It is the only spot of real red in the painting, as though it were saved just for her, and it makes us notice every other detail of this grand tapestry. More than any of his confrères, Vuillard, the citydweller, was a man of nature, echoing the philosophy of the American conservationist John Muir, who wrote in the late 19th century, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe," and of Muir's contemporary, the English naturalist and novelist W.H. Hudson, who wrote, "We are no longer isolated, standing like starry visitors on a mountain-top, surveying life from the outside; but are on a level with and part and parcel of it."
If Urban Designers are to have one skill on Architects and Landscape Architects it is Vuillard's immersed experience of illustrating memory-scape...level with and no longer outside of the spaces of dwelling.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Monday, September 14, 2009
...I keep one of my search widgets on my Netvibes web portal looking for Miles Davis related YouTube postings. Imagine my surprise when I viewed the above post by UK retailing consultant Brian Moore. Sometimes these kind of nuggets of information to what is happening in the world of markets and urbanism arrive by sheer happenstance.
The video commentary deals with the rampantly imploding town centers of the UK and is interspersed between the depressing photos of mixed-use towncenters turning into, well, into mixed-use ghost towns. Imagine that. Old/New Urbanism going caput...Makes me wonder how long before similar things begin happening in our spanking new walkable town centers and revitalized downtowns. Among the things that Moore says about Britain's retail landscape is that the recession has been driving businesses "out-of-town and online at the expense of high street", a stark contertone to the retool and re-localize recessionary panacea we keep offering as urbanists.
The photos look convincing and with scary figures and forecasts interspersed, Moore makes a claim that this recent phenomenon is more than a blip in the UK. Britain's bone-headed "empty shop tax" might be reinforcing the process of decline, and one of the things Moore claims is that "store closures (represent) a long-term structural issue, rather than simply a short-term cyclical effect of the recession". I wonder how much of that is true, and what Moore is implying about the ability of UK retailers to pare down for High Street. Is the downtown eviscerating donut back in our horizon? It will be interesting to watch whether British urban consumers get used to online retail or commute out of town for laptops and groceries. My oh my...a lot to watch and think about here.
Monday, September 7, 2009
Savannah is well loved by this blogger for its active street frontage, its romantic buildings, its strangely abundant rows of townhouses (strange, that is, here in the South), its demure and pleasant gardens, and those redolent live oaks making the streets of the city beloved, well-shaded and well-lived. But among the things that I love about Savannah the most is what it doesn't have. Thanks Carfree and Eli for pointing out some missing items that should draw more attention to the elegance if Savannah's fine-grained street grid: the strange scarcity of stop signs and signalized intersections in this city.
To draw out my point better, I've decided to compare the First Ward of Charlotte, which has a typical downtown grid, with an equivalent area in the Historic District of Savannah. (Much of First Ward was formerly the Earle Village projects of the Charlotte Housing Authority, which is a well-known, early '90's Hope VI redevelopment that was among the first - and very successful - introductions of New Urbanism to Charlotte.) Below are images of the block pattern of First Ward and of Savannah's Historic District, each showing an area of exactly 1/4 square miles:
CHARLOTTE'S FIRST WARD (0.25 sq. mi.)
SAVANNAH'S HISTORIC DISTRICT (0.25 sq. mi.)
I should first mention that the street areas depicted in white above are the public rights-of-way only (I don't include internal drives). In the case of First Ward, I decided to include the present and future light rail right-of-way (which is part of the "transportation grid" and also creates/will create signalized intersections in the transportation grid; it is the north-south right-of-way corridor furthest to the left).
Charlotte's First Ward is relatively well-connected in terms of street connectivity and represents about the best we can hope for in most southern cities. With more development coming, the large meaty blocks (many are still surface parking lots) represent a lot of future revenue for our city. There are also only 40 intersections in the First Ward study area--much, much less intersections to control or maintain than Savannah. Savannah's study area, in contrast, has a whopping 203 intersections, more than five times First Ward's! But here is one surprise. First Ward has 16 signalized intersections (40% of its total intersections), while Savannah, in all that arabesque madness, only has 13 such intersections (6.5% of the total; these are located along the main east-west boulevards of Broughton, Oglethorpe and Liberty streets). Using Google Streetview I've counted all the intersection types for each study area. Here is the breakdown totals of intersection types for your reference:
Charlotte First Ward Intersections:
1 (2.5%) with a roundabout
16 (40%) with signalized stops
23 (57.5%) with at least one stop sign
40 Total Intersections
Savannah Historic District Intersections:
13 (6.5%) with signalized stops
51 (25%) with at least one stop sign
66 (32.5%) with only a yield sign
73 (36%) with no stop/yield signal or sign at all
203 Total Intersections
The majority, over two-thirds, of Savannah's public right-of-way intersections contain a yield sign or no sign at all. I wonder if such a remarkable feature can even be contemplated by Charlottean planners. Yes, the number above is right, folks, 36% of the Savannah Historic District public right-of-way intersections have no sign controlling intersection traffic! These "implicit yields" are controlled by the environment itself. Intuitively, we all recognize that a narrow and constricted entrance to an intersection with a wider street is a "stop" or "yield"--even if we don't see a sign. Everybody understands that the intersection of an alley with a street represents an implicit stop, just as everybody understands that you don't need a stop/yield sign at the end of your driveway. Savannah knows this and allows the intimate scales of its fine-grain environment to dictate traffic control. In reality, most of the yield signs are not really needed at all, much like yield signs are not really necessary for roundabouts. Traffic engineers just seem to want them there for liability reasons, but, so long as one understands the direction of traffic flow, Savannah's grid is so driver intuitive, that I'm probably right in saying that most drivers do not even register or think about the yield signage as they meander through the city grid.
Saturday, September 5, 2009
View Larger Map
Just follow the cyclists and ride around the park. There are actually several elements missing present in most city grid streets. Warning. Neither Copenhagen nor Portland will be of much help to you here. There is one really obvious element missing (that I will base my next discussion on here). But you may find one missing element or two that I have not thought about. For now, just stay on the loop. Once you think you know the obvious element that is missing, branch out to the next parallel loop of surrounding streets (or alleys) and see another surprise.
The way I was taught to read "great design" in school was to start with what was missing. It always stunned me what other people observed about good design. I hope the same can be true of the blogosphere! Happy sleuthing.
Monday, August 31, 2009
"The Garden of Machines (Dwell)" by Nathan Freise, from Unseen Realities
Strange what grips my imagination sometimes. Since I've seen the Nathan Freise prints over at BLDGBLOG (via Landscape Urbanism), I've just not been able to get them out of my head. I keep returning to look at them. Admittedly, they remind me of the situationist surrealism we used to conjure up in our dreamy photoshop years in grad school, but they keep reminding me of the pastoral possibilities presented by the leftover spaces of urban infrastructure. There are a lot of places of pastoral idyll in the city that we don't take advantage of. I've contemplated how to appreciate and use these underutilized spaces before. Architects tend to think we need to populate these non-places with aid of landscaping and programs that make sense. But what if the program is just creating a place to lie in the savannah grass? Meanwhile, a lot of our uber-programmed, ultra-terraformed and mowed parks and recreation areas remain eerily empty.
The West Bay Street canal and shipping yard overpass in Savannah needs a kind of Freise Brother Pastoral treatment. Pastoral Liminal Crossways.... The light in the imagine department is blinking, folks...
Monday, August 17, 2009
Today is August 17, 2009. Exactly 50 years ago Miles Davis and Bill Evans's Kind of Blue was released, which, not only introduced modal playing to jazz composing, but has remained the best selling jazz album of all time. In the spirit of Flamenco Sketches, I present here variations on a theme. This is the lively and sad moods of Savannah's historic district squares. Enjoy.
With much love and respect for Miles Davis, who, along with Savannah and Jane Jacobs, teaches me much about the art of planning without planning...improvisational urban design.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Graffiti Taxonomy by Evan Roth of Graffiti Research Lab
The impulse to classify, to seek a systematic way of communicating things - to describe the order of order - has a strong appeal to humans. Whether we do it consciously or not, perhaps there is no more striking and persistent quality to human intelligence and communication than this taxonomic inclination. As a student of religion and communities (aka philology) and then, later, a student of cities (aka urbanism), I have often been fascinated by the classification schemes and methods used to frame world-views. The way we name/order things has tremendous implications on the way we choose to use those things, in the way we create relationships and hierarchies between them and ourselves, and in the way we create new things and new concepts. When phenomena escape our attention, it is likely because we haven't the taxonomic agents to describe them.
"Taxonomy" itself combines the Greek words taxis, meaning order, and nomos, meaning law or method. It is the study of classification or order...or, somewhat redundantly, the "method of order", which the Greeks themselves would have probably called philosophy.
Contemporary zoning codes are a mish-mash between two asynchronous taxonomic impulses, both of which help humans frame laws governing the environment according to a certain philosophy of urban order. These philosophies spring from the impulse to classify Use and the impulse to classify Form. While tight relationships are always formed between Form and Use (implicitly or not), it is easy to see that Euclidean codes choose to frame categories by Use. They categorize by Use and create rules for their Form. The fixation of "form-based" codes, on the other hand, is the physical form of the environment itself, where the urban transect, a monistic conception of the complex organism that is the city, is conceptualized first, bypassing the need to categorize by Use. It categorizes by Form and then applies rules implicitly for Use, making sure that lamppost C is appropriate for supposed District T-2 uses, even though the city is not known or existent in any place but a Platonic heaven. In many ways, the noumenal Transect has superceded the City...a whole bevy of human operated functions previously unregulated suddenly becomes beholden to abstract (and unattainable) codes of Form.
However, the fact is, both classes of codes do legislate both Form and Use, and they are not only driven by a common approach to nomenclature, conceptually and legally they are driven by the same desire to delimit property rights, mediating between the rights of the owner and the rights of the surrounding community. Form-based codes (to me anyway) seem to heighten, not remove, the Euclidean taxonomic burdens imposed on design. These burdens may perhaps order the environment, but it is not always clear that they help move communities to optimal economies and/or happier/healthier societies. They represent a kind of legal artifice that the actual urban environment and its functions often have to evade to function well (if not altogether misbehave from). All economies often operate by tacit and legally invisible (sometimes illegal) rules to survive and flourish. We even give the name "illegal" to people who help the city function thus. The designer, as a consequence, is always mediating between legally describable/governable needs and often illicit or ungovernable aesthetic, social and economic needs. Euclidean codes segment the city into broad categories and thus are more fluid and economic means of governing city form, and thus tolerate certain conditions of the city needed for its social and economic good. Form-based codes, on the other hand, legislate aesthetic concerns on behalf of an ideal city, which may be far from what that actual governed city has the means to become.
Is there perhaps a third taxonomy of "good" and "evil" that can help govern the city? What could it be? Well...let me posit that the problem of governing city form is that our taxonomy of urban form is not excogitated enough yet. Maybe what we need to better describe first is a true taxonomy of urban form, a method or philosophy of contextualized urban design - what Allan B. Jacobs has always pursued in his work, especially in his work to describe/categorize the various forms of the "great streets" and the beloved places of wonderful cities. But as the work of Kevin Lynch and Julian Beinart points out to us, the city is apt to evade every Platonic order that its designers (and I mean designers in the broad sense) try to impose upon it (by code or social power), ignoring the social, artistic and ungoverned needs of its various communities.
I see the start of a more excogitated taxonomy being explained to me when I contemplate the fabric of squares and "Tithings" in the Historic District in Savannah. The Historic District observes a wonderful order...An order with rules, and, yet, multifarious exceptions and modulations to these rules exist. It is a template that systematizes the order of the street/public realm (an order that is neither use nor transect derived - but street derived), with legal consequences, and yet is completely promiscuous in application, so that every square and street is indeed unique and in some way unlike its sisters and analogues in other places of the grid, in both form and function! It is as if the Platonic pattern from the mind of Oglethorpe (conceived for reasons very different than Savannah's needs today) was dropped into a fecund soup and allowed to copulate with the wonderful imaginations of every square district. Savannah sheds light on certain rules of its city form that are not easily catalogued in other taxonomies. It is a vivid lesson...a gem of urban design theory. It teaches an Odonomy, a method of classifying the hierarchies and orders of the street. It has created a strange order of transportation-integrated land use forms, which, in some ways, represent departures and even inversions of "good" and "evil" with respect to late and contemporary manifestos. What is wonderful about Savannah is often what can't be transferred...It invites a respect to what can't be copied.
I will get around to describing more...This won't be easy. I'm still soaking lessons. ')
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Primarily, I've been working of late on two small plans for outdoor markets - one in one of my favorite of all cities (believe it or not!) Savannah. Savannah never ceases to teach me, and I can't believe I actually get to work on a project here. I can't share much yet, but believe me, we'll get to it. I am blessed to see what began this year as an exploration proded by a small pro bono project (which is about to get started) to wind its way more fully into my actual design work. I see that, indeed, the holy one above works all things for the good of his creatures.
On the other side of the coin, nothing about my work comes very easily...and nothing in life is straightforward (which is why I recognize more the importance of Sabbath). Design is hard, because people are ...well... all different one from the next and all relationships involving power need delicacy and respect. My naivete has been often exposed during these times. Designers, I've had to realize, do not live in a world to their own, and, well, ...I think that's a fortunate and good thing.
Sunday, June 7, 2009
On the Infrastructurist blog, a debate broke out recently concerning the relative advantages of streetcars over buses. While the Infrastructurist’s 36 Reasons Streetcars Are Better Than Buses post merely summarized the remarks that had began to appear after a challenge first broke out in the comment section of Yonah Freemark’s post (posted a month ago), some felicity-challenged folks immediately drew up lists contradicting every (or most) of the 36 arguments.* My goodness…LOL.
Anyway, this debate, amusing and unproductive as it is, has nevertheless induced me to delve into a bit of careful thinking about the urban design advantages of the streetcar. The obvious way to start thinking about this is, actually, to go back to the topic Yonah Freemark’s original post, and ask, “Why, indeed, is it the case that Portland, Oregon, has had such success with the streetcar?” To hunt for the answer, of course, one should consider walking around Downtown Portland first to get acquainted the streetcar route. On my recent visit a few weeks ago, it was obvious that the streetcar alone did not in and of itself lead to the remarkable variety of street life and uses appearing on the route (shown here), but it certainly was evident that the streetcar was actively reinforcing them.
Unlike bus routes, the streetcar route is a physical part of downtown Portland and has become a loved component of the urban fabric--an urban spine for agglomerated activity. Its physical permanence enables predictable, easily located, and frequent transport and thus fosters commercial activity. Besides its frequency, such transport benefits from the added advantages inherent to its information/messaging system, a kind which, btw, is never matched by inner-city bus transport or downtown circulator systems in this country…Commuter convenience thoughtfulness is 9/10ths of the formula needed to replace the auto-dependence. (Note, I specify “inner city bus transport or downtown circulator” here because those are the only relevant bus route types to discuss in the streetcar vs. bus debate). The guideway, moreover, serves as an orienting and wayfinding device for citizens and helps them to both use and image their city, which has long-term social and economic benefits for the districts and neighborhoods along the route. Because the streetcar stops are frequent enough, it has been demonstrated that the entire corridor in Portland (and not just the stop areas) have been benefitting from development and value creation (see this book for that and other helpful details).
Streetcars pedestrianize environments and do not overburden the street with heavy infrastructure that separates travel modes and segments the public realm (the tracks are shared with traffic while producing traffic calming effects, making urban streets more multi-modal friendly and safe). As a consequence, these streets inevitably draw pedestrians along with greater public attention. All of this has long-term economic impact and it is not accidental that businesses like to be next to the tracks for many reasons.
Simply, streetcars have the advantage on buses in that they successfully demonstrate that they are pedestrianization (net increasers of pedestrian traffic) and economic development tools. Much like streetscape improvements, they are public realm improvements as much as transportation improvements.
Moreover, this last point leads us to a particularly useful distinction:
Streetscape improvements and public realm beautification projects are passive pedestrianization and economic development tools. They can only draw pedestrian activity locally. They limit pedestrian activity to walking distances and do not replace overall vehicular dependence among car-owning individuals. The success of these common capital improvement projects ultimately depends on their upkeep, existing economic stakes and the ability to (conveniently) park the automobile close to destination uses. Streetcars, on the other hand, are active pedestrianization and economic development tools. They successfully draw in regular commuting foot-traffic from the entire route, generating long-term demand for walking/biking across the urban center, while actively replacing primary dependence on the automobile for many typical urban activities across all income-level groups, thus increasing capacity for higher and better land uses along the route, which, in turn, rewards the street.
All that is made clear in Portland, where the streetcar endeavor was not only vital to secure smarter land use planning initiatives that ensure mixed-use and dense developments, but has now all but guaranteed their continued vitality and implementation. This self-reinforcing “Streetcar Oriented Development” strategy (as Charlotte’s Planning Director Debra Campbell aptly terms this) mobilized the remarkable transformation of the Pearl District and encouraged the realization of an urban design remarkably conscious of its directive to serve not only DINK’s and students, but even (yes even!) the middle-class kids and families that are now beginning to make Downtown Portland their home.
*Full disclosure here: yours truly is contributor to Infrastructurists “reasons” #33 & #34 (the last one I term the “Kevin Lynch advantage” heh, heh). I came in late there at the end after noticing a few particular advantages still missing in previous commentary. I, as with probably the rest of the contributors, am not particularly obsessed with the advantages of streetcars over buses (I care only about the advantages of the streetcar for urbanism), and I most certainly did not in any way intend my arguments to be taken in support of murdering/lynching/debasing all forms of bus-transit on the face of the planet.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Yours truly was a member of one of the many teams to interview this week for a chance to participate in the healthy communities initiative for the Sterling community in Greenville, S.C. The Bon Secours/St. Francis Hospital in that neighborhood is the lead organization of the Phoenix League, which is spearheading the effort to help Sterling rise from the ashes. There are rumors that there was a healthy competition among planning consultants for this job....including 30 firms, some from as far away as Philly and Denver...Yikes!
Greenville is a way cool city and I can see why folks would be eager to get work here. It has a pedestrianized downtown that is always well populated with people of all stripes and is strung with an enormous variety of local businesses (a sign of a truly healthy and attractive downtown). It has the rare asset of tumbling river with a roaring waterfall passing right through downtown, and wonderfully landscaped streets, parks and greenways. On top of all those assets it has a well-lived character, retaining many of its historic buildings, and you can tell Greenvillians really love their downtown.
Unfortunately, like many minority communities in the South, the Sterling community, which is just a fifteen minute walk from downtown, hardly has anything in terms of infrastructure & Greenville like amenities...except it does have a wonderfully intimate and neighborly character, mainly due to its very old, tight-knit neighborhood fabric. This community also has a keen sense of its history. Among the Sterling High School's alma matter include none other but Rev. Jesse Jackson.
And it does seem to have plenty of hope. I love the plaintive spirit in the Phoenix League's video. Who can help not wanting to be part of this project? Stealing great ideas from Vancouver's Crown Street and Seattle's SEA Streets (and various Flickr images), the video actually inspired me to create my own improvement concept for Sterling's wonderfully intimate streets:
Monday, May 25, 2009
Lymelife, the newest installment of the "Suburban Dystopia" film genre has hit the art houses. This film mode seems to be a perennial indy fall back (esp. in the advent of Summer blockbuster season). It's strange that
I grew up in suburbia and I still don’t understand certain aspects of it. There’s a certain kind of vagueness, a blankness…Growing up in suburbia was like growing up in a place where there’s no sense of history, no sense of culture, no sense of passion for anything. You never felt people liked music. There was no showing of emotion. It was very strange. ‘Why is that there? What am I sitting on?’ You never felt that there was any attachment to things. So you were either forced to conform and cut out a large portion of your personality, or to develop a very strong interior life which made you feel separate.
When asked whether the source of appeal for his surrealist, “American Gothic” films was a reaction to cleanse of ourselves from the decentralizing afflictions imposed by the Opie-land of our youth,
When people are deprived of a sense, their other senses get heightened…If you're culturally devoid of something - of weather, of artistry, of interesting architecture, all the way down the line to culture itself - you're either forced to give in and get that car dealership, or you manufacture those things for yourself. The pain you go through, I also recognize, is the thing that makes you.
…And more perversion and subversion goes on in suburbia than anywhere else. There are worlds within worlds. You look at these weird televangelists and you see they're filling theatres with thousands and thousands of people, and they're kind of entertaining, but it's like - Whoah! These are intense worlds. Whenever I'm in a hotel, I like to go into a ballroom where there is a group of people that for one reason or another has gathered. And it's always weird, isn't it? This convention or that convention. The energy of the room is always amazing.
…Globalisation, mobilisation, too much information - these are supposed to be good things, but I wonder if it's undermining our sense of where are we going and who we are. It's so fragmented, it's hard to tell. So in my Planet of the Apes, I wanted to represent that fragmentation. The first movie had that simple metaphor of the apes acting just like humans and the humans acting just like animals. Here we're coming into their culture at a different time, and it's more like now. Factions are moving off in all directions. You've got some apes that are turning more human; then you've got your ape purists. And the self-esteem has not all been beaten out of the humans. It's all a little greyer. The people who said you shouldn't remake that first movie are right: you can't recreate the same issues for this time. You can't recreate Charlton Heston! (From an interview in The Guardian Unlimited website, August 3, 2001, now found here.)
The critical attitudes towards mass-culture and suburbia, which are reflected in Tim Burton’s films, are reflected by many other works of pop culture today. Tim Burton himself probably started the phenomenon of the “Suburban Dystopia” film-genre in 1990 with his film Edward Scissorhands, a tradition his film Big Fish proudly continued with a subtle critique of the New Urbanism to boot (the late and contorted phase of
The value for these films to me is instructive...The psychosis of the suburban life springs from a paradoxical need to conform, to behave with a facade, all the while claiming one's under-handed autonomy and superior independence in the ruthless pursuit of the American Dream. In the vigorously diverse city (such as I recently found walking on the streets of South Philly) such a need retreats in the stew (or salad bowl) of urban tribehoods that comprise the diverse, highly variegated and extremely porous and inter-connected neighborhoods of the city. Whereas one could imagine a middle-aged woman sun-tanning on the roof of her townhome in the Bronx as normal existance, such behavior enacted on a hipped roof Long Island dwelling makes suddenly visible to everyone the bezerko conditions of a derailed marriage.
However, the suburb, in spite of its psychotic family life, is a useful instruction of "American Gothic" - all that piety and social armature that sustains us as Americans. As a Messy Urbanist, I don't ignore or pooh-pooh American Gothic...Actually I love all its campy affects. But even if you dislike my aesthetic, one thing that architects and urbanists tend to ignore or underplay at their peril is the need for Americans to create havens, retreats from the world, while dwelling in proximity (but not too close) to one's neighbors. Sometimes hip designers (like David Adjaye) and trend-setters (like the mag Dwell) do reference this need and intuitively nurture an implicit pursuit of balanced - even spiritual - interior lives, but hardly do I ever see it pursued in the "faux-warehousy" apartment developments of the past decade. We need to understand better as designers the social need of most Americans to seek rich interior lives in the communal contexts of their "urban tribes", what drove them to make artist lofts out of abandoned warehouses, independent of prying eyes and hands, in the first place.
On the other side of the coin, we must also externalize much of what has been suppressed behind all the hardiboard. We need to realize that a stimulating street life must countermand that life displaced to the Vegases and Star Trek convetion worlds. We are in competition! Somehow we need to comprehend these surreal master worlds and find ways to externalize them, to bring them back to the streets and squares. That is a charge for Messy Urbanism. Welcome to my world.
UPDATE: The Suburban Dystopia film genre has now become "cliche", and Michael Joshua Rowin is ticked off about it. Anything packaged for consumption is suburbirific, and it is an irony of ironies that Suburban Dystopia would become itself packaged, huh?
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Just back from my trip to Portland, Oregon, I am flush with curiosity about the psychological and ethical universes underlying and driving alternative lifestyles, such as those tacitly expressed in the Vegan flier above. So... I am most pleased to find an article in Miller-McCune profiling the work of research psychologist Jonathan Haidt very useful and categorically insightful in differentiating the distinct moral motivations of American liberals and conservatives. Jonathan's work reveals that the (often) distinct value systems of conservatives and liberals spring from their differing emphasis paid to five moral priorities. Please read the article for a fuller treatment, but, as defined in the article, these are:
1) Harm/care. It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.
2) Fairness/reciprocity. Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.
3) In-group loyalty. People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.
4) Authority/respect. People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for
5) Purity/sanctity. The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.
Not surprisingly, liberals tend to hold the first two as values "to take to the mat" (and even have hostile reactions to the last "authoritarian" three), while conservatives emphasize the essential importance of the last three and regard the first two as secondary pursuits that, in essential cases, may be disregarded (witness the fact that 62% of Evangelicals are ok with the use of torture to pursue group threats).
In the Vegan flier above, I note that the "Harm/Care" (no. 1) value is clearly at play and is the evangelical hook ....But also notice that underlying tones of a "Purity/Sanctity" sensibility (no. 5) are subtly also at play...not just in the invocation of Christ-values but the categorization of food as being pure or impure. Haidt's insights thus helps me to map a curious dual moral motivation that may be underlying Veganism (especially in the activist variety - as examplified in the work above). This actually helps me understand the near-religious aspects of Veganism, in distinction from run of the mill vegetarianism.
Unlike Haidt, I don't believe that simply understanding each other's diverse moral priorities will remove the heated rhetoric exchanged in political clashes between the Right and Left, but they might make us more apt to listen to each other with greater lucidity and, at the very least (as he is probably correct to point out), help us not talk so much past one another. As well, Haidt's well defined and lucid five-fold barometer shows us why some of us that comprise the "Evengelical Left" or the "
How interesting that our theologies or politics may be colored by our location on these five moral slides. I reflect here that Christ was all over the map on the five slides. On the one hand, Christ was a revolutionary Rabbi who argued vigorously for justice and demanded loyalty beyond one's filial and cultural attachments. On the other hand, he was an irrepressible moralist who also demanded purity, and vigorously attacked the sin of divorce (because, yes, Christ did define that as a sin) and all the interior pollution formed from our social and interior lusts -- our morals of convenience (aka moral relativism). I reflect here that, in fact, Christ married the two "Left/Right" poles by bringing above all an allegiance to the
Christ's Sermon on the Mount describes Christ's moral left/right "bi-polarity". In the Sermon, Jesus created a unified moral foundation whose wellspring actually comprised a robust and cohesive account of the vigorous moral demands of Torah, which he encapsulated in the simplified ethic "Do unto others as you would have done unto you." Such a narrow ethic...and such a narrow road. Surely, no more unified and demanding moral charge has ever been laid.
Will we have the courage to apply it? Have we ever? Cheers to the "simple-hearted"...
Monday, April 27, 2009
I had a chance to visit another cool market: the Italian Market in Philly. This one, like Eastern Market's outdoor sidewalk layout, demonstrates and teaches how these markets can simply make awesome use of sidewalk space. Very simple. Vendors take over the parking spaces and sale their produce to the passing public on the sidewalks, sheltered by awnings. In a way, the value of a sidewalk truly realized, bringing support and vitality to the shops along the street. The Italian Market must be one of the most organically developed little farmer's markets in an urban area in existence. I was summarily impressed by the diversity (in age, ethnicity and income) and vitality of South Philly's neighborhoods. It was also more instruction that mixed use environments really thrive with dense neighborhoods along narrow streets. No open space is needed...Hence, to me, Philly is a remarkable lesson in Jane-Jacobs-style urbanism.
Speaking of which, I also had a chance to visit Philly's three "Jane Jacobs" parks for the first time: Rittenhouse Sq.(shown above), Washington Sq., and Franklin Sq.. I've only previously known these parks from Ch. 5 of Death and Life of Great American Cities and so it was an interesting compare and contrast journey to experience them. They have each changed greatly from the time Jane Jacobs wrote about them. Rittenhouse is a pure people watching paradise, a condensed Central Park...Like the public arenas one experiences in Europe, where people gather just to revel in the presence of people. Washington Sq., the "Pervert Park" has become Jane Jacobs's pram-loving Rittenhouse Sq...The place where mommas with kiddos go to hang out. And Franklin Sq., the "Skid Row Park" has a restored fountain, immense playground and carousel that caters to exclusively to kids. I viewed a birthday party in progress when I visited. I wonder where the homeless have relocated. Interestingly, the parks in South Philly are mostly dedicated to active uses and playfields. No neighborhood parks needed (although there are some...which were rather depopulated, for many of the same reasons Jane observed about the former state of Franklin and Washington Squares). Interesting to think and dwell on many contrasts along my walks around Philly, surely, soon to dethrone DC and NYC as the coolest city in the East (if it hasn't already...I'm sure Philly's residents would rather keep that information to themselves)...Check it out!...
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Ugh...I just caught a story on News Hour by Jim Lehrer about the vision of urban designer Mukesh Mehta (left) to redevelop Dharavi. Makes my stomach churn. This developing story may soon be a perfect example of urban design gone beastly and apocalyptic in its good intentions (have we learned absolutely nothing from Urban Renewal??). As Prakash Apte aptly states:
Despite its notoriety, Dharavi is an ecosystem of businesses that sustains its residents, and one wonders how exatcly Mr. Mehta, launcher of the Clinton Global Initiative's effort to achieve a "slum free world", intends to sustain those businesses with high rise tenament apartments. Beneath the patronistic patois of "slummology" of the CGI's pseudo-think-tank initiative slinks a quiet, deadly act of state terrorism. You simply can't replace or replicate these precious resources in regulated land use zones. Dharavi's mixed residential and small industry pattern is what helps sustain this ecosystem and allow it to thrive in an critical area so close to the precious commecial links in the center city.
Sunday, April 5, 2009
Lately, I've been doing a lot of thinking about ethics with respect to the designer as an individual vs. collective design. Should an urban designer or architect truly be allowed to impose his will, Moses-like, on so many people?
Louis Kahn once said (and many designers will immediately identify with this sentiment) that when you design anything by committee, the results will always be less than what could be. “If you get direction from a committee”, Kahn once advised corporate leaders about design, “I am positive the product will be less, the expression will be less. If it can be in an individual, it will have such resources that a committee meeting many, many times would never have. The individual has the ability to see it all as a unit. From sketchy first realization mixed with faith in what is realized, can there be exchange of a designer and the man who wants the design made. There can be a fruitful exchange which can make the executive a better executive and the designer a better designer.” In his signature mytho-poetic style, Kahn summed up the corporate client/executive/designer relationship: “It’s humans, human, and a human” (Louis Kahn, “Architecture and Human Agreement”, in The Art of Design Management – Design in American Business, the Tiffany-Wharton Lectures, XVI (New York: Tiffany and Co., 1975) 17-30).
While Kahn was clearly talking about buildings, in his later works, he did not hesitate to apply the same approach to more urbanistic projects, even in the sacred heart of Jerusalem. Largely, I agree with Kahn’s observation of the importance of the designer, but as a designer I am also compelled to be always reflective of the potential ominous consequences that my impositions may affect on the greater social/political context. Design and power have an interesting relationship. I just wrote a paper on Kahn and Post-1967 Jewish Nationalism, which draws on the peculiar ways that Jewish nationalism was impacted by Kahn’s proposal for the rebuilding of the Jewish Quarter. In 1969, Kahn was awarded the reconstruction of the Hurvah Synagogue, which eventually proved unbuildable, largely because of the political sobriety of Israelis. My essay will appear on the forthcoming book, Cities and Sovereignty, edited by Nora Libertun-DeDuren and Diane Davis, which also has a contribution by (my old prof) Larry Vale, by the way, who has much to say on the topic of design and power.
Nonetheless, Kahn had much to say about the ethics of design and responsibility of the architect/artist, which I find absolutely remarkable. Of any architect I admire, he is truly My architect, second only to the one above. As a designer, I must respect all the human of the human, good and bad, innocent and not. I must learn to contemplate the harmful as well as the good in human lives--this is the lesson of the parable of the wheat and tares…only the angels (not humans) should reap, because if I destroy the tares, it is human nature to also mightily damage the good.
Below is an article that I translated from the Hebrew with the HUGE help of my friend Danny Kopp (an American expat who grew up in Jerusalem), describing something of Kahn’s design ethic…which I feel has valuable lessons for designers. This article has never been published in English before (parts of it are still missing since my photocopy of it was a poor quality)…If anyone out there would want to republish this in print just send me a note and I'll get you the reference info.
Louis Kahn versus Architects "Whose Religion is Solel Boneh"
by Dan Mirkin; Published in Ma'ariv July 29, 1968
Translated (primarily) by my friend Danny Kopp
Note: due to the crumpled state of the article in the Kahn Collection at the University of Pennsylvania, not all the pieces were able to be translated (hence the lacunae below). It remains for an enterprising soul to find the complete version elsewhere.
An old Arab, Suma (Musa?) Wafisa(?), sat on a stone fence near the Mar Saba Monastery in the Judean Dessert and waited for the Greek monk to open the iron door and hand him his daily meal.
Louis Kahn, an elderly American Jew (of eastern European origin) sat on the same stone fence and waited for them to open the heavy metal door to let him come inside. Just before he rushed in, he leapt towards the top of the mountain and observed the monastery attached to the cliff. "Those are interesting arches that support the wall", he mused, "I would like to see from within what exactly they support."
He descended down the pathway and waited by the gate.
Despite the heavy heat that I am not used to, I didn't know who of the two of us was actually younger. It seams the quality which characterizes Kahn, one of the gods of modern architecture, is his undiminished energy.
This is the same teacher from architecture school (UPenn) who became one of the greatest luminaries of his profession; who completed the design of an entire city in Pakistan, the Salk Laboratories in Philadelphia, buildings in India. And now he has completed the plans for a building to be erected on the "Hurvah" of Rabbi Yehuda the Righteous, which will incorporate a section of the ancient ruins. He doesn't believe in the word "restore" or "renovate".
The second quality which characterizes Kahn is the very, very picturesque and exact definition. It seems, that if he hadn't been an architect – he would be a poet.
I sat with him for a full evening in the company of young architects, one of whom constantly spoke and explained how the demands of the religious should not be overly respected and cast before him expansive theories of the modern restoration method of ancient cities. Louis answered him, "The basis of all art is respect". Respect and generosity towards the other; respect that is dictated by a specific creation. "Art", he said, "is likened to gold flakes which an artist collects from a certain situation."
Afterwards he explained to me how he planned the lighting to reflect from behind the stone pillars that narrow at their ends and surround the new building over the "Hurvah". Pointing with his hand towards one of the buildings he added, "The purpose of the concrete and stones is to let the light reach the right spot. The concrete is the silver whereas the light – is the gold".
As for the ruins, whose design he saw as his life's great work, he explained that the goal was for a prayer or a visit would be a highlight for a pilgrim.
Therefore the "Hurvah" would be built in layered fashion, a type of central hall and around it an area which could serve additional people, a women's court, and around the twenty meter high square building would be very wide stone pillars.
Those who are not among the regular worshipers [doing prayers] could draw inside. The worshipers could enjoy the "innerness" of the great hall, while the visitors could enjoy the innerness inside the alcoves and no one would be more "inside" than the other and no one would "outside".
One of Kahn's phrases is, "Never coerce the material". During his visit to Arab villages in upper Beit Horon, he looked at the buildings like a believer who watches the prophet's tomb. Looking at one of the public institutions at the southern exit from Tel Aviv he pronounced, "Resembles a little piece of furniture, like most of the buildings here." He saw new apartments in southern Jerusalem in which the architect had stuck red bricks in concrete plates, and he explained why you should never use bricks if you want to build with concrete. "Whoever builds a wall with bricks [building blocks] must build an arch" he explained. "You must ask the brick – What do you want?" And you must ask the stone its will. Therefore the large pillars around the "Hurvah" would be thin at their extremities because one must consider the bottom stones that are baring the weight of the top stones, while the pillars would appear to be wind blown, as if the wind had tilted them inward.
Kahn is not comfortable with the thought of [artists?] who are always trying to solve problems. […] participated in architectures congress in Israel and told how he delivered a speech to one of the […] and relayed information to him that can […]
Regarding engineers he said, their role is to solve problems that the architect presents before them. But they don't have the courage to demonstrate problems. "Building is not a solution" he explained, "It is nothing but a way to present the problem. The problem remains – and it's art."
A good question is better than a solution, because the problem set before an artist is not "How to do?" but "[What] to do?"
On the way we passed by the most ugly apartments. I explained to him that there was a need to bring in immigrants and therefore they didn't clarify the means.
The answer left him unsettled in thought. Suddenly he said to me, "Had the people who built the apartments been religious, any religion (whatsoever), and not necessarily a religion of ceremony but rather a faith of the heart, they would not have built such buildings. It's their tragedy, that they had the religion of "Solel Boneh".
After speaking at length about the use of stone, I asked Kahn what he thought about the Israel Museum. He replied that he did not want to express his opinion which could hurt the attempts of others [such as] these. But about the buildings built on Mount Scopus, designed by the well known architect (Erich) Mendelsohn he said, "What straight, simple […] buildings".