Friday, December 2, 2011

A Layout so Elegant, It Requires Comment (Geos development by David Kahn Studio)

Geos Neighborhood Plan by David Kahn Studio

A former colleague of mine sent me a link to the above little gem of a plan. Sometimes I come across a layout so elegant, it requires me to pause and admire the thought that went into it. Like DPZ's minimalist Habersham, SC (which I need to get around to comment more about on this blog), the Geos mixed-use neighborhood plan, by David Kahn Studio, is one such of these.

I can barely make out the lettering in the labels of the plan above, so the exact details are lost on me, but this plan view is enough to get the insights.  Most architects will immediately appreciate the fact that the east-west building orientation scheme is well suited for passive solar gain and energy efficiency. Sustainable site planning along this line of thought is not new, of course, but it is rarely allowed to become an overriding concern because of site context and other development goals.  What is nice here is not only that the planners insisted on it, they employed the scheme to allow and generate an easy diversity of housing and site responses.

Designers are often hesitant to employ pattern "systems" because we are suspicious of any straight-jackets, but, in fact, here is a good case that proves that playful deployment of patterns often leads instead to creative ideas and a surprising variety of options. Geos's solar orientation scheme reminds me of Savannah's E-W block orientation system a little, but it is more elastic.  One can imagine, for example, the central blocks above being elongated in the north-south direction in adapted versions of this layout scheme. (As I've explained before on this blog, Savannah's ward pattern is a rather dimensionally bound and rigid system - which is neither a deficit nor a plus in my mind because enough exceptions to the "rules" are employed liberally in Savannah as well, leading to an interesting diversity of block conditions.)

What is perhaps not so obvious above is that, like typical cul-de-sac subdivisions, the arrangement is also minimizing the amount of asphalt on the ground as much as possible.  Notice that all the parking driveways and alleys are double-loaded.  The double-loaded, stubbed parking lots are actually the most efficient parking lots you can devise.  In a sustainable development, you want to look for these parking "feathers" to inform you that the planner actually has experience thinking about efficiencies for sustainable development. What these lots are doing is eliminating the need for extraneous surface paving for vehicular circulation. They are the absolute minimum condition for parking lot circulation surface. The minimum condition has only one entrance in and out, with as little bending of the aisle as possible and stubbed coldly at the other end.  In principle, this is the same asphalt-minimization strategy being employed in a cul-de-sac subdivision. What cul-de-sac developers know about cul-de-sacs is that they are needed to saturate the site with as much single family lots as possible while also minimizing the amount of road surface being spent per lot. In Geos, the asphalt is being minimized for another advantage: to actually create a more dense (low-rise, predominantly single-family) development. It actually "saturates" the site with shared open space and building footprint with as little asphalt surface to serve it as possible. (I try to employ these single-access parking "feathers" as much as possible when developers give me a chance. Here is one example of a "fantasy plan" of mine, where I put parking underneath buildings or in walled-off courts with as little driveway access as necessary).

The infrastructure trade-off here, of course, is that non-vehicular paths are employed very liberally in Geos. But this is what you want in sustainability! You want to discourage vehicular circulation and encourage the pedestrian and bike kind.  It is the right trade-off: to replace vehicular infrastructure with the non-vehicular and green kind.

Ideally, these "feather" lots should not be too long in order to discourage speeding and sloppy maneuvering. Yes, stubbed parking driveways are very unaccommodating to drivers.  Drivers hate them because they force them, especially if they discover too late that the end spaces are full, to employ multiple-point turning to maneuver in and out of them (especially if they are devilishly narrow). But that's what you want.  You want to put the driver at an inconvenience. No one says that sustainable development has to care about such driverly concerns. You want drivers to instead covet vespas!

In fact, one quibble I have above is that the parking aisles on the north-east block above are too long, meaning they will encourage drivers to pick up higher speeds - an accommodation to the driver and something that creates less safety for pedestrians and pets. Ideally, one should cut them off at one end so that every served parking space has only one access point to the street network. I would advice the same for the alleys, if they were not needed for garbage truck access (in these cases, by the way, perhaps the wily planner can entertain inserting a gate on one end - or in the middle of a long two access driveway - that only the garbage truck company can activate).

But what I love most about this plan is the checkerboard deployment of the single family residences in the middle of the center blocks (these are the bright yellow units). You can squint and see that buyers can have a choice of owning a front yard or a back yard.  I'm not sure how they will actually fly in the subdivision market of today, but I like this scheme for several reasons:

The obvious reason is that it creates for every unit abundant access to daylight, which is needed in places like Colorado where you have long and bitter cold seasons. But it also creates well-daylit and airy streets, which creates a neighborhood advantage over the densely packed houses of subdivisions going up today, where as little as ten feet clearance can exist between houses.  That condition makes streets surprisingly desolate looking with all that driveway abundance and a straight wall of houses packed like sardines - so close you can feel the actual resentment building up between neighbors.  If you do have any windows on the side walls, the lack of privacy between you and your neighbor makes you feel like you are living in a peeping tom heaven.

Another advantage that exists with the checkerboard scheme is the one Kevin Lynch notes in Good City Form.  It is a form with "reversibility" that thus gives the neighborhood an inbuilt resilience for future fit.  Once homes have fallen into deterioration or have become socially obsolete (we don't know what the preferred forms or technologies for homes of the future will be), an owner might elect to develop a second up-to-date house in the present yard space.  Once this is built, she can demolish the old house to create a new yard in place of it (or renovate the old home for the grandparents). What you get here is a cyclical strategy for long-term development. The sustainability of resilience. The fact that houses are either set back or at the front of the lot means that both conditions are perfectly allowed!  Both are seen as equally valid and socially accepted alternates. Stability here arises from the multiplication of valid options.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A "Master of Detail" Did This. Does Urban Design really matter anymore?

A "Master of Detail" did this. L'Enfant's parcel plan for DC (image from wikimedia commons).

Last year, Frank Gruber published a series of provocative posts on his Huffington Post blog pointing out that "urban design" had actual little to contribute to the cohesion of today’s cities. The perceived missing bridge between architectural practice and urban planning, he argues, would not lead to the healing of sprawl if it existed because the factors that shape urban form are "non-design” factors.  Conveniently, Gruber lets the lamenting believers of urban-design-as-a-field make it for him by referencing Richard Sommer’s essay in Alex Krieger and William S. Saunders' book Urban Design.  Blaming utopian urban design for anything, claimed Sommer, is "an almost total misreading of the material history of urbanization in the United States, in which suburbanization, industrial disinvestment, racial segregation, and the popularity of the automobile played infinitely more decisive roles in the dissolution of centralized cities than Corbusian aesthetics." Precisely, says Gruber. (BTW, note the recent corrective to the Charles Jencksian mythology of modernism's failures in the pages of The Economist.)

Point taken, Frank.  So is there any reason to persist in the belief that urban design as an endeavor can produce antidotes to sprawl?  What is so different now to allow this possibility?

That one is a good head-scratcher. Besides making me question the purpose of my professional life, and perhaps sending me into the early maw of a mid-life crisis, I gotta admit, every time I read a Gruber post, I can’t help feel a bit like a poseur when I’m done.  What kind of elitist am I to think *my* design conceits have a defining role to play in making the conditions for public life in the city better?  You could, of course, question the same role for architects and planners in general, but the peculiar ones of us that appropriate the title “urban designer” are somehow a more star-crossed lot. (Dang it! I knew I should have opted to first grind it through IDP.)

But I have to concur with Gruber.  Urban design, as the physical result of urban planning, cannot really redress conditions that require more interventions than what primarily falls in the rubric of urban planning.  Urban design is toothless without a proactive developer or an effective planning authority behind it. Good urban design is the result of good planning. Period.

Nonetheless, I would point out that what we call the work of the “urban designer” is not really engaged where it is often most needed.  The cases in which city leadership spearheads pro-urban visions and policies are, not surprisingly, the best opportunities for urban designers to shape urban form.  But only sporadically are the urban planner types ever engaged at the urban form-making level (the level of urban designing) to deal with sprawl growth at the first stage. This role is far more likely to be placed in the hands of metropolitan transportation authorities and managers of various municipal departments tasked to expand the regional road network to serve corridor growth and to implant the local utility and public sector services that support it.  The urban designer - or committee of urban design (representing the various characters and citizen participants who most often undertake the work of “urban design”) - is at a great disadvantage here for many reasons that Gruber has ironically begun to mention with his recent post reviewing Earl Swift's The Big Roads. To a certain extent, subdivision developers play the only “design” role here, but this role is rarely a proactive one so much as a speculative one engaging preexisting and latent opportunities, both legal and financial.  Unfortunately, under these conditions, the developers' incentives are all stacked in favor of autonomous subdivision design, the enemy of good-boned urbanism.

I would claim that the best service urban planners can do for urbanism is to compete with technocrats and city leaders in controlling the climate of urban form outcomes in the new urban growth areas, via zoning, influence in policy and in area planning. In these arenas, urban planners typically go mano a mano with these two rivals anyway.  Good naturedly, of course.  Sometimes proactively, yet most often reactively, friendly cajoling or poky nudging is enough to win over politicians and technocrats to consider new formats for growth, but, typically, the backing of citizen activism or a powerful mayor or constituency on your side is often needed. 

As single contributors, architects can and often do serve urbanism by creating civic-conscious designs for individual built projects while pleasing their clients at the same time (a tall order many times).  And because architects are gifted copycats while also being quite jealous of one another, they will often engage in attempts to “out-perform” each other in the public eye (this is largely what motivates architects' patience with LEED design).  This usually can only happen in settings already sufficiently urbanized to be able to afford such design services from architects.  But, where it can happen, architects sometimes establish precedents the public loves that pave the way to more easily entitle projects following in kind.  Thus, collectively, they end up doing iterative, piecemeal urbanism that sometimes achieves noteworthy urban design.  Only rarely, if they are gifted, reputable and lucky, are they handed large enough projects to author an urban design project of an extraordinarily cohesive nature (see DPZ's Habersham, SC).

Sometimes, an amalgamation of both design opportunities takes place in a city district, where architects build on the synergy of multiple-sized efforts, usually where ample underutilized parcels and former industrial retrofits can be had in ample supply in proximity to downtowns (the Pearl District, Denver’s LoDo).  These places, notably, are easy to retrofit to an urban pattern because the city grid either pre-exists or is easy to connect to and to expand. While the consultation of urban designers can be employed here, note that it is not really needed.  Much of that effort is not an act of authorship, but an open, on-going, discursive act of negotiation (and, yes, a political act) that most likely circumscribes – and appropriately so! – the work actually to be designed by people that stamp drawings.  “Urban design” here is a matter of straightforward problem solving to exploit available funding mechanisms.  Some sizeable single-firm contributions, like eddies in the flow, may occur here and there wherever developers control chunks of land single-handedly. The rest of what is important beyond transportation system integration, though some like to call this “urban design”, is just, let’s face it, landscape design (and some large-scale infrastructure design) taking advantage of obvious features to exploit (e.g. the S. Platte River and 16th Street promenades in LoDo).

Thus, Gruber is on to something. Urban designers like to think their work is a distinct contribution in cities, but, in reality, they are just architects and landscape architects doing their basic stuff.  The important urban design is already done for you: the no-brainer, pro-urban extension of the city grid.

Is there a place where urban design can begin to break out into its own field as a distinct sub-specialty of “design” inquiry and practice? I actually believe it begins in transportation network design (including transit network design) and the associated design work integrating multiple modes into street design.  That is because the greatest piece usually involved in the control of urban form is the initial shaping of the transportation network, and this is one that today’s transportation engineer dominates from the beginning, via expert technical counsel and forecasting, to the stamped construction drawing. The urban designer needs to push back gently on his engineering colleagues via the developmental constraints they enact. I’m not saying that the Urban Designer is tasked to rival transportation planners here, but just to become intimate with their work, and to understand the physical and performance dimensions of it, both at the facility level and the network level. 

Note that I said "begins".  This transportation arena is not the critical piece for the urban designer to control. The most important piece of the pie in the act of city-shaping is the act of parcelization.  The act of subdivision. The parcel, as a legal and financial instrument, is actually the most persistent entity driving city form in our modern societies.  To put a new spin on the "figure-ground" focus of urban design, I claim that a professional role for an "urban designer" is to specialize in the act of parcelization via a more careful synthetic design of the street, parcel and public realm.  This is a largely unplumbed area of design inquiry that has of late (because of obsessions with building form) been subordinated, underestimated or flat-out ignored in contemporary city planning.  But it is an area of design inquiry that needs to be constantly queried, debated, experiment with and expanded generation to generation.  This is exactly where a case for Design, with a capital "D", can be had for Urban Design.

Once, the surveyor's act of parcelization was an art form that L'Enfant's ilk regarded as noble as the Vitruvian act of architecture itself. I suspect Gruber might ascribe this role also to urban planning, but, if so, actually architects are most likely to perform this role day to day ...and perhaps should, since they are the most acquainted with the dimensional needs of buildings (hmmmm..., is this an actual missing bridge between architecture and urban realm planning?).

Urban designers are perfectly cut out for this role because we are the people who always have to think with the street section - that is, the building envelope, ground plane and the transportation typical. As a team partner standing between building and road designers, the urban designer is always being clued in to the primary challenges facing both horizontal and vertical development in her city.  Her planning background also allows her to guage and measure the physical requirements of transportation, ecology, and humans, and such experience gives her clear conceptions about the give and take between them.  All these things need to be thought about to apply the art of parcelization well.

But to create such a role of Urban Design specialization, we have to rehabilitate the name "urban designer" a bit.  For one, the meaning of the term has been eroded from the original open design praxis Kevin Lynch imagined for it, simply because of its close association with dogmatic or binary-minded schools of thought (CIAM modernism, New Urbanism). But, primarily, I think we have a really big problem with just the term “designer”.  There is a general Mid-American distrust of the word “designer” that I think sidetracks others from the value of the service.  Design disciplines, especially urbane ones, are distrusted, period – partly the fallout of the media-turning theatrics of pop-artists such as Andy Warhol. The aloof artist-designer figure, in popular imagination, defines our material culture by observing autonomous design movements in the undercurrents and margins of culture and ingeniously teasing them out to their ultimate forms.  The artist-designer is too caught up in these autonomous discourses to apply *real* material value, beyond a (short-lived) fetish dividend, to the object being designed.  Notice that civil and transportation engineers, who actually have the upper hand in effectually shaping urban form (at least its sprawl based alternative) can evade this popular distrust due to the easy confidence we place on “value-neutral” engineered solutions – a predilection going back to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. (It is Popular Mechanics, not Popular Design, for a good reason.)  Actually, such prejudicial attitudes favoring design by engineered solutions represent a continuation of modernism. Engineers, like prewar modernists, don’t claim their obvious pursuit of autonomous discourses.  Supposedly, they only measure, re-synthesize and codify what careful observation has “deemed” efficient, safe, cost-effective and functional for society.  This is how they then end up designing – yes designing! – the most unsustainable and inhospitable urban environments imaginable.

Maybe I should call myself an Urban Realm Mechanic…or, better yet, a “Surveyor”, like the architects and city planners of yore, who, like L’Enfant, actually were entrusted with the role of city form making because they knew about the all-important act of parcelization, which they executed with uncanny brilliance.  L'Enfant's more magnanimous title “Major of the Corps of Engineering, Master of Detail” is also instructive. (Privately, I have called myself a "master tile-layer", but this personal handle, admittedly, will not allow others to see the full roles I have entailed here, why…”Master of Detail” seems far more evocative!)

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Freeway in the City, Of Big Bosses and Big Digs

Rose Kennedy Greenway, originally uploaded by Dan Bock.

The story of America has always been a story of large personalities. As 21st Century urbanists, we look at the transformation of late 20th Century urban America and can’t help noticing how large personalities like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Robert Moses played a role seemingly promoting the postwar demise of America’s cities, a reading partly propped by Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities. Interestingly, this reading may be one of the ways that we continue to flatter ourselves as urban designers. As products of planning and design school, we like to believe the enterprise of urban design matters greatly to the illth and health for America’s cities. Now that we got our utopias in line or much sobered up and humanized, why, let’s clean up the splatter left by the reign of modernists.

Uhm… Was it really Wright and Corbu that did us in in the first place? Was it the boing-o headed utopias of these bad boys of architecture that gave us separated land uses, dehumanized cores and sprawl-burbs? What actually did contribute to the postwar demise of America’s cities?

Frank Gruber has been doing a lot of careful thinking on his Huffington Post blog on this topic. As an entertainment lawyer and Santa Monica Lookout News columnist, Gruber sure does an exorbitant amount of reading and thinking on the topic of urbanism. But (maybe because he is not an architect?) Gruber does not spend much time on contemporary urbanism’s favorite whipping boys and, in fact, thinks little of them in his attempt to figure out why America destroyed its great cities. In a provocative arc that has been unfolding over the past year on his blog, Gruber’s attention has turned to his current working lineup of “suspects” behind city-murder. Interestingly, his latest post is a review of Earl Swift’s The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, in which Gruber has come across some really big bosses who may have actually played a leading role in the demise of urban conditions in America, and they are not the persons most urbanists have probably even heard of. The biggest one of these was the technocrat Thomas MacDonald, who spent a whopping three plus decades (from 1919 to 1953) as head of the Federal Bureau of Public Roads (the predecessor to the Federal Highway Administration). It was MacDonald who crafted the flesh and bones of the 1944 highway bill that created the downtown slicing interstate system of highways, which the 1956 appropriations bill implemented wholesale without anyone really inspecting the particulars, much less the implications, of the national plan.

While superhighway construction helped disperse industrial activity and middle class habitation to the periphery, a real devastating effect was taking the freeways into the center cities themselves. Gruber summarizes why this was important to our postwar cities since, unlike Europe, where cities preserved the traditional fabrics of their transit-served cores by stopping suburban limited access highways at a ring road around the core, Americans wanted freeways to connect to the center “under the profoundly mistaken view that their cities would revive if they were connected to the suburbs by high-speed roads.” Gruber notes that the key decision to bring freeways into cities, “was never debated in a meaningful way”.

I would add to this: we still have not had this debate! Gruber lists the epic Big Dig among the efforts to repair the freeway incisions, which is a seriously wasteful example to contemplate in repairing freeway incisions to the core. In fact, it demonstrates the opposite. We should not have had a Big Dig, except maybe to park the cars right there. (Louis Kahn’s plan for terminal parking in Philadelphia at immense parking-deck “harbors” serving the downtown thresholds was a pretty darn good solution for a modernist, I must say.) The right to go right in to (and in fact, more accurately, through) downtown via freeway is so tied up to our unconscious conceptions of how the city should function, that we don’t even bother to question it. Not long ago, Jarrett Walker’s fictional city for a transit network planning game he devised was roundly critiqued for its seeming lack of freeway "completion" on his blog Human Transit. Jarrett was surprised that he had to defend his decision to stop the freeway before the core, pointing out some obvious North American examples that spared the core.

That we have not yet had a holistic debate about this even among urbanist circles is telling enough. Still the urbanist solution appears to come down to "capping" downtown freeways. An image of the wind-howling linear park over the Big Dig was used to tout it as a good precedent recently by the consultants presenting the Charlotte Center City Partners’ 2020 Vision Plan (a similar park is being proposed to cap a portion of our downtown loop). Tellingly, (unlike the photo above) not a single person appeared in the photo. A transit engineer I know and I looked at each other, each of us thinking the same thing. Immediately, he started sketching on his napkin. He sketched a map of the downtown freeway loop and started “X”-ing out the lower southern section (the part we call the John Belk Freeway), implying to take out the redundant lower section of our very small and tight-curved inner freeway loop. Easily, I grasped the immense power of his solution (yes, engineers can think brilliantly about urbanist solutions too!). Immediately, visions of a wide boulevard with a welcoming median replacing the loop came to us, with multiple rows of trees and maybe with active and passive uses in it, as in median promenades in Paris. Such a boulevard – by also separating faster through traffic from slower local traffic – could easily improve the traffic needs of the city by granting drivers immediate access to the grid, instead of bringing them to limited interchange chokepoints that actually slow everyone down. This very act of healing the sutures, by removing all the ramps and network barriers to funnel off traffic to them, would also open up the highly fragmented conditions of the adjacent grid two blocks deep in either direction, greatly connecting the city vastly more than imagined by the said meager capping, which just covers over the traffic backing chokepoints (a proposal for the capping can be found here; in fact, this particular proposal would even worsen traffic since it would demand additional rerouting in the fabric).

By offering a grand boulevard to front to instead, suddenly you are not only augmenting, but creating more value to all parcels adjacent to John Belk Freeway. Instead of looking at an immense freeway chasm, buildings will be facing a green boulevard supporting urbanism! All of a sudden you’ve created an amazing asset for the city around the entire southern periphery of our downtown, a far greater impact than the three-block long capping park proposed.

There is plenty of room here...

Click on image to view in Google Maps

...To do this in Charlotte:

Click on image to view in Google Maps

Part of the reason why we haven’t had this debate meaningfully in our country about the actual need for freeways to go through our downtowns, I think, is because of that form-obsessed, architecture-based mythology of urbanists that blames modernism for everything. This myth constantly sidelines urbanists from talking cogently about freeways (we prefer to talk about the problems with buildings). For someone who talked so much about the street and who was a key activist fighting Robert Moses’s plans to cut a freeway through Manhattan, Jane Jacobs notably does not mention Thomas MacDonald even once among her historic cast of evil-doers in Death and Life, all of whom have by now become the “usual suspects” of separated use, road-based, sprawl promoting planning. (I find this dearth of freeway talk in Death and Life very strange. Jacobs, notably, left Frank Lloyd Wright’s name off the list but disparaged Lewis Mumford amongst the gang of the usual suspects—who, ironically enough, actually led the late counter-charge against MacDonald and his downtown-slicing plans.)

Perhaps in obsessing on the forms, the hubris of the profession has detracted us a bit from the energy transferring mechanics that would most effectively “retrofit” America’s cities back to their greatness.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Jérusalem, nouvelle épousée et maîtresse des cités

Students at the Tayelet Haas in Jerusalem
In the suspenseful anticipation leading to the momentous advent of Palestinian statehood, a generous commenter has posted French translations of Ismael's poems to my blog. Ismael's original Arabic and (somewhat rough) English translations can be found here and here. It is much appreciated, Bruno!

As if on on cue, Ismael's poems remind us that Jerusalem is already a "shared" state. Perhaps to an extent greater than any city, a city beyond state.  Maybe Jerusalem is, in this respect, more a city than any other city.  I certainly felt that in my three years as a student there.  To me, she is my eternal home city.  Returning to architectural studies after I left her, it was thinking of my life in Jerusalem that led me to focus on urban design in my graduate design studies (my thesis was on "sharing Jerusalem").

Jerusalem is like the earth: despite our mutual hatreds, we must learn to share this "Bride of the Cities". Few standard-bearers, among the possessions of mankind, can be as great instructors of peace as this "Citadel of Light".  Or claim such an incredible stake in it.

Jerusalem at sundown (the sunlight is falling on Palestinian East Jerusalem)

Here is Bruno's translation of Prof. Ismael Obydat's "Bride and Mistress of the Cities ...Jerusalem".

Entre les collines elle se dresse hautaine et coquette
Sublimée par le Très-Haut frappé d'ébahissement
Nouvelle épousée toute parée des étoiles du firmament
Bénie par le Tout-Puissant et ennoblie par les prophètes.

A son nom les oiseaux répondent en chantant le matin
Et le soir les colombes encore somnolentes roucoulent sur ses murailles
Pendant que les chevreaux se laissent plonger dans la torpeur suave de son giron

Mon esprit s'est unifié au tien
Tout comme la lumière à la clarté... nulle obscurité
Tout comme l'eau à toute substance aqueuse... nulle soif
La mort ne peut nous séparer
Ni personne ne peut attenter à notre amour
Toujours nouvelle épousée... toujours plus câline et provocante
Jérusalem, ville des lumières

De par mon esprit je m'élance vers toi
Chaque jour je franchis en courant le seuil de ta porte
Et m'envole très haut et très loin emporté par la brise
Des senteurs de l'encens et des parfums
S'exhalant de chacune de tes cours et marchés.

Je monte sur tes balcons garnis de drapeaux
De paix, d'amour, de fête
Et promesse de bonheur.

Tout comme l'esprit porte les germes de l'amour envers toi
Et les a ensemencés.
Mon esprit se laisse porter à œuvrer à la floraison croissante de
Tes étendues incommensurables.

Au lever du soleil j'embrassechaque lopin de tes terres
Et les soirs de pleine lune je te chuchote à l'oreille
Mon amour passionné.
En t'aimant je suis roi et toi tu es ma reine et le reine universelle
De tous les coeurs... Jérusalem

Je te resterai fidèle en amour Jérusalem et t'en fais la promesse.

Mon amour est immortel.
Quand tout passe, tout s'en va pour toujours.

Toujours gaie, lumineuse et coquette
Nouvelle épousée et maîtresse des cités
Cités des prophètes... cité de prospérité et de lumière.

(Poéme composé à Jérusalem par le professeur Ismael Obydat) 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Jerry the Mapmaker. It is things like this that make me realize...

Jerry's Map from Jerry Gretzinger on Vimeo.

Maybe there was another way to get my urban planning fix.

That magic card thing, by the way, is exactly the kind of method I relate to. They beat the snot out of it in design school.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Dreams of the New Edge Mega-City

Oshodi Market, originally uploaded by kasia hein.

I am fascinated with dystopian cities. Some of my favorite city visions are depictions of infernal cities, such as Blade Runner’s LA (the anti-LA that always rains, and where no one really knows anybody). I think all exciting cities do contain a right admixture of paradise and inferno. Perhaps because the city of my birth, Mexico City, contains some of the best examples of each (and is still the most exciting urban environment I’ve experienced), I’ve always known that thriving cities are dwelling purgatorially in the precipice of heaven and hell. Cities are the ultimate dwellers of the breach. It is not an accident that apocalypses and cacotopoi feature cities prominently, as do dreams and nightmares.

The edge is what makes 21st Century Mega-Cities grow, and, boy, they are so riven with them. Yesterday's lead article in the New York Times featured the lawless growth of Gurgaon, New Delhi's Blade Runner version of an Edge City. Gurgaon has grown so rapidly and tremendously that almost no public infrastructure has been built to serve it. Yet, it has become a hyper-burb - one of those freaks of gigantism, who, seeded into soil so unimaginably fertile at the cross-streams of global capital, and so unregulated, has outpaced all attempts to plan it. It is a Shenzhen without the socialism. To understand what makes a Gurgaon is to realize that it is the Edge City that skipped places like Dublin, Ohio. It has "leap-frogged" the slumbering and conventional developed world, with its stultifying 30 year transportation and land use plans, and went straight to the source of wealth production. The place where the American Dream actually exists most desperately in our young century. It is the 21st Century Edge City: the city actually at the precipice of the networked global order.

Such "edge cities" of floating populations seem to be uncontrollably springing on the edges of today's developing world "Mega-Cities", who, themselves are drinking at the steep banks of the globalized world economy. In fact, you can accurately call them "Edge Mega-Cities". As Rem Koolhaas intuited, no Mega-City dwells more in the precipice than Lagos. In this regard it is the restless Dubai that Wants to Be...

I find it very interesting that the first phase of Eko Atlantic to rise out of the sea next to Lagos will be the Financial District. Lagos is becoming an Instant Mega-City. It is a Mexico City and Sao Paulo that is just about to attend her first social, one of those "21st Century" freak-cities whose hyper-cultures are global in scales of grinding desperation, dreams, and empires of wealth. These are cities that have transcended their states in their complete "lawless" growth, except for the fact that they enact their own fascinating internal organization. An improvised organization of orders so bursting with nuclear energy that even Koolhaas can hardly put the right words to them. In an interview for Index magazine (back in 2000), for example, he recounted this aerial observation of Lagos:

...We made an unbelievable video about a traffic jam in Lagos, which is really scary because the sheer pressure makes everything liquefy. There are these jams that are mostly buses — rivers of yellow trying to go through arteries that are too narrow. Huge trucks — almost everything is public transport and trucks — really colliding and squeezing. And in between them, there are these people — almost like cement. According to the myth, they are dismantling the vehicles that are in the jam. Not only are you stuck in the jam — you're also being disassembled. Maybe that's the only solution to the jam. So it's not just a traffic jam. It's actually a traffic jam turning into a car market, turning into spare parts turning into a smoldering ruin. All in consecutive phases. It's really about metabolism and flows and scale. And unbelievable organization.

One can sense here that even Rem, the expert of lawless architecture, is almost at a loss about what to do in that "organization". How in the hell can anyone "plan" with these spontaneous orders abounding all around? He is like Michelangelo enviously beholding his Belvedere torso. Can even the sea stop these people?

It is easy to romanticize these urban landscapes where wild things do so grow. But I find it interesting that even in Lagos land use and transportation planning has a place. Evidence the sand-pumping, Dutch engineered (of course), Eko Atlantic coastal "restoration" project in the video above. ...Still, surely you would suspect that the saturated market/arteries of Lagos would be the last place on earth where a dedicated right-of-way for a BRT system could exist. But one such has actually been recently introduced!...

Heck, if Lagos can do it, what are LA's freeways!? I find Rem's choice of the word "metabolism" to describe the commerce and transitions of scale in the nascent Mega-City an apt metaphor to guide our thinking. Some of these orders exist because of the jam in the gulch. In Lagos, the challenge of urbanism is to remove the clog in the streams of global finance that the people of Lagos seek so energetically. The challenge is to transfer the energy "liquifying" market and transport together in Lagos to global outlets.

That BRT can be implemented successfully in Lagos should tell us that the frustration of the jam was partially keeping that burgeoning Edge Mega-City behind. We need not fear planning for these cities. But, we must be as tolerant and improvisational as their metabolic processes and build on them. You just need to first legitimize these orders and give them access to the outlays of the global market that they actually seek. In this case, yes, that involves laying down a dedicated right-of-way. The planners of Lagos can do stuff to Lagos, actually! Who'd a thought?

In our century, the hungers of the global economy, as well as climate change, will produce population drifts to the Mega-City in scales that we have yet to see in history. Even rising sea levels, I suspect, will not be able to stave that trend, because coastal cities are the most interconnected hubs of the global economy. They will, like Lagos, pump sand into the sea if need be. Do not be amazed if other cities "out-Lagos" Lagos in our century, and in places we least expect. The central challenge of urbanism in our 21st century: How do we bring the urban migrants of the world into the world economy in a way that lifts them out of poverty? What can we do for them?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Apocalyptic Paralysis

Snow-cholera-map-1, originally uploaded by ccxtina.

This past weekend, I was thinking a lot about apocalypses (thanks in part to the May 21st "rapture"). Because my profession has been one that deals with the crisis of sprawl at the first stage, I often feel that part of my design duties is to educate my clients of beneficent sustainable means to alternately meet (and improve) their goals. In this task, I’m just a polite and productive version of an angry doomsday prophet pointing out to the feckless masses the impending catastrophes of our collective evil-doing. The irony is that my role as an urban designer, which is connected to both the transportation and building sectors, actually exists to coordinate the projects of the greatest energy hogs in the environment of all, representing together 70% of all carbon-based energy use in our nation. My guileless industry, in the end in net terms, will produce even more global warming impacts, however much I’m off-setting the even worse impacts of less urban, sprawl-based design alternatives. While replacing energy-inefficient sprawl is as worthy a green endeavor as one can have, I’m of even less advantage here than the boy with the finger in the dike, since all I can do is to bend down to the ground to try to drink up some of the overflow. In contemplating this, my doomsday gloom is not lightened any less bit by the salient fact that my own profession seems to have become but a tinier niche service in the ecological nooks that make up the US real estate economy, still reverberating from a post-bubble apocalypse that has produced even less opportunity for the leadership of architects and urban designers. …So, any previous influence I might have had to turn the Titanic around seems to have become more pipe dream than green dream. So much disaster swilling before and around me!

It is tempting here for me to sulk a bit like Jonah before Nineveh. So it was useful, that, in this dark mood, I was reading Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map (covered in my last post). One grand point of the book is that the disaster itself, the apocalypse, is a lecturer of its own undoing. It just needs an attentive pupil. No one can design a utopian alternative without becoming an expert of its dystopian forebear. Besides, as Kevin Lynch noticed, utopian visions always turn out to be rather disappointing bores anyway. Their cacotopian evil-twins are always more engrossing.

As John Snow knew, you have to embrace the caco a little. You have to acclimate your nose to the stench to see the hidden pattern creating the fulmination. A dystopian condition not only points to its own redemption, it makes it astonishingly clear…if only you can get past its miasmic vapors. Like the ghost map, recording with brutal acuteness for posterity the habitual lives and footsteps of people that one random summer day in Victorian London, we must, as John Snow did, engage in a patient dialogue with the Angel of Death, and become unbiased observers of his deft moves. Knee-jerk reactions can place us only with our back to the answers. In much of the urbanist apocalyptic thinking I come across, I see these habitual responses, a condition which, Steven Johnson points out, actually distances us even further from effective solutions. An urbanist diatribe indeed seems suspiciously filled with the over-determined “Gradgrindian” logic of Victorian miasmists, often labeling symptoms for causes. It’s easy to see why so much of it has that ominous apocalyptic tone and can’t help betraying (however subtly couched in distance) its contempt for the naïve, or worse, greedy agents of disaster-making.

Take, for instance, this bit of urbanist apocalyptic, which attempts to isolate the agents of the sprawl economy, of which, no. 4 is:
Specialization within the real estate industry

Over the past six decades the real estate finance and development industries have become increasingly specialized in single-use development formats. The evolution of the industry can be traced through the Community Builders Handbook series published by the Urban Land Institute (ULI), the real estate industry's leading non-profit think tank on urban land use and development. The original Community Builders Handbook, published in 1947, presented the collective wisdom and experience of leading developers of mixed-use master planned communities, including ULI founders such as J.C. Nichols, the developer of the Country Club District and Country Club Plaza in Kansas City. Subsequent handbooks focused on ever more narrow segments of the real estate industry: subdivisions (Residential Development Handbook), shopping centers (the Shopping Center Development Handbooks but also other handbooks for factory outlet centers and urban entertainment centers), office and business parks (Business Park and Industrial Development Handbooks), and residential segments (e.g., condominiums, multi-family housing and workforce housing).
Real estate analyst Christopher Leinberger has written that the development industry is now focused on building the same nineteen real estate product types in every community in America. These generally represent single-use, stand-alone properties with floor-area ratios from 0.1 to 0.4 (i.e., where buildings cover only between 10-40 percent of a total site area, and the rest is devoted primarily to parking). These standardized product types have been refined by the industry over many decades, making them relatively easy to finance, build, lease and sell. In recent years the growth of real estate investment trusts (REITs) have transformed these real estate properties into commodities that can be bundled and traded as investment portfolios.
Together with a lowering of interest rates, such commoditization has provided much of the basis for the present U.S. building boom. Clearly, these development products have been successful at meeting the functional needs of businesses and consumers, and such development now pervades the fabric of our metropolitan areas. Yet, the staunch opposition to growth in communities nationwide also reveals that satisfying basic functional needs is not enough. While the real estate industry has become very good at building these single-use, automobile-oriented projects, the projects themselves are not very good at building communities. Ad hoc aggregations of single-use projects have proven to be ill suited for building communities that are socially diverse, environmentally sensitive, and economically sustainable.

Overall, the first two paragraphs are quite informative. But the last leaves me puzzled and betrays the author’s dismissiveness with the whole speculative closed-loop cycle of cellular single-use development. Why not end instead with a note on what could be done here with this interesting situation? But this approach does not avail the apocalypser, because this author already has a utopian paradigm and pre-determined conception of community building. The insights that the information preceding could give, without this bias, are literally screaming at you. Consider the perpetuating commoditization loop bundling performance based assets to stiff parameters, for example. Couldn’t simply adding a layer of metrics to compare the performance of urban, mixed-use products, e.g. collocation metrics, walkability metrics, etc., etc., suddenly give analysts a rich base of information to craft urbanist packages for REIT’s? Wouldn’t, in the end, strategies like that prove the case for urbanism, making developers more liable to produce urban results for equity in their projects? Maybe “specialization” can actually play a determining role here. And, with respect to “community building”, maybe communities aren’t looking for “community” as much as the Nimby lifestyle that guarantees property value stability. What they don’t like is the intrusion, period, ad hoc and discombobulated or not. Here again, a predetermined utopia has lurched the author off from what one suspects would be a more productive route of inquiry.

Perhaps a better approach to sustainable urbanism is to start with the baseline cacotopia, and rather than try to enjamb it to urbanism, observe it patiently to learn where the handles can apply the gears. This is why I actually do things like observe traffic and market behavior patiently. For me, apocalypses create a kind of music to appreciate.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lessons from John Snow

John Snow pump and pub, originally uploaded by mrlerone.

I have a new role model. Today, I finished reading Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, one of those fun books that zeroes in on a seemingly minor event in history to unpeel its strangely significant ramifications impacting the way we live and even think today. That historical event was the cholera epidemic that struck London's Soho area in 1849, which at that time was a fecund Jane Jacobs-ville in Victorian England (in fact, London's most densely populated district).

I found great succor in the life example of the central protagonist, the polymath father of anesthesiology and nascent epidemiologist John Snow, who, in proving the water-borne transmission theory of cholera, indirectly made urbanism at the colossal scales of these past few centuries possible (well, ok...more possible).  Dr. Snow's detective work married his lab-based experience interrogating the physiological responses to gases with sociological sleuth-work and mapping at the urban scale, a product of "consilient thinking" bridging heretofore unconnected fields of inquiry.  While his genius was unappreciated in his day, it eventually solidified a plank for a science-based approach to public health works and policy.  It's a rich book and one that offers much great fodder for urbanist self-examination today. 

I especially recommend it for the cautionary lessons it has to offer about modes of "expert" thought that remain immured in group think.  To be truly visionary and creative in your profession, you have to keep a hard-nosed grasp on observed fact while at the same time preserving an amateur's curiosity and nurturing what I dub a cross-polinating "syncretism" of divergent intellectual pursuits.  John Snow's example vindicates my amateur pursuits.  I will now pursue them with greater relish.  I've been holding myself back.  What strikes me about John Snow is that he did not hold back.  Of course, he was inventing new fields of inquiry (anesthesiology, epidemiology to be exact, ...and perhaps add modern geography to that list), but, the fact is, he did not put brakes and limits to his "amateurism".  I tend to think it is a kind of hubris to be self-aggrandizing about your hobby pursuits, especially where others have credentials.  But John Snow didn't hesitate to whip out monographs on his side projects.  A socially awkward loner like he was, this is a great lesson to me.  Nor was he shy about engaging his critics, politely but thoroughly. 

The "monographs" of today are blogs, we have to note.  (I know...I wish we had more old-school print forums).  So ... I will not apologize if Proper Scale becomes a little bit more "syncretistic".  After all, what rich topics this weekend has given me with plagues and doomsday prophets feeding my obsessions.  Surely I won't hold back!  (Stay tuned.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Unity of Urban Design (Admiring the Dutch)

Adriaan Gueze explains why this "bridge" is not a bridge in PBS's Design:e2 show "Adaptive Reuse in the Netherlands"

I keep repeatedly watching this installment PBS's Design:e2 series, which focuses on one of my favorite urban design projects, Borneo Sporenburg, the creation of Adriaan Geuze (above) and part of the greater waterfront redevelopment of Amsterdam's Eastern Docklands.  I thought it well worth sharing.  

If I were to belong to a society of professional urban designers I could find a home in, it would probably be dubbed the "Congress of Dutch Urbanism".  I forgot who it was who said this, but it is very true: "In the Netherlands, modernism has never died." (That was not a statement in reference to mid-mod style, but a statement of the CIAM-like ambitions of modernism as tempered by the relaxed attitudes of Dutch designers.)  Those festively creative polder planners across the Atlantic have much to teach about the value of well-applied urban design.  Amsterdam is the Place of the Example, as Louis Kahn might have put it.  To those who say that urban design has no real success stories, the Dutch, obviously, merrily go on believing.  Creating urban places.  Actually.  For more than singles, retirees and DINK's!  Only in the Netherlands, ...sigh...

Friday, May 6, 2011

My Firm's Job Growth

Members of my firm (rendered versions)

Listening to NPR today on my way to Boone, I heard news about the national uptick in new jobs.  This past month, US companies added nearly 250,000 employees to the payrolls.  Modest growth (apparently “household employment” is still down), but this is something nonetheless. 

This tidbit of information confirms my personal experience.  What has been happening in my firm of late is probably a small picture of what is happening nationally with firms in 2011. To explain my sustained silence on my blog, ...I’ve simply been inundated with work!

No…. I haven’t abandoned Proper Scale!  In fact, I’ve been longing to catch up on my reflections, especially since so much of my experiences in my professional life since my last post have enriched them (I can’t believe that last post was made last year…really??). 

If any indication there exists for a turnaround in the economy, it is that those fortunate few architecture firms still alive after the fallout of the housing collapse and real estate boondoggles are now inundated with work.  Charlotte firms that trimmed their workforce to bare-bones staff to hang on are now demanding much of the similar workload they saw in the boon times (and, in some cases, greater) from the fortunate few architects that they retained.  To be fair this is a survival tactic. 

It was a scary moment last summer, no doubt about it, when for the first time ever in my professional experience, I had no project in the front burner.  I am happy to be busy today, because for a while through last year, I had only the tail end of the Charlotte Streetcar Project to hang on to.  I mainly depended on those random small assignments from civil and consulting firms needing maps and visuals to feed me some billable hours (much of this from government-related work…think the stimulus doesn’t matter?). 

But toward the end of 2010, my, how things rapidly turned around!  The inundation began for me this January and hasn’t let up (after my Summer Scare, the thought and extra effort I put into my fall proposals paid of!).  Finally, after four telling months, my firm took pity on my situation and hired a planner on contract toward the end of last month.  We also hired a part-time business developer last month.  This was not an easy choice for our principals to make.  After the bumpy lean times of the past three years, one could understand their hesitation. 

If my firm’s experience is any indication, there was a big time pent-up demand for new hires building up throughout this past winter.  Suddenly in April, the continuing inflow of work must have caused some skittish employers to dust off those empty chairs.   

Of course, part of the reason we’ve also added a business developer to our payroll is we have to redouble our marketing efforts to feed the new planning position.  The burden suddenly lifted off my shoulders on my backburner projects and responsibilities writing proposals is palpable on this fair day in May in the mountains.  Believe you me.  It also helps that we took on a part time intern that I can plug in when needed.

So… Very glad to report that Neighboring Concepts (with a net total of 13.5 employees now) contributed about a net of one and a half created positions in that jobs figures report.  For us, this represents a size-able personnel increase of 11%.  Firms in our orbit, I hear, are also doing the same. 

With our new employees, I will hopefully be finding more leisure time to post reflectively on this blog.  (Leisure time!  The term feels almost tooooo luxurious on my typepad….Can I actually have leisure time???). 

Things being what they were, I’m very sad for neglecting this blog so long. My fair readers, as soon as one project was down, I just had to catch up on the others. 

But, I’m more than fortunate that the things of late that have kept me burning the midnight oil have so engrossed me and have been amazing professional stepping stones.   I hope I can blog about some of that.  With gas prices doing what they are, I believe, …yes, …I’m paddling on the course of a sustainable career here, as a transit-focused urban designer.  

Thank you, President Obama, for your administration’s multi-pronged stimulus program.  My firm is living proof that the lifeblood of federal grants and federal infrastructure stimulus projects allowed our firm to preserve its “human capital”.  While our bread and butter projects are now private institutional work, it was those federally sustained projects that allowed us to hone our resources and increase our productivity in the lean times.  As a result, we are only too eager now to add private sector jobs!