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 na├»ve, 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!