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.