Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On Neighborhood Gardens and Farmers Markets

A formerly vacant property is given new life as a functioning source of food, nourishing residents nutritionally and socially.

Talk is bubbling up around Dallas City Hall arising from neighborhood meetings in parts of the City expressing interest in creating neighborhood-based community gardens, as nationally we are seeing them sprout from Brooklyn to Oakland. The past five days have seen articles from both the DMN, as well as the Observer, a blog entry by BFOC, and the local twittersphere has been buzzing.

To start from the broadest perspective, the average American meal travels over 1500 miles to get to the plate. Food security in the age of peak oil will be of vital interest to address before it becomes a reality. The next time oil spikes will dallas families be able to afford a 3000 mile caesar salad? Will we be able to afford to continue to subsidize agricultural commodities if all we get in return on that investment is poison in the form of various corn syrups and starches?


Allowing for edible gardens is fundamentally important, to which it appears that everybody is on board, but there is some worry about defending the current downtown farmers market. I find the key distinction is one of definition. What is a Farmers Market? What is a Community Garden? I'll explain how they might be different birds of a feather, but will explain why the goose AND the gander are important moving forward.

The concern regarding the existing farmers' market isn't illegitimate. On one side, the existing market provides a central location for farmers from well outside the city to wholesale their produce falling under the same idea as providing predictability/access/centrality/synergy for retail, as the City has spent $ in support of the existing market. However, this location isn't the most convenient for many neighborhoods if they have to get in the car every time to visit. Furthermore, it's current format is adapted to a bombed out downtown. Eventually there might be a higher and better use for this land than a sprawling, low density farmers market and it adapts into a smaller, more compact market or linear market on a street as we'll see below or as a central square embedded within new development.

This is not an either or proposition, which Americans are either exquisitely skilled at turning every issue into, or the press is too lazy to find nuance within the mysterious gray abyss. What I don't seem to see is any understanding of the range of scales that local farming and neighborhood gardening can be realized. Providing for a flexible range must be permitted and able to thrive as neighborhood demand drives it.

Scale. There are a wide variety of scales of community gardens and in order to find common ground, a key distinction must be made with the downtown farmers market.


I often write about cities needing to identify and respond to demand drivers. This is one case where planners are important for reasons that I summarized above and stated in the recently published Smart Growth Manual (recommendation: this book provides a good overview for policy makers or concerned citizens, but lacks the depth for professional designers or planners):
...open space should be set aside for growing food, whether or not there is present demand for it.
Why? Jumping back a few sections in the same book [and reordering and in some case rewording, for clarification purposes]:
Cities that hope to thrive in the long run must secure and enlarge their [capacity for local and regional agricultural production...Otherwise, long-distance food sourcing will become increasingly untenable and metropolitan areas will have difficulty feeding themselves within their means.]
Fortunately, we are already seeing the initial stages of cresting white-capped waves of pent up demand bubbling up from the horizon, as if an unseen tectonic shift had occurred deep beneath the seas of present consciousness. To continue the metaphor, the majority of this demand, like the volume of a wave at its formational stages remains unseen. I predict it will be great enough to support edible gardening at all scales and in all sectors. This should be accommodated if and when the demand does arrive, even at the sake of any protectionist measures where the Farmers Market might object to local competition.

At the largest scale (of locally produced agriculture) are what we know as Farmers Markets, which typically consist of small, but professional farming families migrating daily or weekly into the City from across the State. These often have the widest market share, drawing specialty consumers from across the metropolitan area. An example of mid-scale local ag is the community garden that is tended by neighborhood residents and feeds mostly only nearby neighborhood residents. Smaller even are the yard gardens or raised beds of single family residents, who typically grow food to supplement or replace some of their grocery purchases. The smallest are the window boxes for residents of more dense residential buildings can grow small amounts of herbs and vegetables.

Another issue is that of local or neighborhood determinism. Bottom-up solutions are generally always effective once they reach a critical mass, because they are demand driven by local knowledge of the issues and needs, meaning any policy measures should allow for easy implementation and great flexibility. Furthermore, this is an issue where the choice of one neighborhood has little effect on another. Flexibility for local decision-making should be built into whatever happens at the City level.

Two areas that are getting the most attention - due to neighborhood demand and a well-educated, motivated, and younger bohemian class interested in getting their hands a little dirty - are in Deep Ellum and Oak Cliff - particular the Bishop Arts area.

Community gardens can work at any density.

Thus far, nearly all efforts to stimulate community development have come from top down agendas, which are fundamentally supply-side in their logic ("if we only get this there, if we only get that there, all will be well!"). These have been little more than attempts to remake South Dallas in the likeness of North Dallas. They have been unsuccessful as quite literally, much of South Dallas exists as a "food desert" - as groceries, especially (unfortunately) those with healthier options follow the rooftops, with a particular fetish for the oversized and grandiose stylings of kitchy North Dallas Palaces, with forward facing garages and the Range Rovers parked within them.

Editorial coming: If only the wealthy can be healthy, this is a fundamental indicator in a system failing its citizenry. When transpo/shipping costs rise, these disparities will only be exaggerated.

The last thing areas towards the poorer end of the spectrum need are the out-of-town chain retailers so commonly found mining for gold in the Northern sector. Particularly in this time of unprecedented cultural and economic tidal shift, it is time to allow them to find their own character niche, defined in their own image, by their own needs as neighborhood communities. Trying to entice/beg/subsidize retail into these areas has been and will remain to be failed policy (even more so now that most chain retailers are contracting rather than expanding to new locations), so allow for some ground-up community-based retail in the form of local agricultural production.

Future of groceries. One thing I feel like I always run into, and that is a sort of learned helplessness that the status quo will always remain. This only exists because we live on a day-to-day basis, but cities live year-to-year and decade-to-decade and century-to-century. Cities are forever changing, molting, adapting, and evolving beyond typical human comprehension. Similarly, so do the way businesses operate, and in this case, the logistics, delivery and supply of food.

Allowing the rise in local food production will certainly incite the eventual, desperate howls from the grocery chains. We can't fear change, especially not in the current turbulence, if it provides for something that the business sector refuses or is unable to provide: healthy, affordable food, as well as opportunities for personal learning and self-improvement, that are organically developed and become woven into the fabric of community.

The future of groceries in my opinion, within twenty years or so, will be primarily for packaged, processed, and pre-made "finished" foods, those with added value, as many or all regional/seasonal fruits and vegetables are produced and sold locally, at these various scales of farmers markets. Once again, increasing transportation/shipping costs (not to mention potential desertification of overworked agri-business soil) will make the mass production of what I'll call mid-level food groups (fruits, veggies, and some dairy/livestock which I'll mention shortly - as opposed to low-level like grains) untenable at the national and international scale. Commodities that travel a long way will once again return to their status as imported specialty or luxury items. THAT is an inconvenient truth.

There is nothing radical about this. The past visits the future when cheap oil no longer allows the illogical. I've discussed nearby agriculture in the Valencia case study and saw it first hand having lived in and studied Rome, perhaps the most time-adapted and molted city on the planet, where locally produced foods were sold at farmers markets like fruits, vegetables, fish, and free range livestock. Local bakers come to get selected grains, butchers can pick out the best piggies and moo cows, and restaurants can find the best fish (which is why good chefs always shop first thing in the morning).

As long as multi-modal transportation supports it (and I'm talking in several years or decades from now), each neighborhood based market can adopt its own character as they agglomerate naturally to support both business and community, but they need the chance to succeed and the time to adapt and grow roots. Eventually, these can even cater to broader market segments and take on the form of flea markets selling next level products and finished or even refurbished goods, such as woodworkings from lumber or working toasters or tv's from broken ones picked up out of the junk pile.

I know altruism isn't a good motivator for mass movements, but do we really want to keep throwing away stuff until we're all absorbed by the North Pacific Gyre?

Other local markets where goods find second homes, Porta Portese Flea Market in Rome:
File:Rome porta portese july 2006.jpg

The key to success and stability is clustering and relocalization of these various niche markets and services, embedding them as central features within walkable neighborhoods interconnected to the regional multi-modal transportation system for access from a larger base. This creates for predictable and known "macro-destinations" rather than a million different individual "micro-destinations" scattered across DFW in drivable-only locations. From an economic standpoint this allows for improved competition by proximity: a consumer can go to one place and compare similar goods/services/prices in one spot.

This is how you restore a healthy, sustainable, locally-based and supported economy that can withstand. Economic development isn't always about smokestack or conventioneer chasing as the conventional wisdom still rotting from the 80's. I've checked the fridge and yep, that is where the smell is coming from and I've hence thrown it out. Sometimes it is simply about providing opportunity, for the local citizenry to flex its entreprenurial and communitarian muscles, producing necessary goods and services in an attainable and accessibly participatory local economy.

In sum - and back on to the topic of food - cuz its lunch and I'm getting hongry (sic) - what community gardens do is provide cheap healthy food for residents, provide a source of income for unemployed and underemployed individuals, can be a source of community pride and togetherness. And in many ways, it becomes a form of crowd-sourcing, where different individuals bring various personal or newly learned skills to one task to improve the final product. For children, there is an opportunity to learn where food comes from, how to steward the land themselves, be productive and learn responsibility, as well as get nutrition cheaply rather than just cheap corn syrup byproducts.

Embrace this opportunity. It will be good to return some sanity and rationality to economics, and my guess is our economy and our citizens will all be healthier for it.


Other Recommended Reading:

P-Patch community gardens in Seattle w/ Links to Portland's Digable City

Case Studies of Community Gardens and Farmers Markets from the Sustainable Food Center.

Local Harvest.org

In Defense of Food (book)

Fast Food Nation (book)

Monday, December 14, 2009

If Perez Hilton fused w/ Boss Hog

and became an architecture critic...

Person without Veins?

Frankly, I don't know enough about the Vancouver Sun to tell whether or not it is a reputable rag. Articles like this one aren't helping however.

Some parts of their "Rethinking Green" series come off as purely contrarian (I too questioned recycling, focused on the dirtiness of the toxins in the materials getting recycled and the pretense of "doing something good,"), and then others like the linked above are just outright self-serving propaganda. I say that because of the singularity of opinion of those quoted in the article.

There are a million terrible definitions and interpretations of sustainability out there. What sustainability implies a system, one built upon a foundation of both economics and ecology, both of which are systems that are not fully understood. So therein, one can see the incredible difficulty in boiling down to what is sustainable and what isn't without a more wholistic view.

Not to take this into an ad hominem direction, but to only quote Cox and O'Toole is some shallow and self-serving "journalism." Neither are credible, on the payrolls of the road lobby, and are incredibly deceiving will their well-framed "statistics." Cox and O'Toole are notorious for taking incredibly narrow (and increasingly shrill) views of statistics that are intended to dumb down the debate into something little more than "OMG! Transit is so expensive!" So is caring for children, should we stop that?

My point isn't that transit is a magical panacea, nor that it is appropriate for cities of all shapes, sizes, and geographical contexts. It is that the debate is well beyond their, or this authors, scope. And to further narrow the stance to only include essentially two hucksters is to further drown the level of dialogue in the puddle beneath are feet (or tires if you wish). Why not include a real academic from your own neck of the woods like Tod Litman from VTPI?

The real issue that Cox, O'Toole and any other well-heeled faux libertarian simply cannot understand or argue with any sort of rigorous rhetoric effectively on their narrow view of statistics. Which is why you are seeing transit pick up steam the world over, and ironically generate more press for these two for anybody desperate for a sound bite in opposition.

"OMG, it's expensive!"

Simply put, car only subsidization has led to car only usage. Car only usage has led to incredibly wasteful projects like the high five in Dallas. While these types will argue that it improves economic development because it created jobs and improves connectivity and reduces traffic, , while it may temporarily reduce traffic (with nothing to say about the several years of construction and the resultant delays) the reduced traffic then has a negative effect by actually inducing more traffic b/c of the temporary gains, thus spreading people apart further. It also wrecks real estate values within any vicinity of it, because frankly, it is attrocious to be near (also, with nothing to say about the increased stress, birth defects, and respiratory issues by proximity to freeways).


Transportation can never be looked at in a bubble. You can't isolate any particular system and suggest definitively whether it is "green" or not, whatever that means. The reason is because transportation, of any form, is inextricably linked and largely responsible for the resulant built-form of the city. The built form then interprets how the city functions.

To isolate the pro forma of any transportation system is like removing the arteries, veins, and capillaries from a human being and then wondering why the blood discontinued to flow. A doctor has to examine the health of the entire patient, to determine the health of the cardiovascular system and vice versa. If the City is unhealthy, the cardiovascular system (its transportation system) has to become more healthy.

Second, no form of transportation has ever "paid for itself." What these biased takes fail to understand is that the more governments subsidize road construction and sprawl, the more they have to subsidize transit, b/c the excessive road construction leads to fragmented, sparse, and disconnected land use, unsuitable for transit use, and therefore a failing transit system.

Relatedly, as transportation has a direct effect on land use, density, and the interrelationship between land uses, forms of transportation have multiplier effects that are incalculable in terms of sustainability and economy. The way to measure the "greenness" of transport is not in the functionality of transit systems but the built form and the emergent operations of the city sprung from it.

Car only-based transport policy leads to low density development which is more energy-consumptive, generates incredible amounts of waste thru increased air pollution from the car use, reduced water quality and environmental degridation from runoff, waste of man-hours in traffic jams, as well as increased refuse from a low-density lifestyle, and waste in supply-chains having to diffuse the distribution of goods to sparse, low density development.

This is bad for the economy as well for a number of reasons. The government builds roads that creates a low density form of development that, in turn, can not pay for the upkeep of the over-extended infrastructure. Furthermore, because of the fractured and disconnected development that emerges based on car-dominated transport policy, people think they are getting cheaper goods.

But, the fact of the matter is, extra costs have been externalized to the consumer and siphoned off every single trip by way of car ownership/maintenance, road construction and upkeep, health and productivity losses due to traffic and collisions. While creating a highway that links the Houston area to the Dallas area is a good thing, forcing all trips throughout the day to the confines of a car is wasteful and exclusionary of proportions never seen on this earth.

(Once again, with nothing to say about the 1.3 million people killed per year in traffic related collisions.)

Lastly, and unfortunately for them, the ultimate decider in human decisions tends not to be an altruistic sense of right and wrong, and fortunately not even of $1 and 2$ but what makes life better? Would you rather live in a place like this?

or a place like this?

One could say, "how can you compare those two things? Of course, I'm going to pick the pretty picture!" The reason is because these are the two end states of the divergent policies being debated. Should we craft policy that supports only the car, oil, and gas industry or one that the end result is people places?

A complete street, equitable to all transportation types and attractive enough to be livable, and in turn, entice density. The density then reduces Vehicle Miles Traveled, which reduces pollution, reduces the need for context-coerced car ownership, and reduces traffic. The density also makes business and retail more successful because there is a customer-base within a short distance at all times. A business can easily market from its storefront to a hundred residents that live above, or 500 pedestrians that walk past each day.

That is why THIS will eventually win the debate, suggesting it is time to the afforementioned cast of characters on IGNORE.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Free Beer Friday - Guess the City Happy Hour - Old Skool Edition

What exactly is old skool about this week's GTC? I have no idea. Accept this as you wish, but all of this cold makes me wish for some summer sun. Old skool enough for you?

From what I understand happy hour will be at the old stomping ground, Porta di Roma, in downtown Dallas, aka DTD, or if your feeling equal measures dyslexic and snarky, DDT. I'm feeling a bit Dysnarxlic myself. Antidote? Two beers stat!

Today we're going on vacation unapologetically to a tourist town - not too unlike seaside, fl - as both were essentially enclaves popped from the ground up as we warned against with China's empty city. So, what can we learn here? Maybe that it works at the scale of tourist village with a healthy supply of sun, sand, palms, and salt water as natural resources.

With that said, it was actually amazingly hard to find pictures of this place with actual people in multiples. Unless, of course, they are doing typical touristy stuff like lying on the beach or freefalling from the sky:


Also, it was amazingly difficult to find pics of the streets...here is why:

The houses work somewhat backwards from what we are typically familiar in that the back of the house is to the street. Therefore, the streets aren't exactly worth uploading into the opensource atmosphere. So we've got no street side cafes. No couples strolling arm in arm down a narrow alley. No bicyclists.

Street to Lac Sant Maurici

To visit this place, you drive to the town, find your unit, park the car, where you actually might not need it during your week long excursion. Because what we have here in spades is water, docks, and boats. The typical front of the house, presenting its welcoming face to others, is on the water, presumably where the life happens, on the water..


And, despite having an array of densities from small lot villas, to attached townhomes, and multi-story condominiums, nearly every unit has direct access to water, with their own dock. often organized like water culs-de-sac off the primary canals. Furthermore, while the pictures mostly seem relatively low density, for an area less than 2 square miles, this place can pack nearly 100,000 people in-season.

Perhaps not the ideal of walkable communities, but I think I could still find some relaxation under the summer sun, ferrying to the corner store for sundries and supplies. Frankly, this might be the closest realization to one Eric Bell's dream of a neighborhood of buddies united by backyard lazy river.

(Perhaps not coincidentally, if you go to the beach, beware. You might just find a few too many fair-skinned, mid-continental types removing far more clothing than you might wish otherwise.)

Where might Eric Bell's fantasy land be? That's for you to find out and get a free beer on me at happy hour for being the first correct answer in the comments.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tax the Pigs

With a pigovian tax, argues Wired.UK:

To create a low-carbon economy we need to become a nation of city dwellers. We tax cigarettes to reflect the harm they do to our health: we need to tax lifestyles that are damaging the health of the planet - and that means targeting people who choose to live in the countryside. We need a Rural Living Tax. Agricultural workers and others whose jobs require them to live outside cities would be exempt. The revenue raised could be used to build new, well-planned cities and to radically upgrade the infrastructure of existing cities.

We have an opportunity to create an urban renaissance, to make cities attractive places to live again - not just for young adults, but for families and retired people, the groups most likely to leave the city. Turning our old cities into "smart cities" won't be easy or cheap, but in a recession this investment in infrastructure will boost the economy. We need to learn to love our cities again, because they will help us to save the planet.

An article with this thesis really needs about 10,000 more words minimum, but we'll expand on it a touch.

What the article is essentially asking for is to tax citizens of bedroom communities which is a really over-simplified or abstract way of looking at it. There are a number of ways to apply the kind of bowling alley bumpers to steer people into the right places. These can include:
  • Health Impact assessments on new development,
  • heavy development impact fees for new infrastructure and impact on greenfield,
  • limits on the extension of public infrastructure based on densities and design,
  • urban growth boundaries (which are not much different but sound like a big boogieman),
  • toll roads
  • carbon taxes
  • VMT taxes as some cities are contemplating,
  • congestion taxes
  • etc...fill-in similar punitive measures for wasteful suburban development/living here.
I'm not advocating all, any, or even some of these. What makes any of these financial mechanisms so difficult is (despite what any economist will tell you), it is virtually impossible to accurately value-assess every impact of city and suburb, thus making any formula or libertarian idea for cities null and void.

What is certain, is that with so many people in all the wrong places, any new measures such as these will have serious impacts, particularly on the poor considering real estate policies like, "drive til you qualify," and will have to be implemented in a sort of feedback loop program with new housing incentives from the generated revenue to provide the adequate housing for all market segments where it is needed.
"build new, well-planned cities..."
Gawd, no. We've seen what happens when we try to build pop-up book style cities. As I've said before, clustered populations like cities are the fractal arrangement of humans based on positive and negative "magnetic places," ie factors that make places attractive or repulsive.

For example, cities are the built form representing the economy within, the phenotype and the genotype, if you will (if you factor in laws and coding into the genotype). Things that are magnetic can be part of economies (like natural resources, transportation hubs, means of production, etc) or they can be social (good schools, quality of life, safe).

Point being that there has to be an economy in place and cities have proven remarkably resilient to adapting to the current needs of its people. Why? Because we adapt them over time to meet those needs, with the inherent understanding that despite the fifty year hiccup (or cholera-induced bowel movement if a more apt visual is necessary).

What we need to do is actually reposition our current cities to handle greater densities in an economic, ecological, equitable, and elegant manner. Some cities like those of the SunBelt have the most work to do, but fortunately, were built the most ephemeral and as such, are the most malleable. YAY, we have an advantage!!

Times They Are A-Changin'

I received this email from a friend and reader today:

You’ll like this…

So I got a call last night from Rusty Wallis VW where I bought my last car in 2004. Apparently they are going down their list of previous clients and cold calling them to see if they are “due” for a new car. I mentioned that I sold the car in 2006 when my wife and I moved downtown and went down to one car. I said we only needed the one car, and it is in great condition. He responded with, “So, you like…walk to work?” I said “actually, I take the DART, and my wife walks to work”. There was a long pause, and he just said in a defeated tone, “I guess I’ll take you off the list”.

I’m guessing he had a series of responses ready for other rejections. Things like interest rates are down, don’t worry about your credit, we have new financing programs, guaranteed value for your trade-in, we’ll help you out of an “upside down in your loan” situation. But, when came to “I don’t need a car, period”, he was dumbfounded.
The caller's change in tone tells the tale of a changing economy and a worker coming to grips with the fruitlessness of his current job.

Steven Holl Does Urbanism

Exactly the way you would expect it be done. Hollystyle: immaturish and child-like.

I came across this new book on Urbanism, by architect Steven Holl, and have yet to purchase it. I doubt I will, after reading this product description from Amazon:

(description in black/interpretation in red):

Contemporary urban development is increasingly characterized by a reliance on diagrams to convey the rational statistical point of view of the professional urban planner. In his new book Urbanisms architect Steven Holl suggests that just as modern medicine has recognized the power of the irrational psyche urban planners need to realize that the experiential power of cities cannot be completely rationalized and must be studied subjectively. (You silly people with your facts, figures, and insistence upon empiricism should let me do the kind of self-indulgent "exploration" of my own choosing, because you see it is way to complex for you to understand.)

With a selection of urban and architectural projects from his thirty year practice Holl stretches urban planning into the domain of uncertainty. Analyzing a wide range of matters from everyday experiences to spatial data Urbanisms examines how perception and the senses are intertwined with the material space and light of urban form. (I thought you said data was too rational? Or how about you are just dealing with the incomprehensive nature of statistical abstractions and incalculable "externalities" like an adolescent?)

A comprehensive exploration of each project illustrates this much-celebrated and influential architect's perspective on large-scale planning. (Because I, being Stephen Holl, am the embodiment of Neitzsche's overman. The only human capable of harnessing the power of the irrational and administering it upon all of you lesser beings.)

Say no more Steven, pictures sometimes say a thousand words. This one says, "ugh."

Ask the CarLess Guy Vol. III - Retail and a Homeland Marshall Plan

Recently I have received some questions within the comments section of recent posts, some were aimed at me, and others more general. I began to respond to them in the comments, but realized they might be better off here. Both questions regard retail success, one directed towards the one-way to two-way roads and the other is about chains vs. local retailers.
Question 1 - Reader Himanshu asks:
Philadelphia's downtown has one-way streets yet retail seems to thrive there. Walnut St is a great example. On the other hand, Market Street east of City Hall is two ways and yet suffers mightily. The issue is perhaps more complex than simply one-way vs two-way. I suppose overall street size, something you have discussed on your blog in the past, is also important. Walnut St almost feels like an alley compared to many streets in Dallas!
This is true. And, if memory serves South Street is one-way as well is it not? Either way, it's a very narrow street which is the point you are getting at. First things first though. With cities, complexity always rules the day making it virtually impossible to be both succinct and comprehensive, which is why I'm guessing very few people get cities on a very deep level. I mean, who really wants to read all of Space is the Machine, basically Bill Hillier of Space Syntax's grand 360-page manifesto of his life's work. Or, that everybody OWNS The City Shaped, because it looks so great on the bookshelf but who has actually read it? /Sheepishly raises hand in both cases.

Cities, if you buy the fractal nature of cities theory, which I do, are both infinitely complex, yet remarkably simple because there are so many factors participating and influencing each decision, yet the physical results are remarkably similar the world over. But, you are correct, it is not the ONLY determinant factor, but it is one of the critical ingredients that only help, not hinder.

The first thing RETAIL requires is CONVERGENCE, or to put it in the over simplified terms of an over simplified auto-oriented status quo, "access." By nature, a 2-way street will have more "convergence" or passersby than a one-way street and provide the increased locational predictability for the tenant, which I'll discuss later. The future of retail will require the convergence of streets, which one can see quite simply 2-dimensionally in a Baroque layout of streets as opposed to the Grid.

Let's take a look at Paris, DC and NYC as as gradated degrees of each to illustrate this point. First, Paris is one of the most obvious examples of Baroque planning and the creation of very obvious points of 2-D convergence. What this (and convergence) in general does, is that it creates very predictable and obvious points where the most people will be passing by, which is exactly what retail needs.


Next, we'll look at DC. Everybody is aware of the L'Enfant plan, but what many may not be aware is that the original L'Enfant plan was much more like Paris than the current iteration. The reason is because Thomas Jefferson favored a grid pattern because of the implied equality (or democratic nature) of each street, whereas Baroque planning creates very strong and clear hierarchies, a caste system of streets if you will, where certain streets will ALWAYS have prominence. The end result is a compromised hybrid where Baroque formality is overlaid upon a grid, kind of like a Republic rather than a pure mob rule Democracy. Rather fitting no?


Now lastly, NYC, and more specifically Midtown Manhattan which is predominantly a very rigid grid system, but with one key distinction of course. And that is Broadway. Not coincidentally where it intersects the grid at the most acute angles, it creates the most important spaces in the City, ie the crossroads of the world, Times Square, and very dramatic buildings, like the Flatiron building.


SunBelt Cities however, have similar systems except horrendously bastardized versions. In DFW, there is still a grid (mostly b/c the city is relatively flat and for the simplicity of real estate transactions/entitlement), but it is set on an approx. 1-mile square increment and there is a clear hierarchy of streets, ie the dendritic highway/arterial/collector/local system.

While we have talked ad nauseum about the chicken/egg feedback loop of road subsidies and suburban development, the facts on the ground today are that these are all designed STRICTLY for the automobile. And the Sisyphean goal of Level of Service 'A' streets and the supply-side nature of the solution to achieve that goal, have led to increasingly wider streets, which brings me to the next point.

Which is SYNERGY, and the key component to synergy is distance and complementarity of uses. To simplify the point, I'll reiterate what you said about the Walnut street being much narrower than a typical Dallas street. Cross-shopping is a key component in ambience in the creation of a destination of a place. People like getting all their shopping done in one place, but they also prefer doing it on a cool, interesting place composed of a variety of shops and experiences in one area rather than a mall (which is the 20th century version of a shopping street) or the one-stop shopping of a WalMart.

Mall developers and architects (disclosure: I used to work for the architects responsible for probably more malls than any other firm in the world), if they have a redeeming quality is the boiling down dimensionally of the shopping experience. By this, I mean every foot/every inch is understood for how far apart stores should be, how wide the Mall or "shopping street" should be to encourage wandering from one to the other, how far will people walk, or that a constantly deflecting axis makes people walk further as well as continually changing storefronts.

But, in the end, malls were still missing something, which has brought about their demise. And, IMO, this was due to the private, securitized, and "controlled" nature of malls (ya know, beyond the whole drive-in experience of malls).

The interesting irony here is that one-way streets are able to be narrower than a typical two-way street (duh, because it will have half the lanes), which is why Peter Calthorpe often compromises and creates one-way couplets as the key arterials through his plans. He does this to limit the distance to cross the streets and ensure that building uses can still interact with those across the street.

This was a by-product of DOTs only accepting very few and limited formulaic street types and widths. Fortunately, however, that is changing, because streets need to be context-sensitive and we shouldn't have to throw the baby out with the bath water. Narrow, two-way roads will typically be better for retail, and as part of a gridded road system allows for the traffic to be diffused, providing choice to the driver. (Note: this doesn't mean strict rectilinear grid. Intersections per square mile is generally a good guide for street/intersection density.)

The other part of convergence comes into play as well, and I'll call that 3-dimensional convergence. 3-D CONVERGENCE refers to multi-modal transportation and rather than just being in plan view, looking at street networks from above and pinpointing hierachies of cross-streets and intersections, this can be looked at in section. West Village in Dallas is a good example here.

If you looked at this area in section, you would see a subway running below 75, you would see a trolley running on the street, and you would see residential above the shops/restaurants. There is convergence created not just by McKinney/Blackburn/Cole/Lemmon and the exits from 75, but also by the transit stops, as well as residents WALKING down the stairs to the street. This is why West Village/CityPlace as well as (eventually) downtown, will be the primary retail areas within twenty years. As I wrote previously:
They are currently below the LoMac area which is a joke of tangled spaghetti arterials, deep setbacks, narrow sidewalks despite having nearby freeways and the MATA trolley line. This area is exactly the end result when getting the details right is paid zero attention and the only effort is to cynically deliver "product to the market" not places for people. This means that the value of this place is ultimately limited whereas in CityPlace and Downtown, it is infinite.
Lastly, the difference between your examples and nearly all shopping in the SunBelt is the nearby residential baseresidential base, which is the key difference b/w your examples and the majority of Dallas streets, the neighborhood and urban fabric remains largely in tact - which gets me to the next section...
Question 2 - Reader Peter asks
i'm still not all that clear on that 'local businesses vs. chains' study/argument. what is 'economic impact' and why does it matter? and if chains are so bad, then why is chain-hating SF in such bad shape? and what of this 'job growth'? what does that actually mean? anything? does it mean that if we let/encourage the opening of four independent stores instead of one big, box, we'll see more people hired? does that go on indefinitely or is there some equilibrium point?
The first answer is, unfortunately, very little retail, chains or mom and pops, are doing well, which is two-fold. First, we're out of fake money. Living off credit and second mortgages, etc. is over. The other part of that can be positive: we're at a transitional time.

I'm intuiting that "chain-hating SF" is that way, because 1) there is a long history of family-owned business, particularly restaurants in San Francisco. But, the key fact of the matter, is that with locally-owned businesses, a greater percentage of their money is spent within local communities. For example, if I own a shop that purchases widgets and doo-dads to make gadgets, the majority of my purchases (or my personal profits) are spent locally. I'll have to dig up the reports on this, but IIRC the % of revenue spent locally by chains vs. locally owned businesses was something like 40% to 90%. For example, all of WalMarts profits get electronically zapped in the middle of the night to Bentonville, AK, which then get redistributed to shareholders throughout the world.

The other issue is, while WalMart claims to bring in "new jobs," a congressional study released about ten years ago (and I'll have to dig this one up as well), stated that for every two low-paying jobs that WalMart "creates," they are really replacing three higher paying jobs. The math makes intuitive sense if you subtract all that money that gets beamed to Bentonville.

The problems with this are that people will 1) scream, "that's consumer demand," which is true...sometimes. I'm a full believer that WalMart is no monster, but rather a natural byproduct of the world we have constructed. The real question is do we wish to remain working for $5/hr and buying garbage goods in a miserable experience of a store? and 2) that at least for the time being, chains like WalMarts or Targets were necessary "anchors" to allow small, locally owned-businesses to succeed based on that synergy, particularly for downtowns or so the thinking went.

What the WalMarts and Targets of the world need to address, is can they continue their global supply chain business model in an era of $20/gal gasoline? I use $20 only b/c it is the title of a new book. The real point is that with increasing demand for oil (particularly from China, India, and Brazil) and stagnant or decreasing ability to supply at low cost, while oil producing countries are beginning to use more and more of their own oil (for example Mexico is a net importer for the first time EVER), there is no place for oil prices to go but way up.

The last point is that because of road building subsidies and sprawl and all that yadda yadda, we are a country that is spread too thin. Local governments don't have the tax base to support themselves, let alone pay for the upkeep, maintenance and proposed new infrastructure projects. Functioning, sustainable communities require a certain amount of density. Retail requires density as well, and moreso than density, they require locational predictability.

Because the residential base was smeared so thinly across the toasted SunBelt countryside, retail followed, spread as equally thin, meaning many stores than necessary - only chains w bare minimum profit margins AND extreme leverage when it comes to negotiating prices from suppliers - see WalMart, could compete. Mom and Pops 1 can't compete without being embedded in neighborhoods and their costs can be higher b/c they can't buy in mass bulk like chain.

As Lewis Mumford correctly saw in the 1950s we were constructing "anti-cities," and now we are at the point of reckoning for all the worthlessness we have wrought. We are all misplaced and it will take incredible leadership to pull this country into one concerted direction. Fortunately, I have a lot of faith in the Millennials once they fully exert their enormous power over the conflicted dichotomies of baby boomers.

A healthy community (at least for the time-being) will have both chains and locally-owned businesses, b/c chains will be able to pay the highest rents in the prime spots, ie the touristy areas, BUT, mom and pops as I alluded to with holes in the wall, are still viable, because 1) often supported by viral "word of mouth" (or twitter) they provide a better experience for the "consumer" AND they generally provide a higher quality product. Mom and Pops can succeed in dense urban neighborhoods because the consumer has choice. 2) they have a residential base within walking distance...they can be tucked away but still have the "rooftops" to support thier biz

As for job growth, I would be speaking for CoolTown Studios here, but I'm of the opinion that the only place for job growth is from entrepreneurs and startups. Yes, many will fail (especially because in the last ten years we have essentially stripped away all of the safety nets making the entrepreneurial spirit this country was built upon (ie American Dream), all too risky), but many others will succeed b/c so many needs/demands are not being met by the status quo, not to mention all of the talented people possessing innate entrepreneurism, feel so grinded down by the machinery of their corporate institutions.

The key to job growth and economic recovery is in education, job training, and startup businesses combined with a vast relocation and reconstruction of our cities into more dense, walkable, livable interconnected collection of diverse neighborhoods.

Look at it this way, we keep looking at the Stock Market as if it is some kind of indicator of recovery as it slowly inflates with federal subsidies. However, the market is full of Fortune 500 companies that have peaked in the 20th century economy and are receding due to the inherent flaws in corporatism. We're investing money in companies that have no choice but to shrink? When the power of global capital really needs to be put to work on main street rebuilding housing and teaching people how to run a business that could be set in the ground floor of that new building where the growth possibilities, when multiplied thousands or million times over, could borderline on infinite.

As Kunstler put it in Geography of nowhere our cities like Detroit and Dallas look far more like they experienced WW2 than do Dresden and Heidelburg, this may take a level of concerted effort along the lines of a Homeland Marshall Plan for housing construction and walkable infrastructure, but that makes a lot more sense than shoveling money at banks that have already burned us several times does it not?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Work of None or All

In this age where we're all so unskilled, under paternalistic, yet broke and and in turn feeble nanny states, I see a future for CrowdSourcing like this: DIY Cities.
DIY city
The city could be an open platform that connected citizen service-providers and problem-solvers with opportunities to serve. There would be a transparent database of needs of the community, and instruction or guidance on ways to help that situation. SeeClickFix is an excellent model of capturing and making needs transparent from which to build. Cities would extend this to include matching people with particular skills and availability with the right cause. For example, if there is a family that is struggling to care for its children while parents are working, other parents can offer to babysit for the hours needed. If there is a pothole reported, someone from the city can go fix it and report back. Tasks are also tagged related to required skills or experience.

So, there could be physical requirements (strength) and intellectual requirements (marketing) that help direct citizens towards the right kinds of tasks. There could also be an exchange or “trade” for services—e.g. trade babysitting for dog walking, plumbing for legal advice. The platform would go far beyond traditional city services, as this exchange and participation could become a way of life. Ultimately all citizens would have a complete and growing profile of their skills, experience, and contributions in a Facebook-like citizen social network paired with opportunity matching.

= self-empowerment. We have to become the change we wish to see. Frankly, my guess is that the age of the single career is pretty much kaput and people will be taking several odd and part-time jobs, which they might enjoy quite a bit more (variety, getting hands dirty, etc) rather than pushing paper in an office.

The people behind SeeClickFix asked me to put their link on my blog, while I like the idea, seeing that they are already tied to the DMN, I'm not sure my blog would reach that many more people.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Life Raft

CoolTown Studios has an excellent post up describe the critical components of what many of our cities need, sun belt cities primarily, in the worst way.
Local, independent businesses on the ground floor. Not only do local businesses have four times the economic impact over nationals, but the entrepreneurs who run them are a key source for job growth. The ideal business in this building would be a third place restaurant/cafe/coffeehouse/lounge.
I've described something similar at this post:
we are working to develop a multi-family prototype geared to the needs of Millennials. It generally consists of smaller units, but more embellished common areas and amenities to accommodate their highly social nature and attract talented college graduates to Dallas.

A focus on urban infill housing and creating a more livable city will provide the foundation for getting out of this rut. The will is there, even if it is subcutaneous, but we also need leadership to guide us there through the darkness.

Well That's Certainly One Way

...to calm traffic: Molten hot magma...

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Friday, December 4, 2009

2 is Better than 1

Finally, returning one-way roads to two-way is starting to get some play in the press. I have often referred to Dallas' one-way, overly wide downtown streets as "escape routes," but had NO idea that they were literally designed that way.
After the war, a couple of things happened. Civil defense planners, taking seriously the threat of nuclear attack, worried that residents trying to escape would create gridlock on the crowded two-way streets, imprisoning themselves in smoldering cities and causing many more casualties. The arterial streets were the only escape routes they had. Making them one-way, on an alternating basis, would speed things up and save lives. Or so it was thought.
Funny world we live in. So, without a Cold War clouding our skies, must we keep them?
Meanwhile, local governments were slowly learning that the old two-way streets, whatever the occasional frustration, had real advantages in fostering urban life. Traffic moved at a more modest pace, and there was usually a row of cars parked by the curb to serve as a buffer between pedestrians and moving vehicles. If you have trouble perceiving the difference, try asking yourself this question: How many successful sidewalk caf├ęs have you ever encountered on a four-lane, one-way street with cars rushing by at 50 miles per hour?
Among the critics are traffic engineers and academics who were taught some fixed principles of transportation in school decades ago and have never bothered to reconsider them. Joseph Dumas, a professor at the University of Tennessee, argued a few years ago that “the primary purpose of roads is to move traffic efficiently and safely, not to encourage or discourage business or rebuild parts of town . . . . Streets are tools for traffic engineering.”
Jumpin Jeezus on a Dinosaur that is so precious I wanna hold it and pet it and caress it, like a new puppy to my Lenny.

Now, once again, I'll let a far more intelligent person describe the fundamental function of transportation systems:
"The purpose of transportation is to bring people and goods to places where they are needed, and to concentrate the greatest variety of goods and people within that limited area, in order to widen the possibility of choice without making it necessary to travel. A good transportation system minimizes unnecessary transportation; and in any event, it offers change of speed and mode to fit a diversity of human purposes."
His point is that distance becomes a barrier economically and behaviorally, carving off efficiency through distance and excessive infrastructure that becomes a negative (or positive depending on how you look at it) and self-perpetuating feedback loop. What dipshit technocrats as above fail to see is the interconnected nature of things, particularly in the workings of cities and that a city's ability to function is fundamentally driven (haha, pun) by its transportation. Microeconomics require walkability, which begets diversity, which begets talent, livability, and a more robust economy.

Lastly, I'll leave it with Dr. John Gilderbloom of Louisville, KY who has done excellent work in the area of studying the broad effects of one-way streets vs. two-way who has shown a significan drop in business and revenue as streets go from two-way to one-way, up to 20%, which often erases the margins for which the local business operates. It makes intuitive sense, two-way streets create predictability. With one-ways do you locate on the going home street or the morning go to work street? With two-ways there is both.
Why is planning aimed at enhancing suburbs but hurts downtown neighborhoods? You cannot find three and four lane one way streets in suburbia, as it decreases housing appreciation and quality of life..
This is one of the fundamental issues of retail in a broader sense. We have spread so thinly that retail has equally spread thinly across the landscape with too many businesses and stores operating in too many areas. Retail needs synergy, it needs predictability, it needs diversity, it needs integration with the urban fabric. It needs less shops doing more business. Malls were an attempt to create all of this in a "driven" built environment. We're seeing now the failure was inherent in the simulacrum that are malls and the inefficiency in the local economies that distance and driving instills.

I Hope You Are Well Compensated

...for which to look so foolish. Those that I lack respect for in the world of City building consist of the cheerleaders, the whores, leeches, and the sycophants. This falls under all of the above, I do believe:
I'm writing to give a proper introduction to the city where I live and work, given partly to correct some misconceptions about Dubai -- a common one being the notion that Dubai is little more than an upstart Las Vegas alongside the Arabian Gulf. In reality, Dubai is a complex, multi-ethnic and multi-layered city, and far older than Las Vegas. (Actually, I can't understand the comparison at all, since there's no gambling here and the Dubai economy is far more diverse than tourism-based Las Vegas; with its large trade and financial sectors, the economic profile of Dubai is probably more similar to Hong Kong or Singapore or even Miami.
It must suck to come off looking like a mouthpiece for Dubai (at best). This particular planner works for a giant corporate conglomerate. Like all giant corporate conglomerates, they are both product and producer of the economy that just crumbled, much as Dubai will like a sand castle under foot of a rambunctious, destruction-minded 5-year old wreaking the havoc of time, history, and economics.

I personally left such a giant, publicly-traded, corporate conglomerate because I refused to fall into a similar trap and be beholden to nothing more positive than profit-motive at all costs. This planner, who lives in Dubai, must like his slaves servants to feel compelled to defend this:
As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat – where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees – for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. "But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket," he said. "Well, then you'd better get to work," they replied.
Of course, if he wants to continue collecting paychecks from such debt-ridden insolvent companies like Dubai World, he has to say the right things if you wish to remain out of prison in the country. But, my question is, where are your ethical standards? As Simon Jenkins wrote:
A true city is a mirror, in which the blemishes are our own.
Dubai is the ugliest of all cities. One in which I drew criticism for refusing to do any work in or for. I find it hilarious now, however, how many architects are coming out now criticizing the City and the irrational building exuberance that they were all too gleefully accepting as a chance to build their phallic monuments to themselves. All, will rightfully sit empty as a reminder of an ugly time and all the planners and architects that have participated in this wittingly or otherwise (more likely), are just as ugly of humans.

Now, I'll let Edward Glaeser, a far more intelligent and thoughtful person than the quoted planner above, discuss Dubai more freely:

Fifty-story buildings are an efficient way to deliver plenty of space, but extreme height is far more expensive and a bellwether of irrational exuberance.

Five of the 10 tallest buildings in New York City today were planned at the tail end of the ebullient 1920s and completed in the early 1930s. In their day, they were the tallest structures in the world, but it took more than a decade for the Empire State to stop being the “Empty State Building.”

And lastly, I leave the final thought with an American interviewed in Dubai:
"All the people who couldn't succeed in their own countries end up here, and suddenly they're rich and promoted way above their abilities and bragging about how great they are. I've never met so many incompetent people in such senior positions anywhere in the world." She adds: "It's absolutely racist. I had Filipino girls working for me doing the same job as a European girl, and she's paid a quarter of the wages. The people who do the real work are paid next to nothing, while these incompetent managers pay themselves £40,000 a month."