Friday, February 19, 2010

Free Beer Friday Guess the City goes for Gold

Like many American industrial cities, is this Sun a setting or rising one?

New rules. The game is always open to guessing in the comments, but to garner the free beer at Friday Happy Hour now requires you to 1) be the first to accurately guess the City described/shown; and 2) arrive at the happy hour locale sans auto.

This week I found a city of nearly identical size of population (of the city, not metro area) and age as to Dallas. I thought it might be fun to compare and contrast the similarities/differences in both form and function and how these were affected by different dynamics.

The city for this week has had several name changes over its relatively young lifespan (not to dissimilar in age as our own hometown). One of its original names alluded to its founding and primary industrial output despite sounding like it was named more in iconic idolatry.

Geographically, there are enough rivers running through the city to put its American sister city to shame, making it ideal for industry in 19th century, which is still active after hiccups in how should we call it...ownership and operation?

Being rich in natural resources, West European investors initially founded the City as a company town, really not too much unlike the globalization of industries today towards the far east, Africa, and South/Central America. You can imagine the kind of living conditions and quality of life that existed 100 years ago. Given those, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see why the area has seen the severe swings in political and economic ideology since then.

Today, the city (and region) suffer a bit from identity crisis not unlike many rust belt American cities as it traverses the bumpy waters of a similar transitional period as its primary economic driver, heavy industry and raw material output, flags moving into the 21st century. Only multiply the effect by about a 1000 when you factor in governmental instability.

I always find it interesting looking at these cities, because the aerial maps seem so disconnected from the at-grade experience. In the typical google earth planometric aerial, there doesn't appear to be much density, but in actuality there is quite a bit.

To some extent, it comes down to the form of that density, but even areas with predictable urban form (the areas that look to fit together like puzzle pieces rather than those that look like train wrecks), the block size and scale is quite oversized to what we typically see. There isn't a concentration of density (not so much of people, but of form), that provides a framework of highly active areas, economically or socially despite the city being primarily organized around a pair of parallel, North-South streets as platform for cultural and political heart of the City.

Researching this city, I struggled mightily in finding the social hearts of the city. Where are the main informal gathering spaces? Where is the concentration of transactions (of all kinds) which is the chief driver of what we refer to as vibrancy.

I had a bear of a time finding the shared social spaces, the busy, vibrant streets, etc. The provision existed in form, but not apparently, in usability, as grand plazas that make Dallas City Hall Plaza look lively and inviting. Not to give too much of a hint, but in these plazas you'll often find Lenin in his working class attire, but without many people gathering around him (which seems somewhat fitting) as he is propped up on a pedestal, which somehow seems to miss the all -isms, I suppose.

The areas where form and transportation typically might dictate some predictable measure of vitality are not as active as you might expect. This is first confirmed by the lack of concentration of uploaded photos into Google Earth, always an indicator of "sacred" or at least, well travelled areas. This comes thru in photos as rarely do you find more than a handful of people, even in its "main street" areas:

I suspect this might come from its organizational hierarchy as a quasi-communist state, but probably more appropriately described as a top-down dictatorship, which minimized the collective intelligence of cities to the singular individuals making decisions for things like "where to locate the market," etc. Ironically (or perhaps not so much), that a "communist" nation lacked collective intelligence of the system.

This looks like what we might describe as a typical mixed-use district, at an intersection with some small-scale neighborhood service retail. However, this is THE primary street, attractive as it is.

It is generally accepted in western thought that the ground floors are reserved for uses that need to interact with movement, ie permeability from street to building. While there are businesses in the ground floor, they aren't highly interactive.

In some ways, despite the density, robust grid of streets, and hierarchy of transportation modes, the form is at least partially responsible for the way cars have taken over the cities of the country this city resides in (since the dream of glasnost tookhold), which has since caused severe traffic and pollution (although pollution has been a problem since its foundation given its economic history).

The form I allude to is the size of blocks and the spatial distance between buildings and uses minimizing walkability, at least from a functional standpoint, ie walking to school, walking to the store, walking to work, etc.

You could blame it on residential towers, but these are mostly new phenomenon locally. I do believe however, they are exacerbating the problem as the epitome of density with little relation to its surroundings. You could call them "towers in the park," but another way to think about them might be as vertical cul-de-sacs. How does it interact with the street? Which becomes how does it then interact with its adjacent buildings, its context. That is how cities function, the interrelation or communication metaphorically of buildings to each other in that the "words" are literally embodied by the people moving about and interacting with them.

Brand spankin' new tower, undoubtedly for the nouveau riche. Whose wealth was found thru the various opportunistic nefarities of their new "open" economy. Not coincidentally, if you were to ever visit this city don't be surprised if you get pulled over for inspection for black market weaponry.

There are however many of strong axial streets, many of which make for some pretty attractive boulevards with ample people space. There is not much evidence of bicycle use, but there is plenty of space for pedestrians. Because of the distances to traverse, the pedestrian usage is mostly kept to recreational purposes.