Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Where the Texas Observer Puts Me in a Sweltering, Dimly Lit Room of My Own Imagination


Forrest Wilder runs a blog series for the Texas Observer entitled "Forrest for the Trees" where he interviews various guests on issues of environmentalism and sustainability within the Texas scene. I had the pleasure of being lucky #3 where I was asked 5 questions and asked to keep my responses to 1 to 3 paragraphs. I pretended to hear 3 to 5 paragraphs and made poor Forrest the unlucky one having to sift through 1,000 word responses.

Find the full interview here. Too bad the picture wasn't from this weekend. Had a killer mustache rockin':

1) Your blog is somewhat provocatively titled “Walkable DFW – Restoring a City to Walkability.” I’m intrigued by the second part, Restoring a City to Walkability. Are you suggesting that Dallas was once a walkable city? When? And, my Lord, what happened?

Dallas once was a very walkable City and there is video footage to prove it. In fact, there was so much pedestrian traffic that we thought this was a problem that must be eradicated. In books like Dallas: Rediscovered you can depressingly see all of the beautiful architecture that was destroyed to blindly make way for the automobile and all of its associated infrastructure, such as parking lots, parking garages, and expanded roads and highways. Just take a walk through downtown and you see remnants like the Wilson Building or the Adolphus, building designed to interact with and participate in the urban street scene, contributing to a sense of place. Now imagine dozens if not hundreds more like those that were wiped clean in favor of parking lots. That is qualitative improvement heading in the wrong direction, that of less value economically, socially, aesthetically, or environmentally.

The intention behind that expansion was to make the City more mobile, more interconnected, but following the rule of unintended consequences, the result was the opposite, an atomized, isolated, and fragmented City or as Lewis Mumford labeled it, anti-city. It was a City where growth was heralded, but it didn't grow organically. It cannibalized from the core leaving behind a wasteland which we're just now remembering its value and importance.

I see one of my goals or missions is to fight against the mindless tautological response of "Oh, we're Texans. We love our cars and that's just our preference." Then why are Atlanta, Phoenix, Houston, even Denver, all essentially the same city? Are they all Texans as well? Why was Dallas walkable and a streetcar mecca before? Why is land in uptown and around DART stations valued more by that same market? It's Stockholm Syndrome, except towards the cars and the policy that shackled us to them.

And the real answer is due to local, state, and federal policies, largely paternalistic, ideological, occasionally corrupt and with very little grounding in how cities actually work. They were also very sterile, one-dimensional and same from place to place, creating a boring homogeny of place. Slowly but surely we are revisiting all of those policies out of necessity and abject failure. We have to rewrite the underlying codes and policies to allow the city to reveal its various personalities, its diversity, its true authenticity. This city produces a ton of creative energy, but mostly exports it. Perhaps, in the 21st century we can keep more local creative talent around and empower it to focus on improving Dallas.

I feel compelled to first state that I'm not trying to take away anybody's car, but rather allow for places where it may not be necessary and ownership can be a function of personal choice, not contextual mandate.

2) To play devil's advocate for a moment: If D/FW is such a rotten place to live then how come the Metroplex added more residents than any other U.S. city over the past decade? People vote with their feet (or their cars, as it were) and car-oriented Texas cities, like Dallas-Fort Worth, seem to be pretty popular right now.

That is a good question, but you're putting words in my mouth. I don't think it is a completely rotten place to live or else why would I be here? I greatly prefer Dallas to Atlanta where I once lived. It has far more character beneath the surface, but it also does have a few worms in it suggesting further rot. One that has a reckoning coming due to its auto-dependency if it doesn't change. Fortunately, it is changing and we will be seeing its unique qualities, character, and spirit shine through. The City's place in the world depends upon it.

We need a complex hierarchy of transportation alternatives for the City to work and cater to the market and pent-up preferences. If there is predominantly only one choice (for a variety of reasons) how can people really vote with their feet? I really think the eventual modern streetcar network and bike plan will have a dramatic effect on this City, more so than many can even imagine. Those two forms of transportation generally best serve distances of about 1 to 3 miles, the exact distance where I think the biggest gap is between existing land use and potential value, the neighborhoods immediately around and adjacent to downtown.

Specifically about your question though, I wonder is it really popular? Is it popular to those with options? I'm seeing far more young, highly-skilled, highly mobile types leaving for Austin, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, New York, and DC as the predominant destinations. I think we're actually seeing a relative lack of mobility in job markets and where the majority of people have little choice in where they live, work, and play, especially now. Much of the continued job growth is an extension of the shear vitality of the 20th century economy. The biggest changes are coming in the housing, construction, transportation, planning, design industries, and most importantly the banks lending to all of the above.

I think a few things shielded us from the funny money and fraudulent loans floating around in the system and the worst of the first slide, but I'm worried about the double dip hitting us square in the jaw where we feel the correction from a general oversupply of housing in the wrong place, where the value of the land is worth much less than the cost of the house on top of it. If there is another spike in gas/oil prices we could feel it severely, but ultimately that helps us reposition ourselves into a more functional, sustainable economy. Perhaps the spike in energy isn't even the trigger but the disappearance of income just makes transportation infeasible to families deciding that the 20 or 30% of income for automobile ownership and maintenance just is no longer worth it.

Fortunately, Dallas has a diverse economic base, an ambitious spirit and a can-do attitude, but I get the increasing sense that this is going to be a long, slow repositioning (rather than recovery which implies restoration of status quo)...and a necessary one as we shed a skin that was no longer working for us, for a new economy, a new city that better represents the 21st century and us as Dallasites.

3) Dallas is not known as an easy place to be a bicyclist, yet you've been car-less for over two years. What has your personal experience been getting around Dallas on two wheels, and what does it say about the transportation culture there? Also: Dallas is finally getting serious about investing in bike infrastructure after decades of neglect. What do you think of the plan as it stands now?

I've been riding my bike more and more over the last few months, perhaps even stimulated by the reality of the bike plan coming to the forefront of local consciousness. For a long-time, I stuck to getting places on foot, trolley, and train until recently deciding to bike to meet someone for drinks at the Old Monk on Henderson, which is probably 3 or 4 miles from downtown. I did it as a bit of a challenge to myself, but I loved it.

Having now biked the streets of Dallas at various times and days, I can say that it is both very difficult and very easy, but never at the same time. I say that because during rush hour, when some people actually do commute to work by bike, it is a nightmare. So many people are on the road, operating their car like the dependent automaton modern traffic engineering expects them to be, with their brain completely shut off as part of the conveyor belt they never would even think to notice a bicyclist. Unfortunately, the onus of safety is on the person that could get killed, not the one doing the killing, which makes it a bit like hunting if I am to extend the metaphor to the point of absurdity. There is some truth to it though. However, on weekends without the commuters, you might be the only one on many roads in downtown or Deep Ellum except for other cyclists or Vespa riders cruising around town.

Since the bike plan was announced, I've made a point of stating performance-based goals for it so that it doesn't become another plan on the shelf. For it to be successful it has to grow out of the subculture of serious riders, that showed up en masse to City Hall. In many ways, I think that subculture is as much of a barrier to bicycling as a serious form of transportation as engineering, design, and safety. Who wants to be in spandex?! With the Bike Friendly Groups popping up in Oak Cliff, Fort Worth, Denton, etc., I feel like it is a burgeoning culture, probably spurred by Millennial and some Gen X generation childhood nostalgia, kind of like kick ball leagues. It has become a social outlet for people who were in all likelihood raised isolated from each other dependent upon Mom or Dad for any kind of mobility.

It is still very early in the Bike Plan and really nothing to react to yet so it remains to be seen if or when it might get off the tracks. I wrote about the kickoff meeting and to Angela Hunt's credit, she picked it up on her personal blog quoting my very challenge to her and the other councilmembers. I was very impressed by that. To broaden the discussion again, I feel we need to go through some intense periods of introspection: of what works, what doesn't work, what is real, what is imagined, and what is false bravado claiming "world class!" Angela taking on that responsibility is asserting some honesty, accountability, and leadership to the process.

4) Can you expound some more on what you mean by Dallas needing a "complex hierarchy of transportation alternatives for the City to work and cater to the market and pent-up preferences." What would such a system look like, and how is it achieved?

Certainly. Transportation is inextricably linked to development form, vice versa, and how they choose to interface. The first two (transportation and development form) are an outgrowth of policy. How they interface is a function of design. What we did was engender policies I call the “urban genotype.” It is the genetic code by which cities are then an outgrowth, forming the phenotype or physical form of the city that we actually see and interact with. We can write it to produce anything we want, and we SHOULD write it in a way to allow for explorations into new forms without compromising our goals for the City.

The issue currently is the code is too uniform, too rigid, and too similar throughout the country. This includes Euclidean zoning, minimum parking standards by use, and traffic modeling, etc. None of which take into account variety of context and function of neighborhood nor had any empirical basis. It certainly was self-fulfilling, though. Code for cars, get cars. Study how many cars development generates, get the amount of cars coded for, and claim that somehow as truth. The result is what Mumford calls "anti-city" and some contemporary, forward thinking British transportation engineers are beginning to call “inside-out” cities, where people are repelled by density of movement. Who wants to live by a highway right? The most value is near the greatest confluence or convergence of people. The most trafficked websites get the most for advertising. It then becomes a matter of design. Compare our arterial roads to Champs Elysees to use an extreme example. Pompidous converted all of it to car movement or parking and people were repelled, businesses died. Inside-out. Within the last fifteen years, they restored it to accommodate all forms of transit including ample pedestrian space and now it is a magnet for people and, in turn, investment.

While we may not have a Champs Elysees, a Main Street for city and country, the 21st century city represents increased quality of life and that is the new ideal: self-determination and mass customization writ large, on the City scale. However, you need options to fulfill that promise. The two cities getting the most publicity are probably Portland and Copenhagen. Both are smaller cities that have spent the last 40 years heeding the advice of Jaime Lerner, “the car is like your mother-in-law. You have to have a good relationship with her, but she can’t be the only woman in your life,” transforming their cities to make room for pedestrians, bicycles, mass transit, as well as cars. In the scenario where everyone must get around in a car, costing 30+% of some people’s income to own/maintain, it undermines the American Dream, if not fully isolates some from even participating in the local economy, of bettering themselves and becoming self-sufficient. This and the infrastructural burden is why I say, “walkability is a tax cut.”

People often then remark, “but we're not Portland or Copenhagen." Very true. We need to find our own identity, which can only occur through a natural outgrowth of more flexible codes and policies that allow for a greater range of densities, public places, parks, types of transportation, etc. The demand is out there for more walkable, urban places with an emphasis on social spaces. It is more State Thomas, less Victory, but probably with even greater variety and character. State Thomas represents two development prototypes: townhomes and Texas donuts, both of which were products of their time and place, the nineties. You know that if every architecture firm in the city can do them, they are probably past their prime. Walk with me into the future. It is Bishop Arts and Oak Cliff. It is Deep Ellum with funky artist’s lofts repopulating the area. It is a revitalized Ross Avenue with bike lanes, mixed-use/mixed-income housing of a variety of scales, with modern streetcar running down the middle linking downtown with Lower Greenville. I would bet Ross has a greater delta between potential and existing than anywhere in the City if the obstacle course can be negotiated.

We are in a period of tighter lending and tighter budgets, but there remains high demand for walkable, urban living. For what Portland now defines as the “20-minute neighborhood” where virtually anybody can find suitable accommodations and find access to everything they need within 20-minute walk. You might be able to get there more quickly via other means, but maybe you have the time and feel the need to experience your neighborhood at a slower pace. And that’s the point. Why should we effectively legislate against walking or biking when car-dependence is the form of transportation with the most negative externalities? A greater range of transportation options yields a greater range of neighborhood types appealing to all of our various spectrum of needs and wants rather than a code that gets virtually no choice. It means a healthier, more sustainable, more resilient housing market, and city.

5) Finally, what is the most encouraging thing you've seen recently in D/FW in terms of achieving a more livable, walkable sustainable Metroplex?

It would be probably be too easy to say the shift in direction at various government levels particularly the Federal level, but those changes are being catalyzed by a bottom-up process, much like the economics. I would say it is both the growing awareness and the emerging demand for it, for something different. Whether you call the massive change as a result of millions of little personal changes, the result of lifestyle choice or a personal financial decision probably doesn't matter. Usually it takes a generational shift of priorities to implement the change. The timeline of cities is much slower than our day-to-day awareness typically can comprehend. If change happened too quickly, it could be traumatic. Furthermore, if markets are constructed on demographics, we have the two biggest population bubbles in American history demanding democratic mobility; Boomers retiring and Millennials graduating and largely rejecting the social isolation of where they grew up. No matter how much people might be resistant to change, real choice is seductive; almost as much as fiscal sanity, which eventually wins out anyway even if it takes a generation or two to test the utility of (an) urban form.

In many ways, the Internet has been instrumental. At its advent, there was some worry that it would make for generations of shut-ins, but eventually like with all things humans make something more useful or they discard it. With the Internet, we've created web 2.0, a platform for self-organizing, community building of like-minds and similar interests. We did so in order to allow social media to spill over into actual social interaction. We're seeing the fruit of that with grass roots efforts towards community, towards walkable urbanism. The Build-a-Better-Block Project from Oak Cliff is a perfect example. I think we're going to be seeing more of these kinds of efforts spring up. They may not be exactly the same but in principle they will be; community building through the Internet allowing like-minded people to define and flavor different portions of the City, like the eventual return of Deep Ellum. I'm even starting to wonder if lack of choice led to the breakdown of community. There was no neighborhood to call home that was perfectly suitable to each's needs, that is different from say, uptown. From personal experience, I have picked that up living in downtown where I've found far more kindred spirits here than in uptown, for example, people looking for diversity, cool, historic lofts, access to transit, ability to walk to work, bars, restaurants, etc. The experience has validated my personal choice.

In addition, the Internet has allowed the rapid spread of information, seeing other cities as well as their solutions to similar problems tested in virtually in real time. The access to data and the mainstreaming of urban issues has been critical as well. We now have more writers, bloggers, and unrelated professionals thinking, talking, and creating change, because it is their life and there is no better expert on that than them. Particularly helpful have been mathematicians and computer scientists getting involved, presumably lured by the parallels of networking principles and massive amounts of data involved with cities. The economy is built on objective evaluations, rightly or wrongly. Problems arose when we haven't been able to accurately value certain things, so they are left out of the equation (for example clean water, clean air, quality of life, etc.). If those are the rules we have to play by, we have to make the equations smarter. Slowly but surely, we are beginning to do that and it’s allowing us to get smarter about assigning a more predictable and accurate value to things such as land. How much investment to put into it from a private (capital) and public (infrastructure) standpoint and what kind of return can we expect (private: profit, public: tax base, quality of life, etc.). It's about getting smarter at every level of the city building process and the rise of the faculties to make that happen while literally witnessing it happen day-to-day, which is pretty exciting.