Thursday, October 28, 2010

Actual Conservatives for Actual Transit

From DC StreetsBlog:

Streetsblog: Why should conservatives support public transportation?

Glen Bottoms: We have three main reasons that we pitch to other conservatives. One is that we must reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Right now 90 percent of recoverable oil is controlled by foreign governments, most of which don’t wish us very well. Second is economic development. We’ve found that using streetcars in cities downtown spawns development. And third is that conservatives are traditional. Streetcars are a way to preserve neighborhoods by effectively promoting neighborhood cohesion and vitality.

ding ding ding ding. We have a winner.

Car companies like to portray that their product equates to freedom. It is a simple notion, that you can get in your car and drive wherever you want. Because it is a simple notion, it plays well with the idiot wing of the conservative party (of which Lind and Bottoms are not members).

The problem arises when all of our spending favors car travel that we are all literally forced to drive and that is the only acceptable and/or practical means of transportation. As we posted yesterday, they quite like that monopoly, thank you. However, 1) monopolies hardly fit in the conservative notion of market/competition-driven free market capitalism. 2) Gas taxes only pay for about half of our roads, the rest come out of taxes. 3) Gas is subsidized and the true cost is somewhere between $6 and $16/gallon (if you factor in military spending to secure oil). 4) Our gas spending predominantly goes to unstable foreign regimes.

So, in sum, we have no CHOICE in transportation, we are taxed excessively, we bail out auto industry, we support foreign dictatorships and presumably indirectly fund terrorism, and we drive budgets into the red. How is ANY of that conservative?

Three Second Memory

You know how pet gold fish only ever grow as big as the vessel that holds them will allow, some uncanny equation that always retains a natural proportion. Downtown, as a living organism, is very similar.

The highways around downtown Dallas create border vaccuums ringing the perimeter. Highways are about long distance connections. Downtowns are built upon millions of local connections: between it and adjacent neighborhoods, between offices and auxiliary/complementary uses, between residents and their work or their play, for workers to other offices, amongst friends, to restaurants, etc. etc.

We mistakenly think Downtown Dallas needs those highways to get people downtown. We have it backwards. The suburbs need those highways. They are a subsidy that tips the balance of choice in home buying towards cheap land and away from amenity. And you can be sure there is a tipping point in there.

Furthermore, as I said to a city councilperson the other night, a place can and should be judged on the quotient of people in a place above and beyond those that have to be there. Suburbanites coming into Dallas HAVE to be there. They work there. They bought tickets to a show or a game at American Airlines. They don't WANT to be there. Nobody WANTS to be near a highway.

Think of all of those connections like your fingers are locked together. Now have someone judo chop those hands apart. That is what highways do to local connections. Being antithetical to local connections, and incongruent to humane, people/pedestrian-friendly spaces/neighborhoods, they create borders, boundaries, if you will.

The little living, beating heart of downtown Dallas is the three block stretch of Main Street between Field and Ervay. Last night during Game 1 of the World Series, cheers resonated out of bars, restaurants, hotels, and residences up and down the street (along with groans later in the evening). It was real. It felt real, authentic. A real urban neighborhood.

Can it get bigger? Definitely, but we will see how much. Roads like Griffin, Elm, and Commerce create a cell within the cell as not quite highways, but effectively operating as such. They are the invisible hand preventing the gold fish from reaching the size of the entire tank.

Follow the lead of Milwaukee, San Francisco, and the many other cities planning to remove freeways like OKC, NOLA, Baltimore, etc. and create places that people WANT to be by tearing out the freeways.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Give a Fool a Microphone...

Wanna listen to me yammer, babble, ramble, and/or pontificate? Click on this linky to an invite from D Magazine to a discussion about how to improve the Arts District.
On November 4 we will host a public forum on The Arts District at the D Magazine offices, 750 N. St. Paul St., Suite 2100. Joining us will be Dallas Arts District Executive Director Veletta Lill, TITAS Artistic Director Charles Santos, AT&T Performing Arts Center board member Deedie Rose, and urban planner and writer Patrick Kennedy.
Bottom Billing! Woooooo!!!!

Don't You Touch That Monopoly

Oh Noez! People want things other than big, dangerous roads. This guy finds that to be BS:
Congestion is by far the most serious issue facing our transportation system. Livability measures not only fail to address congestion, they make it worse. More congestion means that people spend more time stuck in traffic, which means a lot of wasted time and fuel. As vehicular mobility declines, so does real livability.
But my favorite part is this:
The implication is that any infrastructure project that fails to build more roads is latently unpatriotic, because “most Americans prefer to drive”:
'America Haterz! Always tryin' to make America better and safer and cleaner! Monopoly on transportation is as American as apple pie. You don't hate apple pie do you?! DO YOU?! Monopoly was a board game! Do you hate board games?! You'd probably rather kick a can down a dingy alley and pretend it is a soccer ball in some poor country that doesn't have all our freedoms and Escalades!'
Scribner is from a group called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which hails one Michelle Malkin as an alum. If that wasn't enough of a black eye, along with American Enterprise Institute are the "think tanks" with the two highest percentages of their budgets attributable to corporate funding. Their corporate donors include Amoco, CSX (a trucking/shipping company), Ford, Exxon Mobil, GM, and Texaco. /Just do thy bidding.

As for private and foundation donors, they include such upstanding, freedom (for-me-and-not-for-you) loving citizens as the Koch brothers and the Scaife family, as in Richard Mellon Scaife. They consistently support such happy friendly industries as coal, pharmaceuticals, and tobacco, once calling "smoking a civic duty." /Too many Mad Men re-runs I suppose.

Oh, they're also among the biggest whores climate change deniers on record.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Inner Growth

Leinberger in the Washington Monthly sums it up that outward expansion, stuffing ourselves with suburban cake, is coming to a merciful end. Time to shape up, qualitatively improve ourselves rather than quantitatively as measured by weight, girth, body fat, etc...cuz if we are our cities, and our cities are our economy, it is loaded up with lard currently. Gooey, gelatinous, wasteful excess baggage that must be shed.

Instead, our only choice is that of health: getting smarter, stronger, healthier, with a more efficient circulatory system (transpo) and greater lung capacity (natural environment). There is no magic pill for that. Only will, dedication, and hard work. Time for all of America to be a contestant on the Biggest Loser...or we could just stick are head in the sands, fingers in our ears, lalalalalalalala can't hear you, and hope the mean world just blows away like the last tornado warning:

In the postwar years, America pushed its built environment outward, beyond the central cities, creating millions of new construction jobs and new markets for cars and appliances—a virtuous cycle of commerce that helped power American prosperity for decades (until, of course, it went too far, leading to the oversupply of exurban development that is acting as deadweight on the current recovery). The coming demographic convergence will push construction inward, accelerating the rehabilitation of cities and forcing existing car-dependent suburbs to develop more compact, walkable, and transit-friendly neighborhoods if they want to keep property values up and attract tomorrow’s homebuyers. All this rebuilding could spur millions of new construction jobs. But more importantly, if done right, with “smart growth” zoning codes that reward energy efficiency, it would create new markets for power-conserving materials and appliances, providing American designers and manufacturers with experience producing the kinds of green products world markets will increasingly want.

In addition to fueling long-term economic growth, the new demand for walkable neighborhoods could provide other benefits. One of the biggest drivers of rising health care costs is the expansion of chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease—conditions exacerbated by the sedentary lifestyles of our car-dependent age. All would be substantially reduced if Americans move into higher-density, transit-friendly neighborhoods in which more walking is built into their daily routine.

Monday Morning Linkages

Knocking this out quickly while I spend the morning on billing. Oh, the joys of having your own business. At least we have clients who pay on time and we don't have to worry about calling Vinny and Mickey from collections. On to the show:

Kansas City, the city with the most freeway miles per capita in this country and according to the transitive property we might assume the world (unless you count Wasilla, AK but who does?), has an aha! moment and realizes new/more/bigger freeways doesn't relieve traffic the way it was promised. You get the feeling the people at TTI are all like Doctor Nick, prescribing the same solution to all problems? Or at least school nurses: saltines and robitussin for everybody! Now that's a party. From Kansas

The new study also refocuses the transportation debate away from traditional solutions.

“If we define the problem as low travel speed, we see congestion and we turn it over to the engineers who prescribe what they know best: widening streets and highways. Both are extremely expensive,” said Ron McLinden, an area environmentalist and transit advocate.

MARC recently quantified the cost of growing the same way we have been — $8.7 billion for roads, bridges, sewers, sidewalks and other infrastructure during the next 30 years.

McLinden said he thought that there was a less costly way, which also would shorten commutes.

“What if we get more destinations located closer to where people live? What if the average person only has to travel a mile to get groceries, for example, instead of three? That puts a lot more people within walking or bicycling range, and that means less traffic.”

But some researchers caution that you can’t assume that every city should be compact.

“If you look at housing costs, for example, they are higher in dense areas,” said Tim Lomax, an author of the congestion study at Texas A&M.

“So, from an economics point of view, one can live in the suburbs and have high travel costs, but pay much less for housing and still come out spending less than the person who walks everywhere from an in-town condo.”

Let's see how far that narrow-mindedness gets you TTI. Oh, $56 million dollar budget? Keep it up then.
New study reports that young people, the population bubble equivalent of the Baby Boomers and in all likelihood will have a similar transformative effect, want the flexibility of apartments over houses, smartphones over cars. This recalls my call for a parallel geography of net and city. Our phones provide our connectivity, our awareness of transit lines/times/destinations, the syncopation of meeting times amongst friends at third places, etc.
There is also growing research that younger generations do not relate to the automobile as enabling "freedom." Instead, their electronic and social media devices--whether a smart phone, small lap top computer, music player, etc.--provide an alternate means for self expression and being free to do what they want. In the United States, kilometers driven by 18-34 year olds is declining, and this is likely the case in Canada as well (Neff, 2010). Younger generations seem to have less interest in automotive use, making apartment living in dense, walkable and transit-oriented urban areas a more natural fit for their lifestyles.
But all of those car ads make driving on the Pacific Coast Highway and ghost town cities seem so cool.
A British town experiments with nudity again removing all traffic signals, with interviews of every middle aged British woman, you've ever seen. There are only three of them, replicated like soup cans. I can't embed, so you'll have to hit the link. The theory is that people have to reconnect with their humanity and make eye contact with other drivers, thereby making the system smarter rather than the automatic conveyor belt action of typical intersection engineering.

Are we sticking our heads in the sand, ignoring the immense economic benefits of high-speed rail — the potential, says Secretary LaHood, “to transform transportation in America, much like the Interstate Highway system did under President Eisenhower”? And that at a very time when interest rates for capital borrowing are at an historic low, and unemployment at record post-World War II highs?

The communications director for California’s outgoing governor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, notes trenchantly of current GOP candidate Meg Whitman’s opposition to high-speed rail funding: “To say ‘now is not the time’ shows a very narrow vision.”

The reluctant Republican governor candidates should tour the stunning railway pavilion at the Shanghai Expo. It’s a powerful high-tech vision of rapid rails undergirding and advancing the economy of our new and major international competitor. True, China lacks personal liberties or environmental protections to match ours. But the new American patriotism has to look reality in the face: it’s primarily economics, not military power, that will determine the wealth and welfare of nations in this century. It should be intolerable to think we’ll accept second-class status.

I say, the interstate highway system was built to interconnect the regional economies of cities. Rather than travelling in a rather unsafe manner at 60-70 mph, wouldn't it be nice to relax on a train going from city center to city center at 200 mph? You'd think if the TTI was so concerned about mobility and speed they might be behind this. Trains don't pay their bills. The transportation monopoly has worked out pretty sweet for the car/oil/gas/road industries. No one else however.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

On Newstands Today

If you have been wondering why content here has slowed quite a bit recently, one of the many reasons is that I have begun writing a monthly column for D Magazine. The November issue should be hitting shelves today (sadly displacing the BEER! issue) with my very first column in it, so pick up a copy.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Uptown Girl Needs a Better Block

Over at Better, they've got video of Billy Joel's version, inspired by the initial efforts here in Dallas.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

For the 1000th Post on this here Blog

I'm announcing yet another blog to keep up with! /OMG Please stop the madness.

Actually, this one all about the Better Block Project (ed: updated dead link) and following the virus across the country as Guerrilla Urbanism takes the bull by the horns reacting to over-engineered and under-responsive public streets. When I talk about parallel geographies between web and place this is it. Idea spreads memetically via the web and they begin to appear.

/Strict, mindless adherence to archaic, dogmatic formulae. It's like we're living in engineering Taliban.

I've also been made a contributor/editor over there, so while the posts won't be as frequent there as here, I'll be sure to mention updates there from here. Got it?

Monday, October 18, 2010

TOD Galore

A new massive database has been assembled and released at large by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the affiliated Center for Transit-Oriented Development (TOD). The direct link to Dallas is here, we'll see if that works for you, since you have to be a registered user to access it.

Below is a sample where they map all existing and proposed transit stations and with a click will return population, # of jobs, and median income within a 1/2 mile radius. Let's see if you can guess my one issue with it:

Get this far? Well, my one and only problem is inherent to such massive assemblies of data. Each of these TOD zones requires specific attention to detail. This gets at a broader problem preventing TOD planning from becoming smarter, and that is the ubiquitous 1/2-mile walk circle.

The issue with the 1/2-mile circle, intended to simulate a 10-minute walk or a popularly accepted distance to travel by foot to transit stations is that not all 10-minute walks are the same. What is the road network like within that 1/2-mile generic circle? How many roads must be crossed? How direct is the route (yielding a more radial pattern emanating from a center of gravity or attractor - in this case the transit station)? Are there highways to be traversed? How long is the wait to cross at crosswalks, etc. etc.?

This is the type of thing that can really only be field tested and I apologize for not doing that here. Instead, I did a quick estimate based on distances and first-hand experience of riding DART to the CityPlace station and walking to various destinations (Target/West Village) several times. Below is a quick map of that.

Click to get a closer look.

As you can see, what actually constitutes an acceptable walking distance is FAR, FAR smaller than the 1/2-mile circle, because it takes a similar amount of time. In the case of CityPlace station, being 20,000 leagues beneath the sea of traffic on North Central Expressway is its problem as surfacing from the subway station can take at least 5-minutes unless you're in the mood for 2-minute thighs and feel like running up the monumental stairwells that are only missing the monument.

Other areas of the city would actually come far closer to the actual perimeter of this circle. To do so, would require a tightly-knit grid of smaller, easily crossable, pedestrian-oriented streets, preferrably in a more radial pattern than perfectly squared gridiron. The reason for this is that it creates more direct routes based on desire lines (if the transit-station is the most desirable destination in the area). Obviously, this exists only in a perfect world which over time balances the competing desire lines to other destinations.

Example of a "pure" radial grid. Many of the garden cities, which were little more than purely theoretical exercises, exercised in exurban greenfield locations (much like the pop-up "sustainable cities" of the Middle East and China that are super awesome theoretically, just lack a reason for being in the first place besides 'can do?' not 'should do?'), display similar features. Both promised utopia.

While I would never espouse a pure geometric form since no place is perfectly flat or so singular in its hierarchy of desire lines, I do prefer an overlay of radial and gridded much like Paris or DC or Papal Roman Trivia or Broadway, because it creates natural points of convergence and responds to this hierarchy and instills a logical and predictable order unto the real estate market. I should add that I'm also not a rigid adherent to the importance of straight lines and the divergence of road centerline axes leads to decay or reduced value that the Space Syntax crowd preaches. But order created by building form certainly is necessary.

Here is an image of how desire lines and changing demands shape cities over time (Rome during the empire and Rome closer to today) creating a natural order of smaller blocks, system of streets and open spaces.

For more information, see my previous posts on convergence and intersection density analysis:

Monday Morning Linkages

Only a few today:

First, a couple of looks at the rise (and eventual fall) of malls in America. The reason: the will of the free market!!!! No. Actually, math. Tax breaks and shelters to be more precise:

In 1954, Congress greatly accelerated that depreciation timetable, so that you could take twice as big a tax break in the early years. But nothing said you actually had to use the money for renovating the building, so it became tax-free income. The acceleration clause was so powerful that on paper it could look like you were losing money on your building for years even though the building’s value was going up. In fact, you could claim losses even in excess of the amount of profit you were making on the building, and you could apply those losses to other kinds of income. You could use them as a “tax shelter.”

So in the mid-50s, commercial real estate became a tax shelter — you built in order to get these paper losses and shelter other kinds of income. Accelerated depreciation produced an unintended boom in ALL types of commercial construction. Especially in suburbia. You could only get the full write-off on new construction, not renovation of an existing structure. And depreciation applied only to buildings and not to land. So you wanted to spend very little for land and a great deal on the building so you could get the biggest tax break. And where was land cheapest and new construction easiest? The math pushed developers towards the edge of town.

The economic logic of the tax law spurred all sorts of new kinds of suburban development. There’s a tremendous boom in suburban apartments that starts in the late 50s. There’s a tremendous boom in suburban office development. America’s first office park pops up in 1955 and within a decade there are office parks all over the place. Same situation with industrial parks. Investors are looking for tax shelters so now they build whole new factory districts on the edge of town.

In contrast, we have a 2004 article by the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell (NOT one of this blogger's favorites) citing the same report as above, but more as personality profile piece of two early mall developers Gruen and Taubman. Quoting Gruen suggesting in the fifties as what TO DO with Manhattan, reads like a what NOT TO DO:
First, Gruen said, Manhattan had to get rid of its warehouses and its light manufacturing. Then, all the surface traffic in midtown—the taxis, buses, and trucks—had to be directed into underground tunnels. He wanted to put superhighways around the perimeter of the island, buttressed by huge double-decker parking garages. The jumble of tenements and town houses and apartment blocks that make up Manhattan would be replaced by neat rows of hundred-and-fifty-story residential towers, arrayed along a ribbon of gardens, parks, walkways, theatres, and caf├ęs.
The dangers of reciting the starchitect of the day's mantra. In this case, Le Corbusier. Showing once again there is more to learn from the motivated and engaged citizen, the amateur and self-taught urbanist and observationalist, like Jane Jacobs or contemporary locals and Better Block empresarios Jason Roberts and Kevin Buchanon. Not incidentally, Roberts and Buchanon are both IT professionals. Their networking background provides better understanding of the intricate fabric of cities far better than any architect and their personal agendas theories.

Peirce worked with a team of urban experts in preparing the report. And they didn't try to make exact predictions about Dallas so much as lay out two possible futures – one decidedly upbeat and the other alarmingly bleak.

Both were real possibilities for 2010, the experts said.

Reading the worst-case scenario, all I can say is "whew!" I'm glad we avoided that fate.

The consultants imagined constant gridlock on our freeways, the collapse of DART before a rail system could be built, downtown as a virtual ghost town, a soaring murder rate and declining tax base.

Underlying all these problems was a lack of leadership. Most of the city's best and brightest had long since left for the suburbs. What remained was a City Council and school board completely stymied by bitter racial politics.

In contrast, the authors imagined a much brighter future that began with diverse and inclusive leadership – and a willingness to address problems on a regional basis, not just a fixation on Dallas or individual council districts.

With the beautiful rebuilt Cotton Bowl and related sports development around Fair Park, Dallas was an easy winner of the 2016 Summer Olympics. Downtown became dynamic, with students flocking to the Dallas University Center. Scenic Town Lake filled the ditch between the Trinity River levees and development blossomed on both sides of the river.

...which reminds me of my own high hopes for the Fair Park area as well as Martin Luther King Boulevard linking Fair Park (and its DART station) to the Trinity. It's got a lot of good bones in place, now if we can only excise the cancerous freeways undermining that potential, starting with dead man's curve.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Want To Know Who To Keep Up With?

NYC on their streets for people efforts:

Lots of great quotes worth calling out, including:
"I think that world class cities are understanding that they have to do whatever they can to improve the quality of life in their cities. So what we're trying to do is make New York the greatest, greenest big city in the world."
Ambition, NYC has it. Dallas has it too. Can we match their ability to act on that?
"Our agenda is to unclog our streets so that commerce doesn't get stifled."
Wha? But I've been told that big roads are better for bidness!
"This is really for everyone. Not just the spandexed or the brave, but for moms, dads, kids, everyone."
Something I've raised over and over again. The Dallas bike plan is about adding safe bicycle infrastructure so that everyone feels safe enough to bike, not just the Lance Armstrongs of the world.
"Bus ridership is up 30%. Bus speeds were improved 20%. And 98% of New Yorkers were very satisfied with the service."
"There was a 10-to-1 ratio of pedestrians to cars yet 90% of the road space was dedicated to cars. It was a very dysfunctional street system."
"The first thing you notice is how quiet parts of Times Square are now. You can actually have a conversation without shouting above the din of traffic."

"Businesses really loved it. The more foot traffic the better it is for business."
That about sums it up right there. There are several more great nuggets from people that really know what they're doing. Not sure anything else needs to be said or understood to fix cities than that.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

WalkableDFW Field Trip: Vancouver

(dozens of photos to follow if you can follow along...)

Recently, I had the chance to visit Vancouver for the first time in my life without the digital aid of google earth. I was visiting friends in Seattle, a city I have been to about a dozen times for bidness (sic), but selfishly I finagled a group day trip up to Vancouver. In GE, I've probably been there 1000x time, but you never know a place until you can actually see how people interact with the place. GE is good for elucidating long-term processes and dynamics of cities, where people live, where investment is happening (or happened, and when), where successful (or failing) shopping districts/corridors are, etc.

This is one necessary way of seeing a city, but the other is very much in the William Whyte/Jane Jacobs school of observation and empiricism, profoundly scientific at its core. This is also why there is more to learn about cities and urban design through those two, as well as the physical, social, and computer sciences. Each at their heart, some measure of physics at work in their networking dynamics.

This is also why you might as well throw anything architects say about a city out the window. Typically too engaged in window dressing or theoretical and rhetorical gymnastics to "litter the world" with their selfish aesthetic purview. This is a bit harsh and painting with a broad brush myself, but also why so many starchitects make zero sense when you really analyze their words closely. They've made a profession of talking wealthy clients into a dizzying trance. "Wow, I have no idea what you just said, you must be smart."

What does this have to do with Vancouver? Well, it is a city where historic urban fabric and modernism collide, but skillfully and often subtly. Occasionally the contrast of hyper modern and historic can be striking, but struck too often, and your senses are dulled into a vegetative state of a teenager overwhelmed by "flashes" or "jolts" watching MTV. Literally, there are studies about how many "jolts" (a sudden bright image or loud sound) a human can take per second or minute. MTV began this and many other television networks followed suit. They literally and often intentionally turned us into couch potatoes. Tune in, zone out, absorb advertising comin' atcha!

The (rhetorical) question is what demands more out of the user? That which makes our brain tune out or is easily accepted, or that which requires some work on our part, to decipher and interpret. I choose that latter and frankly, if we accept that cities are an exercise in social engineering to some extent, a certain amount of paternalism is necessary. Recall the quote from so many people now that it's lost its attribution that, "we shape our cities and therefore they shape us." Do we expect more out of our audience or less. Do we expect more out of our citizens in daily life? Or school kids just let out of class and back into the city? Or do we just assume they'll wreak havoc. Expectations. People live up (or down) to them.

I believe the most genius is to be found in subtlety. Anybody can ram two tonka trucks together and make them crash, but how many people can split an atom? In many ways, this is what Vancouver has successfully done. Nearly every inch of the city has been spoken for, designed. Perhaps, not by real designers, but like any highly lived in and cared for place, it has been molded by the users. Enough users, enough decision makers, the more place changers. The more people, the more pressure is exerted on that city. Are they there by choice or forced to be there?

This ends up being a key factor in successful cities/places and their livability. How many people are there above those that have to be there. Many people say Dallas is importing people because there are jobs here and not jobs in other parts of the country. Those classify as people who are here by need, not desire. Those needs eventually evaporate and can't be counted on forever. People go to (or stay in) Vancouver because they want to be there to a much greater increment than Dallas, I would surmise. Furthermore, we can look at this from a city vs. suburb scale or even micro: one public space vs. another, even within the same neighborhood. Why does one work and not the other? All of the elements in the equation have to be spliced apart to understand the reasoning properly if never quite fully.

I don't want this to be a "OMG Vancouver super awesome brah, up top!" type of post. I also don't want it to be overly affected by the absurdly nice weather we happened upon in the PacNW. If it were 75 and sunny everyday, would anybody live anywhere else? I dunno. It is why you'll see me working from outside almost every day here in Dallas this fall. /Dallas weather sucks! Nobody wants to be outside. Ok. Thanks for the tweet Ms. Postrel.
Side note: I'm amazed how nice Seattle weather has been every time I've been up there. If I didn't know better, I would think there was some Greenland/Iceland Viking 3-card monte going on.
I found there to be two Vancouvers. The Vancouver that you see from afar (take that literally or metaphorically) and the Vancouver experienced on the street. The latter is by far the more intricate, complete, and complex. And that very well might be the best possible outcome for the two disparate vantage points. From afar, you're looking for beauty, coherence. In person, challenging and stimulating activity, the kind of density of activity and connectivity that creates gravitation, places people want to be just to be. Remember, we like to watch people (also why you'll find most people in any space clustering around the edges).

This post is going to focus on the why and the how for that phenomenon, why Vancouver is so heralded these days, and why it generated the kind of buzz that buys Olympic bids (not literally, ahem SLC and ATL /sideways eyes).

I've mentioned these points in various previous posts, but it is always worth restating. Vancouver has a few main things going for it:
  1. Dramatic yet constrictive geography - almost an equivalent of urban growth boundaries, except to the South where there is ample, flat, arable land.
  2. '90s Asian investment seeking financial security and potential growth during lost domestic decade
  3. '60s era decision by Vancouver policymakers not to allow highways into the city...and diligence/perseverence sticking to it
The last has probably been the most important and influential over the long-term in spite of what I presume were some naysayers calling the decisions "backwards." In reality, it was probably a defensive maneuver or perhaps a calculated risk, but one that has paid large dividends.

Much like Copenhagen, the process in creating cities hailed today as some of the most livable in the world began in the 60s. Copenhagen removed cars from streets incrementally, Portland under a republican state governor established urban growth boundaries to preserve agricultural and natural land, Vancouver decided freeways were antithetical to what cities are about, neighborhood livability, commercial vitality, and interconnectivity.

The common argument for highways is that they improve connectivity and trade, because of fast moving traffic, but do they? Well, we know that answer. On a regional scale they do, linking regional economies, say in this case Seattle-Vancouver (with that one big barrier in between), but they cause more harm to connectivity on the neighborhood and city scale, the local economy.

CEOs for Cities recently issued a scathing critique of the Texas Transportation Institute's basic formulae. The report entitled Driven Apart shows the limitations if not instilled biases towards increased highway construction. The mobility index is all about speed rather than distance. If I'm driving fast, traffic is clear, things are moving, all is well. Except, 1) that doesn't take into account negative effects, and 2) if it is based solely on velocity rather than a)mode b)efficiency c)pollution d)real estate effects or e)proximity, it is immediately biased towards providing more and more highway travel lanes. Taxpayer, you're on the hook, indefinitely, cuz those things don't maintain themselves.

The natural response is that traffic must be hell, particularly entering the city. There were three traffic backups delaying what should have been little more than a two-hour drive, none of which were directly related to the scaling down of streets (because capacity is added by the grid, the entirety of the system). The first was the border crossing. The second, was through a tunnel which inexplicably was closed down to one lane. And the third was for construction of townhomes along the arterial once into the city, yes, right along what otherwise would have been a highway. Smaller road = more private investment, better balance between taxbase and infrastructure.

The reality is that it isn't bad if the people don't follow the parasitic straw of highways outward as well. They remain close in to the city where all other forms of transportation are viable if not preferable for some percentage of trips. We'll look at why later.

Here is a sequence of the "highway" approach to Vancouver:

Entering the residential periphery the highway steps down in classification to a six-lane signalized arterial. Highway speeds are incompatible with the neighborhoods, but it maintains capacity (if not increases it as cars slow and distances between narrow). The grid then allows for pressure release and increasing choice of route as you enter more density (of destinations).
sidenote: You could say, well why not just build a highway bypass? But, why would you want people to bypass your city? More of a philosophical debate there than a pragmatic one, but a question that should be asked.

Now, in a more robust grid (more optional routes), we are down to four total lanes. Furthermore, part of the denser grid, is shorter blocks, and more intersections which further slows traffic, becoming more compatible with more and more people, i.e. residential density.

And next thing you know, you're crossing bridges into the city, which looks almost exactly as you imagine it, populated by 20-story blue-gray glass towers.

Stepping back to the TTI formula/CEOsForCities critique for a second, if I walk across the street to the store, I am moving more slowly than somebody who drives to the nearest Kroger or wherever, but which is actually more expedient, more efficient (energy or otherwise), or more enjoyable?

None of these questions are asked by TTI, but they are precisely the ones that must be asked within cities, which have an infinite array of factors that must be considered. TTI would do so, except that might dry up the highway trust fund and their personal crusade (for whatever ends) is over. Some of those questions are rhetorical, others are subjective, which is exactly what makes for livable cities, choice and the full and at least equal ramifications for individuals to decide.

TTI, whose data is essentially the be all and end all for all transportation choices, is absurdly flawed. Without competing metrics and proper application of values, the decision is always, "huh, I say I say I say, guess we need mo' highways."

What the highways do in practice to residential real estate markets is move the tipping point between cheaper land (an amenity) and the amenity of proximity: to goods, services, jobs, etc. When you live closer, you don't have to drive 60 miles per hour to get everywhere, and the resultant urban form is at a slower, more humanly acceptable pace, yet better connected, and frankly faster and more cost efficient for both user (less transportation cost) and city (less infrastructure cost - which is translated into taxes).

When land, fuel, and commuting time costs are so low, it is almost insane not to buy a big ol' house at the edge. Everybody heads out there. It happened in Dallas. Tax base headed north. It stuck around in Vancouver because there was more advantage (and presumably long-term return on investment) to stay close even if it meant a smaller home or less square-footage per person.

There is another emerging facet of this equation, the down-sizing movement around the country with regards to house size, moving back into what some might consider more cramped quarters, closer to the city, not for reasons often mentioned, but with the explicit intention to become closer as a family. Rather than Sally texting, tweeting, facebooking, and chatting up in the fourth bedroom, roughly three miles from the "living room" where Mom and Dad are huddled around the suburban campfire, the television, the family is forced into constant interaction. While we may occasionally hate family, the socialization, forces us to become more, ahem, socialized, more tolerant of others and less withdrawn from anyone other than ourselves.

This is the same concept with design, the more interaction, the greater decisions per amount of time occur, applying an upward design or usability pressure to a(ny) place.

I see this locally in downtown Dallas, where new residents are looking to get out from within their cocoon. Their loft is their bedroom, but their living room is the city, out with others. We are social creatures. Uptown is still mostly graduated suburbanites yet unready to find themselves, instead more comfortable letting their dogs greet strangers through the funniest way imaginable, butt-sniffing.

But enough tangent tripping and back to the photos...

The first area we entered was in and around a neighborhood known as Yaletown, which was wonderfully low-scaled and intimate for the most part; the kind of place that looked like they've been lived in and occupied for years, adapted for and by the citizens.

A locally adapted detail here. There is a clear plexiglass panel within this awning. It does two things, allows more light because of the all the gray, dreary days and covers the outdoor eating/sitting area from the rain. How many things do we have here that are designed specifically for Dallas? Or Texas? Many seem as though they could be anywhere in the world.

Now, to planner porn. When former city planning director Larry Beasley was in Dallas last, he seemed to want to get away from what Vancouver is best known for in architecture and planning circles, the point-tower. What this means is a podium base that never gets much taller than four or so stories, with a tower rising from the middle of this base.

The intention is that from the street, the pedestrian never feels overwhelmed by the scale and height of the building. Other unintended consequences of tall buildings include wind shear (creating extreme wind gusts below) and a privatization of the sun to some extent, creating an overly shaded street. In cities where the sun is rare, it is critical to prevent this from occurring. In Dallas, we just make every building reflective glass to amplify ambient temperatures ten or fifteen degrees at the street. Smart. (But, we're being super green dude!)

What Vancouver did, was essentially establish invisible volumes that when investment arrived at various blocks it would fill up the "glass" as construction of buildings deemed suitable and complementary to the street and adjacent blocks. My guess is that this solution was a compromise. Because there were no highways into the city, there was no sociofugal force that scattered and gutted the city that had incrementally formed and clustered over decades and centuries.

Because nobody had left, there was no incentive to pave and park. The citizens were happy with their city the way it was, and to accommodate this new asian investment (who wouldn't turn down that kind of money?!). The City HAD to find an acceptable compromise between (Far) East and (Pacific North-)West, between investment demanding increased density, and all of the historic fabric.

Here is a series of those:

Two-story base. Notice the rooftop garden spilling over.

The same building. It has some art deco things going on to it. I can't tell if it is new or old, which tells me it either is aging or will age well.

Here is another base of a tower, a series of townhomes and stoops lining the quieter side street. The is density interfacing with public space with extreme delicacy.

On the surface, Vancouver is all about those shimmering, elegant glass towers. The life of the city is still at the street, just as Jan Gehl suggested when he blamed too many cities and architects focusing on skylines rather than sidewalks. Vancouver tried to bridge the gap between the two, and while they did so to accommodate density, there is still more density in dreadfully un-urban Las Vegas.

While I got the impression that many of these towers were little more than arm candy, staring back blankly and dumb, perhaps that is the only way to make building height work with the ground plane. The towers are meant to be seen from afar, the ground plane is meant to be interacted with, touched, felt, and interfaced. It was necessarily more human. In Dallas, we plop down a porte cochere and valet stand. But interface is partially the fault of road design.

This is why you can't get into the density debate. Much of Las Vegas is more dense than Vancouver, far more people live in the intricate, tightly knit surrounding neighborhoods in Vancouver than the glass towers, which are filled like many other recent condo towers, with speculators and second-, third-, or fourth-home buyers. Rather, we must maintain urbanism as an issue of design. Not design as most see it, the superficial and subjective, but rather the objective: design function and relationships between buildings, streets, and spaces.

The rest of the city:

You'll notice sometimes I tilt the camera to get more into the frame, usually the horizon.

I have no idea what kind of building this is. It was across from the convention center (which isn't the beached whale the same facility is here).

Every side street, turns the corner and immediately changes character from hustling/bustling to residential scale/proportion. Notice the baby carriage. Downtown Vancouver actually has a dearth of schools (and space to put them). So many young families moved downtown in the past 15 or so years, that they have not been able to keep up.

Of course, everybody will tell you only young singles and empty nesters will live downtown. They are full of shit. New York City is having the same problem in lower Manhattan. Once again it is about desirability and safety, aka design.

Granville Island:

See the entry bridge into the city from earlier in the post. Same one. Interesting here, because it is so high that it doesn't have the negative effect many bridges, viaducts, and highways have on the desirability of the ground plane. New TxDOT campaign: Raise all the freeways! Just kidding. Or we could go all Le Corbusier and put them on top of buildings.

Kid spray park on Granville. Amazing how many amenities for all ages are in an around the downtown area. These are chicken/egg. You can build them for nobody in hopes they come, but it is better, easier, and cheaper to respond to rising demand for amenity, by getting people to live downtown by other means, ie transportation advantages, not having highways to the burbs.

And this wouldn't be complete without a trip to the Olympic Village, which was remarkably similar to Victory in Dallas in many ways, not the least of which because they're more like ghost towns than development prototypes. I think I'll turn the rest of the Olympic Village analysis into a post of its own because it deserves it, especially after Kaid Benfield tweeted at me that it represents the new model of sustainable development. Hint: I'll disagree. The City still owes a billion in cash money on this piece, hardly sustainable. For now, enjoy the design detail, because frankly, it is pretty exquisite...

Also, I edited Seattle out of this one to make into its own post as well.