Friday, February 11, 2011

Linkages with the Quickness

Shh, don't tell anybody I'm taking a quick break...

First, wouldn't you like to know that TxDOT is now 50% more efficient! Or at least the environmental review process is getting a kick in the ol' expedite. Check the slideshow for the gobblety-gook:


This would be nice, say if it was only say, for road diets, complete streets, and downgrading of streets. Instead, here comes a road widening "improvement" coming right up your alley. But hey, the Nazis were praised for their efficiency as well. Let pernicious forms of efficiency be damned.
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Wilonsky at the Observer links to a study that makes you wonder if it was even necessary when 75% of respondents have "no impression." On the other hand, that IS about as fitting a description for insert anti-city here Arlington as one can imagine. How do you have an impression of nothingness? Do you like nothingness? Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of nothingness? If nothingness were to kick a puppy would you have a more or less favorable opinion of nothingness? If nothingness had a baby out of wedlock and then punched that baby repeatedly would you be more or less likely to vote for nothingness?

Keep in mind that I have no problem with suburbs, in their truest, functional form, which is why I reference Valencia, Spain so often. Their suburbs are perfect in my opinion: 1) Linked to each other and the primary body (Valencia), 2) possess a variety of transportation options, 3) are walkable, organized around the train station, 4) are isolated from "anti-bodies" or LULUs (Locally Undesirable Land Uses, i.e. heavy industry, highways), 5) have a range of housing choices with a clear, organized hierarchy based on desirability, centrality, and transit options (interrelated), 6) set within a backdrop of local agriculture for resilient, predictable food production.

There is a critical difference between functional suburbs and sprawl. Sprawl (anti-city) is disconnected and centerless. Connectivity and hierarchy of centers are the foundation for all networks (your brain, these here interwebs, cities, etc.). Without those two things, a place is dysfunctional. It might as well not exist...which means, if it doesn't find those things, it WON'T exist. Sounds crazy to say (since we live day-to-day and cities exist century by century), but this is a fundamental fact of cities throughout history.
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Lastly, I like Ed Glaeser. We agree on a lot of things. In fact, sometimes I feel like he gets his ideas from my blog (which he surely doesn't - but he has a knack for writing about things I've already written about. Of course, the flipside could be said for me and Jonah Lehrer when he writes about cities.).

Eddie money has a new book out today, which I will pick up as soon as possible. A couple of tangent trips:


* The user review of his book at the Amazon link above is hilarious. I'll paraphrase. "I really like the first two parts of the book where he's being all fiscally conservative and criticizing all the ways cities went wrong with zoning and all that big gub'ment hoogily moogily! Then that final act isn't worthy my toilet paper! How dare he criticize conservative policy as well! What a jerk! He really upset the confirmation bias I had going with the first two sections! Me and confirmation bias were going steady for a while there. But I dumped it like a sack of potatoes. Burn this book!"

* Second, an excerpted study of his new book that David Brooks references in his latest column blows the doors off of any relevance Joel Kotkin ever had:

This is a point Edward Glaeser fleshes out in his terrific new book, “Triumph of the City.” Glaeser points out that far from withering in the age of instant global information flows, cities have only become more important.

That’s because humans communicate best when they are physically brought together. Two University of Michigan researchers brought groups of people together face to face and asked them to play a difficult cooperation game. Then they organized other groups and had them communicate electronically. The face-to-face groups thrived. The electronic groups fractured and struggled.

Kotkin believes that telecommuting will allow us all to work from home and live how we want. And since we all want to live exactly how he wants, suburbs will live forever. The logic is that easy (or ridiculous). I, of course, counter that certain policies prevent us from all living truly how we want and skew the market. And these policies must be rewritten or scrapped to allow for greater choice in both housing and transportation.

Unfortunately for Kotkin's relevance and book sales, the science (and any personal empirical evidence) shows that working with and being around other people is far more productive than me and you interacting through these two screens and satellites.

The internet evolved into social media, not because it allows us to be further apart, but it allows us to be closer together. We are now better connected globally, sharing information and knowledge, but web 2.0 evolved to help us connect face-to-face, and generate real productivity/creativity/etc.


* Lastly, here is where I disagree with Glaeser in his appeal to more (and better!) skyscrapers as a panacea. Better sounds cool right? The only problem is that vertical sprawl is also problematic. One, for financial reasons. Know of many new high-rises doing well financially? These high-rises often deliver too much product at one-time for the market to absorb and adapt to, trusting our reptilian instinct for new shiny things to pay off the debts.

I think Glaeser might be suffering from his own version of availability/confirmation bias as a New Yorker/Bostonian. His personal bane is historic preservation. Smaller buildings are pending up demand preventing from more supply arriving in the form of replacement high-rises. Couldn't those lower-scaled historic buildings have more value than just their F.A.R. (floor area ratio)? Couldn't they be part of the reason why their is so much demand and value we find in those cities? Isn't their some extra value in connecting with the past via flexible, adaptable buildings that each generation repurposes (without completely tearing down and rebuilding) to suit their needs?

The global nature of the internet creates certain local discontinuities. Does his paean to skyscrapers make sense outside of NYC where land is cheap and demand is low (for now) like in Dallas? What about for the local geography? If Dallas were built to its climate (sunny and windy) would we have all of these glass(!) high-rises that take on heat (requiring greater cooling) reflect heat like a magnifying glass frying the people ants down below, and catch and then redirect the wind down to the sidewalk?

Furthermore, when he calls for high-rises to deliver density, what they end up doing is removing density from the street. First, high-rises either loom over the street forebodingly, they create windshear and a blustery environment at street level, and they block the sun from the street and surrounding buildings.

Second, they foundation of these buildings must be so large and the infrastructure (such as parking garages or all the transportation to bring people from all over a region to this singular point) that it breaks down the desirability of the public space around it because the blocks are too big or the density of movement in and out of this one object is too great to allow for more lingering.

Third, stacking so many people 100-stories into the air (assuming the building has 24-usefulness, meaning a mix of uses) creates demand for services up closer to where the people are. If there are 10,000 people above the 50th floor, there will likely need to be public amenities such as a food court or vertical gardens at various levels, further pulling people off the street level and removing a level of predictability for commercial businesses dependent upon the movement economy. The High Line works in NYC (and perhaps ONLY NYC) for precisely this 3-dimensional density.

High-rises often don't create real density, but an adolescent, clich├ęd view of density, an illusion of density as skyscrapers (and too many of them) create a repellent experience. It lacks nuance. So I ask you, which is a better version of density? Rome and Paris? Or Shanghai, Dubai, and Hong Kong? (The base of the Burj Dubai is about a 1/4-mile around. Its super block is over a mile around and its super, super-block (which includes a mall) is over 3-miles in circumference. I rest my case.)

When I think of New York and Vancouver, two cities often lauded for their skyscrapers, the best spaces and most successful areas are often of a lower-scale than we typically imagine those cities. See my post on visiting Vancouver for more about this.