Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Parallels/Intersections: A Critique

Last night, as part of the Congress of New Urbanism - North Texas Chapter's on-going series of "urban conversations" with various thinkers, designers, developers, and what-have-you's, I was able to catch the second half of local landscape architect Kevin Sloan's two-part lecture entitled Parallels/Intersections. The first half was presented two-weeks ago. Parallels was an examination predominantly of Sun Belt development patterns, whereas intersections proposed some ideas as open-ended solutions.

My hopes were mixed. These lectures have been given several times, at various local professional organizations, like the AIA. So, on one side, if everybody is seeing these, I better. On the other hand, I have been in private developers' offices where they privately sneered and or disregarded what was said. I had no opinion. However, the titles of the two presentation, I thought, did allude to some intrinsically urban dynamics.

Unfortunately, I was rather disappointed in how the titles either did not pervade throughout the lecture, nor were they examined in much depth. The term intersections implied some inherent reference to Bill Hillier's concept of pervasive centrality, and perhaps more referentially, central place theory. Intersections are fundamental to the formation of the human agglomerations we call "cities" or "urban." As I wrote to someone yesterday:
The first thing to keep in mind is the very reasons that cities, or urban environments exist as we know them. Perhaps a better term than "urban" or "cities" which are fraught with various unintended interpretations is clustering or agglomerating. Why do people cluster/agglomerate? The reason is the competitive advantage of doing so. While there are and have always been changing circumstances and reasons for doing so, the underlying one is and has always been economic. Agglomeration at intersections generates wealth (and hopefully prosperity too). And by intersections, I don't just mean at the crossing of two roads, which exist on a local level. This can be rail crossroads as the reasons for many midwest towns and cities. Or more recently, the crossroads of ground transportation with air transportation. See Greg Lindsay's book Aerotropolis for an examination on this.
Unfortunately, there was very little examination at the heart of what intersections mean to cities. Why they are very much fundamental to what cities are, agents of connectivity of human activity (needs/wants). While I agree with the fundamental thesis, of the need for walkability (see: title of this blog), there was not even a more literal exploration of concepts like "intersection density" as an indicator or a physical emergent of walkable places. Instead, the title seemed to be little more than a useful opposite to the previous, "parallels."

While that is just a superficial quibble, I will be getting into more substantive critique later. I'll be more objective and analytical in those sections than I was tweeting last night, as the first response is typically emotional.

But, I should take a moment to discuss why I had a pretty strong, negative visceral reaction to what I was hearing despite, as I said, agreeing with the basic premise, Dallas needs walkability. What's not to like? The way it was presented is what bothered me. It felt patronizing. As if stating, "I studied urban design in Florence" was enough of a qualification to completely disqualify objection. Well, I studied urbanism in Rome, with plenty of people who shouldn't be talking about urban morphology and the shoulds and shouldn'ts of cities.

Littered throughout the dialog were name-drops worthy of any Highland Park housewife. Hence, why I described the first talk as a "Dan Brown novel posing as David Foster Wallace." Simply saying "Brunelleschi" does not automatically lead to profundity.

The other part I found rather offensive was the duplicity of it. Much of what plagues the architecture profession, particularly at the higher, astrological levels of it is a reliance on subjectivity. If every question is reduced to a subjective level, then no one is ever wrong. Just look around and tell me if there aren't some WRONG buildings strewn about the landscape.

Fortunately, Sloan doesn't fall into this trap, where the designer resorts to bizarre abstractions which make no sense upon further translation. On the other hand, what is done all too often within the lecture is the illusion of the objective. A parade of pseudo-science masquerading as scientific method, where simply looking at parallel latitudes and coming to the conclusion that because Dallas and Paris are on different latitudes, they should be different places with different, geographically-oriented design responses. Or, arbitrarily drawing boundaries to show all sprawl-belt cities have a density of 1 person per acre.

Sure, the conclusions are correct, but the process is disingenuous. This point was underscored repeatedly by the many times in which it was stated that "HE began to look objectively at things," or "HE discovered things" that anybody in the field should have known for many moons. Chris Alexander, a central figure in virtually all networking theory underpinning various elements of urbanism, computer science, ecology, and neurology, this was not.

Sensing the visceral reaction, I was struck by the contrast in generations, and our varying approaches to the rhetoric of urbanism. A baby boomer (I suppose) presented a self-centered approach to urbanism, where he was the lone actor in the discovery of things that have already been discovered. Therefore, the discovery isn't at the real center of the dialog, but the presenter himself. Very starchitect-ish.

As stated, the second half, the "conclusions" as it were, was filled with various leaps in logic, rhetorical inconsistencies, and what I plan to explain are some outright mistakes that do not hold up to rigorous scrutiny.

Inconsistencies pervaded throughout. We heard an explanation of how Dallas, as a representative of 20th century urban development, was different any form of cities we've ever seen before, interspersed with flip-flopping between "this is bad" and "well, this is the present, therefore it is the future" statements. Never did we hear an explanation for WHY? we need walkability or a connection between lack of walkability and its various symptoms (which were pointed out), such as obesity.

In talking about detailed design, he strays from his point about how one city is different from another when suggesting he measured the exact dimension of some amphiteater in Greece or Sicily or wherever. Why? This is Dallas. By his rationale, shouldn't it be different in Dallas? Yes and no, but not for the reasons he suggests. The reason it has some relevance locally, is the design was likely based on human proportion, which means if human proportion was and is still a defining factor in urban places and spaces, the design proportions are appropriate then and now, here and there.

So to say that because we have highways and we're Dallas therefore everything MUST be different is equally invalidated. Because we're still human and highway development just doesn't work. So if human-scale is universal then without doubt, we can say there are principles at work that shaped the cities of the past and will reshape Dallas of the future to be more like every other city.

The solution proposed in Parallels is that highways are with us forever so we might as well live with them. A graphic was shown that our highways are the bones of our city, and that is absolutely right. However, to propose that they will continue to be central to our daily life AND a near infinitely linear walkable, urban neighborhood, for the sole reason that they are there, are currently the central arteries of daily life, and represent vast quantities of cash money spent on semi-permanent infrastructure, is a dangerous conclusion to reach.

The framework of the Sun Belt city. Its highways.

Sloan casually dismisses ideas to remove freeways with a graphic similar to this, which makes no sense whatsoever. Apparently proposing a completely irrational counter-argument to your thesis is grounds for legitimizing yours.

Sloan's linear city, which doesn't actually create any new real estate or provide impetus for upgrading of highway adjacent real estate beyond hopes and dreams that it could work.

Walkable areas within the city are buffered, set away from freeways. As you see, the highways have no relationship with the walkable areas other than to constrict them/restrict their size.

Instead, I would suggest a long-term plan to strip highways from within loop 12, which is beginning to look more and more like a highway anyway, clearing enough room for a real city to exist within.

Some of the current walkable areas in Dallas: Bishop Arts/Oak Cliff, Main Street/Downtown, State-Thomas/Uptown, Henderson/Greenville, Knox/Henderson.

Removing the freeways (as Paris is planning to do entirely from within the Peripherique), creates new real estate for development and further allows the current areas to expand and blend into one another. We too often think of neighborhoods as having hard edges and needing gateways. Real neighborhoods are defined by their hearts, the edges of which blur.

The idea that our most permanent structures in Sun Belt cities are those that are built for the car (highways, mix masters, parking garages), whereas those built for people may not last much more than twenty years, is a concept and subsequent question of how to make them useful is something I am familiar. Five years ago, as part of an application for a travel/study fellowship the following:
Application for The Leonard Kagan Design Fellowship
Written June 2006

“…planners think in two dimensions, architects think in three, but urban designers must think in four.”

It is only natural for designers (of any medium) to contemplate the future, and in particular, the future of that thing we call design. However, most, if not all, efforts are pure speculation based on little more than conjecture. There is inherently a certain amount of unpredictability in world events that drive culture, and in turn, design. This proposal for Kagan Fellowship will take an increasingly accepted geological truism, the Hubbert Peak Oil Theory, and apply it to urban design and city building.

M. King Hubbert was a geophysicist through the middle of the 20th century and the first to propose that oil production and supply existed on a bell curve. Once production “peaked,” essentially at the midpoint of supply, the remaining half of the oil reserves would become increasingly difficult and costly to extract. At first dismissed as nonsense, Hubbert accurately predicted the peak of production within all U.S. oil fields collectively in the early seventies.

Today, modern geophysicists are predicting worldwide oil peak somewhere between 2004 and 2020. Mounting evidence reveals that two of the world’s largest oil fields may have already peaked, suggesting the possibility that we are witnessing critical events that will affect every aspect of society, including the way we live in and build our cities.

It is important to remember that this does not mean oil will just dry up and vanish. Quite likely rather, the planet may never truly run out of oil. However, it does mean that sometime potentially in the near future, that it will make little economic sense to use the energy equivalent of 3 barrels of oil to extract 2 barrels from the ground.

The Hubbert Peak theory offers us a certain amount of predictability for an industrial society based on resource extraction and consumption. It is logical to conclude that these events will alter the world so drastically that society will transition from today’s modern industrial economy into something entirely different.

For the last 70 years, most development in American cities has been centered upon accessibility from an automobile, leaving other options for circulation difficult at best. This relatively new pattern of development is most strikingly evident in the Sun Belt. While there may be a number of reasons that auto-dependence begins to wane, from purely an economic standpoint to health and well-being, we are proposing that a decline in oil production based on Hubbert’s Peak will gradually wean Americans off their car dependence. This will have drastic effects on American Cities. Importantly, this will not be an overnight phenomenon; rather it will be a continual transition period as availability of cheap oil declines.

Driven by a similar pathology as the modern industrial economy, Sun Belt cities have been built disposably. The majority of structures have a life span of twenty or so years. Interestingly (and ironically), those uses that may have the most limited usefulness on into the future have been built with the greatest amount of permanence. To narrow the focus of this incredibly broad topic, we are proposing to limit study to the adaptation of typical conditions relating downtown highways, large arterials, parking structures, and potentially others as they become evident. Our purpose is to ensure that these structures and their associated land can be utilized in a strategy for the gradual densification of the city center as their original purpose of accommodating the automobile gradually becomes irrelevant.

Certain assumptions will be made in order to maintain the focus of this study, such as that there will be no “magic bullet” that adequately replaces oil as a cheap energy source able to operate the country’s fleet of cars as they are today. Also, the decline will be gradual, allowing for phasing strategies of the semi-permanent structures. However, we will assume some measure of electricity is still available through the scaling up in production of wind and solar energy sources. Further still, we chose these particular structures because of their vast nature and expense (of original construction and potential demolition), which we will assume is of too great in magnitude to be merely, and once again, “disposed.”

This application is proposing travel to Denmark to study Stroget, the large car-free area in center city Copenhagen for purposes of examining the functionality of spaces and how uses interact with spaces sans automobile with particular attention to phasing, scale, proportion, use patterns, and circulation to better understand how that could translate to the future of ever-evolving Sun Belt cities. In addition, Dallas, for familiarity purposes (iconographic of American auto-dependent culture) is chosen to serve as lab rat, where selected highways, arterials, and parking garages will be identified as typical case studies for car-free design evolution. In addition, we intend to focus on how these elements could be phased, or their negative effects minimized – if not adapted into positive utilization when there current function is no longer necessary or in similar demand, over time as the automobile becomes an unrealistic and unviable transportation alternative.
I won the study abroad grant, spending subsequent time and the money awarded to visit Copenhagen. Once again, that in itself, should not qualify me for anything more than a new passport to replace the one that got nicked while in Denmark.

However, what we suggested as permanent (highways, overpasses, etc.) and therefore worth reorganizing around rather than fighting is actually anything but permanent. This is so for a variety of reasons, the most significant being a structural one. A chemical reaction occurs within the concrete literally eroding the rebar reinforcing it. The highways are falling apart, as proven by all of the work that must be done to replace the degrading quality of them. Sure, we can replace them with some newer, better, sturdier materials, but will they really be "better?"

My entire premise also eroded before my very eyes like a collapsing highway as . If they actually aren't built to last, why keep them? What do they really do? Sloan doesn't go into this examination. Instead, he assumes the highways are given and presupposes that walkable urban development can occur with the right incentives and subsidies.

But if highways were built to leverage real estate development, ie economic develompent (private spending begets public spending) and we have since experienced that development, what does all the spending just to upkeep the highways get us? Just more in debt.

This entire idea is fatally flawed. He suggests the highway as a central feature of neighborhoods, cannibalizing from the vast sprawl smeared across the metroplex. However, highways by design are quite inhumane. Would you feel safe walking along one? Of course not. His next suggestion is to soften the edges of freeways with lumber farms, or transit, or tree-lined boulevards, all essentially existing situations.

To reinforce the idea, he suggested that the Champs Elysees is 16 lanes. Well, true and untrue. And to make the comparison is once again disingenuous. Parts of the Champs Elysees that haven't been repedestrianized are still upwards of 16 lanes, but the parts that we think of as great urban places are ten lanes wide. Furthermore, the lanes are only about 8 feet wide. The standard Dallas road is 12 feet wide. Also, the Champs Elysees is central to the entire city. It is the main street of an entire country.

Champs Elysees

Central Expressway at the same scale.

A figure ground of Champs Elysees and adjacent buildings on Central Expressway. The travel lanes are narrower than the northbound lanes of 75. Also, the traffic is slowed by cross streets and intersections facilitating cross traffic. As we should know by now, all roads have two purposes, movement between points A and B that they link, as well as cross-movement.

Portland's sunken highway is probably as well connected across as any highway in the world. However, the heart of the neighborhoods adjacent are always away from the freeways, with the freeways providing the edge to the local critical mass. The center of gravity here is Pioneer Square, a people place.

The deeper problem is highways are sociofugal (and centrifugal). They scatter people away because they are a repellent force, a LULU (Locally Undesirable Land Use). This is why the City of Valencia doesn't let freeways near any residential development urban or suburban. Incidentally, I'm taking ten days this summer to go study Valencia and its suburbs, their relative self-sufficiency, and their people/material flows.

Every true, walkable place in this city exists away from highways with a distance-reinforced buffer. A city without highways through it, maintains a direct relationship between property value, trafficked corridors, and the prevalent centrality through the intersections of these primary corridors. For an example of a city that still has a full hierarchical array of centers, see: Vancouver.

The fundamental problem to this is that highways, as high speed corridors, create edges, eliminating local connectivity which is at the heart of walkability. Edges tend to be dead zones. See the property all around the perimeter of downtown Dallas. It is either vacant, underdeveloped, or has a massive subsidy sitting upon it in the form of a publicly or privately funded civic building. Limiting local connectivity in favor of regional connectivity creates for a dysfunctional system. Centers exist IN SPITE of them, not because of them.

There also is no such thing as edges of gravity, but rather, centers of gravity. Here is some real science:

How do you create a physical center of gravity? Well, you create mass. In urban terms, critical mass, at the heart of which, is the center of gravity, a central crossroads the rest of the neighborhood organizes around. Back to science, mass is energy condensed into a slow vibration, thus creating a solid, physical form. Movement through cities are the energy. The greater the traffic, the bigger the gravitational pull, the higher on the echelon a place is. For example, compare Times Square (an international center) with Henderson Avenue (a neighborhood-scaled center).

However, a highway can't be slowed or it is no longer a highway. Furthermore, the sunken or elevated highways cannot interface with development. If you are to redesign them, you are fundamentally changing it and therefore, tearing it down anyway, just to rebuild it.

If we are to rebuild them, the question is why? We built them for economic development purposes. However, we already overshot the expected value of highway-lined real estate. Therefore, rebuilding the freeway doesn't create new economic development. What does, is tearing the freeway out entirely, for smaller scaled boulevards, creating new development parcels, and forging improved overall local connectivity. Any place within a city, MUST be interconnected locally, regionally, and globally to remain economically viable, but the local connectivity should NEVER be sacrificed completely.

The real estate market wrongly concluded years ago that highways meant real estate value. Why not? Throughout history, traffic = value (all the evidence you need for metaphor of internet = functional city). Except, highways made for an indirect relationship between traffic and value, because the speed of the traffic made it undesirable. An undesirable place is of low value. Unfortunately, we presumed the same equation was at work and built lots of stuff as supposed economic development along freeways. Today, we are seeing all of it erode away as the value of the improvement is much greater than the value of the land.

Therefore, the economics of Sloan's conclusion do not work. Who is going to buy expensive highway land to build something of lesser value? Or, once again, try to build something walkable on land that is not? Highways simply can't be at the center of daily life as they are today and so fundamental to urban interconnectivity as they are today.

The real framework of the future city, like the past city, is around the primary arterials. Those that can be slowed and redesigned to interface with by development and are desirable and safe for pedestrians. For example, Ross Avenue:

Reorganizing the city around the arterials works economically because the real estate is now so undervalued. Parking lots and the failed or failing strip centers that envelope the parking, with no relationship whatsoever to the neighborhoods adjacent.

Others include: Jefferson, Davis, MLK, Exposition, McKinney, Ross, Lemmon, Oak Lawn, Fort Worth Ave., Garland Road, etc. These will be the bones of the future Dallas, a walkable, functional Dallas. Focusing on these neighborhood scaled-centers and redeveloping them to reinforce the existing neighborhoods, while replacing the highways entirely with boulevards and walkable urban development is the future. Certainly not some Le Corbusier inspired theoretical wandering down a cul-de-sac of ideology and self-aggrandizement.