Monday, May 16, 2011

Charlie Brown Christmas Trees

They even dress like hipsters.

We keep trying to buy shiny aluminum flourescent pink and golden yellow trees, plopping them around the city in the hopes they might grow roots. They're expensive, but we treat the city like all it needs is a good go on Supermarket Sweep. Gimme one of these. How about one of those. There is no complexity. Nothing more to discover. After the first look-see, people get bored w/ simple objects where the entire allure is its newness. They go out of style like seasonal colors as dictated by Milanese runways.

It's amazing too how often the consultants suggest this or that doo-dad will create a "destination." "A sense of place and/or arrival." "A gateway." When singular objects never do such things. Missing the complex, organic process that are cities. Rising. Falling. Improving. Degrading. Always with good reason. A vibe, a soul, or a "sense of place" (you choose the word) is created by fusion, many things interacting together with a net positive outcome. Otherwise it goes away. We have options us people.

We think that since it worked for Bilbao. It shall work for us. It's that simple right? Well, London added a slick pedestrian bridge. Who needs the London? No need to fix the more troubling issues if we can just throw money at problems. Whether that money comes from public subsidy or private charity. We've done both and done them often. Perhaps even wallpaper them in cash to make them disappear. Green like camoflouge, I suppose. Big cost, little returns. Not unlike trying to shrub up invaded or desolate areas with excessive landscaping. If we call it "landscape urbanism" it will sound urban, right? Who needs spatial integration? That just seems like hard work.

All we have to do is buy some thing and walkable neighborhoods will magically appear. Nevermind that in cases like Bilbao there is far more already in place to work with. The vanilla ice cream was already in place before putting the cherry on top of the sundae foundation. Might we keep throwing cherries eventually one should spawn ice cream right? A consultant said so. It must be true.

Meanwhile, various Charlie Browns around the area fell in love with little saplings. They might be shabby. They may not look like much, but they're alive. And therefore have both meaning and growth potential. Look at Fort Worth. Their Better Block has been made permanent.

I witnessed a dad and a gaggle of kids riding by on bikes last Friday afternoon on Magnolia Avenue. A group of three twenty-something girls rode the wrong way in traffic, not in the bike lane. Such things happen when they feel safe. Pretty sure no one minded. They caused no harm. No traffic model will tell you that will appear with the right provision, i.e. a safe place to do as such. "Well, if the equation says no. No it is." All hail antiquated formulae.

Instead, Fort Worth South and its citizenry have planted their christmas tree and are growing an actual forest. Little cost, big reward. Except this vigilante/guerrilla/tactical urbanism is not enough. Sure, it will get us over to the next threshold, but if we want to embrace big visions, we also have to think big. Not bridges, museums, or stuff. But restitching our neighborhoods together so they begin to grow and blend and are more attractive and desirable than Frisco or Allen or McKinney or Rockwall.

And we have to. Think big. Act big. But it must also have big returns economically, environmentally, and socially. It's the highways stupid. You recoup the public sector's best asset (land), sell it off for development, get tax base, and greater affordability for residents.

Residents that, in this scenario, wouldn't need to spend half their paycheck on car/gas/insurance. Wouldn't need to worry that their greatest investment (their home) value drops to zero and is worth little more than the copper wire inside of it. And we'd all get cleaner air, more recreational opportunities, police and fire services that aren't stretched so thinly, nor would we blow school budgets busing kids everywhere.

Or else we'll be passed by our competition, which is every other southern city. There is a capital of the east (NYC). A capital of the north/midwest (Chicago), a capital of the west (LA), and all of the cities around them fall into line hiearchically. There is no capital of the south. Austin wants to be it. As does Houston. Will we let them beat us as we plant our fiberglass christmas trees? Sure there will be bellyaching, but I promise you it's the key to an actually "world class" city.

Destruction is also a form of creation. Particularly, when it obliterates the noose around our neck. We need to breathe. And a car-city de-car-ing itself would make for far better national and international press than our missteps.