Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Forgotten 4th and 5th Dimensions of Urbanism

I rather like this image. What is it you ask? Well, it is a 5-dimensional geometric object. It actually has very little to do with the dimensions (that we yet know of) in the physics world, which are all theoretical above 3.

As a quick remedial lesson, the first three geometric dimensions: height, width, and depth. We can see this with buildings, the building blocks of the system of cities. The cells. Both buildings and cities have a height, width, and depth.

There are also other forces at work which may or may not be able to be measured. The fourth dimension is commonly accepted to be time. That's easily measured. But it is also a force in a way in conjunction with the creators of cities, us. All of us. This force is emotion. Our needs and wants. Cities are the invention to facilitate the appeasement of those needs which are expressed by Maslow's hierarchy of needs:
Notice the diversity spectrum and the pyramidal form. 100% of the population have the most basic human needs. Or at least approaching 100%. Less and less need the higher order of needs. So our cities have to first suffice the basic needs of shelter, food, air, and water. And we build our cities to facilitate these needs.

Cities inherently are an equation. They have inputs and outputs. Cost in, benefit out. We participate in this equation, the upfront costs, because cities have inherent advantages which are slowly but surely being measured. Physicists call the inputs "sub-linear," in that the more we cluster, densify, the less inputs that have to go into a system. The less costs via infrastructure and energy.

On the flipside of the equation, is output. We cluster to innovate. Innovation, as well as the access to jobs, labor, talent, skills, ideas, and others, allows for a "super-linear" output of wealth. So if there are natural advantages to clustering, surely there is a force creating that. It is what I qualify as the 5th dimension, or Gravity, of cities.

To explain it, I'm going to use some Einstein on ya:

Above, you see two graphics. Yes, two. The above is a grid in plan view. Below is the same grid in section. Imagine it as a map with longitudes and latitudes in the above. And a map lying flat below. Also, imagine this as a city. A grid of streets organized around a central crossroads. In Dallas's case, this was a strategic railroad crossroads, which created opportunity, ability to meet needs and desires of life, and so people clustered around it.

Eventually, a center of gravity emerges. This can be a central open space, a market, or just an intersection (later we'll get into how centers of gravity form). In Einstein's terms, he theorized that gravity exists on a plane. Imagine the circle above as a planet.

That planet, that center of gravity, its very essence of being, then bends the plane it exists within. In plan view (in terms of the city), we cut direct routes to that center of gravity. As its pull evolves and grows stronger, we want straighter, easier, quicker, more direct routes to that place. We then shape our city around those centers of gravity.

Eventually, because of its pull, it forms other "hangers on," so to speak. The singular center of gravity can't get any bigger or support any more mass, so other, lesser ones begin to form. Think of the earth and moon. The moon spins around (because it also has its own center of gravity). In city terms, it is subordinate to the larger center of gravity, but exists within the same system. A hierarchy begins to form.

For a real world example, let's look at some old ass cities to explain all the concepts above. The top two are Baghdad. You see the original city plan, a ceremonial religious temple formed at a crossroads. Eventually, it grew as people clustered, agglomerated around it.

The lower two show the preeminent example of a city constantly in evolution, Rome. The classical Roman plan shows a circus, a place that attracts people. Over time, the actual purpose of the space evolved into a flexible public space that has constantly changed purpose as the needs of the people have changed, but most importantly, see the way the city blocks have been divied up to allow for density, yet movement. No buildings are too big as to obstruct the free flow of movement (in this case primarily pedestrian). But the individual buildings themselves are still necessary, otherwise there wouldn't be a source or destination. Both parts of the equation are necessary.

I bring this entire post/idea up because our "planning" (and by planning that inherently implies future, therefore, time) has been corrupted by modernist design. The idea of a singular genius that can foresee the entire system at once. But that isn't how cities work. Every masterplan that is done, tries to envision a climax-state condition based on today's realities. It is fundamentally flawed.

So what happens if the equation is broken? Dysfunctional? And how does it become dysfunctional?

In terms of planning, it means the entire profession and how it operates needs to be rethought, rebooted from the ground up. Otherwise, as we are seeing with just about every masterplan that isn't delivered in one giant phase, the reality never equals the vision. This threatens to de-legitimize a perfectly legitimate, noble profession.

So what are the elements in the equation? In my opinion, it all revolves around our innate "humanness," our emotions. Our needs, wants, desires. Critically, this means (and I think it is commonly accepted) that our system of laws has adapted in a way that we need to meet our needs without expensing the ability of others to meet theirs. Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness and all that. Or property if you prefer Locke. But quality and value of property can also, similarly, be impinged by what is around it.

People will always be repelled by this...
It's unpleasant, it is unsafe. People retreat from it like a hand from a hot stove. We know it would be bad for us to walk along or across it. We're also learning that the airborne particulate matter has harmful effects on our lungs and perhaps even more importantly, the gestation of the babies we bear.

It also costs a ton of money and gets little value in return. At one point there was a financial return. The highways allowed land far far away to be viable. In Dallas's case, this means outside the actual city of Dallas. You could now "live in Dallas," without actually having to live in Dallas. In other words, you could exist as a parasite. Not just a secondary center of gravity, but an entirely destructive relationship. Like this kind of moon:

Highways are useful in linking two (and more) regional economies (aka cities) together. Cities, are comprised of a foreground of movement and a background of residential fabric that organizes and clusters around those movement corridors. Our primary mistake was in thinking, hey, let's move cars FASTER on those corridors. It's EFFICIENT, Grrrr!!!! (Here is where I remind you the nazis were efficient. Efficiency can be pernicious. It is not a goal in and of itself. It merely amplifies the either bad or good.

See the L'Enfant plan for DC. You can clearly see a foreground network (the bones) of the system. Linked to centers of gravity, public spaces and important buildings. Commercial activity wants to be on these primary corridors for traffic and access. But if the character of those corridors is poor, inhumane, it undermines the value.

So our foreground corridors, the primary structural elements of a city became infected with this virus of efficiency. Move every car as fast as possible. Which brought more cars and more cars and then corrupted the system. We now have this fundamental disconnect where commercial real estate wants, nay, NEEDS to be along those movement corridors. But if those corridors are inhumane, repellent, nobody wants to be there. They then undermine the very value of the movement along them. A broken system. Commercial real estate provides a great deal of the amenity in our world such as shops and services, nearby jobs, etc. all of which are only amenities if indeed they are easily accessible AND the area around them is safe and attractive. Too often the modern conceit of "accessibility" meant big roads, which undermines both safety and attractiveness.

Desirable = Value. This is a constant and an unbreakable law of urbanism.

Proximity = Value. However, this is dependent upon the quality of our transportation network. How do we traverse the distances between proximate destinations? And therefore...

Movement = or =/= Value. Here is where the entire system lives or dies. If there is a direct relationship between movement, aka traffic, and real estate value the system is healthy, stable, and resilient. If there is an indirect relationship between traffic and value, aka when cars and big roads choke the life out of places, the system is dysfunctional. It is broken.

There is a clear learning curve amongst cities on how quick on the uptake they are. Some have learned this faster than others and I would posit the longer it takes for, ahem, us, the more painful the transition will be. That is, if there is anything worth saving at all.

On the other hand, we'll always be attracted to this.
Notice the people. I say this only half facetiously, but seriously, people, PEOPLE and the presence thereof are the number 1 indicator of a healthy urban place. A place where people want to be, want to be near each other. We're social beings. Furthermore, cities are the greatest invention man has ever made. They spur innovation by bringing two people, two disparate ideas together, and fusing them to create something entirely new. Then, the city acts as the laboratory, testing those ideas. Those we find of value stand the test of time. Bad ideas, those of no value to humans, get cast aside, forgotten forever to history. Now look back at the two previous images. Which one has a future?

And if you can't decide based on aesthetics, think about how much the infrastructure of each place costs in relation to population density. Which can we even afford?

Returning back to this image, we see a series of what appear to be centers of gravity. One necessary part of the center of gravity equation, is that we must be attracted to it. We want to be there. So it has to be designed well. On the other hand, it might not necessarily HAVE to be designed well if the gravitational pull is strong enough. This happens when areas are strategic, generally at important cross-roads. Bill Hillier would call this Pervasive Centrality. I call it convergence. Crossroads of movement (of whatever form).

That movement is energy. The next step in the Center of Gravity equation is to slow that energy. The energy is critical, but if it is moving too fast, if it is too volatile, it will erode the mass. Think of dropping a sugar cube into a glass of ice water. Water is charged, believe it or not. Electrons are bouncing all over the place. And they beat up the object until it dissolves.

So we have to calm that energy, condense it into a slow vibration, forming critical mass. Slow movement is tolerable. Furthermore, because it means other active ingredients, in this case people, are there, and that we're attracted to other people. We can have a center of gravity. But we still have to have a delivery system of people to place. As you see those links in the 5-D object between "dots" or centers of gravity.

Our problem is that the delivery system we've created, all geared around the car and the highway, undermines the very purpose of cities and the power of the clusters they facilitate. High speed movement, throughout history has proven antithetical to quality of place. But, because of the once increasing regionality of our economies and now globalism, high speed long distance connections are a necessity.

But they can only exist tangentially. The infrastructure is destructive except for one form. The internet (which does have its own infrastructure, including radiation, all of which we're unsure of its side effects) is the least harmful way to make most of these regional and international connections.

Because of the inherent advantages of cities, the optimal condition is clustered and accessible yet desirable. Between the internet, proper city form and the tangential relationship of regional/international interconnectivity, it is possible. Can we achieve it?