Monday, June 27, 2011

Poof - Linkages

First, my latest column is up at the mothership, What's the Matter with Oak Lawn? A sampling:
Moving vehicles has been the one and only consideration in all urban development decisions. The outcomes are never good. A road that moves cars faster only attracts more drivers. Oak Lawn sits in the middle of some of the most desirable parts of the city. Yet no one wants to spend any time on it.

The usual argument against restricting traffic flow is that it will hinder economic development. But look at downtown Dallas. Google Earth Pro tells me that the average number of cars per day on Main Street has dropped by 50 percent in the last 15 years, but we’ve seen a resurgence of investment and pedestrian activity where it narrows.

Let’s narrow Oak Lawn to one lane in each direction between Cedar Springs and Blackburn. Use the reclaimed land to offer parking on the street as a buffer for cafes, provide incentives to property owners of vacant parcels and parking lots to build, and allow existing businesses to expand outdoor seating. Narrowing the road won’t create traffic Armageddon. Just the opposite, really, as Oak Lawn residents reemerge from the fallout shelters known as their homes and begin to reacquaint themselves with their neighbors.
Also, I've been plowing my way through Glaeser's book, which is good if we acknowledge the shortcoming in its conclusion, "density is good so super density must be super good!" in the way that economists naturally extend trend lines to infinity. So predictable. But there are a number of good points and data scattered throughout which makes it worth it. I've been dividing my reading time between it and a re-read of Kunstler's Long Emergency which makes for an interesting contrast.

What I've taken from Glaeser the most is his evidence or ominous indicators of eventual collapse. He never really seems to compile them but rather toss them in here and there and it is up to the reader to compile them, which I've done in my brain piece and here they are:
  • He cites Jared Diamond's book Collapse and recites its primary point that when the singular resource necessary for a system diminishes, that particular ecology will collapse without significant adaptation. If you need me to spell that out, it means cheap oil and oil driven economies, ie sprawl. Bad news.
  • Overbuilding, particularly in both housing (gulp) and infrastructure (super-gulp) and especially when it isn't demand driven, but as a means of propagating growth, essentially the Keynesianism run amok that the New Deal eventually morphed into when highway building took the plunge from nationwide interconnectivity into building for spending's sake and corruption began to seep in, as it is wont to do with big public spending projects (see: railroad industry from 1860 to 1880s).
  • Monumentation. A confusion that the city, as it exists, is the hard, tangible stuff. The buildings. It is not. This is precisely why so many IT types inherently get urbanism. It is about the connections, links, and interdependencies amongst the various actors in the play. City is intangible. The stuff you see and touch is merely the platform for it to exist, which is exactly why the interconnectivity between buildings and movement, the interface between them is far more important than any singular building. Unfortunately, for the most part we still see and understand the city on an adolescent level. I'm guessing this has to do to some extent with both sprawl and modernism that replaced tradition of time-tested knowledge that we didn't actually have to "know" it was "just in the air" with conventional wisdom, which is always wrong. Funny enough.
  • Oversized and singularity of business and industry. Color me a bit worried that Dallas is so corporate friendly. Sure they bring jobs temporarily, but corporations inherently are not loyal. They have no stake in a particular city, but only to the bottom line. They will leave or vanish as their particular industry is left behind in a world of hyper innovation. As big business leaves, the city that depends upon them erodes away.
  • Lack of startup-entrepreneurial spirt, which Glaeser suggests is embued by density/proximity. I'd expand this to suggest only startups/entrepreneurism can be as flexible as to operate within the ever changing context of complex, walkable urbanism. Furthermore, they are at a competitive advantage when the market is built-in by density, because the customer service is generally better than with corporate chains where, once again, the business has no stake in the place or its customers. It is an abstract money vaccuum and that's all it cares about. Lastly, the local business keeps more money in the local economy. And lastly...
  • Education level, which brings up this link from D citing how poorly DFW ranks in education levels. Yikes. As I've warned over and over again watching talented friends and colleagues leave for DC, NYC, Portland, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, and San Fran, DFW is nominally "growing" but we're replacing talent who choose their city based on quality of life factors for people who are chasing temporary jobs because DFW has managed to stay afloat. I worry whether that can last. In fact, if I haven't put it in writing, without significant evolution, the Sun Belt will make the Rust Belt look like Shangri-La in 20-30 years.