Friday, July 15, 2011

Puppet Show

A while back I decided to give up the increasingly popular term "pop-up urbanism." I did and continue to do so as the nomenclature misses its mark for actual and true meaning. Locally, in terms of the DIY movement which sought to take some power back (rightly) towards community building from the public sector that was negligent and the private sector that was more interested in, well areas that the public sector was also focusing on. Funny how the invisible hand is always guided by an invisible arm.

But as we head to a larger scale, the term "pop-up" still applies but you can't "DIY" at massive citywide scales. This is essentially what has been occurring in China and the Middle East as entire cities emerge out of the ground as if from a newly opened picture book.

Well, I say city, but I really mean "city." The most astute observation in Ed Glaeser's book is that a city is not the physical manifestation, the buildings, but the invisible connections between things. In that way, none of these are cities, as the people rarely are keen to abandon all of the intimate, interconnected networks that comprise the community where they currently live no matter the squalor. Glaeser's insight here is particularly profound and I'm guessing will stand the test of time longer than any of his other theses.

It should be noted that these "pop-up cities" are steroided versions of the masterplanned community from the States, which were generic representations of the original garden cities of England. They had to learn it somewhere right?

It doesn't bode well for these masterplanned communities either. Each tried to jump the gun and create place where there was none, nor was there reason. This was a finance fueled world where "location, location, location" no longer mattered, replaced by "if you build it, they will come." And predictably supply outstripped demand many times over. More often than not, they don't come. And if they did, chances are they'll leave eventually, because that intimate and complex interconnectivity that comprises real community doesn't emerge.

This bonding is what Jane Jacobs identified with the local butcher or other sort of local businessperson was also part steward of the neighborhood and its children, even if they didn't directly belong to them. This fails in "pop-up" places 1) often because of time and 2) because proper urban design enables and nurtures this.

If you think about a bacteria culture, it has to have a life source. Food essentially. And it will continue to grow until it exhausts that resource then it will begin to die off. Since we're smarter than bacteria (we think), we ought to be able to think about how to maintain colonies as well as the sources of life to support said colonies without a mindset of pure growth until it exhausts all life supporting resources.

For places to exist, they need to occupy a crossroads. An intersection, which could be between various modes of transportation as well. This is how all cities were formed (i.e. railroad crossroads or farm to market road intersecting with a shipping channel, etc.) and continue to exist. They are at strategic points and continue to endure as long as their usefulness does.


So the term pop-up fails because it is far too broad. But DIY still applies as does "tactical" urbanism. Or even vigilante (if it isn't officially sanctioned). Or defibrillation (which has no chance of catching on, but is precisely how it works) providing a jumpstart to dying places or those clinging to life. The key is that they're still alive or have a chance of surviving.

Which brings me to "The Living Plaza" creation at City Hall, which the astute and intuitive press seems to have realized is no longer worth much space or attention besides a half-hearted press release echo. Once a month, massive amounts of marketing and organization goes into bringing various food trucks and games and other forms of programming to a dead space in attempt to lure people to a part of town they would otherwise never go (and similarly, those food trucks would never locate there on their own nor would they make money there without said luring).

As I feared, in the wrong hands, the tactical, incremental approach has quickly turned to yet another magic bullet, above all of the other tools in the tool belt. The screwdriver is best left to turn screws, not hammer nails.

On a typical day.

But during/after the Living Plaza, you notice that the pictures that come out of the event are framed appropriately to make the fifty or so curious souls look a crowd that would make Pravda proud. When idealism replaces realism, a movement is destined to fail, which is my real concern, because it has its role. It's just a question of how long you wish to perpetuate it until reality smacks you back in the face, which it always does. And that smack gets more and more violent the longer and further disconnected you get from it.

As I wrote yesterday, a place must be integrated first and than it can be accommodated. The Living Plaza is yet another version of "build it and they will come," faux-urbanism and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the incremental processes that create or conversely erode "place." Places that are desirable. That people populate, congregate, and in turn, attract more people. A real center of gravity. City Hall Plaza and the entire area around it needs to be repositioned. This is outside of the realm of pop-up, DIY, or any other name's potential.

The Davis Street Better Block worked because of the "pedestrian logic" underlying the fundamentals of the place as well as the interested, engaged residential base nearby that was aching for a center of gravity, of community that was torn apart by a hideous street. The original better block's initiative was simple interventions to restitch an existing community that had a tear through the center of it. With City Hall Plaza it has tried to bite off more than it can chew.

I find it particularly pernicious in that this sort of effort has value but only when applied appropriately. Otherwise, it might sink the entire movement of tactical, strategic, PROPERLY TARGETED interventions to jump start certain areas.

This is not to say that City Hall Plaza should be left for dead, just that we have no found the outer limits of what such efforts can do. The problems underlying the Plaza are far deeper and far more profound than simple programming and marketing can fix. It will take serious public and private intervention to rework the entire area and its place within the city.

The foundation for places to exist is spatial integration. Think of it like the energy grid. To be energized, a place has to be plugged in. Once you start getting further afield, the infrastructure, the grid gets over-stretched and you start to have brown outs in areas, which are no longer energized. A dead zone like the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Houston.

We think and act and pretend that the Living Plaza is some form of incremental urbanism, but the only thing incremental is the amount of effort it takes to maintain the vegetable on life support suggesting a false incrementalism.

The reality is that a cadaver, a long dead and gone place, like City Hall Plaza and the near vicinity can't be resuscitated. We have to start life over again from scratch. To reconceive it as the defibrillators just aren't working.

We're pretending it is this, alive, dressed up but ugly as can be:
But in reality, the Living Plaza is this:

A cadaver puppet, we're parading around, pretending it is still alive. That's not urban design, nor urbanism. Let's quit pretending it is.

The Living Plaza is accommodation without integration and that is just dressing up a dead corpse. You must MUST have integration first. Once it is energized, the energy brought by people converging builds demand for steadily increasing accommodation.

Let's take a look at the example of Pegasus Plaza on Main Street in downtown Dallas.
Pegasus Plaza is at the intersection of Main Street and Akard is essentially the extension of the North Dallas Tollway/Harry Hines entrance into downtown. Effectively, this is the "main and main" intersection, the heart of downtown Dallas. Ground zero where two major connectors converge.

Where convergence is high, accommodation must match or lest it underperform below the potential afforded by the interconnectivity. One form of accommodation is the creation of public space at such a convergence point. This is usually publicly driven as a form of public infrastructure.

Furthermore, a recently implemented "tactic" was to add movable tables and chairs in the plaza. Which get used, but the level of integration of the "main and main" crossroads still demands more. I'd like to assume the Downtown 360 plan was this sophisticated with its proposal for "glass box" retail to replace the dog poop zone/back of house of the Magnolia Hotel that fronts the plaza, but I doubt it. I think they were just filling a blank since they proposed the same thing in several other places.

Another, cheap, tactical idea, would be to just take some of the bleacher seating that is often laid out onto Commerce Street for Parades and place the bleachers up against the Magnolia, facing the plaza in the way that Times Square added bleacher seating:

In fact, I think this would be a better solution as a temporary fix until the "glass box" retail can be occupied and staffed profitably without direct subsidy. Instead, the subsidy is the platform that builds the market in a certain place, the interconnectivity. It is the invisible arm, appropriately manipulated and the invisible hand will take care of the rest.

Instead of parading cadaver puppets around, let's get serious about building lively places in dead zones such as city hall, which takes real long-term strategy and reworking of the physical interconnections of the place, which means investment as well as honest/open assessment and addressing of all the barriers to private investment that exist currently (those barriers are listed here).

And let's focus the tactical implementation to places that are already living but are just in need of minor improvements and tweaks. Remember, integration, then accommodation.