Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Yes, I'm Trying To Tell You Jesus Christ Can't Hit a Curveball

Up Your Butt, Jobu

Apologies, but Harris - or as Phillies fans like to think of him, Jamie Moyer - is one of the great underrated comical characters of all-time.

With the few minutes I have to spare this morning, I wanted to expand a bit on what I was having some fun with on twitter earlier today where I was making sports to city metaphors. Metaphors are fun, they're easy. They're as good of a way to explain something to the unindoctrinated (?). This might be something you haven't spent the last ten years researching, studying, but intuitively you'll get it. As soon as I can draw a parallel to something more familiar.

I usually like references to biology, ecology, or computing, all systems thinking, which make for excellent corollaries to urban systems and the various dynamics therein. Perhaps, with a twinge of world series fever, my mind went to baseball (read bottom to top):

patrick kennedy
Or kid w no natural talent (like say geographic features) whose parents buy most expensive equipment. Build from foundation of fundamentals.
patrick kennedy
Dallas is like the home run hitter stuck in the minors bc it can't field or hit a curve ball.
patrick kennedy
The irony is, to aim higher, we have to set our sights lower and focus on the fundamentals of cities.
patrick kennedy
If you want to cite "world class" this is the level of competition. Barcelona not Waco.
patrick kennedy
It dawns on me that Barcelona has stuck with me more than any other city, the way an album gets better with each listen.

I guess the motivation stems from a Dallas City Council person hyping the spending another $10 million for yet a second redesign of a bridge that already exists, "This is Dallas. We do things big." Or something similar to that effect. Shocking that "world class" wasn't invoked, that cringe-inducing phrase of ignorance.

Sometimes doing things "big" works, but there is a rhyme or reason. Even great cities get themselves in some trouble swinging for the fences. Vancouver is in debt up to their eye-balls b/c nobody has bought all the olympic village units-turned-condos like they expected/hoped (perhaps if they weren't priced based on a hyper-inflated residential market due to rabid Chinese investment?).

Valencia, Spain - a highly underrated place, overshadowed by Madrid, Barcelona, Pamplona bull-running, Ibizan party scene, and the British preference for Costas Del Sol y Blanca - is under some serious water because of their billion euro investment in City of Arts and Sciences, which terminates the river Turia's old course before rerouting and conversion into a linear park. It's basically the Dallas Arts District if it was public money (debt) instead of private money doing the funding, in that it has very little relationship to the city surrounding.

But Valencia also did many BIG things that go rather unnoticed and will benefit the city for a long-time, it is now the most bike-friendly city in Spain and is tied into the longest high-speed rail network in Europe. I reached 288 kph en route to Madrid, a trip that took barely more than an hour over a distance similar to Austin or Houston to Dallas.

Dallas' obsession with the big, the bravado, and the grandiose is what gets it in trouble. It is why we make claims of "world class" yet our competition is more Waco, OKC, or Tulsa than it is Barcelona, Paris, NYC, Vancouver, London, or even San Fran, DC, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, etc. if we're filling out a second tier of American cities.

As I mentioned on twitter, we're the kid dreaming of the big leagues that never bothered to learn the fundamentals. We also can't rely on the natural talent of geographic beauty that imbuing Vancouver, Seattle, San Fran, or Barcelona with stunning scenery. This summer I ziplined 6,000 feet above Vancouver, the skyline seemingly at the reach of my toes. We don't have that and never will - even if Dubai wants to build mountainous indoor ski slopes or artificial clouds. The one thing we can do, and could do better than anyplace is, is to focus on the fundamentals. That is our key to the big leagues. We can't hit for power, we can't steal bases, but we can be the best fielder at our position, with dedicated hard work and a common goal in mind.

That is to say, we have to get the fundamentals of urbanism right. And do them better than any place else. That means digging down into the underlying causality beneath cities, beginning with human emotion. It is what drives all economies and why cities were formed at the dawn of civilization. Cities are the medium, the platform, and the facilitator of us achieving our wants and needs. They provide the most efficient way ever of achieving social and economic exchange (and coincidentally, it turns out, they do so in the most environmentally friendly way ever known outside of living off the land, which is a statistical impossibility given the numbers on the earth these days).

The form of a city is the embodiment of an economy, its physical manifestation. It is a center of gravity, a hub of physical activity and interconnectedness. If the economy is the spirit, the city is its body. And like a body, the cells must be most interconnected, most incommunication with those closest.

Yet we've tried to link our toes to our ears and our knees to our elbows with cripplingly expensive regional infrastructure, mostly highways and arterials. Regional connectivity is fine, however it can't interrupt the fine-grain local connectivity of complete neighborhoods. So too, global connectivity, airports mostly, but these are typically tangential because of the undesirable aspect of jet noise, jet fuel, and safety precautions.

It is amazingly naive and ill-informed when we think we need highways and arterials to the level we have them (despite the fact that they're all in a crumbling state of disrepair) for the sake of connectivity. Anything is further from the truth. All cities are able to deliver goods, services, and opportunity to those that want and needs them. The only difference is the type of spending the city wants to do to interconnect such things.

Think of all the cities in the world where you can accomplish and reach every single one of your needs without a car. All the great ones. The fact is that building highly destructive regional transportation system have isolated and fragmented the fundamental building blocks of great cities, complete, interconnected neighborhoods, that blend from one to another almost seamlessly. Pundits like Joel Kotkin don't know what they're talking about with mononodal vs polynodal cities. Every city in the world is polycentric. And those centers exist at a variety of scales. Because he looks at Manhattan skyline and sees one place is his own misunderstanding when it is really comprised of countless neighborhoods, the seams and connections filled with vitality.

And the similar theory that the market mandated such regional transportation is also hooie. Sure, there was an overwhelming impulse to get away from the poverty, pollution, pestilent-stricken industrial city. But running from the problem only unveiled new problems. And we're seeing that market correction as poverty relocates to the burbs where land and buildings are cheap, but opportunity and amenity scarce.

A lag time exists, yet we think of this as an anomaly because our lifespan is entirely within that anomaly. Value, particularly long-term and lasting, is where the interconnectedness is. Location does still matter. It was only recently in the placeless decentralized landscape of the Sun Belt where "build it they will come" gained any traction in real estate circles. And that was because there was no underlying rational order, no purpose. Except, then everybody leaves. Again, no long-term stability of place, of order.

The intercity highways (not to be confused with interstates) flipped the supply-demand equation of cities, from rational, logical places to irrational, illogical, broken places with no order. They made the traditional cores, hubs of cities, the downtowns, the Davis Streets, the Lakewoods, that complete hieararchy of central places within neighborhoods at a variety of scales undesirable.

Freeways are more disconnective than they are connective. It is easier for me to get from downtown Dallas to Plano than it is to get anywhere within three miles of downtown Dallas. Similarly, that regional connectivity turned land otherwise useless except for food production (that is to say, quite useful) into something viable for other uses, such as housing. Combined with the various subsidies, tax breaks and transportation spending, all the population relocation outward was perfectly rational on an individual basis. But in some, it was cannibalistic. And we're seeing the slow, painful unwinding just beginning to play out.

We have to get back to basics. And that means understanding the fundamentals of cities. The ability to achieve your wants and needs of daily life within your own neighborhood. Everything outside of that is gravy. We have to focus on the neighborhoods, and for the most part, the largest barrier is infrastructural planning, design, and investment. As the legendary football coach Joe Paterno says, "focus on the little things and the big things will take care of themselves." It's like he understands the emergent nature of cities.