Monday, February 28, 2011

On the Tunnels and Other Downtown Ailments

Over the weekend, I was asked my thoughts on the tunnels and the new video about them put out by YouPlusMedia. It is a valuable discussion and I appreciate their work in this direction. Honest dialog is critical to the health of downtown. As the video shows, one lone voice in the wilderness got shouted down by ideologues and sycophants. The following is my response regarding the tunnels and their future.

You'll see that I veer from the predictable answer, "grunt tunnels bad grunt" and would rather explain why they didn't work. They don't reduce connectivity and mobility but attempt to increase it. Unfortunately, other forces at work stripped downtown of population and desirability, thus reducing need for increased network complexity. As you'll see though, even the densest cities in the world can barely maintain a 3-dimensional grid. Without density we're left with too much retail and too many conduits or corridors thereby not focusing the energy of people and movement into a more orderly and logical network of market responsive clusters and linkages.

The full response is as follows:

Jack is right about everything he said in the video. It seems to have permeated the conventional wisdom that the tunnels have been a net negative on the viability and vibrancy of downtown. But the first thing we have to be sure we don’t get caught up in is assigning singular blame or promise of a magic bullet. The tunnels alone didn’t kill downtown. Rather, they were a piece of the puzzle including (but not limited to): single-use zoning (generic and cut/pasted across the country), new construction tax breaks for both commercial and residential property, federal highway $$, state and federal road standards that reduce necessary network complexity, adaptability, and local mobility, artificially low gas prices, etc. etc.

So if we’re accepting that indeed tunnels aren’t a grand new vision of progress, I feel it is always critical to understand why they failed because there really isn’t anything particularly insidious about new connectivity besides violating a few urban planning precepts. If any city begins as a crossroads (in 2-dimensions), eventually those two roads, particularly at the intersection will become overcrowded. A parallel road to the x-axis will have to be added, than a parallel to the y, and so on as the city’s grid expands along with population and desirability of the place and the marketplace that is created by 1) population and 2) infrastructural convergence, ie predictability. The traffic spills outward filling up new outlets, desire lines, bypasses, forming a complex network. Eventually, it makes more sense to go up than to continually expand outward and outward, but there is no magical tipping point besides what makes sense on a local case by case basis. It is incremental, the way cities/systems/organisms naturally adapt, evolve, grow.

The grid becomes 3-D. We see this in the form of pedestrian bridges and tunnels. The only problem is that probably only Manhattan, Hong Kong, and Coruscant from Star Wars ( have the kind of density that supports a 3-D cube instead of a 2-D grid (and the first two are pushing it). This is why the High Line in Manhattan works.

We don’t have that kind of density. Film footage in the 50’s might show that we did. Dallas was a pretty crowded place and it was only natural to seek a bit of a reprieve. I think the biggest problem of the tunnels isn’t so much that it sucks life off the street (which it does), but the sheer amount of retail square footage. We have an over-abundance, as it is geared to the 100,000+ people and only open from 11am-2pm. It’s hard to make money that way and even harder for the other businesses up on the street. All of the businesses struggle. I know Jack Gosnell being the retail broker that he is, wants to fill as much retail square footage as possible, but in sum we need less retail downtown not more so that which we do have is not all puttering along on life support. Instead strengthening the businesses remain, ideally on the street. (Incidentally, the climate as an excuse is BS. Find me another city with better weather for walking the streets, reading in the park, sitting at a café 9 months out of the year than Dallas. Copenhagen is lucky if they have 2 nice months out of the year.)

The question becomes what to do about the tunnels? Can we be draconian and just shut them down? As you mention unintended consequences, cities don’t handle radical change well. There is a period of convulsion and dislocation before they can (re)self-organize again…or they just slip into a state of disorganization, chaotic and unlivable. This is the modern city that tries to streamline, isolate, and assembly line everything: single-use, one-way, separate cars from pedestrian corridors, etc. The attempt to create order did they opposite.

In the past, I’ve suggested pretty basic carrot/stick approaches to incentivize subterranean businesses up to the street level. Give them 5 or 10 years to get out of the tunnels and amortize the amount of subsidy each year that they are given to “daylight.” They would have to move out in groups to and be clustered together to create critical mass, or pulse points, and new desire lines of movement within downtown.

Jason Roberts has suggested that the Better Food Block, or the food trucks, that the Arts District is creating will create more competition and by providing good food, cheaply (because of the low overhead inherent in food trucks) will eventually close down the tunnels. I'm not so sure. There would still be too much retail service for a permanent population/neighborhood of 5,500 people. Downtown needs more people. Except, as I always say, in a free market economy, density is and must be a product and directly relatable to desirability.

Downtown is mostly empty office buildings and surface parking lots (or parking garages). This is highest and best use. MIG can draw all of the (unsophisticated) development scenarios they want, but until the underlying issues of desirability and local mobility (specifically connections between downtown and nearby neighborhoods) are addressed, these developments would have to be either subsidized market rate housing or subsidized affordable housing (or a subsidized mix). That is no way to create replicable format where proper city building emerges naturally as the logical and profitable way to build – for investor, developer, resident, city, and environment.

If we’re willing to be honest with ourselves and think big about the tunnels and downtown, we might as well not just demonize them, but have honest dialogue about the bigger culprit for downtown’s decay which is the inner highway loop. I’ve gone on long enough so I won’t go into a diatribe about intracity highways vs intercity highways (one beneficent, one malevolent). I was on a panel about how to save the Arts District recently and someone likened the highway to modern day city walls. In one way that is correct, in that they limit local connectivity. But highways have the opposite force on development pattern. City walls, as protection from rampaging hordes and natural elements, made for coerced density, a centripetal force clustering people. Highways are centrifugal, flinging people out into the hinterlands. Well, if they’re modern day city walls (and similarly have outlived their usefulness) why not make a modern day Ringstrasse.

It may sound crazy until you think about it. All of our biggest public facilities/institutions line the loop downtown. Why not link them and give them a new front door on a grand open space system/boulevard that links downtown with the adjacent neighborhoods (where the most opportunity for development exists, like uptown’s renaissance) and more importantly improve connections across it to these neighborhoods. Right now it is far easier to get to Plano than it is to cross a highway and get to anywhere within a mile of downtown. We’re essentially subsidizing life in Plano, Frisco, McKinney, Arlington, etc. through all of the unmet potential and swaths of highways and the underdeveloped land along them. They support regional connectivity but undermine local connectivity, which is the critical key for walkability, urban success, and most importantly, resilience. It also may sound expensive, until you think about the returns. Seoul tore out a freeway for 200 million and change and has had 2 billion in investment just in the last five years. All the new tax base, all the new housing and affordability and tax base could sit right where these highways now sit. Maybe then we would have the density (due to increased desirability and livability) to find a more beneficial use for the tunnels like linking to subway lines like the mothballed D2 (which I was the lead urban designer for) and the taxbase/ridership to pay for such niceties like more public transit.


As for actual ideas for what to do with the tunnels, they can range from the ironic and absurd to the pragmatic. A business partner and I like to joke about making the tunnels a decriminalized drug/red light district, i.e. putting everything a puritanical society wishes to keep under wraps literally below the surface. It would even localize all of the "damned" for Dallas Baptist to "save." In seriousness however, there is some really strong evidence in favor of localizing these areas as Bunny Colvin did in Hamsterdam in the Wire like isolating and quarantining anti-bodies within a living system.

On the other hand, we have plenty of square footage in downtown occupied by data centers and storage (digital or otherwise). These could easily be moved below the surface into tunnels. Data centers have two real priorities, protection and cooling. The cooling would have to be handled perhaps through drilling deep below ground to ventilate with cool subterranean air. It remains to be seen if there is a heat sink to physically exhaust the heat gain from the mechanical equipment. The protection is easy, as they would be in underground bunkers. Data Center developers won't locate along flight paths or near airports because they're seriously worried about falling planes. And why not? If something happens to that center that is millions or billions in data that vanishes immediately.

At the end of the day however, data centers and surface parking lots actually are highest and best use within the framework of what downtown Dallas really is. Both have a greater return for property owners and managers than the uses we would like to see occupying and populating downtown. This will remain to be the case until the noose is removed from downtown and we begin to think of it again as a neighborhood with offices and less as an office park with some residences.

So do we legislate this to happen and subsidize the kind of uses that we want? Or do we actually address the deeper issues?

Monday Morning Letters to the Editor

YouPlusMedia has put together a video about the tunnel system in downtown Dallas. They want to start generating a dialog on a variety of issues regarding downtown and do so through the use of visual media. I was asked for input on the tunnels and I will post my response shortly. But first, watch the video and be sure to pay attention to how we so wholeheartedly believed [insert architect/urban planner's name here] Vincent Ponte. You can even get a copy of his brilliantly titled report at Amazon, "Ultramodern underground Dallas: Vincent Ponte's pedestrian-way as systematic solution to the declining downtown."

This precedes my forthcoming report, Dallas: Super Happy Fun Time Town! Let this be a lesson next time we buy everything some urban planner/architect (of which I am one) says. Usually, they have no bloody clue either and are really just pushing some subjective fantasy as alternative reality onto others. They're expert salesmen. Only now are we beginning to cobble together objective measures for what makes for great, vibrant, livable places

Now for the video:
The following are two emails I received over the weekend that I thought I might share. The opinions are the authors and some of the noticeable editing is mine to conceal any identities:

Dear Mr Kennedy,

I lived in Dallas after graduating from Southwestern Medical School in [date redacted]. Six years ago I moved to Chicago. Chicago is a bustling, beautiful city. I felt immediately at home there. In Dallas I always longed for something but could never put my finger on it. In your article you beautifully said what I felt all along (I'm not sure which article he's referring to here).

I believe, however, that there are forces arrayed against Dallas following your call to action. [The powers that be] are too satisfied [with the status quo]. Change frightens them. They are too pleased with the way things are to be troubled by the inherent, albeit temporary, discomfort of change.

I enjoyed your piece. If you really want to live in a city like you describe you best pack up and follow me.



Critics suggest that Dallas's larger-than-life image may be shrinking for another reason. They say that officials' lack of investment in public schools, streets, parks and pools -- the real-world priorities outside the city's highbrow Arts District, with its cultural monuments designed by the hottest "starchitects" (Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas, I. M. Pei, Renzo Piano) and soon-to-be sky-high Santiago Calatrava "signature" bridges -- is sending white families and middle-class minorities moving to the suburbs.

And lastly, an email about the WalMart and Fort Worth Avenue development group (which I haven't yet weighed in on, but will). Once again, these opinions are not my own, but the dialog is one worth having:

What should outrage us is not so much Wal-Mart’s apparent disregard for what Jason calls “a pedestrian form,” but instead the Fort Worth Avenue Development Group’s blatant disregard for the residents of the Colorado Place apartments. When the apartments were torn down (at the urging of the Fort Worth Avenue Development Group), Scott Griggs (of the Fort Worth Avenue Development Group) declared that it marked a “great opportunity to bring something new.” Many people would like to think that the “something new” only involves walkability, organic grocery stores, and coffee shops, but in fact the “something new” unfortunately also involves the replacement of working class black and brown people with affluent white people who “read the New York Times.”

We should be less interested in an appeal to what Jason calls the “thousands of years” of history that have supposedly “proven” the “pedestrian model” than in an appeal to the twentieth-century history of Fort Worth Avenue. The cheap motels and apartments on Fort Worth Avenue (like Colorado Place) may be what some call “eyesores,” and they may not make us feel like we’re living in Portland, but they have also made possible the social and economic mobility of immigrants and working class people in Dallas. Or at least they have functioned as affordable places for people to live.

Dallas has a long history of so-called urban development that involves displacing working class people of color to make room for playgrounds for people who “read the New York Times” (for example, the West Village). If this is the same vision of the Fort Worth Avenue Development Group–and it is–they should start being honest about it, and stop pretending that it’s somehow part of a progressive community politics, which it just isn’t. (Remember their opposition last year to the Cliff Manor zoning issue.) A progressive community politics would be less interested in what Jason calls the “right” to “walk” to coffee shops, and more interested in people’s right to live where they currently live and have equal access city services which are rightfully theirs (such as pools, policing, and public transportation).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

March D Mag Column

Is about Urban Acres Local Organic Grocery in Oak Cliff. Check it out:
Every market serves as a distribution point where supply meets demand. What Urban Acres does is reduce the actual and perceived distance between farm and fork. Many local farms, already struggling to compete against heavily subsidized factory operations, have a difficult time finding the market and vice versa. The store brings a bit of country to the big city. On its roof, Urban Acres has a bee colony working to make honey. Inside, shelves made of reclaimed wood give the place a country feel. It’s at once nostalgic and emblematic of Oak Cliff’s progressive, by-the-bootstraps entrepreneurism.
For the unaware, Urban Acres is on Davis Street in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, what I call the "Trastevere" of Dallas, i.e. literally 'across the river', funky, eclectic, multi-cultural, and good food! The picture above is from the second Better Block where Urban Acres was one of the focal points (in the background).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

There's Only Room For One of Us

Just kidding. There is another Patrick Kennedy in downtown Dallas and writing on the webs. This one goes by Patrick Brian Kennedy. He is a teacher at DISD and born and raised in the Big D. Two things I am not or did not. Even though I have now been here the better part of a decade and bring an outsider-going-on-insider's objective view of DFW, his take is firmly rooted within what it means to be a Dallasite, in the truer sense than what is exported to the world. His writing is focused on short stories of racial divide and urban evolution. You can read them here:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Because Flattery Gets You Everywhere

Rather than let this comment, left today on a post from almost 2 years ago about everything Victory did wrong, sit idly deep within the archival bowels of a google data center to be named later, I decided to bump it to the top (or because I haven't begun the "Proper Urbanism of Hamsterdam" post I've been itching to put together). It follows (and I promise this wasn't me):

Great Blog. Many a valued opinion that I share. I've been stuck on here for the better part of the day. I'll be a avid reader from here on out.

I live in North Dallas, cookie cutter suburb, by necessity rather than choice. Our location has a big box centre if you like that is separated from us by a 6 lane parkway on both sides.

Having lived in Italy and the UK for extended periods of time I fully grasp the concept of livability and I do think the potential exists in Big D for the city proper to achieve this. The intersection you speak of, I have stood at also and it speaks volumes. I was initially dumbstruck when I stumbled upon it. I'd like to move down there when the opportunity presents itself.

The few times I've been down VP it struck me as a Island in disconnect. It was weird. The idea of AAC as a central attraction is good when its volume of people you want in and out, when its volume you want in and lingering you need to look at a stadium neighborhood like Chelsea or Highbury in London. The people leaving need to walk through a 'high street' as the poms refer to it, to get to and from the attraction. I couldn't do that and it pissed me off to be fair. I'd like to see a change to this effect or any effect that would make a trip down there last longer.

Thanks Deaconskye,

You'll be interested to know that my next column for D Magazine (just submitted the draft about a week ago) for the April issue is on "How Victory Will Win?"

Good thoughts too. I'm tentatively planning an autumn trip to London to catch a premier league game at White Hart Lane.

In this country we have a fundamental disconnect between traffic and placemaking. In functional, healthy "High Streets," there is a direct relationship. Move the most amount of people, have the highest degree of placemaking. We have the opposite, an indirect relationship because of the dominance of car travel (which by no means is a product of market forces, but instead one of policy and subsidy).

Unfortunately, the quest for moving car traffic suffocates other forms of traffic, particularly the most important for urban livelihood, pedestrian traffic.

The "High Street" of Victory is Houston St., the road on the backside. This is where all the pedestrians walk, but Victory turned its back on it. Presumably because there was no flex from city transportation for real improvements to Houston, supportive of the massive investment happening at Victory. Instead, the result - because of Houston likely being on some BS thoroughfare plan and therefore sacred - becomes a negative influence on Victory.

Saving Victory will be about eliminating these negative influences one-by-one. And if not completely reversing the repellant aspects, at least mitigating them as much as possible. Some of which are external (such as the road network and the nearby garden apartment superblock), others are internal and systemic in the branding, marketing, and hence, design. It was made to be exclusive. But urban places are populated, therefore inclusive. Too many of our recent "mixed-use live-work-play" touted projects think they can overcome bad urban design with the exterior trappings of urbanism (storefronts, street trees, parallel parking, housing above retail). Except all of those things are an outgrowth of urbanism, the reason to be there.

Our approach to urban development too often is like Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. All of the forcibly exfoliated skin of women you layer upon yourself doesn't make you pretty or a woman. But thumbs up for motivation!

Vancouver, Most Livable City, No Highway

...according to the Economist's latest rankings, maintaining their top spot from last year. It is important to note there are three primary 'curators' of these rankings, the Economist's Intelligence Unit (this set), Mercer's Quality of Living Rankings (of which the Economist pips certain data metrics), and the Monocle. The Mercer rankings generally come out in late Spring. You can see the most recent version of each from this wiki link. Apparently english-speaking is a critical criteria, as the Economist's rankings are shockingly anglo-centric:

1Vancouver Canada98.0
2Melbourne Australia97.5
3Vienna Austria97.4
4Toronto Canada97.2
5Calgary Canada96.6
6Helsinki Finland96.2
7Sydney Australia96.1
8Perth Australia95.9
Adelaide Australia95.9
10Auckland New Zealand95.

You can buy the entire Economist report here for $500, or you can piece together bits from around these here internets. As for American cities, the top 10 goes something like this (with Pittsburgh finishing 29th in the world - "we're number 1!"):

The top 10 U.S. cities are:
1. Pittsburgh
2. Honolulu
3. Washington DC
4. Chicago
5. Atlanta
6. Miami
7. Detroit
8. Boston
9. Seattle
10. Minneapolis

Detroit, say wha? There isn't much rhyme or reason to the American cities. Usually, some measure of regionalism is apparent. I'm guessing the Economist (unsurprisingly) is heavily skewed towards affordability, which is why European cities that populate every single livability ranking otherwise are nowhere to be found (i.e. Copenhagen, Zurich, Munich, Vienna, Helsinki). This smacks of the ridiculously stupid Forbes' completely indefensible rankings they put out about just about any and everything.

To me, even using cost of living is an inexcusable mistake. If there is a connection between livability and desirability, which is perfectly logical, therefore demand is increased resulting in greater prices. Furthermore, high standard of living and high wages translate into more cash money to spend on better housing and therefore a more expensive city. Lastly, highly livable, interesting cities garner a good bit tourist dough further driving up prices from the baseline local economy.

I should add that creating livable cities rankings is difficult stuff. How do you weigh one factor over another? It is all highly subjective. And the best rankings understand that implicitly, adjusting their metrics so that the cities that appeal in the most categories to the broadest segments of the population.

I'm guessing American cities suffer not from affordability or lack thereof, but most often through safety and lackthereof, lack of mobility options, and relatively poor access to healthcare and education, comparatively to the cities above, of course. We're #1! We're #1!

For more on Vancouver, see this link to my field trip report to the most livable city in the world according to the economist, which actually is pretty difficult to argue.

For my definition and explanation of the concept of "livability," click here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

WalkableDFW Happy Hour

Have you ever noticed how many bars are named after cities? Funny how the romance of the urban experience lives in our consciousness. Good thing we have so many anti-urban policies in place to extinguish those flames. It IS best to throw the baby right on out with the bathwater.

The WalkableDFW happy hour is another semi-guess the city. Again, guess the city in order to figure out this week's bar of choice.

Hint 1: this is easy

Hint 2: it's nice = patio

Hint 3: there are several throughout the metroplex so feel free to choose the one closest to your present or future location, as I'll be doing.

On to the show:

Bike blog : Amsterdam's cycle lanes are safe for family rides

**Note: If you wear an Arsenal jersey, I may just punch you in the face...ya know, to live up to the hooliganism in us all.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

All Veneer Work and No Dentistry

Main Street gets all the attention and Elm and Commerce are left behind

The long-at-work Downtown Dallas 360 plan is all but finalized having been presented yesterday to the Downtown Dallas yearly luncheon. The Dallas Observer is citing its "bold ideas and quick wins." But how bold are the ideas and how quick are the wins?

There are some good things to the plan (which I'll mention), but the lack of ambition, vision, and screw boldness-how-about-audacity in correcting the real ailments of downtown were left behind. That's not very Dallas or Texan. I'm not sure any city became "world class" by compromising and focusing only on veneer work when real dentistry was necessary.

The three major problems afflicting downtown that are barely tended to are:
  • The inner freeway loop
  • The tunnels
  • Property owners perfectly happy to sit on un(der)developed properties, i.e. parking.
There are other ailments, many of which cosmetic and thus they actually get addressed. My contention however is that the real problems aren't cosmetic but systemic. The 360 plan is too focused on the urban phenotype, or physical appearance and not enough on the urban genotype, or the genetic wiring of place. The physical issues are more often than not and outgrowth of the genotype, much like how our bodies work.

We won't fix the underlying genetic issues, those that make living systems function properly, only through plastic surgery. Furthermore, those "medical procedures" end up requiring long-term and consistent subsidy to continually resuscitate a dying system, like its on a breathing machine and the family isn't quite ready to pull the plug.

The solutions proposed (or implied) for the above are:
  • lighting up underpasses or use of artwork - much cheaper than building a park over a freeway, but there is a similarly minimal return on investment ratio on this. Whereas removing sections of freeway altogether repositions acres and acres of land for redevelopment. They're instantly better connected and more desirable therefore raising demand, which reveals itself through density. If somebody considers this financially ludicrous, it would pay off at least ten-fold in new development, density, tax-base, and that strange, elusive value-multiplier of real urbanism - i.e. a highly interconnected local network, the foundation of all living systems. If your brain only made synapses between the most distant cells, you'd have an aneurysm, kind of like traffic on a highway acts to the local economy each day.
  • hope subsidized ground level retail will outperform below-grade retail. Even if it does, the availability of the 3-dimensional pedestrian grid (above-grade: pedestrian bridges, at-grade: on-street, and below-grade: tunnels) will dilute the energy of any of the above "planes." Energy from one "corridor," a convergence of linkages to destinations only spill over when it becomes too crowded. We lack the density of say, New York City, which allows the High Line to work apart from the street-level transportation network. Commercial activity requires a concentration of movement to survive (at least, those businesses that are built on physical movement to/through/past their enterprise).
  • Ummmm... I've heard rumors from some high level people, but there is no concrete policy yet for developing properties that could be considered performing (at least to the owner). Surface parking is a revenue generator for the land owner, but a net loss for the entire neighborhood around its function and land value. I've always supported a split tax approach (subject to state legality) that distinguishes improvement from land in its tax rate. This punishes underperforming properties and provides incentive for having property that participates positively in the urban network.
On the other hand, some of the highlights of the plan include the "glass box retail." I don't care for the cliched design description, but functionally it is necessary to replace the few areas around town that are currently used as micro-dog walking parks. I'm thinking particularly of Pegasus Plaza on the backside of the Magnolia Hotel and the little green patch in the nook of the DP&L building. These are backs of buildings fronting plazas (and pedestrian connections) that need to become active interfaces, frontages.

The other positive is the prioritization of the primary street framework through downtown. These being Ross, Griffin, Main, Young, and the Olive/Harwood craziness. It is necessary to improve the overall aesthetics and function of priority connectors. The reason is because of the two-tiered (but interconnected) planes that define cities.

The top level is the primary structure, the bones, that create the framework of the city. These areas will carry the most traffic (ideally of all forms of transportation in order to truly move the most amount of people) and therefore must receive the most amount of attention to detail design and function. The most people, the most stress, the most potential value that is directly connected to the attractiveness but often undermined by poor functionality and aesthetics.

The street is undesirable therefore the most valuable places (because of the amount of movement) are the least capitalized upon. The most valuable websites receive the most amount of traffic. They're the most desirable and therefore must have the best interface to reach its potential for traffic, value, and commerce. Have a shitty website, drive away business. Have shitty primary street network, which we do, drive away value...out to the 'burbs.

The secondary level is the residential backdrop. A framework of neighborhoods organized around and arranged to the amenities created by the primary street framework. If you drop the ball in meeting potential, it repulses the potential for neighborhood self-organization, aka demand to live near amenities. The residential often gets priced away from the primary streets because of the commercial value, but if the streets/spaces are designed well enough and to accommodate high degree of local connectivity (i.e. walkability) there is HIGH value for residential snuggle up as close as can be afforded to that primary network. Want to know why so many areas of Manhattan cost so much?


So far so good, except that as I mentioned, these streets have to move the most amount of people. It is troublesome that neither the downtown 360 plan NOR the bike plan address Elm and Commerce in any meaningful way. See below:

Main Street gets all the attention. Elm and Commerce are the forgotten step children. That's a quick win that will get all the attention, prettying up an already functional street. But, does it actually help to make downtown significantly better in the way that it functions as a living system built upon network density.

Let's run through a little experiment to explain why Elm/Commerce need more attention, then Main can get prettied up:

Red represents Main and its connections. Elm/Commerce one-way couplet is in black.

Too often when we think of streets and their functions (particularly in downtowns) we focus too much on the link between point A and B, as if people only drive from the start of a street to the end of it. What we forget is that the purpose of a street is to ALSO facilitate the crossing of that street as part of an adaptive, functionally interconnected network.

Elm and Commerce are both functionally dead for local connections. They're functioning perfectly in a "get the hell outta town sorta way." Also known as, exactly as they're designed. They're too wide and too one-way, and therefore too high speed. Elm and Commerce are dysfunctional streets. Empirically, go out there any day or evening. They are strictly about long distance connections and thereby sever local connectivity. Pedestrians aren't there. Businesses flounder. They effectively box in the life of Main Street, the pulse of the downtown neighborhood. Elm and Commerce are like the tourniquet cutting off blood supply.

So if we're to apply some simple math to this area, let's value functioning streets/intersections as +1. They are positive and contribute to a successful urban network. Dysfunctional streets, those that cut off local connectivity get a -1. They're reductive (almost as much as this example).

Total value of these intersections: -4

The plan is to make Main Street prettier. And there is some logic to that. As I stated above, it is the most experienced by pedestrians, the most heavily trafficked, therefore it needs the greatest attention to detail for people to touch, feel, and experience. A +1 street becomes a +2 street.

To date the efforts to "improve" Elm and Commerce have been cosmetic: some benches, maybe a tree or two, some new paving and light fixtures. But the function, its role within the network, is in no way improved. The street remains as a -1.

Total value of these intersections: 0

On the other hand, if Elm and Commerce were redesigned to facilitate pedestrian connectivity, crossing and the overall interconnectivity (particularly locally), the entire system begins to function better. There are several ways to do this, all of which should slow traffic, either through letting the eventual streetcar run on these streets (thus slowing traffic as on McKinney), widening sidewalks, allowing more parallel parking, creating cycle tracks for segregated bicycle flow. If these streets/intersections can go from dysfunctional (-1) to functional (+1), then the real estate along them will become more valuable, thus reinforcing Main Street and perhaps even raising the taxbase to the point that it makes more sense to spend on improving Main Street.

Total intersection value: +12, i.e. the "urban exponent" of highly interconnected places.

I'll bet with the house. The fundamentals of living systems always win. But, they're betting the other way.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Taller is Better, Ed?

I was able to rewatch Harvard economist Ed Glaeser on the Daily Show on DVR this morning. Predictably nothing terribly groundbreaking was unearthed in a 5 minute interview where the interviewer didn't read the book and the interviewee tries to cram as much into his answers that he possibly can, fully aware of the impending commercial break.

I did however particular like his statement on the importance of the entwining of city and web in the Egyptian Revolution. As he stated, "it wasn't as simple as putting Hosni Mubarak on "block" or "Relationship Status: It's Complicated" (my paraphrase). But, instead facebook and twitter were utilized for mass interpersonal organization.

This is where Malcolm Gladwell, and admittedly I'm no fan of his lazy contrariness (it's so easy a computer program could do it!), misses the point about twitter altogether (and relatedly, many critics of twitter, as I once was, misunderstand as well). As I tweeted after reading his article:

What Gladwell doesnt understand is that twitter is the tool, the city is the platform. not vice versa

It is these and several other insights about the potentiality of cities that Glaeser implicitly, and then in turn explicitly, understands. However, I feel compelled to reiterate my stance against his paean to skyscrapers as panacea meme. I like skyscrapers. You could say I live in one (33 stories). However, the issue of skyscrapers as a symbol of density is clouding Glaeser's role as "objective" economist where every decision must be based on the numbers, quantitative.

I've outlaid many points both qualitative and quantitative (or at least pointing out that some of the numbers get fuzzy or immeasurable) in an attempt to add some nuance to skyscrapers vs well, anything else. See the end of this post for that discussion.

But what about the measurable numbers for how "green" skyscrapers are. I found this graphic from a paper on location efficient housing by Hank Dittmar, et al., of the Prince's Foundation and converted it into a jpg for posting. It shows the amount of Vehicular Miles Driven by Density of the source neighborhood, the resident's home. You can see that environmental gains due to less driving are virtually negligible once you get to 50-75 units per acre. As a reference point, much of Addison Circle is designed at 80 units/acre and above and Addison is mostly 4-story buildings.*

*I don't know if this graph is for net or gross density. Since it is covering broad areas of cities, I am assuming it is gross density for the simplicity of calculations. Gross density includes public ROW, the space within roads. Net density is only the amount of units divided by privately held (developable) acreage.

Density can be achieved without going up. You can achieve similar location efficiencies with lower, cheaper (ie not concrete and steel), and I would argue better qualitative urbanism that is lower-scaled. There is also an argument to be made that the "efficiency gains" of skyscrapers end up putting greater stress on local infrastructure by bringing in more material often from further away locations. The higher density (and no less driving) also generally means a bigger garage, which means bigger block and more design gymnastics designers must do to "urbanize" a parking garage.

As any serious student of sustainability knows, the building itself is never sustainable, but as a part of an interconnected, walkable neighborhood it can be. Glaeser has a lot of good and necessary things to say in his work. To hang his hat on singular buildings is puzzling, if not troubling, considering the math and the evidence, which should be his forte, doesn't really support him.

Of course, this is probably more due to the press coverage and book reviews picking up on this particular proposed solution because it is much simpler conceptually than unwinding the myriad of policies and subsidies propounding sprawl, which Glaeser also recommends <--- the things we should really be focusing on rather than new skyscraper vs. historic preservation.

Or he could just come to Dallas where we've already turned 99.9% of the buildings worth saving into rubble sub-base for parking lots. Of course, we also lack the demand pressure of NYC to go up, up, and away. Instead, we should just focus on more and more 2-, 3-, and 4-story urbanism. The kind that we can afford.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Better Block Mention

This time by Neil Takemoto of CoolTownStudios who uses an anecdote from the Better Block Project at his TEDxPotomac talk:

Linkages with the Quickness

Shh, don't tell anybody I'm taking a quick break...

First, wouldn't you like to know that TxDOT is now 50% more efficient! Or at least the environmental review process is getting a kick in the ol' expedite. Check the slideshow for the gobblety-gook:

This would be nice, say if it was only say, for road diets, complete streets, and downgrading of streets. Instead, here comes a road widening "improvement" coming right up your alley. But hey, the Nazis were praised for their efficiency as well. Let pernicious forms of efficiency be damned.

Wilonsky at the Observer links to a study that makes you wonder if it was even necessary when 75% of respondents have "no impression." On the other hand, that IS about as fitting a description for insert anti-city here Arlington as one can imagine. How do you have an impression of nothingness? Do you like nothingness? Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of nothingness? If nothingness were to kick a puppy would you have a more or less favorable opinion of nothingness? If nothingness had a baby out of wedlock and then punched that baby repeatedly would you be more or less likely to vote for nothingness?

Keep in mind that I have no problem with suburbs, in their truest, functional form, which is why I reference Valencia, Spain so often. Their suburbs are perfect in my opinion: 1) Linked to each other and the primary body (Valencia), 2) possess a variety of transportation options, 3) are walkable, organized around the train station, 4) are isolated from "anti-bodies" or LULUs (Locally Undesirable Land Uses, i.e. heavy industry, highways), 5) have a range of housing choices with a clear, organized hierarchy based on desirability, centrality, and transit options (interrelated), 6) set within a backdrop of local agriculture for resilient, predictable food production.

There is a critical difference between functional suburbs and sprawl. Sprawl (anti-city) is disconnected and centerless. Connectivity and hierarchy of centers are the foundation for all networks (your brain, these here interwebs, cities, etc.). Without those two things, a place is dysfunctional. It might as well not exist...which means, if it doesn't find those things, it WON'T exist. Sounds crazy to say (since we live day-to-day and cities exist century by century), but this is a fundamental fact of cities throughout history.
Lastly, I like Ed Glaeser. We agree on a lot of things. In fact, sometimes I feel like he gets his ideas from my blog (which he surely doesn't - but he has a knack for writing about things I've already written about. Of course, the flipside could be said for me and Jonah Lehrer when he writes about cities.).

Eddie money has a new book out today, which I will pick up as soon as possible. A couple of tangent trips:

* The user review of his book at the Amazon link above is hilarious. I'll paraphrase. "I really like the first two parts of the book where he's being all fiscally conservative and criticizing all the ways cities went wrong with zoning and all that big gub'ment hoogily moogily! Then that final act isn't worthy my toilet paper! How dare he criticize conservative policy as well! What a jerk! He really upset the confirmation bias I had going with the first two sections! Me and confirmation bias were going steady for a while there. But I dumped it like a sack of potatoes. Burn this book!"

* Second, an excerpted study of his new book that David Brooks references in his latest column blows the doors off of any relevance Joel Kotkin ever had:

This is a point Edward Glaeser fleshes out in his terrific new book, “Triumph of the City.” Glaeser points out that far from withering in the age of instant global information flows, cities have only become more important.

That’s because humans communicate best when they are physically brought together. Two University of Michigan researchers brought groups of people together face to face and asked them to play a difficult cooperation game. Then they organized other groups and had them communicate electronically. The face-to-face groups thrived. The electronic groups fractured and struggled.

Kotkin believes that telecommuting will allow us all to work from home and live how we want. And since we all want to live exactly how he wants, suburbs will live forever. The logic is that easy (or ridiculous). I, of course, counter that certain policies prevent us from all living truly how we want and skew the market. And these policies must be rewritten or scrapped to allow for greater choice in both housing and transportation.

Unfortunately for Kotkin's relevance and book sales, the science (and any personal empirical evidence) shows that working with and being around other people is far more productive than me and you interacting through these two screens and satellites.

The internet evolved into social media, not because it allows us to be further apart, but it allows us to be closer together. We are now better connected globally, sharing information and knowledge, but web 2.0 evolved to help us connect face-to-face, and generate real productivity/creativity/etc.

* Lastly, here is where I disagree with Glaeser in his appeal to more (and better!) skyscrapers as a panacea. Better sounds cool right? The only problem is that vertical sprawl is also problematic. One, for financial reasons. Know of many new high-rises doing well financially? These high-rises often deliver too much product at one-time for the market to absorb and adapt to, trusting our reptilian instinct for new shiny things to pay off the debts.

I think Glaeser might be suffering from his own version of availability/confirmation bias as a New Yorker/Bostonian. His personal bane is historic preservation. Smaller buildings are pending up demand preventing from more supply arriving in the form of replacement high-rises. Couldn't those lower-scaled historic buildings have more value than just their F.A.R. (floor area ratio)? Couldn't they be part of the reason why their is so much demand and value we find in those cities? Isn't their some extra value in connecting with the past via flexible, adaptable buildings that each generation repurposes (without completely tearing down and rebuilding) to suit their needs?

The global nature of the internet creates certain local discontinuities. Does his paean to skyscrapers make sense outside of NYC where land is cheap and demand is low (for now) like in Dallas? What about for the local geography? If Dallas were built to its climate (sunny and windy) would we have all of these glass(!) high-rises that take on heat (requiring greater cooling) reflect heat like a magnifying glass frying the people ants down below, and catch and then redirect the wind down to the sidewalk?

Furthermore, when he calls for high-rises to deliver density, what they end up doing is removing density from the street. First, high-rises either loom over the street forebodingly, they create windshear and a blustery environment at street level, and they block the sun from the street and surrounding buildings.

Second, they foundation of these buildings must be so large and the infrastructure (such as parking garages or all the transportation to bring people from all over a region to this singular point) that it breaks down the desirability of the public space around it because the blocks are too big or the density of movement in and out of this one object is too great to allow for more lingering.

Third, stacking so many people 100-stories into the air (assuming the building has 24-usefulness, meaning a mix of uses) creates demand for services up closer to where the people are. If there are 10,000 people above the 50th floor, there will likely need to be public amenities such as a food court or vertical gardens at various levels, further pulling people off the street level and removing a level of predictability for commercial businesses dependent upon the movement economy. The High Line works in NYC (and perhaps ONLY NYC) for precisely this 3-dimensional density.

High-rises often don't create real density, but an adolescent, clichéd view of density, an illusion of density as skyscrapers (and too many of them) create a repellent experience. It lacks nuance. So I ask you, which is a better version of density? Rome and Paris? Or Shanghai, Dubai, and Hong Kong? (The base of the Burj Dubai is about a 1/4-mile around. Its super block is over a mile around and its super, super-block (which includes a mall) is over 3-miles in circumference. I rest my case.)

When I think of New York and Vancouver, two cities often lauded for their skyscrapers, the best spaces and most successful areas are often of a lower-scale than we typically imagine those cities. See my post on visiting Vancouver for more about this.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Lively City vs. Empty City

According to its transportation network (via # of trips):

Click to embiggen.

Pay particular attention to the vertical y-axis, what I'm calling contextual impact. The transportation network has certain inputs and outputs, such as cost and infrastructure (input) as well as noise and pollution (output), which form a circular multiplier effect. These outputs reduce the quality of space, meaning reduced safety and desirability. The result is even less pedestrians. As a body politic we then turn and say, "well, there's no pedestrians and we have traffic, build more roads!"

We lose.

We lose:

Our wallets.

Our sanity.

Our quality of life.

Talent looking for a place to live and work.

Businesses looking for places for their employees to live.

Major events looking for a venue.

Linkages - Edjamacashun Edishun

Charles Marohn, a transportation engineer who gets it, writes at the New Urban Network about the high costs of busing kids to school:

If I am reading the budget right, we are going to spend $3.4 million in transportation costs this year. That seems in line with the costs reported in the MN2020 report. With a starting teacher in the district making roughly $41,000 in salary and benefits, we could add over 80 new teachers right now if we stopped subsidizing busing. That would be a 20 percent increase in staffing, potentially a game-changing amount.

Here's my proposal: What if we abolished the mandate that schools provide transportation to all students, but required them to still provide it to children that lived on farms (or whose families had careers that required them to live in a remote location)? For all other children, transportation would be provided as a fee-for-service offering. We then subsidize children from poor families (many of whom live close to the old schools anyway).

Besides the fact that it is nearly politically impossible to get people to pay for something they have been receiving for free, what are the objections?

It makes no sense that we continue to abandon neighborhood schools in favor of these remote campuses that require every child to be bused to. The only reason this continues to happen is that we've made transportation a sunk cost — it has to happen anyway — and so the cheapest way to do it is to make it large-scale. In the meantime, the transportation mandate is simply another perverse incentive for people to make lifestyle choices that ultimately have huge, financial costs to society.

At the link, he also discusses the design of the school and the area immediately around it. It's on a highway (or something close to it). No child could walk to it if they wanted and if some parent actually did allow such action, they would immediately get a call from protective services. Likely from somebody on a cellphone driving down said highway before they sideswipe another car because they failed to use a blinker while talking on said phone.

The budget Chuck mentioned above is for one (1) school district. We're about to cut teachers left and right, most disconcerting, in positions where they're needed the most such as special education. What is next? Why even have schools? Wouldn't that be cheaper? Isn't that the defining goal? Just rent some space from giant auditoriums and concert halls and have the one teacher left (the youngest, cheapest, and most inexperienced of course), lecture on all subjects to 1,000 kids at a time.

Or maybe, smaller, more localized schools was actually a better way of caring for and preparing children to be prosperous contributors to society.

So, if most American students live in lower density places than their peers in Europe and Asia, could it be possible that this–in part–is a reason for lower performance on science and math tests, which are basically a series of challenges or problems to solve.

Do children in higher density areas encounter informal problem-solving challenges far more frequently than their suburban counterparts and therefore have had more practice, more opportunity to hone their problem-solving skills? The urban challenge may be how to communicate with someone from another country, or how to navigate a Razor scooter down a busy sidewalk, but it’s still a problem to solve. In one recent series of tests, students from rapidly growing and changing Shanghai were tops in the world. Coincidence?

If density matters for economic productivity and innovation productivity, surely it matters for education productivity.

I don't buy the simplicity of the equation, Density + Education = Gold Stars! There are so many fundamental policies that hamper education, i.e. rote memory, teaching to the test, etc., that it couldn't possibly be that simple. But, there are a few contributing factors of certain kinds of density that propel higher achievement.

First of all, that density has, HAS to be a product of desirability. Shoving people into Bed-Stuy, Cabrini Green, Pruitt-Igoe style tenements doesn't equal brain power. However, if a place is desirable, people will move in, including a range of tax brackets, thus increasing tax base.

Furthermore, as mentioned above, density would allow for reduced required transportation costs, allowing some combination of lower property taxes and increased programs for students or better teacher pay. Or all 3, huzzah!

Lastly, increased density would likely mean more walkability (as long as said density is due to said desirability. If it is not, as in say, LoMac part of uptown Dallas where residential towers are set within suburban style spaghetti of dangerous streets, kids would still have to be transported safely from point A to point B. Thus, eliminating the rest of this point, which is...) Increased walkability means increased personal responsibility for adolescents and young adults.

I noticed this living in Rome where middle schoolers were responsible for their own transit (and that of their friends) to/fro school each day. I was struck by how much more mature they seemed than American kids. Call it anecdotal. Call it a hunch. Call it intuitive. I would bet there is a direct correlation to childhood dependence for transportation to virtually everywhere with the delayed emotional and psychological maturation that has led psychologists to suggest that adolescence is no longer 12 to 18 but more like 18 to 35.

Now I'm gonna go play in the snow since I'm not yet grown up.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Couple Riffs on Super Bowl Week in DFW

Let's get what has been recycled over and over again on every medium imaginable ad nauseum over with: yes, a lot of things went wrong. So, what? Do I care that Olivia Munn had a bad time because she wasn't the biggest famewhore fish in the room? She's a comedian that isn't funny and famous only for looks. Warning: this might be a theme developing here.

First of all, our own expectations for an event that is really little more than a year-long, roaming international party for vapid celebrities and inheritance-laden progeny who do virtually nothing productive for society to have their picture taken in front of an ever revolving screen of corporate alcohol/party/energy drink sponsor logos. Sounds like a blast.

Actually if you think about it, and then read this article by Sally Jenkins (progeny, who worked hard and possesses real ability), it turns out that Dallas is the PERFECT place to hold a Super Bowl. All superficies, little substance. (Oh, hi Olivia. Tell me about your Prada glasses.) It's just a shame the two grittiest, most loyal fanbases had to make it and ruin all the pretty with their snow and beards and team jerseys and Brett Favre-stench.

But that is not the real Dallas I know. It isn't Oak Cliff. It isn't Deep Ellum. Nor Fair Park. It isn't Lakewood or Little Forest Hills or Oak Lawn or West Dallas or the Design District. It's not the downtown of anybody that actually LIVES in downtown. And hell, it isn't even uptown (which if you've ever been to Crooked Tree CoffeeHouse you'll notice State Thomas is maturing into full flower). But, that IS the Dallas the rest of the world thinks it is, and for some bizarre reason, we misguidedly play along.

"Yeah, we're glitzy! We're like the Paris Hilton of cities! Us too?! Us too?! We're Victory! Oh, you don't like it that much? Oh, well, I guess we don't like it that much either..."

/notices empty buildings in Victory...

/sheepishly puts hands in pockets

/kicks rock

We are exporting a false persona and the world sees right through it. If we weren't ashamed of what makes us us, we might actually try to project some reality of what is beneath the mannequin-like botox of shiny glass buildings.

Which brings me to the second problem. Smearing the entire thing across 60 square miles. That's like having a party and inviting everybody to Connecticut. Where? Uh, there. It dissipates the energy across too much territory to too many disconnected, isolated places where visitors are expected to get to via what? $60 cab fare? Personal propulsion pack? Successful, resilient (and therefore interesting) urban places are built upon many quick, easy connections, between people, between labor/employment, between destinations, etc.

Finding a cab and hopping on a highway only to sit in traffic because the city was built for easy motoring only to later find out that puts everybody else on the road, is not an easy connection. The effort to build a city full of easy car connections has the opposite effect. Have we learned this yet? Or must I brand it onto a Louisville Slugger and start imprinting it onto foreheads?

But the city (and by city I'm referring to the economic entity, the entire metroplex, not the individual political bodies) and its event infrastructure IS spread out and those areas with real character (and I'm surely leaving several out as I belt this out in one quick draft) are too small by themselves to support a huge event. They're small mostly because they've been strangled by a tourniquet of a transportation system that values the distant connection over the short connection, the exact opposite of the way living systems, like cities are constructed.

So maybe Dallas as we know it today, isn't prepared for a Super Bowl. But, what American city really is? The commonly held stipulations for a Super Bowl are:

1) Lively, interesting city with a unique character,
2) Warm weather in February, and
3) Big, kickass stadium with loads of luxury boxes to host the grand finale of that roving, weeklong, international digital camera, flashbulb, and red carpet convention.

New York is supposed to have it soon. They just built a new stadium, but people are already complaining about the weather. Plus, the stadium is built on the swamp where Tony Soprano now rests. (Yes, he died at the end.)

Atlanta has held it, but their weather is just as unpredictable as Dallas's, the town outside of a few hipster enclaves in East ATL lacks as many interesting little small town clusters as here, and the Georgia Dome is a dump. But, at least it is downtown and they could host the entire thing in downtown/midtown.

NOLA passes 1 and 2, but the Super Dome doesn't stand up to today's modern mega-palaces to roid-raged guys giving each other early onset Alzheimer's.

Miami has 2 in spades. 1 - sorta... in South Beach and a few other places, but they're equally spread out and the stadium sucks and is up in the middle of nowhere. I know it sucks because my seat in it broke during the opening kickoff.

San Diego is short on 3.

LA could work but they don't have 3 nor an NFL team.

The Bay Area might work, but the new stadium they're proposing to build is way off in the valley or Reno or somewhere.

Indianapolis is about to host it...I'll leave the jokes to you.

My point is, there really isn't a perfect city that meets all criteria and makes everyone happy. Certainly individual aspects could've gone better. We were hit by a freak once a lifetime ice storm that I moved here specifically to get away from. Oh, hey look out the window! More ice!

However, that doesn't apologize for the controllable things that did go wrong. Most importantly, splitting the teams across cities. That is a suburban mindset with suburban results. Think about the Texas Rangers. They move to Arlington (for among other reasons - ahem, financial incentives) to be "in the middle of it all." And to capture both fanbases from Fort Worth and Dallas. Instead, they got neither, but 5,000 lonely souls per game until the first Autumn cold spell woke us up in late October and we realized that they were still playing the New Francisco Giants (sic) as coached by Bill Walshcells.

We tried to make everyone happy and instead made none. How very socialist of us. We need more competition amongst our cities so that one or two or three or four can focus on strengthening the real assets, the beating little pulses of real, authentic neighborhoods. Enough connecting Waxahachie to Celina via another new highway and instead let's work on connecting two neighbors from across the street.

Cities are a pyramid of connections, the most, at the bottom, are the local connections. They are the foundation of our neighborhoods. Nothing hits upon this point better than Ed Glaeser's new book, cited by David Brooks today:

That’s because humans communicate best when they are physically brought together. Two University of Michigan researchers brought groups of people together face to face and asked them to play a difficult cooperation game. Then they organized other groups and had them communicate electronically. The face-to-face groups thrived. The electronic groups fractured and struggled.

Cities magnify people’s strengths, Glaeser argues, because ideas spread more easily in dense environments. If you want to compete in a global marketplace it really helps to be near a downtown. Companies that are near the geographic center of their industry are more productive. Year by year, workers in cities see their wages grow faster than workers outside of cities because their skills grow faster. Inventors disproportionately cite ideas from others who live physically close to them.

"Screw you two. We're building a new highway between you. Good luck crossing the road, chicken. That's economic development as I know it!" Instead, build upon our real assets, our people, and project the product of the resultant neuro-chemical reactions called creativity and individual expression to the world.

Maybe then, when we our truly proud and ready to share what we've got, rather than merely boastful (Biggest! World ClAss! Shiny thing!), we'd be really ready to host a Super Bowl. I'm thinking in about ten years. And in that short time-span, it's time to get busy and start building: small, incrementally, authentically, and from the ground up.