Thursday, June 30, 2011

NYT Debates "War on Cars!!! Arrrgghhh!"

This began with the New York Times running a column and accompanying photojournal discussing all the various ways European cities are combating the impact of cars upon their cities. It reads earnest and genuine enough, but the synopsis alone seems like fodder for the "they're taking our guns AND our cars" crowd, like a parody piece of what a parodied New York Times might run.

It is actually worth the read along with the understanding that Europe, decades ago, realized that their cities were the baby and the impact of cars were the bathwater. So these policies began decades ago in various cities across the continent and the success achieved warranted and garnered copycats, as all progress across the globe is wont to do. There was no larger "anti-freedom" agenda other than they realized that car-based congestion was doing bad things to cities (wrecks, pollution, parking, yadda yadda), the chief generating platform of innovation, progress, and well, when done right, well-being and happiness. The hardship and blight we Americans associate with cities is completely independent of them but directly tied to the policies we chose to pursue that many European cities also did, but backed away from long ago as we doubled down.

The critical issue is that we simply can't afford to subsidize the cars, the car industry, the infrastructure for them, nor the energy to run them on to the levels we were once afforded. This is undeniable fact and the quicker we get used to the idea, the easier the various policy changes will be. It was super cool when the federal government made it rain dollars and "jobs" for highway construction, then when the maintenance bill came due, it was time to shut off the lights.

So with these issues at the forefront, the NYT then trotted out the usual panel of suspects to summarize their solution to the immense problem facing American cities, and in many ways state of mind as many of us feel entitled to gas at certain prices and free roads and free parking and convenient drive-thrus and an IV drip of corn syrup, in a whopping 2-300 words. I link and summarize:

In Europe, The Times's article says, “Urban planners generally agree that a rise in car commuting is not desirable for cities anywhere.” And therein lies the biggest difference between European and American city planning: American planners still have to pay attention to real people. And real people like their cars and the mobility it provides.
There's so much deceit and filth to this point that I feel the need to take a bath. In his column, he calls mobility a RIGHT and to that point I would agree with him to some extent. A right? as in explicitly spelled out in the constitution, not really. But there is mention of the pursuit of happiness. And towards the pursuit of said happiness relies the need for mobility to get to places. Of course, Staley, the libertarian/tea party-ish representative at the NYT table thinks that means the government (which he probably wants to blow up, figuratively) should provide mobility and that only form of mobility means roads. So what if the government can not afford those roads to the extent that we've built them and propose to continue to build them? Somewhere in this alternate version of reality (that we actually are all sleepwalking thru) all cars, gas, and roads are free, but there are also no taxes. Does not compute.


I generally agree with Glaeser that the point isn't to obstruct drivers, but to also make them pay their own way (since the taxes on all pay for the half of roads that user fees don't pay for, therefore carfree city dweller like myself is subsidizing your supersized superhighway. You're welcome). Furthermore, the key ingredient in the idea/innovation combustion engine of cities is not just mobility but the speed and rate of the connections. At which point I ask, which/who is more mobile? The person who must drive a few miles to anywhere? Or the person with all/any forms of transportation at their doorstep, including density/proximity of amenities and services (which become scattered in car-dominated form)?

However, he suggests copying London's congestion taxes and various other levies. I would counter that with suggesting that in order to gain the needed density and proximity, here in the states, we actually have to cut into the convenience of driving in order to gain the speed of mobility availed by walkable urbanism.

Zimmerman/Volk urban economists and demographers take their time getting to the point and barely say much of substance before concluding that, "Millennials will save the day by desiring to live in urban neighborhoods." Unnecessarily oversimplified. Knowing them and their work, I'll assume the best bits are left on the cutting room floor unfortunately. Yes, Millennials are seeking urban experience and retiring boomers are downsizing -- and I suspect will be losing ability/desire to spend the waning years behind the wheel. However, their point only gets at the demand side of the equation. Unless we drastically alter policy (which is ideally demand-led thru representative democracy) to allow for the proper construction of living/working cities, the supply will never come to fruition. And a big part of that is the corruption inherent in the government planning/spending/private road building realm, hence the ideal part of policy process.
Alex Marshall, who has written one of my favorite books on urbanism, writes that we have to properly prioritize transportation modes in the various types of places recalling the transect (dense places to least dense places). In that reference, he (and I) would suggest that a proper choice in neighborhood type is in order. Meaning, that there has to be a range of densities and the transportation planning, design, and funding choices should be catered and appropriated to allowing those types of places to happen.

From thereon, we can play a part in the self-organizing dance of choosing neighborhoods by the emergent personality within them. However, Marshall is only able to get out one point and that is in centralized urban places, cars are in fact destructive to those places and should have the least say in what happens there. This is straight out of the European city playbook, since cars will always find their way, but if they're allowed to dominate will squelch out all other forms of travel.

Ellen Dunham Jones hearkens back to well, forever, in that roads are platforms for life to exist. All kinds of street life and activity. Whatever goes goes. And various forms of activities, including saving time or spending time, are all available to our primary urban arteries, not just for cars alone. And when this is allowed, development actually wants to interface with the vitality rather than defend themselves with a barricade of parking.
Lady from the National Parking Association goes all Donald Shoup upside your head and declares market rate parking is what's in order. Of course, there is no mention of caps upon that supply, which would allow for still market based parking just super cheap, but whatevs. What she didn't get to say that Shoup would, is that pricing should be based on 85% capacity at any time. This somewhat alludes to limiting capacity in that any parking operators would want to limit parking supply in order to maximize profitability. Still, not exactly surefire way of preventing parking from eating away at neighborhood fabric like a spilled vat of acid.
The idea that a city like New York could be made wholly compatible with the car looks increasingly antique, a paved-with-good-intentions fever dream now as obsolete as the idea of tower-block housing projects. As Michael Frumin, a transportation expert, once observed, if the morning subway commute were to be conducted by car, we would need 84 Queens Midtown Tunnels, 76 Brooklyn Bridges or 200 Fifth Avenues.
That comparison gets right at the heart of the cost disparity and deficit for maintaining all that extra infrastructure. We goin' broke.

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.


Friday, June 24, 2011

Daily Link

(Prescript: I actually might have some time today for a few posts. Hoping to get to something on Valencia's public/private bike rentals as well as their Ciudad de las Artes y Sciencias, essentially their version of the Arts District.)

Just one. It's the only one you need. It is Kunstler's essay for Orion Magazine if you haven't seen it already. But it captures exactly why I go batshit insane every time I see a contemporary cities of the future competition where designers imagine what cities in 2050 will look like and their rendered imagery is really a collage (literally a photoshop collage) of every contemporary 'green' gadget and doodad they can't get into real projects.

Here is my beef/challenge: how about you work on how to design TODAY to be as clean, green, livable as possible and quit worrying about what 2050 will yield because as the last century has proven, architects are terrible at predicting the future, AND incredibly powerful at steering conventional wisdom into odd places. The future isn't created by imagining the future, it is created by adapting the present, and continuing to adapt the present, by all of us, every single one of us doing our particular part to improve the present. The aggregation then becomes the future. Kunstler:

Another favorite of mine in this genre, done in the mid-1950s to portray the far-off year 2000, depicts a city of towers cut through with swooping super-duper highways. So far, so good. It could be Houston or Atlanta today. The amusing part is that the cars depicted all have giant tail fins—because people were cuckoo for tail fins that year. So, naturally, the future would be all about tail fins.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Guess the City - No Free Beer Just Egg on our Face

Here's a guess the city for you...

I've joked about this a number of times, but I had never thought of presenting visual evidence. Do two of those three look familiar to you Dallasites?

As AeroRazavi tweeted, "It's not perfect, but let's make lemonade now."

My point is not so much, "yes we're overwhelmed by an oppressive amount of lemons dumped upon us from up on high," but why do we keep getting lemons dumped onto us (besides that we don't know any better) and how much more of this can we take before a critical mass stands up and says, "Enough!"

It reminds of how Ed Glaeser opened his recent book recalling Jared Diamond's Collapse turned to the real estate market, warning that cities, completely unaware of their own fragility, are doomed to decline when overwhelmed with excessive infrastructure and shiny monuments.

But my biggest gripe comes perhaps from a place of professional ethics. When you're being paid a premium (sometimes over and over again, ahem) to design something unique (or supposedly unique in your particular vein/brand), shouldn't you do that rather than dust off some old designs?

Or did the good people of Dallas that might have been on whatever design committee decide to do the ultimate 'Dallas' thing and just say, "I want one of those" as if urban development could be done on an old episode of Supermarket Sweep.

And even if they didn't, did Calatrava suspect as such and reuse a design as a work of art to mock us, much the way Rem and Prince did with the Wyly designing a Raccoon trap of a performing arts center, laughing all the way to the bank and the awards banquet circuit at our design ignorance?

Did Calatrava create his own performance art piece as well? Not in the way we thought it was art, but actually in a much more meaningful way in that it represents the folly of Dallas-brand urban renewal? In that case, like with the Wyly, it is quite brilliant in its savage satire. But I doubt it. I imagine he lacks the nihilism coursing through Rem/Prince's veins.

However, I want to give Calatrava some credit. So I'll assume it was done as a work of self-effacement. He knows deep down his works are not nearly as valuable to the cities as the cognoscenti of that city bestow upon them. And therefore, he pokes fun at both himself and the mistaken process.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Doc Brown sees the Future

Madrid in 5 Pics

It's hard to capture the intensity of Madrid (at least as an amateur photographer w/ store bought digi-cam). The closest thing perhaps to it in terms of intensity and passion is every single conversation every single Spaniard has with each other. They might be talking about stepping in gum on the metro but it sure sounds life and death.

In many ways, Madrid was the worst place to end a 9-day vacation. The kind of vacation where you're more tired afterwards than when you began it. Madrid is intense. Repete. It is all of Spain, even the Catelan and Basque parts, all rolled into one. It is richer, poorer, cleaner, dirtier, faster, slower (ie service), than anywhere else in Spain, perhaps combined. It is crowded. It is fast paced (except for service). It is like every other capital city in the world. And by capital city in the US, I mean NYC.

Kids. Playing everywhere. With parents, without parents. It was one of the most noticeable aspects of my trip as an urban "journalist" so to speak. Taking in the various cities for as they are. In Barcelona, nearly every public open space had a playground component. In Valencia, nearly every woman was pushing a stroller or watching their 5-year ninos chase pigeons in the placa. In Madrid, you'd find kids playing as parents sipped wine at a nearby cafe with friends whose kids were also playing. It was social. It was refreshing -- despite how tiring a 9-day trip can be.


That crazy old man Lewis Mumford. He didn't know what he was talking about!!! Or did he. In a 1955 New Yorker column (via infrastructurist) on the incredible elasticity of transportation and the perplexingly narrow-mindedness of its authors:

[O]ur one-eyed specialists continue to concoct grandiose plans for highway development, as if motor transportation existed in a social vacuum. … Instead of curing congestion, they widen chaos. …

All the current plans for dealing with congestion are based on the assumption that it is a matter of highway engineering, not of comprehensive city and regional planning, and that the private motorcar has priority over every other means of transportation, no matter how expensive it is in comparison with public transportation, or how devastating its by-products.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Torrent in 5 Pics

All the brand new development, delivered all too quickly for the market to absorb. But on the other hand it has a permanence that our sprawl lacks even though it is a touch more auto-oriented than the core of Torrent. Everything is just a touch more spread out and overscaled.

The desperate and the lonely. This is one new development complex with three individual towers at various degrees of completeness arising out of one base. The half built tower is currently mothballed and no work is being done on it. The signage (of which I believe I have a closeup somewhere) is as sad as one might expect in its promise.

Up the main street in Torrent (Avenguda Torrent) where a real live Transect can be experienced within a one-mile gradient finds us at the transition point from town to village. These may very well have been single family, but I believe them to be duplexes or four-plexes. Completely different subjectives (as in aesthetics) but also completely congruent objectives, in the way the buildings operate within its context.

The central spine of the main avenue. This fills with locals when not in siesta.

The arrival at the train station. Astonishingly, it was built to go subterranean when arriving in Torrent. The arrival point gives you a sense of the new and old in one.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Valencia in 5 Pics

Time is short today, so another 5 pic summary. This time of Valencia, Spain where I spent the majority of my recent trip allowing less crazy-run-around-tourist time and more get to know the place time.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Barcelona in 5 Pics

No real reason other than the max blogger lets me upload at one time. Since I have 900 total pics from the Spain trip, there'll surely be many many more postings like this one. It's hard to do, but I'll try to pick my 5 favorite that encapsulate the city and my experience within it as best as 5 pics and my (in)ability as a photographer possibly could. Oh, and they'll all have to be pics I took in landscape format since I haven't rotated the portrait framed ones -- unless you feel like turning your head:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Writers are Smart People

I was prepared to hate Grantland, the new website. Well, I still don't exactly love it or am clamoring to head back there every browsing chance I get. However, there is a stable of good writers, that when they're not talking about nonsense that might as well be on the cover of People, can put word to paper and tell a tale, one that isn't even in their typical "ballpark" so to speak. Of course, for most writers there isn't a ballpark, but an urgency and desire to be expert enough in whatever you're writing about.

So here is Dave Eggers talking about the magic of Wrigley Park including a fascinating bit about the buildings across the street, long famous, had since built actual private stands on the roof. Awesome. Love it. However, the important bit for local DFW readers is the last paragraph:
But to fill a stadium you need more than [winning]. You need to build and nurture a place that's an actual place. A place that celebrates not just a team but a city — and a city's refusal to plow the past under. Wrigley is the ultimate neighborhood stadium, the ultimate urban stadium, the ultimate statement that some semblance of tradition is more important than the money you could make with a hundred new skyboxes in some spectacularly soulless new stadium (sorry, White Sox). If the place is an actual place, little else matters. Owners should take note of the strange, almost inverted model of capitalism at play here. By not building a new stadium, the Cubs have filled the seats for 100 years. By not relocating it 50 miles outside Chicago, the Cubs have inspired fierce loyalty in its fans and the city. And by allowing the neighborhood to help shape it, and even profit from it, everybody wins.
He might as well not even be talking about a stadium in particular, but just "place." The magic of place, where people just want to be, be around each other. It's magnetic. The exact kind of place where somebody would come along and say, "I can give you half the experience for a quarter of the price." And cities or whoever go for it. No amount of econometrics no matter how rejiggered can possibly come close to telling the story. It's all bullshit. As is boiling all decision making to a few formulaic abstractions. It makes us stupid, and in turn, bankrupt financially, culturally, socially, etc.

Sometimes it just takes good writing (in the stead of actually being there and experiencing it yourself, of course) to get it.

Apple, Inc.: All Style, No Substance least when it comes to their new campus, to replace their old campus. It actually looks like a whizbang, snazzy techno version of the old one. Just change the geometry.

"The best office building in the world" according to Steve Jobs. This is the classic case of trying to perfect one specific aspect of one particular component of a city, at the expense of all the competing, necessary to compromise forces within a city. Norman Foster and/or Apple is more than happy to ignore those lest they clutter the object.

High quality places of permanent value are fusion. When placed together expertly, they are infinitely more powerful than any single component. The "best office park" in the world is a bit like saying the most environmentally friendly Wal-mart is in Allen, TX isn't it?

Also, towards the end of the video during the Q&A, notice the veiled threats by Jobs, "if you don't like and approve this, we'll move to Mountain View and build tent cities on Google's front lawn." Perhaps only subconsciously he knows he's full of shit.

Is this the first step in Apple's downfall, as more and more startups can happen in diverse, energetic, innovative urban areas?

Turia River Park: A Few of my Favorite Things

Agua de Valencia. You know a city is one after my own heart when its "water" is laced with four forms of booze.

For the unaware, I just returned from 10 days in Spain, 5 nights of which were spent in Valencia. Many asked, "why Valencia? Why not Barcelona or Madrid?" We also hit those cities in the remaining days (I had been to Madrid before), but I wanted to see and experience Valencia because I had fallen in love with it via Google Earth (see, the internet is already replacing some measure of long distance travel).

In hindsight, it was a great decision. Barcelona was a bit too overrun with tourists and Champions Cup euphoria (we hopped a train from BCA to Valencia the day of the game to escape the craziness). Madrid, as I warned the woman, is like most capital cities in that it is the entire country amplified: richer, poorer, louder, quieter, cleaner, dirtier, etc. and the opposite of etc. Valencia was just right. Sure it didn't have the amount of "sights" of the other two, but I hope in the next few days to illustrate why.

Having returned and in conversation with someone (I now forget who -- getting old like South Park I suppose) we were asked what was my one favorite thing about Valencia, Spain since we decided to spend the majority of our time there.

After running through a few possibilities: the beach, the ease of training between the cities, the public and private bicycle rental companies, the paella and sangria, or perhaps better yet Agua de Valen(th)ia (1: Valencian is close to Catelan in that both are closer to French in many ways than Spanish, and 2: Agua de Valencia is a customary local drink for all hours of the day made with local Orange Juice (that literally grows on street trees), champagne (or cava), and an assortment of gin, tequila, and rum. It tasted like an orangina to me. The woman didn't like it so there I sat on Sunday morning sauced on a pitcher of the stuff.).

I decided that my favorite thing was the River Turia Park. Or better put, the old River Turia (shown above). As you can tell by the concentric rings of style/century of development, the Turia once provided the northern boundary to the city and its medieval core. Eventually the city grew beyond its city walls, which were knocked down with the exception of two of the most prominent gates which still stand today.

In 1957 the river flooded the city and the decision was made to relocate the river around to the southern edge of the city, where it exists today entirely as functional flood control mechanism (there is rarely water in it). The old Turia has been converted into a large, central park as it is very much in the center of the overall city today, running roughly west to east for the length of the entire city, approximately 5 miles long and 600 feet wide.

It is fitting for me to write this post today, as Jim Schutze writes in the Dallas Observer about the Dallas Morning News "embarrasing confession" that they were "misled" all along about the Trinity River, and indeed Angela Hunt had been right the entire time they cast her as a crazy, conspiracy nut. Of course, it turns out Angela was right all along (as we all knew) and that much of the Trinity River Park was a ruse to build another B.S. highway, because and there is no other way to put it, that the decision to build the road was either stupid or corrupt, and likely both.

In case nobody has been paying attention, 1) every study on the subject proves that more road capacity only leads to more traffic. Furthermore, if you haven't been paying attention to local real estate dynamics, 2) highway frontage has been badly overvalued everywhere, but especially in the Dallas market as everything is slowly but surely downcycling into gas stations, pawn shops, and porn stores. And lastly, as a Brown University study showed, 3) every inner-city freeway resulted in a drop in population of 18% for that city. The accuracy of the number is not as important as the concept. Any such road makes it easier (and more pleasant) to live beyond the borders, away from those highways. Spend money, lose tax base, get stuck with the permanent maintenance bill. Representative democracy...or something like it.

This is what highway dollars leverage. They create disconnections and localized disruptions in the intricate fabric of cities and neighborhoods, whose bonds have been stitched together over years and years. Local connectivity is the single most important thing in the emergence of high quality neighborhoods, which when interconnected become a city of great neighborhoods, livable by the standards and means of those who choose to live there. Self-organization in practice based on the personality of the neighborhoods.

It's also important to note that at one point, the engineers in charge of the Trinity Toll Road proposed to split the road (as if to narrow it -- their solution) to both sides of the River. This would have been even worse, because at least the Oak Cliff and West Dallas side could have still been connected to the River Park (if it ever happens -- likely when all of the doo-dads are stripped from it). The downtown and Dallas sides are already thoroughly and mistakenly disconnected from their waterfront via a smorgasbord of highways and railroads, but whatevs, if the highway was rammed down our throats it might as well be on this side. Whimpering puppies on electrified floors we are, subjected to oppressive amounts of stupidity (and by stupidity, I mean the failed economic development mindset of the past 20-30 years and its effect on urban form and function).

If, and a big if, we are to build the Trinity River Park, it must be accessible. It must become a center of gravity, like the Turia, that bends the city to it. Draws people to it. Redraws roads towards it (and not big bad roads). It should have development clammering to clutter up along it. And nobody wants to be next to a highway.

Highlighted area of the Turia Park over Dallas to compare with size/scale of the Trinity.

The Turia is still about 20 or 30 feet below the street level of the city (like the Seine or the Tiber), as between erosion and the city being built atop itself for generations has climbed upward and there were various construction projects going on (building new pedestrian bridges, new access ramps, etc.) so occasionally getting from street level to park level was a bit of a pain. But the city still bumps right up against the River/Park, and why not? Who wouldn't want that kind of amenity out their window/front door?

Furthermore, retail was not terribly present on the roads paralleling the river's old course. Similar to the freeways, it creates an edge condition, and the more valuable roads for commercial uses are the linking or connector roads that bridge the chasm, once you get further into the neighborhoods on each side.

On the trip, our most intimate connection to the park was when we decided to go to the beach, which is also relatively new to the city of Valencia. We rented bikes from a private bike rental (I'll have a piece forthcoming on the bike rentals) company less than a block from our hotel for 10 euros, caught the nearest access point to the park and road the length of it.

I believe it was the middle of the work day on a Monday and the weather was great, probably 75 and mostly sunny (until we got to the beach), so the biking was a real pleasure. It was both an escape from the city (like Central Park is in Manhattan, but also a portal through the city, like a much more lovely (and pedal powered) version of a subway. You drop down, ride for ten minutes and reappear in another part of the city. Locals were using the various parts of the park to jog, bike ride, relax, play soccer, or whatever else one might want to do in the park, which also had a smattering of cafes here and there along it.

Now, to the pics:

View from the top of Torres de Quart, one of the remaining gates of the old medieval city wall.

Also looking into Turia from the top of the towers.


Another bridge.

And another bridge, this one is Pont del Mar. Since only those cabrons from Madrid use "puente." Incidentally, the divergent spanish languages gets to be quite the nuisance when maps are written in Castillian and the entire city's roads are in Valencian/Catelan.

I told you oranges are literally falling off the trees.

One of the ramps from street level to park level.

Some new high-rise developments along the river. The economic success or occupancy I couldn't tell you. I'm sure the developers are glad they finished the project however as many towers around the country remain mothballed as half-built concrete scaffolding (I'll have more on this later).

Free mini-golf for the ninos.


Yes, they have landed.

You'll notice very few people around these new buildings, all of which compose "The City of the Arts and Sciences." Like many recent ambitious cultural projects, ahem, they forgot the city part, having a rather poor relationship with the city around them. Furthermore, by clustering them essentially at the end of the park like a cul-de-sac there is really no reason to go there unless you have a ticket to the opera or some such event.

However, we were told a great nightclub is up in the Umbracle, the shad structure to the top left of this photo. Of course, it is up on the city level.

I'll have plenty more in a post devoted to the economics, development, and placemaking of these projects. The locals had plenty to say about them.

The beachfront promenade. Wouldn't it be nice if the transition something like this provided the transition between Trinity River Park and whatever new development would arrive along it?

Ahhhhh. La Playa. Which reminds me, since we don't have a real beach, like Paris, perhaps if the Trinity Toll Road gets built we can just convert it into a beach, like Paris does each summer on the Pompdidou Expressway along the Seine.

Or does that sound too nice? And we wouldn't want nice things, then we'd only want more...

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Incremental Urbanism, the Past and Future of Urban Planning & Development

Short on time again today, so in the mean time before I can start posting more about Spain, here is the text I wrote as part of our team's proposal for the Dallas Complete Streets plan. I teamed with the Better Block guys and our approach was to taken the incremental and adaptive approach to street redesign, instead of spending inordinant amount of money on 1) engineering plans and then 2) construction of a form of top-down design which is very much guess work and informed not locally but by general standards.

The proposal essentially turned into a critique of the public planning process as well as how transportation is designed and delivered. These are ideas that I expanded upon in three successive posts not more than a month ago: here, here, and here.

With yesterday's post about emergence being the organized (and accidental) complexity from the sum of localized actions that comprises functional cities, I thought it would be a good time to outlay this document written and submitted to the city of Dallas last November. It is also most relevant to point out that central planning is still necessary to some extent, mostly to unwind the mistakes of previous centralized planning and to ensure that further efforts at regional/global connectivity do not disrupt or disconnect local fabric but meet it tangentially.

From our experience, we've found that the public process to be largely a charade, to suggest public participation. The public enthusiasm is often high to begin the process and then they're asked questions about issues that aren't particularly relevant to their neighborhood or daily lives. They're shown pretty pictures and promises which don't get delivered because the underlying processes of cities are usually not fully understood by either client or consultant. The residents are asked to be experts on things they aren't. But not regarding aspects where they are expert, such as about their neighborhood. Their daily life. The theory is that if everybody focused on localized issues of livability, that the end result would be a collection of better neighborhoods, meaning an overall better city, ideally even leading to broader, better policy from a city-wide and regional perspective too.

We suggested putting the neighborhood to work on the places that mattered most to them. Using the budget to build mock-ups of full-scale streets. Telling engineering standards for specific road widths to screw off, while the study period is used to experiment, neighborhood-by-neighborhood to see what works best for that particular area. How to take a neighborhood spine and reposition it from negative, repulsing agent of through-traffic and replace it with a magnetic place. One where all connections have a seat at the table not just the A to B regional connection, but pedestrian access, cross-streets as well. For city networks to function, no one priority should extinguish all of those other competing ones.

Enjoy (excuse weird formatting dialogue between word and blogger):


It is our understanding that the main objective of this assignment is to provide facilitation and assistance in the development of an action plan for implementing the Complete Streets Initiative for the City of Dallas. Such a plan would be nationally recognized as a modern example of community and economic development fostered around transportation planning.

It is envisioned that this process will involve a collaboration of City of Dallas government, various transportation authorities including Dallas County, DART, MATA, OCTA, NTTA, NCTCOG, as well as business owners, key stakeholders, and local neighborhood leaders who will be interacted with to help implement Complete Streets in their specific neighborhoods.

The outcome, an action-oriented citywide strategic plan, will be to facilitate short-term construction of Complete Streets using the Better Block project to create “living charrettes,” as well as long-term citywide vision and action items to further implementation after the completion of the study. The “new” planning process should belong to the City of Dallas and each new complete street should belong to its neighborhood.

Comprehensive planning/design/implementation process will address the following specific issues and recommendations:

Unite all on-going efforts and relevant approved plans – Follow the TxDOT’s lead utilizing the Institute of Transportation Engineer’s Recommended Practices for the design of major urban thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach, but also allowing flexibility for new patterns to emerge, that might be unique to certain neighborhoods or regions of the city, or entirely new, creative models of transportation yet to be determined.

Public process – The public planning and design process is broken. Across the country, it is becoming evident that the conventional approach to public planning workshops and charrettes often fail to properly incorporate public input where it is most necessary. Too often projects start off strong with high public participation and anticipation only to see those feedback loops whither as the process moves along. The ownership is of the design consultants and city staff. Furthermore, too often we ask the public to be experts in things where they have no expertise, broad city planning issues, but then ask for no feedback where they are experts, in their own neighborhoods. Our design team proposes to improve public participation, ownership, and thereafter stewardship of the new designs by ramping up their participation in highly focused demonstration projects where local leaders, stakeholders, and residents are engaged and asked to participate directly in the transformation of their area “Better Block” into a new multi-modal center of gravity, activity, and local civic engagement.

Demonstration projects – The design team proposes rather than to create renderings of what Complete Streets might look like to build real, full-scale mockups modeled after the Better Blocks. Local residents will be engaged and inspired to participate in taking the lead in transforming their own neighborhood. These demonstration projects will be “living charrettes” where the neighborhood is involved from soup to nuts, from the planning to the implementation, and ultimately in providing feedback on the results. During a 90-day monitoring period for each initial demonstration project, the Design Team will gather data to compare before with after usage of the public realm, economic impacts, and safety perceptions. The neighborhood will be surveyed to gauge their response to the changes whether positive or negative and gather their recommendations.

Adaptive Design – The purpose of creating flexible demonstration projects is that too often cities spend inordinate amounts of money imposing designs utilizing arcane formulae without properly testing how it will work in real world conditions, without monitoring the effects on safety, land use, commerce, pedestrian activity, and quality of place. Rather than creating “fixed” designs from the start, the design team recommends temporary demonstration projects to create feedback loops between street and users. This will assure that the complete streets will be specifically calibrated to the unique character and needs of each neighborhood in Dallas.

Context sensitive – Following the lead of TxDOT in adopting the ITE Context Sensitive Design Manual, the Dallas Complete Streets initiative must understand the dual role of public streets as both “LINK” and “PLACE.” Some streets may even be both. The design team envisions creating a matrix identifying segments of Complete Streets throughout Dallas by their context-appropriate role of LINK and/or PLACE. This step is critical in reestablishing the seeds of complete 20-minute neighborhoods where everything including access to public transit is available to all Dallas citizens within a 20-minute walk or bike ride.

Cost Sensitive - The conventional wisdom of economic development has for too long assumed that if we as the public spend money on road construction, that private investment will automatically follow. Furthermore, often public dollars are spent without the tax base existing and the designs are inappropriate in stimulating new, long-term, meaningful investment. We propose a new approach where energy is stimulated through the “living charrette” process and as new private investment locates around newly created or revitalized centers of gravity, then public spending matches this rise, providing new amenity and a higher level of design, aesthetics, and permanence.

Economic and community development merged – Another systemic problem common in city building is the divergent goals of economic development from community development. They do not have to and should not be mutually exclusive. Cities worry about building the long distance connections rather than focusing on the short commutes, the every day connections possible in fully complete neighborhoods where all of your daily needs are met nearby, including recreation and public gathering. The Better Block projects have proven when executed properly and proficiently, they jumpstart existing businesses, stimulate new local entrepreneurism, and bring the neighborhood together around new walkable centers of gravity. The design team proposes bringing their learned expertise from years of experience professionally and in the execution of the recent Better Blocks around the Metroplex, quickly spreading across the country as a new model of grassroots community AND economic development.

New metrics – As part of the living laboratory approach, the design team believes that new metrics can be created and monitored as performance-based feedback system. This data would then be open and available to the public as part of Government 2.0 initiatives. These efforts have proven to stimulate the local creative economy in the form of new smartphone applications that begin to bridge the gap between digital and physical geographies, locating such things as walkable places, transit stops, types of businesses nearby, etc. These new metrics are intended to measure a quality of place from the human experience, including such questions as:

§ how many people hang out in a place above those that have to be there?

§ How many outdoor cafĂ© seats exist?

§ How many pedestrians are in the street during a given time of day?

§ Can a diversity of local businesses indicator be created and monitored?


No great place happens overnight. All the great streets and public places around the world have evolved over the course of time as incremental adjustments are made to continually update the way we interact with our environments to adapt to our needs and wants.

Our team feels it is necessary to establish a framework for positive, incremental change. However, incremental change does not have to wait decades to be smart, if we monitor it correctly. Rather than design occurring over night or evolving over decades of trial and error, we should arrive at and adopt a smart design system operated by a rapid feedback system.

To do improve the planning and design process, we must overhaul our public design process. This entails a public engagement and outreach effort that is more suited to the public’s strengths and calibrated to build ownership and eventual stewardship rather than let it wane like too many public processes.

Primary Goals

The primary goals to be accomplished are as listed in the city issued RFQ (the design team has recommended including numbers 4 and 5):

1) Development a citywide Complete Streets Vision Map – identifying all – along with gradient of potential

a. Include analysis of potential leveraged economic development and new development scenarios based on chosen typical contexts found throughout the city.

2) Publish a Comprehensive Complete Streets Design Manual –

a. That is context-sensitive

b. Is flexible enough to allow for future patterns based on feedback of local “living charrettes”

3) Implementation Plan

a. Short-term action plan – catalyst sites, which will be implemented, catalogued, reviewed, with recommendations for long-term engineering and construction based on data gathering and feedback

b. Long-term action plan with necessary ingredients? For future staging – the required deployment strategies which must be undertaken to attain the recommended critical success factors

4) Revised public participation process – to ensure increased ownership, appropriate use of local knowledge and expertise

a. Early stages – public surveys

b. Middle stages – Better Blocks - local stakeholder engagement at designated demonstration zones, “living charrettes”

c. Long-term - Recommendations for business improvement districts and storefront revitalization steps

5) New direction for monitoring & data collection responsive to government 2.0 and open source…

a. Early stages – new forms of public surveys and data collection – aid in creation of dynamic walkable places

b. Middle stages - Development of critical success metrics

c. Long-term - Open source framework and strategy/platform

The comprehensive planning process should incorporate:

achievement of the highest standards of design quality;

preserving and enhancing residential and historic areas into interconnected complete 20-minute neighborhoods;

encouraging a mix of development and business types which will create a range of job opportunities in the area revitalizing commercial areas as multi-modal, walkable centers of gravity;

identifying a planning framework that allows logical expansion and project phasing and individual entrepreneurial development activity by both small and large end users;

leveraging interest in demonstration areas through increased exposure, media attention, possible re-branding, and foot traffic to promote economic development by utilizing public projects to leverage private sector investment;

· leverage private sector investment in the form of increased tax base of areas thereby allowing increased public expenditures and improved, more permanent design features and enhancements that coincide with neighborhood development; and

developing a consensus during the course of the process to create a sense of "ownership" of the plan on the part of both the stakeholders and the community at large.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ping Pong in the Park

I pulled this off the web, but it just so happens to be taken from the park outside Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's church I happened to visit last week. See my pic here:

This, I did take.

The reason for the post is actually my morning visit today to Main Street Gardens in downtown Dallas. On the wooden cafe platform, where more tables and chairs once sat was a new ping pong table. Playing on it was a white collar bro with (presumably) his 5-year old (or so) son before it got too excruciatingly hot in the sun-baked park.

It was pretty cool to see and a great example of the concept of emergence in cities, perhaps the key discovery in the understanding of underlying dynamics of city forms, processes, and morphology - the way a city molts and shape-shifts and adapts. Emergence tracks back (a very short time period) to people like Michael Batty, Bill Hillier, Nikos Salingaros, Chris Alexander, and all the way back to Jane Jacobs, considered the godmother of the concept who actually didn't really spell it out, but inspired the study and elaboration. Much of it also tracks with mathematicians like Benoit Mandelbrot.

But even before Jacobs, people like Patrick Geddes et al were making the connection between cities and ecosystems. So it has been a long process to get where we are today. Funny enough, as the awareness has grown, the application of it has gone in the opposite direction as we've gutted our cities into completely dysfunctional places.

(**edit: I decided I should come back in and rewrite this section to summarize emergence rather than gloss over it and tell you to look it up somewhere else)

Emergence is what happens when numerous single entities or organisms acting in their own particular interests or following their own impulses (typically guided by a simple set of rules), result in orderly patterns of the super organism the entire group comprises. It is the same idea as a fractal. One example of a fractal is water trying to find its own level makes for incredibly intricate series of streams, lakes, and oceans. One example I just read of emergence was the stadium wave. Without the broader lens, one individual in a stadium is just standing up and sitting down, but when perceived as part of a group an identifiable pattern appears.

The concept helps to explain why what planning used to think of as disorganized, unplanned historic cities (seemingly) are actually quite ordered, but followed simple localized rules. It also helps to explain why centralized planning (especially when it comes to the application of transportation) tends to create disorder.

The key is understanding how emergence happens and effects our daily life. How did that ping pong table get out there and why, when I see it, say "cool." And what is the broader context of why there?/why now? What are all the steps in the timeline for someone to add a layer to the place? Why didn't somebody add a ping pong table in Victory for example?

First, emergence needs location. You've heard it before "Location Location Location." Come to think of it, I have no idea the history/etymology of the phrase, but it is still important today, at least in understanding the difference between functional (where location matters and the correlative value is relatively predictable) and dysfunctionl (where location has been replaced by "if you build it they will come" nonsense that applies to decentralized places).

As I've written before, Main Street Garden is in the right place for two reasons. One, because of its adjacent location to the successes of Main Street, sufficiently buffered from the negative effects of the freeways, the park allows for incremental expansion of a 3-block stretch into a four block stretch. This is far easier to do than create a sense of place that doesn't build off something, that is part of something rather than trying to create something entirely new without the existing critical mass.

The second is for its place within the movement network, the framework of the transportation grid. Although this has been somewhat minimized with the tragic decision to cut-off Harwood entering the city from uptown. It is still in a key location, but it was short-sighted to close Harwood. Helps one park to spite another.

Then, since the idea of the park is in the right place, then the platform has to be provided. The park has to be financed and constructed. Anything that happens afterward, if it is successful in cultivating ownership, the park will be a platform for adaptation and expression of the locals, the users. The key to cultivating ownership is typically directly connected to location and proximity (centrality), aka once again what is outside of the park is far more important to the success of a park than what is actually IN the park. How do I get there? How far is it from me (wherever I might be coming from)? Will other people be there, since fundamentally it is a place of gathering?

Who added the ping pong table? It is irrelevant. Who cares. What matters is that the park is shape-shifting. Adapting due to the individual actions of its numerous agents, including just the regular users. That is emergence. Cities are the amalgam of millions of numerous actions often acting independently. Somebody said, "I would like a ping pong table here." And there it appears.

It may come. It may go. But you know a place has come alive when it becomes the result of numerous actors, a superorganism comprised of the actions of individual organisms. It starts to have a life of its own. Constantly adapting to and adapted by its surroundings.

So who is really responsible? Well, to know that you have to follow the process beginning with the initial inspiration for the idea of the park being in the right place for it to work. All else afterwards is just facilitation (which is also important). The history of the park, as I've detailed before actually traces to the many many many efforts to revitalize the Mercantile Building which sat empty for nearly two decades. During one of those efforts, somebody suggested, "hey this part of town is harsh, sharp, abrupt and needs soften. It needs a place to breathe. Why not leverage the building's value with proximity to a new park?"

So fifteen years ago, the plan was elaborated to remove some of the buildings nearby to create a new park (however this version also removed the Statler Hilton to make a two block park, which admittedly would have been a mistake). Unfortunately, the numbers for various whatever reasons didn't work out and the Merc ended up sitting for another ten years and change.

The kernel of the idea for Main Street Gardens (which at the time was called "Commerce Gardens" -- an ironic spin on Dallas's reputation and acknowledgement of the second block) actually came from my current business partner. I was still in high school.

Monday, June 6, 2011

On Newstands

I don't know if I've posted this since I'm a bit behind, but here is a link and excerpt from my latest D Magazine column on solving the PreFab/Modular question (necessary for pop-ups and mass production) via repurposing DISD trailers:
Rather than turn the portables into affordable housing, they could be repurposed for small businesses and entrepreneurs who otherwise couldn’t afford downtown rents. The parking lot owner gets rent for the spaces the portable occupies, and the city gets improved urban form as the ugly interior of the parking lot is hidden by a curtain of portables—aka storefronts. Parking lots tend to have a corrosive effect on surrounding properties, so anything is better than nothing (or just parked cars). Even better, once they do their job in one place, the portables can be relocated to resuscitate another struggling block someplace else.


OK. We have triumphantly returned to the States from Spain, despite Miami International Airports best efforts (Time it took to train to Madrid Airport, get through security, board plane, fly over the pond: 11 hours. Time it took to land in Miami, deplane, find customs, get through customs, get through a 2nd round of customs, then a 3rd round of customs, get to the gate for the connecting flight to Dallas, get stand-by listed and rolled to the later flight, then fly to Dallas, get baggage and drive from DFW to downtown Dallas: 13 hours.).

As I mentioned before, the plan in Spain was to fly into Madrid, catch the AVE (high speed train) to Barcelona, where we would stay for 2 nights, train to Valencia (in time to catch the Champions League final at a pub/get the hell outta Barcelona before the place got completely nutty), spend 5 nights in Valencia, then back to Madrid for a couple of days, flight availability dependent. Madrid was the only city of the three I had previously been to so it wasn't high on the priority list.

Over the next week or so, as time allows I'll be posting about the trip, things I learned, things I found interesting, relevant lessons for the states as they might apply given both and acknowledging the similarities and differences in the political and economic systems. After all, their crash was created by mimicking/borrowing/and manipulated by the US finance/real estate/no-demand-driven real estate nonsense. I was particularly interested to see the effects on the cities, daily life of the people, and particularly their form of "sprawl," i.e. supply without demand.

I have nearly 900 pictures to sort through, organize, as well as thoughts to organize into coherent (maybe?) posts, but nonetheless there are clear salient points to be gleaned and made peering both backwards and forwards through the looking glass of time as it relates to cities.

For now, keep an eye out for those, while I link to this story about new crime "heat" mapping at the Observer.


While there are many points and clarifications to be made here (such as the limitations on the types of crimes measured -- white collar has little effect on broken windows theory, but a broader, more destructive effect on the city as a whole -- and the value to society each of those might inflict -- each not really sorted), the most pressing one is that there is no "tare" or weighting of densities into this graphic and the data. It is simply crimes by block in a given time. That doesn't necessarily properly measure how safe you are in a particular area.

Point being, that if the density of one block is 1 person/block and there is 1 crime per year, there is a 100% chance of being the victim of a crime. On the other hand, if the density of a block is 250 and there is 10 crimes in a year, you're less likely to experience crime personally. Furthermore, these maps are guaranteed to make dense areas look more crime prone, which by raw numbers they are. However, in terms of per capita, usually you are far safer in more dense areas (with exceptions given to socio-economic conditions, homogeneity or diversity of demographic, overall spatial integration, and urban form that can be conducive to crime or not).

And as fate would have it, I was able to not be mugged in Barcelona despite nearly everyone I know or talked to having either been robbed or mugged there. Of course, locals we spoke to also warned of being anywhere near La Rambla at night. We generally stuck closer to Diagonal (which functions much as the city's main street), where are hotel was also located on, during the evening hours.