Friday, July 29, 2011

Dhiru Thadani Lecture and Q&A

Yesterday the CNU hosted a dual lecture by Dhiru Thadani and Anne Ricker and afterwards I moderated the Q&A. In case you missed it, here are a sampling of the questions I posed to the panel (some of these were follow-ups):
In your presentation, you made the statement that each car has effectively 7 "homes" or parking spaces in the country and that you would love to have such a luxurious lifestyle as to have 7 homes with a graphic with seven places on the country. Why no Dallas? /tongue in cheek. But seriously, what would it take for Dallas to make that list?

Anne, you live in Denver but do the majority of your work consulting in Dallas. You get the opposite question. What keeps you in Denver?

One of my favorite lines is from Lewis Mumford’s massive tome The City in History where he writes about Necropolis (or the collapsed city), stating “the multiplication and massive collective concentration on glib ephemeralities of all kinds, performed with supreme technical audacity…are symptoms of the end…when these signs multiply, Necropolis is near, though not a stone has yet crumbled.” Interpret for me what might be present day “glib ephemeralities” or glaring warning signs of impending collapse or long-term inevitable decline...

Do we fetishize “design?” and place it in such an abstract sense that design has lost any meaning relating to qualitative improvement and instead is simply what might be novel or different? And do we lack the metrics to properly assess whether certain efforts have been (past tense) or will be (predictavely – in future tense) successful?

We’ve recently concluded a downtown plan for Dallas and one of the critical issues downtown currently faces, is that land is “upside-down” in that the cost of land overwhelms demand for development. What strategies would you recommend (proven or theoretical) for catalyzing development when the public sector can no longer meet the gap between cost and profitable returns?

So what you're describing is Stakeholder vs shareholder economies AND planning/development processes and the importance of locally driven stewardship in a world of globally driven finance? And can that engine be harnassed?

I was recently reading about the use of “community shares” as a development tool in the UK where x amount of capital is raised with a cap on how many shares any one person can purchase. Can a version of crowdsourcing like that work in the states and what new economic tools might be out there merging the power of social media with urban development that could be profoundly transformative in how we finance urbanism?

If you want the answers, too bad, you should have attended.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Power of Networks

See Geoffrey West at TED:

And then think about the processes, rules, and procedures that currently govern transformational city building, things like roads. It is ideological, not reality-based. Furthermore, we subjugate the larger system at the behest of the singular (for example, the location and current function of a bus line or transfer hub or the size and shape of a fire truck). We bend the city (and its network) to the single issue (like the size of a fire truck) rather than bending our tools to the city (its network).

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Flower Pots: Integration Then Accommodation

I've made this argument a few times that we declare the things we touch and feel or see as "urban." But why? What makes one set or family of designed or otherwise elements within a public realm or private development "urban" or not urban? In fact, the majority of professionals practicing in "urban design" (as their websites suggest), also confuse emergent characteristics as urban.

These things include such items as ground floor retail, mix of uses, street trees, and so on. Basically all the things the average "urbanist" says a project needs in order to succeed. And then we end up with projects like the Arts District, Victory, Park Lane Place, or even the Villages at Allen and Fairview. In each of those places and countless other around the metroplex as well as nationwide, projects carry the marketing exclamation "New Urban" but actually only carry the mask of truly urban. What is the higher order at work here (or in these cases, not at work)?

"Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken." Tyler Durden

The latest online meme that only the internet and social networking can completely blow out of proportion is the bus stop coffee table which carries with it a number of lessons/messages, both good and bad. See the video here:

A rather decent yet innocuous looking coffee table is placed at a bus stop. I'm left wondering, why are people waiting for the bus so long? And secondly, is there really anything different to this bench than the other bench next door in terms of how people interact? The differences seem minor. So the actual video doesn't interest me nearly as much as the intent of the filmmakers.

A bus stop is a form of integration, or spatial interconnectivity. A crossroads. In this particular case, where the regional bus network interfaces with the local street/block/pedestrian network, particularly the sidewalk. Where such spatial integration occurs, people emerge. Once people emerge and use the space, they instill a demand, accommodation: nicer, safer, more comfortable place (typically correlated with the income levels of the area (mixed or otherwise) and/or the city's willingness to cater to that particular area - touchy subjects therein).

So yes, this microscopic, incremental degree of improvement is a form of emergent urbanism, and we love it and tweet it in the memetic echo chamber because it plays well with empowered, democratic placemaking dynamic, but it is always important to know there are deeper forces at work. It is the flower, and to some extent the cultivation, but not the seed. The flower never happens without the seed.

Unless you buy the cut flower and put it in a vase until it dies. And isn't that really what those pretend urban places are really like?

2 Articles & a Monkey in the Middle

First, my new column for the latest D Magazine is up online, likely on newstands today or tomorrow, I do believe. It is on the lifespan of recent house construction. Find it at the linky here:
A house is first a home. It’s only an investment when it is passed between generations. A house in the center of Amsterdam costs the same today as it did 400 years ago, when adjusted for inflation. Of course, the next generation has to see value before it will bother to care for the property. The houses along Swiss Avenue, like those in Amsterdam, received some TLC 60 or so years into their life spans. To last that long, a house needs to be useful, adaptable, and, most important, loved. I’m afraid many exurban neighborhoods, most built to standards far below those of Craig Ranch, face an uncertain future against shifting demographics looking to downsize. What we need most is a more comprehensive understanding of what affordability means. Perhaps we trade some of that excess space for durable, well-crafted houses located in complete neighborhoods. The oversize pantry is externalized as the corner market, the third garage is replaced by a gaggle of bikes, the rec room becomes the neighborhood, and the dining room, its restaurants.
Here's another pic from the BioParc in Valencia, Spain. Perhaps it would be a better picture than the wandering rhino from yesterday. I can't tell if this is a great & ironic example of "the thinker" or that he's just plain bored in his faux-habitat:

I just wanted to get that picture in there. Excuse the post-effects. Was playing around with the new camera.

And here is a second column in this month's D, on the proposed Trinity Toll Road, that I contributed thoughts & background sources to, which should be obvious where my tone enters the fray. I'll help:
The fourth reason the road won’t work is probably the most important, though it has been discussed the least. Highways are bad for cities. Inter-city freeways are necessary to link regional economies like Dallas’ and Houston’s and Austin’s. But intra-city highways—the expensive eight- or 10-lane thoroughfares that turn into parking lots twice a day—those choke the life out of metropolitan areas. Even President Eisenhower, the father of the U.S. interstate system, was opposed to putting highways through cities. They displace people as they’re built and then, as time goes on, highways decentralize populations. They make it easier—and often cheaper—to live farther away from the center of economic activity, which means that just as a city undertakes an expensive infrastructure investment, it loses a portion of its tax base. (ed. note: and over the long-term then more expensive to do both, live outside city and maintain said road) A 2006 study from Brown University found that, on average, each intra-city freeway leads to an 18 percent population loss.

One of the fundamental goals of the Trinity River Project has always been decreasing traffic congestion. Building a highway doesn’t decrease congestion; it makes it worse. Increasing the number of lanes only increases the number of people driving, while decreasing the amount of viable commercial space where a car might be able to get off the road. Modern urbanists now think that building highways is at best a temporary (but very expensive) solution to congestion.

A better answer to Dallas’ traffic problem is to create more transportation options, more ways to get around without a car and better routes to take with one. When San Francisco lost two major freeways after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the city decided that, rather than rebuild, it would replace the freeways with a grid of people-friendly boulevards. Today an area that was once desolate is thriving. With boulevards, a steady, predictable level of congestion actually fuels the local economy. People stop to eat dinner, to shop, to linger in a place that is part of the urban fabric—as opposed to a freeway, which just tears through it. Those places eventually become desirable places to live, which means population density goes up, and the standard of living goes up, too. Forty years ago, people scoffed when Vancouver refused to allow highways through the city. Vancouver today is at least pleasant enough to host the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Think about this, whatever money is set aside to build that road, how about we move that pot of money over into the build street cars pool of cash money to help rebuild the parts of the city (the donut hole around downtown between 1-3 miles from the city) exactly the areas that modern streetcars aka trams serve perfectly. Ross and Live Oak portions of East Dallas, Deep Ellum, the Fair Park Area, the Cedars, the Industrial--->Riverfront area, which ha! given its new name this toll road would be rather funny wouldn't it? The new road would kill every and any effort to try and revitalize that area, which to be fair, is troublesome with the road or without it for various reasons.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Zookeepers, Landscape Urbanism

Since I popped on the KunstlerCast of James Howard Kunstler reacting to Charles Waldhiem's presentation at CNU regarding Landscape Urbanism, my mind immediately leapt to a series of photos I took at the BioParc in Valenica, Spain, a fancy name for a zoo. Landscape Urbanism, no matter the context essentially creates prairie, natural habitat as if we're all still emerging from the African Savannah 15,000 years ago. That's the downside. The upside is that each Landscape Urbanist design is ecologically friendly, filters water, gives life back to the land once urbanized. Is that really the goal?

The point of actual urbanism is to facilitate interconnectivity and magnify all of those good things that come from population clustering while minimizing the bad, which does include environmental degradation. Actual urbanists give up some local environmental degradation in the hopes of preserving real natural habitat everywhere else, ie a plaza for people is more appropriate than a wildflower meadow in a downtown location. Sure it might be pretty, but it will get trampled anyway, so why fight it.

Landscape Urbanism does have its appropriate applications but the everywhere and anywhere its acolytes would have you believe is not the case. Therefore, it is hardly the sweeping ideological force they claim it is, but merely 2-dimensional geometrical abstractions applied from plan to landscape, sharp angles and alluvial waves. Superficialities indicating the depth of thought actually behind it.

In the end, we don't know how to interact with landscape urbanism. It has neither form nor function beyond placating (or plating) more starchitectural objectification and/or sprawl beyond water filtration, above and beyond all things. But is a man-made, designed ecosystem really better than the natural ecosystem that true urbanism protects by making denser, walkable, clustered, and interconnected cities more desirable than living in a zoo, a man-made eco-habitat?

We just walk in bored circles like this Rhino in need of socialization.

In other news, here is Michael Van Valkenburgh's work on the George W. Bush Library and the so-called "urban" design:


It's going for LEED-Platinum. And you have to drive to it. Then you get to walk through the zoo, so it's walkable! Try not to walk in circles.

I have no problems with it, but just call it what it is, cuz it ain't urban in any sort of functional sense other than being located within an arbitrary political boundary of a city. Just like all landscape urbanism.

The Choleric City

...and our race for 'efficiency.'

First, a brief synopsis of the bacterial infection Cholera, largely extinguished in American cities but passed quickly in areas of high population density (and thus the dimishing returns of extreme density) and very low sanitation usually through fecal matter that has infected food or water supplies (like in Glaeser's account of NYC allowing a private firm to build the city's first resevoir and aqueduct "on the cheap" which resulted in three decades of poor water quality, countless disease, and eventual rebuild - therefore NOT on the cheap).

When you get Cholera, your body essentially tries to flush the pest out as quickly and violently as possible, out the back end. And by doing so, and so much, the victim ahem passes so much liquid out their body that they dehydrate and often die. I know, disgusting right?

In a way, it is your body acting as efficiently as possible. Anything that comes in goes right back out, flooding through your system as expediently as possible, garnering no nutrients. Compare that to a healthy digestive system, which takes time to process food through the stomach, liver, and kidneys. Expedience is not of highest import, but the range of functionality and garnering maximum value out of that food, taking all of the good and expelling the bad.

Highly efficient in its sapping of life from bodies, life from cities.

And with that brief background I offered a tweet today comparing the car-centric city to an infected patient with cholera (probably before they were diagnosed or aware something was wrong/leaky). The goal is always efficiency efficiency efficiency. And a dumbed down version of efficiency that looks at one corridor and attempts to move as many cars through that corridor as possible without regard to cross-streets, other forms of transportation, or auxiliary side-effects such as real estate form and value, pollution, quality of life, and short- or long-term costs.

Just gotta keep moving them cars (sic). Flush them right through the system. The perniciousness of efficiency is actually anything but efficient:

Traffic & Value

This link came along at the perfect time as I was tweeting about the relationship of traffic to value and how in car-centric cities the real estate market is essentially diseased. It rightly thinks that value is driven by traffic and access, however if that traffic is all car-based, i.e. on highways, that actually reduces traffic and access because of the speed and space required. See the image via thecityfix:

And therefore, as the real estate market went bonkers for land along highways, where visibility was high but access incredibly overrated, there is the inevitable downward spiral of property, vis-a-vis a one-time hotel-turned-jail:

The issue is that the areas of high traffic in car-centric cities is repulsive, literally. People want to get away from it, yet there is still that tension pulling real estate TO traffic. The result is a confused system, with no higher order or emergent logic. It is dislocative, chaotic, and doomed. Our conception of what is traffic, where is value, and how access is achieved is so degraded, that one wonders if we can regain the complexity and sophistocation.

The only way out is to reorient public infrastructure so high traffic throughputs are effectively attractive, amenable to all forms of transportation, and comfortable enough that the real estate, the figurative term for the spatial allocation of use to movement, interfaces directly with the conduit, like a healthy ecosystem along the eddies of a stream edge.

It also allows for ample and equally proportioned cross traffic as we too often focus on the efficiency of one corridor over the overall system. Again, efficiency (at least the dumb-downed version of it we conceptualize) is pernicious and toxic to the overall system. Channelized drainage and engineering is efficient:

eroded stream bank/dead ecosystem.

Or this?

It shouldn't take a genius to put together the analogy of complex bio-ecosystem to complex urban-ecosystem.

Above is a conceptual rendering for Diagonal, Barcelona's real main street and commercial heart, not the downtown outdoor tourist mall/trap that is Las Ramblas. I've apparently moved all of my pics from Spain to an external hard drive, so those will have to wait.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Big Roads

A book review for the New York times of Earl Swift's Big Roads, which lays out the history of the American Freeway and begins with a cross-country road trip, Tom Vanderbilt of Traffic fame writes (and quotes):

In place of poetry we had standardized efficiency, not just the new Esperanto of green highway signs speaking to us at 65-mile-per-hour Highway Gothic — the same tongue from Maine to Montana — but the whole experience of travel itself. “With the modern car on the modern freeway,” Earl Swift writes in “The Big Roads,” “the modern traveler was left with practically nothing to celebrate but the ever-briefer time he had to devote to getting from one place to another.” Or, in John Steinbeck’s famous remark, one could now drive from “New York to California without seeing a single thing.”

Swift, a former journalist with The Virginian-Pilot and the author of “Where They Lay: Searching for America’s Lost Soldiers,” among other books, knows the feeling. “Big Roads” begins, appropriately, with a cross-country road trip, Swift at the wheel, his young daughter and one of her friends in tow. Later, flipping through digital pictures from the journey, Swift finds he has images mostly from days he didn’t travel on the Interstate. Whole states had been relegated to vague blurs of asphalt. “The minivan’s windshield became a proscenium through which we watched the countryside pass without actually experiencing it; we were in it, but not of it.” Yet Swift had made the bargain we all do: the Interstate highways “carried us without incident, without drama. They offered up food and lodging with minimal fuss. They carved the shortest path all the way home.” And, most important, “we made very good time.”

I find two particular statements within this prose particularly relevant. First, the erasure of poetry for the sake of efficiency is quite the analogy for the entire modern American cityscape, devoid of all/any character where everything is mass produced for some supposed cost savings, when factoring in life cycle costs, rarely are any costs actually saved, more often completely lost. And that really points to what and how we build cities these days, with equations in mind. Equations that are incomplete, that have no way of calculating the incalculable or the subjective. Eventually, they get externalized. Things like meaning.

The other statement is the author of the book, Swift's statement that while on the road they knew they were in a certain place, but not actually a part of the abstract blur whizzing by the windshield. This gets at the appropriate place of the freeway and its functionality, which it does have some, ie moving things that can't be moved long distances utilizing efficiencies of scale brought by bundling things, ie shipping or riding on planes or trains, freight or passenger. Highways are only viable (and sustainable) as interregional linkages between disparate economies, as trains and planes allow, and when all are maintained as viable forms, they're able to keep costs for all down. However, when those highways are introduced within cities and apart of neighborhoods, suddenly there is dislocation. As if nobody belongs anywhere and what is left is a place nobody wants to be anyhow.

Regional transportation disrupts the integral, complex local connectivity that is necessary for complete neighborhoods and proper, sustainable, lovable cities. Regional connectivity is also necessary in a global world, however since the infrastructure is so large and dislocative, it must only intersect with cities tangentially so to minimize said disruptions, intentionally NOT being apart of a place, because they never can be by nature.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Resilient Cities Ranking

Appropriate, since I'm now reading Peter Newman's book of the same title, which is where I found the amazing statistic that the average Atlanta resident uses 12x the gasoline than does the average Barcelona resident. You can guess which city might be more economically efficient and otherwise, resilient. You can also lump all of the sun belt together and assume they're within a 10% margin of error of Atlanta, since the same policies and codes provided their genetics applied to varying geographies.

Newman defined Resilience as "the more sustainable a city the more it will be able to cope with reductions in the resources used to make a city work." Jumping back a section, he states that a sustainable city reduces its overall ecological footprint while INCREASING quality of life.

Cal-Berkeley has just released a ranking of resilience for American metropolitan areas quantitatively measuring and ranking resilience from three separate perspectives as well as an aggregate whole. Those being Regional Economic, Socio-Demographic, and Community Connectivity factors.

Within each of those headings, they measured the following:

  • Income equality - which, obviously can lead to instability
  • Economic Diversification - See: Detroit
  • Regional Affordability - Housing boom/bust anybody?
  • Business Environment - Overly regulated, bureaucratic tangle?
  • Education Attainment - Another duh. Gotta cultivate that primary resource, people.
  • Without Disability - They seemed to define this as age-related. How old/young its populous
  • Out of Poverty - The poor are particularly vulnerable to disruptions
  • Health Insured - Ditto.
  • Civic Infrastructure - civic organizations as stewards
  • Metropolitan Stability - lots or little migration? How "rooted" are its people or are they transplants?
  • Homeownership - this has its flaws and I don't think I need to spell them out. Surely, they are again going after stability here
  • Voter Participation - again, stewardship
I'd like for them to have a measurement of physical infrastructure and connectivity, particularly per capita, but this is from Governmental Studies/Policy types not urban designers/transportation types. Otherwise, it's a pretty good list of data sets as far as so many of those generic city rankings come. So I'll go out on a limb and say there is some serious merit to it, way moreso than the livability rankings or even worse affordability rankings. And what is really getting measured is how "tied" to places its citizenry are and how active are they in their stewardship.

The results? It doesn't look good Sun Belt. Some notable rankings:

DFW - 245th overall (out of 361), 119th Economically, 207th Socio, 300th(!) Engagement/Stewardship

Screwston, aka Houston - 297th overall, 262nd, 230, 313th. Woo! We beat Houston in every category!

Atlanta - 172 - 161, 124, 231

Austin - 168 - 15, 130, 307

Phoenix - 233 - 176, 160, 294

College Station - Dead Last (whoop!) - 361, 341, 358

Notable Highly Rankings Cities:
  • Minny/StPaul - 3rd
  • Boulder, CO - 8th
  • DC - 10th - lobbying money y'all
  • Boston - 20th
  • Seattle - 25th
  • Harrisburg, PA......17th?! ..... woah.....woah, wait a minute. I'm assuming economic solvency isn't a factor in these statistics (<---- home town, also gutted by suburbia, narrow "landlocked" boundaries, and regional infrastructure the straw to make leaches life easy)

Puppet Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

On a typical day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The TWO Guiding Principles for Downtown

That's right, only two. And the D FrontRow post got me thinking about them. If we accept the idea that pedestrian activity is what populates/energizes successful, attractive, desirable cities (and all evidence suggests such), then we need to allow two concepts, IN ORDER, drive all decision making:

1 - Integration. All things connected to all things. Cities are the physical construction of my and your linkage between home and work, home and the store, home and play, me and friends, etc. etc. A highly interconnected, robust network that prioritizes the quick, easy connection rather than the long distance or regional connection (while still being connected regionally and further afield but only in a way that tangentially interfaces with the local interconnected network, lest those larger connections disrupt local connectivity. To visualize this, think of the way highways tear apart the grid.

Highways deleverage property values so that highest and best use adjacent is either surface parking or non-tax revenue producing.

2 - Accommodation. Once, and only once, you have achieved greater levels of spatial integration, network, the pedestrians begin to emerge. Thereafter, you continue the positive momentum, by creating more attractive places to meet the demand of those pedestrians thereby getting more and more pedestrians. However, any plans to revitalize downtown by only addressing aesthetics of streets, ie street trees, flower pots, and other ephemera, are a waste of time and money without improved spatial integration.

For this reason, pedestrian only streets around the world ONLY work with high degrees of macro-spatial integration, essentially the centerpiece of the entire city and there is still high degrees of density. Many are very simple if not downright spartan in their adornment.
See: Via del Corso, the center spine of Rome. No adornment, no decoration, just high degree of spatial integration with the rest of the city. Any decoration is populated by the the businesses which are populated by the people, which are populated by accessibility provided by integration and interconnectivity.

As of right now, downtown Dallas has neither. The spatial integration is interrupted by various factors including but not limited to the downtown highway loop (which sacrifices downtown for the sake of Plano and places further afield to support 100,000+ people), one-way roads, and roads designed for cars and cars alone (and their various geometries for something nominally known as "safety). This means roads with high turning radii, intersections where cars feel comfortable enough to roll right thru right turns, narrow if not non-existent sidewalks to make room for more cars (which support far less people per square foot of public street than any other form of transportation - meaning less traffic, meaning less real estate value, meaning less attraction).
Car-friendly turning radii. Correlates well with dead areas.

The only place where downtown has some modicum of both is on Main Street and surprise, surprise, it works. However, because of the freeway loop and the other forces interrupting spatial integration, Main Street only works on a micro-scale, not macro, which a road like Ross Avenue has the potential to do.

The space syntax of downtown Dallas, measuring the spatial integration on a micro-level (not city-wide).

Remember: First, interconnectivity then demand drives tax base which drives decoration.

Pedestrian Malls

D FrontRow has a new series exploring pedestrian life in the city. The very title of the first one terrifies me. I add in the comments:

The structural elements of the underground and above ground pedestrian network does two things, both pernicious to pedestrian activity on the ground plane. First, they remove people from the street. This can only work in hyper density and even in that case, there is no evidence from other cities that is an ideal condition as one generally makes the other less than comfortable. Second, the structural elements (and walls of T-Giving square) limit line of sight and (perceived) safety. When we can’t see what is on the other side of something, particularly when there aren’t many people around to “police” (social contract kind of thing) an area, people don’t like being there. This is well documented by William Whyte, Jan Gehl, and Kevin Lynch.

Also, I’m not convinced we should be talking about pedestrian only networks yet. In one way, mostly theoretical, they can be good for overall interconnectivity. But again, without lacking suitable density, they just dilute the movement (energy) from other streets, all of which become less than ideal for ground floor businesses which survive off movement and the visability afforded by movement. And by movement, I mean traffic, and by traffic I mean all modes of transportation.

And P.S.:

I should add that between the narrow sidewalks that lack any buffer from traffic that is designed to move quickly and the N-S pedestrian route you describe and its incomprehensible nature as well as uncomfortable experience driving people from one to the other, neither being comfortable and amenable. In the end, people just don't walk. No people walking, no incentive for businesses to activate ground floor uses.

And when somebody ridicules the idea of no ground floor use in a garage, ground floor business locates in the ground floor of garages all the time (even in Dallas - rarely successful because...) when demand driven by pedestrian activity allows it.

The 5 Most Culpable Professions for this Anti-Urban Unraveling

Since I downed about three gallons of coffee this morning to shake me out of the abnormally deep sleep I was in this morning, I feel like being impulsive. Well, semi-impulsive since I premeditated this post in the shower this morning where thoughts are second best only to long walks.

Without further ado, and in no particular order, I present the five most culpable professions for broken cities and the infrastructural debt accrued.

1. Engineering/Road Building companies and lobbyists - Biting the hand that feeds them maybe? One irony is that there would still be work (and still is) in building proper cities at lower (affordable) levels of infrastructure per capita, but that would mean much smaller projects and therefore fees. Building the unsustainable also means that all that infrastructure will (is) fall(-ing) apart and need to be rebuilt.

2. Urban Planners - Idealists, one and all. We like to quote Jane Jacobs but forget she was observational not an idealist. One generation's "pop-up urbanism solves all problems" (which it most definitely does not), is another generation's Euclidean zoning. Everything is done with the best of intentions, but rarely do they understand processes behind urbanism and too often focus on the physical representations: "Live above the shop! Mixed-use! Street Trees!" Et Cetera. Each outgrowths of deeper forces and in some cases even visceral and psychological. That deep. Those emotions drive markets. The infrastructure and codes are tools enabling (and too often disabling) those interactions.

3. Transportation Planners/Engineers - You didn't think I would leave this one out did you? Always concerned with moving cars with little regard to side effects or without a higher purpose. We gotta move cars. Why? Cuz we said so. That's efficient. Nazis were also efficient. Had pernicious spin-off effects too. Cities are complex organisms comprised of competing, overlapping, complementary, and compromising needs. Letting any one particular issue (besides basic law and order) dictate everything else, well, what you see is what you get. Especially when the answer to every question is more supply. That's not being a professional. That is Homer Simpson's dipping duck.

4. Politicians - Somebody has to take that lobbying money right? They also have to believe wholeheartedly in the ponzi scheme of Keynesian style road building leads to something called growth. It did, once. At some point, it surpassed a tipping point where accommodating demand gave way to just building supply for supply's sake. Homeownership! Even if the ends and means are corrosive. It also gutted the cores of cities and corrupted the ability of those areas to maintain themselves.

5. ??? All leave the last to crowd sourcing. As with all groups, there are the well-intentioned, the heroes fighting the good fight, and those just collecting a paycheck. The list tells me that the entire system of decision making and city building (and financing) is profoundly broken and any and all professions even quasi-related could find themselves on such a "blame game" list. It really isn't any one person or profession's fault. We are all complicit and it is in all of our best interest to rethink our profession and cities from the bottom up. Questioning.

Institutions, one and all, are the greek gods of our day, striking us down if we dare rise up against them. They resist change, feeling profoundly threatened by it. And in some ways that fear of leaving the status quo is a good thing. Preventing change from happening so rapidly that it becomes dislocative. But at some point, if you keep driving the same direction you're going to drive off a cliff. Sometimes it is best to stop and ask directions.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Purpose of Front Yards and Other Errata

Would you believe that a woman in Oak Park, Michigan is facing jail time for planting a veggie garden in her front yard? It's true. And another article on the subject looks at the wastefulness of front yards in a country that spends more on lawn care than the entire sum of India's GDP. And to what end?
Space hogs, water suckers and giant leaf collectors that have to be blown, mown and doused in chemicals with a great ruckus to look good, what is the point of a lawn other than to say: we have land, time and money to waste?
Point A is that we're not wealthy enough for the petty bourgeois ostentation any longer. A funny thing happened when we "democratized" the English king and castle, many began to look shoddy and unkempt, hence the strict codes potentially leading to jail time within single tax bracket neighborhoods often gated as socioeconomic monocultures to keep "the other" out. Ya know, the kind of people that would lower your home if the quality of construction, the uselessness of the land/location, and the very nature as a monoculture wouldn't do that already.

The second and related point is that the cheap oil economy that allowed food to be shipped from wherever, literally, to your kitchen is slowly unraveling. And along with point A, we have to begin making good use of all land, meaning either more productive or more dense.

The article mentions another family who recently added a front yard garden and stated they had never spoken to or met so many neighbors as they had previously with their manicured land where the purpose was mainly to keep people off/away/get out/beware of dog. And isn't the front yard actually an extension of the welcome mat?
In a semi-related story, since it is all connected in some way, shape, or form, Cleveland is adopting the shrinkage strategy to bulldoze vacant homes. Many otherwise smart people seem to miss the point of the shrinkage strategy, which isn't actually shrinkage when done right as much as reclustering, aka reurbanizing scattered occupied homes into consolidated hamlets. This reurbanization strategy is best coupled with the "reboot" of relocalization of agricultural production as Detroit is doing. Sure, the jobs aren't high paying, but it's 1) better than not having a job at all and 2) the land is more productive than having a decrepit house falling in upon itself sitting there.
And lastly, if you vote for Michelle Bachmann, she'll wave her magic wand and make all the housing crisis vanish just like that. Perhaps, demonstrating her ignorance though, she said the falling prices are keeping people out of homes. Umm, Michelle, falling prices are a correction to bring them back to affordability. So I guess you only represent (or wish to represent) those silly enough to think of their home as an ATM.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Perils for Pedestrians

Episode 173. I'm going to have to dig thru this site for more as I just found it:

Monday, July 11, 2011

Monday Not-Morning Linkages waste away your afternoon:

First, comes this little story from recently visited Spain. Murcia, Spain to be exact, where the city is offering lifetime transit passes to any citizen who trades in their automobile. Rather interesting. Murcia is no small city with over 400,000 citizens and generically Spanish (if that is such a thing) with a medieval core centralized on a river, nearby agricultural base, relatively dense 'suburban' pueblos, and of course rampant sprawl and overbuilding wrought from the past decade of funny money, i.e. lots of new malls, highways, arterial roads and roundabouts, stadiums, and half-built sub-divisions.

Every Spanish city I've been to is also confronting a similar dilemma of how to accommodate the Spaniards' own love of cars with the great platform of civilization that are our (in this case their) cities. This is a rather unique approach to the problem while still maintaining a standard modicum of mobility that all cities are liable to do. It is in the city's best interest to ensure/allow for maximum mobility so that all citizens are availed the opportunity of participating in the local economy, the very point of cities and why they perpetuate. Here in the states we mandate parking minimums because for the most part don't allow for choice in transportation mode.

A recently found blog, The Urban Country, writing from Toronto I do believe where a number of great urbanist blogs have emerged, partly I suppose in response to the culture clash on-going between cars, their autophiles, and those who may be bicyclists or may just wish to have a certain amount of freedom of choice in their chosen mode of transportation and some measure of safety guaranteed through proper transportation design, writes about our backwards approach to road safety. See. I told you there was conflict a-brewin' in Toronto.

No, our solution is to slap helmets on vulnerable road users, tell pedestrians to wear brighter clothes, tell cyclists to always have two hands on the handlebars, enforce cyclists rolling through empty intersections, rip out bike infrastructure, and fail to hold drivers accountable for their actions.

We need drastic changes if we're going to make cycling more comfortable for newcomers.

Thankfully "cycling in numbers" can have a positive effect on safety even without good infrastructure. Drivers are much more cautious on roads where we see lots of cyclists.


Perhaps most interestingly, Los Angeles is going to begin shutting down the 405 freeway in one of the biggest experimentations in traffic reduction. Actually, they're intermittently closing it in order to construct more "improvements," whatever that word possibly means these days where anything is an improvement and not an improvement at the same time, but a mere longer meandering down the same dead end.

Predictably, everyone who's anyone online went apey. Saying it will be the worst thing ever, Carmageddon, completely ignorant of the fact that their warnings/hysteria show how the internet, our interconnectivity of information, will begin replacing car trips and vehicle miles travelled. The warnings will allow people to plan their days differently, take different routes, or not make the trips they don't have to by car if deemed unnecessary or superfluous.

I already know what will happen. The first day of closing, things will be pretty hairy, but the online hysteria /slash/ message-spreading will help to alleviate and prepare the city for that. Afterwards, not only will traffic find other routes, but the overall number of cars on the road will reduce as drivers either: carpool, find other modes, find other routes, don't drive, or shop/work online from home.

Making driving more difficult means less drivers on the road. This is an inalienable fact. The bigger concern is the fact than any particular road, route, or form of transportation is so depended upon (nearly 300,000 cars per day) that an entire city could shut down, highlighting the fragility of the entire system. What happens if there were to someday be any disruptions in oil supply or gas hits $6 per gallon (i.e. the next cheapest country for buying gas)?

Legacy of Pruitt-Igoe

Check out the neighborhood (or what's left of it) just north of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe site in St. Louis:

Look at all that pretty green! Green is good, right? Right? Or so I've been conditioned. A park for one and all!

Certainly, the issues behind the decay are far deeper (economic and political) than what one experimental housing typology had on an entire area. But the idealism disconnected from reality and the experimentation and willingness to do so (particularly on the poor) and thereby clustering the poor into hopeless environments didn't exactly help either.


Got a glimpse of the under-construction and relocating Dallas Nature and Science Museum, which ironically (and surely as intended) looks completely unnatural and not of science, and it's um, coming along I suppose.

I don't think nicely would describe it, but my opinion was set before the first spade hit the dirt for a building emblematic of our predicament as a Sun Belt city, a young city, with early onset of Alzheimer's. It's been so long since we knew how to build cities, when it was intuitive, a part of tradition, when it was just "in the air" and everyone knew how to do it, because that is the way it was always done as part of time tested

It's also indicative of a fundamental problem within the architecture and design professions, where standing out is all that is necessary for something to be outstanding. Where the individual is valued and strived for moreso than the sum of the parts. But you can't escape that sum of parts. It is innate. It is what produces that increment that is the reason for cities in the first place.

Sure, there is a place for the outstanding, things to be celebrated, barriers bested (ie triumphs of human achievement politically, scientifically, structurally, culturally) and in order to stand out, it ought to be a centerpiece, on a platform of the normal, not amongst a cacophony of similarly screaming children. Baroque city layouts work well in doing this (see: DC and Paris). Nor is it a mere billboard. Something to be admired or questions ("the F is that?") whilst zipping by on the way to CostCo. A cherry on top of a vanilla ice cream. But that cherry ideally is natural as well, not produced in a frankensteinian laboratory for the pursuit of the original.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

How much Biking will Biking Bikers Bike?

Recently, as you may or may not not know, the Dallas City Council passed the City's first bike plan. You may not know because like all public plans enthusiasm waned when the plan belongs no longer to citizens but rather consultants and even moreso various interested parties within and without the city. As I've said, public planning is dead in its current format. Hence, the distrust, which I've discussed aplenty:

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.

If you see above, you'll see that we have our work cut out for us. And if you click here you see the Lance Armstrong spandex crowd saying, "we don't need no stinking bike plan." Those people should not be listened to, because they're not the ones we need on bikes and streets. They're experts. We can't expect everybody to be experts. And that is precisely why the bike plan is necessary. To make bicycling safe and available to the entirely populous through the provision of a proper network of infrastructure that protects cyclists from what might kill them, mostly a few thousand pounds of vehicular mass at the hands of somebody likely texting and applying makeup at the same time.

I won't get into a full critique because I haven't looked at the entire plan, but only the central city area. Call me selfish, but this is the only area that I would actually use: downtown, uptown, near east Dallas, Deep Ellum, and North Oak Cliff. That is my bicycling range, filling the gap in the transpo hierarchy that bikes fit every so comfortably, the 1 to 3 or 5 mile range that is just a bit too long to walk and their lacks other suitable transportation options if I don't feel like driving or parking or dealing with the incapabilities of all you drivers. Because really, don't we always feel like everybody ELSE is the bad driver? And we're all right.

But having looked at the downtown and vicinity area plan I saw everything I needed to see. And I tweeted the primary criticisms the other day (besides the fact that several areas are still under "need more study." You've had a year). There appears to be little logic behind it, hardly any of it. Main Street, already narrow and pedestrian dominated for much of it gets separate bike lanes, while Elm and Commerce, roads we should be carving out excessive lanes and width for new, alternate modes of transportation are ignored. No matter the fact that the misplaced priority on moving rush hour traffic on these two streets 1) kills life on them, 2) ensures the streets are dead and overscaled off peak hours, and 3) boxes in the life on Main Street from spreading outwards.

Also no matter the fact that there isn't the room to carve out new lanes on Main Street, a street of traffic so slow that bikes can already share lanes without much threat to their safety. Instead, in other parts of the city, on absurdly scaled streets designed for "smooth auto sailing" bikes are to share lanes. I hope you can cycle at 45 mph comfortably without Lance's steroids. Heresy! He's a Texan! Don't you Blaspheme!

Another curiosity is the Copenhagen bike lanes, an example of which is shown below and are designed to buffer bike lanes from both cars and pedestrians in their own lane, are only of short distances and scattered about haphazardly. These operate (at least in Copenhagen by my own observation) like bicycle highways. They need to cover a reasonable distance to maximize utility and utilization while benefiting from cost efficiencies of scale since these will be the most expensive of the bicycle infrastructure. Furthermore, from a design standpoint and precisely because of the cost as well as the chance to make these the most attractive of bike-friendly infrastructure, these should be reserved for the most important of streets.

Yet, there is little evidence of that logic infusing the plan, which seems more designed to ensure that vehicular traffic is in no way disrupted, thereby not pursuing the actual goals of the plan which is to get people out of their costly cars/roads and onto more cost-efficient and healthy forms of transportation for the good of one and all.

You don't get cyclists by maintaining car prioritization when a balance of transportation mode is what is needed, which makes all of it a waste of money and another opportunity missed where we started dreaming of the moon and barely jumped off the ground. Maybe we can catch Phoenix if we're lucky.

Guest Post - The Pent Up Demand of Walkable Neighborhoods

In my absence, please find this guest post by Jay Cooper
Global Pedestrian Trend, Is Dallas In?

The Dallas/Ft. Worth area is an amazing place filled with sports, culture, and fabulous shopping. Imagine, though, how fantastic the area would be if the city and the suburbs took a page from some of our sisters in the northeast, like Boston, or even our sister to the south, San Antonio, and began to make a more pedestrian friendly community.

By becoming a more pedestrian friendly community, we are encouraging the growth of small businesses and the growth of small communities. Wal-Mart has even taken note from some of our sister cities and began to replace Supersized Superstores with small community markets. If we follow their examples, we will better our economic structures and better our own lives.

Pedestrians are Healthy and Wise

Walking is one of the cheapest and easiest forms of exercise. Although some may turn up their noses to its lack of “extreme-ness”, walking burns calories, raises the heart rate, and moves a person from point A to point B.

Walking doesn’t require any special equipment. However, it helps if the community at large has places or systems in place that encourage walking. Walking paths and trails are great for getting away or seeing natural landscapes from new points of view. Continuous sidewalks and bridges with walking lanes encourage people of all ages to travel along traffic ridden routes. This is the greatest challenge to the walking community, lack of proper sidewalks or walking lanes.

Suburban Pedestrian Friendly Communities

There are some communities in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area that are beginning to see the need for pedestrian friendly communities and neighborhoods. They are widening their sidewalks or putting in new, continuous ones.

• Watters Creek in Allen, TX, was nominated as one of Allen’s most pedestrian friendly communities. It has convenient shopping, dining, offices, and living within a short distance. It also has made it very easy to navigate. It offers a grassy area and even a little creek for spontaneous picnics or games.

• Legacy in Plano, TX, is another community of refinement. The well planned community took a while to be built, but it was completely designed and finished with the pedestrian lifestyle in mind. It has everything a pedestrian could want, including dining, business, and shopping all within a feasible walking distance from one’s home. It also features a large park for outdoor recreation.

• Addison Circle in Addison, TX is one of the residences that follow Addison’s vision of a place to "live, work, play and stay". This town center is a pedestrian friendly, compact neighborhood complete with restaurants, businesses, entertainment, and mixed housing. The suburban downtown area has everything within a very walkable distance, especially on if you travel on its wonderful sidewalks.

• Hebron 121 Station in Lewisville, TX is on the DCTA rail line. This is its greatest asset and earns the nomination as a pedestrian friendly community. Along with fine dining and shopping, the community also boasts commuter access by bus or rail to the downtown Dallas area without having to travel out of the way to get to the station. Lewisville offers a small town feel with big town class and amenities.

• 5th St Crossing DT Garland is a community in another Dallas/Ft. Worth suburb that redesigned itself to become more pedestrian friendly and mass transit oriented. By rezoning and repurposing its older buildings, Garland, TX, was able to create a mixed use residential area with all the amenities of city life within walking distance. There is a theatre, restaurants, fine arts centre, and a community college within walking distance, as well as the transit line to Dallas.

• Frisco, TX, is approx. 45 minutes from the Love Field airport. It features a lot of night life particularly for young professionals. It has the businesses and dining of the big city within a reasonable walking distance as well as the world’ largest soccer complex, Pizza Hut Park.

Become a part of the global trend for pedestrian friendly communities. Visit one of these suburbs, and find out for yourself what the true pedestrian community lifestyle is like.

For more information on Dallas/Ft. Worth properties in pedestrian friendly communities, visit We Buy Ugly Houses Dallas.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Did You Know...

...there is a ban on cars but white and black in Highland Park Village?

Incidentally, I named this file HPV on my hard drive b/c it's a highly contagious virus.