Monday, April 16, 2012

New State Motto

Or maybe a Dallas only one. I don't know. I've only been here ten years. Perhaps you longer term-ers can tell me differently.

I've heard it said that in Texas (or just Dallas), you (or me or they) don't ask for permission, but rather for forgiveness later. Like all good statements of this sort there is a measure of truth in the joke that is equal parts flattering in the unique charm of it as well as pejorative in its righteous condemnation. I like the phrase for all of these aspects.

In this regard, I received a gentle spanking in the comments (for my own good of course) of another post. The commenter offered constructive criticism that I should be more diplomatic and less incendiary to get my point across. He (she?) is right of course. Sometimes (often?), I come across as caustic. Sometimes also, this is measured, calculated for effect. Other times, it is simply blowing off steam in an overt, public fashion.

In a way, this is also calculated, because why not? While I may be a professional urban planner-y type, I'm also a citizen of Dallas. And like you, I also want Dallas to be "world class," whatever that might be. Perhaps, I'm equal measure detached and dispassionate as well as passionate, emotional, and caustic, with little in between. The professional and the citizen in one. The two having not yet aligned or coalesced fully.

These two sides of this blog's personality did come together over the weekend in a sarcastic tweet about the Houston Street Ciclovia event. More specifically, I scoffed at the idea of a permanent closure of Houston Street Viaduct to cars, saying something to the effect of "pedestrian malls without density, when did that ever go wrong?" I was referring to the attempt in the 1960's to pedestrianize downtowns entirely while other policies sapped downtowns of their vitality.

While the inertia seems to be slowly and inevitably reversing course back to the city, incrementalism is critical. Copenhagen did it one little street segment at a time and it has taken fifty years of concerted effort. We also don't have the density Copenhagen does. Perhaps I am asking for forgiveness later for catty sardonicism, but it's measured. Sometimes the humor is lost in text form, I suppose. Or maybe it's just not funny. I can only make myself laugh predictably.

My worry about fully closing Houston Viaduct to vehicular traffic is/was two-fold:
  • When there are barriers to local interconnections (such as the Trinity River swath), we should be limiting the amount of connections breaching the chasm (particularly if we already have them. Houston and Jefferson aren't redundant. While they both head into downtown, they go to two separate parts of North Oak Cliff, as Jefferson heads south to, uh, Jefferson. Instead of closing one to vehicular traffic entirely, I'd suggest discliplining the car on both (where traffic is dangerously fast and notoriously empty outside of rush hour). Instead of either/or, what about both/and? Make them both two-way. Use it as an opportunity to clean up the spaghetti of ramps and flyovers between the two. Increase route choice, while decreasing public R.O.W. thus opening up more land for redevelopment.
  • We're seduced by the puppet show of these pop-up events. While I appreciate the effort and direction (thinking about pedestrianism), nothing permanent will likely ever come of having them in isolated, functionally dead places such as Houston Street viaduct. While it would be awesome, the span is too long and the densities too low for our bridges to go full-blown Ponte Vecchio. We could do that, but it would fail. It would require heavy subsidy and the buildings would mostly remain empty. It works in Florence because it represents the success of both sides of the river spilling across it as demand begot the supply of buildings upon a bridge.
File:Italy and Greece 105.jpg

Ponte Vecchio, in Florence adds land uses to the bridge much like it is any corridor.

The first Better Block didn't ask for permission. Eventually, it had to, but the point was made and it was made appropriately in the right places. Ever since, we've been trying to raise zombies from the dead. We're putting these events in places where they can't sustain themselves, like the Ciclovia on Houston or the City Hall Living Plaza. They might be fun at first, but they're not in the middle of the action. Since there is little investment opportunity, the places don't and can't fully flower. Instead, they'll become boring. It seems as if we're attempting to avoid conflict by creating temporary appeasements to the growing bike and pedestrian lobby like fenced off free speech zones.

Cars go here, pedestrians/bikes go over there. Sorry Charlie, but that is modernist planning at its segregated, doomed-to-fail worst. Democracy and cities are messy, complex places full of conflict. And that is what makes them so great. Over the long-term. Just not the short when we're in the midst of those battles. But it's the conflicts that shape and mold the systems for the better.

The events get set up in places of little conflict. There will be no push-back from local business owners worried about any potential change. That makes it easy to pull off these puppet shows. And that's part of the problem. Avoiding conflict also avoids real progress. I understand we want quick wins as part of policy intended to build momentum, but at what point do quick wins become inconsequential? I think we've found that point.

Dallas, it isn't you. It's me. I love you personally and hate you professionally. That's what makes you fun. That's what brought me here when I could've gone anywhere else. The steam vent bursts occasionally when I forget that I chose that frustration. But at least you care. As do I. And that's why sometimes the process hurts.