Friday, June 22, 2012

AIA Assoc. Panel: Infrastructure and the City

Last night I participated on a panel (of but two, myself and professor Wanda Dye from UTA) for the AIA Associates Architecture on Tap series.  It was held at Mason Bar, which is a new place in the State-Thomas neighborhood in a renovated, quaint two-story historic structure.  Nice place.  Had quite the crowd upstairs and down, which was reserved for the panel.

I'd guess about fifty people showed up to attend the AIA event to listen to Wanda and I talk about infrastructure and the intertwined role it plays with buildings, architecture, and the city in general.  We were given ten questions in advance, of which we were probably asked four or five as the conversation grew fluid and became more conversational with the audience.  Interestingly, we often think of architects as thought leaders in the community, but the mood of the room seemed similar to my email inbox.  There was a tinge of helplessness but desire to be involved in the air.

And that's the direction much of the conversation went.  If anything, I hope I was able to convey a similar message to Wanda's in that any citizen, architects included, won't save the entire world.  But you can change what's within the four walls of your particular world and that which surrounds you, your family, and friends.  You won't design buildings that seem as if they're from the Matrix like Zaha Hadid, but you can be Neo.  Not to the whole world, but your lebensraum.  And that's where you start.  As Morpheus said, there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.

I don't know your path.  But to start, get involved.  Locally.  At your neighborhood level.  Start there.  Organize.  Everybody in your neighborhood is a fellow stakeholder in the quality of life of that particular place.  And its safety, as we learn of a new study that shows TX-30 is THE DEADLIEST US CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT IN THE COUNTRY FOR PEDESTRIANS (289 over a ten-year span).

In case you were unable to attend and happen to care what I had to say, here are the ten questions followed by the responses that I may not have given verbatim, but sketched out over lunch yesterday:

1.) What do you consider to be the single most important infrastructure project happening in Dallas right now?

It's what is not happening just as much if not moreso than what is happening.  We're adding more highway capacity as public agencies are buried under the weight of infrastructural burden and diminished tax base, spread out because of that very infrastructure.  The solutions, or at least the approach towards the problem, are supply-sided rather than demand-oriented, which is proven to be far more effective.  

We're adding highways while asking why DART isn't adding ridership.  We're adding parking while wondering why there is congestion on those highways.

To reduce congestion we build more and wider roads, which is only ever a temporary solution before those shiny, new roads fill up again.  It "induces" demand by diluting the real estate market.  More roads, people drive more and further.  It's really that simple.

Instead, we should be looking to toll more of the roads, to shift the real estate market towards density and proximity.  The growth is either going to happen or it isn't.  Form (sprawl or walkable/density) is irrelevant to the initial growth, which is a by product of larger economic forces.  However, it is only the walkable/density, the qualitative growth rather than quantitative that can sustain that growth, rather than say, Detroit, which grew then burst as it doubled down on its auto-erotic asphyxiation.

As we incrementally reduce demand, we should be then looking to incrementally reduce capacity and car-based infrastructure, taking out highways and implementing road diets.  That's what the cutting edge of world class cities are doing.

2.) Bridges seem to be a theme for the city this year. What barriers need to be crossed in Dallas?

1. shift from supply-side thinking to one more focused on demand, demographics, and the citizenry.  
2. Overcome bureaucratic and political inertia that favors the status quo (perhaps even out of a lack of empowerment imbued by a vocal voting bloc).
3. Lastly, regain the importance and priority of local interconnectivity.  Take the Hunt Hill Bridge for example.  I like bridges. I like celebrating bridges as barriers bested by humanity.  And fording rivers with physical connections is a barrier bested.  It should be celebrated.  But when it comes to West Dallas, it didn't need another "regional connection."  It is already bounded by freeways giving it access to the region and the region access to it.  Thinking that a highway connection from North Dallas to West Dallas turns it into a potential shopping/entertainment district for North Dallas to patronize (literally and figuratively) is the wrong way about it.  It first has to be a neighborhood.  And neighborhoods need strong, safe, efficient local connections to nearby surroundings.  That means improved connectivity (within West Dallas itself) as well as improved connections to its strong neighbors: Oak Lawn, downtown, and Oak Cliff.  Desirable, livable, highly interconnected, adaptable places last.  Entertainment districts come and go.

3.) As designers focused on the now and cutting edge, how do we refocus our efforts on city design that may be for 20 years in the future?

Understand that things evolved over millennia, like cities, w/ billions of people each making decisions every day, slowly, but surely shaping the world around them is far more intelligent than anything you or I, or Le Corbusier could ever dream.  We is always smarter than me.  That which comes from the mind of one is always going to be sterile, inauthentic, and less rich of a place.  Ayn Rand wrote fiction.

Respond to the needs of today without presuming to know what the challenges the future generations will face in 2050 or whenever.  We couldn't possibly know beyond the basics of life-giving resource availability. If there is no clean air or clean water, architecture is rather irrelevant beyond constructing mud huts. Therefore, let go of the idea of the future city without expensing it.  That means ensuring/instilling adaptability into buildings and places so that future generations who will know their issues better, and we can provide them the platform for living, adapting, and responding to their needs and wants.  So, buildings that can last the test of time and live beyond the use that currently resides within them.

Also, ensure walkability.  It is the only timeless form of transportation technology.  It is necessary for maximum adaptability of places.

4.) What impact can architects have directly on city infrastructure? What role should we play in the community discussions?

Don't look at problems on their surface as potential cosmetic solutions.  Put down your book of Zaha Hadid glamour shots and pick up books about living systems, because that is what a city is, a level of sophistocation, of complexity, on a higher order or plane than us as individuals.  Books like Thinking in Systems, Wisdom of Crowds, and Wealth of Networks.  

No offense, but IT types invariably get cities on a more profound level than most architects and self-professed urbanists.  They see the city for what it is, like the internet, an invisible web of interconnections between people, places, and ideas.  But the internet will never replace the city, b/c interpersonal contact is always more fulfilling.  Then, the physical infrastructure is the visible platform facilitating those connections between us.  However, when we see dirt paths worn into useless, leftover grass spaces or someone trying to cross a dangerous road, we've failed  ourselves.

Lastly, drop the conventional wisdom that Frank Gehry's singular genius saved Bilbao.  It did not.  Rather, the Guggenheim was a celebration of 15 years of hard work, putting a city full of out of work coal miners back to work and repositioning its economy.  Before they built the Guggenheim, a city built into a valley of disconnected archipelago's of neighborhoods, invested in their port, expanded their airport, and built a brand new metro system interconnecting all of those isolated islands of development.  By interconnecting, they created a greater market reach for individuals.  They invested in the arts to give out of work coal miners or their kids something to do.  It was the infrastructure that gave them an audience, a market, and opportunity.

5.) How do you see the city changing? What new technologies and forces are acting to change Dallas?

Demographics, first and foremost.  Primarily the effect of millennials coming of age and beginning to assert their will.  First thing to know about millennials is that they're vast in number.  With immigration could surpass baby boomers in number as largest generation in American history.  Meaning their impact on economies, via their demand, and the physical manifestation of economies, cities, will be huge.

Second, they're family-oriented.  Expect more multi-generational households.  Meaning the over-supply of housing for single occupant homes will only worsen with little long-term value without retrofitting and recombining.

Third, because millennials are communitarians, they're almost powerless without groupthink.  They're social and demand social places.  Cities for people and interactions.

Last, most grew up dependent upon mom or dad or the school bus to get them anywhere.  The bike was their liberation the way James Dean and drag racing was for baby boomers.  The rise and demand for bicycle-based infrastructure is somewhat nostalgically driven, but it isn't a fad.  It's not going away, because it is part of their collective consciousness, of who they are as people, and as a generation.  Which is why cities have to build for millennials now or risk losing them forever to places  better suited to their needs.

6.) What effects do you think the new development in downtown will have on our city in terms of enhancing the economy?

Little to none.  Again, the efforts are right in spirit but supply-sided.  The city believes (rightly) that we need more housing in and around downtown.  But b/c the market has not been sufficiently repositioned via infrastructure to favor proximity, an upside-down market exists where land costs are too high and demand is too low.  Combined with tax and some other policies that punish development and reuse, the result is land where highest and best use is surface parking for commuters.  

Without subsidy or charity, development won't happen.  So we look for ways to create partnerships and make development happen, but that doesn't sufficiently make the market healthier.  It is unsustainable, and more importantly not profitable to build that way.  Sure, a building might get built, but there is no guarantee of demand.  

Furthermore, with many of the projects happening, like Museum Tower and Headington's Main Street work, it skews the expectations of the market further towards higher land costs, segmenting the market and making more development besides these one-off projects here and there from happening out of the goodness of Tim Headington's heart.  We need to reposition the market so that all of us, and the development community, are pushing in the same direction, and building in and around downtown is profitable for city, citizenry, and investors without little more than the infrastructural platform as the public partnership.

With millennials moving into the work force and baby boomers retiring, we have a massive pent-up demand for this kind of development, yet the bottleneck is caused by this upside down, "sick," market.  Once we treat the underlying cancer rather than applying band-aids the local construction economy will take off.

7.) Because Dallas was developed in the post war era, it is not conducive to a pedestrian-oriented environment.  What challenges do we face in order to create a more vibrant and walkable city?

Inertia.  Where car movement and travel speeds is god.  We need to recall what cities are, their fundamental purpose and let that understanding guide us to reshape policies and then our infrastructure towards those basic ends.  And that purpose is why cities persist throughout civilization because they're more advantageous than not.  The facilitate social and economic exchange which is the foundation for improving quality of life.

Today our policies are broken, governed by no greater purpose than moving cars as fast as possible with little regard for the external effects produced by such irrationality.  Two examples:

First, thoroughfare plans are required by law.  But they prioritize $ to larger road classifications.  Therefore communities and cities have an incentive to get more federal money by putting more and more roads into higher classifications which have certain arbitrary, top down standards, to ever-widen roads.  This process then spreads out the tax base and the very ability to maintain and rebuild such roads.

Second, is traffic projections saying roads need to be this or that wide.  They always, always, say roads need more capacity.  The answer is ingrained into the formula.  It's pretty ingenious actually.  Engineers get paid to consult, then get paid to construct based on those projections.  But it has blind spots, either willfully or ignorantly.  First, it treats land use without regard to context.  We've found a 20% reduction in trips in walkable suburban environments and at least a 40% reduction in car trips in walkable urban locations.  Those reductions aren't factored.  Also, the rise of technology enabling us to reduce car trips via telecommuting, online shopping, etc.  Drops in road capacity have shown 25% reduction in car trips simply because people adapted, found other ways to meet their needs.

8.) Are there plans in the works for bike lanes to be included in more areas of the city?

Yes there are plans, but implementation is the challenge.  There seems to be a lack of leadership at a political level, which generally comes from a lack of constituent voice.  The more its raised the more empowered a politician might feel compelled to, ya know, actually lead.  There seems to be an unwillingness to find funding for bike infrastructure because of arbitrary, inane, and intellectually lazy response that bikes don't pay for themselves.  When in fact, they do.  There also seems to be an unwillingness to reduce road capacity even though the introduction of other forms of transpo availability ups total capacity and drops congestion.  It's a useful reminder that 635 is twice the width of Champs Elysees and carries half the people when you factor all the forms of movement happening on Champs Elysees.  And don't bother me with apples to oranges, because 635 functions as the center of the metroplex.  The city takes on the form of the infrastructure we build.

Due to these inactions there is a tension between demand and lack of supply.  And I think that is why you saw the Better Block invented not only in Dallas, but a left behind part of Dallas.  It's a peaceful form of revolt against a city that doesn't meet the needs of the residents, is fundamentally unsafe, and in many ways even inhumane.

9.) Many say that in this day in age, a city’s infrastructure needs to be sustainable in its nomenclature. What technologies are being utilized in Dallas to maintain a sustainable infrastructure as development continues to sprawl?

Sprawling development follows the bones of the infrastructure provided.  The shape of the city is inherently defined by the primary transportation technology of the day.  We're entering a phase shift, of economies and cities, where that primary interconnective technology is far smarter, more useful and more adaptable than what we're leaving, the car.  The new transpo tech is the internet/smart phone.  Web 2.0 is merging the formerly disparate and parallel geographies of the physical city and the digital city, the internet.  Now from a smart phone, I can plan an entire trip, determine if I want to train, bus, bike, walk, or drive.  I can check traffic and determine the best route.  I can see which friends are at which third places via four square.  I can interact with others on twitter from a coffee shop.  If the music at a bar sucks, I can send songs from my iphone to the touchtunes jukebox.

However, and most importantly, the smart city is the city that empowers the user, the citizen.  And that's what the web is doing.  We're connected locally and globally at the same time (though our physical infrastructure doesn't reflect or respond to this changing dynamic yet.  We're still focusing on building regional infrastructure, which is utterly useless and wasteful in the 21st century city.  The smartest technology a city can have is for a citizen to be able to choose the transportation mode and route that best suits the needs of that trip, day, and time to best suit their needs.  Because technology can't model irrationality.  It can only be programmed to model people saving time.  Not wanting to spend time in great places.  Because in a formula, that is irrational, and therefore externalized as incalculable.

10.)The DART rail was a big step in improving public transit in the DFW area. What areas do you see that still need to be improved upon?

Less regional planning.  The only things that really need to be planned on a regional level are the things that an entire region can only support one or two of.  Or to simplify it further, global connections and universal needs.  The global connections are the interstate highway system (different from intracity highways), airports, ports, rail, high-speed rail, etc.  Then the universal needs relate to natural resource management.

Instead, our infrastructure at a city level needs to focus on Local + Global (as listed above) without letting the global infrastructure negatively impact the local.  Regional infrastructure, ie intracity highways are superfluous to the modern city.  We don't and shouldn't be driving from Plano to Mansfield on a daily basis.  Instead, if we live or work in Mesquite, we should have most of our day in that place and our needs sufficed there.  Then maybe once a month we can venture from Dallas to Fort Worth or vice versa.  And once a year to the airport and, in turn, Honolulu.  However, if our job is based on global travel, we should be able to get to the airport as conveniently as anybody else can get to their job...and be able to live in a walkable environment when doing so.

Local + Global.  Drop the Regional.