Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Get in Shape? Round is a Shape.

I must post this. It is FortWorthology's pic. My picture is of him taking the picture which has since made the rounds of urbanists and bike/pedestrian advocates around the country. New York, Copenhagen, Vancouver, and some identified locale in Sweden are all having a good laugh at our expense. We should be used to it by now, since the starchitects we commission for the various objects around the city are still having a good laugh. Likely while rolling around in a bed of cash.

I do appreciate the reply Kevin received on one of his tweets from Philip Winn who added to Churchill's famous quotation: " it any wonder what shape we're in?"

Kevin and I stumbled upon this after the Bright Lights, Great City? panel where I was only able to down one beer while on the mic. I needed more. So I told Kevin and the two female accompani-... accompani-... accompany us about this little oasis of a place called St. Ann's Court. Not the building, but the bar/restaurant, which is a spectacular little gem of a restoration.

I'm pretty sure I saw the quote lining a parking garage first, which is immaterial. But I led the way since I knew where I was going. What did matter is that Kevin was ambling lost, afraid he'd be struck by a car on the mindless spaghetti of streets entangling the Lower McKinney area.

I think I might have ghasped, "No Effing Way!" Or something along these lines of disbelief. Immediately, both of our sweatshop produced iPhones were produced from our own pockets and focusing on this wall.

For those that don't know, the area I'm referring to (often shortened to LoMac) is one of the densest parts of DFW, maybe even Texas. At least in terms of collection of high-end condo high-rises. The actual population density is quite low considering. And of course it is. The area is dreadful. All "density" and zero urbanity. If I had any money tied up in the area I'd either be 1) getting it out as fast as possible or 2) pushing for a dramatic rethinking of the entire street network in the area.

The lack of urbanity is two-fold. Bad streets. Bad buildings. The bad buildings are a defensive and rational response to the bad streets producing these vertical cul-de-sacs where your only engagement with the street is when passing Mr. Churchill's quotation pulling into your parking garage. Once again, what everybody else seems to get except for Dallas, is that the fixation on objects matters little rather than the interconnections and interrelationships between things. Actually, it matters a lot for all the wrong reasons.

And really, that was my basic premise during the panel. The conversation has to be far deeper and more complex than the things we touch and feel. We're supply-siding our city and we don't seem to understand how that's wrong. How that produces nothing approaching the authenticity we yearn for. And we make excuses, "Dallas is glittery," "Dallas is built for the car," etc. If we just add a London Eye, London will grow out of it. Or a High Line and NYC will grow out of it. Or a Calatrava and highway burial and Boston will grow out of it.

But we have the equation backwards. It was the city, the invisible nature of it, the interconnections, that drives demand. That produces density via desirability and opportunity. This is where authenticity derives. And since we're so sorely lacking that Dallas has no identity...yet. We don't know where it will lead, but it is fundamental to city building. And until then, the statements to the contrary about Dallas's perceived identity (it sparkles!) are completely null and void.

Once over beers and still flabbergasted, we asked "would it be funnier if this was unintentional and completely self-aware or snuck in by an embittered designer with a good taste in irony?" Neither of us has quite answered that question yet. What do you think?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Paradigm Shift

Partially generationally, wholly reactive, mostly positive:

When it comes to what the other cities are up to...Oh man! Are we miles behind in a 5K race.

With that said, the majority of this is about data collection, which will, ideally, inform future innovation, problem solving, and policy. But little is said about what metrics are beneficial, which are negative. For now, they just are.

A couple of downtown graphics old and new

I've been beating the drum lately on what exactly is the purpose of our road network? What is the purpose of our city? The city is a system with a purpose to serve human need and the movement infrastructure is a subsystem that must be subservient to the larger need. Instead, we build for "growth" rather than any real purpose, say, like say safety, security, and social/economic economic exchange.

Let's unpack some of these with the help of a few graphics I've used in the past and one new one. First, we look at Philadelphia and a the correlation between crime and highway locations:

Red is higher crime areas per capita, green lower. Other than 676 the Vine Street Expressway, red areas line up with the freeways. Crime often occurs more often in the dark and is more comfortable occurring in places where people aren't, disconnected places. The Vine Street Expressway is sunken and the grid remains intact. Not ideal, but better than the alternative.

Now, we look at a comparison in walkscore heat maps of Philadelphia and Dallas:

Again, red bad green good, that is if you assume not having to own a car to participate in the local economy is a good thing. I obviously do. Why force people into upwards of 40% of their income dedicated to transportation? In these situations, attempting to make transit work is rather desperate and service is always less convenient than the car, since the entire city framework is built solely for car use.

Next we have a look at downtown Dallas where I mapped outdoor cafe seating mashed up with what I deemed to be overly large radii, the curvature of roads and off-ramps meant for "efficiency" of car movement, ie not to stop or slow cars:

Rarely do cafe seats occur within proximity of high speed traffic, it is simply uncomfortable and undesirable to do so. Of this map, it should be noted that many of these aren't doing so well and aren't often populated, with the exception of the most interconnected and slowest speed traffic areas of the Main Street core.

Next is safety. Here is a map cropped of the immediate downtown area showing where traffic fatalities have occurred between 2001-2009:
Blue is pedestrian, purple is vehicle occupant. As you see, the most align with the freeways. Isn't the first role of public governance to keep people safe? Or building roads they can't maintain?

Here is a map I made 4 or 5-years ago showing the relationship of highways with "underdevelopment," which is vacant land and surface parking lots:
Fairly striking. And we're told that road widening is for economic development and growth. Only that economic development occurs primarily outside of Dallas proper so the city gets none of the benefits and all of the burden. The other issue is that the growth likely would have occurred anyway, except in this format cannibalizes from Dallas and feeds places like Useless, Farland, and Farlington*.

*Not real names. And no offense intended towards those places, but in order to survive the 21st Century, they will have to reposition themselves as more autonomous and less dependent.

Now let's add in tax exempt entities and properties on top of the last graphic:
Orange are those properties which consist of city and federal buildings, churches, schools, some parks, and some transit-related facilities. Many of these add real value. But the larger point is that they are situated on land the market deems not terribly suitable for anything above surface parking. Such is the highest and best use of freeway adjacent land. Land is cheap and wouldn't generate much tax revenue anyway so on goes an [insert magic bullet of revitalization].

And lastly, our study area for highway segment removal, IH-345 between downtown and Deep Ellum:

This is 245 acres of downtown and downtown adjacent land that generates all of $3.5 million in tax revenue per year for the city. By removing the freeway, we could create more than 60 acres of developable land that was public right-of-way AND reposition 120+ acres of underdeveloped land.

Our most CONSERVATIVE estimate (which is preposterously conservative in terms of proposed development density and future land value - 1-story buildings and land value remains stagnant) adds 6x the amount of tax revenue per year and IIRC about $750M in new investment. Our more ambitious numbers approach $100 million in tax revenue per year and $6 billion in total investment. All by removing a liability and restitching the grid. Expect our full report and proposal with all sourcing, metrics, and methodology within the next few weeks.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Projections vs Purpose

Chuck Marohn of the Strong Towns blog/movement has a new post up about the dangers within projections. As you may recall (if you weren't there), Chuck was in town last week giving a Curbside Chat, which he's been traipsing around the country giving, including testifying before the Minnesota state legislature.

As a bit of background, Chuck is a civil engineer who at some point (I'm not exactly sure when) realized that sprawl and road building is a massive ponzi scheme where we use new growth to pay for the liabilities of old growth. It is a form of cannibalization, false growth, robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Much of his talk was about the nitty gritty financials of infrastructure building and that the near free nature of the upfront costs thanks often to federal government and the local representatives looking for shovel ready somethings doesn't generate the long-term return on investment that can sustain itself, i.e. entire developments that payoff upfront infrastructure in ~40 years. Did I mention the life cycle of the infrastructure is ~20 years? Yeah, that's the problem. An incremental and continuous downgrade.

Chuck, being from Minnesota, had the ultimate hammer to conclude his rhetoric. I don't recall him using it. Being Minnesotan, he's probably too nice. But, it is there. Left perhaps for us to piece two and two together. Our infinite growth cannot maintain the interconnections between us. At least, not in the current manner.

While his talk wasn't focused on the impulses behind this pseudo-growth, I always am looking for them. So afterwards on my way out of Texas Theater (had a hungry girlfriend. And a hungry girlfriend is a cranky girlfriend), I mentioned to him "being a civil engineer, I wonder if you might add in something about rigged traffic projections," which always yield one conclusion: more capacity. CEOs for Cities gave a presentation on this at CNU.

Planners are just as culpable. They use population projections to say things like the metroplex will double in population by whenever. It's mostly hooey and it drives me crazy, extending infinite growth patterns to finite systems. I'm not exactly sure what the purpose is either. To get what they want? Which is what? More planning fees? Or just to fit in within the larger mantra of growth GROWTH GROWTH.

All of the above is my guess. Chuck opened with a line stating, "The "best" plans theoretically anticipate where growth will happen, in what amounts and in what form it will take." I'm glad he tossed in the italics, because it suggests a skepticism towards the practice of projections for projections' sake, growth for growth's sake, and planning for planning's sake. Nobody really knows until its time. In fact, I'm prepared to say the best planning is not actually forethought, but reactionary, responsive, ie iterative. "Oh, that's not working for us, let's examine all of the evidence available to us and arrive at an answer to fix the problem."

Proactive, anticipatory solutions are simply chasing ghosts. Everybody likes the variegations on tactical urbanism, better block, incrementalism, DIY, etc., because they attempt to correct identifiable problems with real world, applicable solutions. They're therefore informed by reality, more legitimate, and more tangible as problem-solution. Projections (whether population or traffic) never fail to be ideologically driven. That's why nobody gives a damn about the Vision North Texas plan. It is but a book. But if it helps define purpose, then itself has a purpose.

Does it? Not if it means NCTCOG building road capacity for 10 or 20-million theoretical people, ahem, I mean drivers, yet to materialize.

Very few great cities of the world were proactive. NYC and DC would be two examples, having laid out immense gridiron and baroque street and block plans in the expectation of fulfillment (which incidentally took quite a while. DC was still a mosquito-infested swampland with many many many undeveloped blocks by the time of the Civil War. And it could be argued that the framework wasn't so much the driver of the demand as much as NYC being the primary port of call for immigrants seeking opportunity/better quality of life. In other words, being the primary destination for European immigrants for more than a century ticks it up in the hierarchy of integration amongst American cities).

I've been digging into topics related to systems thinking lately and if you're committed to an understanding of urbanism, I can't stress it enough as a foundation of understanding. Forget any architect's or planner's books. Pick up some Donella Meadows, et al., and interpret her various real world examples (which occasionally include cities specifically) through the prism of urbanism.

Meadows is a badass of the highest order who unfortunately passed away in 2001 at age 60. But like many badasses, she managed to live forever thru her work. She received her PhD in BioPhysics at Harvard and started an entire program at MIT with Jay Forrester (father to her mother of system dynamics).

So the very basics, what is a system? A system is an interconnected and interdependent assemblage of parts into a coherent and identifiable whole. Our body is a system. We're simply a billion molecules that coalesce and communicate for the purpose of a greater whole, self-perpetuation (through reproduction).

There can also be sub-systems within systems, with their own priorities yet subordinate to the greater entity, lest the competition be too great the subsystem can undermine the larger purpose of survival.

Meadows breaks down systems into three parts:
  • Elements
  • Interconnections
  • Purpose
Now think about a city. As I've often said, a city is the physical manifestation of a local economy. But economic opportunity is not the only impulse which created and perpetuated cities for as long as civilization has existed. People clustered for protection, from the elements (with advancing yet archaic building technologies). There was also social concern. We died and needed to perpetuate, mate (or we just needed some cheap labor by way of children -- he types semi-cynically on an iPad).

So there are obviously other impulses and impetuses. However, the more we study cities, the more we realize that they are the fountain of creativity, innovation, and prosperity. And as Ed Glaeser points out, they don't make poor people (we're born poor), but cities are the place for opportunity. Markets (other people) are there.

First, we must acknowledge that a city is the most complex of human creations and therefore has near infinite sub-systems, but as mathematicians and physicists are discovering, like other biological/ecological systems, they too have governing natural laws.

So what are its elements? Keeping it simple, people are elements and as pointed out before are also systems, therefore sub-systems within a larger system. Buildings are elements and themselves systems. Neighborhoods as well are both elements and sub-systems. And we're starting to see the hierarchy of nested systems within larger systems.

The interconnections are obviously the movement and interactions amongst the people. Language interconnects us. Otherwise, we couldn't communicate. Rule of law unites, protects, and gives us some (ideally) predictability for the rules of the game.

What about purpose?

A tree is a system. As is the forest it helps comprise. Subsystem of a system. Like most but not all systems (we'll get to that), a tree's purpose is to self-perpetuate, to reproduce. There is some measure of competition (for resources like water), but also cooperation (unspoken obv.) amongst the various parts of the tree as well as the broader ecology of which it is a subset. If any one cell within the tree or the tree itself decided it wanted ALL OF THE WATERZ, it would suck the place dry and there would be no life sustaining resources left. Similarly, a forest can only grow as far as the soil and climate are suitable for its particularly type of ecology. Over time, the spacing, ie the cooperation, between the various sub-elements self-organize into a highly resilient system.

So what is the purpose of a city? As discussed earlier, it was created for a variety of reasons. All of which can be found on the ladder of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs:

In an ideal system, we would have a clearly established PURPOSE for the city, then build its governing processes and interconnections around that, and from there the elements emerge. To visualize this, think of the purpose as the seed of self-perpetuation. The interconnections are the roots, the trunk, and branching patterns which transmit material. The elements would be the bark and the leaves, essentially the outgrowths and ephemeralities, which are readily identified. But as Meadows points out (rightly), the elements are the least consequential (we'll save unpacking that for another time since we're focused on Purpose today).

So what should be the purpose of the city? What actually is (if it is something other than what it should be)?

I would argue that today the presiding purpose of Dallas and more broadly DFW (one spawned the other and yet became the subsystem of it, interestingly) is growth. It is the world wielded like Thor's Mjolnir. All other arguments instantly become moot before it.

The economy has to "grow." The city has to "grow." But nobody ever really defines what that means. I suspect this has led to the scatter shot nature of our development patterns and attempts at revitalization. A little bit here. A little bit there. A whole lot of magic bullets (ie elements). "If we just plant a London Eye here, the rest of London will grow out from it right?!"

And we get the equation backwards and upside down. Suddenly 1+1+1+1+1+1 equals 0. So we add another one. Still equals zero. Dallas has some of the best individual amenities of any city in the country, yet the parts still don't add up to a greater whole. We're too 1) focused on the elements and 2) lack a coherent purpose.

In terms of development patterns, everything is governed by projections, growth projections. Traffic planning must account for an increment of growth every year even if there is no evidence that traffic counts are rising or will rise. Growth is coming, remember? Gotta have enough road capacity for the 20,000 2012 GMC Yukons to drive on in 2050. Yes, that is intended to sound as ridiculous as it is.

The entire notion of growth for growth's sake leads to some very bad results. It is the ideology of the cancer cell. Growth at the expense of all other things. Your concern for quality of the air? Clean water? Amenities within walking distance? All (and countless others) be damned. A couple of planners say population is going to hit X and traffic is going to hit Y by Z year, nevermind the Limits to Growth. Such as running vehicles on finite fossil fuels or ever outward expansion within finite inhabitable, fertile land (when you factor in the land to grow food nearby or exhale oxygen while acting as a massive carbon sink, such as the Amazon rain forest. Nevermind. We need that for future Big Macs to graze.).

Even if cars were to eventually become so clean and green that they exhaust pure water vapor there is still the problem of proximity. Or lack thereof, which at the end of the day is the fundamental purpose of cities. Good luck replicating your own little sub-system, ie reproducing, without it. And interpersonal connections are always better than various distance-less connections such as the web or phone.

The evidence of this is pointed out by studies where teams in person outperform those collaborating on the web, but further imbued by our knowledge of communication. So much of communication is done through verbal and non-verbal variants, eye contact, inflexion, etc. We know for sure there is a person at the other end of the line who could punch us in the face if we acted impersonally.

So let's have a real purpose for our cities, like every city throughout history, the cities of the Sun Belt are going to need one in order to serve its basic purpose as a system, to self-perpetuate. Might I suggest one? And that is to provide safety and security while facilitating social, economic, and cultural exchange. Focus on Maslow as a crutch, prioritize the bottom of the pyramid and work your way up.

Of course, the irony of all of this is that if Dallas's real purpose was growth, all it managed to grow was all of the outlying areas as it has remained relatively stagnant. So all that focus on growth thru projections has only managed to garner liabilities, freeways, exactly as Marohn pointed out. Instead, focus on Livability, meeting the needs of citizens and providing them opportunity to meet their own needs.

As livability climbs, growth will happen as an outcome. Yet it doesn't have to a focus. Like with NYC of yore, people flock towards opportunity and desirability. It is inevitable. When growth happens it will simply be a sub-set and have to serve the larger purpose. As urban growth always did, it aggregates authentically at the time and place that growth (quantitative and qualitative) determined to be most appropriate.

And when it does, as long as it is in a walkable and sustainable format. It means proximity has to be desirable again. And if not, then you're paying your full way of not participating in the commonwealth of cities. Then we'll be able to deal with whatever other issues arise, which they're sure to, because that is what systems do. Only it is impossible to predict. So why try? They never know, but they prepare through resilience. Instead, focus on the things we can do, like clear PURPOSE and the quality of INTERCONNECTIONS between the ELEMENTS.

Friday, February 24, 2012

New D Column

My new column for D Magazine's March issue is available on shelves around the Metroplex and up online today. Please visit ere:

Predictably, these high-speed intersections are safest when the lights malfunction. A transformer somewhere blows a fuse, power in the grid goes down, and we’re left with blinking reds. What do we do? We look around. We make eye contact with other drivers. Author Tom Vanderbilt theorizes in his book Traffic that it is eye contact that rehumanizes other drivers. They are no longer automatons clumsily operating on a theoretically perfect, but practically imperfect, conveyor belt. An order emerges as the blinking reds make the intersection operate like a four-way stop, the safest sort of intersection. Your turn, my turn. Drivers are polite again.

It came from a more emotional place than the typically more analytical one that I write from. I don't know why senseless fatalities and the destruction of cities can get me so riled up, do you? I didn't even have time or space to get into the financial catastrophe of the transportation-induced entropic inertia currently bankrupting us.

Fortunately, Chuck Marohn was in town last night giving one of his Strong Towns curbside chats for the local CNU chapter. I tweeted some of the highlights: