Friday, July 20, 2012

Park Score

I can't recall if I've seen this before (or posted about it for that matter).  Within the slipstream of success for walkscore and other measures of quantitative urban characteristics is ParkScore, measuring the 40 largest cities' park systems.  In the competition of cities for talent and businesses, holding various cities up against one another is an effective measure for 1) winning cities to market, 2) potential businesses/residents looking to relocate to desirable/livable locations and 3) failing cities to look at models of success.

The methodology is based on a compilation of three primary characteristics: size, spending, and access (which is determined by population living within a ten-minute walking distance of a park).  There is plenty to unpack and criticize about this methodology, but let's save that for a moment.

Predictably, sprawling cities score poorly.  Dallas ranks 21 of 40.  Incidentally, Austin is 19th, FW 24th, Houston 30th, and SA is 35th (So we're doing well in relation to our regional competition, but Dallas's aspirations exist above regional level.

Here are screen shots I pulled when comparing to DC and San Fran, two cities which I pulled first at random, but happen to rank 5th and 1st respectively:

Above shows two separate screens, one comparing the selected cities by income access and the other by age access (green is yes to accessibility, blue = no access).  These charts show that there isn't much disparity between age or income preventing access for Dallas residents.  The lack of access is fairly universal.  The most interesting thing is Dallas scores more points for size of park system (acreage per capita) than the entire top 5.  But loses badly in terms of access (not unsurprising when knowing the densities of the cities).  In other words, we have lots of big parks, but very few people living close to them.  They exist predominantly as a drive-to experience.

It's not the quantity, but the quality...and not even so much the quality of what's in the park, but the access to it.  People will make use of a plain, green lawn if it's available.  So too will they a blank plaza if it's located appropriately by way of opportunistic businesses capitalizing on the convergence of foot traffic.  The conclusions not so shockingly mirror my thesis regarding parks, "it's generally not what is inside the parks that matters as much as the connections to the park itself from the surrounding context."  Sure, the design is nice, but it's the cherry on top.  It first needs to be sited appropriately and within the right context.  A nice meal needs to have a table set for it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Worst Urban Design Blunders in DFW

FrontBurner is looking for your suggestions here.  At first blush, you might be inclined to think, "what's actually done right?"  While that answer is not much (and usually only in a superficial sense), I found it helpful to narrow my scope in providing answers to the simple obstructions of my, and possibly your, daily life.  Usually, you'll find these in places where the myriad of arcane, arbitrary standards placed upon infrastructural planning and design (as if to simplify the design and construction process but immensely complicate the real world) overlap, conflict, and contradict each other to the point that the result is utter inanity.  Otherwise, the answers would be neverending.

While in their comments I provided a few suggestions off the top of my head like Museum Tower being placed within the middle of a clover leaf off-ramp, the exit ramp rising out of Klyde Warren Park, and my personal fave:

the amount of expense put into the primary (but who really uses it?) entrance to the Convention Center Hotel, yet its only lightly used because it is down a cul-de-sac:

This is what I'm talking about by using the Integration = Accommodation formula to appropriate investment based on ROI or bang for you buck.  A cul-de-sac is by nature not integrated within its context.

But I'm not terribly interested in those for this exercise.  They are too numerous to count.  And too easy to find in a city built largely since we've forgotten to build for humans or how cities actually work, since 1950.

For this, I'm more interested in the way pedestrians are treated as after-thoughts, particularly in relation to the mandated use of ramps for universal accessibility purposes...then undermined out of lazy adherence to standards requiring certain things in certain places.  For example:

In Fort Worth, you have a cross-walk to an overpass over I-30 between downtown Cowtown and the happening Near Southside.  However, if you happen to be crossing here (and why would you ever?) you best be nimble as the pedestrian crossing signal is placed smack in the middle of the ramp.  If you happen to be on a bike, headed back to your bicycling capital of Texas, the Near Southside, there are better ways to go (especially because they have actual, real live bike lanes in FW.  If you're in a wheel chair?  Stiff upper lip, survival of the fittest, and all that.

The next is one I visit on a nearly daily basis on my foot or bike commute between downtown and uptown Dallas.  This is the "pedestrian refuge" or Gilligan's Island at Woodall Rogers frontage road and Pearl, a road typically only used for accessing the highway (because as we all should know by now, it's easier to get from downtown to Plano and points beyond than the simple trip between downtown and all surrounding areas).  Because the highway access and unimpeded traffic flow is so important to people who literally want to choke the city until its blue in the face and dead dead dead, the island is cut off from the rest of the sidewalk by a healthy, comfortable turning radius allowing 30+ mph turning movements.

But that's not the issue at hand.

The real problem is again with the universal accessibility ramp.  It doesn't line up with either crosswalk.  If heading from uptown to the Arts District and downtown, you have to actually move out into on-coming traffic (as you'll share the light with McKinney/Uptown-bound traffic.  Safe.  Don't die.  That should be the extent of our signage.  "Don't die."  Because that is the message being sent.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Podcast Rec

No, not ours.  [Ahem, Kevin].  But Monocle 24's: The Urbanist which I can't recommend enough.  If you're the type of person that likes to sit on your patio, light up a cigar and listen to some good, urban dialogue about issues around the world, yet applicable locally (and I know who you are), give it a listen.

Longacre Square

Just go ahead and file this post under petty vindication if you will.  Below is a picture of Longacre Square.  You know Longacre Square right?  Of course, you do.  It just looks different now.

It also goes by a different, more familiar name these days.  Times Square.

The history and etymology of this place traces back to the original gridiron of New York City, laid out for real estate purposes long before the city grew into its blocks and bones, except for a single diagonal slicing through the otherwise relentlessly regular, orthogonal street and block pattern.  That diagonal, unlike the exquisitely named Avinguda Diagonal in BCN, is Broadway.  But like Diagonal, it is that irregularity within the grid that differentiates it, the seam to which all roads converge, uniting otherwise disparate parts of the city.

Because of the odd angle, it also creates a string of open spaces which were otherwise unbuildable, creating what we know to be "squares."  However, the square isn't square, but more butterfly shaped much like Piazza di Spagna in Rome, taking on the shape of roads all converging into one place.  The space is a response to the expanse of the intersection driving demand for people space.

I'm writing this piece in response to the city lights panel I was on long ago.  Where I was told that Times Square is what it is because of the LED signage that currently populates every imaginable square foot of surface area within the vantage point of a person in the square.  Rather, of course, than what it really is.  A convergence point, which draws people, which provides opportunity for businesses and, in turn, then drives demand for advertisers.  Integration, accommodation, decoration.  Rinse and repeat.

As you can see the signage has been there since the first buildings saw opportunity in the location as the city began to grow, much of which was driven by its global integration, its port and fabric industries, driving growth, again via opportunity.  Whether they were billboards, backlit letter panel boards, or the modern incarnation of LED boards.  Lights and signage don't draw people.  People draw people.  And the infrastructure framework dictates where people will go.

Eventually, a subway line was built with a station under Longacre Square and the NY Times decided to locate in the desirable, and now globally integrated, location, hence the rename, Times Square.  Integration, accommodation.  Value = Local + Global.

As the city continued to grow, and the city became less port-driven, and more rail and airport connected, Times Square was centralized, turning it into the crossroads of the world that it is today.  Like Picadilly Square in London, the LED signage is merely a response to the integration which releases demand like a valve, but at the same time focuses it unlike highway/car based infrastructure which spills it all over the place, ie sprawl, oozing across the landscape.

Claiming LED and various other lighted billboards that we associate with Times Square since the Broken Windows days of New York cleaned up the streets misplaces causality for why Times Square is so popular today.  Unfortunately, this is the state of our urban "experts" and "academics" who make the same common misconception that cities are defined primarily by the superficial, tangible elements that we can touch, see, and feel.

Yes, they add to the experience (when in appropriate places), but the underlying dynamics have to be in place before hand and allow these things to be outgrowths, responsive to place.  The lights are not causal, but reactive.  If they were, Victory would be like Times Square.  It is brightly lit up, but without people because the development wasn't properly integrated within its surroundings with the square at a crossroads.  Too often, because we make the mistake of ascribing too much value-added from the superficial, we get the equation backwards.  We expect decoration to drive people to a place.  And that is a recipe for spectacular failure.

"Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken." ~ Tyler Durden, Fight Club.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Columbus Freeway Deck

You don't often hear the words "Columbus" and something, anything "nice" syntactically juxtaposed.  I kid, Columbus.  However, I was previously unaware they had decked a freeway with Ponte Vecchio-style bridge.  Here it is in street view:

Quite a difference that makes (provided the context is right), perceptively, physically, and economically, linking downtown to the University's town and gown street.  While it's entirely possible the numbers didn't work here (I'm not sure) or that they won't work elsewhere within the context of just the on-site development, the value is likely captured within the immediate surroundings.  In other words, it isn't worth immediately dismissing if it doesn't pencil on site because of the profound beneficent effects from a simple restitching.

With that said, Columbus still has a plethora of intra-city freeways worthy of full-scale re-imagining as something other than a freeway (which will most certainly pencil quite profitably).  Here is the view of the closest other freeway crossing to compare and get some sense for the bleeding, corrosive nature of the disconnect:

I always felt this should have been done at both ends of the Klyde Warren Deck Park to shield the view (and noise) of the Leviathan of highways rising out from the ground.
I decided to get to know the context of the afforementioned bridge to see what Columbus was connecting as well as dig up this 1999 article describing the impetus and city council vote in favor of building the bridge to provide even more context.

Unfortunately, while the North side appears to be a fairly vibrant, walkable neighborhood center, as the article describes, they wanted to connect with their convention district to the south (the north side of downtown).  Which immediately threw up red flags.  

Speaking of red flags, hey look!  It's a Peter Eisenmann monstrosity:

As you can see in the aerial below, the fabric is well and good torn asunder.  Not the least of which by the convention center itself...

...which, one can only hope that Eisenmann designed with an ironic nod to the vacant surrounding buildings.  It really does look as if the symbolic theme was boarded up warehouse...

Immediately across the street a few nice buildings seem to be limping along.  It doesn't look like there is much life in the upper floors, though it's hard to tell.  A shame really, but the seeds of failure are planted within the surroundings.

Here's an aerial of the North side of 670, which you can make out off in the horizon in the very first picture of this post.

Valencia and the Bilbao Effect

This NYT article on the massive debt run up by the Regional government including the city of Valencia is largely spot on.  Since it came across the Pro-Urb list-serv I had to add the following to the discussion:

It's funny to look back on glowing articles about the supposed Bilbao effect from back when times were good and we were drunk on hallucinated wealth and housing bubbles:

However, like many of you, I was always intuitively skeptical of its impact.  Having done a good bit of research into Bilbao's process, I now have a few slides in some of the presentations I've been giving around Dallas debunking this misconception (considering our similar misplaced fascination on shiny objects).  Here is a brief summation I wrote explaining it within the context of systems thinking:
People can see Gehry's building. They can point to it. They can touch it. But it was the least influential in Bilbao's recent renaissance than anything else substantial that the city undertook. First, they repurposed. A coal/shipping town repurposed as globalization moved industrial jobs elsewhere. They focused on empowering the arts (they had a lot of people out of work, bored, and tinkering). 
Because the city is an archipelago of sub-hierarchies, loosely connected, they needed to reintegrate their city's networks. They built an entirely new subway system. They expanded their port as well as their airport. They integrated these various local and global infrastructures of interconnection. All of this began 10 years before the Guggenheim, which was a mere cherry on top.
In other words, the Guggenheim was an effect more than it was a cause, a manifestation and celebration of the hard work to repurpose and revitalize the city.  The added value the Guggenheim did provide, and necessary in many ways, was widespread awareness.  It is essentially a marketing gesture, which is a form of interconnection and integration itself.

As for Valencia, I spent a week there last year and a good amount of time during that span getting to know locals and ex-pats, hearing their thoughts, particularly regarding the Cidade des Artes y Ciencias.  It's funny, even in the article linked below, it frames the larger Turia Gardens, set within the old river bed, as if it was conceived by Calatrava.  The resentment towards the expensive buildings was universal.  Unsurprisingly, when visiting them in person, it's a rather soulless experience.  The novelty of the alien space ship had landed and we long ago gave up trying to figure out its intricate inner workings.  On the other hand, the rest of the park, the soccer fields, the bike paths, the trails, were well-utilized despite the slight disconnect being 10 or so meters below grade.

Monday, July 9, 2012

So Much for Conservative...

"The first ever partisan transportation bill..."

Listen to all of this, particularly the clause, "The president (whomever that might be) can declare any infrastructure project to be in the national competitive disinterest. Such projects will be exempt from ALL laws of the United States of America, AND not subject to judicial review."

Here's where Harry Dunn's line during the Newsroom last night should be reiterated, "you should be scared shitless."

NPR Asks, "Do You Live in a City?"

Defining exactly what "city" means, is a notoriously difficult task.  It can mean different things to different people particularly within differing contexts.  Those statistics that x% of Americans now live in urbanized areas?  Yeah, that also means sprawling 6 people per acre development where it counts as "urban" if the majority of the land has been converted into something other than native or agricultural production.  Urban, in the sense of efficient machine for transmission of social and economic exchange, it isn't.  For example, the very existence of minimum parking codes is indicative of a poor and inefficient (and largely unnatural) land use arrangement, as well as preventative of true urbanism.

However, NPR decided to simplify the question with a fun little interactive game:

Interestingly and tellingly, both the woman and I, who use two different means of transpo depending upon the day, arrived at two wholly different answers.  She drives or trains from downtown to her place of employment where I generally either walk or bike.  Predictably, her driving answer led to a definite "NO, you don't live in a city."  Whereas when she rides the train, yes, indeed she does live in a city (if you consider the TRE to be a subway."  This little game doesn't handle nuance well.

As for me, when I bike to work and because I have animals (odd correlation?) and don't live near a retail power center and live within short walking distance of about 4 starbucks off the top of my head (downtown and all), yes, I live in a city.

But when I follow the walking path and don't see many other people walking about on my walk (aside from Main Street, which my walk doesn't intersect), then No, I probably don't live in a city.

Our two contrasting answers is rather indicative of the place in the world, Dallas currently finds itself.  Not really sure what proverbial road it wants to take, but nonetheless having change forced upon them.  The indecision (betting on both horses -- walkable and drivable) has led to this interstitial purgatory, where even if you're fortunate enough to live within one of the walkable bubbles, you're largely trapped within that place.

It's fiscally irresponsible while at the same time self-defeating to build the infrastructure to maximize both car comfort and the other forms of transport, pejoratively referred to as "alternative," as if it is somehow a lifestyle choice of rogue counter-culturalists.  Which, in actuality, it is.  Because what we perceive as "choice of the market" is really foisted upon us as appeasing the car's need for lebensraum squelches the ability of other forms to actually be useful, comfortable, or safe.  Therefore, we don't choose them.  The will of the invisible hand, always controlled by an invisible arm of government.

Because of the various arbitrary and generic codes, policies, highway bills, and formulaic approach to traffic planning, the prevailing norm is anti-city. Meanwhile, actual city is still trying to bubble up from the bottom as the top down policies and mandates actively try to plug those "leaks."  And there we are, in purgatory.  Somewhere between Heaven and Here.  With little confidence, we can only hope the right path is taken from here on out.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Link, Singular, of the Day.

The only one that matters.  Fort Worth is full speed ahead when it comes to bicycling, as a culture and as a city recognizing it as a cheap, convenient, and serious form of transportation (despite Mayor Price suffering a recent bad accident).  My favorite bit:
This summer, police officers in Fort Worth will be watching for kids wearing bike helmets — everyone under 18 is required to wear a helmet while cycling, per city ordinance. Kids without helmets will be given a helmet on the spot and educated about the law. Kids spotted wearing helmets will receive coupons for ice cream. The free helmets were donated through the Hard Hats for Little Heads program.
The best bit is what is only implied: that people over 18 aren't required to wear a helmet.  

Meanwhile, apparently Dallas has a bike plan, a bike lane somewhere around the city, and a Complete Streets plan in progress that hasn't been terribly inspiring (though the jury remains in deliberation -- but as always, skepticism rules the day in the meantime).  

The Sun Belt is incredibly young.  And being young, means the cities are incredibly malleable, moreso than just about any other place in the world with regard to the degree of transformation ahead over the next fifty years.  

While that is a localized issue, the overarching one is the invariable competition amongst cities, particularly when it comes to attracting and retaining human capital.  Furthermore, it becomes far easier to attract and retain said human capital when it doesn't have to spend a large chunk of its income simply on transportation.  

Car-dependent cities apply a tax on its residents.  Want to participate in the local economy?  You have to spend upwards of 40-50% of your income on transportation (or lower of course dependent upon salary, but I'm talking baseline).  

The worst part is that the majority of that money leaves the local economy.  Where Dallas ships money outward, Fort Worth is in the midst of empowering its citizens by removing the shackles of car dependency.  Since it costs, on average nearly $9,000/yr to own and operate a vehicle, that is money Fort Worthers can put into housing improvements, starting new (local) businesses (which keeps yet more money in locally), saved or invested in whatever way the individual chooses.  

As I've calculated before, Dallas County could keep over $4 billion per year in the local economy if: 
1/2 of the 343K households with 1 car could rid themselves of it.And 1/2 of the 321K of 2 vehicles could lose 1 of their 2.Then every other type of household with more than 2 vehicles per household could choose to get rid of just one car.
Every new bike lane Fort Worth adds is like a paper cut to Dallas's right arm in the competition amongst cities.  Unfortunately, every one Dallas doesn't add, it's administering paper cuts to its left.  We might be worried about death by a thousand cuts if we didn't enjoy it so much.  Such masochists we must be.

Interconnecting and empowering.  Such a novel concept.  When the public sector focuses on empowerment, via integration, you begin to see the full flower of local expression.  The successful cities for the next century, the 21st century, are building the foundation for that success at present and with urgency.  They will maximize local and global connectivity.  Meanwhile, the cities that lose in this competition, and make no mistake, there will be losers, will be stuck in the mindset of 20th century regional connectivity, the kind that prevents local + global from flourishing.

Let's dig up Lewis Mumford to close us out:
“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.”

Thursday, July 5, 2012

To Bury or Not to Bury: Power Lines

David Frum has a good piece on heatwaves, power outages, and whether to bury low voltage power lines:

1. There's reason to think that industry estimates of the cost of burying wires are inflated. While the U.S. industry guesstimates costs, a large-scale study of the problem conducted recently in the United Kingdom estimated the cost premium at 4.5 to 5.5 times the cost of overhead wire, not 10.
2. U.S. cost figures are a moving target. American cities are becoming denser as the baby boomers age and opt for central-city living, as I discussed in a previous column. Denser cities require fewer miles of wire to serve their populations.
3. Costs can only be understood in relation to benefits. As the climate warms, storms and power outages are becoming more common. And as the population ages, power failures become more dangerous. In France, where air conditioning is uncommon, a 2003 heat wave left 10,000 people dead, almost all of them elderly. If burying power lines prevented power outages during the hotter summers ahead, the decision could save many lives.

Induced Demand

Other than minimum required parking codes, traffic projections are likely the most pernicious within the sum of the urban genome.  As I've pointed out several times there are significant blind spots in the way we plan our transportation systems, which have dramatic ripple effects on the way our cities can self-organize (or not self-organize at all) into highly functional and efficient machines for social and economic exchange, but dilute into a chaos under the superficial guise of homogenous order.

The worst part is there is no defense against it as of yet.  Traffic planning as it is done today is accepted as omniscient and therefore it is omnipotent.  Unfortunately, it is badly flawed in many ways, not least of which a fundamental misguided approach and misunderstanding (perhaps willfully) of how cities 1) work and 2) ought to work in order to achieve 1) order 2) intelligence and 3) as an interdependent product of the first two, a multiplicity and availability of choice.

You can find those here:
The 4 blind spots in transportation planning.

Where does the Traffic go?

How Less Capacity Makes Us More Mobile.

Don't believe me?  Good.  You should be skeptical of all information coming at you.  Including those coming from transportation planners telling you they will "improve" your road.  Keep in mind the difference in metrics.  Improve to them means improved level of service.  This means faster flow, increased severity of collisions, less pedestrians, and ultimately less safety, if not complete abandonment of place by way of disinvestment.  Sounds rad, huh?

You on the other hand as a resident, somewhere, meaning you have a stake in your neighborhood.  You want it to be livable and functional.  It should be walkable and safe.  If there are no pedestrians, there are no pedestrians to be run over.  This is the mindset of the common traffic engineer.  To paraphrase Ronald Reagan (of all people), "I'm from the DOT, I'm here to help."

Fortunately for the skeptical mind, there are ever more rigorous academic studies pointing out what you've already intuited:  that transportation planning is fundamentally flawed.  When you back down because they have fancy math and metrics, you can be increasingly armed with studies and similar data to shoot down their findings, such as this from the Aalborg University in Denmark.  A summary:

Although the phenomenon of induced traffic has been theorized for more than 60 years and is now widely accepted among transport researchers, the traffic-generating effects of road capacity expansion are still often neglected in transport modelling. Such omission can lead to serious bias in the assessments of environmental impacts as well as the economic viability of proposed road projects, especially in situations where there is a latent demand for more road capacity.

Reading through the study, the researchers ran two scenarios, one (A) with attempting to quantify induced demand based on findings from other international studies and one (B) running the projections the typical way.  Perhaps the most interesting finding is related to the return on investment when calculating for time saved on a per currency (in this case DKK) basis.  They found that a Braess paradox occurs without significant capacity increase.  Meaning, a slight increase in congested areas yields even slower traffic through the new demand created.  

Furthermore, if a great amount of new capacity is created the costs still outweigh the benefits.  It's a lose-lose either way despite what the flawed existing model suggests.  Either spend too much on infrastructure over-widening roads at very high costs of construction and to property or add capacity at a minimal level worsening the situation, including environmental effects from more cars, idling, and pollution.