Friday, September 28, 2012

Hypothetical Retrofitting of Dendritic Networks

This is really cool.  Reader DK adapted the graphic I used to illustrate a branching, dendritic street network into an animated GIF:

Summarizing Reticulated vs. Dendritic

To honor my 490,000th page view, I pulled this out of the comments because I thought I did a better job summarizing the critical difference between reticulated and dendritic street networks:

Reticulated doesn't necessarily have to be a rigid grid, it just has to be heavily interconnected.  Honeycombs, a Parisien or DC grid which is more Baroque, or even a winding medieval street where the interconnections were made not by some grand plan, but by local choice because it made sense also qualify as reticulated networks.   
The key difference between reticulated and dendritic isn't so much about shape but rather choice of route.  In dendritic, you are funneled into one route and if there is a problem on that route you have little option to make a local decision.  In reticulated, you have a multiplicity of choices of route.  If one has traffic or special event or what have you it doesn't choke the system.  The users are smart and adaptability/flexibility is built into the system.   
The point I was trying to make with that piece was that the presence of the multiplicity of choice is ultimately advantageous, you are more interconnected to more things, more amenities, which then leads to greater desirability, greater demand, and ultimately greater density.  All market oriented as steered by the invisible arm of public infrastructural networks.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Restarts and Divergent Directions

Some interesting stuff on Vehicle Miles Traveled gathered by  In it, the compared the drop in nationwide VMT (-7%) to the drop in median income (-8%) since the start of the recession, which coincides with my point that in a captive market (like car-dependent development) change in gas prices has a minimal impact on overall VMT.  Instead, other factors "move the needle" with regard to how much we're driving (or driving less).  Those issues are economy, availability of other modes of travel, and personal choice, specifically as it relates to millennials who are sick and tired of being trapped in the car since birth (how many were conceived in one, I wonder?).

However, the really interesting stuff is the charted state by state difference.  But first, we have to understand it in relation to this chart:

As you can see, median income is showing some signs of rebound.  However, this isn't to say everyone everywhere is going to start driving again happily as ever as if we were all partying like it's 1999 again.  Let's look at the states individually:

If you can't enlarge, just hit the afforementioned link.  What you see is states rebounding in different directions.  Some see VMTs heading back in the same direction as median income.  More money, more problems.  Or just driving more, as it were.

On the other hand, some states continue to trend downward, particularly California, New York, and Pennsylvania are way down.  It's a bit of a leap without state by state median income data, but if we assume it's trending back up across the nation, some states are putting the increased income straight back into the gas tank, while others are pocketing the difference.  It's almost as if there is a clear demarcation between states which think a kickstarted economy is a return to the past, while others are clearly moving forward towards a less auto-dependent, but ultimately more efficient, less wasteful, and more productive future.

Dare we say some states are merely restarting their software while others are upgrading?

Reader Feedback

I try to avoid posting flattering feedback, but this one meant a lot at a time when I'm feeling a bit of burnout.  Also, in the first 'graph it describes what I'm trying to do with this blog much more succinctly than I ever could:

From Colin in Sydney, Aus

I've been reading a bunch of urbanist and transit blogs for the last few years, and discovered your blog a few weeks ago, and it's immediately become my favourite. Everybody in the field knows that the transport system is deeply linked with the very shape of the city, but you're the best at going further and deeper in the way you link it to the shape of the city *economy*. It's the most Jacobsian thing I've read outside of Jacobs. You've really fleshed out my understanding of this stuff, and reinforced my growing sense that so much of our road transport infrastructure is not just unnecessary, but quite ruinous of our economic performance, standard of living, and of course our social connections. I'm really digging it, and reading back through your archives. 
I don't work in the field at all - it's just an interest of mine, but I just wanted to send you a note as a fan. I'm from Sydney, Australia by the way, a mostly suburban city of approx 5 million people, but with a reasonably sized intra-city rail system (think three or four times bigger than San Francisco's BART) that funnels people from their suburban homes into jobs in a tall and expensive downtown, which until recently had close to zero residents. We're not as fucked up as Dallas by the sound of it, but we're in the same ballpark. We have suburban freeways, but not too much in the way of urban freeways - for the most part they don't penetrate the downtown area. The downtown and the inner-city sub-urbs combine to form a small island of urbanity that is under constant pressure from the automotive Suburbs outside it, but in the last decade or so there has been a fightback of sorts as that urban centre has started to exert it's own outward pressure on the urban/suburban frontier. It's precariously balanced - interesting times. 
Anyway, thanks again for your blog.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Monday Morning Linkages

Quick notes today:

A group is pushing for the re-routing of I-70 in Denver around the neighborhoods it currently cuts in half.  Oddly, Denver has done an excellent job preventing highways from disturbing their downtown core (and shockingly, their downtown and downtown adjacent neighborhoods are in good shape (comparatively)).  The only highway currently running through the city is mitigated by running within the Platte River basin, which is a smart thing to do.  I know many people like to "connect to the river," but ultimately rivers tend to be every bit as dislocative as freeways.  OK, that's a bit of hyperbole.  On the other hand, immediately north of downtown Denver lies a ridiculous redundance of freeways and overpasses in (surprise!) a depressed area.  In even the best possible circumstances, the freeway would've been built partially because the land was cheap in that part of town, but also as a form of economic development.  As the area only became more depressed, you see what kind of effect intra-city highways actually have on economic development when they divide more than they unite.
The BBC sent their economics correspondent to one of this blog's favorite city of study (for a variety of reasons, not least of which...) to examine the harsh economic realities the city is currently facing after blowing all the good times on ephemeralities and vanity projects like Cidade des Artes y Ciencias, a glimmering new port for America's Cup yachts, a Formula One circuit that no longer runs, like a wall street banker snorting his ill-begotten insider trading profits directly up his nose.  Their latest problem?  The city is currently half a billion in debt to its pharmacies.
The setting: Napoli, Italia.  A city when not choked by trash has been similarly choked by vehicular incursion into the city center, like many medieval European cities.  Unlike those European cities it has done the least in combating it.  Until recently.  Last year the new mayor removed all traffic from the sea- and marina-side street Via Caracciolo.  A street, when you drop into streetview has literally no signs of life beyond moving cars and parked cars (before the car removal).  Pedestrians are sparse, only exceeded in their inconspicuousness by ground level businesses engaging the street, which sort of need pedestrian activity.  Then this year, the mayor has removed all vehicular traffic besides residents from the core of the city during business hours.  The best description comes from the comments to this article:
My last night at the World Urban Forum gave me a chance to walk along the closed Via Caracciolo and literally watch folks “dance in the street”. This was a sight to behold because the dancing was classical, and to a small band with string instruments.
His citizens clearly love it.  Those who don't?  The ever-present mob.
And lastly, a broad study on affordable housing in relation to neighborhood surroundings found that there wasn't much identifiable increase in income for poor families relocating to wealthier neighborhoods via housing vouchers to help subsidize rent.  However, there were significant gains in reported health and happiness.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

RIP: Elbow Room

 CORRECTION: I clicked the wrong DCAD parcel.  Somehow my mind erased the parking lot to the southwest of the building.  Blame the alcohol or the parking.  Either applies.  The land isn't owned by Baylor College of Dentistry, but everything around it is.  Perhaps I'm doing some mental gymnastics here, but that could be more believable if the landowner is looking to cash out, rather than BUMC directly pulling the strings.  At the end of the day, it still makes sense for this block to densify in some format.  What doesn't however make sense and never will however, is the horrific intersection nearby serving the new Fair Park Link which wipes out all sorts of properties without creating realistic development parcels.
--------original post--------

I haven't personally verified this yet, but I have no reason not believe the text I received from a friend alerting me to the closing of the Elbow Room, with the caveat "potentially re-opening under new mgmt."  Edit: This post from Eater Dallas is where the original info came from, suggesting it may re-open this week.

It could happen, and often does, but let me posit another theory.  There are different dynamics at work here than many typical bars where turnover is the norm.  Baylor owns the land.  If I were a betting man, I'd wager a penny or two that Baylor raised the rent with the expectation it would ultimately force the Elbow Room out (or under new management willing to meet the new valuation, which is probably and intentionally doubtful).  The real reason is because it's a stand alone building within a larger parking lot immediately next to a large hospital with burgeoning expansion needs, in all directions and for a myriad of uses.

I've been going to the Elbow Room for going on ten years now, the entire time I've been on Dallas, not as much these days as there are now a few dozen bars closer to my current residence.  But, I don't feel like I will miss it.  Bars open and bars close.  Some good, some bad.  If it does mean that BUMC is densifying, ultimately that is a good thing (provided it is compatible development with surrounding area).  Denser places increase the likely of better bars in a world where the Elbow Room was a rarity.

Linkages: False Dichotomies

On the face of it, Michael Lewis's piece in Vanity Fair about what it's like to be President after spending six months embedded with President Obama doesn't seem terribly relevant to urbanism.  It's still worth a read.  However, I find some utility in Obama's explanation of the job; that if the problem was easily solvable, somebody would've solved it before it got to him.  Chain of command and all that and he's at the top of the responsibility food chain. 

At that point it's all about probabilities.  There is no easy, right answer.  In many ways, that is very much like urbanism.  The answers in complex situations with many moving interdependent parts are rarely straight forward (ie add road capacity to solve traffic, or on the other hand, "just add mixed-use!" -- both lazy, reflexive and ultimately more destructive than constructive).  Urbanism is really not about being right all the time (nobody is), but being less wrong and/or wrong less often (while at the same time speaking with authority and 100% confidence). 

With that said, I'm struck by this Atlantic Cities piece asking whether we should raise gas taxes or pursue "smart growth policies" as the same black/white dichotomy that so frustrated Obama during one defense strategy meeting that he went around the room asking every junior person their thoughts, looking for some other more nuanced, less cynically political/ultimately vacuous solution. 

Here's the other problem, in the Atlantic piece, author Nate Berg cites a study out of San Francisco State which parses that dichotomy, suggesting 10% gas price hike would cause a 20% reduction in VMTs and that a similar 10% increase in Smart Growth policies would see a similar result.  If you too are finding yourself asking "what the hell does 10% smart growth policy entail?"  Apparently this:
By increasing housing density, improving access to jobs and building more public transportation infrastructure
As if those things can magically happen without real strategic actions.  In other words, it's vacuous plannerly B.S. of the highest order.   As for the gas price hike, and I don't have access to the full study, but I'm highly skeptical of their conclusions.  What makes them believe that a 20% reduction in VMTs is possible? 

Did they conduct their research only in San Francisco where alternative modes of transportation are available?  Where half the population lives within a ten-minute walk of a commercial center, ie highly walkable?  In that case, that would be very difficult to translate to the rest of the country where instead of 50% in walkable n'hoods, only 3% actually live in walkable locales.  Here is the actual data on gas prices to VMTs:

Hmmm. That seems to show a 287% increase in gas prices with only a minor dip in overall VMTs nationwide.  Furthermore, the drop only occurs during the recession when people had less jobs to go to and less money to buy things with.  In other words, both sides of this equation or overly top-down and ultimately ineffectual.  Put me in Obama's camp as somebody looking for a potential third solution, that is more of a Nudge, allowing local, bottom-up solution to create broader change.  Are those 97% of Americans going to reduce VMTs by 20% by riding transit that doesn't exist or is highly ineffectual due to that low density?  Should they ride on bike lanes that don't exist or the shoulder of the highway 30 miles to work?

How about this, instead of gas price hikes (which I expect to be as politically as feasible as making everybody eat their broccoli), we approach the problem two-fold (neither of which are mentioned), we relieve the subsidies to gas companies (cuts needless spending, Yay!), but has a similar effect in raising gas prices (frown).  However, it does so gradually, allowing the real estate market to slowly shift with it towards more propinquitous development patterns (also, a gas tax hike would be a sudden shock to a country that is effectively locked into long commutes in upside-down homes).

The reduction in spending on oil subsidies would be mirrored by a reduction in highway capacity spending.  The two of which would then allow for a highway capacity removal, specifically of the destructive intra-city highways in and around downtowns, which only serve to spread the real estate market out while reducing the real estate value of downtown and downtown adjacent property.  In other words, it's those very highways which prevent the densification (smart growth policies!) from occurring as they distort the market so that land costs are higher than demand for density. 

However, by removing highways in and around downtown that opens up real estate for immediate development.  The land sales and the new tax base allows (since it will be dense) allow for expenditures in alternative transportation, as the new development would be within 1-3) miles of downtown job centers, the sweet spot for bike lanes, streetcar, and/or Bus Rapid Transit.  You pick.

For urbanism to work it has to be market-oriented and value driven.  People have to want to make the choice and more importantly be able to make that choice.  This is a worthless piece that never should've been written and adds little to the conversation.  Now you see why "urbanists" that don't understand urbanism make me as angry and frustrated as Obama in the strategy meeting.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Exporting Anti-Urbanism

A fellow urbanist named Kent Lundberg, toiling away in New Zealand, fighting the good fight, put together this image correlating street frontage and real estate value within the context of downtown.  Red is the highest value area and as you can expect, the highest dollar real estate is the most central within the shown network.

We wanted to compare his real estate value map with spatial integration as produced by the depthmap software.  Using a bit more context, because I wanted to show or at least examine the effect the highway ring has, on overall interconnectivity and therefore land value, I created the following two diagrams illustrating global connectivity and local connectivity.

One caveat, I don't have the highways in perfectly as they're immensely complicated in Auckland with various on-, off-ramps, as well as parallel highways, etc.  I also haven't taken the time yet to go through and "unlink" certain segments where there is a 3-dimensional over- or under-pass.  So the following maps read the links as still "connected."

The maps also don't reflect the connectivity added by the port (industry) and the marina (recreation) have on the overall system.

The first map is global connectivity:

Unsurprisingly, the downtown core lights up red (you may have to click to embiggen in order for the colors to read).  Perhaps the most telling thing about Auckland is the striking difference when comparing global (above) and the local connectivity map below:

Theoretically, the local connectivity map will point out areas of local centers, places that act as neighborhood centers, the heart of generally walkable, livable areas.  Downtown nearly disappears entirely from this map, which is not dissimilar to other places with mostly commercial/corporate office downtowns, the donut hole downtowns. Then with a few relatively high quality neighborhoods shortly outside the core.

The highways set up this situation where walkable areas can exist only in isolated bubbles and much of downtown has to function effectively as a buffer for the core from the highway loop.  Much like Dallas really.

I'll have to spend some more time examining this when I have the time, as well as fine tuning the various linkages and de-linkages.  Hopefully, Kent and I can share some of the data points as well and see what kind of regression analysis we can put together.

Monday, September 10, 2012

March of Folly

Speaking of the March of Folly, I just tweeted a link to the International Economic Development Council's website where bullet 2 blanketly suggests "highway building" as a universal form of economic development.  No context or qualifiers.  Just build those damn highways and expect the money to flow.  And we wonder why economies around the globe are cracking and faltering.

Similarly along these lines, I was asked to expand upon a recently posited theory about network form and the geographic effect of value within the network for the American Society of Civil Engineers' upcoming journal issue on sprawl.  Kudos to them for wanting to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

The most interesting point to understand that I found exploring this is that grids have no built-in hierarchy, but the higher order emergent pattern of grids DOES have a hierarchy.  Meanwhile, the dendritic network imposes a hierarchy, but the higher order system (land use intensity) DOES NOT have an emergent hierarchy.  In the dendritic pattern, the system branches every outward.  While in the grid the branching is nested internally.  This creates the divergent forces of disparate networks on value, inward vs outward.

Here is my first draft:

In 1984, historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a book entitled The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. In it, she traced historical examples, which in her own words, paralleled “the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved.” Though she exhaustively detailed four such examples, it could also be understood as how otherwise very smart people tend to do very stupid things even in spite of all evidence to the contrary. You won’t be surprised that the corrupting influences tend to be money and power. 

Though her subject matter chronicles historical diplomacy and militarism, I suspect we might be reliving a similar march of folly domestically with regards to our transportation: its planning, funding, and design, or at least its modern incarnation. I suspect this is due to a lack of a broader perspective, a set of metrics allowing us to directly compare how policy initiatives have long-reaching impacts into how well or poorly the city functions. However, those metrics do not exist or at least tend not to be put into practice in any serious manner because of their inherent indirect nature, in the butterfly flaps its wings sense. More specifically, it is the effect modern transportation planning, funding, and design has upon the real estate market, in need of questioning and further examination. 

In fact, it is the very metrics we use for transportation planning, particularly demand/capacity projections and modeling and level of service, that contribute directly to the inertia. The very attempt at solving a problem of our own creation ensures that the problem will always exist. And thus we march forth, creating evermore problems on a much larger scale. Whether it is traffic modeling or level of service, neither of which is concerned about anything of importance in the scheme of city purpose such as the real estate market and individual behavior, these metrics measure mere symptoms not the overall system. Instead, they tend to exacerbate the problem they aim to fix. 

 According to Jevons Paradox, the more efficient something is the greater its inevitable utilization. Pertaining to transportation, the irony here is that making vehicle flow more efficient, assuming that is something other than a theoretical impossibility, actually has an adverse effect on all other forms of transportation, and therefore upon necessary elements to a living system: choice, rationality, and behavior. The actors can’t be smart without choices. 

To ensure that our transportation serves our cities in a more robust and complete way than merely moving automobiles, we must understand cities for what they are: complex systems. That is not to say they are impossibly complicated, but rather their roots can be best understood through complexity science. Rather than being convoluted and chaotic, the complexity is defined by simple operating systems repeated ad infinitum. The result is actually order…if the city is based on a true network of information and infinite feedback loops. 

What is then formed can be deemed a second order system in that it has entirely different properties and behaviors than its individual components. An ant is different from its colony. A leukocyte only knows its task because that’s what its neighbors are up to, with no knowledge of the actual human being it serves. A singular person’s behavior doesn’t describe an entire city. 

Think of any fractal geometry like snowflakes, which are merely aggregated crystalline water (first order system) forming spectacular new shapes (second order system). Same pattern, same process, infinite possibilities. As with all complex systems, cities can be defined by four innate characteristics: individual elements, a generally defined purpose for those elements, interconnections between said elements, and a whole that is greater, and different, than the sum of its parts. 

With regards to cities, it is humans that are the individual elements or actors of the system. Our fundamental purpose, i.e. what drives and in turn governs the system in a bottom-up manner, is best explained by Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The most basic need is safety and survival, then replication, and ultimately improved quality of life, and advancement of the possibilities for civilization. The city’s behavior and its physical patterns are the aggregation of the millions of daily actions of its actors, the citizenry. However, it is daily movement of the citizenry meeting their needs and the infrastructure governing that movement, which is the primary determinant of the resultant physical form of the city. 

The interconnections of the city as a system are critical in that they are first invisible. We are a social species by nature in that all of those aforementioned needs and the ability to achieve them necessitating the interaction with others. Human need is the fundamental driver of demand. It is the infrastructure of movement and city form that acts as the release valve of demand, dictating where and how it takes shape; facilitating the ability of people to meet their needs. If you have ever seen a path worn into grass, you are witnessing the invisible city made manifest where the physical infrastructure does not match nor accommodate, the interconnections between people, places, and things. 

 Complex systems are based on networks. The shape and form of the network and how well it matches the “invisible city” determines a city’s functional capacity as a facilitator of human need and a platform of possibility. Whereas zoning codes are often described, quite literally, as the genome to the built form’s phenotype, it is transportation networks that have the most profound impact, as the bones and circuitry the body adheres to, forming its ultimate shape. The remainder of this paper will explore the shape of the network and its impact on city form and functionality. 

Networks are the agent for multiplying value while diminishing costs through shared resources. They are economic engines. The primary element of a network is the hub, for cities that is an intersection, the root of all city formations be it the intersection of navigable waterways with verdant, arable land, trade routes, or intercontinental railroads. Essentially, the city sprouts from the seed where opportunity meets availability. It is that opportunity combined with desirability which drives demand. When crowds overwhelmed cities at their current scale, new neighborhoods spawned like cellular mitosis, aggregating and assembling, first as dependent to the initial cell, then interdependent. Grids expanded. Each new addition was still connected as it achieved self-sufficiency. The majority of resident needs there in one place; an outgrowth of the very presence of those residents. 

Transportation networks have always prioritized the preeminent movement technology of the day. It is only in modern times with the advent and ultimate subordination of other modes to the automobile and its infrastructure that the very foundation of cities, the network, has been undermined and replaced by an entirely different form of network. The dendritic network of street hierarchies: local roads feed into larger collectors, which in turn feed larger arterials, which feed freeways, the trunk of the branching structure. It is often wrongly assumed that automobile use and the resultant physical form of the city, sprawl, are a product of market choice. And this is correct. However, the assumption also ignores the role that public agencies and governmental policy towards transportation infrastructure has upon that “market force.” The invisible arm guides the invisible hand. 

Historically, as cities aggregated, there was still a prioritization on the multiplicity of the network, a multitude of routes, thus creating a “reticulated,” or intermeshed, network. Without a central organizing power, and generally defined by foot travel and topography, reticulated networks often meant irregular grids that we typically associate with medieval cities. However, there is also plenty of evidence of more organized, rectilinear grids both before and after, particularly as modern cartography and increasingly sophisticated and efficient real estate markets demanded the regularity that rectilinear grids provide. 

Other than reticulated and irregular (“organic”) grids there are also radial grids exemplified by strong diagonals emanating from important hubs of the baroque and city beautiful movements in urban planning, as evidenced to varying degrees by Paris, L’Enfant’s Washington, D.C., center city Detroit, and Broadway, the diagonal cut across the rigid orthogonal grid of Manhattan. Barcelona is an example of a city possessing each form, the irregularity of the gothic quarter, the dominant radial angles of Avignudas Diagonal and Parallel, and the rigid regularity of the gridded L’Eixample or “expansion” district. 

However, these were simply variations on the same basic principle of the reticulated network, multitudinous interconnectivity of a meshwork of feedback loops and the availability of route choice appropriate to each individual trip where the dendritic network of modern transportation planning funnels routes towards exceedingly larger corridors. At root of the decay of many American downtowns has been the application of dendritic networks to more complex reticulated ones creating a cannibalistic effect wherein value was extracted from one place, downtowns, and relocated towards the edge. I suspect Detroit’s decline has less to do with unions or foreign competition as much as the overlay of the arterial and highway network upon its grid. While Detroit’s population has plummeted, losing over one million people since 1950, it is important to note the metropolitan area has gained nearly two million people in the same timeframe. 

The cannibalistic nature of dendritic networks derives from the first and second levels of order in the various systems. Grid systems lack a hierarchy in their underlying form.  However, the hierarchy emerges due to the higher degree of interconnectivity of certain places within the grid. It centralizes demand towards the most interconnected places. The hierarchy is emergent in that it is only apparent at the higher order system, once the real estate market adapts to it. Therefore it can be said that reticulated, grid networks, due to the multiplicity and density of intersections instills a centripetal or convergent force upon the real estate market. 

By nature, dendritic networks branch out further and further and instill an outward or centrifugal force on the market due to the dynamics detailed above. The dendritic network tries to match the existing hierarchy with a presupposed one, however it is largely destructive. The dendritic network subjugates necessary local connections, which for living systems to exist must have the strongest relationship, in favor of regional and pervasively similar degree of connection. Therefore the resultant second order system lacks a hierarchy as all places are equally, and once again poorly, interconnected. The reticulated grid is centripetal and the modern dendritic system is centrifugal, or sociopetal vs. sociofugal. 

Moving from the theory to simple mathematics, if we take a basic grid and apply a semi-transparent (10%) circle upon every intersection (call each circle a neighborhood), we get a diagram that looks something like this: 

Even though each neighborhood is equal, the intermeshing and overlapping of each singular neighborhood produces a broader pattern for the entire city, a second level of order. A gradient emerges with the great density or hierarchy at the center. 

However, this also implies that each circle or neighborhood is equal rather than the second level order than re-informing the first. If there is the greatest interconnectivity and greatest value at the center that would theoretically impress a new dynamic upon each individual circle. Those that have the greatest overlapping interconnectivity would densify. Below, are two individual circles, one in the center and one at the periphery of the “street” network. Each has a number associated based on the amount of intersections it overlaps. 

 Here is the same chart with the numbers (degree of interconnection) applied across the board: 

 Factoring each intersection’s number as its intensity, which likely correlates to intensity of use, activity, and density, the transparencies of each circle have been altered to reflect its new “degree of interconnection.” Instead of 10% for every neighborhood, the transparencies now range from 8% to 25%. 

 As you can see the graphic is now even darker (more intense) in the center and lighter at the edge than in the previous iteration. The centralizing nature of this exercise is indicative of an emergent centripetal force where the greatest value exists at the most interconnected places, all else being equal. In theory, this correlates quite strongly with Jane Jacobs’ theory of border vacuums, that intensity of activity, and therefore value, comfort, and potential for crime increase where there are less “eyes on the street” due to the degree, or lack thereof, of interconnection. Disconnected networks (often via the application of the new dendritic networks) beget disintegration, which begets disinvestment and decay. The circle is either virtuous or vicious. 

 The growth of Sun Belt cities in particular has been illusory and will prove impossible to retain without the reapplication of reticulated, highly interconnected, networks. In other words, if we were to ascribe a range of hypothetical real estate values from 0 to 10, a place that once had a value of 10, for example (downtown), the dendritic network by nature extracts value from that place and moves it outwards, changing the value of places that once had a value of 0 (nature – not to say nature has no value, but in terms of real estate monetization it is limited. Until…) or 1 (agricultural uses or low intensity and/or undesirable, i.e. noxious industrial uses) and makes them a 2, suitable for low density development like single family homes. The single family homes, a market fueled by indescribable pollution, disease, and poverty from industrialization, invariably demanded retail and businesses closer to them. However, because the land was of low value (poorly interconnected), the resultant commercial development was also low density. The only profitable land is further outward. 

This process also reverted downtowns from value of 10 to a similar value of 2. The reason is that dendritic networks seek to make all places equally connected, albeit poorly. Many downtowns, such as Dallas where I live, have relics of a past where reticulated, gridded networks created the demand for high-rise buildings, many of which are empty vestiges of vacated demand spilled outward due to the centrifugal nature of the new network. Buildings are merely containers of demand, the liquid to fill or evacuate. It is the market’s job to match demand with availability of usable space. At the very moment developers and investors were meeting the market of the 1950’s, providing increased density in downtown, the new transportation network of intra-city highways in and around downtown sapped the demand for those buildings moving out to the suburbs and eventually the exurbs. 

 Here it is important to note the distinction between INTRA-CITY highways and INTER-CITY highways. Inter-city highways link regions, macro-destinations to macro-destinations and were an integral part of President Eisenhower’s vision for an interconnected country. However, as spelled out in 1960 Presidential meeting notes, Eisenhower was furious with his staff for allowing the creation of highways within cities, as an expedient (and reckless) form of slum clearance. It is these intra-city highways that severed local neighborhoods and fragmented cities. 

The aforementioned values derive from the previous conversation of interconnectivity, the greater the accessibility to a variety of people, places, and things, creates value, which instills demand, and thus density. Network integration is the release valve of demand, instilling opportunity and access to markets. Integration begets accommodation. It is the trunk-like nature of the dendritic system which severs more connections than it creates decreasing the overall degree of network integration and therefore value. By nature the trunk of a dendritic network, the freeway, to which all smaller tributaries flow, is undesirable. There are too many vehicles moving too quickly for pedestrians, aka people, to feel safe, instilling a tension in a market which wants to assign value to traffic counts via accessibility and visibility (imagine if the most visited website, Google’s landing page assaulted you with an assortment of flashing pop-up ads). 

Few places manage to balance traffic, desirability, and value like Champs Elysees. However, it is the centerpiece of a highly reticulated network where the degree of integration is the highest demanded a proportional measure of accommodation. It is also important to note when counting pedestrians it moves twice the amount of traffic as the busiest of highways in half the right-of-way width, with far greater real estate values. Why? Because it connects more people to more places because of desirability and proximity. 

Lewis Mumford understood all of this explicitly when he wrote in The City in History in 1961, the primary purpose of transportation is not to move cars, but instead, “to concentrate the greatest variety of goods and people within that limited area, in order to widen the possibility of choice without making it necessary to travel. A good transportation system minimizes unnecessary transportation; and in any event, it offers change of speed and mode to fit a diversity of human purposes.” He goes on later to write, “an effective transportation network requires the largest number of alternative modes of transportation, at varying speeds and volumes, for different functions and purposes. The fastest way to move a hundred thousand people within a limited area is on foot. The slowest is to put them all in a car.” 

While Mumford focused on the efficiency of the system, in Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs gave birth to complexity science. She emphasized the importance of the sidewalk and highly interconnected, complex street networks, not for any particularly physical reason, but rather the value of communication and interaction. Via body language, eye contact, and whatever possible forms of communication, a bustling sidewalk will transmit an infinitely greater amount of information between pedestrians within the system than would drivers on a busy road. 

The key distinction in qualitatively assessing which network form is better comes from the cost of the infrastructure. As sociofugal networks drive people further and further apart, thus forcing those to drive more and more (as evidenced by the Brown University study citing an 18% population drop for every new inner-city freeway or the University of Toronto study illustrating a 1:1 relationship between increased highway capacity and increased vehicle miles travelled). The result is more and more expensive infrastructure to be maintained by an increasingly diluted tax base. Sustaining this system is impossible. 

To combat this and the overwhelming of core cities with heavy traffic, cities around the globe have and continue to shift policy towards strengthening alternative transportation networks, largely based on the economics. For example the Dutch spend $30 per year per capita on bicycle infrastructure. One reason why they do this is so they don’t have to spend $141 per year per capita on freeway infrastructure as the United States does. Furthermore, it empowers the citizenry, as they don’t have to spend $9,000 per year per car in operations and maintenance of that vehicle as is the approximate US average. 

In conclusion, building cities has been largely consistent throughout time except for minor exceptions, variations, and adaptions until the shift in transportation towards the applied hierarchy at the lower order of the system, the infrastructural network. This has since minimized the natural hierarchy prevalent in true cities and thus created sprawl where all places are relatively equally and lowly valued. By doing so, it diminishes the value inherent in a highly interconnected system, which is the very purpose of the city, why it exists, and why it has persisted throughout the history of civilization. In fact, it is possible that the reticulated network is the framework of civilization, aiding and maximizing feedback loops, the platform of interactions and transactions, an idea combustion and competition engine, where skills, labor, ideas, currency, and genes trade, nudging civilization incrementally forward. Only through reversing the process and policies of modern transportation planning, can the march of folly reverse course to the march of progress.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In Rain or Sleet or Even Snow

Screen grabbed from Jan Gehl's presentation here:

Don't feel sorry for these people.  Nor snicker.  Copenhagen is a very wealthy, very highly educated city.  You can be certain they had plenty of choice of how to get to their destination and made the conscious decision to ride their bike.  It's amazing what people in cold weather cities will put up with.  Special attention to the stroller.  You can't throw a rock in CPH without hitting a stroller (though I don't recommend nor endorse such activity), one of the best indicators of livable places.

Thirsty Thursday Linkages o' the Day

A video of a new interchange/intersection thing called the Diverging Diamond in upstate New York, where we PROMISE new cyclists were injured in the filming of this theoretically perfect model.  We would also like to point out none of the drivers were texting during animation:

From Fast Company, this aerial photo-essay could be titled "The Preamble to Ruin Porn":

Atlantic Cities asks if Charlotte Can Rise Again?
This could be a mad-libs article of every city in the South facing nigh identical issues.  A good start for Charlotte?  Removing that noose around its neck:

And lastly, the kind of This-Is-A-Great-Street-And-You-Can-Too stuff (from urbanists) that drives me crazy:
I'm a member of the Congress of New Urbanism.  I'm on the local DFW board of the Congress.  But I'm also a member in the way Will Rogers described his being a Democrat when he said, "I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a democrat."  While there are multiple interpretations possible, the most obvious is that it is essentially a big tent with a lot of minor, petty bickering inside.  Consider everything I say from this point forward to be as such.

I am an urbanist.  And therefore I am a New Urbanist because there really isn't much else out there.  But I also agree wholeheartedly with the officially adopted Charter of New Urbanism.  You'll notice when reading that there is very little about style, aesthetics, or various other superficies. What Dover is praising (and Benfield quoting) about Great Streets is also what Dover is criticizing, mostly various superficial aspects of the street.  Though there is a critical difference to what Dover praises and what considers superfluous.  The things he likes (and New Urbanists espouse) buildings close to the street, plenty of storefronts interfacing the sidewalk, vertical mixing of uses, even the various landscaping accoutrements, are direct outgrowths cultivated from something deeper (though it could be argued the things he suggests are unnecessary are simply varying lesser degrees of the same thing).

And that's the subtle irony in Dover's point.  He's basically saying "start with this not that" even though they're both attempts at tail wagging the dog.

Decoration --> Accommodation --> Integration rather than Integration --> Accommodation --> Decoration

These things are a product of place, the ends not the means.  Unfortunately, all too often urbanists forget (or never realize) that you can't just universally apply the need for "mixed-use" and build-to lines as a universal pre-requisite.  Nor that any of these particular great streets can be great without their direct placement within the broader context of the transportation network.  Any of the streets shown (or any other great streets) can't be placed in [insert place you wish to disaparage here] and have it be the same thing.  Instead it must be fostered as the central part of a larger framework.  If you don't do that, you may as well be building a tribute golf course that badly recreates famous holes from around the world.  In fact, that's pretty much what every single "main street town center" is.  A knock-off, copying nothing else but the cosmetics.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Some Commentary on Dallas, its Personality, and its Art Scene

Some good stuff here, in two parts, from a Houston art blog reviewing Dallas and the art scene he found.

Dallas is a Jewel.

Dallas is a Rich Man with a Death Wish in his Eye.

And be sure to read the lyrics from which he derived the post headings:

Well Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes
A steel and concrete soul in a warm heart and love disguise
A rich man who tends to believe in his own lies
Yeah Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes

I feel like I could think about these verses for hours and their implication.  However, with that one line in particular "steel and concrete soul," seems to describe how I generally feel towards 'southern hospitality, evil eyes and a willingness to stab you in the back while smiling politely to your face (bless your heart).  But perhaps I see Dallas inverse to this description, as a warm heart and soul wrapped in a steel and concrete disguise.  Though I don't know which is more optimistic.
After the super bowl I wrote something about the split personality disorder afflicting the city, the tension between reality and...surreality?  
We are exporting a false persona and the world sees right through it. If we weren't ashamed of what makes us us, we might actually try to project some reality of what is beneath the mannequin-like botox of shiny glass buildings.
The real Dallas is what we keep hidden while we boastfully show off that which is little more than a generic knock-off model of somewhere else.  "Hey!  We got that too!"  But that isn't what people look for when they travel.  And it sure isn't what people appreciate when they live there.    
In that Super Bowl piece, I talk about transportation networks (of course I do) and how the infrastructure we've built does 1)a better job connecting regional destinations than local ones and therefore 2) more to divide than to unite us.  But it's the strength of the local connections that creates the multiplier effect, which is the foundation of all living systems.  In other words, your foot isn't attached to your head and for good reason.
If you indulge me for writing about the same thing over and over, it's because I find myself thinking about this every day.  Why?  Because my office is one mile from my home.  One.  Yet, it is virtually impossible to traverse from one to the other easily without leaving a crumb trail.  Sometimes I bike, sometimes I walk, occasionally I trolley, and because I had a meeting to get to this morning I even drove (ghasp! shrieks of "sell-out!" fill the air).  
And you know what?  It takes me 20-25 minutes no matter the form of transportation (I haven't tried hand-gliding from a downtown tower yet).  The reason for why it takes so long (and is rather unpleasant regardless of mode) is the same reason why I could be in Richardson or Mesquite or Grapevine in the same amount of time, the highway.  The infrastructure that divides more than it unites.