Joe Minicozzi talks about cities, taxes, economic development, beer and Asheville. It's a very entertaining and enlightening hour to spend - I highly recommend it for anyone remotely interested in these topics:
Following last week's post where I issued some caution about driverless cars, Neil Salmond takes me to task on robotaxis, as he prefers to call them. I prefer driverless cars, some prefer autonomous vehicles, though I'm also fond of occupied drones on wheels. (maybe a good name for a band?) While I don't mind at all being called unoriginal, don't call my arguments weak, dammit! Ah, the fun of Internet debates.
I've played both sides of this argument before about driverless cars, so sure, I'll happily play the skeptic role. After all, it fits my nature anyway.
Salmond really dislikes anything approaching the techno-fetish label, but I have to repeat again: if you only believe the upside for the thing you like, but dismiss the downside; If every answer to a question is that the tech will solve it; If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck.. you own that label. Every belief system has a spectrum, and so not all techno-fetishists are alike. But the core element is the same - an abiding faith in technology to always produce good results. Or, that a tech that we find intriguing or cool or fun of course has only positives.
I think the lessons of the last, oh, 100 years or so, are clear that we should be far, far more skeptical about any new emerging technology. Every new good idea has a negative side. Many new technologies never go beyond niche markets. Many leap forwards have both helped and harmed cities and human beings. Smart phones, for example, enable us to do some pretty incredible things, but they also have been terrible for human attention and socializing. Sharing sites like Airbnb enable people to very easily make some more money from their homes and give a unique traveling experience; they also enable wholesale absentee ownership in neighborhoods. Mechanized farming has helped feed billions of people, but also destroyed rural communities and created serious questions about environmental and health costs.
The reason I harp on the actual human experience is because it's something so often overlooked by the tech sector. As humans we have lots of great qualities, but we're also vain, lazy, control-freaks, fearful and greedy. Those are parts of our nature that don't change just because we have new toys. It's real - we must consider those in addition to our capacity for joy, love, kindness and charity. It's why the questions about hacking are so important when it comes to any technology nowadays. I'm pretty certain that the recent stores that were hacked think it's no small deal. Heartbleed anyone? Every few months a new story surfaces about a system that was thought invulnerable to hacking that has been hacked.
So, seriously then, what happens when some clever person hacks into a single robotaxi or a fleet of them and crashes them into buildings? Beyond the simple question of liability (don't you think that will impact premiums a bit?) is the human question: how will it impact the psyche of users? That is the essence of the question of control. Most of us are willing to give up control of an airplane to a pilot because we know we're not qualified to fly. Yet, even then, it's very unsettling. Fear of flying is no small condition.
Cars, on the other hand, can be operated by virtually anyone. It's easy. It's, dare I say, fun. The reason that over 77% of Americans drive alone to their job is because, when considering the options, it's still the best experience for them. You control your own vehicle, your own path, you choose your own music. The control may in fact be an illusion, and you may be stuck in traffic a lot. Parking may be a pain. But you feel in control.
I argue personally for walking and biking for similar human reasons. Walking and biking can just be really pleasurable ways to get around. It makes me feel good. I control my own path and destiny. I get some fresh air and a little exercise. My senses are engaged, and I might even get to talk with someone along the way. Those are real, human factors that make it enjoyable - primarily if the walk or bike ride itself is in a beautiful environment.
Plenty of pretty smart people thought the Segway would revolutionize how we get around. Remember all of the hubbub for legislation that allowed them on sidewalks? And today, they're nothing more than a novelty item for tourists and a few law enforcement operations. Why? Maybe because the human experience is really not that great. Maybe we intuitively understood that walking or biking is more fun, and the Segway really replaced neither.
As to some of the specific issues that were raised:
- I don't follow at all why insurance rates would go up for human-powered cars. Car insurance is priced relative to the risk of the individual. Your premium is derived from looking at numerous factors based on your history and people with similar histories. Unless the new world of mixed robotaxis with existing vehicles means *more* risk for drivers, insurance rates would not go up. In fact, if the pool of "bad" drivers decreases because of other transportation options then insurance rates for "good" drivers may actually decline.
- Salmond writes "as the boomers die off their car consumption will not be replaced." If you read my blog at all, you know how much this simplistic generational mantra drives me crazy. People are people. Millenialls are not some special breed of human that hate cars and sprawl. I won't belabor this - just read here, here and here.
- The Jakriborg model is really cool. Only, it won't be evident in the vast majority of US metros. The transit piece itself doesn't work, for reasons too numerous to mention here. The urbanist dream of turning American suburbs into European-style suburbs is a reality in probably less than 10 metros. In the rest of the country, we'll need much different solutions that don't involve expensive, fixed rail transit.
Now, again, the rainbow & unicorn ideal of a fleet of driverless taxis roaming around cities does in theory help tremendously with real estate and redevelopment. It drives the need for parking down substantially and simultaneously the need for wide roads in urban areas. But here's the thing: this is already happening with services like Uber & Lyft. These services are a real innovation, and after many, many painful years the world of taxi service is finally being turned upside down. Uberx essentially functions as a roaming fleet of on-demand taxis, far better than anything else most cities have seen.The same thing is on the cusp for bus service. Those changes alone have tremendous upside for transportation & development.
So robotaxis exactly do what, then that's such a huge leap over Uberx? Oh, yes, they replace the person. This very much smacks of the problem of - damn, if we just get those pesky humans out of the way, life will be so grand. Everything will be so much more "efficient."
Here's a caution to those that really believe anything approaching the efficiency argument: Despite the push by car advocates in the early 20th century, a relentless remaking of the American landscape, mass car ownership and every incentive and law imaginable, we still have pedestrians, bicycles and even horse-drawn carriages on many streets. The free-flowing world of cars-only from Tomorrowland never really came to be. And, in fact, a look at the rise of biking and walking in recent years shows that that ideal is quickly fading. Let's not assume that the future will be about easy, free-flowing lanes of driverless cars and fleets of taxis when all signs point to more mixing; more shared space.
I'm also a new urbanist that believes we should set aside the notion of sprawl repair as any kind of priority. Some early sprawl (pre-interestate say from 1940's-early 1960's) has potential to be made into walkable places. Later sprawl - forget it. As I've said before - the car culture warriors made a giant mistake by trying to remake our older cities into the new modern city. New Urbanists should be wary to do the same. From a practical standpoint, it will be incredibly expensive to remake most sprawl into urbanism, with precious little of value coming from it. We could spend billions on sprawl repair and still have urbanism that's at best a C+. From a political standpoint, we need to understand that there's a very large constituency of people that, dare I say, actually like it. If you believe the latest Pew study, it's about 1/2 the population. As I've always lived in places that were far outside the big coastal cities, I believe those numbers. Why are we so eager to piss off 1/2 the population that is happy with their choice? Why can't we just make the urban as good as it can possibly be and get over trying to change the entire world?
Yes, there are environmental, financial and energy-related issues. But let's let those sort themselves out in time. We have *plenty* to do in existing cities and creating new towns as it is.
So this is all to say: let's not be so quick as urbanists to jump on every technology like it's the be-all, end-all that we need to "save" our cities or repair sprawl. Maybe, just maybe, we could come to the conclusion that a) some people really like cars and sprawl, and that's ok. b) the "lean" way to look at transportation improvements is use what we already have invested in - roads, cars, buses and just do a whole lot better with them and c) always consider the actual human experience. After all, that's what makes cities such damn great places anyway - the human experience.
Look I'm not a luddite. I like my toys - my iPad, my smart phone, my big tv. I like air conditioning, elevators, and yes, even cars (shocking to some of you, I know!). But I also recognize that embracing change has consequences - not all of them rosy or good. Before we believe the corporations that most stand to benefit from "robotaxis" we should cast a very skeptical eye on the consequences. That's what grown ups do, now that we're a grown-up country.
Some amount of driverless cars is inevitable, I suppose. For my money, I honestly hope it doesn't become more than another niche product. Our world is impersonal enough as it is, and too eager to look to technology to save us. We've fully entered an age that is skeptical of the upside of all tech and I think that's a good thing. Technology, after all, didn't destroy cities. Human beings did. Humans did with our greed, our short-sightedness and our desire to be "modern." Humans also stopped the nonsense and turned it around, by learning to value what was cast aside. Human beings can save and rebuild them again - we don't need an occupied drone to do it.
One of the tensions common today in so many facets of life is the growing complexity of our world vs our desire for simplicity. We like and are used to simple solutions to problems. Traffic is bad? Simple: build bigger, wider roads. Parking is hard to find? Simple: create more parking. Housing is getting expensive? Simple: build more housing. The only thing is, most of those "simple" solutions have unintended consequences and very often don't solve the issue. The problems turn out to be much more complex and deserve complex answers.
And, we don't like complex answers. It's much easier to embrace singular ideas and move on to the next problem. X is good and Y is bad. Therefore, let's do X. Next!
This is especially true when we observe societal issues that are outside our own personal area of expertise. As a non-attorney, it's quite easy for me to say come up with simple, obvious fixes to our judicial system that will correct today's abuses. Except, when I actually take the time to educate myself about the system and the issues, it turns out to not be so simple. That makes my head hurt, so I come back to the simple idea to seek comfort. Ah, that's better - back to the folksy, obvious idea that I just know will work.
There's probably no area of life where this simple/complex dilemma is more apparent than in transportation. Since all of us move around virtually every day, we all have opinions. Most of us drive, many use public transportation and we all walk at some point during the day. It's an essential part of daily life. That makes it ripe for simplistic solutions.
Fortunately, more and more people are diving into the reality of how we get around. We've been finding for quite some time that simple ideas don't often work. For example, the mantra for decades has been to add more road capacity (bigger, wider roads) in order to handle traffic and growth. One problem: it doesn't actually work. Adam Mann writes in Wired magazine about how wider, bigger roads actually make traffic worse:
The concept is called induced demand, which is economist-speak for when increasing the supply of something (like roads) makes people want that thing even more. Though some traffic engineers made note of this phenomenon at least as early as the 1960s, it is only in recent years that social scientists have collected enough data to show how this happens pretty much every time we build new roads. These findings imply that the ways we traditionally go about trying to mitigate jams are essentially fruitless, and that we’d all be spending a lot less time in traffic if we could just be a little more rational.
The answer has to do with what roads allow people to do: move around. As it turns out, we humans love moving around. And if you expand people’s ability to travel, they will do it more, living farther away from where they work and therefore being forced to drive into town. Making driving easier also means that people take more trips in the car than they otherwise would. Finally, businesses that rely on roads will swoop into cities with many of them, bringing trucking and shipments. The problem is that all these things together erode any extra capacity you’ve built into your street network, meaning traffic levels stay pretty much constant. As long as driving on the roads remains easy and cheap, people have an almost unlimited desire to use them.
Or as is often said, if you plan for cars and traffic, you'll get cars and traffic. Noted engineer Walter Kulash also used to say, "widening roads to solve a traffic problem is like loosening your belt to solve an obesity problem."
So what's the solution, then? As always, there's no singular solution - it's just not that simple. But people are starting to get much more creative in their approach. One example: the Town of Huntington, New York is experimenting with free valet parking in its downtown as opposed to the usual notion of buying land and building expensive garages:
One thing's for sure: it's important to know first and foremost what your goals are. Then, experiment and try out inexpensive ideas first. Many won't work, but those that will may prove more effective than the "simple" ideas that we are so used to.
A new report from LOCUS & Smart Growth America has been released that has a great deal to say about the future of walkable places, real estate and suburbia. Titled, "Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America's Largest Metros," the effort is one of the more in-depth and data-driven analyses produced to-date. Primary authors are Christopher Leinberger and Patrick Lynch.
In the Executive Summary, these highlights are presented:
- This report indicates that metros found to have high walkable urbanism are models for the future development patterns of many—and possibly most— of the largest 30 U.S. metros.
These trends suggest future demand for tens of millions square feet of walkable urban development and hundreds of new WalkUPs.
This demand would provide an economic foundation for the U.S. economy, similar to the building of drivable suburbs in the mid to late 20th century.
The report analyzed the current situation and future potential for walkable urbanism for each of the 30 metros, breaking them in categories from 1 to 4, best to worst essentially. I'm not sure anyone has done that level of analysis before on a specific basis for each metro, so it's a fascinating data set. And, a lot to digest.
A few items really stuck out as I reviewed the report, which I'll bullet-point below. The report itself isn't long, so I recommend it as a must-read for anyone with a rooting interest in the world of urbanism and real estate. But since it is thick with information, it will take some time to fully grasp all of the details. On that note:
- On a nitpicky level, I'm not enamored with the 7 categories of "WalkUP's" that they detail. I'm glad they've done this, as it puts more teeth to an analysis of urban lifestyles than anything anyone else has done. But, I'm partial to the "5 Lifestyles" methodology I wrote about previously here. As I said, a bit nitpicky and inside baseball for those not looking for quick sound bites, but I think the 7 types get a little too caught up in specific development examples as opposed to general lifestyle choices.
- One item getting a lot of press is that Atlanta ranked so highly. Yes, for many it's the poster child of suburban sprawl. But there's an amazing amount of work happening throughout the metro, in ways that blow away cities further down the ranking. I've written about this phenomenon here before, and am not that surprised by the report's take.
- There's some excellent analysis and data that should prove as a warning for cities in future Level 3 (Low potential). For example, this bit is right on the money:
Low walkable urban metros generally resist walkable urban development, with a proud reliance on auto- mobiles and trucks and drivable sub-urban development. These metros have advocates for walkable urbanism, including developers, neighborhood activists, and elected leaders. Yet, dominant infrastructure, zoning, and land-use subsidies of these metros still favor drivable sub-urban development.
- The report also makes note of the correlation between high education and walkable urbanism, but wisely issues some caution on the correlation.
- Also, this bit at the end is worded very well:
...the end of sprawl does not mean sprawl will disappear immediately. Rather, its end marks a gradual shift from drivable sub-urban development as the dominant real-estate trend to walkable urban development. Even in Washington, DC, and Boston, two of the most walkable urban metros in the coun- try, fringe, single-family drivable sub-urban housing is being built. However, this product type makes up less of the recent housing stock, as it is increasingly difficult to finance.
The end of sprawl in moderate walkable urban metros in this study largely depends on the question, “Will these metros continue to build predominantly drivable sub-urban, or will they follow the path of high walkable urban metros?”
One of the most talked-about efforts in the world of transportation is underway in Florida: All Aboard Florida's effort to build and operate passenger rail service between Miami and Orlando. The service is privately funded and the intent is to be profitable. It's also worth noting that it's not high-speed rail, but low-speed rail (max speeds of 125 MPH). Henry Grabar has an in-depth look at the service this week at CityLab. Here's a few key items:
Can All Aboard Florida establish a blueprint for how private freight railways, which averted financial ruin by abandoning passenger service, can profit from its revival? "If it can work there, it could work in other markets. The other private rail firms absolutely can be watching this," says Adie Tomer, an associate at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program who studies passenger rail. "This a great test for America."
All Aboard Florida, however, has a couple of inherent advantages. The first is in its infrastructure. As a corporate descendent of the Florida East Coast Railway, AAF owns an easement for passenger service on a long, centrally located, well-maintained freight corridor. The second is demographic. On the strength of Disney World, Universal Studios, and other theme parks, Orlando is the most visited city in the United States, with nearly 60 million tourists last year. Miami, with its global cachet and thriving cruise ship port, counted 14 million visitors in 2013. All Aboard says that there are 500 million trips made every year between its destination cities.
So AAF will set a passenger railway in motion. With 32 trips each day and a train capacity of 400 travelers, the service can theoretically carry more daily riders between Miami and Orlando than Amtrak's Acela does between New York and Washington, D.C. Tourists and in-state leisure travelers will account for nearly three-quarters of AAF ridership, with business travelers making up the rest. (It's virtually the inverse of the Acela's business-heavy traveler ratio.)
"Our expectation is that the train will be profitable, in and of itself," says John Guitar, senior vice president of business development at AAF.
The whole piece is worth a read if you have any interest in infrastructure, transportation funding or redevelopment. I'm optimistic the "experiment" will work and help to usher in a wave of interest in new passenger rail in the US. That said, I still think there's a good option for cities to take the lead themselves, as I wrote previously here, if they don't want to wait for rail companies or Amtrak to do it. Let the experimenting begin.
Two pieces caught my eye in the last week with different looks at the future of transportation and cities. The first, by Leigh Gallager, takes a more nuanced view than is typically done when observing American suburbs. In looking at the question of public transit, Gallager notes this important point:
...This enrages some transit purists. No matter how vibrant a newly developed downtown, if you're not removing the need for a car, you're not really urbanizing the suburbs and making them more livable. Right?
I say no — the mere ability to live closer to your neighbors, to sit on a porch within earshot of the people walking down the street, to walk to a café (whether it's in a shiny new town center or an authentically urban neighborhood) is transformative for cul-de-sac transplants. These urban developments still represent an important step, even if the transit issue isn't 100 percent solved.
I'm bracing myself for angry emails from that statement. But the fact is, most of our country's recent suburban development is in communities where there is little access to public transit — especially rail transit. The dense, transit-friendly suburbs of the Northeast are a fluke; most of America's suburbs were built in the last 50 years, and most commuters who live in them drive themselves to work. That's where the problem is, so that's where the patches are being applied.
It's a critical distinction, and why I made the point about the need for simple walking and biking experiences in my Ted talk, America 6.0. It seems every transportation geek has their mode of choice that "fixes" everything. For transit lovers, it's all about transit. For the techno-fetish crowd, it's driverless cars. For cyclists, it's bikes.
But it all begins and ends with walking, and walking can work at a wide variety of scales. The issue is that in the car culture that Gallagher references, walking is not even an option today. Just that provision is a leap of enormous proportion, and gets people to a place where they start to love walking, talking and staring.
One other point from Gallagher's piece:
To paraphrase Robert A.M. Stern, suburbs are like cholesterol; there are good ones and bad ones. We doubled down on the bad ones, but the good ones have a lot to offer—including good old urban DNA and lots of public transit. Will Silverman, a senior managing director at Savills Studley in Manhattan and one of my most plugged-in sources, swears that inner-ring, transit-oriented suburbs are going to be the next big thing just for this reason, and insists that they have already started to rise as a separate entity from car-oriented suburbs.
Indeed, this is very true. One of the biggest blind spots for sprawl repair enthusiasts is the lack of differentiation between the original post-WWII suburbs and the generation that started after the interstate system was well underway. They are very, very different creatures. Those older suburbs are ripe for retrofits in *most* cases (not all) and can make very attractive walk/bike-friendly communities. However, once we shifted to the later model, it's exceedingly difficult to justify any serious retrofits. It's one reason I advocate to urbanists to just let that suburbia be the best suburbia it can be, and not expend energies or money urbanizing it.
Finally today, Neil Salmond takes on the popular topic of driverless cars and robotaxis. Salmond is fully in the camp that's excited about the possibility of this technology for cities:
Many urbanists really hate Google’s self-driving car, because they believe the stories told by the most naive techno-fetishists. Stories like streets full of robocars, safely nose-to-tail at 100mph and happily dancing past eachother at intersections. Stories like extra-exurban commuters happily breakfasting and working from their robotaxi during their two hour commute (and happily working some more on the two hours home).
These are naive because of the incrementalism of technology roll-out and because of those cultural and demographic shifts already underway.
Salmond makes some very good points, for example this:
Apart from the occasional highway convoy, the vision of nose-to-tail robocars is many decades out, if it ever happens at all. This new technology is not cheap, and so the asset will be sweated: robotaxis will not make just two commuting trips per day, and lie idle the rest of the time. They will not make rapid transit redundant either, for simple reasons of geometry and predictability: why wait ten minutes for a more expensive personal taxi, when you can walk to the transit stop and get the next train in two.
Instead robotaxis will be offered as a fleet service. The availability of robotaxis in a community will provide two great boosts to sprawl repairers. Firstly, the cost of insurance for human-driven vehicles within city limits will rise hugely. Secondly, parking lots and travel lanes will far more easily be removed as ownership declines.
So having said all that, I am still extremely skeptical of the upside potential Salmond describes. In a perfect world, yes, this is the big win-win for cities. On-demand taxis means less need for parking and big roads which creates a wonderful virtuous cycle for real estate, walking and urbanity. But... I have to throw some cold water.
I think if you criticize the techno-fetish crowd on the one hand, you can't have it both ways and believe the techno-fetish for the thing you like. If these vehicles become ubiquitous (and I think that's a very big IF) they *could* have some of those benefits. But just as there are city people who dig urban life, there are country and suburban people that despise it. Why would the technology only be adopted by one subset of humanity? Many people choose on purpose today to have a one hour commute to work; why would they not also continue to choose it if the commute now means that they don't have the stressful part of it?
But more importantly, I'm in the skeptic camp that thinks these cars could be the Segway phenomenon, version 2.0. That is, an interesting new technology that doesn't in fact transform anything because human beings don't actually like them, and because they are very expensive. There are literally hundreds of questions we don't have answers to about what happens when human beings are no longer in control of vehicles. The liability/insurance issues are very complex and could actually hurt driverless cars, not help them. For example, who gets sued when one malfunctions and runs over a child?
Yes, a subset of urbanites that don't care to drive and use taxis a great deal may enthusiastically adopt these. But how expensive will it be? Do we really believe all the technology will be affordable compared to other ways of getting around? Do we also really believe the technology will always work, since it's highly dependent on GPS and inter-connected networks? What kind of nastiness could hackers inflict upon them and us?
In my opinion, urbanists should be very cautious in assuming nothing but rainbows and unicorns when it comes to this new technology. Uber & Google may indeed be sitting on gigantic amounts of money, but that alone doesn't ensure that their vision will be enthusiastically received especially when it comes to something as fundamental as how we move ourselves around our cities. The big dream of fleets of robotaxis helping city life and real estate sounds exciting. But then, Tomorrowland, the Jetsons and Buck Rogers all sounded really exciting as well. How did those work out?
The video is now up of my Tedx talk from two weeks ago. Titled "America 6.0," it's my look at where we've been, where we're going and why. In 12 minutes. Enjoy and please share.
It's a Friday, which must mean it's time to argue about architecture. Here's some recent items from the internets that highlight the ongoing battles in design thinking and theory:
First, David Brussat worries about design direction within the CNU and lashes out at the creeping desire to accept contemporary architecture in New Urbanism:
The New Urbanism is really the old urbanism guided by principles of human scale, residential density, proximity and walkability. Before World War II, cities, towns and villages got built and grew over time with few rules. Builders used forms and practices that had worked well throughout the history of human habitat.
That has changed, of course. Civic evolution was interrupted after the war by an ideological revolution. Tradition was dethroned by modern planning and design, based upon the dubious machine-age idea that honest design looks utilitarian and that beauty is expendable.
So by now, what is new in cities and towns is believed by most people to be worse than what it replaced. An entire movement, historic preservation, arose to defend old places against modern architecture.
New Urbanists be warned: The modernists are on the march. They have purged preservation of its founding fear that traditional neighborhoods are under assault. They have staged administrative coups at about half of the few remaining architecture departments that feature a classical curriculum (the University of Portugal at Viseu, the University of Oregon, the Prince’s Foundation, in London). Yes, there are only three or four architecture programs with a classical curriculum left in the world.
Modernism is like a virus that uses subtle techniques to infect its host and achieve brutal results. Modernism does not want to befriend tradition. New Urbanism has long had the virus in its blood. Now, in Buffalo, it has broken out in a rash. Watch out! Not pretty!
Speaking of tradition, the Frick Collection shows that you can in fact expand a museum with classical architecture. Yes, despite the howls of many architecture theorists, it is possible to build a new building that looks like the old:
Frick officials said the new design, by Davis Brody Bond, the architecture firm behind the interior of the new National September 11 Memorial Museum, was intended to be sensitive to the integrity of one of New York’s beloved historic buildings. It would retain the Beaux-Arts vernacular of the original home and use the same Indiana limestone.
Officials at the Frick are taking a decidedly different approach from those at the Morgan Library & Museum, which is housed in another Beaux-Arts building, but whose new wing, completed in 2006, features a contemporary design of steel and glass.
In the "how to do it" world, architect Donald Powers writes in Builder magazine about alternatives to the pervasive "pork chop" eave. Thank God that talented architects like Powers are writing for Builder mag:
The pork chop evolved from generations of builders trying to imitate homes with classical entablature and traditional eave construction. But because so much common knowledge about traditional form has been lost over the years, so, too, has the ability of consumers and professionals to discern what looks genuine and what doesn’t.
Pork chop eaves happened because they were efficient and simple. They didn’t stray too far from a traditional solution. A logical builder will say, “It saves work—what’s the problem?” The problem is it looks terrible.
And finally, just for old time's sake, here's a tired old argument straight out of the Bauhaus about architectural design:
If the “Vintage Collection” merely made reference to older building styles but were clearly new builds, it would be a different thing. But there is a huge difference between making reference to an older style versus actually just plain copying an older style. The latter is lazy and opportunistic. Instead of moving architecture forward, it slows and even reverses the creative momentum of the discipline by recreating styles, forms and details that made sense decades ago, but have nothing to do with our current times. Architecture is supposed to be a reflection of what is happening in the world today, the current technology and the current ethos of our culture. When buildings become nothing but bad copies of buildings past, it sullies the entire creative process of designing buildings.
The theme that happens in every architectural critique like this is the zeitgeist. I previously wrote about that fallacy here, and suggested an alternative mindset. Just to remind architects that are so eager to dismiss "vintage" styles - those old styles aren't popular just because of nostalgia. They're popular because they engage us as human beings. You get the feeling that there actually, you know, might be humans involved somewhere and not machines or industry.
We're so used to the current paradigm where developers plan their own large subdivisions and determine so much of cities and infrastructure that we forget it didn't always used to be this way. Public bodies used to have a much more active role in shaping future infrastructure, instead of leaving it to the whims of each developer. Planning commissions were in fact created to promote quality public planning, not devote themselves to hours of debate over the color of a fence or a specific building's use, as is all-too-common today.
I'm reminded of this today by reading Pete Saunders' blog about an early 20th century design competition in Chicago:
Yet in many respects this competition itself represented the end of one kind of city planning, and the emergence of another.
The seeds of the future direction of American land development are in the challenge to the competitors. Rather than pursuing the rote extension of the street system and pattern, the competition's judges wanted "scientific methods" of land development. What was lost in that transition was something taken for granted by cities at the time -- the presumed primacy of control of the public realm by cities. Cities have been struggling to regain that control ever since.
Take a look at the submissions in the book. The submissions are very different, from grid-based to geometric patterns. But the assumption for nearly all was that they would fit within an established framework. Their designs would be connected to the grid system just beyond it. The city, having the final say, would establish a consistent framework or template upon which the city would be built, and not that developers would create piecemeal, disconnected parts that have little relation to each other.
Ever since, planners around the country -- myself included -- have deluded themselves in the development review process, evaluating subdivisions with only passing thought to their connectivity and impact, especially if the proposed development enjoys strong political support or seeks to attract a favored demographic to your town.
Once upon a time, city planners established the framework for the private market to flourish. Today, the private market sets the tone, and we try to backhandedly set the framework.
No wonder our profession struggles with an identity crisis.
The goal of this website is to discuss these questions about master street plans and to refocus the issues of urbanism away from land use and toward land subdivision. Land uses change constantly, but the physical/legal subdivision of land becomes the permanent, physical basis of our towns and cities. Right-of-way lines stay with us for a long, long time; it is critical that these lines are set in such a way that it allows a walkable and vibrant urbanism to materialize. That’s where the master street plan comes in.
Parallel to the discussion on the Chicago competition was this competition that Paul organized at CNU 21 in Salt Lake City:
Coinciding with CNU 21, Salt Lake City Interrotta was an ideas competition organized right here at The Great American Grid. The competition charged participants to design an entire 660′x660′ (10 acre) block. Twenty-eight submissions were received from both students and professionals. While most of the entries were developed in America, two of them came from Italy and one from Australia.
Both competitions show the wealth of ideas in subdividing the typical American grid, and both also point to contemporary issues in planning and urbanism. Now just imagine those being left to the typical suburban development market and you can begin to understand why our cities look the way that they do.
It's my humble opinion, but The Bitter Southerner takes the prize. It's a great format with beautiful images and generally excellent stories. This week's edition, "The Many Battles of Atlanta" is well worth a few minutes of your time. If you live in the southeast, you especially need to be subscribing to this site.
Hiking is something people usually do in the woods. I enjoy hiking the wilderness of our great nation as much as anyone, I suppose, but there's an appeal to urban hiking I think is systematically overlooked. It's been said that the Civil War was transformative for the United States not least because it was an opportunity for millions of people — soldiers, mainly — to traipse across it and to get a first-hand idea of what it was they collectively possessed. It’s for the same reason I believe everyone should take long walks through American cities.
There's a big difference between viewing a city from a bucket seat and experiencing it on foot. In a car the landscape spools past like a film, accompanied only by the sound of whatever music happens to be bubbling from the stereo, the atmosphere attenuated to its nadir by air conditioning. It's fast, one-dimensional, and — barring a fiery accident — quickly forgotten.
On foot, by contrast, the world inhabits not only the eye, but also the ear and not seldom the nose. It touches the skin and even the tongue, and it does all this at a stately pace. The horizon manifests its mysteries with exquisite leisure, charging the initiate in both time and sweat for the pleasure. Objects rise up, pass, and linger in the distance, giving you plenty of time to observe, to digest, to think. The road trip may be the modern rite of passage, but as is usually the case with technology, for all we gained, something was lost — richness of experience, in this case. Which, after all, is the stuff of life.
In my Tedx talk, "America 6.0," I mentioned that the future will see more and more people willingly choosing to farm again. Some of it will be for higher-value crops, some will create new agricultural tourism as a result of their efforts and some will do it just for the love of feeding themselves. This will all be especially true within an easy drive of larger metros, so people can have access to city life when they want it.
It all makes me wonder, will be farming be the new preservation movement? What I mean is, historic preservationists stood up for the value of our cities and buildings at a time when society didn't value them. They saved our civilization from itself, and helped lay the groundwork for today's back to the cities movement.
Will the new farmers fill a similar role? People are rediscovering something valuable that we lost in the rush to modernity and mass production: real, good food. Just like beautiful, social cities, this feeds (so to speak) our humanity. Society largely doesn't value agriculture and agricultural land today, nor has it for some time. Will the new farmers change this?
This week - two stories of the new farming ethic that's rising; one inner-city and one rural. First, in Memphis:
Nautyca Wilkinson has no idea that the afterschool program where she raises butterflies and plants flowers is part of a much larger strategy to transform the city where she is growing up. A brainy, articulate 12-year-old who reports that gardening is her all-time favorite activity, Wilkinson was brought to Foster’s afterschool program by her mother. “My mom said this place is really smart,” she said. “She wanted me to go somewhere really educational.”
Wilkinson’s mother was right. The Knowledge Quest wildlife club raises butterflies and swaps plants after timing how long it would take caterpillars to eat them. The math club surveys the farm and tabulates yield predictions. Picking the best crops for the soil lends for earth science lessons. It’s farming, but it’s also a STEM education curriculum. Even the flowers have educational purposes. Mums get planted to “draw the bees close.”
(Sunflowers attract bees too, and Nautyca adores them in particular. Foster says they’ve made a space for the bees, and the farm now has an apiary.)
Foster decides which crops to plant based on which will maintain and replenish the quality of the soil, but they still have their staples — greens, okra, onions, tomatoes, peppers and purple hull peas, a southern pea that Foster remembers picking as a child on his great-grandfather’s land in Mississippi, which he describes as “40 acres and a mule probably somewhere.”
After students pick the crops, they sell them at South Memphis Farmers Market, itself the work of collaboration between the Works CDC, the University of Memphis and Community LIFT, the Operation Safe Community partner whose board includes Foster.
And from California, the new generation of organic farmers:
Agriculture trade groups have developed programs, including training and financial incentives, aimed at attracting young people. The National Young Farmers Coalition through member surveys has found that the bulk of new operators are going the organic route.
Many new farmers are motivated primarily by the desire to show that mainstream methods aren't the only way to grow food.
Large conventional farms can churn out commodity crops quickly and economically. The average American farm, tilled by heavy machinery, is now 434 acres, up from 418 in 2007, the USDA reported recently.
But changing consumer preferences for locally grown and organic food have paved the way for young farmers to carve out a niche.
Kramer and Motter, for instance, borrow equipment from farmer neighbors and look for deals on used tractors and attachments on Craigslist. Velez and his wife, Jamie Carr, live frugally and avoid going into debt. Growing their own food helps.
We "might be poor on paper, but farming allows for spending time with kids," said the father of two. "My richness is life."
Indeed, in this small community of 2,400 an hour south of Yosemite National Park, the kids, Stella and Cosmo, 8, ride their bikes up and down the lane near their home and farm. Velez is often home but usually working.
Only recently has Velez learned to pace himself. For years, he worked from sunup to sundown. In 2004, he ran a nursery and simultaneously farmed the five acres before buying the land in 2007.
Now, he said, he will take much-needed breaks. That usually involves having a few beers while watching either of his two favorite soccer teams, the Mexican national team and Manchester United.
Most articles on traffic safety focus on the number of people killed every year. In 2012, that was about 33,500 people in the US. That's down in raw numbers from a high of around 55,000 in the early 1970's and sharply down in deaths as a percentage of miles driven. Obviously seat belts and air bags are a big factor, as well as some other newer safety features. Some may say driver education also helps, but given what I see daily on the road I find that hard to believe.
But it's still a big number. Accidents are the 5th largest cause of death in the US, and car accidents are the biggest number in the "accidents" category. Left to its own category, car accidents would likely fall in around 10th or 11th in cause of death.
More telling of the safety risks of driving, though, are the number of people seriously injured every year. In 2010, over 2 million people were injured in car accidents. Suffice it to say that 2 million is a really big number.
What's most telling in all of this, though, is that we just seem to shrug it all off as if it's a fact of life. Or, more importantly, as if there's really nothing we can do about it. After all, people are going to drive, right?
I've long argued that the best anti-drunk driving policy is living in a walkable community. After all, if you don't need to drive home after having a drink or two, then you don't really need to worry about designated drivers, taxis or bumming a ride. Sommer Mathis picks up on that theme recently here:
But nowhere in MADD's official agenda is there a prong, or even a small bullet point, about encouraging alternative transportation options like mass transit or ride-hailing apps. There is no MADD fund to build more sidewalks or promote land-use patterns and zoning reforms that would allow for the expansion of walkable neighborhoods in Sunbelt metros like Phoenix.
It's not that Withers herself is against any of these ideas. Her son and his wife, she'll tell you, chose to live in their Northern Virginia neighborhood so they could have better access to Washington, D.C.'s Metrorail system. But MADD's worldview is decidedly, and not unreasonably, more cynical than that. "What we really know is that people will never stop thinking that it's OK for them to drive that way," says Withers. "Our approach has changed a bit over the years. It used to be 'get tough, have tougher laws.' But what we've learned is, that doesn't work. Fifty to 70 percent of people still drive when their license is revoked."
Instead of seeing a statistic like that as a sign that something might be fundamentally flawed in the transportation options most Americans have available to them, MADD interprets the existence of so many repeat offenders as a mass-scale character flaw—in other words, there will always be people, and lots of them, who are incapable of making a different choice.
Zooming out even more, Nicole Gelinas writes about the Vision Zero policy underway in New York City that aims to dramatically reduce deaths and injuries from vehicles:
The inspiration behind the plan, which reinforces and expands on efforts by Michael Bloomberg’s administration, comes from Sweden’s use of innovative road design and smart law enforcement, which has reduced overall traffic fatalities in Stockholm by 45 percent—and pedestrian fatalities by 31 percent—over the last 15 years. When a child runs after a bouncing ball into a residential street and a speeding car strikes and kills him, the Vision Zero philosophy maintains, the death shouldn’t be seen as an unavoidable tragedy but as the result of an error of road design or behavioral reinforcement, or both. We already think this way about mass transit and aviation. These days, a plane crash or a train derailment is never solely explained by human error (a train conductor falling asleep, say); it also is a failure of a system that allowed a mistake to culminate in disaster. Of course, engineers and regulators can’t eliminate all injuries and deaths; but by applying rigorous, data-based methods, they can cut down on them dramatically.
That's a radical change in world-view, but the kind that asks the right questions. Instead of helplessly accepting things as they are, it asks, "what can we do about it?" Or, "what if we start from a different series of questions?" As Gelinas states, of course achieving zero deaths or zero injuries is very likely impossible. But by stating that as a goal, it points decision-makers in the right direction.
I wrote last year about the how walking and biking combine for not only just a positive personal experience, but also how they reinforce each other:
I like to be as honest with others and myself about my experiences of being deliberately less car-dependent as possible. I do love to walk, and I can often walk to quite a few daily destinations. But let’s face it – some places are quite far away, some days I just don’t feel like it, and some days the weather isn’t great. On occasion, I’ll hop in my car to take care of what I need to. But at other times the bike is great for getting somewhere a lot faster than I can on foot.
The places that I most often go on a daily basis are generally within about a mile of where I live. With a bike, it’s very easy to stretch that to two, three or even five miles.
Recently, the blog "As easy as riding a bike" noted some similar experiences in European cities:
I don’t necessarily think there’s any causal connection here, but certainly there are reasons why having a high cycling modal share makes it easier to walk around cities.
Principally, it means that fewer trips are being made by car, which has several obvious advantages for those walking. It’s just easier to cross the road when there are fewer cars and more bikes. Bikes are far smaller, they travel more slowly, and the person on them has an interest in avoiding you.
Similarly, with high levels of cycling use, and low levels of motor vehicle use, the need for traffic control at junctions becomes unnecessary. That means no push buttons to cross roads, or multiple staggered crossings. Junctions are easy to walk across. The level of signalisation in Dutch towns and cities is far, far lower than in Britain, even in places with high levels of ‘traffic’.
Less directly, towns and cities with high levels of cycling are safer for pedestrians (there are simply fewer motor vehicles which have the potential to harm you), and they are also more attractive, and quieter.
We need to move beyond the notion that cycling is something antagonistic to walking – something ‘extra’ that needs to be accommodated in the streetscape alongside walking and driving – and realise that it is a crucial way of improving the experience of walking itself.
Emphasis mine on the last paragraph. The post has some great pictures as well that are well worth a view.
Pros and cons of Savannah Plan
Like Mr. Wilson and Mr. O'Shay, I admire the Oglethorpe Plan and Savannah ("Oglethorpe and Savannah," March). On occasion I, too, have thought about its potential application to modern urban design. However, the authors do not really address the concept's problems. First, it is grossly inefficient because it devotes too much land to circulation. A quick modeling of the plan shown in the article indicates that adding bounding streets results in 46 percent buildable land, eight open space, and 46 percent roads and alleys. If the roads were sized for automobiles, instead of preserving the original 37.5-foot widths, it would be even less efficient.
Only by increasing the ward size to approach a quarter-mile across can you achieve over 50 percent buildable land. Further, the authors err in asserting that the system easily adapts to environmental or topographic conditions. Finally, they neglect to discuss implementation, which would require an official street and park map that extends the plan over a large area. It would have been better had Wilson and O'Shay proposed modifications to Oglethorpe's design that would improve efficiency while still providing the open space and connectivity that contribute to Savannah's character and livability.
— Lane Kendig
Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin
First off, it's always fascinating to me that people can talk of something's "potential application to modern urban design" that is a real, living, breathing place. This is no academic exercise that needs a laboratory, nor is it a historical theme park. The downtown zip code has over 20,000 residents, a larger number of daily employees and about 30,000 visitors per day. Savannah is not Disney World. If Mr. Kendig then wants to use some data about percentages of public space and street widths, he need only also look at the whole realm of other data. For example, it would make sense to also look at property values, tax revenues & expenditures for public space and well, how about also human happiness? Wouldn't it be wise for a planner to do a thorough evaluation, instead of focusing on percentage of buildable land as the be-all, end-all?
Second, he states that the roads are not sized for automobiles. I honestly don't know what to say about this, since there are thousands and thousands of automobiles that use the streets every day. Except for a few special events, traffic is largely a non-issue. The streets also are filled with bicycles, pedestrians, a fleet of tour trolleys, horse-drawn carriages, segways, modern tour buses and more. Are those not vehicles? How on earth is it possible, dear reader, to accommodate such a variety of modes of travel if the streets are so substandard? Is he saying that only highways, with 14 foot lanes and shallow curves are designed for automobiles? Or, or, is perhaps this just the (all-too-common) mentality in planning and engineering that, "it's fine to make those narrower streets in a grid for an old city, but you just can't do that today." Hmm.
The whole letter is quite honestly, strange. For the life of me, I don't understand why an esteemed member of the planning profession would spend valuable time trying to negate one of the great successes of his own field. Savannah is a vital, thriving city, precisely because of its planning, from Oglethorpe and for many, many years afterwards. It appears he is advocating for taking something of greatness (which is rare) and making it mediocre. We have enough mediocrity in the world - we could stand to emulate greatness more often.
Two different takes today on how the world of development in 2014 clashes with existing cities and human needs:
First, Brent Toderian wades back into the troubled waters of tower design. In a long piece worth reading from beginning to end, he defends tall residential towers (as he did while he was Chief Planner for the city of Vancouver) but also pleads for better design:
For my part, I try to avoid what I consider "scale dogma." I am neither inherently for tall buildings, nor against them. There is no height that will automatically consign me or my fellow urbanists to Hell. There are, however, good and bad design choices.
Although I have nothing against tall towers per se, there are few things I dislike more than a tall tower in a dumb place, or a badly designed tall building – of which there are many. In fact, many of the cities I've worked with likely have a dislike of tall buildings stemming from one (or some) they've approved in the past that was just plain awful. I call this the “Montparnasse Effect,” named after the tower in Paris that so infuriated Parisians. I often note that “if that tower was what I thought I’d be getting, I’d be against tall towers too!”
The beauty of our block and building is that the design provides an option for both of us – both ground people and sky people. Telling either one of us that we’re wrong, that we're suffering socially as a result of our choice, would be ridiculous to either of us. We both made our choice based on what we value most, but what's really important is that we’re both living downtown in a highly urban, mixed-use, walkable, transit-friendly, infrastructure-efficient and low-carbon footprint context.
Whatever reason people choose to live in higher densities, I'm glad they're making that choice. It’s part of making higher density more attractive than the alternatives, which we know have serious societal implications and costs.
Admittedly I am much more in the Jan Gehl/Leon Krier camp on this, but Toderian makes a series of good points. Also, it's a very practical, realpolitik (as they used to say) approach.
Next up.. a controversy in Paris regarding the Samaritaine department store, and a rebuild that's proposed. Feargus O'Sullivan writes:
The French capital’s strict historic building preservation has come under fire this month, after a major revamp of a Parisian landmark was shot down by the courts. The vast Samaritaine department store, looming over the Pont Neuf since 1869, has been shut for an extreme makeover since 2005, one that planned to replace three of its sandstone outer walls with an opaque glass shell. The rebuild’s lovers saw this proposed veil as "undulating, diaphanous." For its haters, however, it was just a "giant shower curtain."
Arguments about this issue have another undercurrent: a sense that Paris’ place as a great world city may be slipping away. This month, aPricewaterhouseCoopers survey placed Paris for the first time outside the top fivein a survey of the world’s most attractive cities, pushed out by a perceived fall in its economic power and modest growth. Someone living in PWC’s top-placed city – London – might well question the value judgments that have granted it a supposed attractiveness surpassing all others, but there’s no denying that such pronouncements knock Parisian confidence. Maybe the attitude that saw the Samaritaine’s plans dismissed shows that the city hasn’t truly woken up to the 21st century after all.
The problem with this argument comes when you look at the plan’s actual drawings. This was no groundbreaking new structure. It was a banal and rather familiar project that involved skinning the old building and placing it in a sort of architectural freezer bag. It’s hard how to see it could have been either a break from conservatism or a real adornment to its surroundings. If this was a stick to beat architectural reactionaries with, it was less a bruising rod than a flimsy tickle twig. In fact, the vocal support for the building from the likes of Potzamparc are persuasive in one (unintentional) sense. If this is what a landmark modern building looks like in contemporary Parisian terms, the city has indeed been starved of examples of good new architecture for too long.
The problem in my mind is the underlying philosophy and attitude. So many architects, and certainly the starchitects that get all the press, have an aesthetic agenda that is hell-bent on innovation and experimentation, regardless of the costs. This particular battle is yet one more around the globe, where people are rightfully asking questions about contemporary designs.
Paris is in my opinion the best big metro in the world for those that actually care about the life and happiness of human beings. Those rankings are frankly silly and come and go like the tides. Parisians are wise to step back and ask, "what's to become of our city?" And I don't think it's at all wrong to ask, "why does innovative design have to be so ugly and so inhumane?"
A quick shameless announcement - my book, Why I Walk, is off to press today. It'll officially be available for your hands or your e-book reader in a couple of months. You can pre-order here or on Amazon.
Please also stay tuned to this site for some opportunities for discounts and contests. I'll also be doing some signings and events, which I'll do my best to keep up-to-date on this site. Finally, if you are interested in scheduling me to come speak/sign for the book or for any other purpose, please contact me at email@example.com
Thanks to all for your support-
Two recent studies have me digging into data on the market for cities and urban life, though both are unrelated. One is the recently-released census data, and the second is a worldwide survey on the sharing economy.
As I noted last week, the Census Bureau released some new numbers on 2013 population. As Pete Saunders noted, the numbers are complicated by the fact that some large cities have a lot of car-oriented development in their city limits, and quite a few suburbs are very walkable places. So, a clean city/suburb distinction is tricky, as is a pre-WWII/post-WWII. William H. Frey has this take on the numbers:
Still, the new numbers for 2012-13, suggest a closing of the city-suburb growth gap with the small downtick in city growth and an even tinier suburban growth uptick. This modest suburban growth rise is reinforced by a separate updated analysis of exurban counties that showed their population growth rise from a low 0.4 percent in 2011-2012 to 0.6 percent in 2012-2013. This is still well below the exurban growth rates of around 2 percent during the high suburbanization years in the middle of last decade.
So where are cities headed for the rest of the decade? This initial city growth upsurge could well be attributable to recession’s aftermath and the suburban housing market slowdown. If that were the case, then the newly reported city growth slowdown and modest exurban gains could signal that past suburban growth patterns are re-emerging.
Yet city growth levels remain strong by the standards of recent history. Moreover, the cities that are growing most rapidly are located in areas with economies and amenities that are attractive to millennials, graduates and young professionals, who make up a growing portion of potential movers. So while it is too soon to anoint this the “decade of the city,” the persistence of big city growth is hard to ignore.
Andy Kiersz strikes a contrary note:
Americans still love the suburbs, and are still moving there from big cities.
According to the Census Bureau's most recent release on inter-county migration shows that in some of the nation's largest cities, the trend is to move out to far-flung suburbs. The Census keeps track of population flows between different counties by using data from the 2007-2011 American Community Survey.
Look, if the question is, has the move back to the cities been exaggerated? Of course it has. Journalists love a story, and it's a great story. But it also has the benefit of some truth to it. Yes, many, many people still love the suburbs and will continue to do so. We're in a transitional era, and I fully expect it to be another couple of decades before the 20th century car culture truly recedes. After all, it's been in the makings for 100 years.
But Kiersz and Wendell Cox are being disingenuous in their analysis. The new numbers are in fact very positive for cities. The percentages matter more than raw numbers, and the percentages are very encouraging. It's a sea change from the 1980's and 90's. Population has stabilized or returned in nearly all cities, money has returned, and cities are much safer and cleaner. This is in large part due to understanding that cities function best as havens for people and walking, not speeding cars and parking. As those lessons continue to be reinforced, we'll see more and more positive numbers for cities. The market for urban living is certainly not 100% of the population, but it's far, far more than what is apparent in today's built world.
Nielsen Newswire released a global study of the sharing economy. Most interesting to me is how when the questions went from general to specific, how quickly the numbers changed:
It turns out that more than two-thirds (68%) of global respondents in Nielsen’s survey said they are willing to share their personal assets for financial gain. Similarly, 66 percent say they’re likely to use or rent products or services from others in a share community.
The next grouping of products include just about anything that isn’t nailed down. Power tools (23%), bicycles (22%), clothing (22%), household items (22%), sports equipment (22%) and cars (21%) were regarded as shareable by roughly one-fifth of global respondents. Less-popular sharing items include outdoor camping gear (18%), furniture (17%), homes (15%) and motorcycles (13%).
Like all surveys, the specific trade-offs and questions are what matter most. The percentages on the latter seem about right to me, as I've always viewed much of the sharing economy as a very appealing market to a niche, not a majority of the population. Hopefully Nielsen will track this over time and see if attitudes change in coming years.
Very often when we discuss economic development it's about what a city can do or what its leaders should do. That's appropriate, but it's also important to build from the bottom-up or from the grass roots. Four stories this week of bottom-up ideas or approaches, concluding with a really great TED talk.
Eric Alexander writes about the long, slow but vital work necessary to actually connect with people in order to move redevelopment ahead.
The journey has been long, but the result has been a local smart growth movement made up of civic organizations, chambers of commerce, and a healthy segment of the building industry — some of whom were former skeptics. A local businessman who was a huge critic now is the co-chair of our board and a passionate supporter.
It is worth noting that the successes we have achieved in our suburban region of Long Island were derived without one big project, federal or state grant, or plan or directive from a regional body or higher level of government. The progress has simply been a series of strategic interventions over a long period by community, government, and business leadership.
We are a movement that enjoys ideas and placemaking excellence and are proud of our progress. We shouldn't stop developing the big ideas but also listen to local people who make the decisions for the future of our communities. Take a moment and talk to ten random people in your downtown: Buy them a cup of coffee and ask them how they are doing and what should we be doing to advance placemaking in their community?
Next up, a great new tool to examine property ownership patterns and more, in map form, in your community. Why don't we own this? is still a new site, but the mapping and data is impressive. It's a serious step up from what is commonly available online in terms of local property information.
And next... a successful and interesting bottom-up model to help with food deserts from the Bay Area and SPUR:
SEFA launched the Food Guardian Project to increase access to healthy food by improving the retail environment. Building on lessons learned from previous healthy retail efforts in the Bayview, the Food Guardian Project trains residents of the neighborhood to become food justice experts who act as community liaisons with local food retailers. A key goal of the Food Guardians’ healthy retail model is to strengthen — not burden — local, independently owned businesses and help them with education, technical assistance, equipment and funding.
The healthy retail model being implemented in San Francisco includes both the business side, to help stores shift their business model, and the community engagement side, to create demand, raise awareness and strengthen community. By institutionalizing support for these healthy food retail initiatives within a city agency, San Francisco has a unique opportunity to change the landscape of many of its underserved communities.
Finally, from Ron Finley, my favorite TED talk of the year (so far). Plant some shit!
The Congress for the New Urbanism is now 22 years old. The annual gathering this year is in Buffalo, and I'm sorry to say I won't be attending. It's always my favorite conference/gathering of the year, and I'll miss the many friends and colleagues that attend. I've written this in the past about the CNU, which I would still gladly repeat:
Why do I do this? What's special about CNU, compared to other professional organizations like AIA, APA, or even ULI?
For me, it's quite simple. CNU is THE place where the best, brightest and most thoughtful professionals come together - of all stripes. CNU is not just planners or architects talking to each other. It's where people who care about a set of principles and ideals (the Charter) all get together to try and figure out the best ways to get it done. Getting it done - that's a big deal with the CNU, not just talking and hoping.
Over the years, the discussions have ranged from the idealistic to the technical, but it's almost always been focused on achieving our aims. Always stimulating, CNU has been a key area for me to explore my passion, and a way for me to connect with others around the country and the world who feel the same way.
I say - join in the conversation. We love nothing more than a good debate, an intelligent challenge, and learning from someone who's doing it.
This is also a year of change for CNU. Lynn Richards takes the helm as President & CEO, replacing John Norquist and his ten years at the helm.
I wrote a piece last year titled, "What's next for CNU?" which expressed some thoughts about where the organization was headed in preparation for CNU 21 in Salt Lake City. Here's one excerpt:
I would suggest that CNU needs to grow up, not retreat. We should embrace what we're good at, which is design and building, but consciously make an effort to lead the next generation. We need to do so on purpose, not rely on our ideas going viral. We are indeed rich in ideas and passion, but that's not mutually exclusive to having an effective central organization. If we believe that city planning needs the both/and of top-down and bottom-up, we need to practice what we preach in our own efforts. My feeling is that if we don't seize the chance now before the founders all move on to what's next, CNU will indeed be like CIAM and disappear in about 10 years.
I'm just one voice of many, but as a member for 17 years and attendee to (I think) 15 Congresses, I do think I have a fair amount of perspective on things. And so, since I can't attend this year, I must insist on throwing some raw meat out there, in hopes it can be chewed on in the conference halls and streets of Buffalo. Here are some questions I have for CNU leadership in particular as it heads into a new era:
- How will CNU prioritize its limited resources? This isn't ULI, APA or AIA, after all, and has a small staff with limited funds. What specific priorities will be put forward, and as a consequence, what will be set aside?
- Related to #1, should CNU move its HQ to an expensive but influential locale, such as Washington, DC, remain in Chicago, or move to a cheaper location where it can be a big fish?
- What is *more* important - winning hearts and minds or changing rules/standards/legislation?
- The original founders of CNU still exert enormous personal influence and presence on the organization. They deserve the spotlight, as they are all very accomplished. BUT - what is the plan to move forward? If a Congress in 2020 still is dominated by those same personalities, is it a success for them or a failure for the organization?
And, just for some, here's some food for CNU and NU thought and unfiltered opinions from yours truly:
- The New Urbanism as a practice needs editing. We can't save or fix everything, nor should we. A great flaw of the modern era was to apply the ideals to everything, including historic cities. We should be careful to do the same. To that end, I'd generally say: let suburbia be suburbia. The early suburbs, before the interstate era, are ripe for improvement. Certainly some shopping malls and office parks can be made into town centers. But the push to make everything walkable does us more harm than good as a movement. Let's just let late suburbia be the best suburbia it can be.
- Yes, I still think the focus primarily should be on more builders, more developers, more designers. Find them, train them, get them working. They'll make change at the local level, which will in turn make change beyond.
- Now that we're older and wiser, it's time to get past those youthful desires to try and convince established players to do it differently. Whether it's big-box retail, drugstores, home builders, etc - our energies would be far better spent on working with people who already want to do it. Teach them how to do it well and make money - that's where there's power for change. Build on the entrepreneurial spirit bubbling up with tactical urbanism, Strong Towns and more.
- Don't be like others and use lame data and surveys. We have a great case to make, we don't need to manufacture studies.
- From a design standpoint, it's time to move beyond some early NU practices and theories. Many of those were built around the notion that we had to accommodate cars as much as possible, which was reality. But reality is changing quickly. A few things that need to go: A/B streets, large block sizes for mid-block parking garages, deference to big-box retail and the idea that bikes need special infrastructure only rarely. A few things we should embrace: pedestrian-only streets (version 2.0), respect for formal grids and American urbanism before the 1890's.
I hope everyone has a great weekend, CNU sparks much lively debate & festivities; and for those I know well: I'll catch you next year.
Four different looks this week at the current and future issues in transportation, all from interesting and different perspectives:
Adam Geller writes about something I discuss in my Tedx talk (I promise, available soon by video) - the dying love affair with the car culture. It amazes me how few people still see this for what it is, and are either in denial or lay it all at the feet of financial concerns. Here's a quote from the piece:
After rising almost continuously since World War II, driving by U.S. households has declined nearly 10 percent since 2004, with a start before the Great Recession suggesting economics is not the only cause. "There's something more fundamental going on," says Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
The average American household now owns fewer than two cars, returning to the levels of the early 1990s.
More teens and 20-somethings are waiting to get a license. Less than 70 percent of 19-year-olds now have one, down from 87 percent two decades ago.
"I wonder if they've decided that there's another, better way to be free and to be mobile," says Cotten Seiler, author of "Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America."
Meanwhile, Shea Gunther takes down what I agree is a ridiculous idea: solar roadways. Like I said the other day: any idea that relies on a massive new infrastructure investment, forget it. We can't afford it. To wit:
The main arguments against Solar Roadways boil down to:
• The panels would cost too much both as a solar panel and as a road surface.
• They won’t produce enough energy relative to conventional solar panels.
• There is no shortage of space to mount solar panels, so no need to embed them in the road.
• They are a maintenance nightmare compared to conventional road surfaces.
In short, they are a (bad) solution in search of a problem. Even if they could do everything they purport to do, there is no need for them.
David Levinson has a thoughtful, detailed look at how today's wonder-car, the Google driverless car could operate as part of our lives. It's a much more nuanced approach than what I've seen before, though I admit to the creeping feeling that this is Segway 2.0:
While I had been assuming the first market for autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles would be the relatively controlled environment of the freeway, the relatively controlled environment of low-speed places makes sense as well. These are two different types of vehicles (high speed freeway vs. low speed neighborhood), and though they may converge, there is no guarantee they will, and perhaps today’s converged multi-purpose vehicle will instead diverge.
There has long been discussion of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, ranging from golf carts to something larger, which are in use in some communities, particularly southwestern US retirement complexes. In Sun City, Arizona, for instance, people use the golf cart not just for golfing, but for going to the clubhouse or local stores.
Golf Carts in Sun City Grande, Arizona
They can do this because local streets are set with low speed limits, and there are special paths where they are not.
Related, this tweet today from Jeff Speck:
Finally, an excellent piece from Bill Fulton about the future of cars in cities, including how it is working today in places like San Diego. It ties very well to what I wrote recently about the 5 American lifestyles. Clearly what he describes works well for three of the five. He has great insight into car sharing, the integration of modes and how it works for daily life:
Cars? I have more cars than I know what to do with. I use cars all the time, in order to go all kinds of places, and I am never without access to a car. My overall automobile cost is probably less than half of what it was when I owned a car – because I usually pay for a car only when I am traveling in it, not when it is just parked somewhere.
I’m well aware that I am on the leading edge of this whole “car-sharing” thing and that the vast majority of people don’t have the same options because of where they live and work. But the fact that I am doing just fine without owning a car in a traditionally suburban place like San Diego suggests that something important is going on, at least in modern urban neighborhoods: Our complete reliance on a “monoculture” of owner-occupied automobiles is being augmented with a much more varied ecosystem that includes not just alternatives to driving, but many different ways to use a car.