Category Archives: Urban Planning

Among the Evangelicals: Conversions in Urban Planning

At 9:38 Thursday morning, a young woman dressed in a matching set of oversized collegiate sweats skulked out the deli on the corner of Fulton and South Oxford in Fort Greene, lowered her chin against the spitting rain, and ducked into her idling car parked ten feet away. The car was a compact sedan with a familiar pale marigold New Jersey license plate flanked by gently pulsating caution flashers. She had been grocery shopping, or as much grocery shopping as you can do in a Brooklyn corner deli, and threw her two full bags into the empty passenger seat. Her hazards stopped their electric metronome and she drove west on Fulton Street, the traffic crawling towards the borough’s most congested intersection.

Fulton Street runs the east-west length of Brooklyn, from the Queens frontier where it begins as modest 91st Avenue until it hits a kink in Brooklyn Heights and becomes Joralemon Street a few blocks before it empties in Brooklyn Bridge Park. You can’t get from one to the other without switching from the B25 bus to the J/Z subway on Alabama Avenue; the whole length is about seven miles end to end.

In 2004 the New York City Department of Transportation installed bus lanes on Fulton Street between South Oxford Street and Flatbush Avenue in order to facilitate faster travel times for the bus routes that operate in the corridor. Then-commissioner Iris Weinshall (wife of Senator Charles Schumer) prioritized traffic flow during her tenure and saw the installation of “peak direction” bus lanes as the most effective route to harmonizing movement on congested routes. The logic behind the more flexible iteration of bus routes doesn’t take a doctorate in transportation planning to understand: more people are going towards the city in the morning and away in the afternoon, so dedicated transit lanes should reflect those preferences. Travel times decreased by 12% along the affected corridors, leading to extensions past Flatbush avenue in 2010 and the creation of the Fulton Mall transit center. There may be gripes among drivers but transit ridership in the on the rise, and NYC DOT has completely rehabilitated its image from corrupt bureaucracy to administrative talisman. Polls show that most New Yorkers think the DOT is uncannily attuned to their needs, from bike lanes to safety programs. Transportation planning has become improbably trendy.

If I were writing a 5,000 word essay on the genesis of the modern bus lane and how it’s propelled transportation planning into an era of incremental pragmatism, that’s exactly how it would begin. But even with an audience of dedicated transit and planning enthusiasts I’m not sure how much the topic would actually stick. Invention is only interesting in its novelty or re-purposing, and painting a white line down a busy stretch of asphalt doesn’t satisfy either test. Surveying violations is only marginally more interesting, mostly because it gives you an idea of what drivers do when they think no one of consequence is watching.

It’s pretty fucking terrifying.

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The Stadium on the Corner: Atlantic Yards, the Barclays Center, and Unsolicited Urbanism

When I moved to Prospect Heights—a community of 30,000 nestled between the well heeled bohemia of Park Slope and the rapidly reconditioning Crown Heights—last year, the neighborhood seemed to be finishing a particularly robust round of gentrification. You can still get a cup of coffee at the corner store for $1.00, or you can try out a $4.50 latte at any of the half dozen high end coffee shops that have sprung up along Washington, Vanderbilt, and Flatbush Avenues. You can still rent a two bedroom apartment for under $2,000 or you can splurge on a $3,250,000 penthouse in the new Richard Meier-designed glass-and-steel behemoth with panoramic views of Prospect Park and Manhattan (Jay Z and Beyonce are reportedly interested, as well).

Brooklyn’s slow march towards becoming Manhattan-lite could be coming to a climax, though, with the SHoP-designed, Bruce Ratner-backed Barclays Center slated for a grand opening in September 2012. (Frank Gehry was the original architect of the project but the starchitect’s design, which included a park on top of the stadium, was deemed “too expensive” by the developers.) The $1 billion complex will house the Nets (who just landed Joe Johnson! And Deron Williams! And gave Brook Lopez $60 million!), a professional basketball team moving 10 miles east from Newark, NJ as well as a couple hundred other events from Justin Bieber to Andrea Bocelli. There will be a 500 space parking lot a block away. There will be a $550,000/year “clubhouse” inspired by part-owner of the Nets, Jay Z.

 The Stadium on the Corner: Atlantic Yards, the Barclays Center, and Unsolicited Urbanism

Barclays Center Rendering. Copyright SHoP Architects

I hope everyone is sufficiently excited now because no one in Brooklyn seems to be. I can’t seem find a single person in my neighborhood who thinks the Barclays Center is a municipal blessing, much less a necessary evil on the path towards cultural relevance—in fact this crossroads of Brooklyn was pretty resoundingly significant before Target, Chuck E. Cheese, and Kris Humphries showed up. Some bar owners are salivating over the extra foot traffic through Prospect Heights, Park Slope, Boerum Hill, and Ft. Greene, of course, but are also weary of dismissing Cash Only policies, a quaint Brooklyn calling card that endlessly pisses off visitors who think they’re too good for those standalone cash points outside of shady bodegas and lets watering hole owners hold onto that ~5% that the good folks at Visa and American Express take for the privilege of plastic.  Other residents and business owners worry about the specter of commercial ghost towns surrounding the Barclays Center since concertgoers and Nets fans (?) don’t have much need for dry cleaners or daycare centers.

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Nostalgia for Nothing: NYC’s Great Gentrification Circus

I wasn’t alive when Times Square was a place you went for cheap peep shows and cocaine generously cut with Arm and Hammer. My first experience there was typically adolescent: I took my California cousins who were visiting my family in Greenwich, CT to the sidewalk directly below MTV’s Total Request Live (TRL) studio where a still youthful and dog eyed Carson Daly hosted a show where young people simply called in and asked for a video to be played, a system more or less identical to how radio DJs had been doing things since the 50′s except for, you know, being on television. Somehow that made the show seminal. So we took Metro North to Grand Central and grabbed the shuttle subway the few blocks crosstown to wait under an early fall sun and feign convulsions when the cameras panned in our direction. It all lasted about five minutes, then the energetic mirage was shattered and we realized that MTV was mostly a sham with rhythm.

The emergence of Times-Square-as-saccharine-family-jamboree is a relatively new evolution, but represents the most public shift in New York’s image over the last three decades. Tourists wandering away from the pulsing neon into Hell’s Kitchen don’t need to hold their valuables close anymore, nor do they need to worry about little Timmy’s eyes wandering longingly into the “Private Video Booth” branded porn shops—he has a laptop and wireless internet at home, anyway. Times Square was the epicenter of Giuliani’s New New York, a place that was family friendly, semi-sterilized, safe, and very expensive. (Giuliani, who would claim the credit for reducing crime rates to historical lows through a particular brand of tougher policing [popularly known in urban studies as “broken windows” or “order maintenance” policing] and shipping all the homeless to the outer boroughs, had less to do with the reshaping of the City than he thinks; see herehere, and here.) Soho became the bohemian enclave of the super rich; Brooklyn was inundated with young, white, and “broke” suburbanites; the Bronx stopped burning. And then, almost instantly, there came the nostalgia for the days of gritty New York where unflappable creatives could flop in Sullivan Street lofts for a fistful of dollars, propelled and inspired by the muck and milieu of a ragged and, in what is perhaps the most annoying urban platitude, “real” city life.

 Nostalgia for Nothing: NYCs Great Gentrification Circus

Nostalgia, of course, is based on an ironically imperfect memory of days past. In New York, where 36.8% of residents were born abroad and another sizable chunk are recent domestic emigres, that imperfection becomes especially skewed—indeed, how could people who were not here for the “old New York” pine for it? For many, the specters of gentrification and Disneyfication are theoretical in threat, a multi-pronged attack on a traditional New York that most of them have never seen outside of a Martin Scorsese flick.

A portion of the outrage comes from a generally good place in people’s hearts. Railing against gentrification is, for most people, an act of magnanimity (the other side of the coin are cultural luddites who endorse a really oddball brand of racism where people should stay where they are, an interesting stance in the same way that Ron Paul is an interesting thinker: trendily ignorant), whereby privileged people can speak for the disenfranchised minority communities in the outer boroughs who are being priced out of their neighborhoods by young and typically white newcomers. A morally valid argument. There’s no doubt that the neighborhood I moved to in October (Prospect Heights) has had at least a financial and cosmetic facelift in the last decade due in large part to a shifting demographic and an influx of relatively moneyed residents, while former community members have been forced into cheaper neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy where an inexplicable dearth of mass transit options and, by proxy, economic opportunities exist. Gentrification in my neighborhood also means that those residents are being pushed to communities with higher rates of violent crime—a quick perusal of this map from the Times illustrates the pronounced difference in murder rates between a neighborhood like Prospect Heights and communities due East where rent is much cheaper.

I won’t argue that there isn’t anything wrong with relatively deep-pocketed newcomers obliviously driving up real estate prices, and the influx of $20-a-plate restaurants in a community where 37% of the people are receiving some sort of government financial assistance seems particularly tone deaf. (I want to share that Justin, a bartender/owner of the Bearded Lady on Washington Ave. said they keep their prices low “because our neighborhood isn’t a $10 drink kind of a place.” I’m sure some will jump straight to cries of condescension but I thought that was particularly insightful.) But the idea that people should be relegated to neighborhoods that fit their particular demographic and financial profile is culturally backwards and, well, a little bit stupid. But the real problem with the collective arguments against gentrification is that they are attacking a symptom and not the cause—which I’ll be discussing in part two.

The Stubborn Middle: Why Progressive Transportation and Urban Policy Will Always be a Local Thing

The branches on either side of my genealogy snake quite a distance before they reach my brothers and me. My mother’s side comes from southern Honshu, diminutive middle-class Japanese folks with a taste for canned sardines and a disdain for low-sodium soy sauce that they’ve passed onto their American cousins. My father’s relatives are half-cowboy and half-redneck, hailing from Wyoming and Colorado with mainly a taste for Coors and two-bit whiskey. They’re hearty, almost universally killed off by old age when liver failure and lung cancer should have cut them down—something about the Rockies and open spaces might prove to be a better panacea than AA and Nicorette. I was visiting my father’s parents in Colorado Springs (COS), a city that their relatives and ancestors put on the map as a city of prospectors and cowboys, in order to talk to my grandfather about his 85 years and hoping to put together a blood history and maybe even get commissioned by the city historical society.

The interviews with my grandfather didn’t take as long as I thought they would. Stories, I’m starting to realize, may take their shape over hours and days but can be relayed in a matter of minutes. It was a depressing personal revelation: sharing our realities with another person tend to disappoint unless you’re blessed with the controlled quicksilver abilities of a natural storyteller. I spent a lot of the time looking around the different parts of COS while my grandparents were shuttling me between nostalgically significant geographies, my grandfather’s motorized picaresque.

As far as small cities go, I’d forgive you if you mistook COS for Des Moines, Iowa or Waco, Texas; it’s memorable for personal reasons and dotted with architectural Americana like the Broadmoor Hotel and the Colorado Mining Exchange. Colorado College flanks either side of Cascade Avenue and looks like most bucolic cloisters of American liberal arts—on an especially sunny spring day in May (coeds drinking Fat Tire on their above-market rate porches) the backdrop made me miss college and lazy afternoons. It’s a city that wouldn’t look odd if it was rendered in grainy black and white.

One other thing about the Springs: almost everyone drives everywhere. While Colorado is still the healthiest state in the nation by both statistical and anecdotal metrics, there is still the feeling that outside of the token bike lanes used mostly by the under-30-and-oft-bearded demographic there is not a desire in much of suburban America for anything outside of the current vernacular of urban planning. Too much traffic? Build more roads. Not enough housing? Build more housing. There isn’t a desire for anything different because necessity hasn’t dictated taking a different look in how things work in places like the Springs. People are generally happy with current planning practices because there aren’t diminishing returns for additive infrastructure—it’s vanilla planning for people who like vanilla.

That isn’t to say that my paternal homeland is somehow backwards or stunted (OK, maybe a little backwards). Necessity has driven places like New York to develop (and keep developing) stringent safety measures for pedestrians and cyclists, or Boston to link its mass transit system in a way that moves as many people as efficiently as possible (still in progress). For the middle country those driving mechanisms haven’t really presented themselves in any intractable way outside of marginally higher gas prices. (Yes, gas prices are at historical highs nominally and effectively but the financial affect on the vast majority of Americans is constantly and grossly overstates and those histrionics are probably the main reason that our interstate infrastructure is in such shoddy condition). Why would they need to change the equation if it’s working just fine for them?

And that’s why transportation changes will always be a local game. Infrastructure development is something that needs to be planned for the long run but is almost always dictated by immediate needs. In a standard small city like Colorado Springs, and indeed most metro-areas that don’t have any geographic bounds, the immediate needs are not going to include progressive infrastructure for another decade at least.  Movements like Complete Streets may have taken off in cities that were already geared towards that sort of politic, but there will be a much tougher contingent to deal with in places like the Springs.

Fixing the Suburbs from the Inside Out

If you have even an inkling of the general direction urban studies is going in (and if you’re reading this post, you probably have more than that) you probably know that the suburbs are the wellspring of all things inefficient and dirty and conceited. Loosely packed strips of suburbia spelled economic ruin for overextended budgets throughout the country, and all those two car garages meant an ever-bloating plume of greenhouse gasses floating in our planet’s atmosphere. Suburbs would be the end of this country’s greatness, we are told, and the only way to get back on track was to raze the American Dream of a detached house and a backyard and replace it with a 3rd floor walkup and a subway pass.

Easy enough, right?

But changing the living arrangements of tens of millions of Americans who have been living on stagnant wages isn’t as easy as simply changing their tastes in geography. Sure, cities are getting more and more desirable for young, creative Americans, but how many can afford to stay in the city when they start a family and need to move out of their closet-sized studio? And can you blame the couple that wants their own, personal patch of green without having to wake up the sound of garbage trucks and revelers at 4 AM?

The suburbs, more and more, resemble that escape hatch from the pressures of city life. (My temporary move from Brooklyn to Newport Beach has caused a crisis of conscience. I’m almost anxious thinking about how much easier everything is here compared to NY.) It’s the easy way out. Walking 5 blocks to the dirty, either freezing or boiling subway to wait for a train and get to the crowded and overpriced grocery store, or hop in your car, drive five minutes, and not have to carry your groceries more than 60 collective feet. Yes, there are days when I wish for the suburbs—I can hear the collective groan of my hardened urbanist friends now.

But more often than not, we here at Radials understand the severe inefficiencies and inequalities that the suburbs breed, from economic to environmental to demographic. They can’t be unbuilt though, so here’s a list of what of current problems and potential fixes that our low-density dwellers can drive in the near-future:

1. Energy and Resource Use

Vertical living relatively easy on the earth: hot water is typically communal cutting out the need for individual tanks for every 3 or 4 people, electricity distribution is concentrated as is potable water infrastructure and heating, and smaller abodes typically mean less intense energy use.  You’re also squeezing more people into less space allowing goods and services to be more efficiently parceled out—you’d be surprised how much those fleets of mail and garbage trucks affect the environment through their collective emissions when they have to go house to house instead of building to building.

 Fixing the Suburbs from the Inside Out

Most of the efficiencies that can squeezed out of the suburbs are in transportation-related improvements (much more on that later) but there is still ground to be broken on immobile energy technology. Solar water heaters have been installed on top of 30 million households in China and the technology has gotten to the point where the panels operate under less than heliophilic conditions. District heating, where temperatures for thousands of homes can be regulated by a single, centralized plant, has been embraced by countries in Europe and Asia and plants are increasingly turning away from fossil fuels in favor of alternative energy. The best part: neither technology is density dependent. You can have your yard and trimmed hedges and nosy neighbors and still heat your house and your showers without the inconvenient plume of carbon dioxide.

(Note: I am not addressing alternative electricity sources for the suburbs here on purpose. There are quite a few choices out there on the market but none of them have been terribly successful and are almost universally price out anyone outside the top quintile of income brackets unless you’re an enterprising electrician with some spare solar cells lying around. As reductive as this sounds, the market will (with some help from choice subsidies) end up dictating the next step in residential energy production after fossil fuel production becomes either exorbitantly expensive or morally unsavory. The question is more about time horizons than innovation at this point.)

 Fixing the Suburbs from the Inside Out

Suburbs Courtesy

2. Environmental Degradation Due to Development

There’s an amazing amount of resources that go into building detached houses individually, but even more disturbing is the volume of destruction that developers produce when they build clusters of tract housing. If you’ve ever traveled through the American west (Arizona and California especially; Las Vegas for true suburban dystopia) you’ll have seen the razed acres dotted with Version 1, Version 2, Version 3, etc. of a given set of prefabricated houses connected by curving asphalt and cursory greenways and bordered by a shoddy brick barrier or, in a nod to Czarist Russia, wrought iron gates.

Suburban development harms the environment for a pretty simple reason: they’re new. New buildings, even if they’re built out of recycled pizza by a hemp clad all-vegan construction crew and go LEED triple platinum, still leave a foundation-sized footprint and, as the well worn theory goes, used always trumps new when it comes to the environment. Those negative impacts are magnified when firms decide to build sub-developments in geographies that are, outside of millions of dollars in resource infrastructure, generally uninhabitable. Thousands of people were never meant to live in the Nevada of Arizona desert, so why are we building sprawling ranch houses with lush green lawns outside of Las Vegas and Tucson? Well, because we keep buying them.

Once again the secret to improving the environment is in the economy. When you buy a house in the ‘burbs, you are buying a final realization, a product of brick and mortar and sweat and engineering without having to pay for the externalities associated with the your home—the miles of pipe sucking water from an overworked aquifer, the stretch of concrete from your garage to a major onramp, etc. The non-inclusive (and often, non-monetized) costs are called externalities and there has been a decades’ long clamoring to capture these costs correctly in the form of excise taxes. The argument has generally been focused on drivers who have been paying a paltry $0.184 in gas taxes to the Federal government for two decades—even conservative economists say that it doesn’t even begin to capture the true cost of driving.

So what if we actually made developers and surburbanites pay the true cost of that immaculate green rectangle and spare bedroom? It sounds coldly practical but monetizing and penalizing for environmental degradation is among the only ways to actually influence development and consumer actions; if you want to move to the middle of the desert and expect a constant source of freshwater where there just isn’t any, then you (and the firm that built your home) should have to pay for more than just the infrastructure, you should have to pay what it actually costs the environment as a whole.

3. Transportation

If there’s one thing about living in suburban California I’ve learned it’s that driving is a necessity. The nearest grocery store is 1.5 miles away, my brother’s school is another 5, and the majority of jobs are between 10 and 50. There’s a bus system on main thoroughfares but, in what seems like a complete slap in the collective face of urban planning and/or simple logic, residences aren’t on any of the main thoroughfares. Getting around in these brands of suburbs is 100% car dependent that even a doubling or tripling of transit infrastructure would still only provide a marginal decrease in the proportion of families needing more than one car. Transportation in the suburbs is not a structural problem, it’s a geographic one.

As we’ve discussed at Radials recently, petroleum prices will ebb and flow with futures traders, Middle East chaos, and general demand. $4 per gallon gas isn’t enough to change driving habits significantly nor is it enough to spur ambitious and ubiquitous pursuit towards alternative methods of propulsion. The general consensus, though, is that oil production will peak and begin a relatively swift decline especially as the economies of India, China, and Brazil step up their demand for light sweet crude and Americans will eventually be looking down the barrel at $10 or $12 gasoline—more than enough to drive major automotive manufacturers towards something other than combustion engines.

suburb Fixing the Suburbs from the Inside Out

We’ve seen what industry titans like Nissan and Chevrolet can do with relatively modest cuts of their R&D budgets, as well as what boutique companies like Tesla and, more recently, Fisker can cut from whole cloth (though both companies have come under scrutiny for favoring form over function, though the form is pretty fantastic) in terms of all electric vehicles and several major builders have experimented with hydrogen-powered vehicles that spout water as their sole byproduct, but these are almost exclusively niche products favored by tony environmentalists and have yet to hit the market as anything more than a gimmick. (The rather large exception being the Toyota Prius which some say is purchased as more a badge of “conspicuous environmentalism” as a good friend puts it than a nod to true stewardship—and of course runs on gasoline. Also, it should be noted that upwardly mobile CAFE standards are not a solution to car emissions since most drivers tend to increase their miles traveled in tandem with their fuel economy.)

Of course, there is the argument that the volume of emissions and waste that goes into actually making a new car from scratch almost negates the effect that any low-or-zero emission car will have over its lifetime. But that theory lacks foresight. If alternative energy vehicles begin to switch market positions with their petrol-powered counterparts then eventually you create a secondary market that is essentially zero-impact and, by proxy, allow communities that are auto-based become saturated with earth friendly cars.

That endgame is down the road, admittedly, but one wonders what auto manufacturers could do if they really put their collective backs into creating more than niche vehicles—if electric cars could be more than a novelty for upperclass environmentalists. Would two car garages be as menacing to the progressive urbanist if they housed a Leaf and a Volt?

We’ve gotten ourselves into a mess when it comes to suburban sprawl but it’s not the type of problem that can be solved through tearing down and building back up. The imprint of the suburbs will last for decades in this country, and people will continue to leave apartment blocks for ranch houses and colonials for reasons of cost and aesthetics and health while simultaneously degrading the environment and straining the country’s infrastructure. Inefficiencies abound but razing the ‘burbs isn’t the answer (as much as many of you want it to be!), changing the culture is a much cleaner alternative.

Learning About Public Space in the Himalayas

My first trip to India was completely overwhelming. My future ones probably will be too, but the first time is always special. My brother and his long time girlfriend were traveling the world after spending the previous six years living in Harlem as a high school teacher and a social worker respectively and I decided that spending my college’s spring break visiting them would be a good use of my time while my friends spent the week alternating hangovers and blackouts in Cozumel and Cancun and Daytona Beach. “I’m going to India,” I would say, in a tone that was an odd mixture of sophomoric gloating and debauchery envy; my friends would respond, “Oh.”

I bought my ticket (embarking Friday after class and returning Monday morning before a 9:00 AM lecture—I apparently wanted to squeeze every last bit of culture out of the swarthy subcontinent) and landed in New Delhi about a day after I left Boston. The international terminal at the Indira Gandhi Airport was pleasantly modern and almost aggressively sterile compared to the separate domestic terminal which is probably best compared to, in function and cleanliness, La Guardia Airport circa 1968 (more on that later). I spotted my brother and his girlfriend as easily as you would probably expect, hugged both of them, and, after disengaging with my brother, elbowed some poor guy right in the jaw. India is pretty crowded.

And not the kind of crowded I was familiar with. A New Yorker will pack into a morning train but convince themselves they’re not really touching anyone; Tokyo residents are more like beautifully choreographed schools of fish than crowds; Hong Kong is reminiscent of ants scurrying back and forth from glass and steel hills. But India was movement en masse, personal space something completely unfamiliar in public space. From an urbanism perspective India was a place of uncomfortable success.

For example, the breakup of the country into nearly autonomous provinces means that, unlike its demographic rival to the East, central planning is not the rule when it comes to metropolitan design. The highway and arterial road systems in major Indian cities look more like a concrete ribbon cutting through a crowded crush. The residential construction in Mumbai and Delhi is, as urbanists like Edward Glaeser point out, a market-driven organism so much so that when you compare the amoebic Delhi to, say, the perfectly symmetric Shenzen or Guangdong (India does have a Le Corbusier designed grid city by the name of Chandigarh; it is not as cool as you think) you get the sense that the Chinese axiom of “harmony” has not really made the cut as a continental export.

Then we went to Shimla. And Shimla is not Delhi. The city sits in the northwestern range of the Himalayas and serves as the seat of government in Himachal Pradesh. It was also the preferred summer residence of English viceroys from the 19th century until Indian independence who had the right idea when it came to subcontinental heat. 8,000 feet above temperatures that can only properly be described as oppressive, Shimla is as close as one gets to serenely alpine in the subcontinent.

 Learning About Public Space in the Himalayas

It’s also pretty odd. And probably the quirkiest thing about Shimla is the elevator ride you take to actually get to the City Center. This takes some explanation. On approach Shimla looked like any City on the Side of a Hill; overpriced tourist hotels (either colonial or colonial-revival, there was no way to tell) that taxi drivers invariably tried to drop you at so they could collect tout commissions, the best looking trucks I’ve ever seen (buxom mud flaps wouldn’t cut it here), and coach buses taking up every inch of their respective lanes sometimes within a couple feet of a Himalayan precipice. My brother convinced the driver that we’d much rather stay in the city center and, while disappointed, he dropped us in a parking lot   and directed us towards a narrow corridor flanked by arrows and disclaimers in Hindi and predictably perfect formal English that said something along the lines of:


Lift to City Centre This Way


Alright, so slightly confusing, but if there’s one thing in India to trust wholeheartedly its the universal fusillade of administrative signage. We paid the fee (something in the range of 5 rupees, hoping [ok, praying] that the whole fare went to elevator maintenance) and, after discussing the obvious Mad Max meets the Jetsons parallel, opened the door at the bottom of a beautifully maintained brick street lined with shopfronts and statuary and cutely misplaced Swiss architectural flourishes. And no cars.

It’s hard to understate what a succor pedestrian plazas are in a country like India. When Mayor Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Sadik Kahn started the summer streets program two years ago people sort of apprehensively embraced the concept because you are aware that at 6 PM your precious stretch of 2nd Avenue and Lafayette turn back into congested and noisy pumpkins. The newly minted pedestrian zones in Times and Herald Square on the other hand, are wildly popular year round and people feel a sense of solace on their small concrete islands. But the crush of New York is almost placid compared to Indian metropolises so freeing yourself of the peal of engines and horns brings about a certain giddiness. Shimla was pure deliverance.

 Learning About Public Space in the Himalayas

Unlike New York, though, Shimla is a city literally centered on a pedestrian-only zone, a reversal of nearly every urban planning technique we’ev seen in this country. Originally banning carriages (well, everyone but the viceroys) and eventually cars from the city center created a trajectory that we don’t see in any major city in the U.S. because you end up sacrificing productivity and property values for civil tranquility. That arithmetic has begun to change in the past two decades with the advent of high speed internet connections and effective telepresence. Executives in centrally located businesses will still promote the existential merits of a face-to-face meeting, but the fact remains that location is starting to lose its luster in the service economy from I.T. to hedge funds.

The shift may be the perfect time to reconsider our general planning vernacular, at least in densely populated areas like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and the like. This isn’t to say that cars don’t have a place in the city—commercial operations wouldn’t be able to function without deliveries and you can’t have a subway stop every block—but the rationale for putting the modest pedestrian plaza movement on the fast track seems relatively straightforward. We need big ideas for this country’s cities, even if they’re tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Artist Ex Machina

15YELLIN SPAN articleLarge v2 Jed Lipinski Artist Ex Machina

Copyright Jed Lipinski for the New York Times

For a long time, artists sort of found themselves. If you painted or collaged or mixed-media’d then you found a grungy apartment with ample, raw space that you could bend to your creative will; and, because the rent was invariably cheap, you could sustain a lifestyle selling the occasional magnum opus for rent money. With the real estate frenzy in the late 90′s, desirable (see: cheap and big) artists spaces saw rents rise geometrically and all but the Gagosian-repped (and rent controlled) survived the times. But artist communities sort organically, and eventually barrios like Red Hook, Williamsburg, and the Lower East Side saw a new generation of creatives paying whatever they could for whatever they could find.

Dustin Yellin might be trying to change all that. Highlighted in today’s New York Times, Yellin is a young sculptural artist with deep enough pockets to make a down payment on a 24,000-square-foot warehouse in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn that he wants to turn into, as told to the Times, “a kind of utopian art center.” This isn’t your hipster friend’s art collective. Mr. Yellin’s vision is more event space than artistic cooperative, and he dreams of housing not only promising aesthetes in a fellowship program but conducting symposiums and, of course, a sculpture garden.

Yellin BK RH 2  Artist Ex Machina

Copyright JamFan2 via Flickr

Dustin Yellin’s desire to shape a corner of Red Hook into a an artistic frontier represents an interesting aberration in urban planning based on the sorcery of capitalism rather than administration (this type of shift—transformation-via-acquisition— isn’t all that different from the way Eli Broad transformed the Los Angeles museum scene or Tony Goldman reinvigorated SoHo, except that while they work in the 10-figure world, Mr. Yellin works in the seven. Three digits and a world apart.) Yellin considers the landscape in a place like Red Hook—bucolic, sparse, apparently raw—more of a canvas than simple quarters and, for those of us who like to see the ample intersection of art and urbanism more often, it’s a welcome piece.

Yellin BK RH 1 Artist Ex Machina


Shopping with a Sunroof: Outdoor Malls and the American Downtown

It isn’t supposed to be this cold and dreary in California, not even in December when apparently it rains because the region has what college geography professors call a Mediterranean climate, which means warm/dry summers and wet/cool winters though it appears to me now that the fluidity of that generalization wasn’t discussed enough. I’m cold. And the abandoned sidewalks tell me that most Californian’s just stay inside when it’s this cold. They’d rather ignore exactly what’s happening outside and not have to explain that, yes, sometimes it’s less than an ideal climate in paradise.

Which is why I’m confused as to why I’m in (at?) one of the regions many outdoor malls. I’m not sure if these centers are a common sight but they don’t take a whole lot of explanation: take the ceilings and fluorescent lighting and overwhelming feeling of labyrinthine entrapment (though not the next level of that same sensation which is instinctual, amygdalic fear) out of a typical mall and the picture sharpens itself a little. Actually, that explanation probably wasn’t even needed. It’s a mall, but it’s outside.

kpidq0 06block91 Shopping with a Sunroof: Outdoor Malls and the American Downtown

I’m sure climate-based limitations quarantines these structures to either the tundra hardened middle of America where people proudly talk about their left-of-zero lows (I’ve been to one in Denver though I think it was actually Denver’s downtown, I have no way of being sure, but we’ll talk about that below) or the heliophilic enclaves of Arizona, California, Florida, etc. If you haven’t been to one, it’s not really a prerequisite for understanding this essay; you can go to a mall with one of those personal fans and sunglasses and pretty much get the same experience. And it’s not even the point of this essay, really.

I’m at The Block at Orange; I’m not going into the layered semantics behind the label, there are marketing teams paid millions of dollars in contracts to come up with those sorts of things and strategic sloganeering is not just about messaging but polygonal aesthetics; The Block at Orange has a beautiful syntactical symmetry to it. TBaO is actually an archetypal midsize outdoor mall, e.g. the buildings are all multi-story in scale but not in practice, the price points for most of the stores are steadily in the middle income bracket and even the cannily placed upscale brands are of the “outlet store” variety. The architecture could be classified as something like Suburban Dynamic without much irony, as in there’s a lot of glass and thinly welded steel and aluminum and some aesthetic flourishes involving indoor/outdoor restaurant.

The architecture is less important than the overall design, though, since malls (even outdoor ones) are typically designed with a lot of TBDs in their schematics. Usually (and for uninteresting reasons) they (the malls) are moored by some set of department store or large shopping experience, and if the mall is tiered by income brackets (as most large malls are) there will be a high end buoy on one side of the mall flanked by shops with similar price points and a working class incarnation on the other side, etc. These are typically called Anchor Stores (hence the nautical language) and they also typically don’t pay rent. Every mall follows this formula.

google maps malls la block at orange1 Shopping with a Sunroof: Outdoor Malls and the American Downtown

So, physically at least, outdoor and indoor malls don’t really adhere to different formulas which is why there isn’t aren’t separate developer markets for indoor/outdoor opportunities, i.e. if you planned the Springfield Mall you can probably design the Springfield Promenade. Which is why it’s so strange to stand in the middle of an IM and compare it to standing “inside” an OM. They’re both there to get you to spend money, we can confidently call that the foundation for either construction, but what about after that? Do they really serve the same psychological purpose?

I’ve been to a few OMs, and a couple of them are built (the word “built” is a little squishy here because they weren’t built so much as installed, even though it’s clear that the construction was done under a clear, unified vision of a final product) in downtown areas (Santa Monica and Denver come to mind immediately). It didn’t strike me as strange until I looked around at TBaO and understood that most OMs are meant to be ersatz downtowns for cities that were either never centralized to begin with or were decentralized through crawling expansion, i.e. they are downtowns for people who have never seen downtowns before.

OMs aren’t bulwark against the creeping It seems like the popularity of these OMs in Southern California actually allows for sprawl to continue ad nauseam since the original, organic intent of business districts was ease of access and encouragement of proximity and you can see that same ethos in a lot of, crestfallen yes, but ultimately pragmatic American Main Streets. OMs are loose hubs, inclusive but in that sort of claustrophobic way which, honestly, probably doesn’t bother a lot of people. But then, OMs aren’t really problems themselves, are they? They are so complementary as to be necessary for the current American geographical schematics. The places we live aren’t conducive to glued downtowns so we have to build them deus ex under the express guidelines that the solution to growth is more growth, that linearity is the American Way. We don’t need to incubate culture; we simply grow it out of the ground.

The volume of text on the disintegration of the American downtown should give you an idea of how much professional academic and journalist thought goes into this subject so I’ll spare you any of my distinctly un-academic/journalistic thoughts. From a strictly urban point of view these OMs are troubling because they pack metropolitan problems into smaller boxes than are practical, i.e. instead of looking at recovering economies, public spaces, environmental issues, etc. as intermeshed issues that play off each other, OMs treat them as monolithic issues that can be solved with a sledgehammer.

People vote with their feet and wallets, though, and on any given weekend night OMs are still packed with shoppers and movie goers and awkwardly amorous teenagers wading through the waters of marginal independence. These are not unpopular places, and they’re not setup to imitate American downtowns functionally and not aesthetically so the amount of planning vis-à-vis nostalgia is kept to a bare minimum. These are main streets for a second-generation brand of suburbia that has dominated the planning vernacular for the past 30 years. But with energy prices reaching historical zeniths and the clustering of what Richard Florida calls the “creative class” in cities, the defining language of commercial construction will eventually change and, hopefully, artifacts like The Block at Orange will become silly detours.

The Fringe Suburb Isn’t Dead, It’s Just Not Breathing

 The Fringe Suburb Isnt Dead, Its Just Not Breathing

Copyright Allison V. Smith for The New York Times

It seems like progressive urbanism is starting to sell papers. Two pieces on suburban sprawl, that ever creeping bogey man facing every urban planner under 50, have graced the front pages of the New York Times website over the past three days. I won’t talk about Louise Mozingo’s essay, an excellent piece on the reconceptualization of suburban office parks which are so completely sterile and anesthetized that the only thing they remind me of is an outdoor mental hospital. I’m here because of Christopher Leinberger.

Prof. Leinberger (the author is a professor of planning at University of Michigan) used his space in the Times to discuss a pretty popular subtopic of sprawl: the death of the suburb, perhaps best addressed by Alison Arieff’s writing in the same paper a few weeks ago (reaction here). Leinberger takes a look at suburban decline from the perspective of real estate valuation, his thesis based on square footage prices gleaned from the Zillow real estate databases and how those prices map to the geography of a typical metropolitan area. The facts are inarguable: real estate valuations in non-urban areas were chopped while the archetypal city dwelling remained a stable holding. The conclusion then being that the precipitous price drop for exurban homes was based upon the revealed preferences of moneyed classes who apparently saw the 2011 versions of urban Washington, Columbus, and Seattle as ideal places to scoop up undervalued homes. Prof. Leinberger puts the onus of the argument on the back of the demographic shifts of the 1950′s-90′s:

The shift is durable and lasting because of a major demographic event: the convergence of the two largest generations in American history, the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and the millennials (born between 1979 and 1996), which today represent half of the total population.

Boomers want to live in a walkable urban downtown, a suburban town center or a small town, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors.

What Prof. Leinberger seems to say is that the prevailing magnetism of urbane, walkable, dynamic neighborhoods marks the end of the American obsession with the white picket fence and the 1,000 square foot master bedroom. And he’s right. Most affluent people who want an interesting life are choosing to move closer and closer to the city center where only two or three decades ago they would have chosen a detached in Scarsdale or Irvine (both of which are still thriving and retained a huge chunk of their peak housing value). Exciting rich people want the West Village, not Westport.

The thesis seems half-baked, and the fact that Prof. Leinberger bases his essay solely off a growing general population without any passing reference to the shifting ethnic makeup of city centers concurrent with those booms is a little head scratching, at best. Yes, burgeoning family sizes forced many to adopt the suburban future that was so expertly marketed to returning soldiers and expectant mothers, but the resulting white flight created an urban core that was dominated by recently relocated Black Americans from the Jim Crow south and non-White immigrants who did not (do not?) command salaries on par with their White counterparts and couldn’t afford to pay the same rent and didn’t received similar levels of municipal maintenance. The cities became ugly places to live, the suburbs maintained a mystique of unique euphoria.

The current phenomenon is just an economic boomerang. When there was an overwhelming desire for spacious housing stock in neighborhoods miles from the city, prices bloated and the rolling mansions far outside of metropolises commanded seven-and-eight figure sums; now the apartments in formerly dilapidated warehouses do. The value oscillation priced out former residents, many of whom moved to the least desirable parts of the city geography, either still poor and underdeveloped barrios or to the edge of town. The shifts became a circular displacement, and the subprime mortgage crisis are drowning those caught in an especially bad tide.

(Aside: I’m not a big gentrification sabre rattler; everyone has a right to move into whatever neighborhood they want regardless of the history or prevailing cultural values or ethnic demographic. The fact that upper middle class white people may move into a predominantly Haitian or Vietnamese or Polish community and through a series of economic levers increase local price indexes and median real estate rental costs is not a problem with the interlopers but rather a system that hasn’t allowed the relatively indigenous folks there the opportunity to improve their neighborhood from the core to the crust. Consequentially that freedom of movement is based solely on financial flexibility, which is where the problems with Prof. Leinberger’s analysis begin.)

Exurbs became the modern incarnation of 1980′s era TriBeCa or 1990′s Brooklyn; underinvested, ignored, poor. But destitute places are not hewn from the landscape, they’re created by a set of circumstances, some of which are controllable and some that are wildly variable and it is the meshing and clashing and volatility of those bounds that create modern landscapes. The exurb is no different; a terrain shaped by circumstance and preference. I can imagine that 30 years ago, men and women read about the death of the city and the triumph of the sprawling development and there was no evidence to the contrary; prices and jobs were good and the city looked to be wailing a death rattle. This time it’s not so much that the fringe suburbs are dead, they’re just not breathing.

Smart Growth Federal Funds Coming to the Boston Suburbs; Do It Yourself Bike Lanes in Mexico

A couple of stories have been floating around the interweb that address at progressive urbanism from either end of the spectrum. First, the suburbs around Boston are receiving an influx of funding from the Federal government that are expressly dedicated to “smart growth.” While the terminology might be nebulous the projects are surprisingly well-targeted. Here’s a couple of examples from the Boston Globe (via Planetizen):

In Everett, $52,796 in federal funding will be used to develop specific goals for housing, transportation, economic development, and public services. Throughout the process, planners will employ innovative techniques to engage residents of diverse backgrounds.

The $60,000 federal grant in Lynn will be used to develop the best ways to reach local immigrant entrepreneurs and help them increase their businesses so that the most successful initiatives can be replicated in other urban gateway communities.”

Just as a quick geography lesson for non-New Englanders: Everett is a predominantly white (~80%) working class (median income: $49, 830) north Boston suburb; Lynn is more mixed ethnically with a slightly lower comparative economic profile (median income: $41,993) up on the North Shore. The semantics of the Globe article are important as the money—minor on the Federal ledger but a decent influx to middle class communities—goes towards studies that are predicated on utilizing “innovative techniques [and] initiatives” and not the projects themselves necessarily. It might seem like a silly use of money, i.e. using small amounts of grant funding to initiate studies, but (and this is coming from some one who used to consult for a living so there’s a little bias alert here) analyzing the project before getting too far down the road can save millions in project delays and potential fines.

Overall, the study funding will be interesting to follow as shovel-ready projects emerge in several communities around Boston. Boston itself is beginning to progress on the urbanism front with a bicycle share program unveiled this summer and the expansion of food truck permitting following soon after (yes, food trucks are important to liberal metropolitanism). Here’s hoping that the entire urban area moves forward in the same vein.

On a completely different plane we see the construction of a do-it-yourself bike lane in Mexico (via Radials’ good friends over at This Big City, I encourage everyone to check out the excellent pictures on Mr. Peach’s blog, they are especially inspiring for velo-activists; StreetsBlogNet picked it up as well):

Mexico City’s government pledged in 2007 that it would build 300 km of bike lanes around the city by 2012. However, the city still only has 22.2 km because most money is allocated to car infrastructure, leaving aside non-motorized mobility. That’s why the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and the National Network for Urban Cycling (BiciRed) launched a campaign called ’5% for bicycles and pedestrians’, which asks national legislators to assign at least that percentage of the transportation budget to non-motorized infrastructure.

To promote that campaign and pressure legislators into action, several cycling and pedestrian organizations decided to paint their own bike lane in front of Congress on October 20th. This was our way of showing how little money and time is required to create quality infrastructure. We wanted to show that governments just need the will to promote non-motorized transport. However, that bike lane was efficiently erased just two days after it was painted, and no city official claimed responsibility.

We were all understandably angry, so we decided to do it all over again but better. We set a goal of painting a 5km bike lane that would end at Congress, the Wikicarril (wikilane). We funded our effort through Fondeadora, a crowd-sourcing site, and we managed to collect 13,500 pesos (about US$1,000) in just 4 days thanks to the collaboration of 37 generous supporters.”

The project title may not be the catchiest thing in the world (believe me, it’s not much smoother in Spanish) but the concept is pragmatic, achievable, and popular, a public policy trifecta. These are also exactly the brands of community development projects that Mexico’s neighbors to the North could stand to emulate: cheap, grassroots, and inherently beneficent. While the initial bike lane was erased by public officials the stalwart efforts of a few dozen activists, paired with even keeled interaction with police officers and city officials, put DIY-community development front and center for bicycle activists in D.F.