Tree amenity

June 21, 2010 at 11:24 pm | In cities, green, land_use | 10 Comments

I spent the past week in Boston and noticed that most streets – whether in Boston, Brookline, or Cambridge (the three municipalities I spent time in) – were either relatively tree-less or had undersized trees.

While there are many streets that have some trees, and while there are some neighborhoods that approach leafy-ness, I’ll go out on a limb <…pun> and say that for the most part, the trees are puny or even absent.

Take one of my old haunts, Coolidge Corner, for example, which is mostly built-up with lots of low-rise apartment blocks and is filled with pedestrians going about their business. Its main streets are wide (too wide) and poorly furnished with trees. The few tiny street trees are no match in scale for the road widths, nor does their minuscule canopy provide shade. Lack of tree cover is especially noticeable on very hot days that leave pedestrians fully exposed to the sun. There are lots of cars (and also the Green Line, C train) on those wide roads, however, and it’s clear that in the overall scheme of things vehicular traffic has priority over pedestrian traffic.

One way you can really tell that cars have priority is by the absence of public amenities for pedestrians – and let’s remember that everyone who gets off the T becomes a pedestrian. This means that if a city is interested in getting people out of cars and into public transit, it’s really important to think about the pedestrian experience. Transit doesn’t end until you reach your destination – which invariably involves some walking.

Large boulevard trees are a public amenity that most benefits life at three to four miles per hour – that is, easy to moderate walking speed.

It’s easy to understand destination amenities that are either essentially private (neighborhoods well-provisioned with coffee shops, restaurants, banks, grocery stores, etc.) or public-but-nodal (a destination like a library or community center, for example – edit: see also a PS in my response in comments, below ). But streets rich in boulevard trees comprising a continuous – and contiguous – exposure to nature provide a public amenity that makes density enjoyable in passing – that is, not just as “destination.” This strikes me as an important amenity in low-rise areas that nonetheless have significant density.

In downtown CBDs characterized by “canyons” (high-rise buildings), a pocket park can provide a sufficient amenity. But in low-rise neighborhoods (like the ones I’m pointing to here), lollipop-sized trees planted along roads that obviously favor cars come across as a half-hearted attempt.

I wonder whether the lack of tree cover provided by large boulevard trees in Boston (and nearby municipalities) is planned. Trees cost money to plant, maintain, and replace; they require clean-up (leaf and branch pick up); the leaves clog storm drains, the limbs grow to interfere with overhead power lines, the roots get into storm and sewer lines and other underground utilities; and they raise liability issues when storms bring down branches. But their benefits are huge – if those benefits are ignored, it’s because they just haven’t been quantified. And that’s too bad.

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

June 20, 2010 at 2:30 am | In links | 1 Comment
  • Frightening post that quotes extensively from a forum where oil engineers and geologists post their analyses of the Gulf oil disaster. One forumer, dougr, posts an especially grim picture. Excerpt:
    I am convinced the erosion and compromising of the entire system is accelerating and attacking more key structural areas of the well, the blow out preventer and surrounding strata holding it all up and together. This is evidenced by the tilt of the blow out preventer and the erosion which has exposed the well head connection. What eventually will happen is that the blow out preventer will literally tip over if they do not run supports to it as the currents push on it. I suspect they will run those supports as cables tied to anchors very soon, if they don’t, they are inviting disaster that much sooner.

    Eventually even that will be futile as the well casings cannot support the weight of the massive system above with out the cement bond to the earth and that bond is being eroded away. When enough is eroded away the casings will buckle and the BOP will collapse the well. If and when you begin to see oil and gas coming up around the well area from under the BOP? or the area around the well head connection and casing sinking more and more rapidly? …it won’t be too long after that the entire system fails. BP must be aware of this, they are mapping the sea floor sonically and that is not a mere exercise. Our Gov’t must be well aware too, they just are not telling us.

    All of these things lead to only one place, a fully wide open well bore directly to the oil deposit…after that, it goes into the realm of “the worst things you can think of” The well may come completely apart as the inner liners fail. There is still a very long drill string in the well, that could literally come flying out…as I said…all the worst things you can think of are a possibility, but the very least damaging outcome as bad as it is, is that we are stuck with a wide open gusher blowing out 150,000 barrels a day of raw oil or more. There isn’

    tags: oilspill, disaster, mother_jones, the_oildrum

  • A real “wow!” post by Scouting New York on getting a tour of Manhattan’s 5 Beekman Street, boarded up for decades. Click through for stunning photos.
    Update: the article is not available at this time” very disappointing… Scouting NY wrote: “At the request of building representatives, the pictures of 5 Beekman Street have been removed from Scouting NY.”
    In 1940, the atrium was boarded up due to firecode violations. Completely hidden, later tenants would never know of its existence, seeing only a walled corridor (though according to a recent NY Times article, a secret door offered those who stumbled upon it an amazing discovery).

    tags: 5_beekman_street, manhattan, nyc, architecture, heritage, restoration, adaptive_reuse

  • Interview with Justin Crane, co-founder/ co-chair of New England’s biggest design festival / urban architecture mash-up:

    How did Common Boston emerge?

    It originated humbly about five years ago, with a bunch of recent architecture grads just sitting around in a cafe. We were thinking about Boston…about how it has the highest percentage of architects of any city, and a general public that’s very active in their community — yet the two don’t always see eye-to-eye. Boston is in many ways a birthplace of community activism, and we wanted to get the neighborhoods excited about such a big part of the city — architecture.

    tags: justin_crane, architecture, boston, design, urbanism, common_boston

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Street music

June 19, 2010 at 5:20 pm | In street_life | Comments Off on Street music

Last day in Boston, spent most around Harvard Square in Cambridge. Came across some interesting street buskers – varied, different, fresh. (For each group, click on the image to go to Youtube clip I shot.)

First up, two young guys (age 17), the drummer (unfortunately obscured in my little film clip) banging rather well on upturned cans and plastic pails, with the vocalist and guitarist carrying the song. In my clip, they’re covering Jimmy Eat World‘s Big Casino.

The next clip is a quartet: classical and folk, great sound – unfortunately partially drowned out by fire engines (but they played on, nonplussed):

Finally, a great quintet playing Sonny Rollins‘ famous standard, St. Thomas. The saxophonist totally rocked it:

Exceptional, or just top-heavy?

June 18, 2010 at 8:17 pm | In green | Comments Off on Exceptional, or just top-heavy?

This afternoon I went to see Headgear: The Natural History of Horns and Antlers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Interesting exhibition – I was enjoying myself until I wandered into one of the other sections, a special exhibit called Climate Change: Our Global Experiment. I learned a couple of things – for example, there’s a great computer animation that explains Milankovich Cycles (“repetitive changes in the Earth’s orbit over thousands of years that effect global climate”).

But once I sat down in front of a film where viewers were asked to vote on policy decisions, the ideology lost me. For example, viewers were presented with the radical [sic] idea that, while it might cost us more in the short-term, supporting moves toward increased public transportation might be needed. Ok, I’m exaggerating the tone a bit, but the narrator popped public transportation into the conversation as though it were a radical new idea.

Oh my god, what’s next? Bicycles? Unsorting how we’ve sorted?

It got worse, though, at which point I left. The narrator began to speak about China’s contribution to climate change: CO2 output, dirty energy, etc. The solution? More of what sounded an awful lot like American exceptionalism. With total obliviousness of what China is doing on its own to clean up its environment (including in the building sector), the narrator suggested that “we” (America) have to engage in technology transfers and other similar strategies to “help” the Chinese move toward clean energy. Furthermore, “we” (Americans) need to make personal financial sacrifices to enable the Chinese to move toward the (American?) light. Hey, America: how about you figure out how to get over your own huge car dependence and suburban lifestyle first.

And why do we need to remain exceptional like this? So we can keep the globalized economy going. But maybe that’s part of the problem, not just a solution.

The toilets in the Science Center basement cheered me up, though – they’re not focused on American Exceptionalism, they just get the job done (saving water when flushing):

Water-saving dual function handle: pull up for low flush, push down for full flush (green coating on handle is bacteria repelling)

In Boston, where jail is “Liberty”

June 17, 2010 at 7:48 pm | In architecture, heritage, johnson street bridge | 2 Comments

Tonight I saw a most impressive example of adaptive re-use in built form: the former Charles Street Jail, next to MGH (Massachusetts General Hospital) on the banks of the River Charles, turned into a stunning luxury hotel (the Liberty) that looks for all the world like a Jeunesse dorée hotspot.

Here’s a link to the hotel’s website that details the jail’s history and rehabilitation.

Here are a couple of photos:

former panopticon interior, now a lobby


exterior, sunlight-painted


exterior with new hotel wing in background


former cell turned luxe restroom


guest bikes for a quick getaway



What really gets me about a project like this: we can see what imagination and money can do in tandem to preserve heritage, engage adaptive re-use, and promote economic development. When you see what is possible in heritage restoration and then realize that none of those aspects are in evidence in the City of Victoria’s treatment of its historic Johnson Street Bridge, you realize just how unimaginative and benighted some political leadership really is.

Not a wrap

June 16, 2010 at 7:19 pm | In architecture, urbanism | Comments Off on Not a wrap

This is not a Christo-wrapped art work, it’s a botched development project:


^ A photo I took today: the back of Vornado’s stalled project in Boston’s Downtown Crossing (wrote about it earlier, here).

Stunningly ugly, isn’t it? Not like a wrapped Reichstag at all. Just goes to show that there’s art, and then there’s cock-up. The above is pure cock-up.

The original Filene’s building was gorgeous – the facade (still standing) remains so:


While the upper story facade looks ok, the street level is total crap: boarded up, with just a stairway access to the MBTA below ground. In all other senses, it’s a dead-zone. If it weren’t for the sheer number of people on the pedestrian-only streets or the very active retail outlets across the streets, the block would be nuked.

No wonder we’re hosed…

June 15, 2010 at 7:26 pm | In just_so | 7 Comments

I’ve said it before – I don’t have “TV” at home, so I don’t “get” TV (and what I mean by that is this: I watch things of special interest on the internet; I get my news via the internet; and I scan several different local news sources to stay up-to-date on local issues: that’s it) – but on yesterday’s flight from Seattle to Boston I watched various network TV channels on the plane.


No wonder people are r-e-t-a-r-d-e-d! [Edit: via Twitter, I’m alerted to an expression of sensitivity to my use of the word retarded. I’ll use a strike-out on the word, but I stand by its meaning all the same, from the verb retard: to slow the growth or development of; to decelerate: lose velocity; to be delayed – hence, retarded. Language has simple associations, but we need to use the richness of words even if they also signify matters we’ve become squeamish about. I really do mean “no wonder people are slowed in their growth or development, or decelerated and of inferior velocity (mental quickness) in their analytical powers, and delayed in their reasoning.” TV is like sludge.)]

Look, if you go to the gym five times a week (as I do), you condition your body: you do some aerobic, you do some yoga, you tighten your core, you yak it up with the regulars …you know? You get fit.

But if you sit in front the fucking boob tube five days or more per week and let this garbage – and I don’t care if it’s “right” or “left” garbage – pour all over your soul, what the hell are you doing to your brain? What are you conditioning yourself to?

You think it’s easy to stay in shape? Nuh-uh, it’s work, hard work. Well, guess what? Keeping your brain box in gear isn’t a game of tiddly-winks, either. Get used to it. Suck it up. Get off the couch and turn off the TV!

What are you conditioning yourself to if you watch TV regularly? It’s a serious question: how can you function? It’s like living on a diet of fast food and soft drinks (and don’t give me any “I drink the ‘diet’ version” shit): it’s just not sustainable. You are going to die a miserable brain death – zero insights.

Go grate a carrot, for pete’s sake. And what that means in terms of news? Roughage. Stop swallowing the pre-thought. Give your brain a diet. And for god’s sake, turn off the TV. If you like Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow, great – in my book, that means you’re not quite as lost as the next guy who’s glued to Fox. But you know what? If you’re watching that crap every day? Well, then there’s something wrong with you, same as if you’re drinking Diet Coke every day and eating the matching “solid” junk every day.

Junk is junk.

/end of rant.

Gratuitous photo: Boston has what appears to be a new Rapid Bus Transit line (the Silver line) – here’s a photo of the bus in South Station. You can’t see the catenary line (typical of power supplied via overhead lines) in my shot, but it’s there.



It’s quite amazing to ride a bus on rubber wheels that’s zooming through a tunnel you’d expect to see tracks on, and to realize that it’s just an underground road. And yet the bus has the speed and capacity of the subway lines that it connects to.

Taxi status

June 14, 2010 at 11:00 am | In just_so | Comments Off on Taxi status

An observation, yesterday: Every single taxi at the downtown Victoria BC ferry terminal to Seattle was a Prius. Practically new.

But when you get to the US – say, Seattle – the state of your cab is a crap-shoot. It may be a beat-up old car, it may be newer, it may be (as mine was yesterday) a converted mini-van that has seen better, much better, days.

Not sure whether the comparison means anything, but it must have something to do with regulatory practices.

Maybe a key difference is that in one place you can actually hail a beat-up old cab any time of day or night, while in the other you better plan well in advance when you want that beautiful new Prius to arrive.

What works better? It’s an interesting question.

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

June 13, 2010 at 2:31 am | In links | Comments Off on The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)
  • Density / livability doesn’t have a singular form. Think choices instead:
    Livability is about choices, and if you want to pay four to five dollars a gallon to drive ten miles, you should have that right. But you should also have the right to avoid paying four dollars for a gallon of gas when you go buy half a gallon of milk. More to the point, if your monthly fuel costs cause you to not be able to pay your mortgage, as so many hard working Americans discovered in 2008, it becomes a problem to have no other options.


    The anti-livability gurus decry the administration’s approach as top-down. But has any community — rural, suburban or urban — ever seen a more top-down approach than the way state DOTs built the interstate highway system and continued to add more and more freeways? I should know; I served at the New Jersey Department of Transportation from 1973 to 2007. I watched community after community, property owner after property owner, feel powerless and helpless over how we conducted our business.

    tags: liveability, livability, project_for_public_spaces, gary_toth, density, urbanism

  • Wise and entertaining lecture about how Aristotle still has lots to teach us.
    Democracy thrives on civil debate, Michael Sandel says — but we’re shamefully out of practice. He leads a fun refresher, with TEDsters sparring over a recent Supreme Court case (PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin) whose outcome reveals the critical ingredient in justice.

    tags: michael_sandel, democracy, justice, resources, aristotle, harvard, video, ted_conference

  • File under “resources”: a collection of links for learning about journalism.
    Ambitious journalists don’t have to worry about affording extra education when free open courses are available for anyone to take online. Spend some time studying and exploring the various aspects of journalism with these classes before forging your own future as a journalist. These courses will help you learn about writing, reporting, photojournalism, multimedia, and more.

    tags: journalism, resources, education

  • Worth installing Google Earth for. Via @stewart (Note: If you don’t have Google Earth yet, just zoom out a bit and then select “satellite” view. The following illustration is just a much-zoomed-out satellite view to give an indication of the ocean floor topography here: 

    tags: google_earth, oilspill, deepwater_horizon

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

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