Growing cities

May 19, 2010 at 7:51 pm | In cities, green, jane_jacobs, land_use, NIMBYism, sprawl, victoria | 3 Comments

The City of Victoria has had a revision of its Downtown Plan in the works for the past …oh, two?, four? six? years (I know that I attended workshops and other public participation exercises on same around four years ago). The plan is finally out (it was pre-released to the media on Monday, 5/17), and for some inexplicable reason it will now be subjected to another six weeks or so of “public participation” before being put to the vote.

One of the city’s media outlets put the whole 183-page document on, which is a blessing. See Downtown Core Area Plan Draft. The original is in PDF, but on Scribd you can, among other things, see a “tiled” version, which lets you hone in on the pages that you think might be relevant – without having to scroll tediously through the PDF itself. (Hooray!)

On the same day that Victoria’s proposed Downtown Plan (which has one or two things to say about density and building heights) was released to the media, I came across two articles on cities, densities, and building heights, which piqued my interest.



One is from Ed Glaeser, an economist who writes about urban economics and development: Taller Buildings, Cheaper Homes (New York Times, 5/4/10). The other is from the Globe & Mail newspaper and presents a snap-shot of Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary. It’s called How cities grow – up is in.

In the former article, Glaeser argues that Jane Jacobs’s aversion to high-rises was misplaced, and that taller buildings can make a city both more diverse and more affordable. Jacobs believed that lack of diversity and unaffordability went hand-in-hand – which isn’t hard to argue with. Presumably she saw high-rises as luxury (unaffordable) dwellings, which automatically means that they exclude diversity (only a specific class can afford them). Glaeser, on the other hand, argues that high-rises contribute to affordability. I think the key word may be “rental.” Glaeser writes of growing up in a 25-story rental building – and he also describes units that, at 1600 square feet, can accommodate families.

I wish that I could say that I know of tall rental buildings with family-sized units, either already built or under construction. But when I look at what’s going up in Victoria (or in Vancouver – or, I’d wager, in most western downtowns), it’s not rental units (unless the condo owners choose to rent their units out), and it’s not family-sized units either. If anything, the trend is toward small (really small) units that appeal to singles or the retired demographic. That’s not to say that I prefer the alternative (underutilized land, no new buildings), but I don’t see “affordable” and “family-sized” (that is, able to accommodate parents and two kids of opposite sex, which means 3 bedrooms) used in the same sentence when we describe what we’re building in our cities at present. This is a problem.

How can cities attract construction that meets rental demands and is friendly to families?

Glaeser notes:

Restricting supply led to higher prices and a city with space only for the rich. In the 1950s and 1960s, middle-income people, like Jane Jacobs and my parents, could afford Manhattan.  Equivalent families today can’t afford the city, and that’s a pity. By contrast, Chicago, with its longstanding pro-construction ethos, remains far more affordable even in prime locations.

I’d love some pointers to Chicago’s successes, and, if applicable, hints as to how they might transfer. Does the “pro-construction ethos” have to be really longstanding (as in decades), or is this something cities can adopt quickly? Vancouver has been fairly pro-construction lately, but it’s very unaffordable. So what’s the secret?

In his article, Glaeser brings the question back to density, which is surely a big sticking point for many people whose experience(s) with density to date were either negative or shaped by cultural myths and prejudices. Aversion to density is cultural, but that’s not to say that people should learn to accept actual intolerable conditions. Far from it – for if the mix of amenities is right, density is experienced as a convenience and as a good thing. If density is experienced as an intolerable constraint, it means the amenities are missing. Properly designed, density is an affordance, too: proximity to shops, recreation, parks, entertainment, clubs, friends. Shoddy buildings, on the other hand, make density intolerable: if you can hear your neighbor’s every evacuation or sneeze, something’s wrong. But cheaply-built buildings are, well, cheaper to build – which in turn gets back to economics and affordability.

In the Globe & Mail article, the comments board gives readers an indication of how far white, suburban-raised North Americans are from seeing density as an affordance. In most people’s views, it’s strictly a negative constraint, one that mostly affects their individual freedom.

Some commenters go up a level, from the individual to the societal, and focus on waste management. They conjure visions of cities choking on their own trash; or on water supply, warning of depletion of drinking water.

Several invoke Malthusian principles, arguing that we simply can’t grow any more. (Note: I get a bit impatient around this line of thinking – it seems to me that population regulates itself when prosperity rises and women gain equality. At some point thereafter, population settles at replacement levels or drops significantly below that.)

Clearly, the “pull up the drawbridge, we’re full” attitude is very common not just in my city, but elsewhere, too. It’s not exactly possible, legally, to tell citizens they can’t move to a city within their country, so unless we learn to manage growth well (affordance, not constraint), we’ll just get even more sprawl (which is already happening anyway, but why encourage it?).

So, Mr. Glaeser: back to you. We know that Jacobs’s vision of a somewhat quaint Greenwich Village in no way precludes an exclusive (and therefore anti-diversity) gentrification that’s unaffordable for mere mortals. In other words, quaint does not mean affordable or diverse or even friendly. And how, given the realities of economics, do we address another point she raised: the influx of “catastrophic money” (major urban renewal projects or very large civic projects that chew up entire city blocks, creating a kind of branded corporate-land that’s the antithesis of a neighborhood)? Finally, how can municipal governments and planning departments promote high-rise developments that are also affordable and family-friendly, while being amenity-rich and designed to make density an affordance, not a negative constraint?

Insights from “The reinvented city”

May 17, 2010 at 11:22 pm | In cities, innovation, land_use, politics, real_estate, social_critique, sprawl, urbanism | Comments Off on Insights from “The reinvented city”

A blog post from the Lincoln Institute, The reinvented city about its recent conference, includes several terrific links.

First off: Andres Duany is on a tear against NIMBYs, and suggests making decisions via “juries.” There’s lots to like in that proposal.

From the links provided by the Lincoln Institute’s article, a couple of choice extracts for your immediate enjoyment:

One, from Planetizen:

“It’s so out of control,” said Duany, referring to the current state of public participation in planning decisions in the United States. “It’s an absolute orgy of public process… basically, we can’t get anything done.”

Charrettes – intensive design meetings where planners and architects work alongside the public to educate them on the city’s proposals and coax out their own ideas on how their cities should be formed – have been a mainstay of Duany’s practice for years, so he’s no stranger to public engagement. But now he is saying what many involved in land use have come to believe but can’t really say – that the process of soliciting the public’s opinion has gotten out of hand and needs to be reformed.

The central problem, according to Duany, is that the immediate neighbors to a proposed development are brought in to speak on behalf of the whole community. These neighbors obviously have a vested interest in what happens in their backyard, and an emotional connection to their space. They also often have a financial stake in what happens, with their life’s savings tied up in their home. “We’ve tainted the process by not understanding that the neighbors are a special interest,” says Duany. “They are not the community.” [amen.]

Duany’s proposed solution? A randomly-chosen group of citizens, brought in to represent the community similar to the jury system. Evidently such a system is alive and well in Perth, Australia, where a group of community members is chosen randomly, brought up to speed on the issues, and asked to give input on how development should occur. Without such a process, Duany says, the process is taken over by “a bunch of little mobs, invited in by idiot public planners.”

Alternative energy projects are particularly at risk, according to Duany. The public at large sees the growing need for turbines and solar panels, but locals are fighting to keep them out of their neighborhoods. Is this the goal of city planners, who for the last couple of decades have worked passionately to create systems of bottom-up urbanism? Or is Duany right- is it time to create new models of public participation? (source)

Note that last bit, re. alternative energy – I blogged about this (Windspill), inspired by an article (From Oil Spills to Wind Farms, From NIMBY to BANANA) that made the same point: NIMBYs in Massachusetts miring an off-shore windfarm proposal, while at the same time we get this oil clusterfuck-disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Two, from Building Blocks (St. Louis Today):

Duany insisted that the future of development is mixed use: jobs, homes and leisure opportunities clustered in sufficiently dense ways to allow people to walk more, take public transit more and drive less. Driving equals unhappiness, Duany indicated, adding, “New Urbanism is all about making people happy.”

After no one stood up to denounce happiness, Duany went on to be a bit provacative. Forget the NIMBYs who try to kill almost any endeavor, he said. NIMBYs comprise nothing more than a special interest group that should be ignored when, say, a new power line is needed to link a windfarm to customers. Such infrastructure should be built because its clear advantage to a region outweighs the opposition of the few who would live near the wires, Duany said.

“You can’t have tiny tiny special interests block the big infrastructural needs,” he said.

A good way to get approval of what gets built where could be to turn over the job to juries whose members are randomly selected from across a region. That way, projects pushed by professionals would get done quickly, Duany said. (source)

From the same article, further down, a discussion of complaints from mayors about mingy state funding. Sound familiar? How many more times do we have to listen to our mayors complain about the lousy 8-cents to every 1-dollar municipalities in Canada collect?

Two former mayors–Manny Diaz of Miami and Greg Nickels of Seattle–also were on the bill. After touting their efforts to make their cities greener and more sustainable, they voiced some frustrations in tones familiar to those that emanate from St. Louis City Hall. Nickels and Diaz said their state legislatures simply don’t get it. Too often they deprive cities of money and fail to understand that metropolitan areas are the main drivers of the nation’s economy. Diaz said too many states would rather add unneeded lanes to rural highways than help build urban transit lines. (source)

And, from the same post, urban growth will be in suburbs. That’s another reason why Victoria, the city I currently live in, better get its ass in gear, before its downtown deteriorates beyond the point of no return:

Experts agree that over the coming decades, most urban growth will be in suburbs, which need to adapt by replacing featureless sprawl with inviting, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes. June Williamson, associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York, gave a shout out to Crestwood Plaza on Watson Road, holding it up as a suburban mall re-inventing itself–at least for now–as an arts center.

Duany, in his characteristally blunt way, said a day earlier that while small shops at outdated malls are “junk,” the malls are ideal “holding tanks” for 21st century mixed-use town centers. Malls are typically located on main streets or even transit lines. The big-box anchors can be converted to offices or call centers, he said. Williamson said the United States is seriously over stored. The U.S. has 20 square feet of retail space for each citizen while Europeans get by with 3 square feet each, she said.

Over and over, speakers pointed out that while cities are efficient, many of their urban centers are losing population. One city discussed has lost half its population since 1950, is a declining center of corporate headquarters, has thousands of acres of largely vacant land despite the presence of a renowned children’s hospital, a famed symphony and a lively downtown restaurant scene. St Louis? No, Cleveland. (source)

Three, from California Planning and Development Report blog:

Last year shopping mall giant Westfield floated a proposal for a 49-story tower in Century City, part of a master plan to reinvent one of the great prototypical edge cities. The problem, though, is that Century City is no longer on the edge of anything. It’s smack in the middle of some of the most congested streets and expensive residential real estate east of the Ginza District.

The city Planning Department liked the project. But, naturally, the neighbors got involved, and some, you know, hemming and hawing ensued. When the metaphorical dust settled and the City Council approved the $800 million project, the building had lost ten floors and four local homeowners associations called off their lawyers. Of course, the “project” existed only on paper in the first place; critics say that the developer drew the extra ten stories only so they could be lopped off as an expendable peace offering.

A triumph for the little guy? Not so much. Borderline extortion and bribery? Perhaps. Several of the four homeowners associations paid for their petitions with war chests won from agreements with other developers; no word on whether Westfield paid them off in this case. (source)

Good grief, does that ever sound familiar…

Back to matter of juries, here’s another description of that system:

Duany proposes that cities adopt a hybrid of a grand jury and an electorate: 200 (or however many) ordinary citizens randomly sampled and empanelled to learn about, deliberate on, and render a decision on proposed projects. He notes that the wisdom of democracy does not lie in participation — which depends simply on who shows up — but rather on sampling.

The recommendation of that random sample would stand for the interests of the entire community and be balanced against those of the other two parties. Though public officials would typically have the final say, the panel would give them cover to make decisions that might enrage the neighbors. (source)

Note: “200 (or however many) ordinary citizens” is not a tiny hand-picked crew, which is what we’re seeing in Victoria, where the political leadership has taken to hand-selecting without any sort of process a tiny group of people to act as “citizen advisors.” It’s a highly flawed process – and the advisory panels or committees (the designation keeps changing) meet behind closed doors, no agenda is posted in advance, and minutes consist of skimpy notes available months later. #fail

I prefer this (VOTERS are on top):

Org chart for Brookline MA municipal government

Diigo Bookmarks 05/12/2008 (p.m.)

May 12, 2008 at 5:30 am | In links, sprawl | 1 Comment

Suburbs and their replicating ways

April 18, 2008 at 11:11 pm | In cities, green, ideas, sprawl, urbanism | Comments Off on Suburbs and their replicating ways

Two items about suburbia came across my horizon recently.

One is a USA Today report on Chinese delegations coming to the US to study planned suburbs: Modern suburbia not just in America anymore by Haya El Nasser (today, April 18), which has an ominous (to my ears) conclusion, although there’s a lot of interesting stuff before that. More on that in a moment.

The other is another palpable hit from a couple of days ago by The Mobile City‘s Martijn de Waal, Video as suburban condition. This blog post references an installation by Martijn Hendriks, also entitled video as suburban condition. As de Waal writes, Hendriks has compiled a loop of YouTube video clips showing teens “performing” (as it were) their selves — on suburban parking lots or in “the fluorescently lit aisles of strip mall supermarkets.” What de Waals observes is fascinating: the clips, he writes, aren’t “loose incidents” unrelated to one another, but “part of an ecosystem”:

Teenagers perform their identity, video tape it with their mobile phone or handheld camera and put it on Youtube. Other teenagers watch those clips and in their own distant yet almost similar suburbs re-enact or remix the performance. Japanese teenagers copy funny dances and supermarket gags from their peers in the US and the other way around.

The performances are then copied by other teens around the world. De Waal quotes from Hendriks’ site to explain how suburban places are imagined in these clips: “The videos show people performing in places that would normally lack all interest, like back yards, parking lots, roof tops and malls. (…) Each place, as ordinary as it may be, is re-imagined as a place for doing extraordinary things.”

What’s fascinating is how de Waal thinks this through in terms of the technology: video allows for a replication — a reproduction, actually — of the performance of that identity, and in that sense, we are talking about an ecosystem. A cardinal clue whether something is animate or inanimate is whether it can reproduce. Humans are using technology to reproduce memes, lifestyles, …and identities. This means they are alive.

De Waal writes:

These videoclips show that performers at spaces like parking lots and strip malls now do have a way to find an audience – although the interaction is not in real time and in real space. These spaces declared dead do seem to come alive and work in a way that is comparable to traditional city squares. At least in terms of processes of performance and identification.

Now… what I really like about this approach to the topic is that it honours and recognizes the vitality in the thing.

I don’t feel the same friendly way toward master-planning. And that takes us back to the USA Today, where the author (Haya El Nasser) describes a certain flavour of “master planning” that overpowers whatever those teens might get up to in those videos.

El Nasser’s article starts as follows:

A Chinese delegation from Beijing arrived in Phoenix last month and headed west to the Sonoran Desert, deep into suburbia. Its destination: a quintessential American residential development in Buckeye, one of the many suburbs dotting the sprawling metropolitan area.

It goes on to describe Sun City Festival, a 3,000-acre planned community. Do young people dance or “perform” on parking lots there, I wondered? Nope, this is for folks 55+ of age. The Chinese delegation was there to study how they might “replicate” (El Nasser’s word) that “community” back home in China.

If the kids are having sex, the planners are in the lab doing in vitro “fertilization” it seems….

Ironically, this push to plan is done for reasons of sustainability:

The push is on to inspire developing countries to do what more American communities are doing: steer away from sprawling, cookie-cutter subdivisions popularized after World War II and create sustainable communities that will not deplete natural resources.

That includes developments built around mass-transit stations to reduce reliance on cars and projects that mix homes and businesses so that people can walk from home to stores and other services.

That sounds good, but what does it feel like? Will there be dancing (or miming or performing) in the streets (or parking lots or aisles)?

I’m not defending the existing suburban places that the kids documented by Hendriks are filming (not at all), but I’m just a bit skeptical about the “planning” described in Nasser’s article — irrespective of my basic sympathy with its goals (to have livability, sustainability, all that good stuff — oh, and good design, too…).

I’m wondering, when all is said and done (planned!), how do you plan for something like YouTube, for example? We’ll always be using technology to enhance our replicating ways, and often on unexpected platforms. From the backseats of cars to the digital virus via YouTube, life will find a way…

In the meantime, though, by all means plan better, cleaner, more sustainable communities. It makes sense — sort of like more comfortable plush in the backseat upholstery?

Varieties of density

December 7, 2007 at 11:56 pm | In cities, green, sprawl | Comments Off on Varieties of density

It’s great to read that places like San Jose are densifying — see Real Transit-Oriented Development by CEOs for Cities for more on how they’re doing it (hint: the office park is a-changing):

…radical transformation taking place in that city at the insistence of San Jose’s innovative economy CEOs. The city’s suburban-style single-use office parks are being replaced with much more dense mixed-used development.

Office buildings will go higher, and schools, residential construction, and shopping get mixed in, which means the land isn’t used up by low density sprawl. Transit is also part of the deal.

But for fun, CEOs for Cities added a YouTube clip of a train passing through the open air market in Bangkok (click here). Now that’s density …and mixed-use …and transit.

Some Monday links

May 22, 2007 at 1:35 am | In architecture, cities, ideas, links, sprawl, transportation, victoria | 2 Comments

Via an affair with urban policy, I just discovered CitySkip (the blog), which posted some uncanny YouTube videos.

First, there’s a film by Colourfield Productions (Dortmund, Germany) about Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic man characterised as an “art savant” and “human camera.” The film chronicles how he was taken on a 45 minute helicopter flight over Rome (which he hadn’t seen from the air ever before), after which he spent 3 days recreating the historic centre in its entirety on a 5 yards long piece of paper: At autistic man’s recreation of Rome. (Note: the video was removed from YouTube, but you can find it on this page.)

Next, there’s a film about City Repair Project‘s Village Building Convergence. The video is on the organisation’s main site, and also on YouTube: Transform Space into Place. At one point, Mark Lakeman (of City Repair Project) says, “you travel within the grid and you see where you’re going the whole time, there’s no subtlety or surprises.” The film at this point shows not just a straight road, but also the straight lines of the supermarket aisle. That was very clever (in a good sense).
Lakeman goes on to add a little history lesson about how the grid is based on Roman lay-outs, and that it’s designed not to facilitate interaction. I thought, “hmm, that sounds exactly like Edward Hall’s explication of Humphry Osmond’s work around socio-petal and socio-fugal space” (see my “proxemics” entry earlier this month), which is what I based my last article in Focus Magazine on. As it happens, I’m working right now on an article for the July issue that expands on environmental psychology (this time with a focus on Grant Hildebrand’s ideas — see The Origins of Architectural Pleasure) and possibly biophilia. (It’s pathetic — I only get 800 words per article, so I have to be very selective in organising my material. This should be a series, but then I have to consider how much I can reiterate — rehash — each month, for those readers who didn’t read the previous month’s entry… )

Third, there’s Case for Separated Bike Lanes in NYC (also on YouTube, but via CitySkip). It’s one of the best visuals (and “verbals”) I’ve encountered to strengthen the case for separated bike lanes.

Finally, via CEOs for Cities (blog), a link to a book review by Stephen Shapin in the New Yorker, What Else is New? How uses, not innovations, drive human technology. Shapin reviews military historian David Edgerton’s book, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900, which Booklist described this way:

The common view of technology as a matter of novelty, of invention and innovation accelerating into the future, is very limited, Edgerton says. To understand technology historically, consider technology in use, and some remarkable facts emerge. Highly touted new technologies, such as the Pill and atomic power, were derailed by unforeseen (AIDS) or unconsidered (nuclear waste disposal) developments and sidelined by the technologies they had supposedly made obsolescent. The huge twentieth-century surge in productivity depended on improving old technologies, and we see the effect in such places as China of the quick succession of technological revolutions that occurred over more time in the U.S. Maintenance consumes a much larger proportion of technological effort than innovation, nations a-building characteristically attempt to control certain technologies for nationalistic purposes, and war and killing are the wellsprings of the most consequential modern inventions. In short, the old ways–power by harness animals, nationalism, warfare, slaughtering for food–don’t fade away. They adapt, and that is the real big story about technology.

That really piques my interest. I checked our local library right away to see if it was available — and darn it, three people are in front of me in the queue to get the book.

Books. Another “old” technology!

Uses. That’s where I come in. Heh.

To grow or not to grow…

April 11, 2007 at 2:45 am | In cities, social_critique, sprawl, victoria | 1 Comment

Or: once there was a little hamlet…

There’s an interesting conversation that Gordon Price is chronicling on his blog Price Tags. The entry in question is called The Growth Debate: Kelowna Version. I thought of posting a comment there, but since I’m a new/ recent reader of Price’s blog (and since I don’t really want to engage directly with the gentleman he’s having his conversation with, particularly since I can’t remember ever having been in Kelowna), I’ll just recommend that you read Price’s entry. And I’ll post my response here, on my blog.

Price has reproduced an email debate he had with someone named Rick, as you will have seen if you surfed over to read his post. With regard to Rick’s points: they sound very familiar to the concerns raised by anti-development people in Victoria. For example, I live in Rockland, a downtown-bordering in-city neighbourhood in Victoria. This area used to be comprised of SFHs of a “stately” nature, but its big old houses are today largely converted into apartments. We have very few families with young children in this area, yet one woman who ran for the neighbourhood association board (and was elected) wrote this anti-development battlecry in her online campaign bio: “Victoria has room to spread in outlying communities. We must resist the greed of entrepreneurs who see a way of making a killing by putting four families where previously there had been one.” (She was elected, by the way, although she stepped down after a brief stint due to other obligations. Also, by the way, there is practically NO development going on in Rockland, which doesn’t appear to deter panic mongering, however, as you can deduce from the above quote.)

She blamed recent “greedy” entrepreneurs (also called developers) for trends that started decades ago and had little to do with development and far more with recession (there weren’t enough well-off people to keep those old houses occupied at single-family rates — hence they were converted to suites: densification in fact kept these houses from decaying or being demolished outright, and therefore densification was responsible for maintaining Rockland’s “heritage” housing stock). Our dearth of families with children in this neighbourhood isn’t recent: Rockland hasn’t been known for harbouring children for decades.

This committee member is one of many who advocate literally pulling up the drawbridge, telling people who want to move into in-city neighbourhoods that they should go and sprawl into the suburbs. Our nearly moribund downtown, which had fewer residents in 2000 than in 1975, is finally experiencing highrise condo development (bringing residents and life to the core), and most of these buildings are going up on what used to be surface parking lots. But the anti-growth (yet pro-sprawl) crowd deride it as “developer-greed-driven.”

Growth means change, which is resisted. Growth is equated to degradation and illness (it’s “cancerous”), not least because it represents an allegedly out of control change. In response, people invent two scenarios meant to serve as “explanations”: one, “out of control” change symbolizes our species’ inherent self-destructiveness (and the solution is to turn back the clocks, live in the woods, hew the wood, draw the water, renounce the technology); OR change isn’t really “out of control,” because in reality it’s controlled and directed by “greedy developers” whose decadent, deracinated ways are designed to destroy the “authentic” dweller on the land.

These are fairytales for children — sometimes (as the 1930s attest) very very bad children who cause political and social disasters. They won’t help us to differentiate good and bad development, and they’ll do nothing to stop the reality of growth (and change).

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