Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Learning from fire to create public space

People are social creatures.  We inherently know this through our own experience and its self-evidence.  I like to think this trait extends back to our pre-historic times - back when we all lived in gatherer / hunter tribes. We needed protection and connection from each other and the community always had a social spot. Fire is, perhaps, one of our strongest connections to the past. You feel it while sitting around a camp fire with friends or at a bonfire.

Anybody who has gone camping, or spent time outdoors, knows the value of a great camp fire. It's where all of the action is ..., especially after dark.  We eat food around the campfire, [if you're in Montana] drink beer, converse and enjoy the bond of pure "being". Raw enjoyment without technological distractions.

In an urban setting of today's modern society, people still crave that social place. Public space. If a public space doesn't have people, it can become foreboding.  I like to think of public space as the fire of society. Quality public space can make a city great! And we can learn from the campfire on how to design great public space.

Characteristics of a quality fire and public space

Fire draws groups of people. Public space works best with people. If fire draws people to it and we want public space to attract people, what can we learn from fire to help create quality place? What characteristics does fire have that attracts people to it (from a social standpoint)? I will outline some of the characteristic of a campire, below, and draw parallels through the lens of wanting to create quality public space. 

1. Security - Fires create both a sense of securing and true safety. We should keep this in mind and strive for the same when creating public spaces.  

2. Democracy / Equality - A campfire is something that is equal to everybody.  Whether someone is rich or poor a campire is equal.  A rich person doesn't want a bigger campfire no more than a soon-to-be rich person does. All of the money in the world can't buy a good fire.  It takes friend, family and acquaintances. [Most] all are welcome around the campfire. 

3. Inviting - A good campfire, as with quality urban space, is inviting. 

4. Romantic lighting - While I'm sure lighting is thought about to every detail (at least I'd hope so), romantic lighting often goes aside for security lighting.  Campfires create a low, flickering light. Walking around parts of Paris, a person senses the value of romantic lighting.  Perhaps, more attention should be paid to ambiance of the light while providing security.  Maybe gas lights would provide a more attractive light than electric.  This could be something to think about, especially when food is served nearby. 

5. Food connection - Sitting around a good fire often involves, at some point, either fresh food or cold drinks.  Quality public space should include food.  You'd want it to be sensitive to the different needs of parks, plazas, sidewalks or transit - but food brings people together.  There is not doubt about that.  Plazas work best when surround by permeable edges.  Little is more permeable than a restaurant.  Portland uses transit at Pioneer Courthouse Square for permeability.  And it works.  But it'd be better with more food around the edges.  Busy bus stops and nearly every train stop could use a small food stand.  Parks could use small concession stands, vending machines, and/ or drinking water. Sidewalks are perfect for food carts.   

Restaurants surround one of my favorite public spaces in the world at the Vrijthof in the Dutch city of Maastricht.   

6. Stimulates multiple senses - Fire stimulates all sense.  It provides light, crackles, warms and provides opportunities to taste delicious food. Parks, plazas, sidewalks and transit can stimulate the senses in some of the same ways - though probably without the crackle.   

7. Smoke - Not usually the best part of a fire and you, generally, want to get away from it.  However, it does provide an aspect of the fire which is true of all wonderful things: they must have a yang for their yin. We could do something similar, though less offensive, in public place. It could be simulated with shade or squirrels.   Perhaps even actual smoke from cooking (w/o meat as to not offend vegetarians and others with the smell).  Maybe have a FOLF course in a shared park.  That'd provide "smoke" for other users.  This is the case in the best park in my hometown of Billings, MT and it, mostly, works (though they could use more signage because it doesn't work so well when people have wedding photos taken in the middle of the fairway to the 2nd hole. The point is to consider smoke when examining fire. 

8. Sitting options - It frequently amazes me how few options people have for sitting in vast portions of the public spaces throughout the city - especially along sidewalks. As William Whyte told about in his documentary, seating is crucial.  He particularly liked moveable seats.  Fires most often offer moveable seating.  A place to rest your bones is crucial within a quality urban habitat for homo sapiens. This is especially true for the elderly and disabled and, especially, at transit stops. Have places to sit invites people "to be" and people watch. Be out in the community.  Sitting. Watching. 

9. Needs maintenance - A quality fire needs upkeep or it will burn out.  It's the same with public space. 

10. Extinguishable - I have a theory that roads are like rivers (especially high velocity, high speed auto-dominated streets).  As water puts out a fire, urban highways make a place much less pleasant a place to stroll with your lover and kiss. High velocity roads put out the fire of public space (as can other things).  

11. Activities -  Us planners call it "programming".  Many great fires have no programmed activities or activities, at all.  And, I'd argue, the best fires (and public spaces) are the ones that need no programs at all.  But many great fires have ghost stories, smores or drinking games.  Many wonderful public spaces, also, have programmed activities like concerns, festivals or carnivals.  These can work very well, but the best public space does not need programmed activities to fill it up.  However, in both the case of fire and urban place, it can provide ritual which pulls the community together. 

Programming provides activities at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, OR. 

12. Can burn a person - With the good comes that bad.  Always.  When fire is not handled with care it can burn you.  It's the same with public space.  If left deteriorating and neglected, public space can turn into a place of crime and disorder. If attention to detail within the urban context is ignored, these places can become "blank horrors".  Handle with care.

13. Purposefully built - Fires serve many purposes. Sometimes they're for cooking.  Other times for heating or providing light.  At times you just want to hang out by a campfire with friends.  Public space works best when there are multiple reasons for people to visit it. If you wanted and activated urban place, we should try to cover as many reasons as possible for people to visit the space as a destination. 

14. Permeabile / Interactive - This relationship depends on an ongoing relationship with your surroundings in which information is constantly received from the environment in a way that reveals more signals to a levels of security and connectedness.  Fires illuminate and people can poke them with sticks (or kegs of beer). Public space should illuminate the community by connecting people with people and the cities that past generations built. Permeability can be a simple as seeing a tree on the other side of a wall or as complex as a public market in El Salvador.  

15. Has a "zone" - The closer you get to a fire, the brighter and warmer it becomes. Fires radiate and create a zone of light and heat.  You can feel it when you get closer.  Quality public spaces should do the same.  Some of the greatest open squares in the world build as you get closer to them, others seem to come out of nowhere and create a rapid shift to a new zone.  The point is that the public space is only as good as everything around it.  

Moving forward to activate public places 

Now that we've drawn the parallels and seen how we can learn from fire to create quality public places, the next logical step is to compare with something you know and see what aspects of a great campfire can be added to activate and improve the space.

This is something that can be championed by a citizen, professional or politicians and at any scale.  A person who lives in the neighborhood can decide to put out a bench for pedestrians to sit on.  If you have a hotdog stand, maybe you can sell some veggie dogs at the park (though you'll probably need a permit).  Professionals can consider campfires in every planned detail of a city - including sidewalks, transit / TODs (transit-oriented developments), public buildings, plazas, parks and other decisions about urban growth.  As one prominent politician from Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa, said, "You can judge the quality of a project by asking if it makes it a better place to walk, to talk, to do business, to play ... to kiss." 

If we are going to create cities and public space that will engage citizens and create pride in the community, it will take all of us and should engage people from diverse backgrounds.  This falls directly in line with the democratic characteristic of quality campfires.  I learned in a class in Europe that one word repeatedly comes up with the word democracy: pluralism. This can include multiple dimensions of public place from planning to practice.

You can have an entire community gather wood or just a small team, but someone needs to create the spark to get it going. The real campfire happens when people are around it.  

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Tiny homes are an elegant solution

Image from http://www.tumbleweedhouses.com/products/tarleton

The world is urbanizing. The U.S. is mostly urbanized (around 80 percent in cities) and many of the modernist ideals have had unintended consequences: spreading uses out has lead to long commute times, traffic congestion and diminished urban settings. The tall towers are just as much to blame as the low-density "sprawl".

There seems to be a consensus amongst the urban quality profession that densification is necessary for cities to grow in an economically sound way.  But how do we densify without creating crap?  Many of the newer apartments are garbage, in my opinion, especially around the fringe. That's not what higher density needs to look like. Amongst the multiple options for creating an interesting - connected - urban environment, tiny houses can play an important role.

Diversity is critical to quality urbanism

Over the decades, we've learned that creating urban environments with blank facades and cookie-cutter houses is boring and lacks something. That something, as Jane Jacobs wrote about, is diversity! It's interesting.  When people walk, they prefer places with other people and interesting things to look at. Not a highway.

A walk is much more pleasant in an area with sidewalks, trees, birds, squirrels, buildings, architectural features, vendors, street performance and human beings than one with highways and exchanges. Diversity is the difference.  A highway exchange could be very interesting with more diversity.  Imagine a European style village built around an exchange - houses, shops, cobble-stone. I think the second would be more interesting. Diversity is a crucial ingredient to quality urbanism.

Tiny houses multiply diversity

One thing about tiny houses is that they increase diversity.  It's interesting to look at a tiny house.  Imagine you're walking down the street and you see a tiny house. You'd look at it. I know I would.  They're interesting.  They're often built at a much higher quality than larger homes. They're pleasant. They add to diversity.

This diversity effect, also, multiplies.  Suddenly, the proud owners of these tiny homes have extra cash. They are no longer tied down with a mortgage, maintenance and insurance. They now have money to spend on a diversity of goods and lifestyle opportunities (like travel). This multiplies the diversity effect beyond just the built, interesting, urban form. It allows for a diversity of activities. 

Simple, practical solution (except legally) 

As a Masters candidate, I fully understand the burden of debt.  It's really something to know that you'll have to make loan payments equal to half the price of a mortgage for 10 years.  Plus, I'm told that urban planners should stay "open to experience" and traveling for, at least, the first part of his/her career. I'm sure many other professions offer the same opportunities.  With a tiny house, a person could live in a very high quality place without the burden of high monthly payments.  Freedom!!!!

Tiny homes make sense for many, many reasons and Cities' Codes often require minimum sizes - inside and out. It's told as a case of insurance companies and home-builders pushing large sizes.  And, as a consequence, it's often challenging to find a legal home for your home. Most of them are built on trailers or in rural areas to get around the codes, but imagine a world - for a moment - where you decrease size, increase diversity, increase density, increase quality, increase sustainability and increase savings without sacrifice on location.  Tiny homes are, simply, a part of the solution.

 A Tour of Jay Shafer's Tiny House

Texas Tiny Houses

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

San Salvador cycle-track

San Salvador traffic congestion including a cycle-track.   
Looking at the news in El Salvador, I came across this photo.  The news story was about closing Avenida Jerusalén for road work.

I was very surprised to see a cycle track.  It looks like they're beginning to do some work on their streets for bicycles. The is very promising, indeed.   They have great opportunities throughout the country for extensive bicycle networks. Generally, the cities are jammed with traffic and few families own cars

Bicycle planning fosters equity and growth
They are such a small country and space is limited.  It doesn't make sense sustainably to give all the space to the cars. Bicycles are cheap and available.  Land use patterns support bicycle use in the developed areas and on the roads through the countryside. It's a cheap, easy and effective transportation solution. cars should not intimidate and threaten other uses of the road.  Everybody should have equal rights to the public space.

While doing my Peace Corps service in El Carmen, La Unión, El Salvador, a person driving a car struck and killed an eight-year old boy who was crossing the PanAmerican.  I have still hear the sound of the crash.  No parent should have to bury their own child.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Top ten reasons to plan cities for people (not cars)

Over the past 80+ years city form took on an entirely new shape. The modern - Le Corbusier style - towers, office parks, freeways, and separated uses have dominated the landscape. The automobile has slowly usurped other users from the roads.  

However, the trajectory of urban design is beginning to move away from auto-oriented developments and back to people-oriented communities. The influence of urbanists like Jan Gehl and the transformation of Northern Europe has made its way into the conversations in cities. In the US, New York City has begun to re-engineer their streets to be more hospitable to human beings and Portland is known for helping launch the concept in the United States. However, cities should do much more and people should take top priority above all else. Here are the top ten reasons why:

1. Community -- cities oriented towards people reallocate the common space towards a public space for people to use. This invites a social atmosphere where you can run into an old friend in the street, or make a new one. Humans are social creatures who like people watching and interacting with their community. Designing cities around people, in every aspect, create conditions best suited for the human condition and provide areas that reinforce community.

2. Equity -- Children. Elderly. Disabled. Poor. Otherwise disenfranchised. Cities are not made for these people. Instead, cities have been designed for (and by) the upper middle-class. Turning the common space into a public space opens the access to everyone! I like to think about how a city does or does not work for someone who can not drive. In regards to just transit, lack of transportation to work is one of the biggest inhibitors to pulling people out of extreme poverty. Cities that work well for the most vulnerable citizens tend to work well for everybody.

3. Diversity -- Above all, one of the important aspects of a city is diversity and the options that come with the diversity. This includes diversity of people, buildings, organizations, businesses, etc. As an all encompassing term, diversity drives the city. Planning cities for people adds to the diversity in architecture at the ground level, uses in neighborhoods, uses of streets, number of people outside and - generally - more parks (and, thus, more diversity of parks) and trees. Plus, people of all financial backgrounds are more likely to be outside and meet as equals. 

4. Health -- People-oriented cities encourage citizens to be outside and walk.  I remember my study abroad experience in Maastricht, NL, and we walked or road our bicycles around the city nearly every day. There, the bicycle networks connect between towns and into the countryside.  However, one never feels alone.  There is a sense of security and destination in the regional design that gets everybody out. The more people are outside, walking or bicycling, the less they are sitting in their cars.  Walking is healthy.  Additionally, there are fewer wide automobile travel lanes - which are shown to have the highest rates of
fatal crashes for all users. I apologize for the
picture; I couldn't help myself. 

5. Economy --  Every year we take all of our accumulated wealth and shovel it as fast as we can to the middle east.  On top of that, city coffers all over the country are squeezed.  The new infrastructure for suburbia proves expensive to build and maintain. People-centered-cities have fewer miles of road (per person) and less area to cover with safety services. Also, the diversity of people cities diversifies the wealth through more smaller shops.  Also, there are fewer car crashes which cost. Portland, for example, found that car crashes cost the regional economy $958 million per year.  Plus, homes in people-cities will filter down the economic chain slower. 

6. Sustainability -- Cities planned around people are inherently sustainable in design.  It's possible to build "green" buildings all over the city and still have long distances between buildings and more asphalt than parks. It's a good to build LEED certified buildings but, taken out of the urban context and environment, can lead to negative consequences.  For example, Red Lodge Ales Brewing Company (love the beer) - in Montana - moved from a location downtown to the very edge of town to build a "sustainable" LEED certified building.  This new location is less sustainable because of the removed walkability. When cities are for
people, they are inherently more sustainable. 

7. Safety -- Each year over 30,000 people are killed in automobile-related crashes in the United States alone.  There has been a primary concern about time spent traveling and much less focused on a true increase in safety.  Statistics seem to matter when it's someone you know. Ever since the 1920s, we've known that speed is the cause of deaths.  However, we build things farther apart and people want to get their quickly. Therefor, we build wider roads and that propagate higher speeds. Building cities around people narrows the space between, increases pedestrian safety and creates safer conditions for motorists. The picture is 
of a young woman's ghost bike who was killed
in downtown Portland after being struck by a 

8. Beauty -- This is entirely subjective, but when people are slowed down they have time to enjoy the architecture.  If people are speeding by in their cars, there is no reason to care about the architecture of a building. Think about the Modern architecture era and all of blank walls and places devoid of humanism.  Now, think about the older styles -- charm.  Additionally, people cities are generally much more compact and spend less money on roads, sewer, etc and have more money for things like parks, statues and beautification. 

9. Dignity -- Most people in the United States don't own cars.  It's probably higher in other parts of the world.  Yet, in an auto-oriented society, those without cars are often looked down upon as second-class citizens. It's degrading waiting long periods of time for a bus and watching cars zoom by. For younger and older citizens, having a people oriented city gives them independence and dignity - thus rising the dignity of the city. Planning for people (not cars) also gives dignity to the human condition and form. 

10. Connection -- Cities for people build connections with other people of current, past, and future generations.  Due to a high attention required to make cities work for people, they give us more of a chance to connect with the city (sitting, walking, being outside) and encourage an atmosphere of building things worth caring about. Building cities for people builds, something that's been missing, our connectedness with space and time. These cities build things for multiple generations and account for the history of past generations. 

11. WE ARE PEOPLE!!!!! 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cars and the freedom of a minority

As shocking as it may sound, a minority of Americans own cars. Yet, much of the public space in cities (streets) is dedicated to their high-speed movement.  This take-over of public space has occurred in less than 100 years (less than 20 is more accurate) and did not happen without opposition.  People strongly opposed the take-over of city streets by the "death cars" at the turn of the century and people still oppose this take over, today.

Excellent book.
I first began thinking about this post when I listened to an NPR story Motorists to Urban Planners: Stay in Your Lane. The piece talks about the discussions surrounding modest attempts to bring more balance to the streets by implementing bicycle and bus only lanes in the Washington, DC area.  The story had the same basic argument ... "they want to take away our cars!!!"

Near the end of the piece, they interview Peter D. Norton about the historical role of the automobiles in the city.  They mentioned that he wrote the book, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, about the struggle at the beginning of the 20th century of bringing automobiles into the city. I was so excited, finally an urban planning related book that examines pre-1930! I bought the book, right away, and have been reading it since on my Kindle.

This post weaves concepts and stories from the book with my own ideas and interpretations.

Customary role of the street

In our current time people often think that before cars we lived in caves.  It's like nothing existed.  I've wrote about, in a past post, about how we tend to forget there were very intelligent people who lived before the Modern Era and we ignore much of this accumulated urban knowledge in decisions we make about cities today. Well, one of those things we forget is the customary role of the street throughout the ages. 

For thousands of years, a child could go from one side of town to the other without the threat of the being killed. The streets were designed for and used, mostly, by pedestrians - though horses, bicycles, and trams played their roles at various times. As Mr. Norton writes in this book, "When automobiles were new, many city people regarded them as a misuse of streets.  By obstructing and endangering other street users of unquestioned legitimacy, cars violated prevailing notions of what a street was for."

Imagine for a moment what it would have been like for you.  You had spent your entire life being able to go wherever you want.  You could walk down the middle of the road.  You could cross the street halfway.  You could walk leisurely in the road, cross at a diagonal or whatever you like.  When you're child had a lot of energy, you'd tell co to go play in the street.  Then, suddenly, you had these quick moving machines show up and start killing people. In your mind, they were taking away the street.

Strong Opposition to the Automobile

From 1900 through the 1920s there was strong resistance to the automobile.  It didn't just come from "special interest" groups, either.  Mayors, newspaper editorial boards, parents, nurses and nearly every other group was opposed to cars in the city. Most of this resistance came because they were seen as "speeding" machines (like a speeding bullet) and they killed people.  The book tells the story of a woman who lost two of her children in a short time to the automobile.  One child died while waiting along a street and another while riding his bicycle.

Children dedicating a monument to child car accident 
victims by holding up a flower for each child victim
killed in Pittsburgh in 1921. Scenes like this one 
were common across the US.
Groups mobilized against the automobile with the slogan "SAFETY FIRST!"  Police, also, did not like the automobile because it created chaos in the streets. All-in-all, cars were not welcome in the cities and were seen as better suited for rural areas.  Amongst the different groups, the primary lens which directed the view of automobiles was the traditional role of the street and justice. The Philadelphia Public Ledger wrote, in 1920, if a pedestrian is "hurt or annoyed [in an encounter with a car] don't ask wether the victim was wholly or in part to blame.  Suggest that the driver of the motor-car be lynched." 

Others suggested you shoot drivers with your revolver.  

This narrative played out for over 20 years.  Over this time, different lenses began to come into fashion: Justice, Order, Efficiency and, finally, Freedom.  Police had tried to keep speed-limits between 8 and 10 MPH.  Other people argued it wasn't efficient to keep cars slow and they should move quicker through the cities. However, it was the final lens that gave the death blow to cities resisting cars and opened the gates to unfettered access of the automobile into cities at high speeds.  "Motordom" appealed to the rights of the minority and their Freedoms. It worked. And we all know how it turned out.

Freedom of a minority

According to my calculations, from U.S. Census data, approximately 37 percent of people in the United States own a motor vehicle.  You certainly wouldn't know it by looking at any American city or listening to much of the discourse surrounding transportation.  Going back to that story I mentioned at the beginning of the post, urban planners are starting to see the serious value of giving other users rights to the street (as if rights are theirs to "give"). 

However, as with the past, people in cars think they have a right to as much space as they want for the cars.  People get upset about parking tickets and to openly say the phrase "restrict car use" would be committing political, and potentially, career suicide.  We walk a fine line ... trying not to upset car owners - 37 percent of population. I owned a car many years and probably will again. I was once one of those people who believed I had a right to my car wherever I wanted. I once called the police on a guy for parking on the street in front of my house. It's where I parked!!! I've changed.

Now, in my mind, beyond order and efficiency, I think this is an issue of justice.  Do children not have a right to their city?  Do mothers not have a right to not drive their children everywhere?  Do families and friends not have a right to safe cities?  If, as the Constitution says, "All [people] are created equally", don't the other 63 percent without a car have a right to not be harassed by those in automobiles?  

To be clear, I am not against cars.  I think cars are fantastic things for road-trips, camping, emergencies, agriculture, etc.  I just question whether or not on the opposite of "freedom-for" is an argument for "freedom-from"? Is there no freedom from automobiles? Safety.  Quiet. Peace. Sustainability. EQUITY. Are those not a type of freedom?

In all, cars are in cities and will probably be here to stay.  However, I think brining more balance to the equation should not be out of the question.  If there are hundreds of people who use a sidewalk, like here in downtown Portland, and seven parking spots where a wider sidewalk could ... should ... be, then that majority has a right from the freedoms of a minority and a wider sidewalk (pavement as called in England) should replace those parking spots. 

When discussions about using streets for more than just solo automobiles arise in the public dialogue, remember, this is not about punishing people for using automobiles.  It's about treating all citizens equally and ensuring safe streets --- for everybody!

As always, feel free to let me know what you think by leaving your comments below.  

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Loss of community and rise in violence

With the terrible tragedy in Colorado this past Thursday, I've been thinking a lot about why this continues to happen.  It's almost to the point of being an epidemic in the United States.  If you're like me, one of the first reactions is anger and the thought, "this has got to stop!" As Colorado Governor John Hikenlooper said in a press conference on Friday, "Everyone I've talked to all day is filled with an anger that can't find focus." I have an idea of where we could place our focus, beyond guns, ... community.

Loss of a safe public realm

During the Ideal Cities era, public space was the most important aspect of the city.  They took great care in designing accessible quality space for everybody.  To get the public space just right, they even put the right size and use buildings around the edges of the space. There was great attention paid to the details.  Then, with the invention of the automobile, we boarded the Crazy Train.

As I wrote about in a past post, everything we'd known went out the window.  We were in a new time!  A Modern time.  Instead of taking great care for public space, as we'd done in the past, our primary concern first getting people away from the smoke stacks (by moving them to suburbs) and, then, dealing with the traffic followed.  We went so far as to demolish vast tracts of existing neighborhoods with no regard for context.  It was considered solely an engineering problem.

Now, we've gone from a time when cities where designed for human beings and civic space was paramount to one where it's considered normal to have over 30,000 people die each year in car-related deaths (for relation, ~3,000 died on 9/11).  Just the other day, in Portland, an 18-month old child was hit by a car while in a stroller waiting to cross the street with his mother. A 5-year old child was also hit and taken to the hospital.

Perhaps, these shootings are just another symptom of something gone terrible wrong. Maybe people trying to reach out and communicate something in their own SICK and terrible way.

Source: NHTSA's 2010 Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview Report

What We're Missing

It's hard to know what you're missing until you experience it. In a world where we're no longer citizens but consumers, it's easy to get caught up in your own world and only think about the day-today.  Families, especially women, are so busy there is often little time to think beyond the daily tasks.  In general, it seems, we think very little about civic engagement or community.  Many people just lead their day-to-day lives trying to get by and, hopefully, have enough money for their upcoming vacation or a new widget.  

I didn't even think about a different world, though I had a sense something was wrong from the age of 12, until I took a Human Geography class my first year of undergrad.  Then, I studied in Holland.  It was love.  Every day I'd go outside with my friends and love the city.  We'd go to the central square and walk around, perhaps have a beer or two, and people watch.  Within a month, I felt right at home.  There was something natural about meeting in the public space and being outside.

I've since seen this same outdoor living (due to a high-quality public realm) in other places like Buenos Aires, Barcelona and Bordeaux, France. In those cities, people are outside.  There are many public spaces where people can go be away from the noise and threat of automobiles. As a case in point, take a look at this video.  When I watched it, I thought, "This is fantastic!!!!  But ... where could this happen in any U.S. city?"  I realized quality public space facilitated the event.  A safe place that's full of people - women, children, elderly, .... 

Is there a connection?

I can't say what drove the gunman, or any of the gunmen (have they all been men?), to commit such senseless violence.  Perhaps there is something hard-wired in this type of individual from the time they are a child (I tend to think all people are good and violence is learned). Maybe there is some chemical problem in their brain which drives these individuals to madness.  Perhaps it goes back to their childhood.  Maybe it's society. I don't think anybody knows. And even if we do know one particular motive, why are there so many of them?

I'm sure with the right statistics and SPSS one could do the statistical analysis.  It'd be interesting to see what connections arise. Even if there is no significant connection between the degradation of community and an increase in spree shootings, what would we lose by creating more quality public spaces? What do you think?  Am I on to something here or is it just poppycock? Leave your comments below.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Our Forgotten Connection with Time

Humans have lived for thousands of years and, yet, in our current culture we have forgotten about our connection with time.  People are connected through relationships, space and TIME.  We are connected to the people who came before us and we're connected with those who will come after us. Somehow, we don't seem to acknowledge this time aspect in many decisions that are made with regards to cities and the built environment.

 View from above the National Mall in Washington, DC.
Looking back just over 100 years at one of the most exciting times for urban planning, the City Beautiful movement - which took its inspiration from Haussmann's Paris - worked to create a society with order, civil engagement and social integration through placing world-class public space at the top of the agenda. During this time they created parks, monuments and civic buildings that we still appreciate today.  One of the crowning achievements from this era is the National Mall in Washington, DC, where tens of thousands of citizens meet for civic engagement.  The decisions made at that time are strongly connected with time. What do the decisions made today say about our perceived connection with time? How will our decisions impact future generations?  How do they relate to the past?

I can't tell you the last time a monument of epic proportion was constructed in one of America's cities.  Or in nearly any city to tell you the truth.  Can you think of one? When was the last time that we thought, "this is going to stand for many years and future generations will be connected with us through this space?"

Focus on the "NOW!"

Many of the decisions made, today, are made with weighing the costs and benefits - perhaps over the next 20 years for a major project. Generations in the past had the options to develop land in a way similar to what we call urban sprawl, but they resisted.  They did not spread out because they understood that once this land is developed, it will be very difficult to return it to the previous state. Now, we cover these valuable lands in suburban "snout houses" that probably won't be around in 200 years.

Instead of thinking about our actions as connected to our collective past(s) and to the future, there seems to be this overwhelming consensus idea that our form of society will not be around in 100 years.  That should be a sign.  But, instead, we use it as an excuse to build suburbs, shift public resources to private interests and over-consume nearly every resource on the planet.  I'm not even going to delve into petrol-chemicals.

Typical Suburban "Snout Houses"


Connection to the Past

We have forgotten our past, at least everything before WWII. Native Americans struggle to hold on to their past, but the dominant culture does its best to squash that memory.  African-Americans try to hold on to their past and remember, but the racial histories are something we don't like to discuss.  Is this why we forgotten our past and are so eager to think about the now?  Is it racism?

No matter the cause of our eager desire to quell our connection with past and the importance of history (it was once now!), in denouncing the importance we do ourselves a disservice in our civics and spiritual peace. We must remember the past, embrace it and learn from it. After all, the post-Depression reforms could have helped prevent our current recession if we'd remembered the lessons and not repealed Glass-Steagall during the '90s. In urban planning, as I mention in this blog post, we have a lot to learn from the pre-modern era. 

A Bright Spot

Sign welcoming you to the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness in Montana
The environmental movement offers a bright spot.  I'm not talking about sustainability and corporate green-washing (though some are good), but the movement that gave rise to the wilderness.  Being from Billings, MT, I appreciate the Beartooth Mountains.  I appreciate their beauty, wonder and natural state.  Getting out there in nature is one of the most calming and clarifying things and individual can do.

When I think about these mountains, and all wilderness areas, I am reminded that they will be preserved for future generations.  As long as the protections aren't watered down, generations 200 years from now will appreciate them in the same was we've been able. We'd do well for ourselves to consider these very long-term aspects as we move forward in our civilization.

It's time to make the connections!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Are we in a Dark Age in (most) cities?

We have a feeling that something isn't right. We're used to the cities we live in and, many, don't bother with a different vision for the cities.  It seems normal to us.  However, there is a feeling that something isn't quite right.  How do I know this?  I know it by looking at pictures. A photo of the same place taken in the 1800s and today have much different perspectives and framing.  Take, for example, Battle Monument in Baltimore.  Let's compare two photos:

Battle Monument, Baltimore, 1838, www.archives.gov
The picture to the left shows the Battle Monument in 1893 and the one on the bottom is from 2007.  The top one shows the activity of the street, while the bottom one seems to try and block out the activity of the street.  I came across the picture on the left first and, then, did a Google image search.  Believe it, or not, the bottom image is the one I found that best shows the ground and surrounding level for anything of the new times.  I see this again and again in pictures. We block out or don't shoot what we don't like.Beyond the pictures though, we live in a time where there is reduced urban literacy, population declines in urban centers, a widening wealth gap, and a loss of the community sphere.

Battle Monument, Baltimore, 2007, www.hmdb.org

Fifty years on either side of the 19th century, something magical was in the air.  People felt as though they'd been liberated for the first time.  We'd been living a life restricted by the forces of nature and adapted.  Everything built had to be, what we call today, human scale.  Systems were limited to their ecological restraints - for the most part. As a society, we were limited to "current sunlight" and wind.  Suddenly, we could tap into all of the stored sunlight under the ground in the form of hydrocarbons. Suddenly, all of the rules we'd known had gone out the window and this opened up a whole new world.  You could, now put write the name "R. Mott" on a urinal and call it art.  Forget about everything we'd known about beauty, place-making, and building anything worth caring about.  We had a brand new, modern, world! 

During this modern time, things beyond our art began to change. Cities began to change.  We moved industry into the cities and, as a response, the urban planning profession was born to deal with the health conditions of the declining urban environment.  We introduced, for the first time, blanket zoning ordinances and the courts withheld their challenge. Urban planning had saved the day!!  People began to move the new streetcar suburbs and architectural modernism began to take shape.  We did away with all of the past knowledge and starting thinking about theories, models and planning on map or on paper.  This became so dramatic that the world actually produced a city called Brasilia. To highlight this point of forgotten knowledge, in my Masters program for urban planning (at a reputable university), our urban planning history class started with the late 1800s and the Chicago World's Fair.  I asked my professor, "What about everything before that? Planning didn't start then!"  He told me there were no classes offered.  Luckily, I found one architecture class that touches on the basics of past planning - a sort of survey class - but nothing in depth. 

Modernist Brasilia at ground level, World Affairs
Many factors led to the past dark ages.  One of the biggest factors lead to all of them - from Greek to Pre-History America - was the sacking and large-scale demolishing of culturally and economically important cities. People fled the cities for the countryside and/or became enslaved by the conquering body. It seems to me that we've done the same thing in most cities around the world to build highways and parking lots.  City after city - especially in the United States - demolished vibrant and active neighborhoods to bring in the Interstate Highways.  Everything was done for the automobile and with an esteem for the future and a removed connection the past.  It also appears as though we place very little thought on future generations.  When was the last time anything of great pride was constructed?  It seems most of the time it's a concern with trying something new and "inspired."  Though I like James Howard Kunstler's idea of the "fuck it!" approach.

Now, with all of these great 'advances' in urbanism, what have we got? Stip malls, blank facades, an over-dependence on the automobile and world of cities completely disconnected from their urban context (for the most part). Women, and I stress the word women, have to drive their children to daycare, school, practice, friends' homes, etc.  Also, what kind of world does this create for children?  What about disabled or poverty stricken people?  I read in the book, The Right to Transportation, that the number one barrier to getting off of Welfare is mobility and the lack of an ability to get to where the jobs are located.  Beyond these concerns, we have essentially no public sphere beyond bars.  When I lived in Maastricht, in the Netherlands, I'd go outside with my friends everyday to the city-center and walk around.  We'd often just people watch and be out in the community.  This is missing from most cities (especially U.S. cities).  Instead, with the modernist principles people are locked in isolation - in their cars, homes, or offices.  Where we've completely forgotten about the past as professionals, how can we not be in a dark age.  All of the signs point towards, yes.  If we weren't in a Dark Age for cities, how else would we end up with architecture like what is shown below and no attention paid to the ground level? The human level ...

Soul-less Stip Malls

Empty Parking Garages

 Militaristic Modern Facades

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Enrique Peñalosa: Planning Cities for People

Influential urban thinker, Enrique Peñalosa, delivers to a May 2012 crowd at the Gerding Theatre in Portland, OR. 

Here is a video from a project I worked on over this past spring, as the Co-Chair of the PSU Urban Planning Club, to bring Enrique Peñalosa to Portland for a lecture.  He's known as the former Mayor of Bogotá and an influential urban thinker.  He appears in the film Urbanized, which ranked #2 in my top ten list of urban documentaries. 

He did two events while in Portland. One at Metro regional government and another for the public at Portland Center Stage. They went over really well.  I didn't want to blog about it right after because I already posted a video with him in the last post and I wanted some space in between. I just thought you all might be interested in the video. 

Here is the video:

Some things I learned from Enrique while spending three days with him:

1. Stop and smell the flowers
2. Dream big and keep the vision 
3. Get involved in politics and network
4. Write
5. Don't be afraid to push for what you truly believe in. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Top Ten Documentaries about Urbanism and Suburbia

I decided to put together a list of some of my favorite urban planning documentaries, after looking around the internet and coming up short.  This is certainly not a comprehensive list and I'm constantly looking for new ones to watch.   Let me know if you have a good one not on here. I hope you find this useful. 


1. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces 

This is a classic and important documentary covering the research of William H. Whyte on public spaces. His humor mixes with a scientific approach to answering the simple question, "What makes good public spaces work and others not?"

While this is a film from 1980 and of poor technological quality, to today's standards, the content of the film is the highest available.  An absolute top of the list for urban films. Available on Vimeo. I've only found this one suitable preview, though it's not great.

2. Urbanized 

This is a fantastic film that examines cities from the U.S. to Latin America, Europe and beyond.  This documentary highlights many important aspects of urban, beyond New Urbanism, including transportation, public space, community, affordable housing, and the urbanization in developing countries.  It includes interviews with some of the world's top urban thinkers. A must watch for urban enthusiasts!

3. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

One of the most notorious social housing projects in the U.S., located in St. Louis, was demolished just a few short decades after being touted as "the answer."  Critics often use examples such as Pruitt-Igoe to rail  against modernism and social housing. 

While I - generally - don't like much about the modern movement in architecture or art, this film examines the deeper social reasons for the collapse of this development and the community it once supported.  This film looks into the broader context of St. Louis as a part of the reason for its failure.  Excellent film.   

4. e2: Adaptive Reuse in the Netherlands | season II episode 5

While many of the episodes I've seen in the documentary series seem to leave out the human/community aspects (including scale) and I mostly dislike much of what Brad Pitt advocates as "green", I found this particular episode useful despite some of the same old repetition of large scale and repeating facades. 

This short documentary examines a new development in Amsterdam that focuses on human needs and the importance of integrated incomes. One of my favorite sections of the episode comes at the end where they highlight a portion of small lots developed by individual homeowners creating a great mix. It can be seen on Hulu

5. Chávez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story

At number five on the list, this short film tells the story of the vibrant and mostly immigrant community that used to sit where modern-day Dodgers Stadium is located in Los Angeles. This documentary shows the human-side of those who were displaced mega projects during Modern Era and causes one to think about the need to consider equity impacts in urban planning.

6. Sprawling from Grace: The Consequences of Suburbanization

This film encapsulates one of the primary reasons I became interested in urban planning: the environmental impacts of our urban development patterns. Beyond these impacts, the movie looks at the reality of peak oil and the upcoming brick wall our economy faces when the realities of the situation become fully realized. 

Beyond the natural environment, this documentary also considers some of the consequences to the human environment and loss of community that comes from the suburban lifestyle.  While this movie hits homes many of the generally very important concepts, there is little new in the movie, earning it number six on my list.

7. A Convenient Truth: Urban Solutions from Curitiba, Brazil 

From the home of BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) and many other innovative approaches to solving issues facing urban centers around the globe, this movie should almost be number one on my list because it focuses on answers.  However, the lower production quality and lack of a hard-hitting storyline place this at number seven. 

This film demonstrates the importance of innovation in transportation, housing, public space, poverty and the environment. Curitiba is an  example to the world and many cities are following their lead (from Bogotá to New York City).

  8. Radiant City

This is another one of those films that could easily have made the top of my list, but didn't for reasons I'm not going to tell you because it'd give away some of the movie.  

This movie examines the life of suburban families in North America and critiques the lonely and car-dependent lifestyle in a humorous and engaging way.  A very entertaining film that will keep you watching.


9.The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and The Collapse of The American Dream

Another film much like Sprawling from Grace.  To be honest with you, this film only makes the list because there are such a limited number of strong urban documentaries out there.  It basically makes the argument that environmental constraints will bring an end to suburbia and stars James Howard Kunstler.

 10. Portlandia

I know, I know ... this isn't a documentary.  But it's so awesome that I had to put it on the list.  I mean, it does take place in an urban center and the town I call home. This is a hilarious series about the cultural idiosyncrasies that are Portland.  I suppose, amongst this list, you could say it is a social critique on the culture of what Richard Florida calls the "Creative Class."  An absolute, five-star, must watch.  On another list, it'd be number one.  

So, what did I miss?  What are your favorites?

Comments about my selection and any that are in your top list and didn't make my selection are welcome.