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In the Old City, Ahmedabad.

In February and March we spent a month visiting seven cities across India, from south to north, from west to east. Our time there was completely exceptional: invaluable, surprising, educational, revealing, depressing, infuriating, eye-opening and more. I continue to reflect on those days, and it has taken me until now to begin to digest, and therefore to be able to begin to describe, what we saw and experienced. Herewith, some first thoughts.

First, this: it seems certain that the best opportunity to understand the city in the 21st century and its challenges, obstacles, options and solutions, may be in India. India’s 1.3 billion souls live in the largest democracy on Earth, they own a rapidly expanding and developing economy, they face nearly insurmountable problems, and they are working as hard as they can to build a better urban future. Perhaps once we might have gone to Rome or Paris or Vienna to build a foundation for 20th century urbanism in the west. But now it’s time for the American Academy in Rome to become the American Academy in Delhi, or Chennai. I urge you: go, look, learn – you will be changed forever.

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The seven cities we visited were, in the order in which we saw them, Chennai (once called Madras), Mysore, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Delhi. Together, their populations equal over 70 million. To put that in some kind of perspective – a central operation both during and after this remarkable journey – the largest 72 cities in the U.S. add up to about 70 million.

In the U.S., 82% of us live in metropolitan areas. In India, 32% of the population live in a metropolitan area. India’s urban populations are exploding – most have doubled in size since 2000 – and this explosion gives potent urgency to the need to solve a panoply of problems that we face, and that they face, as the future races toward us all.

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Sarojini Nagar Market, in Delhi.

These cities feature an average density of 30,000 people or more per square mile. To say that slightly differently, each citizen has just over 900 square feet in which to dwell. In U.S. cities, we average about 5,000 people per square mile, or approximately 5,600 square feet per person. Indian cities are really dense.

And loaded with unbearable traffic, too many cars and motos, and endless honking and pushing and shoving. In the context of a measureable poverty of road infrastructure, the cities we visited had – nonetheless – over 20 million cars. Chaos.

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Traffic in Bangalore.

Vehicular traffic is so bad that there is NO solution that involves cars. The car is over in many places in this world, and in India expanding wealth will most definitely not want to hear this, but there is no urban mobility solution that involves cars. In Bangalore they twice tried an even/odd license plate number scheme to control congestion, and there were nearly riots in the streets. In that city, the average speed for traffic is projected to be 6 mph by 2030. We sat in one Bangalore traffic jam for over an hour and moved only the length of a ruler. A short ruler.

Gather all of the traffic engineers and transport experts in a room, tell them that they must solve problems in urban mobility, and let them know that no solution they devise can employ cars. We will see what they come up with, and it seems likely we’ll see it first in a city in India: their current state of urban transportation demands as yet unimagined solutions.

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Traffic in Delhi.

So many other challenges exist. In Bangalore, for instance, the city has seen 525% population growth, a 78% decline in vegetation, and a 79% decline in water bodies in the last few decades. Some Indian urban experts call Bangalore a dead city. And yet,

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Bangalore.

life goes on there.

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Traffic in Bangalore, beneath the Metro.

Another challenge: when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, one of his early pledges involved toilets. In India, 53% of homes have no toilet, and this is causing and has caused giant health problems. While 89% of this problem exists in rural locales, it is significant that many Indians prefer NOT to use toilets.

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Sprawl on the horizon, Delhi.

And then there is sprawl. As I have noted, Indian cities are expanding at breakneck speed, and while the improvisational and makeshift nature of much vernacular Indian urbanism covers some of this expansion, each of the cities we visited, big or small, is struggling with sprawl. Indian planners and architects and developers, using western and mostly U.S. patterns and models for ongoing contemporary development – single separated uses, car domination, and a pronounced lack of walkability – are creating places (well, not really places, but locations) that they will very soon come to regret. In the context of  the rapid urban growth of each city, the weaknesses of this method of dealing with needed newness shows up really fast. We had a mid morning flight one morning (commercial aviation in India is well developed and quite sophisticated) and we were told we had to depart for the airport at 6:30am for a 10:00am flight. We drove for hours through dreadful and very recent developments, in horrific traffic. Try something else, folks.

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Bangalore’s 2031 Master Plan – a bit of a puzzle.

And that something else could find its roots in the contingent and provisional urbanism so characteristic of the oldest parts of Indian cities. While it is true that much of this ad hoc urbanism has all kinds of structural and infrastructural problems, it is also true that the density of this urbanism, its mixture of uses, its walkable intimacy, are potent paradigms for growing a city. Some of the most powerful and moving places we witnessed were these older places. They are so vividly alive, so robust and vital.

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The images: two from Ahmedabad, one from Jaipur, and two from Delhi.

That vitality of Indian cities, more exuberantly than almost anywhere we have been, is situated in the  life of the street. In Indian cities, the street is a conduit for, and the principle stage of daily life. Dodge the motos and walk the streets – it is worth every second. Everywhere are merchants on the ground floor, usually open to the street, and often grouped by type: the jeweler’s street, the baker’s street, the tailor’s street.

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Jaipur.

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Jodhpur.

And above? All kinds of things: apartments, clinics, hotels, more shops – a real mix. These streets filled with commotion are active and vigorous day and night. The theater of these cities has no intermission.

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Chickpet and Avenue Roads, Bangalore.

In the end, the challenges are colossal. But these cities are so full of life and energy. And they seem to be – except maybe for the politicians – mostly free of cynicism. And marked by a substantial good will. There seems to be some hope that these cities can and will, eventually, show the rest of us how to make a 21st century urbanism. We can watch, and we will anticipate, how this struggle unfolds. Onward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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There is an empty site in our downtown. It is called Parcel 5. It has resulted from the slow but steady redevelopment of an area once occupied by an enclosed but long gone shopping mall called Midtown Plaza. New buildings are to the west, and an older and ugly existing building is to the east. To the south is an old slug of a tower building which is being nicely redone. To the north is our Main Street. This part of our city is coming around – it will take a while but there is a pretty strong pulse – the patient will most definitely survive.

Except there is a small problem. Parcel 5. A few years ago the Jazz Festival here decided to stage their closing act, Trombone Shorty, on the empty lot which is Parcel 5. Tens of thousands came to the evening performance, and the magic of a summer evening in the city hit each of them like an opiate. “Wow, what a city, what a great place, how wonderful to be with tens of thousand of people in a city, ooh, the skyline, the stars, the city, wow! Awesome!” Problem.

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Now there is a movement, gaining strength, to leave parcel 5 empty, so that an endless procession of Trombone Shortys (or is that Shorties?) will have a place in our downtown.

Meanwhile our hapless Mayor has decided to back a plan to construct a 3,000 seat theater on Parcel 5, with a tower above it. The chances of this project actually being funded and constructed seem microscopic, and there are a handful of sane and smart alternative proposals for the site in the wings, so to speak, waiting for the big project to collapse.

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Beyond the infeasible character of the theater proposal for Parcel 5, it represents something we really don’t need here. The main advocate, a staunch mayoral supporter, heads up an organization that imports shows from Broadway, and he insists – as he has for years – that we MUST have this facility. No, we don’t must. And certainly we don’t need something we can’t afford, that will be used only sporadically, and that will cater to lots of folks for whom downtown is a rare and spooky destination only to be visited in a car locked safely inside yet another unnecessary parking garage.

So that’s the Parcel 5 dilemma. An empty lot with gravel in a holding pattern for Trombone Shorty, or a gigantic theater that represents the latest legacy mistake in our downtown. What a tasty choice!

I have given a bit of thought to this – mostly to teach myself some Photoshop techniques…. – and I have come up with this:

Midtown parcel 5 San Marco

I actually figured out how to make this look presentable. Shocking….

We’re all focused on the river at the moment – the Governor has offered 50 million reasons to do so – but Parcel 5 is right around the corner. In a city with some pretty terrific and almost forgotten open spaces in our downtown. Like this:

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Washington Square Park, long our city’s centerpiece, and now the site of a murder of crows.

As the Evil Witch said, “What a world, what a world!”

Ugh. Somehow, we seem incapable of naming any important planning or design initiative anything other than ROC. ROC is the airport code for Rochester.

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Must we really persist in this ROC title for our restaurants, bars, carpet cleaners, dry cleaners, home inspectors, car repair shops, bagel shops, theaters, barber shops, moving companies?… And urban design plans?

Anyway, the Governor of New York has threatened to provide our city with tens of millions of dollars ($50 million) to transform the Genesee River, which runs through our city, into the asset that it should be, and could be. The City’s ‘plan’ for the money involves spending most of it on maintenance that should be undertaken anyway, like repairing and redesigning very bad riverside plazas (with parking underneath: let’s get rid of all parking along the river – all of it) created during “urban renewal”, fixing terraces and paving at public facilities alongside the river, or repairing the now pedestrian-only Pont de Rennes bridge, which crosses the river at High Falls and offers sensational views of the city’s greatest natural asset (it needs to be fixed – it’s rusting!).

Pont de Rennes bridge

Oh, and there is a plan to re-water the aqueduct that once carried the Erie Canal through our downtown. Really expensive ($35 million?!?). This is, for me, way down the list of things we need to do right away.

The place to begin, it seems to me, is to create a real plan. This would include tasks and costs, as in the city’s shopping list, and then move on to priorities, phases, and methods of implementation. Our river runs through downtown, and the return on investment there could be quite substantial. But our river runs through the rest of the city as well, past University and neighborhoods, parks and other waterfalls, wetlands and marshes, marinas and boat clubs, all the way out to Lake Ontario.

What we really need to do is just three really important things. If it takes $50 million, fine. If not, call me: I could go on…. Here’s my list:

  • Connect both sides of the river continuously for public use, from Lake Ontario some 8 miles to the north, to as far south as money and jurisdictional power will take us. (I am told that the only way to do this is to redo the aqueduct. I say Nuts to that).
  • Invest in the waterfall and its High Falls District, which lies at the heart of our city, and our city’s history, and support programs which educate, celebrate and redevelop this central stage of our community. (Full disclosure: I am on the board of Greentopia, and we are proposing that this place, and our first-in-New-York-State Eco-District, get some help in this ROC thing).

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  • Make the river in our downtown the magnet for citizens, businesses and adjacent redevelopment that other cities – Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver, Grand Rapids, others – have succeeded in achieving. This would mean $100s of millions in increased value, jobs, and tax revenues if done properly. Downtown river development has worked real wonders in other cities, like Columbus, Ohio, or Greenville, South Carolina.

High Falls aerialPhoto from Greentopia.

That’s it. Three tasks. If we did these three, perhaps we could go from ROC to Rochester. Wouldn’t that be nice?

 

 

The Alley in History, Part II

Or the History of Alleys, if you would prefer. It turns out that there are many who have made passing reference to alleys in their urban histories, or urban critiques. But there is, in fact, no definitive history of the alley in North American city making.

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Thanks to Linda Just for this alley image.

I have gratefully received suggested readings and sources from many readers, and many colleagues. I have enjoyed such texts as Grady Clay’s wonderful little pamphlet, “Alleys: A Hidden Resource,” from 1975. Mr. Clay makes a number of wonderful suggestions about the redesign of a handful of Louisville’s alleys, which, alas, were never implemented.

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Mr. Clay’s Louisville alley, behind Brook and Oak, sadly unimproved.

I have re-read old favorites, such as Witold Rybczynski’s “City Life,” from 1995. I have pored over “Civic Art” and “The New Civic Art.” I have thumbed through my well worn John Reps volumes about the making of urban America. It has been a most enjoyable search through old and new volumes.

And I am recalling the work we did in Washington DC to re-curate an exhibition, now gone, at the National Building Museum entitled “Washington Symbol and City.” We looked in great detail at alleys in that city: DC’s alleys are a central element of the city’s narratives of race, poverty, and segregation.

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Blagden Alley, Washington, DC, 1923.

So alleys are rich places, filled with all kinds of stories about who we were, how we dealt with one another, what we cared about, and where we are headed. Today, in a handful of American and Canadian cities, alleys are being reevaluated, redesigned, revalued, and conserved as the substantial urban assets that they are.

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From the Portland Alley Project, a design guide.

My brother, Doug Decker, has written wonderfully about alleys in his neighborhood in NE Portland, Oregon. You can find his work here:

https://alamedahistory.org/2017/11/28/in-praise-of-alleys/

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An alley in Portland. Thanks, Doug.

Graduate students, this is it!! A thesis that could easily place you high in the urban history firmament! An overview of alley facts and alley history as a foundation from which to begin might include:

  • Probably you begin with William Penn’s plan for Philadelphia in 1682. (Oh, and note: there is almost no worthwhile alley material to be found outside North America. You should look, but I think you will not find much at all). Anyway, in Philly the alleys were not for service, which is the use that most comes to mind when the word alley arises. Instead, as a prelude to places like Washington DC much later, the alleys were for the poor. Perhaps this was the beginning of the clichéd impression that alleys were scary, often dirty and filthy places, where smart citizens were wary of entry.
  • Next you might want to head to James Oglethorpe’s plan of Savannah, Georgia, from 1733. Here, the alley was in fact used to service the “big house.”
  • Rybczynski suggests moving next to Ebenezer Zane’s plan for Zanesville, Ohio, of 1799.
  • After Zanesville alleys show up in short order in places like Columbus, Ohio, Detroit, and in 1830, Chicago.

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Panama Street, Philadelphia.

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An alley in Savannah.

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An alley in Zanesville, Ohio.

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Hunter Alley, Chicago, 1901.

After that, who knows. Alleys faded from the urban design repertoire by 1920 or so. You can tell us why.

And then you can tell us what happens next. Some of us have found all kinds of interesting developments underway. But what should we do, for example, in a place like Rochester New York, with its endless 1,500 foot long blocks with no alleys?

My hearty thanks to all those who offered suggestions about sources. Onward!

 

My brother Doug and I got into a discussion of blocks and alleys and urbanism on this Thanksgiving Day. He writes quite wonderfully about his neighborhood in Portland, Oregon: Alameda. You can find his work here: www.alamedahistory.org.

He said: “‘I am also working on something about alleys here in northeast Portland. The earlier neighborhoods (before 1911) have alleys. South of Prescott, we don’t have any. What changed, I wonder, to move away from alleys? Was this a national movement that coincided with the car? Hmm. Insights?”

Well, of course he is exactly correct. As the incidence of car ownership rose – and it did so really fast – the alley disappeared, developers platted lots back-to-back, and the American city block became just a bit poorer for the change. Here in Rochester we had 4,000 cars in about 1912, and 40,000 cars less than 10 years later. Simultaneously as the 19 teens unfolded, we had 250′ deep blocks, some of which ran/run on for over 1,500′ as the nascent city took shape.. A real urban mess.

Why a mess? Well long thin blocks means less access, of course less walkability and permeability, eventually less security, and certainly a crimp in urban mobility, whatever your means of locomotion.

Interestingly, it is not that hard to find developers saying, in the early years of the century of the car, that automobiles belonged in front of the house, not at the rear, like horses and carriages. Harrumph.

The gold standard for the American city block form, in my view, is the Chicago block (okay, I am a Chicagoan, but still….). 660′ long, and 350′ deep, from the center of the rights-of-way. This gives you 125’ deep lots, a nice alley, and useable streets.

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But similar conventional urban forms can be found in other cities. Even where the urban block form is very large – Salt Lake City comes to mind – there are internal means of movement, which if not alleys, are at least byways that promote some kind of porosity.

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Salt Lake City block.

All of this left me wondering. I know that there are comparative typologies that examine the city block in American cities. One looks like this:

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By Isomorphism3000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23516392

Not sure what they were looking at when they did Chicago (it was probably the Loop, where the block form is anomalous), but this is a pretty good summary. In the end though, the sketches, and this entire conversation, beg a few really simple questions: where did the alley come from anyway, how did it work in various urban morphologies, when did it go away (always in the 1910s?), and what were the consequences?

I would have thought that someone would have written a history of the American city block, and the alley. Not so, that I can find.

Maybe you can suggest sources. Any ideas?

 

 

 

 

The Village