Archive for May, 2008

New Yorker cartoon

From the New Yorker, 01/14/08

One of our readers commented on a post from last week, “Some Policies for the Next City,” acknowledging our get-rid-of-the-cars suggestions as “delightfully draconian.” We take this as a high compliment – as the data on our threatened world become clearer and clearer, as gas prices and food costs soar, as our credit economy flutters to the floor like a house of cards, and as our politicians and leaders (of all stripes, I note) continue to offer very little leadership in what increasingly appears to be a time of very great need, draconian is looking better and better.

Our reader suggests that we need to manage suburban development, not ban it, by limiting lot sizes and minimizing auto trip lengths. Fair enough – we grew up in the suburbs, and know and love them well. In truth, though, we have been trying to manage suburban development for many, many decades, and I note without much progress, and especially as to sustainability.

A good read in this regard is Prof. Robert Bruegmann’s book of 2005, “Sprawl: a compact history.” Bob, who is a friend and Chair of the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes thoughtfully about the sprawling nature of cities throughout urban history, and in particular looks at the history of suburbs and suburban sprawl in the U.S. He concludes that cities, and suburbs, are extremely complex organisms, and are perhaps unshapeable by any force except individual desire and received cultural signals about what is valuable and what is right. Maybe a bit of draconian can help.

Our reader’s comment further suggests that we need to find ways to accommodate short-trip auto use (“allowing Al Gore to finish paving his driveway at his new house”), we need to push for greater density in suburbs and cities alike, and we need to plan for residential development teamed with transit (even buses – eew),  and places of employment within a 10 mile circle. Wouldn’t it be great if we could even get this far as a matter of public policy? Bravo, dear reader, and Godspeed. Let’s get this done right away. Even the bus part…

But the one thing that our reader offered that touched a chord is the observation that if people in our region are commuting to Washington from Pennsylvania, it may be because they were priced out of the closer-in suburbs. This seems quite correct, and one of the issues facing the next city, an issue that is very troubling and very complex, is how to provide housing for the market while insuring affordable housing as well.

Trying to tell folks to lead more modest lives is a true fool’s errand. Live with less, live smaller, live more lightly, and more affordably: hah! Perhaps only the presence of a real calamity could have this impact on our population. Wait – this is a real calamity…

So if the city, or suburb, becomes more dense, more ‘nodal,’ because of declining car use and the increased presence of transit,  and these places are seen as increasingly valuable economically and socially, how do we insure the widest range of housing for all? Does this remain a matter for statutory regulation, economic carrots and sticks, and development sanctions, (which is how we deal with affordable housing today)?

Questions without answers.

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Lately I have been enjoying trying out all of the carbon footprint calculators on the web. There are a lot – my favorite is at www.carbonfootprint.com (makes sense, yes?). It’s a way to get a check-up, and perhaps find a few ideas to help us all tread more lightly. As you fill in the blanks, recall that the per capita carbon output in the U.S. is 20.4 tons. And keep in mind that the average in Portugal (one of the lowest in Europe) is 5.63 tons per capita. By the way, you should get to know how many kilowatt hours of electricity you use annually, and how many therms of natural gas. And, what may be most critical, how many gallons of water you use in a month or a year.

Since we don’t own a car, and we have replaced nearly every lightbulb in the house with CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) and we keep our thermostat low in the winter (about 68, though Amy and I have been known to have thermowars) and high in the summer (78 lowest), we come out pretty good. 5.160 tons per capita, just a hair below Portugal.

Until you add in the plane flights. These are a real problem – they double our average, putting us back near Germany (9.79 tons). Which got me thinking.

Intercity rail is a much more sustainable transport mode than a car, or a bus. And way, way better than flying. So as we all watch the airline industry tanking with increasing fuel and labor costs (they’re dropping like flies), we need to recognize that we must reconstruct intercity rail transit in this country. Of course we used to have a terrific interurban system. And of course we ripped it all out…

An Interurban

What I am after is a good high speed intercity rail system for trips in the range of about 500 miles. If we could travel from city center to city center at that distance – say St. Louis to Detroit – in about 2.5 hours or 3 hours, the airlines could then focus on the longer distance stuff, and we could save tons of carbon, and barrels of oil in the bargain.

Think of it. Today, if Amy and I want to go from Portland to Seattle, or Washington to NYC, the drive is about 4 hours. The flight is about an hour, but probably 2 to 3 hours total. It’s about 4 hours on Amtrak, and the Acela, our slow U.S. version of high speed, takes about 3.5 hours here on the east coast. But the distance for both trips is around 200 miles. At 175 mph, which is a bit slower than France’s TGV average speed of 185 mph, we should be able to get there in a little more than an hour. And we would end up downtown, and we wouldn’t have to arrive early or struggle through security lines.

The Amtrak Acela

Amtrak’s Acela

James Howard Kunstler, in an Op-ed piece in the Post this past weekend, said “Fixing the U.S. passenger railroad system is probably the one project we could undertake right away that would have the greatest impact on the country’s oil consumption.” So not only will rebuilding high speed intercity rail help with carbon and oil, but the benefit will be increased by reworking the airline industry as well.

France\'s TGV

France’s TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse)

I say call your Senators and Representatives right away, send post cards, and get lobbying. Our National rail system is pathetic. We need to fund Amtrak to grow, and then reallocate our nation’s budget (in so many ways we need to aim our dollars at different targets, so to speak) so we can build high speed intercity transit, as have the Japanese, the Brits, the French, the Spaniards. This is not difficult to do – it just takes the realization that we have to shift the way we allocate dollars toward building the next city and its infrastructure.

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In the midst of a cool and damp spring, (we are grateful, after last year’s drought) came yesterday – a perfectly gorgeous day this Memorial Day weekend. And so we gardened, and then hopped on our bicycles to see what was going on in our city.

First we went down to the Mall and stood for a few minutes to watch the annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle procession. Beginning at the Pentagon, and going up and back around the Mall, a million motorcycles make this event every year. Yes, I did say a million. It goes on for 3 hours or so, without interruption. Amazing to see.

Looking up Pennsylvania Avenue to the northwest. The National Gallery of Art under the trees at the left, the tower of the Old Post Office on the right, up the Avenue.

Then it was on to the river’s edge, Southwest Waterfront, a ride past Fort McNair, and a spin around the new Nationals Stadium, where crowds were gathering for the afternoon game with the Milwaukee Brewers (Nats 7, Brewers 6).

Nationals Park

Nationals Park

Finally, it was home to the front porch, and the golden hour, when we could sit and watch the sun play on our National Park and our neighbors’ homes.


The golden hour

Nice day.

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The Rossio, Lisbon

The Rossio, Lisbon

This morning we are in the studio, writing and catching up before we venture out into our city on a gorgeous spring day. We chat back and forth, and I tell Amy that where I would like to be today is Lisbon, strolling the city and sitting in a cafe near the Rossio. She thinks about this for a moment and then says that she would most like to return to Topkapi today, in Istanbul, and then stroll down the hill to the little place where we had lunch that day not so long ago.

The kitchens of Topkapi, Istanbul

The kitchens of Topkapi Palace, Istanbul 

I am musing about our memories of distant places, known for a few hours and now lodged in our memories with images, smells, sounds, the slant of sunlight, a misty drizzle. And I am thinking about my sister, and brother-in-law, who are about to return to a place they know so well, Florence, to reconnect with their storehouse of memories of distant places. Our feet are getting itchy…

Out into the city!

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Carol Stream, Illinois

Carol Stream, Illinois. Photo by Alex MacLean.

Happily, a long time Chicago friend joined us here for dinner last night. We sat on the porch to watch and listen to the city, fired up the grille, and enjoyed catching up – it was a treat.

We were surprised and pleased to hear that he has been reading what we have been writing. And he had a suggestion: ‘stop wringing your hands and start offering some solutions.’ (He was more tactful, but we got the message). Fair enough. Herewith, a first installment of suggestions aimed at shifting public policy in the direction of making a more sustainable next city.

1. Immediately stop all construction of any new parking facilities across the nation. This would make me a real popular guy, but we have enough parking and cars already. Basta.

2. Remove parking requirements from all zoning ordinances. No more accomodating the car, no more trying to squeeze cars into our cities and towns. We have what we have – no more parking spaces are needed. Take the streetcar, walk, bike, buy a Segway, ride the bus.

3. Having achieved the first two suggestions, and instantly witnessing the turmoil these will certainly induce, simultaneously require congestion pricing in all cities. Briefly, congestion pricing, which is already in place in London, Stockholm and elsewhere, and has been proposed for Manhattan, requires payment of a fee if you want to bring a vehicle into a central sector of a city.  In London, the fee is about $15 a day, and if you violate the rules, the fine is between about $150 and $350 per violation. Former London mayor Ken Livingstone was trying to set much higher fees for vehicles that are major polluters, but he got canned in the recent election – we’ll have to see where things go from here.

4. Now here is an inverse suggestion. For any new exurban or suburban development, levy a very stiff ‘congestion development’ fee. I am thinking that this has to be on a graded scale to take location, unit size, and development size into consideration.

But the fee has to be big enough to cover the cost of building new and caring for existing infrastructure, including roads and utilities, and schools and social infrastructure as well. And it has to be big enough to induce redevelopment of existing places, making them more dense and more affordable, rather than using up more land and resources in the countryside. Young families move to the edges of cities to secure inexpensive housing, and to get their kids into good schools. Instead, stay in the city, and let’s fix the schools. So I think we should start at something like $400,000 or $500,000 per unit as a minimum.

Hysterically, we attended a lunch presentation today where the speaker, from a ‘green’ group giving awards for ‘sustainable’ projects, called one of his awardees, which looked a lot like the typical suburban/exurban development mess, “transit ready development.” Oh no you don’t…

These places generate very high levels of car trips, they require commutes at least to a distant commuter parking facility, or worse they encourage long commutes to and from workplaces. (Folks are commuting to and from Washington these days from Pennsylvania – take a look at your map). There is a longer list of the problems developments like this create, but for the moment, let’s just stick with a few transportation related issues. Estimates suggest that commuters waste 5.7 billion gallons of gasoline a year, as they sit for an average of 46 hours a year in traffic.


Schaumburg, Illinois. Photo by Alex MacLean.

Now take the downtown congestion pricing fees and the suburban and exurban levies and start building transit options. Quickly. Let’s get rid of as many cars as we can, as fast as we can. 

Anyway, it’s a start. More to follow.

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Gijon, Spain

A square in Gijon, Spain – dense, with a terrific mixture of uses, and even, yes, bike rentals. (Carbon footprint in Spain: 7.72 tons per capita, 2004)

I just cannot resist picking at some low-hanging fruit. In yesterday’s New York Times, staff writer Paul Krugman wrote an op-ed piece he filed in Berlin, while traveling in Germany. (Carbon footprint in Germany: 9.79 tons per capita, 2004).  The piece is entitled “Stranded in Suburbia” – you can look it up.

In this piece, Prof. Dr. Krugman (Princeton, Economics) writes that he believes we are in trouble with the way we live, in a time of rising fuel costs, and as we face issues of sustainability and rising food prices. (Carbon footprint in U.S.: 20.4 tons per capita, 2004). He compares our way of living with what he is experiencing in German cities and towns. So far so good. He notes that we use too much oil, have too many cars, and he tells us that our patterns of habitation are wrong in these challenging times. He suggests that we should drive less, in smaller cars, use transit more often, stay away from suburbs, and live instead in mixed use settings with more density and more services. Okay then.

What planet is this guy on? Hey, New York Times, Rome is burning – cut the fiddling! Seldom do we have a chance to see the profoundly obvious so underwhelmingly stated, and by the world’s greatest newspaper no less. I guess it may be too late, after all. 

In Lisbon

In Lisbon. (Carbon footprint in Portugal: 5.63 tons per capita, 2004).

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Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore

South Washington Place, looking north to the Washington Monument

We hopped on the MARC train the other morning, and journeyed from Capitol Hill to Penn Station in downtown Baltimore. Destination: Mount Vernon Place, home to the 180 foot tall Robert Mills designed Washington Monument, the Peabody Library, and the Walters Art Museum, where we attended a terrific exhibition called “Maps: Finding our Place in the World.”

Mount Vernon Place

The four park blocks of Mount Vernon Place

This place is one of the great urban spaces in the nation, and the story of its creation is both very typical of how American cities grow, and pretty funny as well.

In 1809 a group of prominent Baltimoreans asked the state legislature to allow them to conduct a lottery, a very common fundraising scheme then as now, for the purpose of creating the very first monument to George Washington. Legislators agreed, and a site was selected (the site of the old Baltimore Court House, then being torn down), a budget established ($100,000) and a design competition held.

Robert Mills, who described himself proudly as the first American born and trained architect, and who would design THE Washington Monument 18 years later, won the competition. His design focused on a 160 foot tall column, on top of which stood a nearly 20 foot tall statue of Washington, dressed in a toga and riding in a chariot (Washington got dressed in togas a lot in those times…). Mills was awarded the $500 prize, and the commission for the monument, in 1815.

When property owners around the old Court House saw Mills’ design, they got pretty upset, because they were sure that the column was going to topple over on one or another of their properties. It seemed the monument was doomed, but John Eager Howard, himself a revolutionary war hero and friend of Washington’s, came forward and donated the Mount Vernon Place site, the highest spot in Baltimore and then called Howard’s Woods. The site had the further advantage that it was well away from downtown, and fearful neighbors. Ground was broken on July 4th of 1815. 

Mount Vernon Place East

East Mount Vernon Place

The column was up and visible by 1824, but by then Mills had busted the budget by almost 300%, and had been forced to substantially simplify his design. To give you an idea of how overwrought Mills could be, take a look at his winning design for the Washington Monument in Washington.


The Washington Monument, Washington, DC

I guess we should be glad that Mills kept running out of money.

Anyway, a competition was then held for the Washington statue, now sans chariot for lack of cash, and Enrico Causici was selected to sculpt a 21 ton toga-clad Washington. The statue was raised up in November of 1829, and the monument was complete. But not the great urban space.

West Mount Vernon Place

West Mount Vernon Place

John Eager Howard died in 1827 before the monument was complete. It was his heirs who laid out the park blocks, in the form of a Greek cross. The Mount Vernon Places are on the east and west, the Washington Places on the north and south. Then, having created lovely park blocks, and because they owned all the adjacent land, Howard’s heirs began selling lots. By the 1850s, this was one of the wealthiest and most desirable places to live in all of Baltimore.

So let’s recap. We have here the most noble of civic intentions, games of chance, an overheated architect (is there any other kind?), a full complement of not-in-my-backyarders, more good civic intentions, a major budget bust, a shrewd real estate development, and lots of urban status seekers. Combine all of this and somehow, unbelievably but thankfully, we end up with this extraordinary urban space. It certainly could have been otherwise…

We had a wonderful day in Baltimore, we learned an entertaining story of American urbanism, we saw a fabulous exhibition of maps at the Walters (maps by da Vinci, Ben Franklin, A. Lincoln, Tolkien – go if you get a chance), and we spent time enjoying one of the best urban places you could ever hope to see.

And completely in keeping with the wacky story of the place, this is what we saw as we began the stroll back to Penn Station:

A Turtle in West Mount Vernon Place

A young woman, out walking her pet turtle. Ahhh – urban life.

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