Archive for December, 2008

We’ve all had that moment of panic, and despair, as the screen on our computer suddenly goes blue. Marooned. Computer hell. And pretty common. The geeks have an acronym for this condition – BSOD – the Blue Screen Of Death. It might look like this:


When this blueness shows up, your situation is suddenly very problematic. You are in big trouble, at least for the moment.

In the world of buildings and cities, there is an equivalent blueness. This blue signals catastrophe, abandonment, change and transition, temporality. The blue tarp.


After Hurricane Frances, Florida.

I got to thinking about this the other day as I was looking for something in my now gigantic image files, collected over the last year of blogging here. I found that somehow I had dozens of images of blue tarps – in slums, after disasters, during storms, during periods of change and transition.

And I realized that the blue tarp has become an international symbol. On Google Image, 121,000 pictures. On flickr, 2,880 images. They are from every corner of the earth, and a few show funny blue tarp uses (a dress, a blanket, a purse, a camping shelter). But mostly they show misery.


After a tornado in Georgia.


A Louisiana Christmas display, after Katrina.


Slum housing in India.


A dwelling, in Vietnam.


Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai.


Acqua alta, in Venice.

Blue screens. Blue tarps. Kind of gives me the blues.

All of which reminded of a quote by Ralph Ellison: “The blues is an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances.”

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Mall Gone


Waterside Mall, in Washington, is razed. Photo from flickr.


This is our 100th post on A Town Square. Thanks for being a part of the tiny band that visits from time to time.


I was absolutely dumbfounded and thrilled the other day, when I picked up the Washington Post and read the article, below in its entirety, by Chadwick Matlin, who is a young journalist and currently the Dutko Fellow at Slate.

His riff on Wal-Mart is not my cup of tea (never shopped there, never will), and I would have emphasized the local and the regional, and perhaps talked about reviving a walkable Main Street neighborhood, but otherwise, I’m good with this.

He proposes the obvious, to me, but I think the not-so-obvious to many. Ironically, this piece appeared the day after Christmas, when malls everywhere were trying to pick up the pieces following a dismal holiday season.

In the next city, there will be no malls. Here’s Matlin’s piece.


The Washington Post
Tear Down That Mall

By Chadwick Matlin
Friday, December 26, 2008

A couple of years ago, in a bid to make fun of 1980s cheesiness, CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother” featured a music video called “Let’s Go to the Mall.” Its main target was the horrible fashion sense of that lost decade, but it was a critique of something else, too. Because the song was set in and about a mall, it subsequently ripped teeny-bop culture and the North American impulse toward consumer escapism.

It’s hard to figure out what’s changed about malls since then. Malls are a testament to the kind of consumer thinking that got us into the recessionary mess we’re in today, after all. And that’s why we need to close every single one of them.

Already, malls are in a considerable amount of trouble. Shopping centers on the block are selling for 25 to 35 percent less than they did a year ago. Retail vacancies are on the rise; nationally, 6.6 percent of stores were empty in the third quarter of 2008, a 20 percent increase over the same quarter last year and the highest rate since 2002. Much of the pain is interwoven with the retail sector, where analysts estimate 148,000 stores will have been closed in 2008.

And it will only get worse. Mall stalwarts like KB Toys, Steve & Barry’s, and Linens ‘N things are all closing. The recession is expected to rage through 2009, and retail chains will probably be looking at dismal holiday numbers. A mall’s chief purpose these days is to be there come the holidays. Now that we’re beyond that season, many stores will need to shutter in the New Year.

Every store that closes has an impact on the shops left behind. Fewer stores means less foot traffic; less foot traffic means less window shopping; less window shopping means fewer impulse buys. It’s a positive-feedback loop that, for malls, is actually negative.

Thus, several of the biggest American mall owners are fighting to stave off bankruptcy as bad bets in real estate have weighed down their ledgers. But, just like with cash-starved families looking to sell their homes, buyers will now only purchase malls for a lowered price since the industry’s outlook is so bleak. This would entail huge losses for the mall owners, so they continue to balk. At some point, though, something has to give.

And when it does, there’s going to be major consolidation in the industry. Our current economic state is simply not able to sustain so many meccas of merchandise. Some malls will likely close as fewer and fewer chains are willing to spread themselves so thin. Because, really, if Starbucks isn’t expanding, then nobody else is, either.

But why just consolidate? Let’s close them all. I’m not saying that all of their tenants should close. Instead, the stores that once filled the malls should go and fill other empty storefronts dispersed across the city. Call it the great chain-store diaspora.

To realize just how outdated malls are, let’s think of the few benefits they offered in the first place.

One-stop shopping

Before Wal-Mart and Amazon, malls were the place to maximize shopping efficiency. Besides a grocery market, they had almost every consumer good you could ask for, and usually at reasonable prices. But now Wal-Mart and Amazon do exist, and they’re even better than malls. Wal-Mart offers groceries along with the rest of the bric-a-brac and does it at a cheaper price than any other physical location. Amazon, meanwhile, has a selection far wider than a mall could ever hope to match and pro-consumer prices because the company’s overhead is so much lower than a department store’s.

Lower overhead

From a retail perspective, malls were once handy because they freed stores from the hassles of managing their property. Essentially, the mall serves as the landlord and the shops are its tenants. But that relationship has become increasingly strained as the rent has stayed relatively flat after years of incremental increases. There’s less money to go around now, and chains could be thinking twice about having a landlord, especially when commercial real estate is so cheap, thanks to the depressed real estate market. Smart business may mean a store moves out and gets its own place, free from those security guards nagging them all the time. Plus, it would help lift sagging commercial real estate prices.

Blue- and pimple-collar jobs

The retail sector, of course, is a key piece of the American work force. Remember the 148,000 store closings? Those translated into 625,000 lost jobs, many of them held by the people who could least afford to lose them — working-class and young Americans. But to repeat, closing the mall does not mean closing the stores. The mall itself does not have that many jobs to offer the community. Aside from administrative and security duties, there isn’t much left. Closing the mall would leave an unfortunate but ultimately negligible wake.

Perhaps the greatest impact would be on teen culture, a risk of which I am acutely aware. I spent many weekend afternoons gazing at the bracketed racks of video game stores, wondering how to stretch my birthday money into as many games as possible. Afterward, I’d meet friends at the food court and order a four-cheese slice at Sbarro, masochistically counting down the minutes until the inevitable stomachache. Yes, the mall was a place where I could go to dream big and forget that I hadn’t yet done my homework.

But if this economic disaster has taught us anything, it’s that folks need to pay a little more attention and stop throwing all their cares away. For that to happen, we need to make sure that no one can ever again scream, “Let’s go to the mall.”

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The North Sea. Photo by Captain Tim.

Spend? Save? It turns out that economist John Maynard Keynes came up with a name for the quandary I am in about saving, spending, and an economy we are watching slip beneath the waves faster than a melting glacier. He called it the Paradox of Thrift.

The Paradox goes like this: if I save money, reduce spending, and pay down debt, I am doing what seems good for me individually, in a stormy economy. But my retreat, Keynes tells me, can actually be bad for the larger economy: if we all respond in the same way, demand will fall, production will slow, and recession will take over.

Now I am no economist – just ask my dear Amy. But I have arrived at the conclusion that perhaps the Paradox of Thrift could represent an opportunity to induce some much needed economic change. And as I snooped around for advice, I found that some economists actually agree with me. Or should I say that I found I agree with some economists?

The solution to the Paradox is to demand, consume and produce the local and renewable. Keep whatever shrinking wealth we might have within sight, build local economic muscles, protect local jobs, and begin to construct a sustainable region and home place.

For example, (as I have been wondering, endlessly) what if we could buy enough local food, in quality, quantity and diversity, to sustain us? What if we didn’t have to purchase edibles from halfway across the globe, or the nation? We would save energy, cut pollution, create jobs, and simultaneously change the landscape of our regions. You know, farms for malls – that kind of thing.

We try to buy local at our neighborhood public market, but the supply of local produce and meats is pretty thin. There are a few organic produce farmers on weekends, but that’s about it. Eastern Market is a wonderful place to visit, an important historic resource, and a true and beloved Capitol Hill asset. But as for the food you can purchase there, it’s not much better (and is more expensive) than the nasty Safeway down the street. I suppose we could do better if we had a car….

And what if, as I ask endlessly, our energy came from local and renewable sources? We could start a municipal composting program, reduce our waste, provide fertilizers for a now-burgeoning regional agricultural industry, and use the biomass of the compost to generate power. Here in Washington only 4% of our electricity comes from renewable sources. Solar? 0%. Wind? .5%. Solid waste – burning waste products, mostly paper, to generate steam to turn turbines? 1.4%. And biomass? .2%.

The local power company, PEPCO, is scrambling to increase power available from local, renewable sources. They have said that they want nearly 10% of Washington’s power to come  from renewables by 2020. Not at all great, but a tiny start.

Maybe we can outflank the Paradox, and Keynes. Perhaps we can channel all of our purchases, and demands, into local resources. First, I guess, we’ll need to learn what local resources we have – we’ll need some kind of an inventory. I don’t really know much about my choices. I can turn on the radio or TV and find out where to buy a Toyota, but as for products grown or constructed in the city, or region, there’s not much guidance available.

Oh, I can surf to find out where to buy half a cow, or a bushel of organic potatoes. There’s plenty of information available, just no system that makes sense of the information. At the moment, the connections between local goods and local consumers relies on individual resourcefulness.

One next step might be to make these connections strong, obvious, inevitable, permanent. Why can’t I walk into any local store and find the best products from local sources? Why do I have to go on a reconnaissance mission to find a grass fed pork chop? What if we made local and regional stuff the stuff that’s on the shelves in our neighborhood supermarket, or hardware? If we demand it, and then purchase it, this might happen.

Ahhh – a sea of opportunity, aswirl in a Paradox. Stormy, maybe. But oceans of possibilities.

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By Tom Toles, the Washington Post.

In 9th grade, Mrs. Studer told me I was a total dud at math. I guess she was right: I just can’t figure out how things are supposed to work in times like these. I think I need some help with these equations.

Finally, folks seem to be spending less, and perhaps consuming what they already have instead of consuming what they don’t need. Do we really need a DVD player in the shower? (Wetflix?).

American consumers have been totally out of control for far too long – journalist Steven Pearlstein, in Saturday’s Post, says that the economic meltdown has been fueled by “decades of national profligacy.”

So here’s the part I don’t get. The pundits, like Pearlstein, or Thomas Friedman at the New York Times, are urging us to come to our consumerist senses, hold mortgages that are non-fiction, get rid of credit card and line-of-credit debt. Meanwhile UCLA’s Prof. Jared Diamond reminds us that the developed nations of the world consume 32 times more stuff than the developing world, a circumstance that is ridiculously unsustainable (if everyone on Earth consumed like we did, it would be as if the planet had a population of 72 billion. Now that’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”).

On the other hand, we hear that retail sales have taken a nosedive and earnings are choking. Unemployment is rising fast, new construction is way down, and the car companies are shutting for a month at a time (finally). We need to get out their and spend! So here’s my question: are we supposed to buy stuff now or not?

How exactly should we arrange our economic lives? For decades, our economic mantra has been “more.” Growth, for its own sake, has been the goal. Now we learn that growth perhaps has limits – limits of capital and credit: even greed appears to have found its limits. We can’t really buy what we need most – goods that are renewable and local, and communities that are sustainable – because there’s not much of it for sale at the moment.

When we hear about restructuring, perhaps we need to step back and think more radically about reorganizing our economy. A good read in this regard is Bill McKibben’s “Deep Economy: the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.” He asks, and attempts to answer, a pretty basic question: what is our economy for? What is it supposed to do, and what does it need to do for all of us to enjoy a common wealth? For me, the economy is not doing much that I want it to. Maybe for you too.

Something to think about as we zip off to the mall, or the foreclosure auction.

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Announced just over a week ago, your new infrastructure fund is now gone, Mr. President. It’s all been spent already, several times over, by politicians, constructors, lobbyists, trade associations. Get your staff to try googling “Obama infrastructure plan,” and up pop hundreds of thousands of web sites, and nearly every newspaper, magazine, financial analyst, and pundit, busily spending your billions over and over. Now it’s all gone. My goodness, that was fast.

Not to be too cynical, or skeptical, since some wiser voices do counsel you, Mr. President, to spend carefully, to use the plan to achieve larger goals, and to induce change in the way we live our lives. Good advice.

Because clearly we need much more than a make-work fix-it plan. In fact, our cities and towns need nearly complete reinvention to prepare for their futures. The infrastructure that supports our urbanism, and our urbanism itself, is obsolete. The shape and form of our cities, how we live in them, and the infrastructure that makes them possible works rather badly at the moment, and won’t work at all very soon. It’s time to start building the next city.

Here’s why we need to take the longest possible view of spending billions in the right way. The four categories below, energy, water, mobility and food, represent most of the necessary infrastructure for the next city. (Apologies to my readers who have been with us for a while – some of this I have said more than once).

Energy. Fossil fuels or renewables? No need for debate. Fossils alone won’t work as the sole foundation for our energy future, as you have said. Even Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil say it’s so. Thus we should not rip the tops off any more West Virginia mountains, or drill any more holes in Alaska or the Gulf of Mexico. Some will be crabby about this, Sir, but enough, finally, is enough.


Photo by Edward Burtynsky.

Go for renewables, but remember that our electrical grid is an antique, it’s outmoded, and it’s a total mess. Shot. Some of the renewable energy you want to sponsor can’t even be transmitted over the grid because of the grid’s configuration. Overhaul, or start over? Sounds kind of like the auto-industry bailout proposition – good money after bad. Maybe a quick patch while we start over….

With the advent of distributed CHP (combined heat and power), we can circumvent much of the grid, and produce our power locally, taking advantage of local assets both fossil and renewable. Over a longer time, this may make the most sense for our cities and towns. How about this: New York City is experimenting with the generation of energy using the currents of the East River to turn underwater turbines. Can fuel cells be far behind?

Water. Problems with our water supply and wastewater treatment infrastructure are beginning to be felt ever more powerfully in regions across the nation. Debates about who gets to benefit from the Colorado River have raged for generations. But this year even the Great Lakes rolled up the Welcome Mat. The surrounding states ushered legislation through Congress forbidding siphoning this precious asset to needy far-away locales. “Find your own,” they snapped.


Photo by Edward Burtynsky.

And in many cities like your new home place of Washington, D.C. every time it rains, millions of gallons of raw sewage get dumped in our rivers. Many American rivers, like our Anacostia and Potomac, are giant sewers: the Mississippi River alone receives over 700,000,000 pounds of toxic waste, including sewage, every year.

We need to close the water loop. Nothing goes down the sewer and out into a river, lake or ocean. Use it, recycle it, use it, recycle it. No discharge needed or allowed. Do we have the infrastructure to do this? No. Do we have the technology and knowledge to do this? Yes. Let’s get on with it – no new water is on the way.

Mobility. Problems?

Cars – way too many cars, and an auto industry that has been bankrupt for decades, and is only now realizing it. They may get it yet, but most of us think not. Painful, but at last the age of the 20 or 30 or even 40 mile per gallon car must come to a firm close. It’s over for fossilized autos. Check out Shai Agassi’s electric car plan at www.betterplace.com, now being implemented in Hawaii and Israel, among other locales – this is where we need to head.


Electric cars.

As for rail, we in the U.S. have a rail system in which passenger and freight systems overlap, (they’re on the same rights-of-way, and they choke each other for space and time) and they drive each other crazy. More freight? Less passengers. More passengers? Less freight.


And we have no high speed rail, no interurban rail, and in big cities, transit systems are bursting at the seams with increased demand and no means to accommodate the swelling throngs. As if that weren’t enough, we have an airline industry that, when not declaring bankruptcy, is ceasing to serve smaller regional hubs while simultaneously cutting long-haul and shuttle routes.

So: create a very stiff Federal fuel tax. The Post here has advocated this on their op-ed page. Make it big – get gas prices way up to encourage alternative thinking, and then use the proceeds to fund solutions (yes, over $5 a gallon, all in, please).

Pundit Joel Kotkin wrote a piece in the weekend Post about your infrastructure plan, and he actually suggested that we shouldn’t invest in interurban or extra-urban rail transit, because outside of our cities, only 1% to 2% use transit (of course, only 20% of us live outside our cities). Could this be because driving is cheaper? Go gas tax! Or is it because there isn’t any transit? Hmm. Want to take the train home to Chicago? 17 hours and 35 minutes. Not good.


I urge you to make the passenger rail system in this country work, (easy, since we barely have one) and make this a high priority. Not only will this get folks out of their cars, it will get them out of airplanes as well. Leave the airlines the long haul stuff – otherwise, take the train.

Oh, and an additional advantage to retooling passenger rail will be geometric improvements to freight rail, which is already able to move a ton of freight 436 miles on a single gallon of fuel.

Food. Shrimp from Vietnam? Cherries from Chile? The global industrialized agriculture system is a monster, sucking up energy, pumping out pollution, cutting food quality, and making us fat and sick. What we have here is a five alarm mess. 

Changing the industrial agriculture business may be the toughest of all infrastructure nuts to crack. What is clear is that we are eating our way through fossil fuels (to grow and fertilize it, process it, ship it, store it) at a breathtaking rate – while generating massive pollution. But changing the industry will likely mean changing the food culture of the nation – how and what we eat, how much we eat, where it comes from, how it’s grown.


Some thinkers, like farmer and poet Wendell Berry, have been telling us for a very long time that we are headed toward disaster. Now some researchers tell us that if we don’t alter the way we produce and consume food, we will need to plan on reductions of global population – the existing food industry quite literally cannot sustain us all.

While this may sound overly dire, there are hopeful signs of change. In the U.S., farmers markets are springing up at a wonderfully high rate; the OED added the word locavore to the dictionary to describe those who eat locally; the “100 Mile Diet” has inspired websites, books, and videos. These are baby steps, but they indicate that we are becoming increasingly aware of a need to change this fundamental part of our lives. You have some empty lawn at the White House. Why not take author and food expert Michael Pollan’s suggestion and rip up some for a vegetable garden: I’d be pleased to buy your cabbage.


Future veg garden?

What have I forgotten? Solid waste – this should probably go in at least the energy and food categories. And then there is the long list of social infrastructures that are failing. But that’s not for an architect to tackle, thankfully.

So should we fix the potholes? Bail out the auto industry? Build more interstate? Nope. We must think quickly, and act quickly, to prepare our communities for a future they cannot now sustain. I hope this hasn’t been too much. As Gertrude Stein once said, “Everybody gets so much information every day that they lose their common sense.”

There. Now I have spent all your billions too.

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Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn’t block traffic.  Dan Rather

In the last post here, we found ourselves wondering what it would be like if our city, Washington, D.C., were much more dense than it is today. We wondered if a greater density of people, and uses, would create a more walkable, sustainable, durable urban center.

And now it appears that we will have a chance next month to find out what it would be like if this city were instantly more than 5 times as dense. Increasingly, it seems like there will be a simple answer: chaos.

The inauguration on the 20th (known locally as the blessed event) is currently projected to swell the population of DC by 3,000,000 people. (Current population of the city: 588,292). City officials are trying to figure out where to park an estimated 10,000 tour buses (that’s a bumper-to-bumper line of buses almost 70 miles long…), and how to cram all the visitors into the Metro system, where many stations can handle crowds at the rate of about 15,000 an hour. It’s going to be a long wait to take the train.

Take a look at this image – of Hurricane Katrina victims being moved to shelter. This is a line of 50 buses. Multiply by 200.


We’ll be on foot that day, out in the city to witness several different kinds of history. Stay tuned – it’s going to be interesting.

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Lisbon, Cadiz, Casablanca – some of our recent destinations. In each of these cities there is at least one district, or urban quarter, that is dense, rich, bustling with activity, alive, completely walkable, and as ever, fragile.  Each faces pressure from gentrification, adjacent development, cars. (Only the Old Medina is so dense that cars are excluded, because they just don’t fit).

We were interested to examine how each is unique, particular to its locale, and could be said to be a strong example of a kind of vernacular urbanism as each has evolved over time. Even today each seems to accomodate changing use within it’s urban fabric with grace, and without losing either physical and urban, or social and cultural identity.

Here are the three quarters.


Bairro Alto in Lisbon, from 4,000 feet.


The Old City, Cadiz, from 4,000 feet.


 The Old Medina, Casablanca, from 4,000 feet.

There is a fineness of grain and texture, and an intimacy in scale, to each quarter that is easy to perceive from the air. Also easy to perceive is the density of each – these urban quarters are both compact, and packed. Clearly each of these places was created by and for people on foot – most streets in each are narrow enough to reach across in the span of your arms.

On the ground, the quarters are each marked by an enormous mix of uses in very close proximity. Here is a view of each from the ground.


Bairro Alto, Lisbon.


Plaza de Mina, Old Cadiz.


The Old Medina, Casablanca.

Consistent with our observations in other posts examining the notion of vernacular urbanism, each of these quarters qualifies: each is instinctive, incremental, complex, and very local in character, form and material.

We found it interesting to contrast and compare the density, character, and intensity of those places with our own neighborhood, said to be one of the most walkable in the U.S. Take a look at this:


Capitol Hill.

Our neighborhood exists at a density of about 30 dwelling units per acre. By way of comparison, Old Cadiz is at least 4 or 5 times more dense.

If you set out for a walk in our neighborhood (as we do every day), and you were off to the local supermarket or hardware store say, you would walk about a mile to get there. Over half a mile to the local public market, or nearly that to get to the train station. If you walked for about a mile in Cadiz, or Bairro Alto, or the Old Medina, you’d be gone – you’d be well out of each of those quarters.

Said in a slightly different way, vernacular urbanism is about density of population, but also about density of use. And if the next city is to offer us a durable, sustainable home, it too will have to be intensely walkable, very dense with inhabitants, and similarly loaded with a dense mixture of uses.

In order to get to a density proximate to sustainability, perhaps we on Capitol Hill should ban the car (I know, nice piece of timing) and start building in the roadways and alleys. Out into the streets! Poor Monsieur L’Enfant…

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