Archive for January, 2009

Away Again


Savannah, Georgia, while on the road.

We’re off for a week to Oregon to be with family. While we’re gone, feel free to sit a spell in the Square. More real soon.

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As we watch history unfolding yet again on the National Mall, we should remember the transformations of this vital space over the last two centuries.


The Plan of Washington, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, 1791.


A view drawn shortly before 1885, when the Washington Monument was completed.


A late nineteenth century view.


A view of the Mall in 1901. Note the train crossing the space.


A view of the mall in 1901, from atop the Washington Monument.


The McMillan Commission Plan, January, 1902.


The McMillan Commission Plan, January, 1902.


A mid 20th century view of the Mall.



The Mall in the mid 1990s.


The Mall today.

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 Image from flickr.

“Once we accept that our cities will not be like the cities of the past, it will become possible to see what they might become.” Witold Rybczynski, City Life.

When he wrote those words in 1995, Rybczynski was actually “glimpsing the urban future,” and seeing it as a low-density and low-rise city, amorphous and sprawling, completely reliant on the car, decentralized. And, sadly, that is the city we live in today.

But in another way, Rybczynski was right. The city of the recent past, the 20th century auto dominated sprawling city, whose infrastructure alone we can no longer afford to maintain, is a failure, and obsolete. We must accept this, as he suggests. In fact, our cities and the way we inhabit them must now give way to an alternate vision: now we can begin to see what they must become. The existing American city is one stupendous shovel-ready project.


Image from flickr.

The oft stated goals are obvious: we need to inhabit a next city that we can sustain, and that can sustain us. A durable, useable city that we can afford, a city that actually works to heal the long list of messes we have made. A city that is based on energy we can generate locally, food that doesn’t come from a factory, or a semi, water from a well that won’t run dry, a city in which we no longer need a car for mobility and access to all of our needs. These are the basics, and are pretty easy to see as foundations.

But what may be most interesting about the shovel-readiness of the next city is the fact that it can all be done locally, neighborhood by neighborhood. The next city can be particular, circumstantial, based on what’s at hand, incremental. Based on systems of decentralized and locally installed elements of infrastructure, the next city could emerge block by block.

On our block of 59 rowhouses here in D.C., we could rip up the alley in our post-car, or shared-car, city and we could install a central heating, power and cooling plant there. And maybe a large solar array for all of us. We can gather all of our water, classify it, treat it, and reuse it on our own block. We can rip up a few of our defining streets and build some new buildings there, yielding an increase in mixed-use density for shops, offices, and homes, with room left over for garden plots and markets.


Image from flickr.

Across every city, we can reuse and reprogram and revise. We can renew and reinvent based on the rich array of found conditions available everywhere. Some call this micro-urbanism: a new market under the raised expressway, a town square in an old highway cloverleaf, gardens in old parking lots, malls converted to neighborhoods, parking garages as lofts. And we can recycle all the existing structures we can find, conserving both their narratives, and all the energy they already embody. They’re all shovel-ready.

Taking this approach to urbanism seems like a much better investment, and a stimulus to the economy and our urbanism, than new highway off-ramps. I guess what we need now, in order to see how possible this is to achieve, is a demonstration block. Somewhere where we could try things, discover the problems and pitfalls, find the right technologies and uses, and do so while everybody watches, and learns, as a new kind of community, and city, unfolds.

Time to get the new Urban Policy Czar on this – it’s shovel ready, after all. And what better place to demonstrate the next city than right here in the nation’s Capitol.


Image from flickr.

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As the new year begins, I am back to basics in urbanism and architecture. I have been spending some time doing research aimed at understanding the grid as an organizing device for cities. And the more I look into the use of orthogonal (right-angled) geometries as a way to structure urbanism, the more questions I seem to have.

At first glance, nothing could be simpler than organizing a city using right angled lines. The lines form streets, or passageways, and the stuff between the lines becomes blocks for buildings. Seems clear and straightforward, so far: street, block, building. We can easily imagine cities organized this way, since so many of us live in places formed by grids. Take a look at Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Barcelona. And even take a look at the ancient Ionian cities of Anatolia (Priene, Miletus), or the Roman Cardo and Decumanus: planning cities with grids has been around a very long time – thousands of years.








Barcelona                                                            Chicago

Here in Washington, L’Enfant created a grid, and then bisected that grid with diagonal lines. The north/south grid is numbered or lettered, and the diagonal streets are named after states. (A waggish colleague once suggested that each state’s Senators should be required to live on the angled street named for their state – maybe this would insure Congressional representation for our fair city). Many think this confusing, but it’s nothing more than a gridded city with a twist.


Washington, D.C.

Beginning with the Public Land Survey System (sometimes called the American Rectangular Land Survey), first devised in 1784 and modified thereafter, a giant grid was laid across the nation. The purpose of this grid was to act as a method for subdividing the immense new country in preparation for settlement. Townships of 6 miles by 6 miles, with 36 Sections of one square mile (640 acres), and from thence to streets and blocks (or farms). Chicago’s 660′ by 330′ blocks are derived from this easy arithmetic: 128 blocks per square mile.

At first glance, the grid itself seems like a neutral system, one without inherent meaning. Squares laid on the ground. What could be simpler? And less full of intent, or meaning. Just plain old squares. Or rectangles. Each orthogonal shape is the same as any other orthogonal shape. This grid planning approach seems mute – equality reigns throughout. Or does it?

What’s puzzling is this: as soon as you set a grid on real soil, its neutrality vanishes. Topography, relationship to natural features like water or mountains, blocks reserved for public uses (in Chicago, the original 1830 survey set aside certain blocks for public uses such as schools), the creation of open spaces or public squares within the grid as in Savannah or Philly, all conspire to instantly convert neutrality into meaningful hierarchy. The three-part hierarchy of traditional cities – Civic, Public, Private – seems entirely comfortable, paradoxically, within a grid. Example: take a look at the 1909 Plan of Chicago by Daniel Burnham.


The 1909 Plan of Chicago, by Daniel Burnham et. al.

Burnham’s plan is clearly based on a grid. But just as clearly, this plan has a center – City Hall – and wings. Green spaces, a watery leading edge, a fade west into the prairie. Grid, yes, but one freighted with meaning, and hierarchy.

Which brings us to an even more problematic matter. If the blocks are rectangular, there will be a long dimension and a short one, and the orientation of buildings to sun, wind, and rain should become an issue. But in Chicago, three quarter’s of the rectangular blocks are oriented with the long dimension running north and south (nothing like being on a large body of water). Manhattan is just the opposite – all blocks are long in the east/west (river to river). 

In the next city, how your building faces the sun and wind, daylight, rain and snow, will again become important. The front, sides, and backs of buildings will need to have different treatments (think of this – what an idea!) based on their ability to deal with capturing energy, managing water, offering daylight.

It seemed so simple at first. Just a grid. But now we need to start tinkering with the grids of our cities, tuning them up to make them perform in ways that they never have before. On one hand, we want to conserve the idea that a gridded city paradoxically offers hierarchy, and meaning. Some  blocks in the grid are just more important than others, and for good reason, depending on the city we inhabit.

But simultaneously, each gridded city must be  restudied. What can we do to take advantage of the shape and form of our cities? How can we make them perform as they now must? Beyond a mere device for transferring property into private hands, or sheltering the Roman Legions, how can we make Chicago’s grid, or Barcelona’s, into a pattern that assures a sustainable, durable urban future? Time to unlock the grid.

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