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Archive for September, 2018

Audubon

Here in our city, we live on a street that is a prime conduit for zooming rush-hour traffic attempting to avoid congestion. The phenomenon is called rat running, and we have some pretty fast rats.

speed

We yell at the drivers, we write letters to the City, we try to organize our neighbors, but the street racing drags on (pun intended). We have even thought of sitting at the end of the driveway with Amy’s hairdryer, ala a very funny clip we saw not too long ago, hoping to put the fear of radar into our adversaries.

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As we sip our morning coffee, it is not uncommon to observe cut-through commandos with gas pedals mashed to the floor, roaring by us in a Muybridge-like blur (Muybridge was an early photo master in depicting motion). For us to try and combat this nonsense with what is euphemistically called traffic calming, we would need 70 percent of our neighbors to agree with us. This in a city where the kar is king – tough math, and especially with a handful of absentee landlords. So no speed bumps or speed tables for us. And our suggestion – to allow parking on both sides of our narrow (24’ wide curb to curb – I measured) residential street at all times instead of alternate evenings – will surely never fly in our city of convenience. Who knows – maybe even the Fire Chief (Fire Chiefs design most of our cities these days. We wouldn’t want to have to redesign their equipment, would we?) would get cranky….

rat race graffitti (2)

And it’s not just our street, in our neighborhood, where this is a problem. Residential streets and neighborhoods are bad, and even main drags are bad as we rush from work to home, from home to work. Every year hundreds of pedestrians and bicyclists collide with these speeding dinosaurs, and often this causes injury, (and sometimes mortal wounds), to the less armored. I know whereof I speak – I got nailed not long ago by a giant pickup truck.

To make matters worse, our block is nearly 1,000 feet long. Many here are much longer – much more than a quarter mile (dragstrip). There is plenty of time to get up a full head of steam – we think 60 mph or more is often the case. As I was reflecting on this unpleasant conundrum I consulted our City Code. I was wondering what it said about street widths and parking arrangements for a street such as ours. And what did I discover? That the Code (Chapter 128, Article IV, section 128-7, Paragraph 9 – I am sure my nomenclature is wrong, but you can find it if you look) specifies “In general, block lengths shall not exceed 1,200 feet or be less than 500 feet.” WHAT??!?

As if speeding weren’t bad enough! All over the city we have these unendingly long blocks. Long blocks make for all kinds of problems in creating a lively, permeable, fine-grained urban fabric – there is quite a literature on this subject. The biggest urban blocks that get diagrammed frequently are in Salt Lake City – 600 feet square. We got ‘em beat.

City grids - Nairn-Grid-Poster

I have written here before about the problems with our city’s grid of streets, and our blocks without alleys. Even without hurtling cars, this poses all kinds of problems throughout our city. Add the speed demons and it’s good reason to stay on the sidewalk, or the front porch. Or the backyard.

Rat running and our city grid: a one-two combo of punches. We did get the city to post yellow “SLOW DOWN” strips signs on a few light posts, but that has had exactly no impact on the speeding. And hoping for fewer cars on city streets any time soon is truly a fantasy. Perhaps autonomous cars will make a difference….

In the meanwhile, speaking of backyards, one of our neighbors is cooking up what may be a terrific new approach.

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Traffic in Xi'an, China

Xi’an, China.

Most of us live inside the gravitational pull of cities. Today, 54 percent of the world’s population resides in urban areas. In 1950, 30 per cent of the world’s population was urban, and by 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population is projected to be urban. Presently, the most urbanized regions include Northern America (82 percent living in urban areas), Latin America and the Caribbean (80 percent), and Europe (74 percent). In contrast, Africa and Asia remain mostly rural, with 41 and 48 per cent of their respective populations living in urban areas, while only 34% of India’s population is urban. So that means that about 4 billion of the planet’s 7.5 billion people currently live in metropolitan circumstances. (Interestingly, of those billions, the UN tells us that about 25 percent live in slums, and that number is rising quickly).

Making cities has always been a very complicated process, balancing economics with social will, and politics and power with public policy and some (often varying) sense of collective well-being. Kings and commoners (even slum-dwellers), moguls and mayors have all wrestled to control the character of urban life, and to preside over the ever-shifting balancing act between self-interest and the common good.

And in this complicated process of city making, architects and urban designers have had the job of creating urban shape and form. Since Hippodamus of Miletus (he was the first, or an early, promoter of the gridded city) and before, urbanists have searched for a right relationship between the block, the street and the building, and the good life. Sometimes their visions have been insightful, sometimes horrific. Or to say that differently, some of their visions have led to a better urban life, and some have led to a problematic and troubled urban life.

Two fast examples of better and less better before we move on to the crux of the discussion. The better city: Chicagoan Daniel Burnham imagined the “City Beautiful,” a city based on civic virtues and urban stewardship. Often accused of elitism, Burnham nonetheless wrote at length (300+ pages in his 1909 Chicago Plan) about the just city, its institutions, and its citizens. The less better city: Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris, promulgated as housing for unknown remote factories, and obsessively focused on all forms of contemporary technology – the car, the plane, the express highway, the ‘skyscraper.’ We can debate this if you like, but the jury has spoken on this matter, and moved on.

In any event, architects and urban designers have always played the role of set designers for the theater which is urban life, creating stages for the unfolding human drama – tragic or comedic – which billions now enact.

But the real question is this: what is a better life in the city? It’s worth asking this question because if we can arrive at some semblance of an understanding about what a good urban life might be, then it might be easier to formulate policy, and architecture, in support.

I am currently enjoying a cluster of essays by the quite extraordinary architect and urbanist Michael Sorkin. The collection is entitled “Twenty Minutes in Manhattan,” and a particular essay is called “The Stair.” I mention all this because in that essay, he says that Jane Jacobs, the Empress of Urbanism, says that a better city life is: “…mutuality, self-government, neighborliness, diversity, intimacy, convenience, contentment, and safety.” I might add a few things to this – a clear and inalienable justice for all, a willingness to restrain one’s appetites in favor of the community, and a desire to live in a resilient and sustainable community, now and forever.

So if this can act as a rudimentary definition of the good life in the city, what can we architects propose to help us get there? I propose a Twelve Step program to advance the common good in the shaping and forming of our cities. Here we go – twelve criteria for establishing urban excellence.

1. Density, Closeness

Hong Kong

Hong Kong, China

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Cadiz, Spain

In cities, density of population and density of use are almost always a prerequisite for other characteristics of urban excellence which follow. Density is a misleading term: many naturally associate dense urban settings with tall buildings in modern cities. But this is not so – some of the densest urban settings in the world are in premodern or protomodern locales, with a dearth of buildings above 5 or 6 stories.

Critically, density frequently brings with it a host of other urban assets: mixed uses, walkability, and an ease of access to the diverse assets of the community.

Perhaps one of the most important benefits of density in urban settings is the extent to which auto dependence can be obviated.

2. Walk, Walk, Walk

“No city should be too large for a man to walk out of in a morning.” Cyril Connolly

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Krakow, Poland

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Rome, Italy

Perhaps no single criterion is a better measure of urban excellence than walkability. If a city is understood and experienced as walkable, then it is a city where the automobile has a place, but probably not the place in questions of access and transportation. In walkable urban locales, studies show that residents are healthier, the environment is cleaner, and economic values are stable or rising.

And better urban life happens in a city where all of one’s needs can be met within a 1-mile circle – a 20-minute walk for most. Typically, an urban neighborhood, or quarter, has all of the goods and services needed for daily life – the butcher, the green grocer, the café, the library, the doctor, the pub. And some others, some specialties, as well. Then these centers – often there are many – are interconnected by modes of enhanced mobility – the subway, the streetcar, the bike path, the bus. Walking and cities – a fundamental urban proposition.

3. Beyond Our Feet

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Melbourne, Australia

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Hong Kong, China

We have become numb to the extent that automobiles have subsumed, and often wreaked havoc, on our urban centers. But diverse mobility means movement in cities without a bias of any kind between types of transport: by motor, bike, foot, or any other means. And the thoroughfares of mobility in the best urban settings are not dominated by one or another mode of transportation: all can move freely. No mode is entitled – all modes are entitled.

4. Living Narratives: a Million Stories on Every Corner

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Athens, Greece

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Valletta, Malta

In a city of excellence, we can find ourselves, our homes, our histories, our occupations, the stories of what we were, who came before us, and what they did. All of these narratives embody our personal and communal life, memorialize our best moments, recall our successes, and perhaps forecast our futures. We take care of such cities, we are loyal to such places, because these narratives are signals that we belong, we are empowered, we can take ownership.

In cities of excellence our sense of loyalty and stewardship can be because of at least three circumstances related to the presence of meaningful narratives. First, those narratives can be the legible and conserved – revered – nature of the physical place. Or next, the narratives could be the text for the physical extension of the city: we build on and expand upon the story of what has come before us. Or third, the narrative life of a city (embodying our loyalty and faith in the place) could be the basis for things in the city that are new, previously unseen but somehow resonant with our understanding of ourselves in the city.

5. For Richer, For Poorer

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Bangalore, India

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Tangier, Morocco

Before our era of gas fired mobility, it was much harder for us to avoid each other, much harder for us to segregate ourselves by race and class and ethnicity and whatever else made us different from each other. In those times, economic status was much less lateral or horizontal, and much more vertical, or at least proximate.

For the sake of density and walkability and resilience, and the integration of economic class, the creation of a single urbanism of economic diversity is a signal of urban excellence. We would be much better citizens, and our cities would certainly become physical expressions of a greater richness and vivacity, when wealth and poverty are contiguous.

6. A Public Realm for a Public Life

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Barcelona, Spain

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Shanghai, China

A lively and bustling public realm – busy sidewalks, active plazas, crowded markets – are signals of a healthy and engaged urban population. And a robust public realm is likewise a signal of a healthy urban economy. If urban byways are lively, then residential, retail and commercial uses are all animated, cash is flowing and taxes are being generated.

And there are many approaches that architects and urban designers can adopt that will enhance and complement a robust pubic realm. A bustling urban setting is probably not the result of design alone, but poor design can quickly reduce, and even extinguish, urban vitality.

7. A Living Past Assures a Livable Future

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Lisbon, Portugal

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Barcelona, Spain

Increasingly, cities across the globe feel and appear to be increasingly like one another. International franchises, auto-domination, sprawl, the loss of historic urban fabric, the separation of uses by zone – all of these characteristics and more mark places that have lost their sense of themselves, their collective memories, the narratives that make each place unique, and compelling.

Bur urban excellence is fundamentally about a place becoming more and more particular, more and more like itself (or to invert, less and less like somewhere else).

And it is in the historic built fabric of cities where this specific nature is most legible. Old buildings and old districts tell us who we were, what we did, why we are the way we are, and what we might become as the future unfolds. Losing these memories, these tales of our communal life (often most vivid in our monuments) is a certain guarantee of anonymity, and a true loss of urban value.

8. The City’s Site

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Haifa, Israel

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Cape Town, South Africa

Whether river or lake, ocean or inland sea, mountains or simply seven hills, best cities are fundamentally focused on their essential, and defining, physical characteristics. To say this in a different way, no city of excellence can ignore or fail to foreground the essential qualities of its nature.

Interestingly, connecting to natural assets like rivers, lakes or even oceans may be a new kind of opportunity in many cities. Often these waterfronts were historically industrial in use, and were frequently polluted and strictly utilitarian in their structures and surrounding infrastructure. Converting these zones to useful and attractive elements of the urban fabric is often substantial, but always important, work.

9. Urbs in Horto, Hortus in Urbe

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Santa Cruz de Tenerife

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Sydney, Australia

It was once commonly understood that parks and green spaces were the ‘lungs,’ and more, of any industrial or recently postindustrial city. The natural world present in the city has always acted as a counterweight to the surrounding built urban environment.

In the nineteenth century, urban parks offered relief from the stifling pollution of industrialism, as well as places to enjoy what little leisure was available, to have a place for recreation, and even frequently a place to bathe. In the 21st century many urban parks are being re-imagined – in Budapest for example – and in some cities parks are even being incorporated into private architecture. Most recent developments point at sustainability and resilience as the now-conscious intentions of the next generation of natural spaces in urban fabric.

10. An Institutional Presence

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Cadiz, Spain

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Valletta, Malta

In cities, institutions – governments, churches, universities, hospitals, theaters, libraries, and others – mediate between citizens and the larger community while providing a framework of moral and ethical values that guide and define the place. Excellent cities foreground these institutions, making them visible, and in fact allowing the physical locales of these institutions to act as fundamental organizers of urban fabric. And excellent cities will defend this hierarchy against encroachment of any kind.

11. Ages and Ages, Young and Old

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Santa Cruz de Tenerife

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Alicante, Spain

Excellent cities inspire loyalty across many generations. And civic loyalty is essential if a city is to remain robust, resilient, and sustainable. Walking the streets of a city of excellence, or visiting the essential places of those cities, should reveal the presence of a multiple of generations.

In the key locales of any city of excellence, we believe that the presence of at least three generations of any family is essential. To say this in a slightly different way, it should be possible to see families whose ages span 70 years or so as one visits the city’s parks or promenades or plazas.

12. Resilience – A Useable Future

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Singapore

Even now, as many cities realize the need to increase their sustainability, there is not one city on earth that is truly self-sufficient. This seems surprising, perhaps – not one city in the world can feed itself, power itself, slake its thirst.

We humans have devised all sorts of sophisticated technologies and industries to meet our needs, but we have done so without giving serious thought to consequences. And so instead of relying on our immediate environments and surroundings, we rely on fuel from the middle east, fruit from Chile, or shoes from China. This has not always been so – as recently as two centuries ago every city could sustain itself.

And now we know that we must increasingly lead local lives in order for our cities to meet the challenges of the future. As we search the world for examples of this new kind of resilience, this new sense of 21st century sustainability, we learn how truly difficult – notwithstanding completely necessary – is this task that looms before us.

 

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