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Tomorrow evening here in Rochester, our city’s very active and helpful transportation advocacy group, Reconnect Rochester, will screen Canadian Stephen Low’s brief  (46 minutes) documentary entitled “The Trolley.” We had the good fortune to see this film in an IMAX theater in Ottawa last year, and Low tells a powerful tale of trolleys as essential forces in shaping our cities, and once more critically necessary as a small step in taming cars and saving the world.

We transportation geeks have never shied away from hyperbole….

The screening of Low’s film will be accompanied by a panel discussion, and I am most flattered to be a member of that panel. So I have been snooping around my favorite world-wide transit sites to bone up on facts and figures, and much to my surprise, I found these:

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Columbus, Ohio (!).

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Not so surprisingly, New York.

But really?

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Chautauqua Lake? Wow. They SHOULD have them in Buffalo.

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At Lake Merritt, in Oakland.

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Connecting Minneapolis with Lake Minnetonka.

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And Pittsburgh. I guess I am not the only one inclined to hyperbole: I think Columbus has them beat for Largest in the World.

Now we are familiar with double-decker trams. We have ridden what I suspect is the most famous double-decker, in Hong Kong.

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Owned and operated by a private entity, yes it’s true, in China, this system carries something like 70,000,000 a year to its nearly 120 station stops. Each car can carry 115 people (it would be mighty uncomfortable if packed, believe me),  and the tram runs on 1.5 minute headways – the time between cars. The fare is under 50 cents, and the system is making money.

Maybe there is hope yet! We have our own North American models to pursue, and the lessons of Hong Kong to guide us. Onward, transiteers!

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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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In the interest of trying to come to a better understanding of what we believe is a very misguided decision to locate a Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park (STAMP) in Alabama, New York, out in Genesee County, we hopped in the car for the voyage west to the site. The STAMP here is aimed at generating 10,000 jobs, and will have a completed price tag north of $500 million.  About an hour later (yes, we took the expressways, and it was mid-morning, not rush hour), we arrived. Here’s the site:

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Actually, here’s the site, looking southeast:

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Looking northwest:

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And here is Alabama, New York:

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Alabama is quite a small hamlet – a few dozen buildings surrounded by farmland. Less than a mile away is the 10,000 acre Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, with its swamps and meadows and woodlands.

The site is within the Genesee County AG-2 district, as designated by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. The stated purpose of designated agriculture districts is “to protect and promote the availability of land for farming purposes.” Genesee County names the site as containing “prime” farmland, and much of the site area is within a designated Smart Growth Zone. In New York State, our legislated Smart Growth Policy says this:

 “§ 6-0105. State smart growth public infrastructure policy.

It is the purpose of this article to augment the state’s environmental
policy  by  declaring  a fiscally prudent state policy of maximizing the
social, economic and environmental benefits from  public  infrastructure
development  through  minimizing unnecessary costs of sprawl development
including environmental degradation, disinvestment in urban and suburban
communities and loss of open space induced by sprawl facilitated by  the
funding  or  development  of  new  or expanded transportation, sewer and
waste water treatment, water,  education,  housing  and  other  publicly
supported   infrastructure   inconsistent   with   smart  growth  public
infrastructure criteria.”

The site’s western boundary, literally, is a reservation for the Tonawanda Band of the Seneca Indians.

Further north – about 6 miles – is the village of Medina, population 6,000, and 14 mile to the southeast is Batavia, population 15,000.

So, what did we conclude during our sojourn? Several things.

Alabama has a lot going for it. Designated and protected prime farmland, a Smart Growth Zone, a nearby National Wildlife Refuge, substantial history for Native-Americans, designated and protected wetlands, great opportunities for activities outdoors.

Alabama is not near a major population center, with existing infrastructure, skilled workers, transit, and brownfield sites already prepared for redevelopment. To get to Alabama from Rochester, workers need to plan on a commute by car – no transit is available to the site – of about an hour.

To put a STAMP out in Alabama, with 10,000 workers, is complete madness. Not only would the STAMP violate nearly all of the assets of the place, and would certainly not represent anything approaching Smart Growth, but a STAMP here would mean missing the opportunity to employ new job creation where it is most logical, and will do the most good – the city. We thought it was a bad idea before we went to Alabama. After our visit, we are sure. This is a legacy mistake in the making. Perhaps better, another legacy mistake in the making.

A last note for our none-Rochester readers. In a recent newspaper article here, it was suggested that a model for this Upstate New York STAMP is the Intel Campus in Hillsboro, Oregon. Just to be quite clear, Hillsboro is less than 15 miles from downtown Portland, and that site is served by MAX, the region’s light rail transit system, with trains every 15 minutes.

 

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A good model. Not Alabama, New York, but a good model, and a great argument for putting the STAMP where it belongs – in the city.

 

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And now my TEDx talk from last November is up and on YouTube. Thanks to Tony Karakashian and the Rochester TEDx crew, and to WXXI for their editing work.

 

 

 

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I’ll make this short.

For years now, the City and Paetec, a major corporation here, have been wrangling with each other. Paetec has wanted to build a new headquarters, and the City has wanted to woo Paetec downtown, to the site of a former enclosed, and failed, mall called Midtown Plaza (worth much further discussion, but I am quite sure you can grasp the basic story line of a failed downtown enclosed mall).

Midtown is now being demolished to make way for new development. The site is what was once the 100% location in downtown – Main and Clinton. Today Main and Clinton, but for the hordes of buses, is pretty much a ghost town.

Main and Clinton, 1925.

Yesterday the Mayor and the CEO of Paetec held a news conference. Paetec is moving downtown: about 1,000 employees,  bringing the number of jobs downtown to about 56,000 or so. Even though the City has handed Paetec an almost unbelievably sweet deal (somehow at the last minute the City managed to avoid meeting the Paetec demand for free parking for all employees, but they are kicking in something over $80 million: for themselves, Paetec will spend $55 million, but only $5 million of that is their own money), this is good. I mean having more souls downtown is good. Expensive, but good.

Now comes the bad and the ugly.

An office building that is straight out of the 1970s. I know – we’re supposed to be grateful for the greenery on top and such. There will be shops at street level, thankfully, but that won’t overcome the truly pedestrian architecture. An alert reader sent me a more recent elevation of the building, featured in the press conference yesterday, and it has developed somewhat, but it still looks like something that belongs in the suburbs, not in a bustling and robust downtown. 

Nothing said about the rich tradition of wonderful buildings on Main Street, the big arch notwithstanding (you can browse through A Town Square and see dozens). Nothing said about sustainability – as in not a word, but for what is being called a rooftop garden. No discussion of building a building that is truly of mixed use, but for a few shops on the street. Oh, and maybe a police station (!). Paetec will give us a huge picture window into their operations center – oh boy. The only real public discussion has been about – you got it – cars.

One bright idea did surface yesterday – the idea of putting very large electronic screens on the building – ala Times Square they say. I wish I could feel good about this – here’s a recent view of the site kitty corner at Main and Clinton. Why am I not excited about the rich possibilities? I guess we’ll have endless Kodak moments flashing at us 24/7. Just what we need.

Oh, and Paetec did spend time telling us who they don’t want to have as neighbors – no students (students have been essential and key to the revival of Chicago’s Loop, I note), no clinic patients, no surface parking (how did that get in there?), no casinos. Ah Paetec – the corporation with the big heart.

Rochester, like every cash-strapped, shrinking, frightened city in the US, is dealing with a very, very tough question here. The City will spend 16 times more than the corporation, and in the end we stand to get 1,000 jobs.

But will downtown be better for all this? The building itself belongs in an office park, not our downtown. We get a few shops at the street, and a chance to look at Paetec employees engaged in the edgy drama of their work in electronic communications. We get giant LED screens blaring images at poor Main and Clinton. We may or may not get a building that represents a zero carbon footprint, or is even LEED rated.

Time will tell if any of this can be redeemed. Let us pray.

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Photo by David Mohney, City Hall Photo Lab, from the Monroe County Library Collection, c-0001910.

Rochester’s green grade: F. F for Fail. Failing. Failed.

I went looking around this morning at what cities are doing to become more sustainable. I went to a bunch of .gov web sites from a selection of municipalities to see how they talked about sustainability, and what they were doing about the subject.

On Rochester’s website, the city says that our recycling program, our graffiti removal program, and a clean up program called Rochester Clean Sweep are helping us to have a better environment. That’s it. Thus the grade.

Cleveland’s Mayor, Frank Jackson, has announced his intention to make that city a model of sustainability, through a city-wide program called Sustainable Cleveland 2019. There is broad support for the initiative, and they are using the catch phrase “Green City Blue Lake.” They see this initiative both as a way to construct a better city, and as a way to compete with other cities for jobs, young people, and economic development.

In Cincinnati, Mayor Mark Mallory has created the Green Cincinnati Plan, for similar purposes, and the City is planning for a new streetcar system to enhance transit options there.

In Washington, Mayor Fenty has a program called Green DC. The city has been very active in working with citizens to provide tax credits for updating residential water, heat and cooling systems. And DC is currently constructing a streetcar to enhance the Metro, bus, and circulator systems that make DC one of the most walkable cities in nation: 34% of residents do not own a car.

Monroe County, in which Rochester sits, has something they call Green Monroe. You can see what’s up in sustainable projects and initiatives – it’s pretty pathetic. But at least they talk about the issues a bit. Grade: D-. At least it’s not an F.

Here in municipal politics: silence. No word from leadership on green subjects.

End of story. Or worse.

Locals: tell me if I am missing something.

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A reader here has just asked me a good question about Rochester urbanism and the character and order of this region: what happened? He noted that Rochester was once a dense, compact city, surrounded by neighborhoods of tree-lined streets and lovely homes, in a region rich with all kinds of natural resources – lake, river, countryside. And today – not so much.

East Avenue, 1917.

So, Daniel, here is at least part of what happened. Glad you asked – this will let me get a few things off my chest. I have said some of this before in earlier posts, but I feel like a good rant. Get comfy, because this is going to take a while.

First, the car. I once asked a curatorial colleague of mine, and a historian of technology, to try to tell me what the city of the horse was like – the city before cars, and trolleys. It turns out that that city was pretty dreadful – smelly, filthy, and crowded with big, sweaty, and often sick animals. So when the electric streetcar came along (thanks, Frank Sprague), and later the automobile, city dwellers were enormously relieved. They were happy to jettison their present ills for a horseless future, notwithstanding a blissful ignorance of the almost inestimable price we would pay for a total embrace of the car, and the mobility it provided. Now we know.

A city of horses – Chicago in the early 20th century.

Victor Hugo wrote, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, “This will destroy that… The book will destroy the edifice.” In some way, he was saying that the new technology of printing would destroy old ways of story telling embodied in buildings, and cities. And today we can say: “This will kill that…  the car will destroy the city.”

Detroit. Plenty of parking.

For the sake of our convenience and in favor of the automobile, we have destroyed the city, and the countryside. I tried once to make a relatively precise estimate of how much of what was once downtown Rochester was now a parking lot. Once I got to more than 50%, I gave up.

Downtown Rochester, from Google Earth.

As another of our readers said recently, “In America we don’t solve social problems, we move away from them.” So the second thing that happened is that it got easier and easier to ignore the poor, the different, the minority, the other. We could just build highways by tearing down ‘their’ neighborhoods, create nearly impregnable barriers between “us” and “them” like the Inner Loop, and drive off into the sunset.

The moat. Photo from empirestateroads.com.

But unfortunately, there is no such thing as geographical salvation. (Who said that first? Not I). Avoiding our differences, and our varying needs, has proven to be both impossible, and almost unbelievably expensive. And still we have the inequities we had, now principally centered in increasingly abandoned inner city neighborhoods. To illustrate this indifference to social needs, and social equity, just take a look almost any day at the pages of our local paper, the Democrat and Chronicle.

There we find that if a crime happened in Rochester, it took place in the “city.” As in: “City man found stabbed.” Or: “City bank robbed at gunpoint.” And if the crime happened somewhere else, the place-name is given, in lieu of the word ‘city.’

From today’s D & C.

I am an outsider, and many locals may think I am lunatic for mentioning this (I may well be lunatic), but this pejorative use of the word city sums up how many in the region feel. I am more than surprised that I hear this quite a lot: the city is the place where crime is, where bad things happen, where poor people, and different people, live. The city is to be avoided, the city is crowded, the city is smelly, dirty, polluted, ugly, dangerous.

Come on folks – you’re talking about Rochester here! Get a grip. Cities are our future, and our friends, not cesspools. The best North American cities – Vancouver, Portland, Chicago, Manhattan, Toronto, others – are now seen as places where you MUST live and work downtown. Not in a suburb like Greece, or Webster, but downtown. And how many folks now live in downtown Rochester? About 4,000. But really people, all the rest of downtown is really safe – it’s parking.

Onward. The third thing that happened as we found it attractive to spread out all over the place is that we began to duplicate, then triplicate, then logarithmically multiply our infrastructure. More and more expressways and roads, sewers, waste water facilities, libraries, public safety forces, streetlights, signposts, gas lines – you name it. And we did this to the extent that today, we can no longer afford all this stuff. And it’s all falling apart.

The physical infrastructure of the civil engineers is crumbling and decrepit. And the attendant social and civic infrastructure is not sustainable either. Just look at your tax bill – we’re maxed out, and constantly arguing about it: what should we close, consolidate, abandon, do without.

Sadly, most of the old infrastructure isn’t worth anything anyway. Whether we are speaking of the need for digital infrastructure to support the life ahead, or sustainable systems of energy and water that will allow us to enjoy a secure and durable urban future, the stuff we need is not the stuff we have now, and the stuff we have now and argue about fixing isn’t worth a damn. Time to start over – get out your checkbooks. Headline: “City dweller scorns new subdivision in Gates.”

Painting by Eric Garner.

The fourth thing we did is to mistake innovation for progress. As I said in my most recent post, Rochester has always been a center for innovation – especially technical innovation. People who track such things point to the enormous number of patents that have been registered by Rochesterians over the last century or so. Good. But not enough.

It’s a bit like looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Innovation has to be about more than new stuff. Properly, innovation should be about preparing us to lead better lives. And here I mean that a better life is one that increases the common wealth, and the common well-being. Not just a new flat screen or iPhone, but a truly better life – a life that we can be sure will be available to our children’s children’s children. We no longer have that assurance – things are closing in on us pretty fast, and endlessly we read about the shrinking standards of living we can expect in the future. It’s past time to put on our real thinking caps and figure out how to prepare Rochester, or Anycity USA, for what lies ahead.

And now I’ll quit raving. But wait – one more thing happened, I think worth noting. Fifth, we abandoned the local. What local? Any local. Local food, local services, local artisans, local greengrocers, local butchers, local clothing shops, local lampshade makers, local anything.

I see this so vividly as I thumb through the absolutely extraordinary photo archive of local news photographer Albert Stone. I cherish his archive – it’s an exquisite gift to all of us. His images are powerful testimony to the city we have lost – a city bustling with energy and vitality, and filled with local everything.

Front Street, 1922.

Main Street, 1922.

Why did we abandon the local? Because the local seemed more expensive, slower, less reliable. And that’s how we have defined progress – progress, we say with our consumer dollars, is fast cheapness.

And thanks to all the subsidies we put in place, that definition is fulfilled. Subsidize roads, farmers, energy, any of a thousand things we do subsidize every day, and the national or transnational seems cheaper. But it turns out that this cheapness was and is really, really expensive. Much too expensive. How could we have traded Scrantom’s for Staples? Really nuts.

Scrantom’s last stand – Midtown Plaza. Photo from flickr.

So there you have it, dear reader – five things that happened to Rochester that created the city we have today. Aren’t you glad you asked?

I’ll bet you didn’t expect a full-scaled rant from a raving lunatic.

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