Posts Tagged ‘American urbanism’

The narratives – the stories – that any place has to offer us often occur in multiple chapters. We need to find ways to keep listening as these stories slowly unfold before us. So it is with Carthage – another installment.

1817 was quite a year in this part of the world. For example, in 1811, Nathaniel Rochester began laying out the streets and lots of Rochesterville, his town, and by 1817 the population had soared to nearly 1,500. In that same year, Colonel Rochester sought to ensure the future of his burgeoning community by sitting on a committee that was petitioning the state to bring the Erie Canal to Rochester via a northern route from the Hudson. As we know, he would succeed.

Meanwhile Elisha Strong was busy in Carthage. Even though this part of the Genesee River gorge was thick with bears and wolves and wildcats, and home to rattlesnakes “as thick as a man’s arm,” he and his fellow attorney (and later judge) Elisha Beach were undaunted.

And now enter the third Elisha: Elisha Johnson.

Nice looking guy. Dickens’ Bumble the Beadle perhaps?

Johnson, like his friend and colleague Strong, was a Canandaiguan. An engineer, Johnson owned land upstream (south), adjacent to Colonel Rochester, and in the year 1817- yup – he gave 80 acres of land to Rochesterville (the city didn’t become Rochester until 1834) that would become Washington Square Park – our city’s central urban space.

scm08851 1909

Washington Square Park, Memorial Day, 1909


President Taft and the GAR parade at Washington Square Park, 1911

In 1817, Carthage looked like this, in a plat map created by Elisha Johnson:

Map of Carthage 1817 Elisha Johnson

This was a bit ambitious…. Carthage was tiny, and about to become home to a huge bridge construction project, and then a gigantic collapse, as we’ve learned. Maximum population in Carthage could be measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Interestingly the later development of Rochester proceeded much as Johnson outlined in his map of 1817.

In the 1830s Johnson, ever the entrepreneurial engineer, would build a horse railroad from Rochesterville to Carthage that hauled freight to an inclined plane that allowed cargo to reach the river from its eastern banks. The railroad carried passengers too, in two carriages. One was named Grieg, the other Duncan. The railroad, one of the first of its kind in the nation, would become a model for later streetcars. And shortly thereafter, Carthage was annexed by Rochester.


I don’t know if this is Grieg or Duncan

Meanwhile, in 1817, Rochesterville looked like this:

1817 mapNorth is, oddly, to the right in this image – a map not made by either Colonel Rochester or Johnson. A couple of years later, Colonel Rochester’s ambitious plan for his nascent city looked like this:


Of course the place didn’t look quite like this plat: the population in 1820 was 1,502. Here is a view from a bit earlier, 1812, to give you a sense of the difference between the hype of the maps and the reality on the ground.


Main Street and the Genesee River (soon to become the heart of downtown Rochester) looked like this in 1812:


The bridge at Main Street and the river, looking west

But the Canal was headed toward reality, and once it arrived, the city exploded. Herewith, below, a lovely map of Rochester from 1827, by none other than Elisha Johnson. The population? About 9,000. Note the presence of the canal.


Washington Square Park, marked with the letter M, is between the larger letters F and O in the word Fourth, in the lower right

So there you have it.

In 1838, Elisha Johnson became the fifth mayor of Rochester. He fought on the wrong side of the Civil War while living in Tennessee with his brother Ebenezer (a former mayor of Buffalo….), was pardoned by Sherman, moved back north to Ithaca, and died there in 1866.

So our cities are made, Elisha by Elisha.

Read Full Post »

On September 6th, at some o’clock in the evening, it is very likely that you can view a film entitled “Make No Little Plans: Daniel Burnham and the American City.” Here in Rochester, our local PBS station, WXXI, will carry the film at 10:00pm. I know – it’s late. But it’s worth it.

To take a look at some clips about the film, you can check this out:


I was fortunate to spend over ten years in helping this project reach the screen – doing interviews in Chicago and New York, and being interviewed in Washington by friend, colleague, and former architecture critic for the Washington Post, Ben Forgey.

Judith McBrien and her Archimedia Workshop authored and produced this terrific film. Our goal in the work was to recover Burnham’s life and work, and to reassess his role in shaping American urbanism.

Here in Rochester, two of Burnham’s colleagues, Arnold Brunner and Frederick Law Olmsted the younger, authored “A City Plan for Rochester” in 1911. Sponsored by the Rochester Civic Improvement Committee, the plan is squarely situated in the City Beautiful Movement begun by Burnham. None of the Rochester plan was constructed – their greenways are now expressways. Sigh.

Brunner and Olmsted worked with Burnham in Washington in 1900, and were good students of his urbanism.

Take a look – I hope you enjoy the film.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »


 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.

Read Full Post »

I have been reading my usual array of favored websites, and have run into an interesting string of comments in the last couple of days. It seems that Michael Pollan’s piece in the NYT Magazine, which I recommended in the last post, has ignited a furor in some quarters. Pollan is being accused of “eco-armageddonizing.”

Notwithstanding the grotesque character of this ridiculous word, there remain many who say that there is no such thing as climate change, that we need not worry about environmental compromises being wrought across the globe, and that what is really required are massive increases in energy use as an expression of a flourishing civilization. (Yes, someone actually said that – I couldn’t make it up). I am flabbergasted at this thought, but let’s proceed.

Okay, so let’s just say that you are in the non-believer camp. You think that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by liberals led by Mr. Gore (conservative just doesn’t mean what it used to, does it?), and you’re headed out in one of your SUVs to the mall for some widget shopping and a stop at Burger King for a quick hit of 2,400 calories of mystery meat and high fructose corn (double Whopper with cheese, medium coke, large fry, medium shake: 2,380 calories). Before you go, give me just a minute or two for some thoughts.

Put aside global warming or climate change as urgent reasons for rethinking and remaking our urban centers, where 80% of Americans live. Some of the things that have shaped our cities are now becoming sufficiently scarce that a new city, and new ways of living in the city, are needed, and much faster than we can make changes. Try this:

Oil. Whether you believe that peak oil looms or that oceans of oil remain, and whether you believe that speculators are firing up oil prices or demand is bumping up against supply, you can be certain of one thing: you are paying a very high price to fill up your SUV. Assuming for a moment that you are cruising through the global financial meltdown in style, gas will not get much cheaper before it starts to rise again, as suppliers turn off the faucet. They’re meeting in Vienna on the 18th of next month to chat about lowering production to account for reduced demand accompanying the financial miasma – you might want to pop in for a heart to heart.

So what about alternatives? Well the airlines are now charging extra for everything from lunch to luggage, and they’re all choking on their gas bills. Alternatives? Not many. Humorist Gene Weingarten, in the Post Magazine this week, suggests that the airlines should fire all their flight attendants and sell regular priced tickets to those passengers willing to push the carts up and down the aisles. Bonus? They get to keep the tips.

Amtrak is having the best year since its inception, and will likely carry 27 million passengers this year, a bit less than Continental Airlines or US Air, but ahead of AirTran or jet Blue. But guess what? They have only 632 usable rail cars, and besides, we travel 900 times further in cars on highways than in trains on rails. Changing this circumstance will reshape our cities and their regions, but it will take time – years – and lots of money. Cozy up to that gas pump.

Nearly every major urban public transit system is operating beyond capacity as well. But because of the financial meltdown, tax revenues are rapidly shrinking. Waiting for that rapid bus or streetcar system? Get comfy. And that’s just transit. Check out how funding is going for the rest of our urban infrastructure. Not so good. With only $1 trillion in national debt, we should see investment in infrastructure turn around real soon. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but real soon.

A more efficient car? Well, you just helped give the U.S. automakers $50 billion to figure out how to compete with Toyota and Honda, who have them cold, and our guys have proudly announced that we should start to see the benefits of taxpayer largess by 2010 or 2011 or so. By the way, did you know that one in thirteen Americans is employed in the automobile industry? Happy days ahead.

Food. Food prices are rising rapidly. In some places outside the U.S., the increases this year alone are as high as 40%. Screw the rest of the world, you say? Fine. A little hard, since so much of what you eat comes from somewhere else, but food prices in this nation are quickly on the rise as well: produce, milk, beef, fish, are all headed higher. Why? Fuel costs, weather, scarcity. A buck for a tomato, $.80 for a mushroom, and $.75 for an apple this week at our market, and $4.00 for a bushel of corn ($4.03 at close Friday).

If we actually did what Pollan tells us to do, and sourced a vastly increased amount of our food locally, and increased the numbers of local markets, we would have a chance at controlling prices. Oh, and by the way, our food system consumes more oil than any other part of the U.S. economy except cars. If we had cities that could subsist on locally grown agriculture, they would have to be designed differently. But we don’t, so not to worry.

Water. Water scarcity is a critical problem in most of the world. 40% of the world has no access to clean water, and 95% of the world’s cities still dump raw sewage into their waters.

Don’t care? Well, the central valley of California is not exactly swimming in water at the moment, and that’s where a lot of U.S. food comes from (they use 23 trillion gallons of water a year). The long term drought outlook for the valley, as charted by the USDA, is not too terrific. But never mind, all that water scarcity will do is drive up food prices.

Thinking about tapping into the Great Lakes for a cool one? Think again. The eight states that abut the Great Lakes have created a Compact, just approved by Congress and signed into law, that forbids the diversion of that water. Who says water scarcity is a problem?

As ever, the point of all this is very simple. The city we need to live in is not the city we live in today. Even skeptics should be able to understand this.  It seems that when you start to pull on one thread of issues in the fabric of today’s urbanism, the whole place starts to unravel.

Anyway, you know what to do – when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »