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Posts Tagged ‘density’

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

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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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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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As we wander around the world looking for cities that can teach us Rochesterians a thing or two about good urbanism, we occasionally stumble across places that are sufficiently astonishing that they must be shared. And so, herewith is a peek at Melbourne, Australia.

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Melbourne, looking north from Port Phillip Bay and the Tasmanian Ferry Terminal.

Melbourne is a big city, with a population of just over 4 million. And it has lots of things wrong with it – expressways that are traffic nightmares, new road construction, a fair amount of sprawl at the edges – although most but not all of this is industrial rather than the more conventional kinds of sprawl we’re used to – perhaps a few too many big sports stadia (though soccer, cricket, rugby, and tennis are all a stone’s throw from one another), a downtown shopping mall: most of the usual crud that affects almost all cities (if you want to see a real mess in the making, go spend a bit of time in and around Bangkok….). So at the very outset, let me be completely clear: Melbourne is not Arcadia. We have not discovered the Beulah Land. But….

We have been thinking quite a lot of late about what a city should look like and how it should be arranged in order to be better prepared for the changes ahead. What changes, you ask? Well here are a few: very soon there will be lots more people, fewer resources and some scarcities, less wealth, our mobility will be different (less actual movement, more movement via technology), there will be fewer cars, energy will be more expensive, the weather will be different, food will be more expensive, local will make more sense (cost, availability) than trans-national or global. When you ask? Oh, any time now.

But back to Melbourne, mostly ready for its future. During our recent visit we had the great good fortune to be guided and toured about the city by friends who have lived there for many, many years. Not architects or urban designers – phew – but smart people who are quite tuned in to their home place. So we saw a lot, and a lot that most tourists would never see: traffic jams, city edges, many of Melbourne’s beautiful and huge parks, the close-in suburbs, neighborhood nodes and their shopping zones, and more. Not to say our visit was comprehensive by any means, but we did manage to get to most corners of the city. And – wow.

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Afoot on downtown Melbourne’s Swanston Street.

Before we reached the gridded and bustling downtown of Melbourne, we took a look around at some of the edges. In a southeastern suburb (though if felt a part of the urban fabric and was only 6 or 7 miles from downtown, and near the city’s edge) of Brighton, we visited the famed Dendy Street Beach, with its amazing and iconic bathing boxes – 82 of them.

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These cabanas – colorful shacks, really – are now selling for $250,000 each – 10 years ago you could get one for $12,000.

As we had a bit of breakfast, our guides (unprompted from us Rochesterians, honest) animatedly told us about their neighborhood in Brighton, and excitedly about their 20 minute commute to downtown. (20 MINUTE COMMUTE – SOUND FAMILIAR, NEIGHBORS?!?). They often grab their grandkids and travel about the city for 20 minutes in one direction or another to a park (the Melbourne parks are an amazing asset) or a museum or downtown to Federation Square (more about that place shortly) on the streetcar. Yup – in Melbourne the 20 minute commute is on a streetcar. Take a look at the Melbourne train and tram map – it’s truly awe-inspiring!

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And now let’s take a trip down St. Kilda Road and head downtown. The street is wonderfully subdivided into a three part boulevard section: part one is for the streetcars; part two is for through traffic and is adjacent to the trams; part three are the service drives for local access and turning movements. Brilliant.

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Variations on this theme are visible in various parts of the city on major routes, while the trams simply share the rights-of-way in the more dense neighborhoods. Truly, a transit geek’s paradise.

And as the map above illustrates, mobility in Melbourne is more than just trams. The system is a coordinated network of various modes – trains, trams, buses, and more. A network – that’s how it’s supposed to work, right? And thus, a 20 minute commute. But onward.

Arriving downtown, perhaps by tram or train, we find ourselves at the astonishing and beautiful Flinders Street Station.

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And across the street from the station is the city’s main public space, the very odd but entirely tractable, crowded, bustling, and beloved Federation Square. Federation Square is actually a large mixed-use development housing many public and some private functions, museums, retail and restaurants, all built on air rights over the railroads. The buildings are weird, but they frame an amazing and wonderful space that is the living room of Melbourne, and a great jumping off place for a downtown stroll.

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Flinders Street Station and downtown Melbourne from Fed Square.

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St. Paul’s in the background, Fed Square bustling all round, and the weird architecture visible at the right.

After a Fed Square lunch, it’s time to have a walk.

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Yes, the mobility network includes bike sharing.

As if the streets are not wonderful enough in what is called the Hoddle Grid, because downtown was laid out in 1837 by Robert Hoddle in the form of a rotated grid, there are a whole host of fabulous arcades.

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And bunches of snickets – mid-block narrow walks lined with food and shops.

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We enjoyed everything about downtown, and we were completely taken as well by Melbourne’s equally amazing neighborhoods. Cities can be terrific places.

But then it was time to visit yet another Melbourne astonishment: the Queen Victoria Market, the Vic. This unbelievable place, with its roots in 1850, is now the largest public market in the Southern Hemisphere. The market is huge, has more stuff in it than one can comprehend, and it has 2,000 square meters of solar panels on its roofs (about 22,000 square feet), generating more than 250,000 kilowatt hours of power (enough to fully power 25 homes for a year). Here we go:

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The doughnuts are a much prized Vic foodstuff.

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Miles and miles of the real stuff of markets – fruit, veg, cheese, meats.

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Yes, that does say “Kangaroo Fillets.”

We were energized and instructed in Melbourne. It is a wonderful place, and has much to teach about what makes good urbanism, in any hemisphere. I wish we could take our local leaders there for a visit – they might see a few things of value, and learn a few things. Perhaps like this:

Lessons –

The 20 minute commute is not about cars

Mobility is a network

The public realm of blocks and streets and parks fundamentally defines a place

Walkability trumps everything, whether downtown or in neighborhoods

Density is good, whether downtown or in neighborhoods

Even weird architecture can make a great urban place, especially if it is surrounded with fantastic historic urban fabric

 

Go to Melbourne and see for yourself – it’s worth the trip.

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“Innovate: to start or introduce something new. To create.” Webster’s

Rochesterians enjoy a long tradition of creating the new: cameras, optics, copying machines, telegraphy, and today medicine and science, even corporate R&D (GM has its fuel cell research facility here, as an example). There is and has always been a lot of brainpower here.

Innovators here have always been good at developing the latest widget, and enjoying the resulting profits. And sharing them – thank you, Mr. Eastman.

But the challenges facing this city and its region now require more than the latest widget. The innovation Rochester needs now, in order to enjoy a durable and sustainable future, requires nothing less than redefining progress. Let me explain.

I read an extraordinary article the other day on resilience theory and cities at seedmagazine.com. In the course of the piece the writer, Maywa Montenegro, penned two very memorable and telling sentences. The first: “A city’s lifeblood is a continuous flow of stuff.” Energy, water, food flow in. Waste, carbon dioxide, and perhaps innovative widgets flow out. Hmmm. I have thought a lot about this – even written about it here – but that one sentence sums up city life with enormous concision – a continuous flow of stuff, in and out.

And the second, even more clear and potent: “No city today could survive on its own resources.” Not one? Nope.

So there it is. If Rochester wants to be the home of innovation, then let’s figure out how to become a city whose flow of stuff, both ins and outs, is completely the result of our own resources. Sounds like a simple challenge, but in order to approach success, this region would need to rethink and remake nearly everything. Let the innovation begin.

We hear every day about shrinking resources, so the need to move our city, and region, toward independence is not as screwy as it might sound. But getting even remotely close to independence, however necessary, would be a staggering task. One example: consider how a city like Rochester could get off the grid, and generate sufficient energy and food to securely and durably sustain itself. Imagine how different this city would be if we accepted this challenge. I suppose that lawsuits about wind turbines would probably cease pretty quickly….

I sit here in my studio trying to imagine what that next Rochester would be like. As I ruminate, I make lists of all the things that would have to change – and I consider how those changes would reshape the city. Here are just five ways this city, and region, would change if we became resource independent. An independent Rochester would be:

Carless. Obviously, no oil – no cars. Perhaps a local innovator will perfect some kind of personal transportation device that we can power without oil, and can be made from local resources. Otherwise it’s feet, folks.

But since mobility is a central requirement in any urban setting, we will need some local innovator to figure out transit options that can propel us from one neighborhood to another. Fuel cell street cars or buses? Solar powered jitneys? Wind powered land ferries?

Carless at Main and Fitzhugh, 1910.

Dense. In order to limit energy used for (wasted by) sprawling all over the landscape, we  will need to live closer together. There are almost unlimited numbers of studies that illustrate that increased urban density is central to an increase in sustainability – define that word how you will. And since Rochester has almost no alleys, where an increase in density is easy to achieve, I guess we can just start converting our garages into homes. Won’t need that car, anyway.

Rare in Rochester – Wentworth Apartments at East and Gibbs, 1925.

Nodal. Need a new flat screen? Hop in the car and trundle over to Best Buy. There are two here, both at huge malls. But in the next Rochester, no car, so no trip to Best Buy. Instead, we will gather in neighborhoods, or urban nodes, where there is retail and institutional redundancy – a diverse mixture of uses to support daily life. Maybe some innovator will figure out how to turn the malls and strip centers into sustainable neighborhoods – food markets, health care facilities, shops, homes, schools, and all the other places we need to live our lives. This will need to get repeated in each node or neighborhood.

A local neighborhood center – Versage Brothers Grocery and Philips Robbins Tin Shop, Roofing, Heating, 1919.

Walkable. If we are carless and dense and nodal, we must be walkable. Rochesterians pride themselves on the fact that they can get anywhere in the region in 15 or 20 minutes. It’s a kind of standing joke here, you hear it so often. But when we say this, we mean in a car. Imagine a Rochester where you can get anywhere you need to go in 15 or 20 minutes – on foot.

Most of us – not all, but most – can walk about a mile in 20 minutes. So this begins to give you a sense of the order of things in the next Rochester – nodes of about 2 miles in diameter. Maybe a wee bit smaller. But you will need to walk to all you need in about a mile in any direction.

If you begin to think like this, it’s fun to go to Google Earth and start plotting out the neighborhoods and their centers. Do try this at home.

Main Street vendors, 1927.

Green. If we must grow what we eat locally, then suddenly that vacant lot down the street becomes a coveted asset. Gardens will spring up all over the place, as will markets. We have a challenging climate here – winter is a bit long, and very white – so we will have to grow our own in the good months, and figure out how to store and distribute during the cold months.

Actually, Rochester has one of the oldest public markets in continuous operation in the U.S. It wasn’t that long ago that Rochesterians used the market, all year around, to purchase all their grub. What we need now is a handful of innovators who can teach the rest of us new ways to craft our seasonal menus with the stuff we have sprouting in the backyard.

The Rochester Public Market, 1905.

Innovators – commence innovating! Oh, but do try to remember that we have done most of this once before. What’s old is new again, I guess. Onward.

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Life in a 19th century New York Tenement.

I am getting  a bit roughed up here on issues related to the need for increased density in the next city. Friends, colleagues, even siblings are suggesting that my recent proposals to use existing rights-of-way (streets, alleys) as sites for new construction illustrate that I am a slap-happy historic homewrecker gleefully headed back to the miserably teeming tenements of the 19th century. Okay then.

I have in recent posts (in fact in many of the posts here over the last year or so) advocated a substantial increase in density as a way of increasing urban walkability, and access to a much broader mixture of uses, goods and services in nodal neighborhoods of a mile or two in diameter, connected to one another by geometrically increased transit options. I believe that a substantial increase in density enables and induces a host of urgently needed changes in the way we organize and inhabit our cities: new kinds of infrastructure to deliver and distribute energy, water, mobility and food, in radically revised and enhanced fashion.

I guess some of my readers think that I advocate this:

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Manila.

Or this:

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Mumbai.

While I find much that is admirable and valid about slums from a variety of points of view, I am certainly not advocating this form of construction for Washington or Chicago or Denver (though the burgeoning tent city in Sacramento comes eerily closer to these images).

Some readers have asked me to make the suburbs more dense first – to stop fussing with existing, even historic urban quarters, and to go out to the land of shopping malls and quarter acre lots. Fine. I guess I have always taken that as a given. The house where I grew up, now altered almost beyond recognition, sits in a Chicago suburb made possible by cars.

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The house where I grew up.

So – no cars, now what? I will leave rethinking the suburbs to another moment, but I do note that this pattern of  auto-dominated human settlement is doomed, Chevy Volt notwithstanding. 3,000 pound personal transportation devices are officially obsolete.

Instead, I believe that there are perfectly livable, in fact highly attractive, examples of the good urban life lived in close quarters: dense, mixed use neighborhoods (much more dense than most, though not all,  US cities). That seems to be a central issue with my critics – livability. Which seems to be equated with how close buildings are to one another, somehow.

I have shown these images often, but here’s a rerun of a few. Note that most of the buildings are not more than 6 or 7 stories, they are quite close together (often less than 20 or 30 feet apart), and they are not miserable tenements, but instead interesting, dense, mixed use urban places. Oh, and take a look at the fact that in most of these images the neighborhoods have been altered, adjusted, and added to over time. Most feature new and old in close juxtaposition. So here goes.

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Gijon, Santa Cruz, Lisbon, Barcelona, Lisbon, Barcelona, Funchal, Cadiz, New York.

Dense. Not too tall. Close together – or very close. Changing and aggregating over time. Lots of mixed uses. Not slums or tenements. Interesting, textured, rich places. Jacob Riis indeed – add a few bio-swales and were ready to go, right?

On to the suburbs.

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Let’s say that you live in an urban neighborhood that has less than 15 or 20 dwellings per acre. Let’s say that you live in an urban neighborhood of detached or semi-detached townhouses and single family homes. A neighborhood of bungalows, perhaps like this:

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Chicago bungalow.

Knowing that the city must become more populous in order to serve our future needs, what would you propose to do to increase density while preserving character?

Reader Mackenzie Keast, an urbanist in Hamilton, Ontario, has encouraged me to look at developments in Vancouver and Toronto aimed at pumping up the density in the very neighborhoods I have just described. And what they are creating is pretty interesting.

In Canada, they are calling for laneway housing. In the US, we call laneways alleys. Vancouver has just approved a pilot plan to build 100 laneway housing units. The city has mandated that they must be quite small, 500 to 700 square feet, and must be for rent, not for sale. Things are popping already. Here’s an example:

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Laneway housing in Vancouver.

And here’s one in Toronto:

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Don’t have an alley? No problem. Build the unit above, or in lieu of, your garage, and use the driveway as your laneway.

This is not exactly a revolutionary idea. New urbanists have been talking about this for a long time, calling the units ‘mother-in-law apartments,’ or live/work suites.

But cities have been slow to warm to the idea – and even now there is some controversy swirling in Vancouver. Will these units create a “second class” of residents? Will the units affect property values? Will the units simply generate more noise and more strain on local public resources like parks and schools?

Support, though, is strongly in favor of trying this approach, as a part of what Vancouver calls its “EcoDensity” plan. Another part of this plan is focusing on repaving residential streets, providing them with center strips of permeable paving and “vegetated shoulders” coupled with storm water management systems. Vancouverites are pushing hard to prepare their city for a useable, sustainable future – as a body politic they seem to be quite far ahead of the rest of us. You can check out the EcoDensity plan at www.vancouver-ecodensity.ca. Interesting stuff.

I was part of a team that proposed a similar kind of paving for DC – about 5 years ago. Nothing yet. Portland, Oregon, has tried something like it though. It looks like this:

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Portland bioswale in the sidewalk zone. Photo sitephocus.

I digress. It’s interesting to troll for strategies for increasing the density of our cities, even in places where density is absent. Something to ponder a bit further. Other ideas?

A postscript: today, 16 months almost to the day after we began A Town Square, we are proud to have welcomed our 10,000th visitor. Our many thanks for your interest, and for joining us in conversations about where we live.

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And now, with one single image, I will annoy whole cadres of folks, even more than I usually do. I am confident that all of my lifelong historic preservation friends will throw their hands in the air in horror. And my brother Doug, an astute urbanist with a terrific eye, and ear, for what counts in city life will no doubt remain unconvinced. Nonetheless, onward.

Recapping assumptions, the next city must be dense, and walkable – much more so in both categories than most US cities today. The next city cannot come at the expense of what we have already constructed – we can’t afford to throw anything away. The next city must be in contact with the valuable urban traditions of its locale. The next city must be improvisational, taking advantage of found circumstances to create places of value.

So here is a proposal. We live on Capitol Hill, next to this intersection:

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Yes, that’s the dome of the Capitol in the distance. I am standing in the middle of Maryland Avenue NE, looking southwest.

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Image by Prashant Salvi.

D Street, on the right, where the streetcar ran in the old days, is now closed. Sidewalks on both sides of the street are wider, adjacent to new construction in the right-of-way that is about 24′ in width. Each proposed building is about 60′ long or so – each is not continuous in its length, but instead features a small plaza between it and adjacent new construction.

Maryland Avenue, on the left, retains one driving lane in each direction (from which the dome of the Capitol remains completely visible). In the existing condition, there is something like 160′ from face to face of buildings on either side of the street, so there’s plenty of room for new construction of about 26′ in width, plus plenty of sidewalks and open spaces. As with D Street, the buildings are discontinuous.

The intersection of D and Maryland is retained as public open space. It could be a porous surface of pavers, as shown here, or planted. Or even gardens. Haven’t got that far yet.

Oh, and the architecture: if it doesn’t look green enough, or traditional enough, or sufficiently contemporary, fine – we’ll change it. For me this is about incrementally making existing urban places more dense, more walkable, and ultimately more durable and sustainable.

Density in the neighborhood has now doubled, at least. Now there will be more space for residents, and places to work, with shops or offices or units at the first floor, and units above. We can stroll out our door to the new market, or cafe, or sit and have a cold one in one of the new plazas.

Okay, so let me have it.

End note: my many, many thanks to true-blue friend and colleague Prashant Salvi for working up this image. Hey Prashant – I’ve got ideas for a bunch more of these….

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