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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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Ugh. Somehow, we seem incapable of naming any important planning or design initiative anything other than ROC. ROC is the airport code for Rochester.

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Must we really persist in this ROC title for our restaurants, bars, carpet cleaners, dry cleaners, home inspectors, car repair shops, bagel shops, theaters, barber shops, moving companies?… And urban design plans?

Anyway, the Governor of New York has threatened to provide our city with tens of millions of dollars ($50 million) to transform the Genesee River, which runs through our city, into the asset that it should be, and could be. The City’s ‘plan’ for the money involves spending most of it on maintenance that should be undertaken anyway, like repairing and redesigning very bad riverside plazas (with parking underneath: let’s get rid of all parking along the river – all of it) created during “urban renewal”, fixing terraces and paving at public facilities alongside the river, or repairing the now pedestrian-only Pont de Rennes bridge, which crosses the river at High Falls and offers sensational views of the city’s greatest natural asset (it needs to be fixed – it’s rusting!).

Pont de Rennes bridge

Oh, and there is a plan to re-water the aqueduct that once carried the Erie Canal through our downtown. Really expensive ($35 million?!?). This is, for me, way down the list of things we need to do right away.

The place to begin, it seems to me, is to create a real plan. This would include tasks and costs, as in the city’s shopping list, and then move on to priorities, phases, and methods of implementation. Our river runs through downtown, and the return on investment there could be quite substantial. But our river runs through the rest of the city as well, past University and neighborhoods, parks and other waterfalls, wetlands and marshes, marinas and boat clubs, all the way out to Lake Ontario.

What we really need to do is just three really important things. If it takes $50 million, fine. If not, call me: I could go on…. Here’s my list:

  • Connect both sides of the river continuously for public use, from Lake Ontario some 8 miles to the north, to as far south as money and jurisdictional power will take us. (I am told that the only way to do this is to redo the aqueduct. I say Nuts to that).
  • Invest in the waterfall and its High Falls District, which lies at the heart of our city, and our city’s history, and support programs which educate, celebrate and redevelop this central stage of our community. (Full disclosure: I am on the board of Greentopia, and we are proposing that this place, and our first-in-New-York-State Eco-District, get some help in this ROC thing).

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  • Make the river in our downtown the magnet for citizens, businesses and adjacent redevelopment that other cities – Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver, Grand Rapids, others – have succeeded in achieving. This would mean $100s of millions in increased value, jobs, and tax revenues if done properly. Downtown river development has worked real wonders in other cities, like Columbus, Ohio, or Greenville, South Carolina.

High Falls aerialPhoto from Greentopia.

That’s it. Three tasks. If we did these three, perhaps we could go from ROC to Rochester. Wouldn’t that be nice?

 

 

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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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Shenzhen, China

Shenzhen, China. Image by Sze Tsung Leong for the New York Times.

This past weekend the New York Times Magazine was devoted to architecture and urban design, and the issue was entitled “The Next City.” I was crestfallen to see that the title of our project here had been scooped up. I was certain that we had been rendered obsolete – surely the NYT would get great journalists to talk about all of the issues facing the next city, and they would do so in a provocative and insightful way. They would spend time, and column inches, talking about making cities, even new and exploding cities in the developing world, sustainable and green and fit for their burgeoning populations. I was really bummed.

Until I read the magazine. At first I was puzzled, and then, as I began to reflect on what I had read, I started to get angry. Really angry.

The cities we live in, whether east or west, whether giant and new, or older and suffused with history, are simply not sustainable. We must address this, in all of its complexity, and we must do this now. We are burning through the earth’s resources at a breathtaking rate, (especially we Americans), and as population increases, and the east develops so very quickly, it is absolutely clear that we are on a path to cataclysm. Does the NYTM’s Next City talk about any of this? Shamefully, it does not.

Half the world’s population now lives in cities. By 2050, most scientists (and the NYTM) tell us that 75% of the population will live in cities. Clearly, cities are the best laboratory for searching for, and we hope finding, the best next forms of habitation, piece by piece, neighborhood by neighborhood.

So what do we get from the NYTM? Starchitects. Celebrities. A highbrow version of Access Hollywood. Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Bernard Tschumi, Herzog & de Meuron and many more. What a waste of paper and pixels!

Nicolai Ouroussoff, the NYT’s architecture critic, writes the most dazzlingly, stupefyingly wrongheaded piece of all, entitled “The New, New City.” He investigates exploding cities like Shenzhen, Dubai, Beijing, cities without precedent of any kind, he says, and he muses about what approach poor architects like Holl and Koolhaas should take when they are working at huge scale and blazing speed. Where shall they go for inspiration, guidance, context in these placeless voids where they are work? He says: “…the notion of finding “authenticity” in a sprawling metropolitan area that is barely 30 years old seems absurd.” Oh? 

(Think of this: as America urbanized in the 19th century, the national population doubled, from 38.6 million in 1870 to 76.2 million in 1900, and from 25.7% urban to 39.6% urban. U.S. cities went from inchoate miasmas to real urban centers in this 30 year period).

Get rid of the cars, figure out which way the wind is blowing, track the sun, gather the water, make shelter from the heat, or cold. Start there. Make buildings, and urbanisms, that find their basic humanity in trying to create the gentlest and most sustainable places imaginable. Shaded places, sheltering places. Stop talking about modernism (mentioned five times in the piece) and modernists and the Voisin Plan and Corbusier. This is now nearly completely irrelevant. 

Ouroussoff never uses any of the following words: green, sustainable, sustainability, environment, energy, climate, sun, wind, rain, community. The New York Times is irresponsible in letting this drivel reach its hundreds of thousands of readers. Get rid of this guy, and stop talking about architecture and urbanism as if it were fashion. There’s too much at stake. 

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Steven Holl’s “Linked Hybrid,” under construction in Beijing. Ouroussoff says: “…one of the most innovative housing complexes anywhere in the world.” Image by Virgile Simon Bertrand.

If Holl’s Beijing project is leading the way, I don’t want to go. As a long time Chicagoan, the Linked Hybrid image reminded me of Presidential Towers, in that city’s West Loop. You can look it up. Not reviled exactly, but certainly not a path to the Beulah land. (Amy says Presidential Towers looks like the Dakota compared to Holl’s ‘Linked Hybrid.’).

But don’t get me wrong – there were a couple of nice pieces in the New York Times Magazine. Jim Lewis wrote a very strong piece entitled “The Exigent City,” which examines ‘temporary’ cities, refugee camps, and displacement. He points out that increasingly, refugee camps are less and less temporary. And he concludes that, at the moment, “The world is short a billion homes.”  And he actually uses the word ‘green.’

An interview with Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia has a great quote: “A sidewalk is a symbol of equality.” He got cars off the sidewalks in Bogota, and built more sidewalks, and nearly paid for it with his life. Go figure.

An interesting article about the Dutch practice called MVRDV. They (MVRDV) get what really counts in making cities, even though the article seems a bit too interested in their starpower and their relationship with Brad Pitt. Oh well.

And an interesting piece about yet another trendy practice, Lot-Ek (low-tech), a NYC based practice run by two Neapolitans who are interested in making buildings, and urbanism, from found objects. Their Urban Scan, a database of the industrial and the found in the landscape, is really terrific.

In the end, I wish that the NYTM had taken the time to seriously look at the challenges facing the Next City, and I guess I could live with being scooped. No matter what I do, I will never have a million readers. They do every week. They could help to advance the discussion about future urbanism and the next city, but this time they really, really failed.

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