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Posts Tagged ‘Urban design’

My brother Doug and I got into a discussion of blocks and alleys and urbanism on this Thanksgiving Day. He writes quite wonderfully about his neighborhood in Portland, Oregon: Alameda. You can find his work here: www.alamedahistory.org.

He said: “‘I am also working on something about alleys here in northeast Portland. The earlier neighborhoods (before 1911) have alleys. South of Prescott, we don’t have any. What changed, I wonder, to move away from alleys? Was this a national movement that coincided with the car? Hmm. Insights?”

Well, of course he is exactly correct. As the incidence of car ownership rose – and it did so really fast – the alley disappeared, developers platted lots back-to-back, and the American city block became just a bit poorer for the change. Here in Rochester we had 4,000 cars in about 1912, and 40,000 cars less than 10 years later. Simultaneously as the 19 teens unfolded, we had 250′ deep blocks, some of which ran/run on for over 1,500′ as the nascent city took shape.. A real urban mess.

Why a mess? Well long thin blocks means less access, of course less walkability and permeability, eventually less security, and certainly a crimp in urban mobility, whatever your means of locomotion.

Interestingly, it is not that hard to find developers saying, in the early years of the century of the car, that automobiles belonged in front of the house, not at the rear, like horses and carriages. Harrumph.

The gold standard for the American city block form, in my view, is the Chicago block (okay, I am a Chicagoan, but still….). 660′ long, and 350′ deep, from the center of the rights-of-way. This gives you 125’ deep lots, a nice alley, and useable streets.

Decker Typical Block (3).jpg

But similar conventional urban forms can be found in other cities. Even where the urban block form is very large – Salt Lake City comes to mind – there are internal means of movement, which if not alleys, are at least byways that promote some kind of porosity.

salt-lake-block

Salt Lake City block.

All of this left me wondering. I know that there are comparative typologies that examine the city block in American cities. One looks like this:

American_Grid_Comparison

By Isomorphism3000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23516392

Not sure what they were looking at when they did Chicago (it was probably the Loop, where the block form is anomalous), but this is a pretty good summary. In the end though, the sketches, and this entire conversation, beg a few really simple questions: where did the alley come from anyway, how did it work in various urban morphologies, when did it go away (always in the 1910s?), and what were the consequences?

I would have thought that someone would have written a history of the American city block, and the alley. Not so, that I can find.

Maybe you can suggest sources. Any ideas?

 

 

 

 

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With as little commentary as possible, here are two views of our city. First, a view from the 1950s or 1960s.

Downtown Rochester. Main Street at the bottom of the image, the Genesee River, and Front and Water Streets on either side of the waterfront, running north and south.

And the same view in 2016.

The street running parallel to the river on the west bank was Front Street. On the ground, Front Street used to look like this:

I am old enough to remember when cities thought that tearing themselves down in the name of renewal was a good idea. I remember thinking then – I was in Chicago at the time, a city certainly not immune to defective thoughts about what it meant to renew a place – that the whole mental framework beneath the notion of “urban renewal” was defective. My classmates and I could see the failures everywhere around us, but there was no turning back for most places. Too late.

If we still had the city in the first image, and in the last images, we would be rich beyond words.

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I made a presentation the other day entitled “Teachable Cities.” I looked at 10 cities from around the world that had lessons for us as we shape our own urban places, lessons about water and waterfronts, about cars and traffic, about alternate forms of urban mobility, and about constructing or reconstructing a public realm meant for us to inhabit rather than to whiz through, and past.

During the conversation that followed the presentation, someone asked me this: “In the cities you have visited, what is the single biggest problem you have discovered?” I think they thought I would say cars. I said this:

Saigon Street Scene 02

Ho Chi Minh City – Saigon – Vietnam

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Lima, Peru

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Mumbai, India (yes, that’s a temple folks are lined up to enter)

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Colombo, Sri Lanka

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Near Bangkok, Thailand

No city is unscathed. Perhaps a better word is uncompromised. Some cities have fared better than others (often for complex reasons mixing intent with serendipity), and perhaps a top ten list would make an interesting post sometime. But the loss of the local, or the supplanting of the local with the not-local has done enormous damage to our places of human habitation. And I am not talking here about locally grown free-range chicken. Well, not about chicken alone.

Our own American version of this phenomenon looks like this:

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Or if we’re feeling particularly cranky, like this:

urban_sprawl

Increasingly, from Lima to Louisville, everywhere is more and more like everywhere else. By design. In fact we have devised whole building types that assure that we have no idea where we are. A good example: airports.

dscn1843-2 233

rio-021812-021912-009

singapore-airport-transit-hotel-3

You might not believe me if I told you where these places are, but they are on four different continents, and yet they are completely indistinguishable. From the top: Toronto, Warsaw, Sao Paolo and Singapore. No local chickens to be seen here….

In futureworld, those places that are most resilient, most able to withstand the vagaries of change in whatever form it may come, those places that are most rooted in their local soil, most like themselves, least tempted to appear in any way to be like somewhere else, are those places that will thrive most gracefully, most successfully.

Or to say this in a different way, if you can choose to be anywhere (thanks to technology and global economics) won’t you choose to be somewhere unique? Won’t you choose to be somewhere that is not like everywhere else? Current analysis says yes, you will.

Take a look at this listing of the value of local character, compiled by the Ministry of Environment in New Zealand:

“Key findings (of our study include):

Urban design that respects and supports local character can:

•attract highly-skilled workers and high-tech businesses

•help in the promotion and branding of cities and regions

•potentially add a premium to the value of housing

•reinforce a sense of identity among residents, and encourage them to help actively manage their neighbourhood

•offer people meaningful choices between very distinctive places, whose differences they value

•encourage the conservation and responsible use of non-renewable resources.”

Readers: the local is nice, and homey, and makes us feel good. AND – don’t miss this – the local is worth real dollars.

At the heart of any place – Rochester, for example – are a host of specific details that are of enormous importance to any real place, any place that values its local character. Geography – eight miles from a Great Lake on a river flowing north, with a waterfall in its midst. History – a canal makes a hamlet into a city thanks to the relentless lobbying of the guy the place is named after. Climate – 120 inches of snow in the winter, a relatively short growing season, and a great place for grapes, apples, peaches. People – one particularly successful businessman caused the establishment of countless institutions of culture and education. Neighbors – in 1975, the Swillburg neighbors succeeded in assassinating an expressway that would have leveled their quarter of the city, and truly wrecked the place beyond the mid-century car debris that was already everywhere. We have a lot of local that we can foreground – certainly better than we do now – as we build our local “brand.”

It is increasingly important that we resist any force for homogeneity exerted on our home places.

TOKYO - DECEMBER 25, 2012: A Taxi at Ginza District December 25, 2012 in Tokyo, JP. Ginza etends for 2.4 km and is one of the world's best known shopping districts.

While it is perhaps true that the Ginza in Tokyo (above), or Times Square, or Piccadilly in London derive their characters from the presence of non-local schlock (Ricoh is a Japanese company we admit), and interestingly they are oddly quite similar, study after study underscores that we want to live a local life, and a local life has substantial economic value.

And now it’s time to find our way home.

 

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“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

 

As the city disappears around us, it is easy to feel lost.

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This is what I saw today, above, on one of my very regular routes.

main-and-laura

This is what that place used to look like.

main-and-laura-4

Lost. I mean literally. Where am I, now that that place I knew is gone? That place was how my memory recalled my latitude and longitude.

I mean figuratively. How can we live in a city that is becoming increasingly unfamiliar, when so many physical places, and so many of our memories and narratives, are being deleted.

But Howard, I am told, these places are derelict, they are falling down, they house bad people doing bad things, and they are ugly.

I see. But it’s not the buildings. It’s us.

Before today, it was this:

main-and-laura-2

And today it is big, green, and gone.

 

 

 

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Once upon a time, in the now-distant 1890s, and after a long and arduous fund raising campaign notable for the $1,000 donation of the President of Haiti, a sculpture to honor and remember Frederick Douglass was begun. Sidney Wells Edwards was the sculptor. The completed monument was dedicated on June 9th, 1899, five years after Douglass died. 10,000 people attended the ceremony. Teddy Roosevelt, then New York’s Governor, was here.

The monument was located at what is now St. Paul Street and Central Avenue. In 1910 the site, in the upper left portion of this map, looked like this:

2016-09-06-copy-2-copy

The Frederick Douglass Monument, in front of the train station and not far from Franklin Square.

Just a block from the train station, the site was selected because of its prominence. As Mayor George E. Warner observed at the dedication, “It is fitting that it should stand near a great portal of our city where the thousands who enter it may see that she is willing to acknowledge to the world that her most illustrious citizen was not a white man.”

As a side note one potential site, in the Olmsted designed Plymouth Park (now Lunsford Circle), perhaps the oldest neighborhood in the city, was rejected by the neighbors.

plymouth-park-1931

Plymouth Park, in the Corn Hill neighborhood, 1931.

For years after the dedication the monument was the site of celebrations and gatherings.

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1906.

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1911 – the Grand Army of the Republic convention.

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Celesta Foster of New Orleans about to lay a wreath, 1911. Denis Washington holds the umbrella.

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A celebration at the monument, 1924.

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1924.

After 42 years at St. Paul Street and Central Avenue, and mostly because of the endless railroad traffic nearby, the monument had become “grimy and sooty.” And so a committee was formed, and a decision was made to move the monument to Highland Park. The place in the park for the statue was within a few hundred yards of where Douglass had once lived, on South Avenue. Not exactly the apex of city life, but away from the grime of the trains.

And so today the statue stands, as it has for 75 years, in the park. It was rededicated on September 4th, 1941.

fd24

Not exactly a compelling location, but there it stands.

In reflecting on this story, I have found myself longing for a new home for Mr. Douglass, a place that is again a great portal of our city. Maybe where the Inner Loop used to be, because he once lived at 297 Alexander – don’t bother looking it up, it’s a parking lot – just a few feet away. Or perhaps at the entrance to our new train station, soon to become a fitting, and central, urban threshold.

Any significant city is measured in some way by its monuments and memorials. These comprise the most important chapters in the narrative of any place. I sense that we are not properly serving a critical moment in our urban story with Mr. Douglass off in Highland Park. He seems so forlorn and abandoned there. We all need to see him, and reflect on his life, every day. And we need his wisdom, now more than ever.

“Men do not live by bread alone. So with nations. They are not saved by art, but by honesty, not by the gilded splendors of wealth but by the hidden treasures of manly virtue; not by the multitudinous gratification of the flesh, but by the celestial guidance of the spirt.”

Frederick Douglass, 1857.

“I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity.”

Frederick Douglass, 1869.

 

 

 

 

 

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Other things are percolating here, but while they brew, here are some peeks at something I’ve had some fun doing: my urban infrastructure lexicon. The project began during a visit to Cutler City, Oregon, to have an art weekend with my dearest and ever-inspiring artist sister.  With her egging me on, I started by sketching the alphabet, like this:

028 (2)

029 (2)

Here are a few of the results. In order, we have “H,”

h

And then “M,”

m

And then “N,”

n

And “O,” (maybe this is “Q”)

o

And finally, “U.”

u

Four bridges and a subway.

I have picked this up again and the ones I am puzzling about at the moment are “G” and “R.” Hmm. We’ll see what happens.

 

 

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012 Stitch

The intersection of South Clinton and Bly, in Rochester. The green and tan building on the right of Bly is early – from before 1890. The red building on the left of Bly dates from around 1915.

Recognizable? It should be – it is almost certainly present in your city – perhaps right around the corner. Even now this configuration can be found in every neighborhood in our city. Most often, two two-story buildings to the left and to the right at intersections of busier and less busy city streets. Storefronts on the ground floor, apartments upstairs. Beyond them, houses to the left and right, and down the side streets. A familiar tune, but can you make out the lyrics?

Sometimes the houses adjacent to the storefronts are replaced by other two story mixed-use buildings, if the intersection is of two busy streets. In extreme cases there may be a few three story buildings. There are almost always ground floor storefronts. What is the story this tune is telling us? This.

Electric streetcars began here in 1890. The population of the city was about 135,000, and growing fast. Really fast – about 25% to 35% each decade until 1940, when for the first time the population decreased. So let’s focus on that half-century: 1890 to 1940.

(To add a bit more context, in 1920, when the population of Rochester had reached 296,000, a 35% increase over 1910, there were 45,000 cars in the city, but still less than 15% of the population owned one.)

During those fifty years, mobility for most in this city was on foot, by bicycle, or by streetcar. And the two and three story buildings? They marked the streetcar stops. In mornings or evenings, as you hopped on or off the local streetcar, you could do a bit of shopping, or nibbling, at these places: cafes, bars, shoe shops, cleaners and launderers, bakeries, green grocers, and much more. Then you could walk a block or two and be home.

In the city where I grew up, Chicago, these streetcar stops were tied to the grid, were very regularly spaced at 1/4 miles apart, and exerted enormous force in this same half-century in shaping the city and its neighborhoods.

Block end with trolley cc'ed (4)

Interestingly, the streetcar stops here in Rochester tend to be spaced about 1/4 mile apart also, even though our grid of streets is anything but regular. Even then, we understood that a five minute walk – a 1/4 mile walk – was something almost all of us could manage, even in terrible North Coast weather.

1394716916000-CO-Storm-031214-C-Metro

In 1925, our streetcar map looked like this:

Rochester Streetcar map - 1920s

All the streetcars went downtown because that’s where we all needed to be: for work, to do our major shopping, for our most important entertainment, to participate in our city’s critical institutions. Automobiles wrecked this later, but that’s not a part of this particular melody.

And so in neighborhood after neighborhood, on all the city streets that had them, we can find a similar formal expression borne out of the presence of the streetcar. Even though the streetcar vanished here in 1941 – 75 years ago – it is compellingly clear that the city took its shape and form from streetcars, ideas of walkability, the 1/4 mile walk, and the presence of locally based retail and markets. Here are a few more views.

Webster and Parsells

Webster and Parsells

Webster and Grand

Webster and Grand

Rochester Foresters of America 1922

Webster and Grand, The Rochester Foresters of America, June 1922

Goodman and Garson

Goodman and Garson

Genesee and Sawyer

Genesee and Sawyer

This melody, which most can’t hear anymore, is everywhere around us. And the song is actually more resonant than some may suspect. Listen a bit more.

The development community saw the streetcar and its rails plopped down across the city, and they were happy to follow. We can examine plat map after plat map, and we find that as the streetcar developed, so did the form of our city. At first there may only have been one or two buildings at a streetcar stop. But later, as the car stop became more important or the neighborhood density increased, developers were happy to put up more 2 and 3 story mixed use buildings adjacent to the stops.

By the time of the 1926 plat maps, the streetcar routes were well established, and nearly every streetcar stop was built up. Here’s Clinton and Bly in 1918. The blue checks mark the mixed use buildings at the streetcar stop.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

And though these buildings, and many, many more like them, are either gone now or are becalmed in the idling breezes of our cities, they nonetheless constitute the narrative of how Rochester, or Anytown, got to look and feel the way it does. Even today the truth of this tune is well known – urban development follows the rails.

As with any story in any city, musical or otherwise, somebody always comes up with a revised version – some new take on the old standard tune. Rochester is no different. Here we go.

colby e

This is the intersection of Park and Colby, only a few blocks from us. Yes, it was a streetcar stop. Colby, which runs perpendicular to the plane of this picture, once upon a time dead-ended at the Erie Canal. Here’s a plat of the intersection in 1918.

The two-story masonry building in the photograph is shown here in pink. You can see the streetcar tracks, and at the bottom right you can see the pale blue indicating the Erie Canal.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Now it gets even more interesting. Here is the plat from 1926.

IMG_0002Now the large apartment building shown in the photo is present – it’s the big pink building opposite the little two story pink guy.

But wait. Colby doesn’t dead-end at the canal anymore. Well, the Erie Canal got moved from here in 1918. Where it once was became a fairly large ditch. And what did we put in that ditch? The Rochester Subway. It began operation in 1927, and ran until 1956. Colby Station, shown in this 1926 plat, picked up passengers from both sides of the former Canal, and a pedestrian overpass with stairs gave access down to the platform. Today this exact same place looks like this:

IMG_20160604_180406018[1]

The Colby Station access, now I490, looking east.

After 1940 here we ripped out the streetcar and moved to the suburbs. Population here peaked in 1950, and then plummeted as quickly as it had risen between 1890 and 1940. New mobility caused a fundamental shift in how and where we lived and shopped and worked, just as it had before. Nonetheless, the force of the streetcar was slow to fade, and as we have seen, many of us live in the streetcar city even today. It’s just that there are no streetcars….

How we move defines our urban places. How we move is  powerful, even seductive music. The city of walking and density and mixed-use and localness is a city whose song has ended here in Rochester. But if we can remember that melody, if we can relearn that song, then we can have that place again.

“The moon descended
and I found with the break of dawn
you and the song had gone
but the melody lingers on”

Irving Berlin, of course

Thanks to Jason and Jane.

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