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Posts Tagged ‘Urban design’

Audubon

Here in our city, we live on a street that is a prime conduit for zooming rush-hour traffic attempting to avoid congestion. The phenomenon is called rat running, and we have some pretty fast rats.

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We yell at the drivers, we write letters to the City, we try to organize our neighbors, but the street racing drags on (pun intended). We have even thought of sitting at the end of the driveway with Amy’s hairdryer, ala a very funny clip we saw not too long ago, hoping to put the fear of radar into our adversaries.

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As we sip our morning coffee, it is not uncommon to observe cut-through commandos with gas pedals mashed to the floor, roaring by us in a Muybridge-like blur (Muybridge was an early photo master in depicting motion). For us to try and combat this nonsense with what is euphemistically called traffic calming, we would need 70 percent of our neighbors to agree with us. This in a city where the kar is king – tough math, and especially with a handful of absentee landlords. So no speed bumps or speed tables for us. And our suggestion – to allow parking on both sides of our narrow (24’ wide curb to curb – I measured) residential street at all times instead of alternate evenings – will surely never fly in our city of convenience. Who knows – maybe even the Fire Chief (Fire Chiefs design most of our cities these days. We wouldn’t want to have to redesign their equipment, would we?) would get cranky….

rat race graffitti (2)

And it’s not just our street, in our neighborhood, where this is a problem. Residential streets and neighborhoods are bad, and even main drags are bad as we rush from work to home, from home to work. Every year hundreds of pedestrians and bicyclists collide with these speeding dinosaurs, and often this causes injury, (and sometimes mortal wounds), to the less armored. I know whereof I speak – I got nailed not long ago by a giant pickup truck.

To make matters worse, our block is nearly 1,000 feet long. Many here are much longer – much more than a quarter mile (dragstrip). There is plenty of time to get up a full head of steam – we think 60 mph or more is often the case. As I was reflecting on this unpleasant conundrum I consulted our City Code. I was wondering what it said about street widths and parking arrangements for a street such as ours. And what did I discover? That the Code (Chapter 128, Article IV, section 128-7, Paragraph 9 – I am sure my nomenclature is wrong, but you can find it if you look) specifies “In general, block lengths shall not exceed 1,200 feet or be less than 500 feet.” WHAT??!?

As if speeding weren’t bad enough! All over the city we have these unendingly long blocks. Long blocks make for all kinds of problems in creating a lively, permeable, fine-grained urban fabric – there is quite a literature on this subject. The biggest urban blocks that get diagrammed frequently are in Salt Lake City – 600 feet square. We got ‘em beat.

City grids - Nairn-Grid-Poster

I have written here before about the problems with our city’s grid of streets, and our blocks without alleys. Even without hurtling cars, this poses all kinds of problems throughout our city. Add the speed demons and it’s good reason to stay on the sidewalk, or the front porch. Or the backyard.

Rat running and our city grid: a one-two combo of punches. We did get the city to post yellow “SLOW DOWN” strips signs on a few light posts, but that has had exactly no impact on the speeding. And hoping for fewer cars on city streets any time soon is truly a fantasy. Perhaps autonomous cars will make a difference….

In the meanwhile, speaking of backyards, one of our neighbors is cooking up what may be a terrific new approach.

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I checked in to another neighborhood in my imagined city, and found some things that are a bit disturbing. I wonder how this happened….

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I was going to say that most of us carry a city around in our heads – a city we imagine, filled with places that we conjure, we seek, we occupy in our reveries.

But maybe most of us don’t. Maybe it’s just me.

In any event, whether you do or you don’t, I do, and from time to time I like to check in with that city in my head to see how things are going. I did check in today, and here is what I found:

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Everything seems to be okay. I wish I could see more people on the street – maybe everyone’s at the mall – but otherwise everything looks pretty good.

 

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Maybe I’ll just hop on the subway and go down to the ballpark this evening. Nice night for a hot dog and a cold one. See you there?

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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This is what that place used to look like.

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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:

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And today it is big, green, and gone.

 

 

 

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