As the marketing person here, I received a mysteriously addressed brochure (to "German M") from Magic Media Inc, advertising the availability of outdoor ad space in Micropolises. A micropolis, in case you haven't heard, is a town or city with a population of 10,000 to 49,000. Apparently, they now account for a

"thriving, growing, a brand new potential base of more than 28 million people."
Yikes, subtle sign of sprawl, but there you have it. Now all of those with a burning desire for a 1.5 acre lot away from the city's core will too experience glorious visual clutter and marketing gambits.

For ways of thinking around this corporate encroachment of public spaces in all of our country's urban edges, visit Scenic America, of the Lady Byrd Johnson wildflowers-along-the-highway legacy. Or if you need to vent, check in with James Kunstler, my favorite urban pessimist.


Philadelphia's Wi-Fi...

Should definitely happen.

I haven't heard it yet, but NPR's All Things Considered reported this morning:

Philadelphia wants to hook up the entire city with high-speed, wireless Internet access in order to spur economic development. But Verizon has successfully backed a state bill that would make it illegal for any government entity in to compete with the telecom company in providing high-speed Internet service. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

Should Philadelphia be able to spend state funds to provide a public good? Yes. In this specific case, Philadelphia is the obvious place to pilot an information technology project, given the preponderance of service industries headquartered in the city. The bill should mandate a passing on of hard and soft knowledge to other cities in the state, in return for the use of state funds.

As for Verizon, I would say to it what many corporations like it have said to small businesses they've edged out: innovate or get out of the race. Why should the public subsidize Verizon's existence through the opportunity cost of not having the public good?


Beautiful Delmarva

I spent Thanksgiving on the waterfront on the Eastern Shore, the Virginia part of Delmarva, which is according to RoadTrip USA circa 2002, one of the least developed parts of the United States.

The waterfront is pristine, filled with diverse ecology, protected by barrier islands. It's where the wild ponies run in Assateague and Chincoteague. But the car trip down foretells a land-use fight that can only intensify. Development pressure from people looking for a piece of their very own waterfront has already widened Rt. 13, the major throughway running through this tiny peninsula. Strip and big box development has already overwhelmed the road, prompting a new throughfare to be built, designating the old Rt. 13 as a business road. There is incredible effort given to enforcement of the speed limit, but widening the road has only made it all the more difficult to drive 35 mph when cruising down at 65. (The speed limit has increased 20 mph since I started coming down here 4 years ago).

Right next to the house, there's a new development that will be going up - 16 houses on farmland. There are no regulations governing this type of development, so right-of-ways are jumbled on top of old and new property lines.

There is no regional plan, no town plan, no plan of any kind. What would be ideal, to keep the waterfront the treasure that it is, is to focus development closer to amenities - like the existing towns. The towns are beautiful, but slowly dying as people move closer to the seashore and depend more on automotive travel to get what they need. Then give all property owners rights - maybe through property taxes, to waterfront that is maintained by park service. Partner with the Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service to keep the waterfront what it is.

This is in incredibly beautiful place and we're only starting to hear about what is to come. Not much has been built in the Virginia side of things yet. In Maryland and Delaware, sprawl is much more evident. Virginia still has a shot of coming out of this turning point on the positive side.


A New American Dream - (but which one?)

Really? It's about time!

The Federal Transit Administration's "Hidden in Plain Sight" shows that within 25 years more and more people will seek out dream homes near public transit stations. Jennifer Dorn nicely outlines the FTA's opinion.

But what about the people flocking to the suburbs? The article is about the Democratic miscalculation of Ohio demographics in the 2004 presidential election, but it suggests another hidden truth - for all those demanding transit-oriented developments, there are equal numbers buying up homes in subdivions accessible only by car.

Who shall win this cultural war?

Simple travel

You thought Orbitz was a step up from Travelocity? (Priceline is too ghetto to be in the running.) Let Mobissimo blow you away. It is the best travel search site yet. Simple and clean, it serves up results fast.

Pack your bags! (props to DailyCandy!!)

H2O - From Highlands to Oceans

Tony Hiss, one of my favorite authors (Experience of Place and The View from Alger's Window and yes, this is Alger Hiss's son, it's worth checking out the Alger's Window site), has been working hard to understand the regional dynamics of the Tri-State area. H2O: Highlands to Ocean is the result. You can download it for free from the Geraldine Dodge Foundation.

Amazingly, there is relatively little done on understanding the regional despite the enormous diversity - from incredible urban density to beautiful natural ecologies. Tony is also the founder of Nature Rail, a group dedicated to "fighting sprawl from within."

A great display of Green Maps at the Municipal Art Society served as the backdrop to the book party. Given the huge necessity of a global effort to be more environmentally savvy (you know, limited natural resources, global warming and climate change, yada yada) it's horrible that projects like Green Map is the exception, not the rule.

Anyhow, Tony's work makes great connections between urban and natural environments. He makes connections that many professionals miss, so check out the latest.

Enrique Penalosa - Building happiness

Enrique Penalosa is one of my favorite progressive planner/leaders. Former mayor of Bogota, Columbia, he leapfrogged many traditional development steos by making smart strategic decisions on how to use the relatively poor city's resources for maximum benefit to the most people. As he told us over lunch one day, "we know how to incubate an egg to be a healthy bird that can fly away and live a happy life, but we cannot do that for our own children."

So many developing countries simply copy the mistakes of the developed world. Enrique has proven to be smarter than that. Plus, I tend to have a soft spot for former soccer stars (Enrique attended Duke on a soccer scholarship).

Here's a great article on him by Jay Walljasper, former editor at the Utne. The article first appeared in Ode Magazine.


Women in transportation?

OK, this is kind of dorky, but I've been working on a few projects in progressive transportation, and got to thinking about my rather large and unwieldy teams. It occured to me that the most interesting people I've been meeting in the gigantic transportation engineering firm, Parsons Brinckerhoff and in the New Jersey DOT are mostly women.

So this is where it gets really dorky. I started thinking that women might be the best people to break the narrow thinking that has plagued transportation engineering for decades now. I could describe the kind of stuff that we're working on as verging on New Urbanism, but to break it down even more, it's really is about just not building more roads for the sake of more roads.

It involves such earth-shattering things like another lane doesn't help congestion; the best towns have many points of conflict; there should be integrated land-use and transportation planning; there should be collaboration between state and local agencies. So obvious right? But this is still a minority perspective.

Anyhow, this is just something I've been keeping track off. Not only are the most interesting people women, we're also the ones doing all the legwork in these projects. In fact, the other most progressive male transportation engineer said of his involvement in the project, "let's keep it among us girls." I don't take it in a bad way. In fact, I think it might mark the beginning of not just a tranformation in what transportation will become, but also in who will be doing the best job of it in just another decade - women.

Economy Candy Store

What a treat! We had to go to Economy Candy Store to pick up bulk for our mini gingerbread house kits. Economy opens, on a SUNDAY, at 9AM, and is staffed with the friendliest people around, especially for so early in the morning.

And early as it was, the store was filled with people. Seniors stocking up on bridge mixes, low-sugar hards, and other sweets. Groups of kids and their parents bounded in with equal enthusiasm. Tourists came in to gawk. And the counter people and the maanagers, who I presumed to be the owners from the way they were greeting regulars, were no-nonsense and friendly.

Economy Candy is a great example of a privately-managed public space. Yes, stores do count as public space! They are places where people go to meet each other and spend time in the public realm. Economy does a terrific job of managed chaos, keeping their store vibrant and full of potential discovery from floor to ceiling. There was something to look at in every available space, and the slightly unorganized feel made it all the more fun to stay in the store and look.

Economy is also a great example of a business that has evolved to remain competitive in a rapidly changing urban environment. But that's a topic for a later time.

I walked out with more than 50 pounds of bulk candy. The prices are great, but the vibe is what will keep you going back.

Oh, I forgot to mention that Hotel Rivington across the street from Economy is now manned by a doorman - and lots of construction people in the upper floors. (They keep nasty empty coffee cups on the window ledge, making it seem like pack rats have moved into the hotel.) Economy and the other old school stores are what saves the Hotel from being just another boringly pretentious upscale boutique.


Metro card holders

The best way of getting around the city is with transit, and through the metro system. That is, second best to cabs. So we've been experimenting with metrocard holders that protect your card from bending, are easy to use (push down with your thumb, swipe, push back into holder), and are cute to boot. Elevate those cards to another pretty thing in your purse. We'll make a small batch and see where it goes.

How great is New York

Even in the depressingly gray spitting-on-you rain today, there were people out and about enjoying the city. I like to think that it is the ceaselessly entertaining city sidewalk life that kept people waiting in line in the rain outside of the Dolce & Gabbana sample sale. That one's hard to call.


A yearning for "city"

While Corpus Christi and Las Vegas try to build an interesting "walkable communities" from scratch, albeit for entertainment value only, David Childs in NY can't even create a building without destroying its liveliness and contribution to the public life of a city. Forget about being entertaining.

A Town Makeover...

...that was our reality show idea! Anyhow, TLC beat us to the punch. I don't believe we would have been able to pull off all the cheesiness required to stay on cable anyhow.

How "smart" becomes dumb

Thw U.S. Army, defending our access to oil overseas, comes up with a new proposition to ensure the use of oil at home. It's called the "Smart Truck 3," and at 8,000 lbs, it weighs nearly 60% more than the 5,000 H2 Hummer.


Texans clamouring for active sidewalks

So, not only is MGM's president (and city planning student, back in the day) Jim Murren devoted to creating the city center feeling, but residents in notoriously sprawling and car-dominated Houston recently voted for active sidewalks as their number one priority. The Houston Downtown group, a business and city alliance, released surveys about user priorities and long-term plans for their downtown.


The only Federal Highway Administration-approved font for signage. Very nice.

Architects of the future

That's Shanghai. Constructing anything as big as a building is obviously a group project, and in the U.S., only 5% of all buildings built actually use a licensed architect.

The phenomena of the stararchitect is somewhat puzzling in light of this. Or is the phenomena just one way of gaining recognition in a field that has traditionally been under-recognized. A forthcoming book, Leadership by Design by Honorable Richard Swett suggests that it is the latter.

Brendan Gill thinks architects should be anonymous.

"That would be wonderful! But it would be saintly. It's violently opposed to what we are trained to be. It has to be anonymous now. The great work of building now has to be done by those who are not seeking fame."

Shanghai, which enthusiastically latched onto Western notions of postmodern architectural greatness and hired many starchitects to design enormous buildings now finds itself confronting serious problems.

Architecture can certainly be great, as can architects. They certainly add to the beauty of human civilization. And perhaps starchitects are not to blame, for they are just one component of the buildings people point out as failures. Nonetheless, the architecture establishment - theoretically-based, high material schools of thought including educational programs and critics - continue to narrow the realm of architecture. Guard against this, for the future is at stake.

Updated small town stories

It's no secret that Garrison Keillor is quickly losing steam and Woebegone has just about dried up. Just in time for Adam Wade and Rich Zeiroff to step out of the wings and onto the stage with their postmodern brand of small town guy with zing.

The enticingly named "Penguin & Swollen Head" show will have its last performance this Saturday, November 13 at Juvie Hall.

Penguin & Swollen Head
Sat, Nov 13, 7PM
Juvie Hall
24 Bond Street (at Layfayette)

Celebration gets a run for its money

The best places are endlessly entertaining and take thought, care and community to create and evolve over time. But who has time for that? In lieu of time to build places of quality, how about building fake places quickly in true throw-away consumer spirit?

Someone's already thought of it, and seriously, to the tune of $3 billion. Looks like MGM will be building a new Project CityCenter, a mini-Metropolis with something for everyone's fancy, even slot machines and all-you-can eat buffet tables, but set against a car-less Soho and Rockefeller Center-like environment. (How is this possible?)

So says MGM President and CEO Jim Murren:

"We really believe there's an opportunity to create a diverse metropolitan community that we really don't have in Las Vegas. We're a city of 1.7 million people on its way to 3 million, and we don't have a lot of elements of a city. We don't have residential developments where people can walk to work and restaurants, and interact in a cityscape. We can create in this that type of environment with studios, artisans. What we don't need is another mall."

No kidding, take a look at Las Vegas's sprawl:

(And why is McKinsey involved? It's as bad as pen-pushing insurers setting parameters for a "secure" building).

And Celebration is at least a working town!

It's about time

Services like Right Rides make enjoying public spaces at all times all the more accessible. Please support this group. (It looks like there's a benefit on Nov 22).



It's been a November birthday crush, ending with mine yesterday. All the feting leaves little time for blogging. Be back soon.


Safe Routes to School

I spent the day yesterday attending a workshop on Safe Routes to School (SR2S), sponsored by the Westchester County Department of Transportation.

It is hard to believe that a workshop like this is the second only workshop in the nation, according to the consultant.

I started to believe it when I got a better sense of how they approached the problem. Safe Routes to School is about making school sites more walkable, improving environmental and health problems, and increasing positive sociability among children. To me, it obviously fits into a broader scheme of making a town walkable - it's a no-brainer. But that wasn't the issue.

For those people who are caught up in the daily run of getting their kids to school and then starting their day, the school is the end-all. The focus of this particular SR2S program was mostly on education, by teachers and parents, to the kids. There were numerous incentive programs that didn't involve much more than extra hours on the teacher's part, but by focusing only on a school site, the town misses significant opportunities to first, potential solutions, and second, to improving the town's general sense of walkability.

Never mind that the school was surrounded by ball fields, which were immediately adjacent to residential side streets (i.e. safe from speeding traffic) and was located in the center of town. Merchants were absent from this discussion of improving the town's sidewalks. The parents and school administrators were strictly focused on where the parents could drop off without endangering their kids, causing congestion, and impeding their own mobility.

But say you extend the area of what is considered the school campus to the outer edge of the ball field and to a couple more residential streets over, there suddenly are so many more places to drop kids off, and so many more ways to get them to walk. More than 50% of the kids already walked to school - in fact, most of the town is within a 1/2 mile square. There is no stigma to walking and within such a small area, there is literally no reason to drive unless you were driving out of the town.

Focusing on the streets and intersections immediately to the school only narrows possibilities. Parents think that if they fix only the places where there have been accidents, their kids will be safe. It's a common error I guess, but if they look at the whole place, they would realize that their school has so much more potential to fulfill their needs than they now can see.

There's a lot of great information on SR2S right now, and many good funding sources:

Walk to School
Oregon's Walk and Bike Program
National Center for Biking and Walking
Center for Disease Control

Fulton Fish Market

Back to business...

If you can't sleep at night, pay a visit to the Fulton Fish Market, in its last two months at its historical home. I recently visited with David O'Neil, who was instrumental in revitalizing the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.

Even at 5:30, when I was still waking up, the fish market was shutting down. There were a number of small vans driving away, which David pointed out as New Jersey buyers who were finished for the day. On a Friday, the fishmongers (I *think* that's the real term) lingered. It's hard to think of the burly Italian macho guys as fishmongers, but they literally just worked on selling fish.

It was great fun to see the guys and the fish. (Really, there were no female fishmongers as far as I could see). The guys willingly posed for pictures in any number of silly ways, holding up odd specimens, showing off knife dexterity, hamming it up with the ladies. The old offices that overlooked the selling floors are still intact and in full use. Actually, not much is wrong with the structure, but it's obvious that the market was built for a bygone era of when fishermen docked and unloaded a fresh catch. So go now, before the fish market moves to the Bronx, so you can see for yourself how New York's waterfronts once served as major sites of commerce.

Post elections

It seems silly to not acknowledge that the elections happened, so by now I've recovered enough to say something. I wanted to refrain from making negative comments. I think negative comments that pigeonhole religious conservatives are not helpful in understanding what has happened for many people in this country, and it certainly doesn't help engage others. I certainly don't understand where the majority of Bush voters are coming from, but shutting them out means I will never understand, and therefore it means losing out on the possibility of understanding how to work together.

The thing is, the idea that the United States was founded on religious ground is only partially true. Yes, it was founded by people who were hoping to escape religious persecution, people who were strict observers, only of a religion that didn't work in Europe.

That is why religious tolerance and separation of church and state and plurality became important. In practice, it was extraordinarily hard to be plural when you were prosecuted for not following your towns religious codes. So, it was made apparent that at least in federal government (not local), religion was given a second priority, with the understanding that everyone in their private space would observe their own religion.

It was understood that people were religious in some way. Well, not all the founding fathers, but there certainly was societal pressure from communities. America is a deeply religious country, but its government was structured not to allow those deep religious beliefs get in the way of how the country was run, because now, as it was true back then, religious is a personal commitment.


Bumps along the way

Gathered together for a potluck dinner over the weekend, I was chatting with a friend’s parents, when the topic of awkward conversation turned to what I was working on at the moment. Knowing that they are from New Jersey, I thought they would be interested to know that with a large group of transportation engineers and urban planners, I am working with NJ DOT on helping communities make better decisions about land-use, thereby helping to plan better transportation. Vague, I know, but people, especially in NJ, have such an immediate negative reaction when any DOT is mentioned that I didn’t want to put them off.

They didn’t care about the land-use side, but really wanted to know what the DOT had planned – meaning, what crazy projects were the DOT undertaking that would inexcusably inconvenience their ability to drive? I told them about a couple of major arterial projects, and how NJ DOT was pushing the community to make better choices with what they were doing with their land before they promised to build any roads.

This is simplistic. But how else do you explain what’s going on to a nice, well-intentioned couple who has lived in a cul-de-sac development all their lives, two people who are moving to a smaller cul-de-sac development because they can’t deal with the congestion in their areas, and who have had a SUV as their car of choice for years now? They’re just not equipped in their experience to think about anything outside of their car and house.

Their main complaints as drivers, was that DOT should make it easier for drivers. They disliked the bump-outs that were being built to encourage walkability. They hate that people just drive right over them – “so annoying” – cutting them out of traffic. I tried to not say cul-de-sac too many times to illustrate my point (just looking at cul-de-sac plans make the inaccessibility problem so obvious to me, but people just don’t think so). They liked the idea of biking, but wanted to make driving easier. Finally they seemed to agree - in theory - that having more and better alternate routes would help ease their driving experience. Still, it’s going to take a lot before they agree with state agencies about what that would take.


Election jitters

I must admit, the results have me at the edge of my seat, and there doesn't seem to be a reliable place to ease nerves by finding early results, even if briefly. As fleeting as toile.

More than just shame

The Scots take Hall of Shame to extremes!


NYC's West Side Stadium Plan

I haven't had a chance to really understand where the New York Times architectural critic stands, though it is very obvious that he is a product of the design world. Ouroussoff's most recent review of the West Side Stadium Plan nakes it harder. He strikes the right pose on critiquing the plan with its token public space designs, and with its appeal to humanism and "thoughtful urban development." But ultimately, he wallows in design talk and fails to go all the way on providing the substance on why the stadium plan won't be an asset to the West Side.

I'm going off on a tangent on this article, but it seems to be that what is humanistic is often a designer's narrow vision of how human civilization is supposed to have progressed, not a provision for how people actually use space. For example, "light" and "air" are typically more light and more air from the building's perspective, for its walls and its aesthetic; so rarely does light and air intend to enhance a person's physical experience with light and air. Furthermore, the most humanistic quality - sociability (the chatting, people-watching, public affection) - is overlooked in most designs. So humanistic architecture, while well-intended, is a gross misnomer.

Just look at that picture and the sleek computer graphics. Where are the people?

For a great analysis on the West Side plan, check out the Regional Planning Association's position paper. If you don't have time to slog through the entire report, read the executive summary. I found the critique to be pretty well-balanced.

Washington Ready

Kerry has his work cut out for him. Regarding public spaces, let's hope he keeps his eyes open to what's going on right under his nose around the White House and in Washington.

The capitol has weakened under the onslaught of fear, just when it needed to appear most strident and strong in the face of it. It's rare when a cliche is the most appropriate thing to say, but truly, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.