Toward an Urban Age

I'm still reeling a bit from this past weekend's conference. Some of the more choice juxtapositions between the two forces (mostly paraphrased, not exact):

"It is a shame that Jane Jacobs' work has disconnected the study of cities from cities...she has created an era of hyper-nostalgia which gets in the way of progress." -- Rem Koolhaas

"Jane Jacobs was the first real brave attempt to understand how cities work." -- Michael Sorkin

Or, how about these:

"Communities get in the way of the future, especially for architecture." -- unknown architect

"Neighborhoods prevent the imagination of architecture," Harvard professor of Architecture." -- Hashim Sarkis


"Neighborhoods are what matter most to New Yorkers, when we ask, and that is what we are trying to keep." -- Amanda Burden (for whom, I have to say, my respect grew), and

"Maybe architecture is about designing for delight, not for the potential gloom." -- Harvey Molotch

Or, how about this final coup de grace,

"Public participation is what prevents city government from getting anything done," Esther Fuchs


"Community organizing is the only way that we now have city planning trying to come up with innovative solutions." -- Ron Schiffman

Yikes. It was a ping pong game and there was no diplomacy (someone suggested that actually, there was incredible amounts of diplomacy, since there were no physical fistfights.) The New York session is the first conference of a series of six to be held around the country, and at best, it delineated for the group of urban experts the work ahead. Some of the stark differences highlighted include those between theory and practice; between city managers and community organizers; between architecture and planners; between academics and practitioners. Of course, these are the most obvious contrasts, why should this be any different? Certainly, it was a unique conference in that so many influential individuals actually tried to discuss the same topic, but in the end, what they said was not the same topic at all, but just talking past each other.

Yes, a room full of experts showed that cities are complex organisms. In fact, if you think about your favorite places, the places that make up what you might determine is a great city, you realize that it is very difficult to say what exactly makes it so great. Is it the pedestrians and bicyclists? Is it that there is a diverse group of people walking about? Is it the sidewalk, the retail mix, the housing stock, the safety, the proximity to transit, the nearness of amenities, the nearness to open space...the list can go on and on.

So when a group tries to talk about re-creating great cities, or building their cities for greatness, it is as hard to replicate as it is to replicate a human being. You can do it - clone the DNA, get all the right inputs - but you might miss the heart and soul and vibrancy. It is just too hard to try to re-create something as complex as a great place from scratch. That's why it's important to start creating places with people. The multitude of people who will have opinions will get you closer to a great place in a city than anything else.

Perhaps in cities with less attitude (the New York audience did have a chip on its shoulder, but with the "almost right" tagline, who could blame us) discussion might be more fruitful. As Tony Travers optimistically said, "If we can do it in New York, we can do it anywhere." Good luck.


"New York: Almost Right"

I'm going to be offline for a bit, spending the next couple of days at the LSE/Deutche Bank/Rockefeller Foundation -sponsored Urban Age conference. The purpose of the discussion is global urbanization; the focus of this session is NYC. Already the hypothesis of the organizers is the title of this post: New York, almost right.

Hm....and who are these people? (Actually, the people at the reception tonight certainly reflected the image of those institutions, and since I also happened to take courses with more than a few of the presenters, it's familiar. But there's the reason I didn't continue with that path... it's going to be an interesting next couple of days). I'll update if anything significant happens.


Ain't that the truth

"The Internet is no cure for suburban loneliness"

What next?
"Stay-in-car shopping"

"Next Stop: Immobility - An A to Z guide to surviving the death/pause/sunshine of the CenterLine"
A better title for non-Californians might be: understanding the car culture of the OC

aka Stop protesting suburbs and try to make them better

Nice profile of Karen Hundt, PLanning Director of Chattanooga, TN

(all via Planetizen - thank you!)

Taxing Wal-Mart

Sounds like a great idea.

But did the bill pass? A quick search on google hasn't turned anything up yet.

Listen to a short report on NPR.

Latinos and New Urbanism

Just when I posted about race and neighborhood development, USA Today published this article hypothesizing about Latinos and emerging New Urbanist communities. It's not a substantive theory by any means, but interesting to think about.

Toronto overrun with ads

Another great column by Christopher Hume.

"Toronto sells out - ad nauseam"

TransGas tries again

TransGas will not give up! A $700 million bid for the Westside Railyard, but with the commitment to help it built its power plant in Brooklyn and commit the city to a 20-year electricity contract. This is real estate development run amock!

It's not like the Williamsburg and Greenpoint communities don't have a vision. They even went through a community-based planning process, which resulted in a plan that won the 2001 William H. Whyte Award from the local APA chapter for innovative and creative planning! Let's revisit the plan.

stop the power plant!
Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning
Williamsburg Watch

Ask the right question

From CNU Florida's image bank

The Times on public reception of New Urbanist ideals.

Definitely a superficial analysis of what people want. Ask people if they want safe streets, a sense of community, good use of natural resources, to be within walking distance of open space or park land with lots of amenities and see if they might answer the New Urbanism or Not question differently. Ask someone if they would mind being next to the bank and you'll probably get a really different response. (I'm not even that big of a proponent of New Urbanism, which I think focuses too much on design elements like white picket fences, but many of the principles are worth paying attention to. Just look at that image above; too sterile for my taste, but so very nice to photograph).

Looking at comparisons of new home purchases (new urbanist development vs. typical sprawl) is also too superficial. How are developers marketing these homes?

Do the smallest things make the biggest difference?

The Washington Post's column "A Crack in the Broken Window Theory" is more interesting in how it highlights why the internalization of racist perceptions, even by members of the marginalized race, can encourage or inhibit the growth of a neighborhood. This race issue is not a small thing at all, but one of the biggest things underpinning our social fabric. The decisions that affect neighborhoods are often made by a power hierarchy that favors the elite - and one not representing the neighborhoods impacted. People who are making these decisions have to be aware of this, acknowledge it, and figure out a way to stop the pattern.

On a personal level, (I guess I just need to get this off my chest) it is difficult enough that there are so few faces like mine in the field. To then deal with spoken words that are ignorantly racist, though well-meaning and unintentional, or to see colleagues stand by the use of such language, is really discouraging. Words, like perception, are small things, but they make an enormous difference.


For real?

This article about a town who thinks itself so ugly that it makes itself a candidate for demolishment makes me very uncomfortable, mostly because the razing of the town is on behalf of a TV reality show. No other creative solutions instead of demolishing it? And why for the benefit of the media?

Has anyone been watching Town Haul? The mom of a friend said the hostess's superficial and flaky demeanor, which matched her superficial and flaky town recommendations, was too much to bear. She stopped watching halfway through the show.

Thanks Jon and Carly!


"Busy busy bees"

As my friend in London calls it. Between Christo, Dog Show Party, and various meetings, I've been too busy to post much this week, and now I'm off to Virginia this weekend. Things should be back in order by next week, at which point I'll have to dash over to Central Park to catch the Gates before they're taken down.

Representing very opposite ends of the culture spectrum in New York City:

Here's Henry Stern's (former park commissioner under Guiliani) take on The Gates.

Here's the Salon.com article about the Dog Show Party.


Getting ready for Christo

On the eve of the Gates going up in Central Park tomorrow, the Gotham Gazette republished a statement from Christo and Jean-Claude about the intent of their public art piece. I thought it was quite charming, and since I've been fielding a lot of press inquiries about what we think abotu the Gates, I thought it was time to also repost it.

"Our Project for the Park"
Gotham Gazette, Jul 21, 2003


Happy Lunar New Year

I almost forgot! Today (Feb 9) is the first day of the Year of the Rooster.

Happy Lunar New Year!!
("lunar" is much more inclusive than "chinese.")

I spent some time looking for a card I could send my parents, who live very far away, and was amazed at just how many local newspapers and media in the United States covered the holiday - every city from the largest metropolitan cities in the US to the smallest. I remember when the Lunar New Year was a holiday that my parents (who raised me here) tried to celebrate but had difficulty explaining. It was enough that I almost felt entitled to take the day off!

No luck though in finding a fun card. If anyone has a card they want to share - please do! I usually find something creative types of graphic design firms pull together - but not this year. (An odd beginning to a year that is supposed to be "full of energy and activity, you can't wait!")

Finally fed up over bad landscapes

Martha Schwartz's Jacob Javits Plaza

I guess someone in Berkeley finally finally got fed up about current trends in landscape architecture.

Of note, a General Services Administration employee visited us last week, and expressed concern over the Jacob Javits Plaza design in the photo above. She's under enormous pressure to increase security around federal buildings in New York, and is surprised that the loopy design isn't considered a security threat. "When I go out for lunch or a phone conversation, I always get caught in those benches and can't get out." Multiply that with a sense of emergency and hundreds of people fleeing the building...no wonder she's nervous.


The mark of a livable city...

Another great line from the New Yorker: "the mark of a city worth living in is that there are never enough places to park."

I guess that's why I can't move to California.

in this week's The Talk of the Town - "Too much information"
[Thanks Chris!]


If all else fails, how about a contest

Actually, this is a great idea. Jackson is sponsoring a competition for a master plan of 8 acres in its downtown - Cool City Design Competition. Not only does it get you some of the freshest ideas around from people who aren't tainted by bureaucracy yet, it also gives Jackson some great publicity. Now, if only the emphasis wasn't solely on design...

Michigan did something really similar; I couldn't tell if these were related. It's actually pretty cool.

Another stadium, another design folly?

In DC, another new stadium project is in the works. While some seasoned DC administrators for the city's built environment explain how vision is effected by reality, others hope to attract a star architect. As someone from HNTB (an engineering firm!) said, "it doesn't have to say DC or the Nationals on it..you just know it's DC." At what cost to the city, especially one already full of so many iconic structures? (The RFK stadium cost $24 million to build back in the day.)

"Getting good designers to swing at DC's pitch"
Washington Post - Feb 5

"City seeks 'Signature' Ballpark"
Washington Post - Feb 6

"You're not welcome"

Christopher Hume with another insightful column in the Toronto Star.

"You're not welcome"
Toronto Star - Feb 5

Santa Cruz's "accessory" housing

Not really an accessory, but a necessity. What struck me about Santa Cruz's accessory dwelling units (ACU) ordinance was how long ago they were thinking about curbing sprawl in their city. In the 1980s they created a greenbelt around the city, with protected land. Now they're looking to build housing on existing lots (with livable units on them already) instead of developing greenfields and changing the greenbelt policy.

The only thing I wish this article did more was at least give a suggestion of what is so bad about ACUs. I can guess, but sometimes these things are unpredictably complicated.

Cleveland in the New Yorker

Last week's New Yorker has a delightful portrayal of the Cleveland Orchestra, who was scheduled to play in New York this past weekend. (I wish the New Yorker kept its articles online for more than a week so you can read it!)

But really, the article was about Cleveland as a city, the strength of its cultural institutions and how they are struggling to stay afloat when the engines of its economy (big industries) have now moved overseas. I love that Cleveland Orchestra is regarded as one of the Big 5 orchestras, and the most "European" of them all - New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago (is that right?). I also love that the orchestra's audience has been "trained" to be more accepting of new classical music than many audiences in bigger, metropolitan cities.

I put Cleveland up there with Pittsburgh. Having never been to either, both strike me as those American cities with tons of culture and a lot going for it, if only you give it a chance.


West Side Stadium - missing the point

In light of all the criticism about the West Side Stadium (and maybe some design pressure from Amanda Burden who said recently that she was trying to lessen the negative design impact of the stadium plan), the team's president sent the architects back to the drawing board....and came up with a smaller stadium, though same design scheme.

Hm...I think they're missing the point.

See also
"West Side Stadium: Small Enough to Fit on a Table" [curbed.com]

More on the MoMA

As the dust around the unveiling of the new MoMA settles, we'll likely hear more about how it compares to the MoMA of old.

I almost agree with Oussouroff here. The article is not really about the building per se, but about the exhibit design. There really is nothing so spectacular about how the pieces are laid out - though it is much more comfortable to walk around. I miss the attention on the art - I breeze by it.


shamelessly more on dogs

More pix of the cute Frenchie, Sophie. Is it possible to fall in love with a dog you've never met? And, in honor of the upcoming Dog Show Party, we've been amusing ourselves with a little quiz: what dog are you?

Sophie herself

I-Lien and Sophie


DSP update

From a NPR interview with Nellie McKay

Hot off the wire - beautiful singer/songwriter star Nellie McKay has agreed to play at Dog Show Party! Apparently she's an avid animal lover. Her prior engagement was going to be Lincoln Center, a contract she broke (because Lincoln Center will not allow her to play at a show 5 days before or after where tix are less than $60). Nellie said bye bye LC, hello DSP! She rocks!

My very own dog show party plug

I-Lien, Kevin and Sophie - thanks for the cute pic!

Coming up in just a couple of weeks - Dog Show Party 2005!!

What: Dog Show Party 2005
When: Tuesday, February 15, 7-11PM
Where: Tonic

I find this event one of those things I end up doing because we're in the right setting - New York City - with the right people - a bunch of aspiring performers, writers, designers, and artists. In short, the Party is a simultaneous telecast of the last night of judging at the Westminster Dog Show, which happens to be at Madison Square Garden.

What's been nice about working on it is getting into a host of spaces throughout the city that I would normally never be privy to - a dance space in Soho that is actually someone's apartment, a dance enthusiast, it turns out; a dance space 10 stories up in Chelsea, which also gives massages (yes, all these dance spaces because I am a member of the party's dance troupe); working with really nice people in the night scene. The club owner of Tonic* is helping us out with a space for the party because, it just turns out, she's also a show pug owner. You just never know when it comes down to dogs. We're making videos, choreography, designing costumes, planning games, writing commentary, finding sponsors, filling doggie bags, crowning king and queen - it's the whole works!

SO - please come if you can! Tickets available online now. All proceeds after expenses will go to Rational Animal, a great, volunteer-run non-profit that helps at-risk animals in NYC.

*I have to point out, in the context of this site, that Tonic is at risk of losing its lease because the landlord is interested in building condos on the lot. It's already happened to Luna Lounge. Tonic has to raise upwards of $100,000 in the next month to stay in its space. Change happens so fast in these quicksand neighborhoods that the current leasers get practically no notice before they're evicted. Please come out and support it and buy it a little more time.

Not fooling anyone

Pic from Wired New York.

I have to disagree with this ArchPaper.com article which contends that the tall malls in New York have gotten more innovative with building connections to the street while ground-floor retail have gotten more bland and boring - and mall-like.

I'm not opposed to malls in theory. Remember Benjamin describing the Arcades of Paris? I confess, I didn't read all his writings, but from his descriptions, they sounded great, still set in a mall-like structure, but full of life.

Some people think the problem with malls is that they are so middle class. There's nothing wrong with being middle-class. What's wrong are the cold, unhumanlike environments that the most recent mall developments are. You don't really feel like you're in Union Square Park while shopping at DSW, as much as Vornado would like you to think. The retailers have covered up the windows with displays and the reflection from all the wattage inside the store makes being part of the park impossible. And why are malls nearly always populated by chains, regardless of location? The Time Warner Center could have chosen so many other innovative, New York-based stores (Kate Spade, instead of Coach; Bigelow's, instead of Sephora; and I guess Scoop, if you really need a J. Crew, etc.) but now we have a retail hub that we can find in any suburb outside of NYC.

The proof is not the first 2 years of the mall's operation - but whether the mal, like Time Warner Center, can sustain the pedestrian traffic flow 3-5 years down the road. I'm keeping an eye on that point in the future.

In the meantime, some great example of malls are being built by Ron Sher and his company Metrovation. He took Ray Odlenburgh's Third Place ideas to heart and have rejuvenated malls in the Seattle area into community centers, stocked with small business owners and community services. Five years since the project took off, the mall is still expanding. Now, that's a mall I'd happily go to.

A commons for the public

Clinton Community Garden in NYC

The Guardian ran a great op-ed on how communities sometimes run public parks better than their elected officials would choose to run them. (I have to admit, this article was almost too Brit-witty for me - I had to read it at home away from the office scan-reading I do, to grasp the slight sarcasm and full meaning.) Great article! See - public spaces are owned by someone - the public!

"Commons people"
The Guarian, Feb 1, 2005


New direction for the Prince's Foundation?

We know Hank Dittmar mostly in the context of mostly transportation and livable communities, so it was a pleasant surprise to hear, over the winter, about his move to the Prince's Foundation. The article in the Guardian paints a nice portait of Dittmar's beliefs.

Living in London, I never really experienced firsthand the effects of sprawl since I didn't own a car and was entirely dependent on public transit. But I do remember passing by some of those new retail developments on the outskirts on the train and being so surprised by the scale. People living out there love those stores.

"Royal Standard"
The Guardian, Jan 26

And why condo buildings are getting taller!

where the 16 story building will go...

In Williamsburg and Greenpoint, developers are hoping to pour concrete for their 16 story towers, before the City Planning Office's plan, which calls for 4-6 story buildings, takes effect. The community have been pulling together to find ways of slowing down the developers, especially when the developers haven't, of course, ignored checking in with the community in the first place. No one's terrorizing you, Mendel Brach, it seems that you have a covert operation going on yourself.

"Air War"
New York Metro, Jan 24, 2005