Who's in charge of sidewalks?

Look at that narrow median and barely existent shoulder on Bowery! Not seen here, the sidewalks are wide, crossing the street is what remains difficult. Image from Flickr, by antiparticle.

I thought this vignette well illustrated the lack of coordination in our streets. I believe sidewalks are a part of the street. But with no one taking responsibility, then...

Speaking of which, walking my dog has been a good experience in learning about good and bad pedestrian harbors. The median on Bowery between 4th and around Grand is just pathetic. Cybill S., a non-skittish, skinny dog, uncharacteristically cowers at approaching traffic, because she cannot stand in the median without some part of her in the traffic lane. The cars speed, taking advantage of the wide lanes. And there's barely any shoulder, so truck tires really do feel like they are running you down. I'm afraid that the same changes are going in for the median on Houston between Bowery and Broadyway.

These are wide streets with great sidewalks! They could be so much nicer, with a boulevard effect. If only.

Update: Polis weighs in on the matter!


Downtown Detroit

Image from City Skip

For the last two years, I've been following the reaction to the new Campus Martius Park. Partially it was because it opened just as I started working on public spaces. Also, it was one of those projects that is a huge risk for the city to invest in when they had many other economic development issues to take care of (and were in the process of taking care of). But the hope was that a park would stimulate externalities to support other city-wide economic development efforts. Last summer, the project manager for the park showed us some of the effects of the park, whose presence strongly encouraged development on its outer boundaries (cafes, and it seems now inevitably, loft condos). This what we hoped would happen in the short-term.

Lately, there's been even more coverage about the city, since it's sprucing up for the Superbowl, and because this is Detroit, the coverage has not be entirely positive. Reports make the city sound a bit desparate. Look at "Come on in," and "Detroit Cleans Up for the Big Game." The AIA has gathered together Detroit-area architecture firms to deck out storefronts. (I like the idea.)

Anyway, I guess what I'm doing here is sticking up for the underdog -- Detroit, which has some fantastic civic leaders who have been strategizing and planning for a revitalization effort that will bring the city back to the people. I don't think this is a city-wide sentiment yet, but I like the incremental steps that are being taken. Better that as a way to see what works than huge capital projects in one fell swoop (into debt).

For more on Detroit, you should read all about it from a native Detroit-er who writes about these issues, Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space.

Good luck Detroit!

Taking David Brooks to task

Thank you Starts and Fits, for taking David Brooks to task.


Waxing architectural

I really enjoyed this diatribe.

Bad writing about architecture makes me appreciate one of my heroes even more: Ada Louise Huxtable. What I really like about her is that she's sensitive to context, and is willing to change her views with changing times - she's not for or against anything just because.


A vision for NYC transportation

Image from Gotham Gazette

I got this Gotham Gazette article sent to me about 4 times this morning, so it's the must-read of the day. (And the Issue of the Week on the Gazette).

It's just terrific to see how multiple advocacy organizations are banding together and trying to define an alternative to NYC transportation as we know it. It's also wonderful that there's mass appeal to city-wide leadership.

However, I'd like to see the focus of discussion shift from cars (e.g., more cars, less cars, less congestion, through-out, level of service, etc.) to something that says we'd like make our streets more friendly for bikers and pedestrians. Something that includes the people who travel the streets, like we'd like to make our roads the kind that children and seniors can cross safely.

When we constantly define success within the parameters of what already exists, it gets nearly impossible to create transformative change. For example: NYC DOT, and many other transportation agencies, defines agency success by what's called "level of service." Level of service is primarily driven by how well the roads service vehicular transportation. This typically implies that congestion is bad. But it's not always bad. Congestion in an urban context used to be considered good. (West Palm Beach has changed its understanding of level of service to be that congestion in the city center is actually good! If you're a wonk, check out this report, opens in a PDF.)

Still, this says nothing about the other 80% or so of the travellers in NYC -- the walkers, transit riders, and bikers. If we don't start looking beyond the end of our nose, we'll constantly struggle to come up with some different way of defining good performance, and we'll consistently stay pretty much the same. Sure, there will be incremental change along the way - a spot victory here and there, like a sidewalk widened or a bump-out added or a bike lane painted, but how much longer can that level of struggle be sustained? Isn't it time we just come together and really understand: what do we want our city's streets to look like?

This can be done. Think of Copenhagen, which went through a multiple decade process, starting in the early 1960s. Or London, which recently went through its own street (and public space) renaissance. Instead of prematurely offering another transportation solution (congestion pricing, value pricing, bridge tolls, etc.) how about we offer a transportation vision, and consider transportation our bikers, bus- and train-riders, and pedestrians -- as well as our drivers.

This takes some change at all levels. Advocacy/grassroots groups need to continue to be as strong as they are, but also offer alternative ways of looking at transportation and think beyond the traditional transportation street paradigm. Planning and transportation professionals should think beyond performance metrics as laid down by the Green Book, and think about the community goals they can contribute to -- with streets as the main tool. And leadership should think beyond the narrow band of political agendas and create a broad vision for their communities, districts, cities, and yes, regions.


Country Boys

Cody Perkins (top) and Chris Johnson from Country Boys

In addition to the discussion brewing on Gehry and the Atlantic Yards project, I've been obsessed all week with the latest Frontline special, Country Boys. You can watch the entire program from the web site, if you missed it.

There's something I love about this glimpse into the inner life of two boys, Chris and Cody, trying to grow up in Appalachian Kentucky. This gets more personal than I've been on this blog. I'm not sure if it's my own family's rural and humble roots (albeit in another country), or my own struggle to belong when I was growing up here as a new immigrant, or the experience of having to grow up quickly, which is typical of new immigrant children, and which intensified when my sister and I decided to stay in the United States while my parents decided to return to their home country, just as I started high school. I grew up in a privileged community, so watching Chris explain what it was like to pay bills and take care of the house while handling school work was the first time I saw my embarrassment, but in another, and completely different person.

The other thing I pay close attention to when I get a chance to get close to another life is how people live their days - how they get to work or school, what they do in their free time, how they get their groceries, run everyday errands, how they choose to get together and meet other people. I'm sure that what the two boys did was not entirely emblematic of everyone's lifestyle in Eastern Kentucky, but it was fascinating to see how hard it was for them just to see...anyone. And in a rural area where people are few and far between, it seems even more important that people who do live there have places to gather. This is a kind of revelation I experienced when I moved from a generally rural/suburban area to a more metropolitan area for the first time. In the city, through my everyday routine of walking to work, getting coffee and breakfast, getting groceries and schlepping them back to my tiny studio apartment, I realized that I wasn't as lonely as I had been in the suburbs, even though I knew absolutely no one in the city.

I don't think everyone needs to live in urban areas. I just think that we haven't been paying the right kind of attention to suburbs and rural areas, which should also address basic needs and in a socially constructive way. Regardless of environment - urban, suburban, rural - everyone needs to buy groceries, go to work, go to school, run errands, and see people every once in a while -- no matter who we are.


Gehry in New York

And on Brooklyn. As part of TimesTalk, a speaker series hosted by the NY Times, Gehry was in town and took questions from an audience, moderated by Nicholai Oussourroff. There's a great, though very biased pretty much focused on Brooklyn, report from the talk on TimesRatnerReport. (via Veritas et Venustas, via Curbed).

The statement that stuck out for me was from Peter Krashes, president of the Dean Street Block Association, who said to Gehry,

"We don't want you to turn your back on us, as an architect. What we want you to do is explain your role as a planner."
Architects do design for large contexts - their designs don't end at the building edges - so it is worthwhile to really understand the urban context, especially for those who profess to be "do-gooder, lefty types." I have always felt that Gehry just didn't get what he was doing to Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards neighborhood, either by not asking enough questions from the people he's working with, or by simply not having the experience of asking. This talk corroborates my impression. Or perhaps it's more simple: ignorance is bliss.

I'm looking for a more pro-Gehry account of the talk, but nothing has shown up yet. Let me know if you see one!


10 Steps to Turn Around Wal-Mart

I know, I know, so much about Wal-Mart. I do curate for diversity, but this is too good to pass up. From Fast Company, Ten Steps to Turn Around Wal-Mart, Parts I and II. Enjoy!

Wal-Mart Realty

116,924 sq ft building available in Niagara Falls, NY

Kevin left a comment in my last post, letting us know about abandoned Wal-Marts FOR SALE. Now you can see where they've forsaken a community promise, or are planning to -- I noticed a few "Available in 2006" properties. There's one in Camillus, close to my hometown!

[I hate that the comments are so hidden, but I do read them! So please write.]

Also, I've posted about this before, but check out Big Box Reuse to see how people are reusing these big boxes. There aren't many new re-uses since the last time I checked over a year ago. Any ideas on what's going on with the Wal-Mart properties "Under Contract"?


Abandoning Wal-Mart

Abandoned Wal-Mart store in Oskaloosa, Iowa courtesy of flickr

Wal-Mart is abandoning the U.S., more like it.Last night, PBS re-ran Frontline's November 2004 report "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?", a program worth revisiting. It shows how Wal-Mart's business practices are tied to globalization and international trade, and how it has sold out the American Dream for corporate profit.

Also covered in the program is Wal-Mart's forcing of the hand of a new corporate ethic: instead of the high value, high innovation differentiator -- which had been the reputation of the United States for a long time (speaking from my immigrant background) -- Wal-Mart's playing the lowest price, lowest cost differentiator. Also, Wal-Mart's influence on national economic development in China is phenomenal, but not at a net benefit to the US. Just goes to show that those who dismiss the link between city planning and internationalism are missing some key indicators.

The Frontline report was a good follow-up to the viewing of The High Cost of Low Price over the holidays. Despite the poor execution (I wish I didn't have to say so, though many thanks to the volunteer film crews, check out the story behind the movie to see what I mean), the film had enough facts and data to make me believe even more strongly that Wal-Mart is systematically destroying the social, economic and built environment that has made this country. The anecdote that stayed with me is told by one city manager. Essentially, Wal-Mart has enough start-up capital that it never has to respect the term limits of its tax abatements: all it needs to do once it has reached its term limit is to shut down the old store and build a new one just beyond the taxable border. Just beyond is fine...Wal-Mart'll seal a deal with the neighboring town to suck it dry and not pay taxes.

Those poor city managers. The city manager said he had no choice: either he accepts Wal-Mart's terms, or Wal-Mart will go and build its store just outside the town border and suck the town dry anyway, without any of the meager residual benefit it gives within town limits. There's the datapoint floating around that there are around 300 abandoned Wal-Mart stores in the US.