Fall in New York

Image by elfis gallery

I've been busy setting up this new office, too preoccupied to blog, but enjoying the urbanist coverage in Streetsblog, The Built Environment (check out the post on the Grand Army Plaza, one of my favorite subjects to wonder at the loss of potential) and Polis. I was sorry to miss attending the Transportation conference, but Gotham Gazette published Enrique Penalosa's speech, thank goodness.

Over the weekend, I met up with a few former and current PPSers and stuffed myself with amazing street food at the 2nd Annual Vendy Awards. The chicken rice dish prevailed. Today, Patee writes in, giving an update on the artificial turf war going on in Silver Spring, MD, following on her tip from last summer. See what happens when a place, no matter how cheaply it may have been completed, becomes fun to hang out in? There's a report from the Venice Biennale, where Ricky Burdett, former LSE Cities Programme director, has directed this year's exposition on Cities.

And this weekend to take a break from it all, I'll be heading out to the very non-urban Lancaster County, PA.


Green homes

A grass roof in Cannon Beach, Oregon

According to yesterday's NYTimes article, only a dozen homes are certified as "green" by the United States Green Building Council. I love how home builders and home owners are thinking through alternatives to conserve energy and recycle materials and there are some good examples in the article. But it does seem that green homes primarily occur as new development, not adaptive re-use.

I still believe that the "green-est" lifestyle is to share lots of resources with neighbors and communities, like the way people live in most non-American cities, with New York as the exception. I don't have numbers to prove this, but I always think back to that New Yorker article by David Owen published a couple years ago, about living in a city as an environmental action. However, if you are going to build a new home, then it should become a requirement to utilize some aspect of LEED for Homes. Hopefully the costs will start coming down as more supply and materials companies continue to tinker with the production process.


A sprinkle of happiness for the weekend

Needing a bit of a pick-me-up after the seriousness this past week, I was warmed by this picture and news. An East Village bakery offers 50% off purchase if you arrive by bike! Marvelous!

Build a Green Bakery is project of City Bakery, who is known for its use of local produce and seasonal ingredients (and unfortunately, for being disorganized with catering orders from non-profits, in my experience). The added transit incentive builds on its sustainability mission. BaGB is made of all green materials, even its staff reputed to be wearing more sustainable hemp and linen. If you can't be bothered to wait for the entire BaGB flash show to run its course, go here.



Adding to the ongoing discourse on the Atlantic Yards development is BrooklynSpeaks, a collaboration between neighborhood associations, the Municipal Art Society and the Tri-State Transportation Consortium.

There's a slideshow that summarizes the major points of this initiative. None of the points are that new, really, however the illustrations with plans for the architect and landscape architect are persuasive.

I agree with breaking up the superblocks with smaller side streets to make the experience on the ground more palatable and fitting with the existing neighborhood. However, I don't really agree with massing all the open space together in one park. Even if the buildings and reduced in height, they are going to be much taller than the existing buildings so I think the development would be better served by smaller parks with warm, human furniture and amenities that are in line with its civic and retail program. Instead of a focus on a narrow definition of "open space," it should focus on sidewalks and other pedestrian amenities, which will blossom into useable space, and open by default.(Has anyone seen the little concrete/marble park behind the Sculpture for the Living? It is the coldest thing ever with its marble slabs. It's well-used on warm, sunny days, but I'm curious about ongoing use. Frankly, who would be impressed by the use of marble? No one living in the Sculpture would deign to hang out with the hoi polloi of St. Mark's Street!)

Also, the renderings give us the impression that the building masses go straight up from the street in a vertical, Gehry-esque manner. Why can't there be more of a set-back for pedestrians, so that they experience say, the first six floors and higher floors are set away from the streetview. I'm obviously not a designer, so I'm just asking.

Finally, it does seem that more thought has to be given to the stages of the project so that all the attendant community benefits do not come at the tail end of 10 years. Honestly, the whole project is riding on the acceptance that there are benefits, ultimately. Can't the stages be done more smartly, say in 2-year chunks, instead of in 4-year and 6-year chunks?


Going public: the roundtable

Southern Cross Station in Melbourne mitigates emissions from the diesel trains with its wave-form roof

I love thinking about public buildings, how they get used, how they withstand the test of time, how they fulfill the public purpose, so I went to the Going Public Roundtable at the Center for Architecture last night, the second half of the Going Public exhibit now up in the main gallery through December 30 and part of the AIA New York chapter's ongoing theme this year, Architecture as Public Policy.

Hm...new directions in the form of case studies, yes. I did see some cool images of new public buildings here and abroad. The presentation led me to believe that architecture in public policy is, at least right now, an exploration of how built design can support a policy solution; it does not claim to solve them (thankfully). Except, they can go a long way in mitigating greenhouse emissions, as in the Melbourne station, above. And yes, it means striving for better design in public buildings, with a program initiated by the Department of Design and Construction. I couldn't find any information about the DDC program. Sorry - nothing too enlightening.

Lists and lists

I've been following an amazing discussion on Personism about the exclusion of women in the creative field.

What's incredible is that once the issue was poked, it quickly exposed a gaping ignorance. I guess I was particularly interested in this because a similar but more egregious incident happened to me earlier this year, though my incident dealt with race, not gender. Both are rather shameful given this moment in history and the context of our design work.

Issues of discrimination may not seem directly related to the realm of urbanism, but then again, doesn't it? It takes actual people to push the thinking and do the work in urban development, transportation, architecture, planning, and design, with its many stages from concept to construction. If this is indeed a prevailing atttitude, how can we advise clients and communities that are starting to put together their large-impact, physical expression of identity and culture? How could we claim to perceive their identity and culture in a constructive manner?

I had promised myself this year that I would try to contribute more to other outlets, especially those whose rosters may be more privileged in some way...here goes. And if you want to see the magnificent list of women that Jen Bekman of Personism and many, many contributors have put together to show Tokion that its conference on creativity could have been much more balanced, go here.

Watching over the neighborhood

Vinny Vella Sr., the Mayor of Elizabeth Street

"Eyes on the street" refers to the informal, casual observations made by anyone, but also integral to the success of neighborhoods are the slightly more formal, but still unofficial "Mayors." I was reminded of it by this fun article in the NYTimes. One of my favorite colleagues at the community development organization in Brooklyn was referred to as the Mayor of Meserole Street. The term was new to me, but as I got to know her, it immediately clicked. She got into everyone's business, wasn't afraid to tell someone that they should be in school or at work, swept the sidewalk, picked up and cleared out trash, coaxed a garden out of her cement backyard, fought a War of the Roses with her neighbor (who incidentally did not do the fair share on sidewalk sweeping), and where would the neighborhood be without her?


IDEO's smart pre-planning

There's a fascinating case study documenting some outcomes of IDEO's new-ish division for built environments in this month's Metropolis. One proposition:

IDEO’s approach could be seen as a desperately needed fix to the broken instrument of urban planning, a way to energize a public process that too often skews places to the lowest common denominator
resonates with me, particularly as more planners and organizations jump on the "placemaking" bandwagon for marketing, with high gloss and little else to show for it.

IDEO's approach, in practice, risks being as simplistic as other lowest common denominator alternatives, (e.g., "Now that we've looked at what 18th and Vine needs for establishing itself as a viable neighborhood...how can we differentiate itself from other destinations to attract more people?") but immersion in the neighborhood - people, daily and weekly routines - is something I wish more design companies, planners and architects included, would commit to and incorporate. I mean, what proof does anyone really have that a community needs cafe tables with umbrellas over something else? In the end, suggestions like those smack of paternalism when it is offered without ethnographic research to back it up.

The problem is that words like "community input" and now even in some ways "placemaking" are now political terms used to either sell a new development or deflect potential conflict from the community, rather than really keeping an eye on the overarching purpose for an upgraded or new design. That purpose is still pretty simple: a good place that people want to use, though it sure is hard to get there.


To watch: urban traffic patterns

Fascinating. (via Pruned) From the introduction:

This “Global South Mobility” section of the New Mobility Agenda video collection provides a collection of private views of both the problems (most of which based on the results of the imported car-based, “old mobility” model from the North) and the Global South’s search for new and often original and surprising solutions.
Update: A mash up Google map of heat patterns from traffic congestion! Ooh. Thanks cocoricamo!

Following NYC locals vs chains

Gotham Gazette published statements from the Chelsea Market developer, Irwin Cohen, and the architect at the Small Business Services program to improve local storefronts, Victor Dadras, following the MAS panel discussion about New York City chains.


Vending on NYC Streets

From Smaku's flickr

People who have been reading this blog know that I'm a huge fan of street vendors. They make living in New York and trawling its various neighborhoods all that more enjoyable and affordable.

This week the Street Vendor Project hosted by the Urban Justice Center released a report (pdf) two and a half years in the making on the conditions faced by street vendors. The study focuses on downtown Manhattan south of Canal Street. Among its many findings, it turns out that 96% of street vendors pay taxes and 88% of them support a family with the work, despite the stigma of street vendors as cagey immigrants dodging the IRS to make a quick buck.

It's amazing to me that street vendors are not perceived positively as the low cost, first step that a small business entrepreneur can take. They are instead perceived and treated as a nuisance in the city. In addition to all the policy steps that the Street Vendor Project advocates to protect the street vendor community in New York, changes such as decreasing fine fees and making more public space available, it seems to make sense to create a program within the Small Business Services to oversee and assist entrepreneurs, instead of leaving street vending subject to the whims of multiple agencies. If the SMS can work on improving the aesthetics of storefronts, then why not this? This program can also provide language assistance and other support to make sure that vendors follow regulations. Contrary to popular belief, street vending complement retail stores, and when done well, can generate more income with than without.

This is also a good time to remind everyone that the Vendy Awards are coming up, Oct 22 at 6PM. Tickets are $50, but include food and drink. Hope to see you there!

Update: Sean Basinski from the Street Vendors Project provided a link to a short documentary about how street vendors are treated in New York City. Thanks Sean!

And, I should thank Nick for telling me about this in the first place!


Green New York and other cities

Stuyvesant Cove Park

Lots of news about making cities more sustainable at all levels.

To kick it off, there's a great interview with Majora Carter, founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, in Grist Magazine, where she talks about sustainability as an economic development initiative, not a treehugging one. Her update on bridging the divide between idealistic talk and on-the-ground action is much needed.

How the New York community is trying to be more green, especially in the rebuilding after 9/11.

How Mayors across the country and the AIA are looking setting guidelines towards more sustainable cities across the board (subscription may be required)

And finally, to see some tangible outcomes of green thinking, check out the sustainability portion of Open House New York, taking place across the city this coming weekend. The practice of sustainability is where it's at.


Comparative urbanism

Shimokitazawa, the Tokyo equivalent to Greenwich Village, faces the possibility of having a highway split the neighborhood into two. I've never been to Japan, so I'm not sure about these approximations of neighborhood to neighborhood. But what is interesting is that the announcement has catalyzed a preservationist zeal, when culturally, I've been told that progress in Japanese urban planning is typically perceived as tearing down and building up again with little sense of conservation.

Roger K Lewis on the groundscape of the United States vs. Europe and a call for more walking.

Housing Works Open Air Re-useable Stuff

Image from FoundClothing's flickr photostream

I went to Housing Work's Open Air Book Fair this weekend, a reminder to me that there's nothing like a little market to bring people outside, even in gray weather, and that there is already so much stuff out there to be had. The Used Book Cafe started this fair because there were too many donated books for the store to keep. The usually decrepit block between Houston and Crosby was packed with books, clothing, LPs and CDs, sounds, and masses of people going through them. Cybill, my rescue dog, loves sniffing through the boxes as much as the next person, and she also thrived from all the socialization.