Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Continuing Saga of the Washington DC Streetcar

Recently, the city council of Washington, DC voted to drastically cut the proposed budget for the DC streetcar, from the estimated $1.3 billion that would be needed for the construction of the basic 22 mile system, to less than half that, $460 million. This level of funding would only be enough to support construction of about half the H Street/One City line and a short segment in Anacostia not connected to the rest of the city, as opposed to the full One City line, Takoma Park line and the first line linking downtown with Anacostia. 

When the DC Streetcar was first proposed, it was intended to serve several purposes. First, it was intended to promote economic development in neighborhoods and corridors not served by Metrorail, many of which had streetcar service previously. Second, it was intended to connect neighborhoods and move people around DC, unlike Metrorail, which was designed to bring people in and out of Washington as fast as possible. Third, it was intended to add substantial transit capacity without having to spend tens of billions of dollars and decades expanding Metrorail.

To the first point, the city council's actions constitute blatant deception. Much of the economic development the streetcar was intended to attract has already occurred, and now it seems that this development will not be getting the transportation that spurred its construction and that is necessitated for it to live up to the expectations of developers. Not only does this open the floodgates to lawsuits but it also shows in a very public way that the DC government cannot keep its promises, even to developers whose efforts are generally immune from political power struggles. To this end, it is likely that DC will be left out of future economic development efforts, as the future of the District's infrastructure is in doubt and developers cannot guarantee that the city will support future efforts on a similar scale, or that growth projections can, in fact, be met.

In addition, the city council's actions are yet another reason for the residents of the District to lose faith in their government. The original maps of the streetcar system show it serving many low income neighborhoods, especially Anacostia. This transportation service, combined with the economic development brought by the streetcar and the District's affordable housing and inclusionary zoning policies offered the best opportunity to date to create true mixed income neighborhoods that cater to everyone and can bring about substantial, lasting reductions in crime and poverty. The city council has completely forsaken this opportunity. One which would prove valuable to other cities across the country and around the world.

To the second and third points, as two short segments of the streetcar system now intended to be the limits of construction for the foreseeable future, it goes without saying that the streetcar falls short of its goal of serving as a DC circulator and extending the reach of pedestrians within the city. This is a role that Metrorail has been forced to take on, and a role which that system was not designed for. Building the streetcar in its entirety can shift intracity trips away from Metrorail, allowing it to take on additional capacity in the form of radial expansions to suburbs as originally intended.

In addition, the lack of intra-city mobility brought about from the scaling back of the streetcar will only serve to increase the concentrations of wealth and poverty within DC. Lack of a more permanent, extensive, exclusively within the district transportation system will mean that wealthy residents are less likely to spread their spending dollars to other parts of the city, as accessing them is that much harder. This not only means that gentrified areas will continue to gentrify as a result of neighborhoods retaining dollars spent, but that low income areas will see little, if any, benefit from economic development in other areas of the city and continue to decline. It also means that there will be less transit capacity for low income residents who have jobs in other areas of the city, limiting economic and social opportunities.

One criticism brought against the streetcar system is that of mismanagement, and it is a very valid concern. A streetcar system, in various iterations, has been in construction since the mid 2000s. First in Anacostia, now the current line on H Street and the larger system after that. The fact that it has taken this long, and streetcars are not in revenue service, is unacceptable. It is clear that management and construction of this system is a bigger bite than DDOT can currently chew. To this end, a design, build, operate and maintain contract was planned to be put out that would cover the design and construction costs of the streetcar system, as well as its operation and maintenance in the future. This would turn the system over to an organization with expertise in the construction and operation of streetcar infrastructure, and significantly lessen the impact that political fights have over the streetcar system. However, by drastically reducing the funding available to the streetcar, the assembly of such a contract is essentially off the table, as the funding required now cannot be procured. Thus, the decision by the council has ironically shackled the streetcar system to the poor management of DDOT. 

Overall, it seems that the city council is either unaware of the consequences of their decision, or malevolent in their actions. The streetcar system as proposed would address several crucial economic and transportation needs within DC, doing so in a way that has a great potential to lessen income equality and provide for all the city's residents, not just the young and wealthy. This is what it really means for a city to be world class. Not that it has some fancy amenity, but that it uses its transportation system, zoning regulations, and economy to do the most good for the largest number of its residents.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

City Planning as a Social Movement, What it Means to be an Urbanist

Throughout the history of city planning, and except for a brief period in the 1960s, it has never directly entered the public mindset as something that can bring about social justice and lead to better living. 

Cities are the building blocks of nations. They are economic powerhouses which have developed or manufactured each and every technological advance in the history of the human race. Cities are the cornerstone of modern society. But cities are even more than that:

“Cities are for people. A place for their hopes and dreams, their work and play, their homes and homes for their children. Cities are alive and have personalities, each different from all others and each in constant change.”
-Richard Bartlett, AIA.

As I note in the banner of this blog, how we design and use our environments directly relate to the quality of interactions we have with and within them. These interactions can include everything from the mundane, such as buying groceries, to the extreme, such as criminal activity.

Cities are built by people and for people. As residents of cities, or as those who have reaped the benefits of cities, we have a responsibility not only to ensure their continued prosperity, but to ensure that the social, economic, and cultural benefits they bring reach the largest number of people and do the greatest amount of good. It is our responsibility to ensure that cities meet the needs of all social and economic groups, that cities can provide safe places for children as well as homes for the elderly. It is our responsibility to ensure that the penthouse apartments for the wealthy do not detract from the provision of housing for those on the margins of society.

Moreso, it is our responsibility to ensure that the economic and societal collapse of the 1960s and 1970s, mainly due to urban decay, does not repeat itself. We must make sure that our cities are resilient, both economically and environmentally. We must build for the desires of the present, while planning for the future; realizing that while bars and nightclubs may be desirable now, schools and grocery stores will be needed in the years to come. 

To this end, ensuring comprehensive multimodal transportation is the responsibility of every citizen, and we all have something to gain from it. Americans spend almost one third of their income on transportation, only to receive increasing commutes, increased stress levels, increased pollution, and longer work days. This is not sustainable in any way. Our love of the automobile has fractured our social networks, brought our environment to the verge of destruction, and caused our lives to revolve around the price of gasoline, not to mention the 30,000 deaths per year as a result of automobile wrecks.

We also have a responsibility to keep our cities free of crime. This does not have to mean an increase in the police force, however. The design of our cities in and of themselves can deter crime, something which was realized as long ago as the 1960s. This, along with a fundamental rethinking of policing strategies, as brought to the table by David Kennedy, is something that it is our responsibility to advocate for. It is the job of a city to bring people together and foster social, as well as intellectual, collaboration regardless of race, class, or gender. Crime does the opposite of this. It separates communities, often across racial lines, and fosters negative stereotypes.

Finally, and on a more personal level, the design of our environment impacts our health. Perhaps the ultimate solution to our healthcare costs lies not in the halls of congress, but in our methods of development. Our fascination with automobiles and drive-throughs has led to an explosion in the popularity of fast food and a dramatic increase in distance between travel points. A recent article in USA Streetsblog notes that only in three cities in the entire country, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, is it possible for a majority of residents to walk to a grocery store in five minutes or less. If we spent more time walking or riding our bicycles to the store and spent less time eating fast food in our cars, perhaps we could reduce our record rates of obesity and heart disease. If we consolidated our development and devoted more money to inner city economic development, perhaps we could alleviate the food desert issue that plagues so many low income communities.

However, none of these aspects can be looked at in their own field of influence. It is impossible to encourage more people to walk or bike in a community that is rife with crime. Likewise, it is impossible to encourage economic development and business investment without building a vibrant and resilient community. Finally, it is downright negligent to constantly mourn victims of mass shootings without paying attention to the fact that the majority of mass shootings occur in suburban areas. 

This is what the idea of urbanism is. Not just understanding the world around us and how we interact with it, but also realizing that the built environment is one that we all influence, whether we realize it or not. To borrow (and modify) a phrase from Matthew Taylor, the Chief Execuitve of the Royal Society for the Arts, I believe that the use of our urban space can “tell us about who we are as human beings, spark political debates about who we need to be, and lead to philosophical debates about who we aspire to be”. The goal of urbanists is to spark and lead these discussions, turning inclusive thought and deliberation into policy.

This sentiment was expressed over 50 years ago by Jane Jacobs, in her landmark book Death and Life of Great American Cities, which brought planning into the realm of the general public for the first time:

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Friday, February 7, 2014

Modernism Revisited, Was Jane Jacobs Right?

I recently had an opportunity to view the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which I touched upon earlier in this blog. In this film, many residents of the infamous public housing development reflect upon the time they lived there, the community that existed, and it's ultimate undoing.

The residents interviewed for the film, some who had lived in the development since the beginning, others who moved in during its period of decline, all noted that throughout the lifetime of Pruitt-Igoe, a strong community developed, first based on the joy and pride that came from living in such a new, modern place, and later as a counter to the decline of the complex and its neglect by local, state, and federal housing officials.  

The documentary notes that what caused the ultimate undoing of the development, a post-industrial city with a declining population, miscalculations of growth, and policy, both formal and informal that maintained the racial segregation of St. Louis's housing stock, keeping African Americans from entry-level jobs, had little to do with the modernist movement, architectural features of the buildings (or lack thereof), or the quality of the community created within them.  

Jane Jacobs, in her landmark Death and Life of Great American Cities notes that housing developments such as these will inherently fail due to their architectural characteristics, such as massive scale, large open spaces with little use, and lack of economic diversity or mixed uses. However, from this documentary it is apparent that such a community did develop, and that, for a time, it was able to benefit and look after the residents of Pruitt Igoe.

Ultimately, the downfall of this community, and the housing complex, was caused by insufficient maintenance, a shrinking population, and a bureaucracy that ultimately was apathetic to such problems as they affected many similar public housing units around the country. In other words, the massive resources that a public housing development of this scale needed to succeed were not available.

In this sense, the point Jacobs makes is that development or refurbishment is most efficient and useful if it occurs in forms already recognized in the neighborhood it is located in, as this development can be supported by existing infrastructure, with existing means. In order to work properly, modernist public housing on a large scale would require massive amounts of continued funding, which would likely be unsustainable.  

Jacobs notes this, and tells the reader that when the word “project” is used to describe such a development, it conjures very specific things, namely that the development, and those who live in it, are fundamentally different than their surroundings. Death and Life of Great American Cities describes in detail how cities can be revitalized by using their intrinsic characteristics, a much less intrusive practice than the modernist approach, and one that is ultimately more sustainable.

In this way, the film's claim that Pruitt Igoe should not be used as an example of modernist failings is somewhat inaccurate. Pruitt Igoe demonstrated that the modernist approach would work as long as large sums of money were provided over the lifespan of modernist developments. The political reality prevented (and continues to prevent) such sums of money being spent on public housing, necessitating a more efficient approach.

It can be argued that Jacobs approach to housing is more practical because it uses the intrinsic features of an urban environment to promote social and economic growth. This prevents unnecessary sums of money being spent on imposing “order” on an “chaotic mess”to use descriptions common amongst modern architects and correcting what is actually a non-problem.  

This is the core reason that large scale public housing complexes such as Pruitt-Igoe should not be repeated, they are the hallmark of construction for construction's sake, and only work if continuously supplied with funding.

Monday, August 19, 2013

On Detroit

The bankruptcy of Detroit has sent a shock wave through the economic community and has caused much discussion about the continued provision of pensions and other "entitlements" by municipal governments. Such discussions follow the popular debate about public sector unions, but fail to take into account elementary knowledge of planning and economic efficiency. Detroit's development went against several guidelines noted primarily in Jane Jacobs' The Economy of Cities which describe how cities grow, develop, and adapt to change. Ironically, this book used Detroit as an example of how cities should develop sustainably.

1: Lack of Economic Diversity
Detroit was developed as an industrial city, and for many decades that industry and its exports were widely varied, from ship building to agricultural and industrial machinery to tools to automobiles. Jane Jacobs takes note of this and describes that a city must have diversity in its economy in order for it to adapt to change. During the second half of the 20th century, Detroit's industry began to converge on one product, automobiles. This was well and good for the brief period before automation of assembly lines and competition from foreign manufacturers. This quickly changed, as assembly lines started to automate, less manpower was required to operate factories, and legions of workers were let go. In addition, as manufacturers such as Honda and Toyota came into the American market, offering what was widely perceived to be a superior product, the demand for domestic automobiles started to decline. The fact that Detroit's main export was automobiles meant that factory workers who were laid off had few employment alternatives.

2: Sprawl
Detroit's horizontal growth (attributable in no small part to it's main export) exponentially increased the amount of money that needed to be spent to provide public services to its residents. More police and firefighters were needed to cover more land, more schools had to be built and more teachers and staff hired to operate them, more hospitals and clinics needed to be built, and more roads needed to be maintained. This not only required the city spending money to build and maintain public structures and hire people necessary to operate them, but also required private residents to pay higher taxes to maintain those services, spend more on transportation, living, and healthcare. The city is now unable to maintain this infrastructure, and vacant houses have been torn down in droves.

3: Corruption
Despite the fact that the monetary losses from the city pale in comparison to its debt, this is a major consideration. Detroit is famous for its corrupt city officials. It's mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, has been investigated multiple times by the federal government and accused of laundering money through a variety of front companies. In addition, many current and former council members have been charged with corruption. Clearly, the city's politicians are not motivated to solve problems such as economic resiliency, poverty, and crime.

In order for a city to be sustainable, it must be economically resilient. Detroit did not plan for this (perhaps due to the fact that the interests of its politicians were elsewhere) and, predictably, failed. Cities must insure adequate economic diversity for continued survival and the well being of their residents.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Design Fixation and The City

One development that's undergone much recent study in the field of engineering is the concept of design fixation, the reluctance of a designer to innovate due to their unquestioned adherence to existing ideas or due to the influence of previous designs upon them.

According to a study published by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), design fixation is often subliminal, and occurring regardless of what instructions are provided to the designer. This often results in a flawed design being, in a large part, copied, despite the designer being told specifically that it is flawed.  

This concept is beginning to manifest itself in several interesting ways in regards to city planning. One of the most apparent is the idea that in order to be competitive and economically resilient, a city should strive on attracting a "creative class" of young professionals, something which recent research shows might not actually work, as opposed to trying to develop one by increasing the quality of education, public services, or low income housing.

Another way is by cities directly copying aspects of comprehensive plans from other cities without optimization or the understanding of why they were originally developed. A good example of this is the implementation of form-based zoning codes aimed at promoting pedestrian friendliness and mixed uses. This is often seen when cities do not provide a reason or direction for their codes, and implement them over large areas of land instead of applying them to specific neighborhoods.

A good example of this is "new urbanist" suburbs which are composed of rowhouses on a grid plan, but do not exist in a larger context. They must still be accessed by car, and still have minimal connectivity to adjacent roads.  

One of the major flaws of the urban renewal program in the 1950s and 1960s was that it tried to apply standardized solutions to a variety of problems across a variety of cities, itself an expression of design fixation. This approach paid no attention to the peculiarities of the urban environment.

Jane Jacobs discussed several flaws with this approach, most notably, the fact that the design of these developments run counter to the way the street level is actually used by a city's inhabitants. She also noted that the interactions that take place among the residents of a city play a large part in keeping it safe, interesting, and economically competitive. Most importantly, she noted that each city has its own peculiarities which influence these interactions. The peculiarities of one city are different than those of another, and thus a planning solution to a particular problem may work in one city, but not in another.

In order to make a substantial effort at addressing the variety of urban problems that face us, such as poverty, crime, and abandonment, the reasons for them, demographic patters, investment and development rates, policing strategies, and travel patterns, must be thoroughly examined and well understood. In this way, each city is unique. A problem that is fundamentally different in two locations cannot be solved with the same solution.

This is what keeps urban design interesting, and I dare say, what makes it fun.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Urban Living and The Second Suburban Sprawl

A large percentage of new housing units constructed as part of downtown revitalization cater to a two specific groups of people: older "empty nesters" who live alone and do not want to drive, and young professionals, who are often single and want to be near active and "trendy" neighborhoods. A common element in both these groups is that they do not have children, and thus neighborhoods designed to attract them do not cater to the needs of children by providing amenities such as schools, libraries, and playgrounds.  

Because of this, it is likely that many young professionals will move out of cities and back to suburbs should they decide to start families. This will cause yet another round of suburban sprawl and possibly a second wave of urban decay.

In order to lessen the effects of this or prevent it altogether, urban space must be designed and purposed in a way that is inclusive to the needs of current and future residents of all age groups. In some cases, this will result in tradeoffs where a city has to decide whether to allocate resources to schools and public or affordable housing or amenities designed to attract younger residents and tourists to cities.

Despite these tradeoffs, an inclusive built environment has the potential to draw a previously unconsidered demographic to cities, families that live in the suburbs simply because these are the only areas that currently cater to their needs. Making cities attractive for these groups will not only work to reduce suburban sprawl but will also extend the economic and social benefits of urban life to as many people as possible.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Mass Shootings and Suburbanization

Whenever a mass shooting occurs, public opinion focuses on one of three things: guns, video games, or mental illness. Where and how we live, a prominent aspect of our culture, is rarely discussed in relation to increasing violent tendencies.

Most mass shootings have occurred in suburbs or small towns, not in cities. This includes the Virginia Tech shooting, Columbine High School, and most recently, Newtown, CT. A recent study by the Brookings Institute showed that as the crime rate for inner cities is decreasing, the crime rate for suburban areas is increasing.  

Likewise, poverty is shifting from the inner cities to the suburbs. This is due to both the special severity of the financial crisis in account of the pervasiveness of mortgages, and the fact that suburban living is highly decentralized and infrastructure intensive, and thus has higher living costs.

The ways suburbs are planned and built runs contrary to the ways the built environment is intended to work for people. Jane Jacobs notes how shared and varied land uses promote use of outdoor space and socialization with other users of that space. This goes for adults as well as children, as she notes that when children play on sidewalks or in alleys they are indirectly protected by public surveillance of the streets.

This is a process that is not allowed to occur in suburbs chiefly because land is segregated by use. There is no incentive for those who live in residential neighborhoods to survey their streets because nothing of interest is taking place on them. Likewise, residents of suburbs are also less likely to use sidewalks on their streets because of the lack of destinations reachable on foot and the fact that fences have been erected around yards, prohibiting residents from interacting with each other via streets.

In addition to this, a growing amount of research is being done on the mental health effects of pollution and traffic congestion. An article in the Wall Street Journal notes that research has found possible links between air pollution and Altzheimer's, Parkinson's, and Autism, as well as increased levels of stress. Traffic congestion has also been linked to increases in stress.  

This stress, combined with the few opportunities for socialization provided by suburban life and the easy access to weapons in American society no doubt contribute to our high rates of gun violence and mass shootings. If mass shootings are a problem we wish to address responsibly and permanently, we need to look at the way we live and how it shapes us.