A recent conversation turned, as many do, to travel — but not so much the logistics thereof, about which any flyertalker can expound for hours, but rather what it is that we’re seeking away from home. Is it better weather, time with loved ones, a tastier cup of tea, or just that weightless sensation of being lost?
It seems that I like to see the world as a laboratory of urban policies. Untangling and uncovering the layers of human interventions that result in our built environment still interests me more than even the most stunning of natural settings. We can’t understand a decision without understanding the assumptions and the context surrounding it: how the rationales made sense at its moment in space and time. Steve Mouzon likes to repeat the line “we do this because” throughout his pattern books — although that genre typically tells you how to do things and how they’ve always been done, but rarely why. Such practices are meaningless if not grounded in a place and its history.
Similarly, it always troubles (and frankly astonishes) me when I meet small-c conservatives who apparently listened when the Wizard declares, “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” To be blind to history, to accept that the world was evidently created just yesterday without any human intervention, to accept that the status quo shall always be such and that any attempts to change are futile, dangerous, and heavy-handed — this attitude strikes me as willful disbelief. When those with libertarian tendencies parrot this, it amounts to (to quote Sondheim) “keep the status quo permanently so!” For instance, I recently had occasion to point out that “making driving ‘as unpleasant as possible’ is no more heavy-handed an intervention than 80 years wherein government strove to make driving as pleasant & easy as possible.” A society’s attitude towards driving has nothing to do with economic freedom, either: by far the two most free economies in the world, Hong Kong and Singapore, have some of the world’s strictest policies discouraging car ownership — punitive registration taxes, high road tolls, and high gas prices. Why? Because they’re also the world’s two most densely urbanized economies, and mass car ownership — and the pollution and congestion that would ensue — would impinge on others’ freedom of movement, and damage the economy besides.
“It is amazing to go out to the end there, look around, and wonder just why they did this.” (Jack Hartray was speaking of Wacker Drive, pre-Lakeshore East, which resembled this Indiana steel-mill viaduct.)
In the past, I’d study these things more closely here in North America: it’s easier to sell an idea once it’s been tried somewhere with a substantially similar legal or cultural background. Besides, it’s also substantially easier and cheaper to get to. And yet it’s sometimes more interesting to stumble across a great public policy idea implemented amidst greater odds. It’s humbling, for instance, to see carefully built public infrastructure (like TranSantiago’s efficient prepaid bus stops) in countries much poorer than the US, land of the affluent society.
So anyways, here are some highlights from the past few months of wandering about:
– Of course, I walked The High Line in July. It was, indeed, pretty magical to be suspended over the city, but plenty enough’s been written about that.
– I’ve written about Liberties Walk [full set of photos] before, a small-scale pedestrian mall flanked with townhouses over independent shops in scruffy Northern Liberties, Philadelphia. Another, much more ambitious phase recently opened, called the Piazza at Schmidt’s, and the Walk itself has been extended two more blocks. Future phases will add more multistory buildings, notably including one building fronting Girard (an adjacent arterial) with a supermarket and parking. (That phasing strategy is notably offbeat: usually you’d lead with the supermarket anchor to build traffic and then follow up with specialty shops, but this has proceeded in exactly the opposite manner.) The architecture might seem aggressive at first glance, but its weight and massing do strike a balance between industrial buildings on the east and residential on the west. The public spaces themselves are pretty sparse, which works for the narrow Walk but not the broad Piazza. Critics have weighed in on the Piazza, notably Philly Skyline and the Inquirer’s Inga Saffron.
– I’m always intruiged to see other instances where off-street retail has been introduced to an urban neighborhood, so two examples from Santiago de Chile caught my attention: the block-sized Patio Bellavista complex on Pio Nino, and the tiny but elegant Plaza del Paseo Barrio Lastarria.