What I’m reading today

[This started short and got quite lengthy. Maybe I’ll break off parts later.]

1. Citywide bike sharing arrives in the Midwest this week when Nice Ride launches in Minneapolis, using Bixi technology. (I had hoped to be there for the launch, but it looks like I’ll be there in July instead.) Interesting: (1) BCBS is the lead sponsor and (2) the city is not resting on its laurels (the article finds that the communitarian Minnesota culture is the key factor); the bikeway network is due to grow by 30% this year.

2. Jeff Speck in Architect uses the same taxonomy of New Urbanist critics — which he calls Lib[ertarian], Mod[ernist], and Saint — that I incompletely delineated in an earlier study of “Additional Myths About New Urbanism.” I used right, avant-garde, and left, but the themes are the same. Nice point in his final paragraph, addressing the Saints: new urbanism is a reform movement, not a revolutionary movement. We can’t fix everything all at once since we don’t aim to; it’s incremental change, not an entirely new world order.

Which reminds me: an offhand remark by Andres Duany about how crowds of suburban teenagers can “love the city to death” — suffocating the diversity of uses and people in the Sunbelt’s few-and-far-between urban oases — has drawn a storm of the same old Saint/Mod criticisms (only this time some bloggers are taking it personally!) about NU being exclusionary, authoritarian, static, hopelessly middle-class and middle-aged and middle-brow.

The answer to such critics is the same. Reform takes time, places evolve, and diversity must be managed as it’s actually not the natural order of human ecology. The same critics enthralled with “emergent, incremental, accretive” urbanism haven’t the patience to let Kentlands’ trees grow in, don’t understand that New Urbanists seek not to take away great places but to create new places that will, in time, evolve into great ones. Or, as I’ve said before, “today’s Old Urbanism was yesteryear’s New Urbanism, and therefore that today’s New Urbanism, in due time, will be tomorrow’s Old Urbanism… time is the most necessary ingredient to create the ‘authentic urbanism’ that many critics of New Urbanism cite in false opposition to NU.” In other words, give us a hundred years.

Of course, Duany doesn’t speak for the entire movement, and his admiration for civil libertarian’s bugaboo of Singapore — which actually does a better job than the USA of guaranteeing its citizens human rights like health, housing, education, and safety, not to mention protection from rights violations — is not exactly a plea for tyranny. I disagree with Duany about democracy’s utility: not a surfeit of democracy per se, but rather a fake populism that empowers a vocal [small-c] conservative minority, has impeded urban evolution.

3. Speaking of history and democracy, Charles Siegel writes about “Unplanning” over at Planetizen, arguing to some extent that planners caused the auto domination of American cities — whereas politicians should have kept them in check. While that may be true around the margins — different cities on the same continent have chosen rather different paths towards relative auto domination, as Patrick Condon (links to PDF) points out — my own reading of history (relying on Peter Norton here) says otherwise. Auto domination was a conscious political choice made in the 1920s, before the era of professional planning (or rather, traffic engineering), by political elites who sided with affluent auto drivers in their fight to claim road space from working-class pedestrians and middle-class transit riders. Indeed, overt attempts to politically legislate exactly the slow-traffic conditions that he outlines failed miserably: a 1923 initiative in Cincinnati (placed on the ballot with 42,000 petition signatures) that would have mechanically prohibited autos from going faster than 25MPH went down to defeat after a furious campaign by the Auto Club and newspapers.

4. More history: an oral history documentation project of LA Chinatown during my grandfather’s era.

5. From The Atlantic‘s special city issue, a reminder by Benjamin Schwarz that “Manhattan never was what we think it was” — or what Village writers like Sorkin and Zukin think it was. The bohemian, deindustrializing Lower Manhattan (itself hardly static) that so many exhibit a false nostalgia for was “pretty much limited to the years of the LaGuardia administration,” and itself was quite an exception within a vast urban “agglomeration of mostly self-sufficient, inward-looking, lower-middle-class communities.” Yes, Jane Jacobs wrote convincingly about how that city worked, because she lived in it. Yet many take the wrong message away from Jacobs: the look and feel of the industrial city were just the backdrop; her principles say nothing about post-industrial gentrification. Jacobs loved watching systems emerge and evolve from market interactions; heavy-handed intervention was most certainly not her style.

Yet the paralyzed political climate that has resulted from empowered neighborhood “activists” (see #2 above) has stunted urban evolution — always driven by markets’ creative destruction — in the name of this faux “authenticity.” These “activists” don’t realize that the problem they seek to solve isn’t with architects or planners or even with developers, it’s with “all that is solid melts into air” capitalism itself. There are ways around this, and I’m excited to see that authors like Matt Hern get this and are doing something about this: shutting down streets and setting up collectives to reclaim space, not just a setting, for society. The planners, cops, and Tories he antagonizes turn out to be mostly reasonable people, doing pretty good work within a flawed system larger than all of them. Sure, he has his share of “can’t we all just get along” platitudes, but even those are grounded in a sense of possibility and progress. Perhaps it’s due to his base outside the Greenwich Village snowglobe, in a peripheral city simultaneously tossed about by globalization, blessed with a surprising degree of autonomy, and relatively unweighted by hidebound tradition. It’s a much fresher take on “finding real place” than I found in either Zukin or Sorkin’s books.

6. More authenticity: Hong Kong, which made an interesting decision to conserve and rehabilitate one of its original public housing blocks, will now preserve Wing Lee street. It gained notoriety principally for being an actual movie set, the only place where directors could recreate a feel of 1950s tenement life.

7. Just nudging urbanism along in California could cut CO2 emissions in half — and by 75% over a business as usual scenario, according to new research by Peter Calthorpe. The household savings angle is an interesting one to push: the less people spend on cars and oil, the more they’ll have to spend on houses — preserving the property values which are so incredibly paramount to California politics. Jarvis League, are you listening?

8. “You want to know who Sarah Palin is? She’s the False Maria in Metropolis! That’s who she is.” — Peter Trachtenberg

9. The world’s thirst for oil has outpaced humans’ capacity to “safely” (if we ever could) drill for (and burn) it. Sickening pollution is intrinsic to oil; the act of driving is drilling. And as we’re finding out, drilling technology has advanced faster than spill-cleanup technology. Boycotting one company won’t help; they all have tar and blood on their hands. Alexandra Paul at HuffPo:

There is a story about a scorpion asking a frog to carry him across a river. The frog is afraid of being stung, but the scorpion reassures him that if he stung the frog, the scorpion would drown as well. So the frog agrees to be carried on the scorpion’s back across the river. Mid-river, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming the two of them. As they are sinking, the scorpion explains, “I’m a scorpion; stinging is my nature.”

Ocean drilling is the nature of oil companies. It is what they do, even if it dooms us all. We can be angry about how they are ineffectively dealing with their mess, but in the end, BP is drilling for oil in environmentally sensitive areas for one reason only: we need the oil they provide.

7 thoughts on “What I’m reading today

  1. As the oil spill in the Gulf grows larger and more deadly, decimating all that it touches, BP continues to turn down assistance from Americans who just want to help clean up the mess. (…I hear they even turned down Director James Cameron and actor Kevin Costner…)

    First let’s get one thing perfectly straight: If you want to go and help clean up the oil spill, don’t let some corporate Big-Whigs “handle” you into believing that you’d be more of a liability, than an asset. I applaud you for recognizing that we all depend on our oceans for our very survival. It is this water that sustains every living thing on our planet, and it is also this water that we must protect in order to save ourselves from extinction.

    BP has downplayed the problem in the Gulf from the beginning as a means of corporate damage control. I don’t think they’ve yet recognized the severity of the problem. As I’ve written in past blog posts; the pipe needs to be capped and the relief well needs to be drilled. It’s not an exact science by any means, and if BP doesn’t get it right the first time, they’ll have to do it over, and over, and over again, until they do. How many months (or years) will that take? How much damage will have been done to our environment by then? We’ve already seen what 51 days of oil can do to the Gulf of Mexico… What would happen if the oil was left, unabated, for several months, or years? It’s a frightening example of corporate greed gone awry and it’s criminal, pure and simple.

    Corporations should never be allowed the opportunity to risk the lives of everyone on the planet just to make a profit for a few shareholders. (What good is money, after all, if you don’t have air to breathe, water to drink, or food to eat without fear of contamination?)

    BREAKING NEWS: I’ve just heard that those enormous plumes floating just under the surface of the water have been certified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (N.O.A.A.) as crude oil.

    (Are we just casual witnesses to our own demise? I wonder…)

  2. Good stuff Payton. I like your line about Today’s Old Urbanism is Yesteryear’s New Urbanism. Very few people understand the fourth dimension.

  3. Pingback: New Urbanists Who Admire Singapore’s Urban Planning « One Less Car

  4. Indeed, the physical planning of Singapore — which was largely done along (American) modernist lines, with high-speed arterials and large blocks, gigantic integrated podium/tower complexes, little consideration for cyclists, landscapes substituted for streetscapes, and rigorous separation of uses — leaves much to be desired. However, from a broad policy perspective Singapore gets certain really big things (and road pricing is HUGE, i.e., politically impossible elsewhere) right. The government also appears to understand the value of more human-scaled places like Chinatown, Arab Street, and Tiong Bahru estate — even if those urban design lessons haven’t quite sunk in as they plan megastructure-reliant places like Marina Bay.

    Planning is a vast field encompassing many aspects of urban life, and to say that I (or Andres Duany) “admire” something unilaterally (you’re welcome to see my comments on Singapore over on Flickr) is to take far too simplistic a view of the matter.

  5. Well, I don’t know if Duany admires Singapore unilaterally, but he did say that it was liveable, which I thought to be a strange claim coming from a New Urbanist. Very few people live in Chinatown, Arab Street, or the human-scaled part of Tiong Bahru.

    As for the value the government sees in those places, it’s mainly for the tourists. They aren’t interested in providing the same kind of environment for “ordinary people”, because it wouldn’t be “efficient” to do it on a mass scale. That is, the value they impute has nothing to do with liveability — they simply recognise that tourists like places that feel authentic. For the masses, it’s just more generic suburban malls.

  6. Any city that’s grown three- or four-fold in population since 1950, and had large postwar resettlement programs as well, will house most of its population in bland postwar housing. It’s one thing to look at Chicago or Pittsburgh, which reached their current boundaries and populations in 1920 and where most people live in human-scaled neighborhoods (that’s just how things were built back then) — and quite another thing to look at Atlanta or Toronto or Brisbane, where almost everyone lives in suburban sprawl since those cities have seen their fastest growth in the postwar years. Some estimates put only 5% of the housing in such post-1950 cities within “walkable urban” quarters; much suburban housing has no access to transit, shops, even sidewalks. By that standard, kids walking to school from their boring tower blocks in Sengkang (only one in nine American children walks to school) looks like quite an achievement.

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