Washington Channel’s trees and shrubs: a tale of two monocultures

This semester, I’m taking a Natural Resources class through Virginia Tech about understanding local watersheds, wherein I’ll be researching and posting knowledge about the Washington Channel. You can explore the other watersheds that my classmates are investigating over at the class blog’s page.

In this installment, I’ll take a closer look at the woody plants found along the channel. Other posts can be found using the tag watershed.

By and large, the plant life along Washington Channel is a tale of two monocultures. Its filled-in banks long ago had their native species removed; instead, people have planted two species in abundance: ornamental cherries in East Potomac Park on its west bank, and willow oaks on the circa-1970 Waterfront Park on the east bank. The effect of having so many identical trees might be unnatural but can be enchanting, certainly in the early spring when the world-famous cherries bloom:

Cherry Blossom Trees

And also in the autumn when the willow oaks turn gold:

Waterfront Park

The large shade trees planted here often were chosen to tolerate the damp, mucky landfill soil; some were chosen for ornamental fall color, as well.

  • Willow oak [Quercus phellos], as mentioned above, was planted along walkways and streets throughout Southwest Waterfront. Some have grown to ~80′ tall.
  • Scarlet oak [Quercus coccinea] is also found along streets.
  • Sugar maple [Acer saccharum] was planted along streets and in landscapes, perhaps for fall color.
  • River birch [Betula nigra] grows in a few clusters in East Potomac Park [photo].
  • Baldcypress [Taxodium distichum], a deciduous conifer common in bayous, has recently been planted near the golf course [photo].
  • Black willow [Salix nigra] is one of the taller trees along the channel [photo].
  • Swamp cottonwood [Populus heterophylla] also thrives along the west bank [photo].
  • Honeylocust [Gleditsia triacanthos] is a common urban street tree, since it permits dappled sunlight below.
  • American sycamore is another sturdy tree common to streets and parks.
  • Zelkova [Zelkova serrata] is another common street tree.
  • Eastern white pine [Pinus strobus] appears to be one of a few evergreens planted in East Potomac Park [photo].

As an intentional urban landscape lined with grassy or paved open spaces, smaller ornamental trees are more plentiful along the Channel.

Several urban weeds are also common along the Channel, notably white mulberry [Morus alba] and tree of heaven [Ailanthus altissima] [photo].

Plans for redevelopment of the Channel’s east bank, roughly between 6th and 12th St., call for a greater variety of mostly North American shade trees to replace the willow oaks. These include Kentucky coffeetree [Gymnocladus dioicus], honeylocust, tulip tree [Liriodendron tulipifera], blackgum [Nyssa sylvatica], swamp white oak [Quercus bicolor], and Chinese elm [Ulmus parvifolia].

Park[erings]plats, flat-packed kit edition

Park(ing) Day furnished by IKEA

The new IKEA catalog includes this reminder that there are now just 52 shopping days left until Park(ing) Day 2013 on 20 September. Having documented a few similar installations in the past, I’ll say that the practiced tiny-room-builders get these elements right:

  • Floor: define the horizontal space with “symbolic groundcover.” A large green rug is great because it’s relatively light and quickly rolled out, but for reuse purposes, keep in mind that it might get dirty. I tried hauling remnant sod to our site, but it turns out that live plants are terribly heavy. Even lighter-weight: chalk!
  • Walls 1: stake out the corners with vertical elements. Not necessarily as high as the fabric screens shown, but enough to…
  • Walls 2: structure the space so that the “backs” face cars and the “front” faces the sidewalk. They could have done a better job with sheltering the street face of this one, but that would’ve blocked the camera’s view in.
  • Ceiling: define the space above with a shading element; the umbrella shown is again a very lightweight answer.
  • Weight: A temporary installation should be literally lightweight and easy to pack in & pack out — particularly if you’re committed to a car-free Park(ing).

That said, it’ll cost more than $320 to furnish a Park(ing) Space at IKEA: a typical American parallel parking space is 9′ x 20′: large enough for four of those HAMPEN rugs, laid perpendicular to the curb, not just one laid parallel. Also, this seems like a great chance to show off some of their outdoor collection: a potted tree on a plant stand, for instance.

More resources: the official Park(ing) Day Manual, plenty of photos, and even more Flickr photos.

Malls: the long goodbye

Second Floor, Owings Mills Mall

The slow contraction of the market for enclosed suburban shopping malls is part of a long-term trend, exacerbated by the credit crunch. I found a 2005 report from the International Council of Shopping Centers (hardly an anti-mall bunch!) that included a very noisy graph of shopping mall openings over the years. I chose to smooth the curve by (arbitrarily) calculating three-year moving averages instead, rounded to the nearest whole #:


1987-1989: 10
1990-1992: 15
1993-1995: 6
1996-1998: 6
1999-2001: 5
2002-2004: 4


The steep decline from the early ’90s occurred despite bubbly, credit-happy economies in the late ’90s and mid ’00s. Also, keep in mind that malls take several years to finance and build, so arguably developers quietly began aborting mall proposals around 1990, when the power center began its meteoric rise (and subsequent decline; Emerging Trends 2013 ranks them as the worst property type to invest in). The numbers since then (also from ICSC and from press reports) have been just dismal, both before and after the 2008 crisis:


2005: 2
2006: 1
2007: 0
2008: 0
2009: 0
2010: 0
2011: 0
2012: 1*


Even in a recent article trumpeting “Return of the Mall!,” Retail Traffic magazine admitted that “there is little, if any, room for new enclosed regional mall development… Even prior to the current downturn, the U.S. mall market was near the point of saturation. During the 1970s, the heyday of the mall, U.S. developers delivered a total of 375 million square feet of new space. By contrast, in the 2000s, new mall deliveries fell 62 percent, to 144 million square feet, according to research from CoStar.” The best that the article can muster is that trophy malls are still prospering, and that other shopping-center categories have been hit by bigger sales declines. Personally, I don’t know if that’s saying much; I’ve always thought that power centers were most vulnerable to online shopping — out-competed on price and selection (the only selling points of big box) — and we’ve seen that with the recent collapse of many big-box chains.

Given the number of malls that have closed — over 40% of enclosed malls built even in the DC region have shuttered — malls have been trending in reverse for almost 20 years now. They were sputtering in the mid/late 1990s, and over the 2000s I’d bet that many more have closed than opened. This isn’t some short-lived, newfangled fad, this is a seriously big shift in how Americans shop (and, in a consumer society, live).
Retail may have been the first property sector to see a huge momentum shift away from Edge Cities. Now that momentum in the residential and office markets** has shifted away from the suburbs, it’s hard to argue that drivable suburbia is still what Americans demand.

* City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City replaced two enclosed malls that had failed. Net mall count was still reduced by one.
** Emerging Trends ranked “severely handicapped” suburban office the second-worst investment. Just as with malls, this trend is a long time coming: nationally, suburban office vacancy rates used to track downtown office vacancies, but decoupled in 1998 and have stubbornly remained about 5% higher through peaks and troughs ever since. Similarly, the best housing investments were ranked as infill/intown, senior, student, and affordable, with golf course communities and master-planned resorts ranking a shade above “abysmal” as the absolute worst property subsectors to be in.

Retail = restaurants in 2013

Findlay Market in Cincinnati, always a great place to buy food

It’s not just you: nationwide, what’s opening on Main Street is pretty much only restaurants. To quantify this hunch, retail consultancy Terranomics compiled expansion plans from numerous chains and found:

40% of new retail unit openings will be restaurants… there really are not an enormous number of options out there for landlords looking to backfill smaller shop spaces… There is only one segment of the market where we are seeing aggressive growth plans from inline users and that is the restaurant sector… As e-commerce increasingly competes with the bricks-and-mortar retail landscape, shopping centers will find themselves insulated against those technology driven shifts by beefing up dining and entertaining options that do not compete with the internet.

Yes, we’d all love to be able to walk to the corner and buy some bolts from a corner hardware store, or socks from an apparel shop, but let’s face it: not enough of us do that often enough to sustain very many such businesses, particularly in areas that don’t have enough foot traffic to guarantee significant cross-shopping. Such uses will increasingly congregate within metropolitan subcenters — probably focused on today’s fortress malls or midtown destinations — so there will be winners and losers among retail nodes. At least everyone will have someplace to eat, though.

(BTW, connectivity to those subcenters will be necessary from ever-wider catchment areas. This will require rapid transit, not just walk accelerators like streetcars or bikeshare, in order to connect neighborhoods to retail focal points.)

What will those centers look like? A new ULI report by Leanne Lachman and Deborah Brett (complete with a cover image of a yarn-happy hipster using Square to buy a single-speed cruiser bike) suggests the following tenant mix to keep a lifestyle center — a format designed around Boomer women — relevant to Millennials. I’ll stifle my giggles.

  • a broader choice of eateries;
  • apparel brands favored by Gen Y (such as J. Crew, Old Navy, Forever 21,
    H&M, Zara);
  • a gym;
  • hair/blow-dry salons;
  • Trader Joe’s and green grocers;
  • a bike shop;
  • a pet store and/or a dog run; or
  • uniquely local offerings.

Third places are surprisingly important, with restaurants nearly rivaling homes as gathering locations:

Favorite places to get together with friends (pick three)
At home—my place or theirs 66%
At a restaurant 59%
At a bar 30%
At a shopping center 28%
At a coffee shop 22%
At a park/the beach 20%

(There’s also this amusing mental image: “Hispanics’ propensity to go out for weekend brunch is especially notable. Brunch is also more popular in the South, where 20 percent go weekly, and among downtown residents, with one-third saying they go for brunch each weekend.”)

Signals across the urban archipelago

City DOT commissioners panel

A recurring theme that I keep hearing about in 2013 is that cities — linked together through national and global networks — must assert a leadership role in conceiving and implementing the policy changes necessary to adapt to the 21st century. Not only have these changes become too great to ignore, but the federal government that led America through the last great era of socioeconomic upheaval (the consolidation of the United States into the world’s industrial superpower) is mired in deep paralysis. Although states are meant to be the “laboratories of democracy,” they suffer from the same hyper-partisan paralysis and an institutional bias against metropolitan regions.

As a recent Economist editorial put it: “the rest of the country is starting to tackle some of its deeper competitive problems. Businesses and politicians are not waiting for the federal government to ride to their rescue… Pressed for cash, states are adopting sweeping reforms as they vie to attract investments and migrants… creative policymaking is being applied to the very problems Congress runs away from, like infrastructure spending.”

Taking a cue from a sharply partisan 2004-election postmortem by Dan Savage and the editors of The Stranger, we live in an era of The Urban Archipelago:

If Democrats and urban residents want to combat the rising tide of red that threatens to swamp and ruin this country, we need a new identity politics, an urban identity politics, one that argues for the cities, uses a rhetoric of urban values, and creates a tribal identity for liberals that’s as powerful and attractive as the tribal identity Republicans have created for their constituents… We’re going to demand that the Democrats focus on building their party in the cities while at the same time advancing a smart urban-growth agenda that builds the cities themselves.

This approach was plainly evident in the closing panel at NACTO’s Designing Cities conference, where as Angie Schmitt reports, “transportation chiefs from Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago and New York all talked about the progress their cities have made and shared their frustration at the lack of attention to cities and transportation in the state and national political arenas.”

“Why aren’t state governments and Congress keeping up with cities? Chicago DOT Commissioner Gabe Klein proposed that it’s because city residents — especially younger residents and entrepreneurs — expect their mayors and city governments to move at a much, much faster pace. City governments have to be much more creative and nimble to respond to these demands or else risk losing the residents and businesses that power their economies.” Yet, that agility doesn’t extend to the federal level: as Randy Neufeld said, “the disconnect seems to be Congress being out of touch with the good stuff happening on the ground.”

At the conference’s opening keynote, USDOT secretary Ray LaHood bemoaned that he would have preferred to do even more to support local government innovation, but that Congress had always “taken care of our infrastructure needs — right up to this moment in history.” Indeed, he singled out “this particular Congress” as having a peculiarly awful track record at passing transportation legislation.

The bond analysts at S&P concur that devolution of authority from the federal government will continue, reports Ashley Halsey in the Post: “The burden to finance infrastructure projects will fall more heavily on local government entities or users in the form of higher rates or tolls.”

A natural follow-up to the NACTO meeting came at TRB a few months later, where Bruce Katz addressed a substantially similar crowd at the Transportation Issues in Major Cities committee meeting. In summing up his forthcoming book, he strenuously argued that federal government are paralyzed by dysfunction, states refuse to adapt to the new metropolitan reality (and indeed, many state legislatures are backsliding), and need to be bypassed if cities are to successfully adapt to new global realities. The good news is that cities are in fact stepping up — even though they usually haven’t been empowered to do so.

(This comes with a huge caveat: ultimately, even a paralyzed state is a sovereign unit — quite unlike a city, whose municipal charter [particularly in a Dillon’s Rule state] may be tremendously limiting. And it is much more difficult to do a 50-state campaign, or even a 20-state campaign, than a single national campaign.)

How can citizens and local government officials respond? We can set up peer-to-peer innovation networks so that innovations can spread more quickly and easily between cities. States and national governments can no longer be counted on to scale up innovations, but we also no longer need them to do so.

We won’t be able to innovate our way out of every intractable problem — but with a fresh understanding of the problems, we may be able to find new resources to bring to bear. For example, Janette Sadik-Khan summed up her department’s super-effective work in three broad steps:
1. Leveraging existing assets: a holistic approach to street space manages to do more with less; “back to basics” means that feet come first; local & state governments already spend $2 in general funds on transportation for every $1 in road user fees and should expect greater accountability
2. Working nimbly: in times of austerity, we can’t afford not to work smarter, not harder (echoed by Rina Cutler from Philadelphia as “we cannot not fix” urban infrastructure, and by Gabe Klein, who contrasted the old capital-intensive approach with new ways that resemble “marketing, change management, public relations, and sales”)
3. Transforming the city: Mayor Bloomberg noted that the city has surpassed records for population & GRP, but has experienced the safest five-year period in its history and has successfully directed all new travel demand onto transit.

(About the title: a friend of mine grew up in Windward, the collection of damp suburbs east of Honolulu. There, TV and radio signals from Honolulu, just five miles away, are blocked by a mountain range, so instead residents watched TV from Maui, a hundred miles away across the flat ocean. Such is life in an archipelago: sometimes we have more in common with people far away than those just on the other side of the ridge. Our cities have more to learn from one another than from their hinterlands.)

An etymology of “parking”


Ever wonder how “parking” came to mean two very diametrically opposed things — dead pavement and living green space? Historian Kirk Savage offers an explanation in his book Monument Wars:

In the nineteenth century, to park meant to plant a tree or spread a patch of turf or flowers–to create a little patch of parkland. In Washington, the Parking Commission was a group of respected horticulturalists who supervised street-tree planting. On the city’s wide streets, parking places typically referred to strips of grass, flowers, or trees plated alongside the pavement, or in the larger squares or circles. These strips of parking* not only cooled the streets but made them more manageable by reducing their great width and the amount of paving they required. By the turn of the century, such parking areas were sometimes used to hold horse-drawn carriages on special occasions; these were temporary intrusions that did not threaten the parkland itself. When automobiles started to overrun cities in the early twentieth century, parking areas were given over to car storage and the word began to refer to the cars themselves rather than the trees and grass they were replacing. The new meaning of the word intertwined with the old in strange ways. In 1924, for example, the park in front of Centre Market, “one of the few spots of green along Pennsylvania Avenue,” was converted into a “parking space” for cars over the opposition of the city’s “superintendent of trees and parkings,” who lamented that “the oil and gasoline from the parked automobiles will quickly kill whatever trees are left standing.” In early 1927, the District commissioners, acting on citizen complaints, appointed a committee to try to stop “the practice of parking automobiles on the grass-sown parkings between sidewalks and curbs.” At the same time, however, city officials were also beginning to cut down street trees throughout downtown Washington and widen pavements to make room for automobile traffic and parking (in the new sense). Literally and metaphorically, the new parking conquered the old.

skewed National Mall

Another fun fact from the book: the axis of the National Mall was tilted about 1.5° south so that the Capitol and Washington Monument appear to line up. Since the Monument was built off-axis, it doesn’t line up anything in the L’Enfant Plan, and that’s still subtly visible in some views. Now that I know this, I can’t un-see its crookedness on any map of the city.

* In Chicago, the local dialect persists in calling areas like the planting zone between sidewalk and street “the parkway.”

Late November shorts

Indeed, it hit 70F today, so I did indeed wear shorts!

1. mqVibe looks interesting: it rates neighborhoods “in terms of edginess, residential, burbiness (i.e., how many chain businesses dominate the blocks), and other dimensions,” according to John Hendel in TBD. The rankings of local neighborhoods appear about right; will have to check out other cities’ rankings to see how it differs vs. Walk Score.

2. Old news, but since Fox News has instituted a rule stating that any discussion of global warming should be preceded by a “discussion of the debate,” I suggest another new rule: any report about radio waves (like those involving mobile phones) must also include a segment where a man in a tin foil hat presents the debate about whether such devices are actually government mind control waves. Hey, if you’re going to distort the science…

3. Street enclosure ratios make all the difference in the world — they could make even the worst excesses of mini-mall LA avenues look human scale. (Original: David Yoon)

4. “[J]ust about every one is complaining about bikes and stop signs. But the fact of the matter is, those stop signs are there to regulate speed, not right of way; two way stops actually do a better job of that. And bikes have a hard time beating the speed limit.” – Lloyd Alter at TreeHugger. Indeed, the 4-way stop is actually a very poor way of regulating right of way. In many cases, it’s difficult to tell who has the right of way, since “first to approach the intersection” and “first to get to the stop bar” are often different.

The real meaning of Park(ing) Day

Park on Penn Originally uploaded by Payton Chung

Once again, the killjoys are looking too narrowly at a fun event. DC may have many acres of park space, but the vast majority of it is inaccessible to its residents on a daily basis — cut off from the city by highways, hillsides, rivers, and too often security fences. Unlike metered parking spaces, those park spaces aren’t located right at the heart of the neighborhoods where we work, shop, and live.

More broadly, Streetsblog DC calls Park(ing) Day a “global demonstration about all the ways we can use curbside space besides automobile storage.” It’s a chance to have a thoughtful dialogue about what else we could use curbside space for, and to get a chance to see just how huge cars are relative to the other elements of our urban environment. We don’t often get a chance to see just how much other stuff can fit into the space occupied by one car — a dozen bikes? a picnic table? a kindergarten class? a City Council?

San Francisco has made Park(ing) Day permanent in many locations throughout the city by allowing businesses (and residents!) to rent curbside spaces annually. Many of them have become elegant sidewalk cafes, some house bike parking, one has a curious dinosaur themed garden. All of them offer something rewarding and engaging to walk past, and many offer the city’s economy more of a boost than yet another parked car would.

It’s not as if street parking has always had the Divine Right of Kings, either. Way back in 1924, in a paper entitled Suggestions for Relief of Street Congestion, a Chicago engineer supported banning curbside parking entirely: “It seems unreasonable that a comparatively few people can utilize the most valuable street space in our cities, practically at will, for their own pleasure and convenience and to the serious inconvenience of thousands of their fellow citizens.” (Norton, Peter. 2008. Fighting Traffic. Cambridge: MIT. p. 141.)

[posted to GGW]

Food trucks, elaborated

Responding to a challenge to my brief expression of puzzlement over why everyone’s suddenly infatuated with food trucks, to the point where some bloggers are gushing that they “can’t see the downside.” (Such expressions of skepticism have been met with exasperated astonishment, as if I’d attacked motherhood and apple pie. Geez, no. I haven’t even cancelled my Time Out subscription.)

First off, I’m not alone here. Plenty of people have already complained about food trucks causing pollution, unfair competition, and blocking parking or loading zones or no-standing fire lanes or crosswalks; this has been extensively covered by media in NYC [Brownstoner, Times, The L] and LA [LAist, Daily News, Daily Press, Times, YoVenice]. Even Mayor Bloomberg agrees [Daily News]: “The little [vendor] stand is now getting to be these enormous trucks with generators… We are moving stores into the street. And they sit there and they park and they take up parking places and they block traffic.” Placid PDX (where most food carts are in corrals on private land, bearing a striking resemblance to Singapore’s “hawker centres” or Hong Kong’s Cooked Food Centres) has seen battles, while DC has already enacted extensive regulations in advance of their arrival.

Second, my complaint isn’t about street food, or fast food, much less food (of course). It’s about trucks, which I’ve never loved. Food trucks, in particular, present a lot of external costs that threaten many great qualities about our urban retail districts: mixed uses, economic and social diversity, walkability, stability, fiscal sustainability, and livability. Street food existed for thousands of years before foam plates, diesel generators, and V8 engines.

I love street food, and adventurous stuff at that; I’ve spent weeks this year subsisting on the stuff: chestnuts in Guangzhou, durian shakes in Singapore, alfajores in Buenos Aires, currywurst in Vienna, scrapple in Philadelphia, lemonade in Glencoe. I’ve done more than most to advance local food in Chicago, as treasurer of its only food co-op, community gardener, champion of a public market in WPB and consistent advocate of its efforts to get food (particularly a coffee stand) and other vendors to enliven the Polish Triangle and Mautene Court, and even a supporter of an outdoor food market in my backyard. Immigrant street food entrepreneurship is even in my blood: my mother and her siblings used to sell Fall River chow mein sandwiches outdoors to lines of factory workers on no-meat Fridays.

Vendors in other cities pay ground rent to transit agencies (as in Vienna, where they’re at many tram stops) or public-market authorities (as in Hong Kong), which in turn pay for services that these businesses use, like trash pickup. These costs aren’t incidental; residents and businesses within the Wicker Park Bucktown SSA already spend $150,000 a year cleaning litter from its sidewalks, even without any food trucks — who will, because they don’t pay local property taxes, use those services and leave local taxpayers footing the bill. I’ve lived in the midst of really trendy neighborhoods like WPB for eight years now. I like having lots of shops and restaurants within walking distance, as long as they largely contain their noise and customers. Vendors with carts or booths or whatever already set up shop by the dozens outside my apartment, at a thronged weekly farmers’ market and with pushcarts selling elotes, ice cream, slushies, and fried dough every day. Food trucks with loud generators and littering crowds idling outside my window is not part of what I signed up for — Bloomberg’s quote above seems to indicate that he also sees the distinction — and noise and trash are not an integral part of city life. (You want more people living in cities? Make them pleasant to live in.) Call this a NIMBY reaction if you will — but recognize that I am no paper tiger, and have on multiple occasions done face-to-face combat against real NIMBYs on behalf of making Chicago more urban, walkable, and livable.

I want to see retail energy (and economic opportunity), round-the-clock mixed uses, and local economic diversity spread throughout the city, instead of hyperconcentrating even further in existing transient activity nodes. Innovative restaurants — started by exactly the same kind of person who might now just start a food truck instead — traditionally have catalyzed new retail districts and extended the activity hours of other districts (since a fixed-premise restaurant has the incentive of sunk capital costs to try extending hours). Merely piling more businesses into every available inch of, say, Clark & Belmont or Milwaukee & Damen won’t help (1) those of us who live nearby and enjoy sleeping on occasion, (2) people who legitimately need to pass through [including thousands of cyclists and pedestrians every day], (3) people who live a little further out who want more options over there. I’d love to live in a city where great food’s available around every corner, instead of falling all over the place at a few overwhelmed intersections.

Of course Chicago should certainly make it easier for people to open new businesses or try new business ideas: Singapore can get a food stall (it has nearly 20,000 on public premises alone) up and running in two weeks. Giving some people privileged access to commercialize choice bits of public space — as food trucks do by showing up around offices at lunch, around nightclubs at midnight, and otherwise feeding off a few little transient pockets of density — isn’t necessary. “Selling” that space at non-market-determined prices — parking meter rates here don’t reflect market clearing prices for retail square footage and in fact don’t accrue to the public — really gives the trucks an unfair edge on non-mobile businesses. (Maybe location franchises could be auctioned, instead of setting license fees by citywide fiat.) Enforcing the proposed rules requiring that food trucks keep their distance from existing businesses will by definition be difficult, and probably a low priority for cops who can’t be bothered with hundreds of existing laws.

Finally, as a cyclist and a pedestrian, I recognize that having more vehicles on the streets — particularly ones plying areas with high levels of foot traffic, and quite likely lots of drunk people stumbling around — will necessarily negatively impact road safety. (Deaths from cars and trucks outnumber gun deaths in much of the north side.) In a world where cities are finally now understanding the value of reducing vehicle traffic and returning public space to people, sending dozens more trucks out there just to feed a passing yuppie whimsy seems like a step back to me.

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.

Ped malls have it backwards

[sent to NextGen list, responding to Lydon]

Prime downtown shopping streets rarely work as ped-exclusive streets. 3rd Street or Lincoln Road are exceptional places on many levels: most of America is not Santa Monica or South Beach (nor Boulder, Aspen, Burlington, nor Times Square). Instead, why not focus on smaller streets with an entertainment focused tenant mix? East 4th in Cleveland (official site) actually seems to work okay (a single owner is a huge advantage), especially relative to its surroundings. Even in Europe or Asia, grand retail corridors aren’t pedestrianised (Stroget

being the exception rather than the rule); it’s the side streets, where cars always felt like a huge intrusion anyways.

Shown here is Sai Yeung Choi Street in Kowloon’s Mong Kok district, which is car-free from 4pm-midnight every night — a switch only undertaken in the past few years. As you can see, a pedestrian street is not defined by the absence of cars: it’s about the abundance of pedestrians.

Kowloon’s main spine, Nathan Road, continues apace a block west, and alleys (really, just wide enough to push a cart down) are on either side should deliveries still be necessary. Of course, the other side streets are just as choked with pedestrians — often browsing at retail stalls, as on Tung Choi Street just east, and often sharing the space with the few cars who dare to brave the streets.

Of course, having stupendously high densities helps to sustain retail on both the arterials and the side streets, and the American tendency to have fewer but larger shops certainly doesn’t help.

Insisting that shoppers will materialize out of thin air just to see a place that’s interestingly designed, but inconvenient to get to — an “if you build it, they will come” approach — is backwards. Instead, retail is all about making things easy for customers, and the converse is true: “if they come, then you build it” (a nice echo of the aphorism that “retail follows rooftops”).

This strategy kind of mirrors the suburban lifestyle center approach: the arterial is still there to handle circulation, but the inviting environment is off to the side.

A similar approach here in North America was taken on Rue Prince-Arthur in Montreal’s lively Plateau neighborhood, a pedestrian street that links two parallel main streets (St. Laurent and St. Denis).

Urbanism gets people out of cars

New Urban News has recently presented some survey research done comparing greenfield new urbanism with nearby sprawl around Calgary, Montreal, Portland, and Toronto [article on Canada and on Portland]. Among the hypotheses tested is that New Urbanism, by creating places where walking is more possible and more pleasant, can cut driving trips and increase non-motorized mode share. (A common complaint about contrasting travel behaviors for residents of existing places — say, between old urbanism and new suburbs — is that the populations aren’t always comparable, and that selection biases are more likely.) One potential way of proving this would be to compare the walk/bike and transit share for commute vs. recreational trips: transit mode share for commuting is unlikely to differ substantially, since all of the locations are in the suburbs where work destinations are widely dispersed. (As we’ve noted before, most of the difference between European and American cities’ modal splits lies not in an increased share for transit, but in a much higher share for walk/bike trips.)

Sure enough, there’s a big difference in how residents of new urbanist neighborhoods travel within their neighborhoods and a mild difference in how they travel regionally. At Orenco Station west of Portland, residents are 10X more likely to regularly walk to shops than residents of a nearby subdivision; indeed, only 7% of Orenco residents don’t walk to the store, vs. 58% in sprawl. Occasional transit use is 60% higher among Orenco residents, even though both subdivisions studied are a five-minute walk from light rail stations; 65% report using transit more since moving in, vs. 23% in sprawl. Yet transit use for commuting is identical in both neighborhoods.

The Canadian study found a 8-point difference in driving’s mode share between new urbanism and sprawl, resulting in 19% fewer vehicle kilometers traveled. Yet the mode share of transit was the same, at 9%; the difference was solely in walking and cycling. Residents of new urbanism are 2.7X more likely to regularly walk or bike to local stores. (This is a lower factor than at Orenco; not all of the Canadian neighborhoods had town centers as comprehensive as Orenco’s, and the baseline sprawl figure in denser Canada is much higher.) 37% report walking “a lot more” since moving (85% higher than in sprawl), perhaps because 55% said their streets’ designs were “very safe” for walking and biking (49% higher than sprawl).

Some critics of New Urbanism loudly disclaim the physical determinism that some New Urbanists proclaim — often stating that neighborhood design has profound social ramifications. I have generally remained less sanguine about new urbanism’s impacts on social capital, but the impact of urban design on transportation choices seems pretty clear: if you give people safe, pleasant routes to quickly walk/bike to convenient destinations, they will walk and bike more.

The research also shows that New Urbanism is more than just a prettier version of sprawl. When done right, it has real effects on transportation outcomes — and, the surveys indicate, perhaps also social outcomes.

In related research, Robert Cervero at UC finds that even though peak parking demand at TOD apartment projects in the East Bay and PDX were similar to national ITE standards (just 5% lower), “trip generation rates for some projects were well below ITE standards.” This could indicate that TOD residents keep cars in storage due to subsidized parking — a great opportunity for expanded car-sharing services.

The possibility of selection bias still lurks behind all of this research: it could be that a small proportion of people are just predisposed to drive less. Even if that were the case, that choice should be applauded (since driving costs society), and places that allow people to express that preference should be encouraged. Yet this preference apparently isn’t nearly as much of a minority view as it might seem, particularly among younger Americans. A Concord Group survey of Millennial homebuyers, noted in Builder, found that 81% of young people thought living “near alternative modes of transit” to be “very or somewhat important.” A full 67% would pay more for that choice.

In other news about encouraging walking/cycling, this month’s “Mode Shift” includes a history of the Albany Home Zone. Traffic calming on Chicago’s side streets has long used just the blunt-force (and bicycle-unfriendly) tools of stop signs, speed bumps, and one-way restrictions; here’s a great opportunity to test out a wider menu of options.