Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Think bolder


Cities are always in a state flux.  They expand and contract in relation to the economy and demographics.  Currently, major urban centers around the globe are in a state of expansion.  In his article for The Atlantic Cities, Enrique Penalosa predicts the future for the American city.  In the opening paragraph, Mr. Penalosa asserts, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Welfare,  in forty years, 2.7 billion more people will live in urban areas than now in China, India, and most of the developing world.  What is not as well-known is that population growth in the United States will be huge.  What does this mean and how do urban planners and designers, government agencies, and community organizations meet the challenge?

By 2050, the U.S. population is predicted to grow about thirty-six percent, from 322 to 438 million. Based on the present average of 2.58 persons per household (I never understood how you have a .5 person), this would mean that there would be a need for 44.9 million new homes.  The twist in this statistic is that American households are getting smaller.  If we use the household size of Germany, 2.2 person per household, as our base number and the the estimated growth of the American population, this would mean the United States would need an additional 74.3 million new homes.  This means that in the next forty years, the U.S. will build more homes than those existing in the United Kingdom, France, and Canada combined.  Mr. Penalosa cites urban planner and theorist Peter Calthorpe, who predicts that the state of California will add 20 million people and 7 million new households by 2050.  These are staggering statistics, indeed.  Where do we put everyone?

To meet the increased demand, completely new urban environments will have to be created in the United States.  Just exactly where and how will the new American homes be built?  What types of urban structures are to be created?  I'm having visions of rehabbing older buildings dancing through my head.  Mr. Penalosa postulates that while, it's unlikely that city building on this great a scale through 2050 will ever happen again, nevertheless, cities are a vehicle to a way of life.  The types of urban structures that will be created over the decades will have a profound consequence in term of the quality of life, environment, sustainability, economic well-being, happiness, and civilization for hundreds of years to come.  This is taking into consideration the influence American cities will have on the rest of the world, the way they're built, will determine much of the world's sustainability and well-being.  Mr. Penalosa, so far, seems to be making general statements about the direction of American cities.  Cities are organic entities that expand and contract according to outside determinants.

The United States' primary urban legacy has been low-density suburbs, which, as I've pointed out previously, have their shortcomings in terms of the environment and quality of life.  Just to sum up their shortcomings: they are high-energy-use environments: the homes are large and consume a lot of energy for heating, ventilation, and air-condition; occupant mobility is auto-dependent; the distances between home and work, shops, and recreation areas is too long; and low-cost reliable transportation is not readily available.  Further, the suburbs are restrictive for the mobility impared-the very young, elderly, and disabled-who usually have no access to a car.  Since suburban spaces are too far to reach by foot, they tend to be devoid of people-making them boring to tears, occasionally punctuated by the sound of cars or lawn mowers.  There is also a lack of diversity that comes with urban environments.  See Jane Jacobs was right.  Despite all this mind numbing bordom and blandness, most American do not want to live in a Manhattan-esque environment.  What's wrong with that?  So what should the American city of 2050 be?

To answer that question, we have to go back and see why people left the cities in the first place.  Critics of the pre-World War II American cities waxed prosaic about their compactness, access to shops, and the feeling of community.  They fondly looked back at the prewar cities as bright shiny models for the future.  Mr. Penalosa quotes the Charter of the New Urbanism, "We stand for the restoration of existing urban centers and town"  In the book Suburban Nation (2000), architects and planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk wrote, "...would not look so different from out old American neighborhoods before they were ravaged by sprawl."  Further, "The only proven alternative to sprawl is the traditional neighborhood."  Duany and Plater-Zyberk conclude, "The principles and techniques of true urban design can be relearned form many wonderful older places which still exist."  Pretty lofty words from two people who so meticulously planned the Seaside housing estate that it resembles a Hollywood conception of suburbia.  If the traditional American city at the beginning of the twentieth century is the ideal, then why did Americans leave them en masse, fleeing to the suburbs as soon as they had the means to do so?  Duany and Plater-Zyberk suggest that readily available mortgages were not the sole reason.

Recently, density, regardless of any other characteristic, has been held in high esteem, as in Edward Glaeser's Triumph of the City (2011).  In the face of global warming, this has the tendency to be accepted without question.  Mr. Penalosa points to high-rise developments close to the downtown areas are praised for their great sustainability success, examples of Americans' return to the city and a harbinger of the new urban structure that are destined to replace the suburbia.  From coast to coast, north to south, the downtown is being presented as evidence of the way to a better future.  When project developments are built on large brown fields, they often include high-quality public pedestrian spaces.  However, in most situations the new dense city usually mean higher buildings on the same lots previously occupied by lower-rise maybe decaying buildings.  Mr. Penalosa asks, "Are multistory buildings on traditional streets-which in U.S. cities generally mean very wide streets-the future of American cities?  Are children going to walk out of their homes to basic sidewalks and motor vehicle-filled-and thus dangerous and often noisy-streets?  Are those environments where new generations of American children will grow up and where a new and happier will flourish.  Is this where a better civilization will grow?"  All good questions to ponder.  I would like to add this question, in the future, will we see the trend toward growing urbanism cycle back to a return to suburbia?  Consider it?

High-rise developments, accompanied with high-quality architecture, often command high prices and have an increased market value over time, allying any doubts about their attractiveness.  The occupants of high-rise residential buildings live in or near the urban center with the clusters of commercial and retail businesses.  The residents are often highly educated young people, sought by cities for their roles in innovation and economic growth.  This reinforces the theory of the city as the path of a brighter tomorrow.  Mr. Penalosa asks if these same people that are seeking a more urban life have alternatives?  Will they stay in the downtown areas after the kids start school?  Even if they do, is it possible to better that that kind of traditional dense urban environment?  Further, would most Americans now living in the suburbs be attracted to such environments?  Mr. Penalosa answers his question by stating that he doesn't believe that a different urban model possible: dense city with a high percentage of buildings facing pedestrian and bicycle only paths or greenways.

Using Manhattan, New York as an example, Mr. Penalosa suggests that some of the city's more attractive attributes could be incorporated into a new urban model that would be very different.  Mr. Penalosa asks us to imagine a Manhattan with no waterfront roads, all the spaces between waterfront buildings and the water are now parks or pedestrian infrastructure.  A Manhattan where alternative streets and avenues are reserved for use by pedestrians and bicycles, tree-lined, accommodating public transportation.  A Manhattan crisscrossed by greenways.  Sounds lovely doesn't it?  While this scenario sounds lovely, removing the waterfront spaces takes away from Manhattan's innate urban charm.  It also runs the risk of turning the city into a generic looking place.

For millennia, children in cities have able to go out into the street and play with risk of being harmed.  What changed that?  "Look out for the cars!"  That's what's changed.  Of course there have been motor vehicle of some sort for thousands of years: chariots, donkey carts, wagons, and so forth.  The advent of the combustion engineer vehicle (the car), there should have been a change in the way cities were designed.  For example, Mr. Penalosa recommends that half the streets should have been dedicated for pedestrian use only and the other half for cars.  Sadly, nothing has changed in that respect except the road have become larger.  By the 1920s cars took over the American urban environment, forever changing them.  Cars also radically changed the nature of urban structures.  What was envisioned as a utopia became a dystopic nightmare of noise and danger to human, especially children's lives.  Cars also changed the location of desirable housing.  Before cars conquered the streets, the preferred location for the wealthy was along the main urban arteries; Park, Madison, Fifth Avenues. Pedestrians would stroll by to see and be seen.  Once the car invaded, the wealthy fled to more secluded streets and the abandoned mansions became government, educational, or cultural institutions, rarely used for housing.  Cars made urban living undesirable but at the same time, they freed people from being tied to the city where the work was.  However, they trapped people in the suburbs where it's impossible to get around without a car.  A real no win situation.

If low-density suburbs are not desirable and a return to 1920s urban life is not the answer (sorry all you new Gatsby fan), then what should the new American city look like?  The aphorism, "the new city should be designed for people" isn't accurate because over the last ninety or so years, cities have been designed around the car rather than human well-being.  This despite the fact that the best measure of a city's quality is how beneficial it is to children, the elderly, disabled, and the poor, who often don't have access to cars.  Thus, in creating the next American city, planners should question the conventional wisdom, considering these examples:

1) Rail is not always the best transit option and not just because of cost factors.  Elevated trains damage the urban environment and subways force users into tunnels with no natural light or views.
2) Expensive and inflexible light rail has been installed in many American cities although bus lines can achieve the same results with less cost, in terms of mobility and encouraging private investment.
3) Curbside parking is not a right.  Obviously Mr. Penalosa has never driven in Los Angeles.  Would it be better to eliminate it in favor of larger sidewalks and protected bikeways.  As a native Angeleno, I shudder at this.
4) Private waterfronts should not exist if the public good outweighs private interest.  Mr. Penalosa suggests that hundreds of miles of pedestrian promenades be placed along side the waterfronts which would democratize and improve urban environment.

From these suggestions we can conclude that a different urban environment is needed in order to attract the suburban dweller back to the city.  Therefore, it is necessary to create a higher-density habitat that would still provide all the suburban amenities within the urban context.  Mr. Penalosa points to projects in Battery Park City of Manhattan and Harbour Green in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada which have separated buildings from green spaces and waterfronts without using a road.  He further notes that the challenge is not only to create high-quality isolated projects but whole cities with new personalities.  Cities like Manhattan and Los Angeles have a certain innate quality that makes them attractive to begin with.  Would altering them make it more attractive or detract from the those qualities?

In the city of Bogota, Colombia, the municipality built Porvernir Promenade-a fifteen-mile pedestrian and bicycle only promenade and over twenty miles of greenways.  Essentially, they're both bicycle highways.  It has transformed urban life by offering a person the opportunity to walk or bicycle to work, errands, school, or simply for fun.  People watch, sure.  Get some exercise, hey didn't you always want to get rid of those extra five pounds?  As the old add for Apple computers put it, "Think Different."  Why not create cities with hundreds or thousands of miles of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.  Mass transit lanes could be added to some of the greenways, providing a low-cost way and pleasant surface mass transit.  Children living in high-rise buildings facing large parks or green spaces could walk out of their homes onto these expanses.  Buildings' car entrances would be on the opposite side of the greenways and promenades.  I wonder what Ebenezer Howard or Clarence Stein would think about this?  I think they might consider it.

So back to the static quoted at the beginning of the post, by the year 2050, the United States will need 74.3 million new homes.  Where do you build them?  These new homes will generate millions of daily car trips.  As they say in real estate, "location, location, location."  The optimal location for all those new homes will be near as possible to the city center.  Beyond the brown fields surrounding the cities are low-slung suburbs.  If high density for the 74 million new homes to built by 2050 is not completed in the existing suburbs, where should they go?

Mr. Penalosa posits several ways in which the suburbs can be turned into high-density environments.  One way is to change the zoning rules to allow multistory or higher density structures where single families with backyards now sit.  Good luck with that one.  For this to happen, it would be necessary to increase water and sewage pipe, build new schools, larger parks, and wider sidewalks.  Other regulatory changes could include allowing mixed use buildings on some streets (like this one) that are currently exclusively residential.  This would produce higher densities in the right locations but would not produce a significantly different urban structure or the seed of a new urban civilization.

A more radical approach to create well-located low-slung suburbs would be to initiate large-scale demolition, redesign, and reconstruction programs, which would not only produce higher density, but also a different urban model with hundred or thousands of miles pedestrian and bicycles only pathways as well as miles of mass transit only roads.  At the very least it would eliminate blighted areas, if targeted properly.  By the way, did you notice that the author of this article is really massive on pedestrian and bicycle only promenades?  He seems to see them as some type of pancea for the urban ill.  Just saying.

Part of the problem in getting Americans to think bolder about urban planning and design, according to Mr. Penalosa, is that after several failures at radical urban redevelopment and the harsh criticisms of Jane Jacobs, people were paralyzed-wary and afraid to try anything else.  Pity, because sometimes a radical approach is necessary.  It would seem that if two neighbors stop and say hello to each, the neighborhood is deemed vibrant, any government effort to demolish it is considered unacceptable.  Think about the previous post on the Los Angeles Arts District image of people waving to each other as the ride by on their bicycles.  Jane Jacobs was not so influential in Europe, where there have many government-led urban renewal efforts in the last few decades.

Even the decaying and dilapidated suburbs near urban core have been passed over for redevelopment in the United States.  Both state and local governments stood idly while large swarths of suburbia collapsed.  Interestingly, thanks to the home mortgage industry collapse, some of these suburban areas have fallen into ruin because of neglect by foreclosure.  Some municipalities have taken the bold step of demolishing abandoned neglected homes and repurposing the lots.  Mr. Penalosa cites the example of Birmingham, Alabama as a case in point.  The University of Alabama at Birmingham has been growing steadily in the downtown area, but very few of its professors and researchers live downtown.  Only two miles west of the campus are hundreds of acres of deteriorated, dilapidated, and nearly collapsed suburbs with abandoned homes fall down and schools closed and boarded up.  Nearby is the almost unused Legion Field stadium with acres of parking.  Mr. Penalosa posits that a new city could be built there but there hasn't been any public or private initiative to forth.  Why build another whole city?  Why not demolish the stadium and the abandoned homes and create mixed use residential/retail buildings?

Urban redevelopment is not just for run-down areas.  In fact some of the best sites for redevelopment are in the most desirable suburbs if they are located near the downtown area and offer reliable mass transit and park areas.  So does that mean Silver Lake/Los Feliz or Hancock Park?  Not likely.  The Eminent domain clause in the Fourteenth Amendment states that public good prevails over private interest.  Since this is so integral in American society that it would be unthinkable that a necessary road or airport would not be built because one home owner refuses to sell.  What's missing in this argument is the Takings Clause in the Fifth Amendment guarantees just compensation for lands seized by a government agency for the public good and the Due Process clause in the Fourteenth Amendment which guarantees every citizen's right to attend government proceedings.  What is also left out is the case of Dodger Stadium built on property owned by mostly Latino homeowners without Due Process or Just Compensation.

Large-scale redevelopment projects are regarded with suspicion because of citizen's wariness of the government.  Yet government action is necessary in order to build cities.  Cities must be defined by master plans.  The easy way out is to do nothing and let market forces dictate the future, as we've seen in the nascent gentrification of the Los Angeles Arts District.  Can the United States lead the way in the twenty-first century in terms of radical urban planning and design?  We shall see.      

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