Category: Urban Planning

Burning Down My City

A Google Maps panorama at the Third Precinct by Tim McGuire

I tweeted earlier during coronavirus about how the “100-year pandemic” is something that long-term planning is indeed suppose to address. Like the 100-year flood in land use, the decisions we made yesterday are setting the stage as to how well we can cope today and tomorrow. All those zoning rules and planning commission decisions in the past 50 years on unit square footage, amenities, and setbacks, all coalesced into two months of heaven or hell for people living in apartment buildings.

For the Minneapolis riots, my first thought was of course there is going to be a huge turnout because the majority of young people work in the now-decimated service economy. Unlike the Big Coastal Cities which attract talented minds and companies, which then turn the heat on real estate across the city, the Twin Cities is by and large still a working class community with dispersed business centers. Swaths of the urban core are just single-family residential marked by streetcar-era retail buildings.

There is still confusion over who is to blame for the weekend of May 30 when Minnesotans summarily lit ablaze buildings along Lake Street. The official state government narrative was “out of towners” a very typical Midwestern strategy. News media defaulted to “protesters,” “rioters,” and “looters.” It doesn’t matter to me, as an urbanist, for the city belongs to everyone and is the manifestation of everyone’s dreams. These people are the People.

In James Howard Kunstler‘s view, public spaces should be inspired centers of civic life and the physical manifestation of the common good. Instead, he argues, what we have in America is a nation of places not worth caring about.

James Howard Kunstler on TED.com
Lake and Minnehaha, a suburban commercial node in Minneapolis.

Lake Street at Minnehaha Avenue is essentially a suburban big box commercial center. The urban grid of Minneapolis unravels into swaths of asphalt next to Hiawatha Ave, a name that doesn’t describe its reality as a massive freeway and concrete wall separating South Minneapolis. The rest of Lake Street stretching east toward the Mississippi is unremarkable. Single-story streetcar and postwar structures that are bland and forgettable.

Are these buildings worth fighting for, worth defending? The panorama of MPD trying to defend the 1985 dingbat-like police station that was suppose to invite the public to walk up to it, is absurd. The Target that was broken into and lit ablaze, was simply a box, as was dozens of other structures along Lake Street.

In a riot, is any structure sacred? People living in the upper stories of streetcar-era retail structures had to write signs pleading not to burn their buildings. A multi-story residential building under construction was decimated in fire. The loss of future housing for hundreds of people gone. Certainly in a riot, the language of the unheard, there are no rules, because the structures are meaningless to the unheard. The pawn shops and liquor stores were there to exploit an underclass. The restaurants and cafes simply opportunistic gentrifiers in a poor neighborhood. This is not to say businesses are not valuable, they are simply not valuable to those lighting the fire.

For planners, we must see that the ground work was laid decades ago. Lake Street was always auto-oriented since the streetcar days, sure, but it was allowed to persist that way. Each new structure added with meaningless design and poor access. A pedestrian environment that unravels constantly. Each curb cut, another slap in the face of people hauling groceries down the street. So much that not only would people want to burn down their neighborhood, but those charged to defend property would not want to stop them.

Micro-Units: What’s a Proper Living Space

Micro-units were all the rage in DC this year. About a dozen projects are in the works.

There is nothing too new about this marketing label for what are essentially studios or efficiencies, but I was surprised at the unit floor configurations proposed.  The typical rule of a micro unit is to be below 400 square feet.  In loft speak, this was basically giving you an open room where kitchen appliances would be stacked along the wall with a small bathroom alcove.

But why the elongated unit proportion?  The golden rule for rooms are a comfortable 4:3 rectangle with the entrance on the shorter wall.  This gives orientation into a space, and that seems to be exaggerated much as today’s micro units are best called hallways.   “Activated hallways” perhaps.

Yesterday’s Studio

I currently live in a 1920s version of an efficiency building and my studio is basically a 400 square foot rectangle.  In cities like New York, this is actually the zoning mandated minimum for a residential unit.   My main living area is 23 feet by 12 feet, about 275 square feet, while the remaining rectangle is divided between bathroom, walk-in closet and kitchen.

It already feels pretty narrow but there was intention behind this.  It’s meant to allow easy subdivision between one side and the other, for example a sleeping area and a living room area.  Too open a space and one feels uneasy about the expanse. Although my Midwestern sensibilities say 12 feet already approaches claustrophobic.

Micro units take at most 350 sf space and smashes it down to say 10 feet, leaving one to configure 35 feet into a home abode.    In a way, it’s taking most millennial’s suburban bedroom and just doubling it. As a result most architects end up having to shove all the required sub rooms such as bathroom and closet toward one end of the unit, and having an open kitchen if not combined concept with the living/sleeping area.   A sliver of a hallway connects everything to the entrance.

These dimensions tend to evolve out of pre-fabrication, where units are building blocks to be stacked and configured. In the case of nArchitects for My Micro NY, it feels pretty standard, just alright, about the feeling of a minimalist hotel room with room for storage.

When I moved in to my place, I had this visceral reaction as if I was in the trenches of the Somme.  The living area was basically my mother’s living room, and the kitchen walkway just enough room to open the fridge door completely.  A single thankfully large bay-like window on one end gave just enough light and air to keep my spidey senses aback.

Is This Too Small?

The NY Times asks “How Small is Too Small” and points out a failed 2008 micro-unit building in SF’s FiDi.  But that was almost a decade ago in a weak real estate and job market, and today we are assured that building would be full on day 1.  Housing activists tend to dislike micro units, citing they’re too small to support families, they keep the tech workers here, and that they invite the tenement fears of early industrial cities.

After a year living in essentially an early 20th century micro unit, I’ve fallen in love with my studio.  My ability to keep clutter free has dramatically improved, and maintenance of the space is at a minimum.  I even find it’s easier to “plug in” at night as I’ve efficiently parsed out the space to specific functions like sleeping, reading, TV watching, and eating.  In a way I find I am using a small amount of space more efficiently and enjoying the square feet.   Maybe this sounds rather dystopian, but in a world of limited resources, I still feel good.

Yes I would love a larger space and likely find infinite ways to have my very own personal drawing room, Downton Abbey library, and butcher block island, but for now, this works just fine.

Ok, This is Too Small

For me, anything below 300 square feet is suspect unless it’s just a dorm (sleeping area with sink).  I just can’t love this design proposal for 230 square feet to accommodate a typical New York infill lot.  The use of vertical space over horizontal produces this uneasy canyon feeling.  The relative comfort of the renderings predicate people have built-in organization and are Dwell magazine minimalists.

Also people most likely cloth themselves with a replicator instead of the massive closets I know almost every person has.

Also, fear of heights.

Love Thy Neighbor

A living space is a biological need for security and merely a transitionary period to the outside world.  We do spend at minimum 10 hours outside the home.    A space should allow one’s senses to cool off, recharge, and rejuvenate.  Ultimately the apartment is a retreat that let’s one appreciate their neighborhood.

For my century-old building, this still works and I think we’ve gotten the dimensions right with some variation to go depending on the right architect.  Just don’t squish it any more.

Reflections of the Mission District in the Mid-2010s

Panorama of SF from Twin Peaks (My Photo)

Panorama of SF from Twin Peaks taken in 2013

In honor of Jane Jacob’s 100th birthday, I thought I’d share what I learned from San Francisco’s neighborhoods and what made them great places to be. Lost in the tech gentrification controversy is the fact that the City is indeed an extremely desirable place to live, so much that people sacrifice hard to have a slice of it.

In three years of regularly walking down the Noe Valley slopes or jumping on rickety Muni buses, I saw a textured and varied environment that provided great “delight,” as the Romans say, both architecturally and culturally. Here’s how I personally experienced the “bowl” of neighborhoods in and near the Mission, that helped me understand why millennials are so enticed.

24th Street

Descending from the 1960s terraces of Diamond Heights is Noe Valley. To most Americans, it feels dense with the city’s highest concentration of row houses. Most of these Victorians and Edwardians are restored and immaculately maintained. It’s a sea of white peaks and turrets that looks like a storybook illustration.

24th Street is the Main Street here. This is strollerville now, dominated by families who made it and were able to secure their slice of the former working-class area. It’s very clean and static, with bagel shops meeting high-end clothing stores. The demographic is thoroughly white, and the conversations and eyes on the street reflect a highly upper middle class attitude.

Noe Valley is the epitome of tight urban living but its geographic isolation as a valley high above the sea level insulates it from all the grittiness of typical dense neighborhoods. There’s no major roads that cut through and the steep hills even dissuade nearby locals. And on top of that are expansive views of the Bay.

The street activity drops off at Dolores where the wide palmed boulevard, fortress like gilded architecture, and insane elevation changes prohibit much casual street life. It’s utterly beautiful but this southern part of Dolores is a visual and physical “wall” due to speeding cars, parking soft-stories, and awkwardly graded intersection crossings.

Valencia

Ritual Roasters Coffee

Ritual Roasters Coffee

Moving east, the grade falls precipitously and the first prominent avenue is Valencia. A fairly low-density commercial corridor, it doesn’t feature any of the Gothic architecture as the real Valencia, but it offers an honest collection of retail and food to call it a complete livable street. Generally, one can buy groceries, peruse clothing, sip coffee, fix a bicycle, get a book, eat a gyro wrap, and grab a drink without needing a tech salary or a car! You can even buy cheap furniture at the community thrift store.

The sidewalks are streetscaped in some areas and the street has bike lanes, so Valencia basically represents that transitionary and youthful urban village. Diverse socioeconomic backgrounds can be on this street and not feel out of place. There’s even a children’s park. Valencia is also a true pedestrian shopping street and many weekends I would walk the entire length of it while the California sun beamed down.

Southern Mission District

24th Street via torbakhopper

24th Street via torbakhopper

There’s many flavors of the Mission but the one that most people associate it with is the Latino part of it. It’s a Little Mexico of taquerias, grocers, and salons, the staples of any immigrant community. 24th Street here is alive, people bustle about to attend to their errands and greet familiar faces. There are few strollers here, these are locals who own and operate — Hispanic immigrants and their descendants. Tourists are seldom seen.

The doubly subdivided blocks and repetitive streets lends this area an active street life all days of the week. The cafes are always busy, my favorite being Taqueria Guadalajara for its salsa bar. There are also Haight-like hippie bookstores and hipster coffeeshops which seem to throw me back into a Midwestern college town.

Perhaps because of the affordability in this area, there is also a regular presence of transients, especially near the BART Station plazas and SF General Hospital. In contrast, this is very rare in Noe.

Mid-Mission District

North of 24th Street in the streets named for states and local pioneers, I call the mid Mission. It’s a tired looking area, there’s less retail, the row houses are of plain working-class design, and remnants of the former industrial railroad peak through. All the streets have controlled stop signs so it’s very quiet save for freeway-like Van Ness and Potrero.

Conversely, Mission Street maintains a broadway feel, with its former streetcar era department store buildings and mostly mainstream chain retail. Between the knick-knack stores are trendy upstart cafes and restaurants avoiding the high rents of the popular retail streets. The constant drum of four lanes of traffic give the street a smoggy Downtown feel.

Northern Mission/16th Street

Musicians in front of Community Thrift Store

Musicians in front of Community Thrift Store

As one moves north toward 16th Street, things change quickly. Around the Muni yards, industrial lots have been converted to upscale condos and lofts. Small boutique food and retail peaks its head around here. This area shares a lot of vibe with Potrero Hill but without the elegance. It reminds me of typical ’90s loft conversion neighborhoods where the street level was deactivated, avoided and barricaded.

On the other hand, Valencia to Mission Streets get grittier and frenetic both visually on the sidewalk and in the storefronts. More security bars on windows and more (delicious) hole-in-the-wall cafes and front patio bars. People on the sidewalk tend to congregate and stop more here. It’s an Uptown of a past era.

16th Street itself is peculiar. Most of it is a fast-moving crosstown road formerly serving industrial sites. But there is a marching line of gastropubs and clubs from Mission west to Market. The area feels young, hip, gritty in a very familiar way to American inner cities. The glorious namesake Mission San Francisco de Asís seems out of place.
Further north to Duboce and the horrid freeway, I feel is still coming into its own identity. This area has mostly 3-story apartment buildings which likely once served as working-class residences for the former industrial SOMA. Retail is a smattering between new and old school.

Castro

Dolores Park in 2013 before the major renovation

Dolores Park in 2013 before the major renovation

The northern part of Mission, from Dolores west to Castro Street is very solidly identified with the Castro more than the Mission. Dolores Park may be a crown jewel of the Mission District, but it’s also a magnet for the LGBT community.
The sidewalk cleans up quickly as it moves west. Every inch of real estate is utilized or perfected. The exuberance of activity on 16th Street leads back to a controlled, stately street life similar to Noe. There’s obviously more tourism here but also the retail and cafes are far more polished and marketed.

Known as Eureka Valley, this geographic area of the Castro has a very steep incline from Dolores Heights (the mountain that divides Noe Valley to the south). So activity is ultra-concentrated onto 18th and toward Market Street. Castro as a neighborhood is clearly evaporated of its former working-class underpinnings. However unlike family-oriented Noe, grocery stores are replaced by specialty stores, and the clothing shops seem rather fad than practical.

What Castro may lack as a complete street, it makes up for as a vibrant stage for visitors to entertain themselves. The number of gay bars and clubs in addition to the City’s recent streetscaping with LED lights and commemorative placards, creates a modern Uptown district.

So Is it Happy Hour?

As I reflect on my time in the Mission, I can see where the area affords not just the urban “diversity” millennials seek, but complexity and choice in housing, food and lifestyle. You can get a taste of city life without needing to be Downtown.

The friction and flow of the well-heeled west side and poorer ethnic east side allow millennials to exploit opportunities between both communities. For example grabbing a nice apartment in Noe while eating cheaply (and well) in the Mission. To me, Valencia is the heart of where this drama is playing out with its mix of very expensive exclusive restaurants competing for real estate with modest community business and family-oriented functions.

And of course connectivity. You don’t need a car, one is connected by foot and transit to so many options within a 1 mile radius anywhere you live. If you work or play Downtown, you’re connected instantaneously by BART. If you work a little closer in SOMA or Mid-Market, you can just bike. In this manner, I see the tech controversy as a symptom, not a cause of the Mission’s popularity.

Overall the Mission will continue to remain an ever popular place to live as more storefronts are brought back to life and Muni gets its act together.

Trading Four Wheels For Two, A Follow-Up

First thing I saw upon landing in DCA and Ubering into the city, was a guy riding a bikeshare against the Washington Monument.

First thing I saw upon landing in DCA and Ubering into the city, was a guy riding a bikeshare against the Washington Monument.

In 2008, Minnesota Public Radio interviewed me about bicycling when the idea of being a full-time bicyclist was just starting to gain traction. At the time, bike lanes were only in the planning stage, and bicyclists comprised a hardcore group of locals who lurked in the angsty MPLSBikeLove forum.

I was always curious about how people interpreted the article, whether it had any resonance or impact. Now, Minneapolis is America’s most bike-friendly city and the only world-listed bike city. MPR still has the post up, so I imagine it has some SEO relevance at least. I hope telling my story about this article highlights relevant issues on millennials and urban life.

When T-Paw was Around

It’s been 8 years and my life during that article seems like a distant memory but it’s a time I will never forget. We were riding the economic bubble to it’s greatest heights. Cranes filled the sky and real estate values soared. Minneapolis took this opportunity to pour the investment back into an ambitious bicycling master plan.

Light Rail was in doubt because of a South St. Paul hockey dad turned 5-second Republican Presidential hopeful, former Governor Tim Pawlenty (“T-Paw”). He vetoed the Green Line funding the same month of the article, though it was restored later. Cities could only do their part for sustainable transportation with such a polarized state government, and that meant bicycling.

Fat Kid

I’m very plump in the article, probably 230 lbs. I was working very hard because jobs were scarce and I was given a fantastic opportunity by a real estate firm to do planning analysis on new residential development. My Bachelors degree in Urban Studies clearly did not go far. Bicycling was the only thing that kept my health and sanity somewhat in check.

It was a two mile commute from Prospect Park to Downtown Northeast everyday that took about 20 minutes because roads on University were created for cars, not people. Kids today would be blown away by what kind of hellish carscape Stadium Village was prior to TCF Bank Stadium.

Bike Dumb

In the article I’m very oblivious to my bicycle which was a cheap $300 Raleigh Hybrid from local chain-store Erik’s Bike Shop in Dinkytown. It was criminally slow with cheap parts. I’m confident no bike shop today would ever sell such a poor bicycle, even for light recreational purposes. I wish the seller had steered me to something better, but more on that later.

Fast forward about a year from this article, I put the bike through the wringer including an entire winter where I, in a puffy green parka, traversed snowy icy roads. I learned to be even more “hardened” and also to carry myself in a way I would want others to see. I watched videos of Copenhagen’s magical flow where people stopped at red lights on a dime. I wanted the same and wanted to communicate that through my actions.

Then the hammer hit, the economy disastrously collapsed. I lost my job.

Bike Smart

I decided planning graduate school was my calling instead of the deeply embedded wars my generation was fighting. My bike somehow made it to fall of 2009 as I put off any maintenance on it. Then I walked into The Hub Bike Shop in East Bank and everything changed.

The Hub is an employee owned collective which focused on making bicycling a real form of transportation for people. They hosted classes on bike etiquette and even focused on developing women riders. They sold Giant Bicycles from Taiwan, who was one of the few manufacturers really closing in on this emerging need for modern American bicycling. I believe Giant saw how their $2,000 carbon road bikes were taken seriously by lycranauts, and realized the same could be of normal citizens.

I purchased a Giant Rapid hybrid. It was a sleek, sexy, with higher end Shimano shifters. Yes it cost $700 after tax, but it was light years ahead of the Raleigh. It was a real bike for a real commuter. With a slim rack, semi-racing stance, and rapid-fire shifting assembly, I could keep pace with other cyclists, make it on-time to my destinations, and haul some groceries.

In short, the bike made it easier to bike, but I biked more because it was so easy.

I learned how to fix my own bike too. I took apart the rear cogs often and washed off the miles of accumulated gunk. I strung wires when they broke and replaced tubes when they popped. In the long haul I probably spent up-front $1200 including lights and locks, and $500 a year on maintenance (1 tune up, adjustments, and parts).

Biking Bandwagon

Nice Ride bike-sharing was introduced in 2010 and as a snooty self-described Urban Planner Candidate, I snubbed it initially. How could people on these low-geared upright bikes manage to get anywhere on time and haul dinner. It was at best a tourism gag and for suburbanites to get a safe feel of the gritty city. The Bixi utility bikes evoked nightmares of my Raleigh, trying to bust it through fast-moving traffic.

But I was wrong. I saw how the bikes allowed groups of people to traverse nearby destinations that were unthinkable by walking or even car. For people living in inner neighborhoods, they could get Downtown reasonably. Combined with the city’s emerging bike lane system, Nice Rides actually seemed easier than my hybrid road bike. I was constantly paranoid my bike would be stolen (as is a common problem) and was ever more worried when I had to leave a bike overnight in an unknown area. Nice Ride you use once and done, even if it’s a few minutes slower.

Walking is Cool

After graduate school, I took a 3 year chance at San Francisco and lost quite a bit of weight (phew). There, I learned more about what transportation really is about. In Minneapolis, I spurned the chaos of buses and vehicles crowding my way, why shouldn’t everyone ride a (fancy) bike. But I realized at the end of the day, humans just need to get around.

San Francisco’s bike rush hour was a choatic nightmare. Nobody obeyed red lights, even at the busiest intersections. People did not orderly line up on the bike lane, they constantly and dangerously bumped shoulders. “Downtown” Market Street is only a 2 mile trip at most, but it felt like a 20 mile marathon. High-speed passing on Valencia was compounded by ride-sharing blocking the lane. I actually ended up preferring to take transit and walk. Actually, there was a lot of walking. The synergy of the two was relaxing and energizing. I didn’t want to bother with a bicycle in San Francisco, the city was just too beautiful to pass by.

I bought an older Giant OCR, the predecessor to the Rapid for just $300. But I rarely used it, in fact I mostly lent it out.

The District of Bicycling

My Felt Fixie (set to Single Speed) in front of the Washington Monument

My Felt Fixie (set to Single Speed) in front of the Washington Monument

Today in DC, I actually don’t have a personal bicycle, yet. (Update: I bought one off Craigslist from a cool dude!) My company TransitScreen provides memberships to Capital Bikeshare to promote sustainable choices by our employees. I’ve taken so many convenient trips between stations that it hasn’t been an urgent matter to obtain my own bike.

Since this article, my feelings on being a full-time bicyclist or bike warrior have waned to an idea that we all have to get around in our own ways, and should have options toward that. But we also have to be mindful of the impact our mobility affects fellow citizens and the planet.

I usually walk 20 minutes to work on spacious Massachusetts Avenue. I regularly carry my groceries about 4 blocks from a Safeway. I often take Metro to go to Union Station. I like bikeshare for cross-town movement. I prefer local carshare startup Split to take me north of Columbia Heights. Zipcar vans help me move furniture. Buses are great after a long day from Farragut to Dupont.

It seems I’ve traded my four wheels for one, my role as a member of society.

Why They Still Are “Willing to Relocate to San Francisco”

For techies who have lived in or moved from San Francisco, this recent meme struck a nerve.

William Blake’s most famous poem “The Tyger”

Why is it in 2016, we must be willing to relocate to San Francisco?

This meme results from the most repeated request by recruiters and tech startups, even startups that haven’t even located to the city itself. The comical reaction is, you can have a fantastic job, but only if you relocate. Of course it doesn’t actually mean relocate to San Francisco proper, rather to companies located in the SF Bay Area. Most of the tech companies are actually centered in the South Bay which for the typical American is like commuting to the far ends of suburbia.

You might live here in SOMA, but your startup or company is not very likely to be anywhere remotely near the City.

You might live here in SOMA, but your startup or company is not very likely to be anywhere remotely near the City.

Why is it in 2016, when the internet promised telecommuting and decentralized work that the tech industry is fervently concentrating America’s intellectual capital into a suburban peninsula on the Pacific prone to devastating earthquakes.

This live-work geographic disparity is not new to planning, but it represents much of the frustration Bay Area planners face. We have pioneered instant global communication for every human on Earth and yet the talent who create, maintain, and innovative this technology are required to be in a precise location, in a building, usually seated, from morning until early evening. We call this area Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Palo Alto.

Most planners expect people to decide where they live based on their work. This is a basic tenet of sector and concentric zone theories.

The talent don’t have much choice of where to live, they are confined to options a narrow shoreline on the east side of a peninsula land-locked by mountains on the west and a shallow bay on the east. They can venture south into endless cul-de-sacs shaped from former marshlands, called San Jose. East across the bay to the limited rugged terrain along Diablo Range. But most choose to live north along a high-capacity transportation line called Caltrain that connects to a regional transportation system called BART. Private transit (company shuttles) provide the rest.

They move north because the peninsula is capped by a sprawlingly dense urban habitat called San Francisco. Defying the steep geography left by former sea levels and tectonic activity, we have carved rectilinear blocks into the hillsides and reclaimed the beaches.

We know the peninsula head is most desirable to live in because it offers breathtaking views of the Marin headlands and the Pacific Ocean. But most importantly it has concentrated architecture, housing and commerce into a human-scaled environment that produces variety and vibrancy — favored by Jane Jacobs.

Google campus. It's a nice place... for suburbia.

Google campus. It’s a nice place… for suburbia.

We know the southern shoreline of the peninsula is desirable for tech companies because it historically birthed computing innovations in sprawling low-cost campuses. But most importantly it has concentrated intellectual institutions and venture capital into a self-propagating complex of physical and social networks, which David M. Levinson coined as “plexus.”

Planners contend with this desire and interchange between San Francisco and South Bay for the foreseeable future. Strangely, towns within an 1 hour of both fray at the edges, unable to capture this desire for many reasons such as demographics and transportation. Bay Area regional planning has come to an impasse over these issues.

And so they continue to ask if you are still willing to relocate to San Francisco. As a techie I have a laugh and then look on in contemplation.

Author’s Note: I would still move back to San Francisco.

Geography of Nowhere Remains Relevant for the New Urban Age

A human-scaled side street in DC's Columbia Height's neighborhood. Kunstler loves DC.

A human-scaled side street in DC’s Columbia Height’s neighborhood. Kunstler loves DC.

James Howard Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere was published in 1993 but it’s view of our current urban landscape remains just as relevant today.  Kunstler is a journalist turned urbanist critic, much like Jane Jacob’s, and along with his damning treatise on our car addiction regards him as a popular pundit than expert in the urban planning community.   He’s often on university reading lists but perhaps his observations are not so highly regarded by high brow scholars (he has choice words for bad planning).  Kunstler’s TED2004 Talk on “The ghastly tragedy of the suburbs” has 1.4 million views, so perhaps one day we’ll regard him to Jacob’s pedestal.

Kunstler explores all the quintessential historic iterations of American bedroom “communities” using examples in his native New England from the early 1900s to today.  From Olmsted’s Downton Abbey-like Riverside, Illinois to the nowhere suburban K-mart parking lots of outskirt Anytown USA (hence becoming Nowhere USA).   His example of Woodstock, New York’s co-opting by wealthy outsiders struck me as the modern story of the 2010s.    From an actual town that self-sustained itself through farming and crafts, it is now a hollow reflection of that, propped up by the typical food and boutique service economy.  It’s new role as pseudo-historic well-to-do suburb makes it feel like the Atlantic City boardwalk of an earlier chapter.

A socioeconomic critique of shopping mall’s and their shaky public-private domain predicted exactly something the Black Lives Matter movement exploited recently at the Mall of America.  He harkened to Vietnam and questioned what would happen if towns lacked actual places of public assembly.  Sometimes a democracy needs to express itself, and if that voice is eager it will go wherever that may be.

Kunstler also might not like millennials of today and would see gentrification as the Manhattan executives of his age.  Americans love to move around, it is perhaps built into our genome from Manifest Destiny.  But problematically, we seem to abandon places we deem boring and “nowhere” instead of sitting put and actually improving them into places we care about.   So if young people flock to San Francisco for it’s Pan-Pacific revival and high-density, high-style architecture of a long-gone era, how soon will San Francisco also become like Nowhere USA with Apple stores, Trader Joe’s, and Crate and Barrel (Site Note: I love all of these stores).

My Instagram of a perfect (and intentionally designed) vista at Dolores Park. This shit doesn't happen anymore.

My Instagram of a perfect (and intentionally designed) vista at Dolores Park. This shit doesn’t happen anymore.

So now what Kunstler? How do we get out of where we are.  Even in 1993, the condition of physical America was drab and deteriorating from infrastructure to housing.   He does point out zoning as a major cause and obstacle to restructuring the urban landscape.   From there, he explores neo-traditional architecture such as Duany Plater-Zyberk and celebrates Seaside, Florida.  Though perhaps his true longing are the Gilded Age planned towns and cities of the early 1900s where Irish servant girls ran the house while you took a train to your factory. The book’s main critique is that we’ve lost our vernacular language of how to plan for communities. Unfortunately we can’t revive urban planning as a design practice given the current regulatory, political, and even intellectual structure of Design with a capital D.

For now, planners and developers contend with poor tools of “infill” and “redevelopment” to renew their communities. The Robert Moses’ age is over, but master/small-area plans and zoning overlays are quietly changing the urban fabric toward communities “worth dying for” as Kunstler would say.

I think there’s a silver lining when he laments the loss of connectedness. Today we are far more connected than the 90’s ever imagined. These “cyber” connections are manifesting in the real world. Developers don’t have to try hard to figure out why people want to live in dense urban areas (cities) again. Some architects are actually giving a damn about the street such as Jan Gehl and others are creating inspiring ecology-minded structures like Bjarke Ingels. Through social media, we’re seeing the world’s transit rich cities on a daily basis, and so grows our eagerness to bring that infrastructure here. While Kunstler may still grumble about the socioeconomic realities of an entire country drunk on a service economy, there is at least consensus that we will need to move to sustainable place-based industries soon.

Stop Making Developers Build Parking

As I think of New Year’s Eve complaints about Uber surge pricing I am reminded again of another supply and demand quandary, parking.  Just as Uber attempts to encourage more drivers with exorbitant surge fares, so should we be thinking about how parking is not priced to its true cost at the detriment of our urban landscape.

David Shoup’s eponymous “The High Cost of Free Parking” gave us the economic realities of parking. We planners created the very regulatory scheme that resulted in oversupply of parking.  The market responded, accommodated, and continues to follow and nudge against corrective measures such as minimum parking requirements and transit demand management.

On Demand Parking

As it is Uber’s goal is “to make sure you can always push a button and get a ride within minutes,” so has Shoup indicated parking meters need to be priced significant higher during high demand periods to encourage overturn.   While cities tinker with on-street parking availability, the fact that planning regulation continues to blight urban areas with parking is the core problem that should be addressed now.

Architect Seth Goodman has a wonderful blog called graphing parking that offers infographics on the inconsistent regulatory frameworks between local governments.  His data suggests cities have no rational basis in its approach to manage parking.  This regulation continues to punish developers and in turn society, by spending on average $59 per square foot to provide an asphalt platform for personal vehicles.

Let’s say a typical U.S. parking space is 8 feet (city average) by 19 feet (DOT recommended length).   Two spaces average about 300 square feet, the typical microunit apartment.  Shoup says cars are parked 95% of the time.  We are devoting hundreds of millions in square footage to idle “transportation” machines instead of providing minimum shelter to Americans.

Redevelopment of Minneapolis' Stadium Village along the new Green Line. Many buildings were given parking exemptions or reductions.

Redevelopment of Minneapolis’ Stadium Village along the new Green Line. Many buildings were given parking exemptions or reductions.

Unbuild

Fortunately, cities are paving the way to undoing this nightmare.  In 2012, Seattle created complete parking minimum exemption zones for downtown and retail districts.  Last summer, Minneapolis approved relaxing parking requirements on new development.  San Francisco’s Planning Commission recently approved a 60 unit apartment building with no parking.  ReinventingParking has a list of international cities abolishing parking minimums.

In Minneapolis’ case, the Star Tribune reported it, “allows buildings with 50 or fewer units to be built without parking outside of downtown — where there are already no parking minimums — if they are a quarter-mile away from transit with 15-minute frequencies.”

The Federal Highway Administration’s analysis of Transit Demand Management even admits that. “Plentiful and free parking encourages driving.”  With so many oversight levels in agreeance, it’s time for local jurisdictions to give up the parking racket.

How About Free Sunday Transit

sf-downtown-montgomery

Montgomery St in San Francisco, the quintessential modern dense downtown street with archaic street parking from a bygone era.

“Why is public parking free on Sundays but public transit is not?” said @ptraughber on Twitter the other day. I couldn’t help but fume about this very question as it seems a strange injustice to give away (subsidize) public space to vehicles. There are many societal implications here, such as that people who drive deserve a “break”, that we value the leisure time of drivers, and that we’d prefer weekend activities to occur by car.

Free Sunday… Parking

We know in general people do less on weekends as a result of our modern work week.  Free Sunday parking still exists in cities like Chicago, Seattle, and mostly in San Francisco.  I’ve always known it to be a fact in the Twin Cities growing up, and overhearing the same in most major cities.

I was unable to find the origins of it, but it seems common sense, even if not fiscal sense.   Quora offers that it’s merely a byproduct of the fact that parking enforcement don’t typically work on weekends and most businesses are closed. This may be perhaps true in the earlier car era when Sunday was more religiously observed. I always thought it was meant to encourage retail visitors on Sundays, especially for downtowns competing with suburban malls.

Cities are slowly recognizing that free weekend parking doesn’t make sense.  Though this cause has more to do with finding untapped revenue sources than good planning.   New York dumped it in 2005, then Los Angeles in 2008.   Portland later followed charging for parking during weekend prime times it identified as 1pm to 7pm.  San Francisco tried to charge in 2013 but Mayor Lee abandoned it after a year supposedly pushed by churches.   In many cases cities will charge meters near special events and venues since its likely running police enforcement for those activities.

In this technology era, personal cars are being de-emphasized in dense urban areas.  There’s hardly frontage left for street parking with transit-oriented development rules that limit such frontage and require on-site parking facilities.  Demand for meters may be less on Sundays, but it’s still significant funding for strapped local governments.  Local businesses are cool on the topic, any business obviously wants easy access for patrons but is increasingly understanding that dense, pedestrian-friendly and transit-rich areas deliver far more visitors than a few single-driver spots on the street.  Plus, we want parking overturn.

But No Freebies!

It seems strange that it’s difficult to say we’re “giving away” something to the public, when we do so with parking.  The streets are owned by us too, right?  Though I can see where given the soaring capital costs of transit improvements, having no farebox recovery seems financial wizardry.

The concept of specifically Free Sunday Transit doesn’t seem to exist… yet.  Athens, Georgia piloted a month of free Sunday transit this year to promote the new weekend service but it didn’t quite catch on.  Free Christmas, New Year’s or Thanksgiving service is indeed something, but the advocacy for that stems more from getting drunk people home than a public tusen takk.

Ironically most transit systems offer plenty examples of no or limited Sunday/weekend service on certain routes.  There exist a small contingent of free transit agencies mostly offered in small towns and cities under 100,000 in population.  Nearly all university shuttle systems are free for students (TCRP Synthesis 78).

While free metropolitan transit doesn’t seem likely to become mainstream, TCRP concludes it’s a ridership booster:

People may argue about the pros and cons of fare-free transit, but none of the literature reviewed for this project questions the fact that ridership will increase when fare-free policies are implemented. No matter what types of experiments, demonstrations, or permanent programs have been implemented, public transit systems have experienced significant increases in ridership when implementing fare-free policies. (TCRP Synthesis 101 Page 13)

Soft Planning or Lipstick on a Pig

I often think of city planning as composed of “hard” and “soft” approaches which shape and define land use and design.  Hard planning consists of real shit like height limits, density, setbacks, and parking.  These physical, sharp, and poignant zoning rules shape the final form of building and land.   The visual effect and experience on users and on history is lasting and profound.

And then there’s soft planning, or as I think of it, lipstick on a pig.

Soft planning are requirements which are aesthetic and reflect subjective tastes.   They’re superficial, brushed on, and act to muddle the physical design.   People are to be delightfully distracted by these frivolities.   These requirements exist in a legal gray area and are often tacked on at the end of a conditional use permit.   Yet many of these will not stand the test of time, and will ultimately change.

Here is my critique of 5 soft planning requirements:

Landscaping

Greenleaf Apartments in Minneapolis, that solitary tree won't last very long. Focus on the boulevard instead.

Greenleaf Apartments in Minneapolis, that solitary tree won’t last very long. Focus on the boulevard instead.

We want our cities to be beautiful lush livable places but tiny islands of trees and bushes adds questionable value.  “Nature” can’t be defined by a minimum number of tree species or flowering plants. It takes a collective city-wide approach that is consistent to establish a true green city.  Pine hedges of the late-20th century sit sad and dilapidated in concrete parks. I’ve seen poor cedar trees in modern plazas where the intense reflection of architectural glass has blistered them. Landscaping becomes an architectural contrivance and a bandaid.  Boutique parks like Portland’s Tanner Springs Park and Patrick Blanc’s vertical gardens might be the better future approach to increasing urban ecology.  Also, cities need to stop forcing solitary trees to be planted when it should be maintaining a true urban oasis of street trees like the fat Public Works of yesteryear.

Colors

The developers of Le Parisien touted high-class materials but all we have is mindless white stucco with a ground-level painted wood facade that didn't last MN's brutal winters.

The developers of Le Parisien touted high-class materials but all we have is mindless white stucco with a ground-level painted wood facade that didn’t last MN’s brutal winters.

Make it a lighter shade of beige, no not too beige, okay let’s go back to brown, but more like sandy tan than wood.   Construction paint suppliers must laugh at the number of white-tan-brown shades they must produce to appease architects who are constrained by planning departments and developers who fear backlash at anything too splashy.  The original builders of American cities used real stone and brick which created the expectation of appropriate color choices today.  Then brutalist concrete architecture created today’s backlash against letting materials show their “natural” color.  Material manufacturers don’t even bother to develop different hues of products because they ultimately know it will be painted over.   Painted aluminum panels, why not.  As a result many downtown developers are opting for beautiful but characterless glass curtains.

Signage

Bob's Java Hut has a fun collection of all sorts of signs, protruding, murals, posters, and side-mounted.

Bob’s Java Hut has a fun collection of all sorts of signs, protruding, murals, posters, and side-mounted.

Granted signage was horrid in the early automobile era and that are left with their vestiges today, the concept of signage and in turn, advertisement, is inherent to a viable city.  People will avoid areas that don’t offer assurances of “something there.”  If we want to promote pedestrian use, we have to speak to pedestrians and that requires perhaps more urban information than is often allowed in square inch limitations.   Cities have to be proactive about the signage environment that will exist, not simply layout punitive rules to doom retail aspirations.    Enabling commercial districts to form collective signage, street banners, and other forms of visual street information is a great way to augment and assuage this typically case-by-case zoning model.

Fenestration

Need more windows? Be careful what you wish for.

Need more windows? Be careful what you wish for.

Fenestration is a fancy word for describing how many windows you have.  The idea in New Urbanism and Jane Jacob’s “eyes on the street” is that you need a minimum amount of transparency from the building to the street.   The irony is humans like privacy and developing on small urban lots gives you less ability to have windows in which you can see out without worry that people can see in.  Even after you have a plethora of bay windows facing the street, if you’re covering one with blinds around the clock, you can actually get fined if it violates this condition.   Architects have smartly bridged the gap by doing glass curtain walls with treatments that “smoke” out the opacity.  With just the right setback and angle, you have a foreboding facade of glass that meets transparency requirements.

Maintenance (Mow Your Lawn)

Terraced plants or "grass"? Photo by Maggie Foucault.

Terraced plants or “grass”? Photo by Maggie Foucault.

Tall grass and weeds are a public nuisance, that will kill you. Ok maybe kill your eyes at the sight of an ugly yard! In today’s landscape movement toward native and drought-tolerant species, there is no reason cities should be punitive in old ideas of green lawns and one-inch grass.   Ordinances like these are still prevalent in urban cities and suburbs alike.  There are some valid reasons, for example dry areas have fire concerns with brush, and insane overgrown landscapes make buildings impassable. Cities need to instead steer residents towards sustainable lawns if they’re not willing to put up with maintenance.  And in general this American ideal of green lawns needs to seriously die.

Carless Cities and City Isolation

Manarola, Cinque Terre

A friend of mine suggested to look into Cinque Terre, a car inaccessible city on Italy’s western coast.  The hillside village consists of terraced homes created over the centuries on rugged terrain overlooking the Ligurian Sea.  There are no roads leading there, only a train brings you close enough.  For Americans, it’s strange today to think of modern humans settling in the middle of nowhere, but in reality most of America began as grids laid out next to agricultural train stops.  Some of these towns prospered only because of railroads ferrying the locals to work in industrial centers, and vacationers back on the weekends. When I think of current housing preferences, I wonder why isolated cities no longer work for Americans.  We are strange creatures, for we seemingly despise close proximity and yet yearn for community.  All bets are placed in the old downtowns of boom and bust, and yet people move in droves to Garreau’s edge city.  You can’t live in the city neighborhoods, but you must choose the far-flung suburb with the best schools.

Red Wing, Minnesota

In my head, Barb from Minnesota waxes and wanes about Red Wing and it’s beautiful (rust-belt) downtown overlooking the Mississippi.  The hilly streets of picturesque homes sit tidy and neat.  But practicality trumps these notions of town living.  How close is the nearest Target (outside of town), where’s the shopping mall (a Minnesota pastime), can I get to the Twin Cities in less than an hour (good luck).   Overtime, isolation is also a problem, and many small town friends will admit the charm of living in a beautiful place where everyone knows your name and business wears quickly.

Isolated living in low-resource low-asset cities may seem perfect for retirees and high-income households where they can mastermind their own lives.  Middle America isn’t going to rely on this lifestyle pattern in order to have a fulfilling life.  Access to amenities and its car-dependent infrastructure both rejects urban living and country living.

The carless city can’t happen under the current planning and societal paradigm.  Even Masdar City scaled back its ambitious PRT.   The best model we have are university cities which emphasize highly connected pedestrian-bicycle activity centers, periphery parking, and transit linkages.  The Iowa Cities and Ithacas of America’s hinterland provides a lens into carless isolation.  For major cities, we eagerly wait European tests in Paris and Stockholm and domestically the Open Streets Project to see if carlessness will take hold.