Category: Urban Planning

San Francisco Crosswalks

You immediately realize living in San Francisco how the pedestrian is valued above all modes of transportation. Not only is the city adept at taking down freeways and making parking impossible, it enjoys pitting pedestrians against at-grade Muni trains and streetcars. Watching enormous Google buses agonizingly wait to turn against hordes of pedestrians is another fun sight. But a particular piece of infrastructure that has always caught my eye has been crosswalk markings. Public Works calls them “decorative crosswalks” and they pop up all over the city, some designed by community vote. We can attribute today’s streetscapes to Gavin Newsom’s push for Great Streets.

The crosswalks are certainly beautiful, but let’s be real this isn’t Italy with terrazzo and marble. American crosswalks are enhanced as a vestige of the safe routes movement and the public works maintenance mantra ensures the lowest-cost method is used. This interesting DOT survey of crosswalk markings indicates thermoplastic is the preferred method with a whopping lifespan of 7 years. I personally would prefer to see more material-based crosswalks with brick or formed concrete with contrasting colors. I’d love to see someone try a Kasota stone crossing.

Alas, San Francisco roads are heavily used by big buses daily, and add-in that post-earthquake, such materials would present more hazardous conditions than asphalt. So onto the parade of crosswalks.

Market and 9th

Market and 9th. This is the prototypical crosswalk marking, with simple 2 feet wide white stripes on either end of the walkway.  Most places in the city, this stuff is just paint and badly faded.   While simple and utilitarian, it provides merely a marker for vehicles to stop, but very poorly seen.  They’re prevalent Downtown.  This looks alright for Market since market uses colored concrete but elsewhere it’s plain asphalt and the bars look dated.

sfcrosswalk-guerrero

Guerrero and 24th Street.  I would call these yellow stripes crosswalk 1.1-beta release.  This style of walk became prevalent in the ’90s as a result of safe routes, because it screams to drivers: walkway, don’t hit anyone.  Most major intersections have them.  The vertical lines are easily identifiable, but for a pedestrian, the feeling of being inside these paths is disorienting because the eye is drawn to follow the lines.  It’s sort of like playing frogger on yellow lily pads.   Also the design lacks a prominent stop bar and the hollow spacing suggest ambiguity (like maybe somewhere here there will be people moving about).  This means drivers typically stop sort of where they think the walk begins.   This design is typically combined with the white stripes, creating a Warhol-esque playground.

sfcrosswalk-noe

Noe and Church. This is a Great Streets evolution of painted crosswalks.  Here they’re sealing thermoplastic to create a brick pattern upon newly laid asphalt.  It’s fun and whimsical!  The color choice of red is a little bizarre to my eyes, since science has proven red isn’t actually a really good color for stopping.   But the Noe businesses wanted it.   I’ve crossed these plenty of times as car and person, and the inverted brick colors feel like Tron.   Also the stop bar is a good four feet, creating a weird separate pseudo-crossing.   It doesn’t help that this four-way stop intersection is such a cluster.

sfcrosswalk-castro

Castro and 18th.  The internet was a rave last year when these rainbow walks debuted.   These actually seem the most successful of all decorative walks in the city.  The design and spacing promote the intersection as a destination, not simply a place to get from A to B.   It’s art, it’s bold, it’s not a compromise, this is what Great Streets really is about.  Also the stop bar is perfectly spaced for clear and concise instructions.   Nothing screams “people live and move through here” than this.

A Planner’s Personal Statement

I believe every planner needs to periodically do self-assessments in regards to their approach and reasons for pursuing the profession.  As a “non-traditional” planner myself in the tech field, I find it ever important to ground and focus oneself in the tech industry’s sharknado of change.  I recently found my graduate school application essay buried in my document folders.

My pursuit (of planning)… critically addresses livability issues in the present and future and brings opportunities for creative solutions to society’s needs. Geography and civic-service have been essential qualities of mine since childhood.

– An idealistic me.

Pretty standard mission statement for a 20-something.  I’ve actually come to dislike the term “livability” because it has been rather abused by community development departments across the country.  Everything relates to making things livable–no need to point to it. Many livability issues are merely conflicts between opposing parties.  And with greater emphasis on climate change, the term now seems more equated with survivability than mere inconvenience.

I grew up on roads that were faux-rural but actually serving a suburban region of 350,000 people.

I can’t put my finger on what I’d replace it with, maybe a general term like “urban issues.” What is still emphasized for me, is the who and when of planning.  Make it better for people now and for tomorrow.  How can I use my hands to fix those wicked problems.  The way I’ll go about it is to seek creative solutions.   Young planners constantly complain that the current bureaucracy of planning is not serving the people effectively nor timely.  We have to work around this, and be persistent about the changes we want to see.

The rest of my essay is pretty basic, but I noticed an interesting sentence that related to my high school years:

Concepts of human relationships with nature entered my ethos and the desire to address these relationships grew stronger.

I attended an environmental studies magnet school which drilled on the relationship between humans and their environment.  To me, the term nature relates to more than birds and bees, but to complicated ecosystems on our planet, which include our human inventions.   Our technology is creating new layers of movement and interaction in cities.  There’s hybridization, friction, and sometimes new seamlessness.  I think I can affirm that my personal statement is to continue helping humans cope and better utilize their surroundings.

Nicollet Mall is Not the Destination

The announcement of architect James Corner to work on the Nicollet Mall redesign finally signals the city’s movement on upgrading the aging city centerpiece.  Minneapolis has discussed replacing Nicollet Mall for quite some time mostly due to its crumbling condition.  The rectangular fountains which I once enjoyed as a child are no longer.  The colorful sidewalk pavers are coming apart, and it’s configuration is generally outdated, outmoded given the changes in many of the storefronts which now focus on bar patios than affordable interesting retail.  The Mall isn’t really a mall anymore, it’s a fancy zone of transition, to get from the bus to the office, the train to the hotel, or a bar hopping corridor.

Once upon a time: Nicollet Ave after the Norse-American Centennial Parade in 1925

Once upon a time: Nicollet Ave after the Norse-American Centennial Parade in 1925

Corner has thankfully listened to the actual needs of how people actually use the Mall, as a pathway to the river and importantly as access to the skyway.  Nicollet Mall is really just Nicollet Avenue, a central thoroughfare that serves critical commerce and business in the State, if not region.  However, the vision presented by the final design candidates overall is not exactly fitting with Minneapolis, let alone the Twin Cities or Minnesota.  There will never be hordes of people congregating in a square block, lest the government has been overthrown. Street events are few and far between, and preferred in neighborhood settings anyway.  It’s not even really wide enough to put a full parade down it (Holidazzle doesn’t count).  The fact is, Nicollet Mall has never been the destination, it’s the uses around it that are the penultimate arrival.

In cities like New York, you can build an urban public space anywhere and people will flock en masse because there is such a craving and need for it.  Corner’s Highline is simple and unobtrusive, it needed no special flair.  On the other hand the context of the Twin Cities is that it was planned with leisurely standards of wide public roads, lush tree canopy, and plentiful parkland.  Fly overhead during warm months and all you see is a sea of green with skyscrapers mulling about. So for Nicollet Mall, there is really no reason to overemphasize nature or congregating, Minneapolitans are adept at finding green places to loiter in the City and need no special proof of it.  Take a failing example of the Minneapolis Federal Courthouse plaza where grassy nature mounds are ridiculous and unused.  It hasn’t made that public space any more appealing or grand.

The direction of Corner to move with thematic areas of “live, work and play” is a right direction, as homages to Portland’s transit mall “rooms.”  The difference is, Tri-Met built those public spaces, not the City of Portland, and so their purpose is ultimately movement and flow.  Simply creating arbitrary urban spaces on Nicollet Mall after some kind of theoretical theme, does not create a good design.  The heyday of the Mall as a retail cathedral reflects the shopper’s feeling of being there for what is around there, what abuts it.  The street emphasizes the buildings, not the other way around.  To focus on revitalizing Nicollet Mall, is inherently to revitalize the business and activity that relates to it.  Bricks and mortar are stepping stones, those post-modern art sculptures and curved architectural seats simply serve to move you to the next stop.  Misunderstanding Nicollet Mall’s redesign as purely civic destination will ultimately destine it to a future redesign and not effectively serve Minneapolitans now.

Corner should focus on connectivity as an overarching theme because that is what has made the Mall ignored and confusing today. Even long-time Twin Citians strolling along will invariably become annoyed at how the street “gives up” at either ends. The Washington Ave terminus is a sea of empty lots, as if it were a wasteland of Greek ruins punctuated by Minoru Yamasaki’s ING temple. The southern transition to Steven’s Square and Loring Park is tepidly marked with faceless modernist fortresses, as if one were not meant to step beyond Grant Street. The many numbered Streets of Minneapolis sharply cut into Nicollet Mall without looking back. It is a pity city planners never enforced building corner setbacks. Improving these interfaces to the great Main Street will ensure in the long-term whatever Corner produces for the next generation will continue to be admired and used.

Hong Kong’s Hyperdensity

Dizzying heights of density in Hong Kong’s prestigious mid-levels.

Having returned from a month-long stay with family in Hong Kong, I was intrigued to find Proto City writing about the city. Writer Adam Nowek praises Hong Kong’s dense urban infrastructure in Hyperdense: High-Density Architecture in Hong Kong. From a Western outsider view, Hong Kong seems to be the pinnacle of urbanist pursuits of lively, dense development, fully utilized efficient transit, pedestrian-orientated streets, and more dessert shops than one could hope for. Owing to the plexus of Asia’s finances, trade, logistics, and tourism, the city-state has for a long time been an international player of Western capitalist growth. It dares steal many world livability rankings.

There was a commenter in Nowek’s article who wondered why “China” is pursuing modernist development well-knowing it has failed in the United States, Europe, and even South America. Certainly modernism failed in terms of it’s implementation, with design sharing only some of the blame. No one expected crack cocaine to destroy Le Cobusier’s dreams overnight. I felt compelled to address this question because it touches to the heart of what makes urban form possible. Hong Kong certainly lives out Western modernism ideals with helipads and all, but underneath, its current state is uniquely Asian. There are two quite important differences that come to my mind between the redevelopment environment of U.S. city-regions and this particular city-state.

1) A homogenous population in many ways.

About 95% of Hong Kong identifies as ethnically Cantonese (of the Han Chinese which makeup China). Culturally, nearly the same amount have grown up in a completely urban environment and in about the same school systems. There exists the typical class divisions of wealth and prestige, but otherwise, all inhabitants co-exist physically on the same level in terms of interactions. All must live in residential towers because there is no land for single-family housing. White-collar workers and their custodians ride the same transit lines. Elite bankers patron karaoke clubs as much as the next 20-something barista. In a way, Hong Kong reflects early industrial cities where laborers brushed shoulders with the well to do, and all were governed by a societal structure of conformity, hierarchy and order. The pursuit of wealth and fun could be the people’s motto.

Planners will agree, a homogenous population allows easy policy and planning. It doesn’t necessarily mean planners can pursue any agenda for passage, but it means they can reasonably know what to expect in response from civic engagement. The transformation of Hong Kong colony into world class city was a vision that could be sold, because the benefit applied to all people. New MTR rail lines can focus on spatial density problems with less influence from minority voices. New rail planning in U.S. cities are fraught with dissident alternatives because the routes contend with racial tensions and business interests. As such final routings might not even serve particularly needy areas in favor of wealthier less dense areas, or be contorted to serve outside business districts.

2) Strong central government, no civic engagement.

The city also has the distinguished irony of having a homogenous population but with little to no input on policy decisions. Though it is correct that Hong Kong is more democratic with a parliamentary legislature given its British colonial past, the same colonial powers also left behind a legacy of top-down 1950s style planning. Private developers have always been an influence in the government, resulting in the push for the many towers that dot the skyline regardless of any local citizen or environmental consideration. Land reclamation has been so rampant, citizens have held massive protests to the harbor damage.

However, this very strong and influenced government is the very reason for the capitalistic urbanism which exists in Hong Kong. Many beautiful colonial era buildings and natural creeks were obliterated for the concrete fortress that Hong Kong has literally become. Such change is unprecedented in the U.S. and was just briefly seen in the urban renewal era where hundreds of city blocks were obliterated overnight. The history of that era and its civic activism legacy show us such drastic urbanism will forever be impossible here. Hong Kong’s hyperdense towers exist in an environment where there is no zoning, no limits to where and what you can build. Glass office towers live wall to wall with apartments. This has created the “messy vitality” that is adored.

Suburban Transit Orientated Development in Hong Kong's Shatin District

Suburban Transit Orientated Development in Hong Kong’s Shatin District

These two points, of a unified citizenry and a powerful government, essentially say to me that the relationship between the state and its people are pivotal to the future of urbanism in the U.S. What is happening today in China is that they are building hyperdensity for the people who live there now, not for projected figures of influx. They are changing the landscape because it is changing for them. There is an appropriate policy to the current housing crisis. For American urbanists, I think we erroneously assume this policy is universally applicable. Even if regional plans warn of a handful millions entering a city region within 20 some years, this does not necessarily dictate the dire housing requirements of regional governments. Additionally, Hong Kong plans for not just residential expansion for the broad range of services, retail, and transit required to support that expansion. These considerations are oft ignored by regional projections. As such Hong Kong livability lessons should not be seen in the physical structures, but in the policies, conditions and responses of government.

Lastly, Hong Kong’s powerful transformation results from being a city that controls all of its 426 square miles with little national intervention. If it wants to build a new airport, it will negotiate with itself and acquire right of ways accordingly. If it wants to equitably distribute population growth, it can at will. European cities like Sweden understand the relationship between land use and transportation and so accordingly annex any land in which a rail line extension is serving. That way the municipality captures economic development at large (property tax) rather than depend on recouping its investment via users. Discussions of VMT tax would be unnecessary if municipalities had more annexation powers.

The Future of Power in Cities

Riverside Power Plant

Reflections on the Tour of the Riverside Power Plant in Northeast Minneapolis

The initial impression of the factory was a feeling of doom. As we passed Suzy’s I thought the last time I was here I was up to no good with a bunch of friends. I had no idea a few blocks down coal was being fired up for electricity. The lax security at the gate reminded me of a video game where zombies have overtaken the city and we had to go into the coal factory to blast them out. On the other hand who would want to invade, take over or blow up a coal factory? Maybe in The Matrix they would. As we pulled up, the rows of gleamingly wasteful trucks mingled with a few winter beaters. It was kinda funny. The conservative values of hardworking manufacturing industrial types came in the form of a brand new Chevy pickup or a 1989 Toyota Corolla (who was in the employee of the month spot). I already assumed the kind of people we might be meeting from this. Then again, only a certain type ends up in coal factories. At least they’re getting paid good. I noticed an archaic union sign up. From this I sensed somewhere an atmosphere of politics floating about. Being raised as an environmentalist thanks to the School of Environmental Studies, I figured, like the tobacco company executives, these workers had already gotten use to the fact that their profession produces toxic fumes which probably have been involved in the death of people and trees. They probably would be devastated if we were to strip away their livelihood for the sake of humanity and nature. At the same time they may have shortened their own lives for working in such conditions around such materials and equipment. So I wouldn’t see them very sympathetic to anything but economics. In my opinion, there’s no policy change without changing people and it hurts not to be able to change anyone’s mind.

The natural gas change would bring about a much needed upgrade to efficient energy production but at what cost to the workers. As noted by our lady guide, the same people have been working for decades now and they probably don’t know anything about newer, refined technologies. I kept thinking as we toured the plant how each piece contributed to loss of energy. An old lever might throw a gauge off which might send too much material for processing and corrode the steel. So many little subsystems in such a large scale proves difficult to replace or restore especially when the plant never stops and everything is interconnected. I thought about those pictures of the industrial revolution in my seventh grade history book and the boilers were exactly it. So somehow I felt the workers were outdated, stuck in another time, and wouldn’t be able to transition. It wasn’t so much that natural gas would surprise anyone but that the technology needed to handle it and the fact they’re getting a new plant would probably shock everyone there. Could they deal with the security and caution of such a flammable substance? I’m not an expert but I imagine a natural gas factory is a little more dangerous than a coal one. And does this new plant mean grey walls and lots of fluorescent light as opposed to blackened steel and an eerie red glow. I wonder what kind of psychological effects does a coal factory have on people. Then to put those people in a completely different situation and lay off their friends and allies brings to mind the sad situation placed on those who can’t keep up with changing economics, younger vibrant new professionals, and a service orientated job market.

I really liked the idea of a coal plant being re-sited elsewhere—that is if we most certainly need it. It seems this factory was placed here simply by proximity to Minneapolis and the water needed by the river. If we are to pollute, we should do it as gracefully as possible, as slowly as we can. Siting a new coal plant with the ideas and policies of air pollution, run-off, noise, wind, temperature variations etc combined with refined technology and hopefully improved working conditions should at least make the energy percentage gained better.

In the end though I’m still confused or unsure about the cost of electricity. Does better mean more expensive or is the economy suppose to adjust somehow because better is more efficient which is cheaper. Certainly my impression of Riverside is that we have to obliterate these old things and replace them. I can’t imagine having to spend every working day in there. If the control room has caught up with the computer industry certainly the other parts of the plant can look better than a Klingon starship. Unfortunately with all the computers in the world, the raw physical equipment in the end creates what we need. Like our computer revolution, I hope we can see another kind of industrial revolution where the mistakes of the past are corrected and we upgrade our infrastructure to meet new demand.