Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Thinking Small: The Narrow Streets "Movement"

An awareness of the virtues of the narrow street seems to be growing on urbanist blogs and websites.  A recent commenter directed this blog to his excellent site, New World Economics, where a convincing (and entertaining) case is made for the crucial importance of "really narrow streets" to successful urbanism.  This is a new and distinct position from that of the New Urbanism, as it argues for a revival of traditional city forms, not simply those of 19th and early 20th century America.

As it happens, his is not the only voice advocating for narrow streets : David Yoon, a self-described "writer, designer, and urban planning geek," has created a website devoted to digitally shrinking the generously-proportioned roadways of Los Angeles.  Again, this does not appear to have grown out of a New Urbanist frame of thought, but out of first-person exposure to the form of the traditional city.

(Inspired by his examples, I attempted to do the same, with far inferior photo-editing skills, to nearby Washington Street in Norwalk, Connecticut, reducing it from its present dimensions to a scale closer to that of the pedestrian-only Nieuwendijk in Amsterdam by simply joining the sidewalks together):

Other writing on narrow streets has appeared in the recent past: at Strong Towns, for instance, a declaration that "narrow, slower streets ... are a key component of a productive place," while Oakland Streets proclaims "the narrower, the better."  A handful of examples does not really make for a "movement," thus the quotation marks, but there is a discernible common idea here: that the most distinguishing characteristic of the traditional city and the most important determinant of the feel of any urban space is the width of its streets. 

Again, this does not appear to be a rehash of New Urbanist thought: of The Smart Growth Manual's 148 principles of urban planning and design, not one is devoted to street narrowness as a desirable characteristic per se, while the examples of "slow flow," "local streets" (p. 8.10-8.11) show rights-of-way as wide or wider than heavily-used commercial thoroughfares in major European cities (e.g. here, here, or here) in order to accommodate vehicles.   A narrow streets approach, by contrast, rejects attempts to standardize street widths around the needs of the automobile, and sees the auto-unfriendly characteristics of very narrow streets as a feature, not a bug, of their design.

As this is just a quick attempt at a summary, any thoughts on this subject are welcome. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Litigating LEED

Although LEED building standards have come under criticism in recent months for the excessive costs they impose on new construction, a lawsuit currently proceeding in the Southern District of New York alleges that there is no evidence that LEED-certified buildings even deliver their promised energy savings.  The most recent complaint, available here (courtesy of the Green Real Estate Law Journal which has much more on the story), brings counts in false advertising and deceptive trade practices against the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for promoting LEED standards as energy-efficient when, according to the complaint, the sole study on the subject indicates, on average, higher energy usage for LEED-certified buildings.

One of the major points of contention is that the USGBC in the past awarded LEED status for design features only, while failing to track and report whether these features actually led to subsequent reductions in energy usage which a cynical observer might interpret as a focus on the image, rather than the reality, of energy efficiency and environmental stewardship.  (The USGBC has since instituted a reporting requirement, although certification will continue to be awarded at the time of project completion.)

The merits of this particular suit aside, the LEED standards have been faulted for other reasons (by no means an exhaustive list):
  • By historical preservationist groups claiming that the standards encourage tear-downs rather than rehabilitation (in an odd echo of mid-20th century urban renewal incentives);
  • By planners who point out that the standards' failure to take into account location (now addressed somewhat by a revised ratings system) resulted in LEED platinum certification going to projects on exurban greenfield sites accessible only to cars;
  • For not tackling the issue of minimum parking requirements given that driving habits contribute far more to total energy use than in-home heating, cooling and lighting systems;
  • For inexplicably providing bonuses for reducing building footprints thereby encouraging sprawling patterns of development.
To its credit, the USGBC seems to be well aware of these criticisms and is committed to revising the standards on a regular basis with public comment sought.  The cascade of unintended (albeit, in many cases, quite forseeable) consequences, though, will present a challenge for any future LEED drafters.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Critique of the Grid, part II

Miletus' "Hippodamian" Plan
I've been reading a bit about Hippodamus of Miletus, the man credited with popularizing (if not inventing) the grid in the Western urban tradition.  I'd always considered the grid a reflection of a rational Classical Greek mindset, but Hippodamus seems to have been as much concerned with engineering utopian outcomes as simply laying out a physical plan — making himself out to be the Ebenezer Howard or Frank Lloyd Wright of his day. 

None other than Aristotle had rather uncomplimentary things to say about him and his ideas, calling him "a strange man, whose fondness for distinction led him into a general eccentricity of life," (Politics, Book II part VIII), and regarding Hippodamus' apparent plan for a third of city-dwellers to practice agriculture, reasonably asking "what use are farmers to cities?"

Aristotle did, however, tentatively endorse the so-called "Hippodamean" grid, writing that "[t]he arrangement of private houses is considered to be more agreeable and generally more convenient, if the streets are regularly laid out after the modern fashion which Hippodamus introduced."  Politics, Book VI, part XI.  Left unasked was the question of whether there was a relationship between Hippodamus' social proposals, which Aristotle denigrated, and his choice of the checkerboard grid.  Although some have credited the grid as an egalitarian choice for city planning, Hippodamus' evident plan for a top-down, class-stratified society run by a military caste (in a city designed by none other than himself) hardly reflects a democratic preference.  

In fact, rather than being an embodiment of egalitarianism, the grid's emergence is most closely associated with the rise of powerful and centralized states (see The Dark Side of the Grid), although other motives may factor in as well.  China's imperial capitals, for example, employed a grid not for convenience of wayfinding but as an imperatorial aesthetic of sorts intended to reinforce the order and centralized authority of the emperor.  In the Renaissance, the grid embodied an rarefied aesthetic of uniformity and rationality.  For others, such as the expansionist Greeks of the 6th century B.C. and 19th century Americans, the grid was an enabler of land speculation in newly-settled territory. 

The one purpose the grid has never served, evidently, is the desires and everyday needs of the citizens actually living in the city.  Where the centralizing power responsible for maintaining the grid disappears, the grid therefore frequently breaks down.  As Spiro Kostof writes in The City Shaped on the fate of gridded Roman cities in the medieval period:

"The grid is inflexible in terms of human movement.  We are not inclined to make right-angle turns as we go about from place to place unless we are forced to do so.  With the impairment of municipal controls in in the post-Roman city, natural movement soon carved shortcuts through the large rigid blocks of the grid." (p. 48).

This process is apparent in the ancient town of Rimini, at left, where the current street network, in black, is shown overlaying former Roman grid.  The grid's failure to provide direct routes to the central market (other than the Roman Cardo and Decumanus) has been partially addressed by diagonal pass-through alleys; overly large blocks have been bisected; sharp turns have been smoothed in an emerging concentric pattern, and (not visible in the diagram) many streets were narrowed from their Roman proportions.

The New Urbanists seem to have retreated from their initial praise for the "hypertropic" 19th century American grid and today advocate more complex street patterns with a hierarchy of streets.  The lessons of the grid, though, in a broad historical context, may not yet have been fully appreciated.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Measuring Downtown Revitalization

I've been reading some of the responses to the claims by Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin that the newly-released Census 2010 population figures fail to show a predicted "return to the city" by suburbanites.  Ryan Avent points out that given central city supply constraints, what we should be looking at is not only population figures but also housing prices to determine where changes in demand have occurred.  Indeed, Austin Contrarian's Chris Bradford identifies core Austin neighborhoods which experienced increases in both price and total housing units over the past decade while simultaneously losing population.  Michael Lewyn notes that a city-wide view fails to capture what may be very positive changes in those individual neighborhoods with truly urban form.  Stephen Smith writes that given the long time frames involved in urban population shifts, it is far too early to be writing an obituary for the American urban renaissance.

I have a couple thoughts to add to the points made in the above comments (which are worth reading in full).  First, the academic literature examining gentrification and urban revitalization typically focuses not on population gains, but on 1) average incomes of residents; 2) educational attainment of residents; and 3) as mentioned above, changes in housing prices (see here or here for example).  Population changes are not a good proxy, as, for instance, the process of population loss frequently can be associated with neighborhood reinvestment (the "un-slumming" process described by Jane Jacobs).

Second, the near-ubiquity of restrictive zoning in American cities has produced distinctive patterns of development in many urban areas.  Limitations on commercial and office use produce intense competition among businesses for scarce downtown land that crowds out residential uses, while immediately outside the core single-family residential housing in a largely sububan format predominates.  The result in most places is a small downtown of parking lots and office towers surrounded by vast expanses of low density residential (see Phoenix, Little Rock, Charlotte, San Antonio).  In such a setting, what does it really mean to "return to the city"?  One's choice may be between a new, large, cheap single-family house in a non-walkable suburban jurisdiction with good schools and low taxes, an old, small, cheap single-family house in a non-walkable streetcar suburb (minus streetcar) in a city with poor schools and high taxes, and (possibly) a new, small, expensive condo in the neglected downtown of the same city. 

By contrast, those relatively few high-density, walkable urban neighborhoods that exist in American cities have rapidly revitalized, even in cities otherwise losing population.  Just in the past ten years, off the top of my head: the formerly gritty industrial neighborhood of Lawrenceville in Pittsburgh, blessed with narrow streets and brick row houses, Point Breeze in Philadelphia, and Fort Greene in Brooklyn.  I'm sure there are many more.  A list of urban census tracts indexed for urban form might confirm the very strong anecdotal evidence on this point.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Thursday Old Urbanism


Stone Town, Zanzibar City

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Anarchic Urbanism" Update

When valuable city land is left open and vacant by an absentee owner, enterprising individuals may enter and create functional living spaces, start-up businesses and entire self-governing communities on their own initiative.  This process of emergent organization, derided as anarchic by detractors (see video), in fact is anything but.

In Caracas, an unfinished 45-story tower, planned for office use but now under nominal state ownership, has been occupied by squatters.  Undeterred by the initial lack of plumbing and electric, not to mention lack of elevators, they have settled the building up to the 28th floor (apparently refuting the theory that people will refuse to walk up more than four to six storeys to an apartment), and, in the absence of zoning constraints and building codes, have added infrastructure and developed a mix of uses within the building:
"[S]quatters ... have created a semblance of order within the skyscraper they now call their own. Sentries with walkie-talkies guard entrances. Each inhabited floor has electricity, jury-rigged to the grid, and water is transported up from the ground floor. ... A beauty salon operates on one floor.  On another, an unlicensed dentist applies the brightly colored braces that are the rage in Caracas street fashion. Almost every floor has a small bodega."
Although the Times article chalks up the situation in part to the economic mismanagement of the Chavez government, such  squatter communities are not unknown in the West.  In the news recently was the Copenhagen neighborhood of Christiania, a former army barracks which was settled by various counterculture elements in the early 1970s following its abandonment by the military. 

In the absence of any intervention by the municipal government, and ungoverned by city codes, the settlers created not anarchy but (surely unintentionally) what has become the second most popular tourist attraction in Copenhagen.  While this is often attributed to the drug vending in the neighborhood, the remarkable architecture and emergent urbanism of the area are clearly major draws as well.  

And although it's not recent news, no mention of anarchic urbanism would be complete without a reference to the now-vanished Walled City of Kowloon, another extraordinary emergent transformation of a former military barracks.

(h/t Infrastructurist for Times article.)