Unleash the urban: regenerating America one city at a time

Paul Raven @ 15-02-2011

A guest post over at Freakonomics from one Ed Glaeser, who’s apparently way out in front of the whole “cities are the future and should be embraced as such” movement. It’s mostly a list of truths he reckons need acknowledging if the US is to pull its collective backside out of the economic firepit, but some of them are pretty interesting. F’rinstance:

Build, baby, build. Cities like New York and San Francisco thrive because they’re productive and fun, attracting millions of people over the years with the promise of one of the great urban gifts: upward mobility.  But increasingly, they’ve become unaffordable to the ordinary people that drive their innovations.   If a city has plenty of brilliant people, then give them space to live and work.  Don’t enact byzantine zoning codes or hand vast, architecturally undistinguished neighborhoods over to preservationists.  There is no repealing the laws of supply and demand, and if successful cities don’t build they become expensive, boutique cities that are inaccessible to mere mortals.  When New York City was building more than 100,000 new housing units a year in the 1920s, housing stayed inexpensive.  New York construction dropped dramatically from the 1950s to the 1990s, and prices rose accordingly.  Chicago’s sea of cranes on Lake Michigan helps explain why average condo prices in the New York area are more than 50 percent more than condo prices in the Chicago area.  In this case, the city has much to learn from the Second City.

Also of note: the “Get Over Jefferson” section, which applies just as well on this side of the pond (albeit with a different name in place of the dead prez):

America is, remarkably, still held captive by a Jeffersonian ideal of yeoman farmers and country living.  The rest of the world, however, is not.  The rising powers of the developing world are seizing their urban futures — cramming smart people together, creating gateways for ideas, and building platforms for the serendipitous fortunes that proximity can provide.  Gandhi may have thought that India’s future was in its villages and not its cities — but India today is proving the great man wrong.

As mentioned before, the more I read about cities, urbanism and economics, the more I realise there’s a whole lot more stuff I really want to know. Anyone want to fund me to take a combined degree in economics and urban architecture with a side serving of speculative futurism?

Damn. Didn’t think so. 🙁


Landscape urbanism: the sound of the suburbs

Paul Raven @ 31-01-2011

As the human species becomes majority-urban, the planning and maintenance of cities becomes an increasingly important matter… and where importance goes, there too goes profound philosophical disagreement on best practice. Meet the Landscape Urbanists, the newest new school of architecture and civic planning [via BigThink]:

The landscape urbanist vision propounded by Waldheim and his allies comes down to two central insights. The first is that American cities in the 21st century are not like American cities from the 19th century, and should not be expected to function the same way. The second is that the best way for urban designers to protect the environment is to prioritize the natural landscape. Design should accommodate the waterways and the wildlife that were there before you arrived; it should preserve the rainfall instead of shunting it into sewers, and perhaps use it to irrigate nearby vegetation.

Taken together, those two positions add up to a vision of city planning that doesn’t put a priority on city life over suburban living; it focuses instead on resource protection, the creative use of natural infrastructure, and so-called systems thinking — that is, exactly what landscape architects are trained to do. There are, as yet, few examples of the ideas put into practice: Supporters tend to point to projects still under construction, like the park being built on top of a landfill in Staten Island, N.Y. But Waldheim has said that his program is “specifically” and “explicitly” meant to dislodge the New Urbanists from their perch in the American planning world.

[…]

Proponents of the New Urbanism have not been taking the accusations of obsolescence sitting down. In a widely circulated November essay on the website of Metropolis magazine, Duany mockingly cast the rise of landscape urbanism at Harvard as a “classic Latin American-style…coup.” His fellow New Urbanists have weighed in with more substantive critiques that have been equally harsh. One planning professor in Arizona attacked the landscape urbanists for caring more about nature than humans; on the planning website Planetizen, the Portland, Ore.-based urban design theorist Michael Mehaffy published an indictment of landscape urbanism called “Sprawl in a Pretty Green Dress?”

The underlying argument between the groups goes beyond the relative merits of density, or the question of whether you should start a planning project with the buildings or with the watershed. It’s an argument about whether human beings should adapt to the conditions in which they find themselves, or try to change them. Is sprawl inevitable, or isn’t it? At what point does it make sense to come to terms with it and try to find pragmatic, incremental solutions that don’t rely on any paradigmatic cultural shift?

This is one of those moments where I find myself entertaining the idea of immersing myself in an entirely new academic discipline; I’m in no way qualified to take a side on that argument at this point, but its importance to the near future is blindingly obvious, and I’m a sucker for big questions waiting on an answer.


What can we do to fix the ‘burbs?

Paul Raven @ 20-08-2009

The economic and environmental side effects of suburban living have gradually become more and more apparent, but what’s less apparent is what we can do about it. Here’s a suggestion: let ’em fix themselves.

Rigid zoning laws have created many of the problems typically associated with suburban sprawl. Possibly the largest of these problems is the segregation of residential and commercial spaces. The problem is fairly straight forward. When people do not live, work, shop and eat within walking distance of where they live, extensive transportation infrastructure is needed to allow people to regularly travel greater distances.

In Entrepreneurbia, such problems do not exist. Entrepreneurbia abolishes poorly conceived zoning laws to attract forward-thinking small business owners and start-up companies. The result is a community of entrepreneurs who transform inefficient single-family dwellings and purely decorative landscape spaces into intelligent home-based businesses. From chic shops & showrooms to designer offices, award-winning restaurants, and even boutique farms the new residents of Entrepreneurbia infuse once sterile suburbs with a distinctive sense of character & community.

OK, sure, it’s a design competition entry, there’s more than a hint of the ecotopian about it, and given the current backlash against anything that smacks of letting emergent markets have free rein (which I’d give greater credence to if I thought any of us had ever experienced a truly free market) this probably won’t be a popular idea.

But it sure is elegant in its simplicity, no? [via Inhabitat]


Peak Oil may be closer than we think

Tomas Martin @ 08-10-2007

Are tankers going to be lonely in future?As you may know, as a writer and blogger, Peak Oil is one of the topics that fascinates me, ultimately leading to the 30,000 word fictional blog miawithoutoil I wrote earlier this year for the World Without Oil project. This editorial from the Buffalo News is a great summary of Peak Oil as it enters the public consciousness. Another good frontpage diary at Daily Kos yesterday detailed a few excellent potential strategies from the Energize America project, which emerged from Daily Kos to be a major player in alternative energy related politics.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that sooner or later the resources of the planet will run out. Finite oil was always on the case, even when I was at school. But according to some writers like Richard Heinberg, we may be very close or even just past the peak in global oil production, even if it takes a few years for the news to filter down the supply lines and alert the wide world. A former Canadian oil CEO thinks we’re pretty close too.

We are already being encouraged to cut down on fuel use by environmental campaigners and everyone concerned with global warming. Peak Oil presents a natural brake on the climate change bandwagon but in a sudden stop, things will get very unstable. By encouraging smaller cars and smaller commutes, alternative fuels and increased public transport, as well as building shops, jobs and facilities closer to home and utilising the great advantages the internet gives us with telecommuting and virtual goods, we could create a world that would ride out the shrinking resource climate without capsizing. We’d better start soon.

[photo by Boback]