Coexisting and Coworking

Contrary to naysayers' and pessimists' early warnings, distance in the wired world is decidedly not dead. In fact, as has been pointed out a gazillion times already, the revitalization of many urban cores in the US and around the world has coincided with the miraculous rise of the internet and wireless technology. But why have people not retreated to mountaintops as was feared at the onset of the internet era? If you can have a creative and fulfilling career from anywhere, why not work from a rustic cabin overlooking a placid lake in a bucolic wood?

Blech. Boring.

A recent post on coworking (a trend that I am particularly enamored with) at Coroflot's Creative Seeds Blog inadvertently highlights why the internet has pushed people closer together rather than pulling them apart. Coroflot's lays out the options for those who don't have a formal office -- temporary cubicle, cobbled-together home office, isolating coffee shop -- and then explains that none of these environments has "the most important quality of the ideal creative workspace: other creative workers with whom to interact. It's well understood that good ideas and good creative work flow almost never flourish in a vacuum, and yet increasingly we are asked to make them do so."

Cities are more diverse, active places. They are larger and thus, by default, contain more possible answers to any question of location. Thus, for someone who is free to work anywhere, cities provide the most enticing environment. By living in a city, a creative worker has the opportunity to change up their daily workspace. There is always the option of moving out to The Sticks, but when The Sticks compete on a level playing field with the urban core, guess which one usually wins out?

There's another fact that's been repeated a gazillion times over the past few months that may provide a hint: for the first time in the history of civilization, half of the world's population now lives where?

(Photo from Flickr user MathieuCoste. The original full-color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

Your Dream Office is Just Over There: Co-Working and the Instant Creative Community (Coroflot's Creative Seeds Blog)


Sustainability and the Unimaginable City

A recent post at WorldChanging offered up for discussion a fantastic Bruce Sterling quote about sustainability: "The ruins of the unsustainable are the 21st century's frontier."

That's a pretty profound statement. To think that the world around us, the things that we consider familiar and take for granted, will be to our great grandchildren what the Roman Aqueducts -- or even British colonial forts -- are to us: relics. Of course, much of our built environment (especially the unsustainable portions) are considerably less visually appealing than crumbling arches and turrets. It's fun to imagine that, somewhere outside Cincinnati in 2108, there will be a tour bus that rolls past long-abandoned McDonald's huts and IHOP psuedo-ski lodges, describing to wide-eyed tourists how these strange buildings used to be used as restaurants back when people were willing to drive twenty minutes for food that had been flown across an ocean. But the likelihood of that scenario is slim.

Most likely, metropolitan regions will adapt to changing conditions, with cities and suburbs both densifying and growing and connecting in new ways. But what will become of the buildings and structures that are left in the sustainability craze's proverbial dust? As people become more educated on and concerned with sustainable buildings and neighborhoods, it seems logical to assume that demolitions will become less frequent than they are now as architects and planners seek to preserve structures with bones worth saving, and to reclaim materials when demolition is required. Politicians will mandate it; high tear-down rates will spell doom at the voting booths.

Even moreso than buildings, large chunks of our infrastructure could very well become obsolete, and will need to be repurposed. A post today at Loud Paper described a recent live design and model-building competition with a very novel premise: the two teams of architects were asked to design futuristic outpost buildings in the Alaskan wilderness, and their primary material was repurposed oil pipeline. Take that general concept to the city; what pieces of our current urban infrastructure -- even, or especially, the invisible pieces -- might we be trying to reuse as a construction materials once the large-scale shift to renewable energy sources has taken place?

And now, another Sterling gem to throw into the mix: "To me, 'sustainability' means a situation in which your descendants are able to confront their own problems, rather than the ones you exported to them. If people a hundred years from now are soberly engaged with phenomena we have no nouns and verbs for, I think that's a victory condition."

Whoa. Kind of re-frames the whole "repurposing" thing, hey?

It is easy (and, I think, quite common) to assume the perpetuation of current conditions. Humans like to think about the future, but we are stuck living only in the present. This means that our experience of the present has a very, very heavy influence on how we envision things ten, fifty, or a thousand years down the line. We live in fairly hectic period, so it can sometimes be difficult to imagine a world where the problems are completely different from those we face today, much less that we don't even have words to describe! My question is (inevitably, if you've ever read this blog before), how will this affect cities?

It's a silly question, really. After all, the very idea being discussed here is that the problems to be faced by a post-sustainability humanity aren't even conceivable to us now, so how the heck do we go about coming up with what those problems might entail? Of course, the answer is: we don't. We can't know what these problems or their solutions will be, but we can use the scenario to appreciate the massive opportunities presented by the challenges of creating a sustainable global society. All we need is a framing device.

Enter: the Air Tree. Madrid's recent announcement that they will be building three of these miraculous little structures (which were originally the result of a design competition in 2004) marks a very important moment in architecture and urban planning that is easy to overlook: the birth of an entirely new building type. The Air Tree is a temporary structure that marks what will hopefully be a permanent change in how cities will be built in the future, since its existence signals the arrival of the building with the sole purpose of acting as a unit of production for Quality of Life. These three futuristic pavilions will create for madrileños gathering places that use natural processes to filter and cool the air. The space beneath the Air Tree is not just social; it's cleansing and renewing.

Many common features of contemporary urban areas -- not in the least the Air Tree -- would have been unimaginable to people living a century ago. Stop and think about that for a second. Now try to imagine the unimaginable city of the future. Pretty thrilling, isn't it?

The Ruins of the Unsustainable (WorldChanging)

Architecture Gone Wild (Loud Paper)

What we get if we win... (WorldChanging)

The 'Air Tree' (Architecture.MNP) (Photo credit)


Maps, Maps, Maps For All

I had a friend over last weekend and we spent a good chunk of time tooling around several of my favorite map sites on the web (because that's what catrography geeks do for fun, you see). After revisiting the glories of Radical Cartography for the first time in months, I was pleasantly surprised to see the pop up in a recent post over at Tropolism.

While Radical Cartography does indeed contain some of the most interesting maps on the interwebs, I thought it'd be fun to do a rundown of five of my other favorite sites featuring innovative cartography. Heck, I'll even let down this blog's hair a bit and put the links directly in the text of the post instead of at the bottom. Hot damn, are you excited yet?! I sure am. Let's get rolling.

1) Fake is the New Real
As its too-cool-for-skool title suggests, FITNR is so not interested in whether or not you find it interesting. This site offers up a heaping helping of cartography and taxonomy with attitude. If you can't imagine such a mixture, click the link. Trust me -- World Subways at Scale and Chicago MilexMile alone are well worth a visit. The rest is icing on the cake.

2) Paris Traffic Noise
Pretty straightforward, this one: it's a zoomable, 3D, color-coded map of the noise levels of every public street and park inside the Périphérique. The colors are projected onto the buildings that line the streets, which themselves are created from satellite photographs. Even if you don't care much about urban soundscapes, this one is just damn pretty.

3) Stamen Design
Stamen is the design studio behind some of the most resonant online maps in recent memory. First came Cabspotting, which uses GPS technology to track cabs in San Francisco, creating a live, ever-changing map of the most travelled routes in the city. Then Stamen made a real splash several months back with Trulia Hindsight, the real estate mapping site that uses color-coded markers to show houses on the market from different periods of time. The animations on Hindsight show the development of cities and suburbs over time. Watching a subdivision flash-bloom onto the screen in a split second? Very cool. There's more than just maps at this one, but do give it a looksee.

4) Transparent New York
An oldie but goodie, I think I first stumbled upon TNY when I was a freshman in college. The site features an interactive series of layers that allow you to construct your own maps of Manhattan. Want to see if contemporary historic districts correlate at all to the island's original farm plots? You can see that here. How about comparing the island's commercial zones to the locations of all of the city's pre-war skyscrapers? You can see that, too. This one is quite fun to play around with.

5) Zipdecode
Another pretty simple concept with geek-tastic results, Zipdecode allows you to type in any series of numbers to discover what (if any) US municipality claims your numeric ramblings as its ZIP code. Turn on the zoom feature for some fun flyover action.

Happy Monday, everyone. Enjoy some good, old-fashioned nerdy map fun.

(Other) Links:
Tropolism post on Radical Cartography

Radical Cartography, itself!


WEEKEND READING: January 19-25, 2008

Another really great crop for Weekend Reading this Friday. We're going all over the web this week...make sure you set aside some time to browse.

ITEM ONE: TNAC's Hayley Richardson on Richard Florida and the Creative Class (And Florida's response).

ITEM TWO: Nifty blog about architecture and urban planning in the Ugandan capital, Kampala (via Global Voices Online).

ITEM THREE: Ever tried traversing every block of every street in your city? Bill McGraw of the Detroit Free Press has, and now his findings are online.

ITEM FOUR: This one's not so much about the reading as it is the watching -- a mind-blowing clip of software that builds automatic online cities.

ITEM FIVE: Bill Gates calls for a "creative capitalism." (Where is published on a Mac, but this blogger does admire Mr. Gates' social ingenuity).

ITEM SIX: WorldChanging goes head-to-head with the pro-car crowd, breaking down how cars aren't just killing the natural environment, but the built as well.

ITEM SEVEN: The curiously named blog List of Dorms ruminates on the suburbanization of urban cores, with Chicago as a brief case study. (This looks like a blog to watch...)

ITEM EIGHT: One more for the road -- City of Sound provides this well-illustrated update on its World's Best Urban Places & Spaces project.

Sheesh...if the urbanism web keeps up at this speed, the eighth item might become a standard feature! Have a gerat weekend.

(Photo from Flickr user pinehurst19475. The original full-color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Magic of America Image Database Goes Live

The digitization of Marion Mahony Griffin's The Magic of America made a small splash several months ago, but the extensive image library, which contains all 650+ illustrations from the original book, has just gone live this week.

(Click map for kickass large version)

If you like what you see here, don't miss the electronic archive, which is full of drawings, maps, and photographs of buildings from the US, Australia, Japan, and India. It is most definitely worth some perusal.

The Magic of America Image Database (SAIC Archives)

The Magic of America Main Page


The Future of (Urban) Shopping

"Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare."

That suggestion, originally made by Gorges Perec, is part of a longer quote sourced in a recent post at Pasta & Vinegar by blogger Nicholas Nova. Nova examines Perec's suggestion that we should "question [our] teaspoons," or look critically at things that we consider mundane or take for granted. "Make an inventory of you pockets, of your bag," the quote continues. "Ask yourself about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects you take out."

Nova suggests: "Why is this important, maybe first to highlight how the mundane is intriguing. Beyond the descriptive level, it’s also curious wrt to innovation and design as it allows to ask question and possibly to nurture near future world." A previous Where post speculated on how streetscapes and shopping centers might evolve in a hypothetical, post-retail future. The more pragmatic way to approach this admittedly fantastical scenario would be to question the teaspoons of current retail environments as they exist today and think about how shopping might be a different -- but still essential -- component of urbanism a few decades hence.

A recent post at the David Report describes a design studio and upcoming panel discussion on the Future of Shopping. From that blog, I'll snatch another repurposed quote fragment: "Our culture is experiencing transition at so many different levels that we find ourselves at an unprecedented moment in history where we have begun to realistically re-imagine art, craft and design’s relationship to our culture, and its future...The future of luxury is an open question without obvious answers but it will be the young artists, craftspeople, and designers at Konstfack who will ultimately provide them. What will we be shopping for in the future? Bling Bling? The way things look now, it is more likely to be clean air and pure water."

The suggestion here assumes that the current transitionary period that humanity is experiencing will result in a fairly dire future. The commodification of clean air and pure water (which, to some extent, has already happened) will likely make shopping an even more important part of daily life. Imagine Wal-Mart selling de-particleized oxygen tanks in bulk, for the low low price of $259.99 a pack.

Purchasing essentials is, and will likely always be a tactile experience. It is quite common to buy a book without reading it first, or a CD without listening to it, but we are much more careful about buying things like food and shelter. In grocery stores, fresh produce is left out, unpackaged, to be groped and examined before purchase. Speaking of questioning tea spoons, think about your most recent trip to buy groceries. What was the ratio of things you'd tasted before to things you were trying for the first time when you rolled your cart up to the cashier's station? It's probably a safe bet that most of the food was familiar. And shopping for a new house or condo often takes months, with the buyer wanting to visit and experience firsthand the space that they might be purchasing to make sure that it meets all of their needs. What would the required commodification of air and water mean to urban retail environments?

Now swing the other way; let's end this post with some optimism. What will retail environments look (feel? taste? sound? smell?) like in the future if conditions generally improve for humanity? Retail is the essential element, the primary building block of the current globalized, megapolitan-level urbanism. Our infrastructure -- economic, transportation, and even social -- is largely built around shopping centers and commercial corridors. For better or worse, retail and commerce are often what give our society (and even our lives) meaning. With each successive generation, who you are and what you do are ever more tightly bound. So if our livelihoods and our identities continue to align more closely, it is very possible that urban commercial structures will become more diverse and complex. For retail, specifically, this could mean that shopping will become a much more immersive and meaningful experience, less about materialism for materialism's sake, and more about finding material goods that augment and/or enhance one's lifestyle in a productive way.

We see stores as boxes full of things that we can buy. But a retail environment has so much more potential than that. Rarely nowadays do store environments actually heighten the shopper's understanding of the products on display. If there is an effort to do so, it is almost never done at the middle class, mass market level. So how could retail environments change and adapt as consumers become, for example, increasingly environmentally aware, or as people become more interested in the related DIY movement?

The Reconfigurable House project sheds some light on this: "The project is a critique of ubiquitous computing 'smart homes', which are based on the idea that technology should be invisible to prevent DIY." The Reconfigurable House is an artistic experiment, an environment made up of easily manipulated experiential factors. Walking through the "house," a person can adjust everything from humidity to lighting to noise level. In a retail environment, this kind of technology could be used to expose and test products in an effort to build a consumer's trust. Shopping for a jacket becomes an entirely different experience when fitting rooms allow you to change the weather conditions to see how the garment holds up.

What would such developments mean for cities? It's hard to say. The visual impact of shopping corridors would likely remain the same. But the way that people interacted with stores, and the role that shopping played in daily life, would likely change. This has implied effects on everything from transportation planning to public space. What are some of the mundane aspects of contemporary retail districts that might provide some useful insight upon closer examination?

(Photo from The Style Press. The original full-color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

Question your tea spoons (Pasta & Vinegar)

The Future of Shopping (The David Report)

Reconfigurable House (2007) by Usman Haque and Adam Somlai-Fischer (Rhizome Inclusive)


WEEKEND READING: January 12-18, 2008

Stellar, stellar week, folks. I can't overemphasize the awesomeness of the links below. Do yourself a favor and set aside an hour or two this weekend for some solid online reading.

ITEM ONE: Airoots weighs in on The "S-word" -- Slums -- and, in particular, the clearance thereof. (For more on the subject, check out this Globe and Mail article).

ITEM TWO: Mike Lydon writes a stirring post on Interchange about the importance of teaching urban planning in public schools.

ITEM THREE: In the future, buildings will talk to each other. (Image credit)

ITEM FOUR: Majora Carter is a sustainable urbanism ninja.

ITEM FIVE: New City Magazine tracks the migration of hipsters in Chicago (focusing heavily on Where's new center of operations, Wicker Park).

ITEM SIX: You've heard of designing a better mousetrap? How about designing a better White House?

ITEM SEVEN: Springwise takes a look at a potentially revolutionary new technology that could make entire neighborhoods self-sustaining.

And we'll leave it at that. Adios, compadres.


Review: Suburban Transformations

I'll start this review off with an apology to PA Press, since they sent me a review copy of architect Paul Lukez' new book Suburban Transformations back in early November and I'm just getting around to actually reading and reviewing it more than two months later. There was NaNoWriMo, then there were holidays...it has been a crazy winter. And so, without further ado...

There is a lot of discussion these days, at least in architecture and planning circles, about what will happen to today's sprawling suburbs as people wake up to the fact that the current suburban model is unsustainable. There have been calls for a complete return to cities, though I think most everyone knows that this would be extremely difficult if not outright impossible. Cities have physical limits, and density becomes unhealthy after a certain point. Compare Paris to the infamous Kowloon Walled City for an exemplary contrast.

Still, it is widely assumed that the suburbs of tomorrow will look quite different from the beige, cul-de-sac draped landscapes that currently surround central cities throughout much of the developed world. While the speculation about the external changes that will force suburbs to shape-shift is frequent and varied, ideas (not to mention actual visualizations) of what these nouveau suburbs might look like are surprisingly few and far between. Suburban Transformations fills a unique gap in that regard, and the pragmatic novelty of author Paul Lukez's descriptions and images of prospective suburban densification and evolution is what makes them so very impressive.

Stylistically, Suburban Transformations is something of a hybrid; it is too colorful to be called an academic text, and yet a bit too dry to be read purely for entertainment. Still, the mix works well, with the text augmented generously with drawings and photos. The bulk of the book is spent discussing the methods Lukez envisions for changing the shape of traditional auto-centric suburbs as painlessly as possible; his process -- deemed the "Adaptive Design Process" -- is appropriately simple. It offers ways to examine and reshape suburban spaces characterized (ironically?) by their lack of character. If suburbs are to be criticized for their generic appearances, Lukez' process should conversely be commended for its ability to take these incredibly generic places and not only make sense of them, but also to make valid suggestions about how to take supposedly hollow, meaningless places and re-think the context to provide opportunities for site-specific design.

The bulk of the book focuses on a single hypothetical case study of the area around a mall in the Boston suburb of Burlington. Here, the author puts his theories into action, using everything from the topography to the noise levels to the freeway interchange -- yes, the freeway interchange -- to give texture and meaning to the site. The book suggests that Burlington's history as an important transportation route -- established first by Route 128 in the early 1900s and reinforced by the freeway in the 60s, can and should be used as a contextual element to guide the design process for transforming the site. The massive roadway is thoroughly and thoughtfully integrated into all of the adaptive designs that are envisioned during the second half of the book. In the end, the freeway itself becomes more closely related to the site; at the same time that it gives the site meaning, the reconfiguration of that site transfers increased significance to the road itself.

Further exploration of the Adaptive Design Process is helpful to understanding its versatility. As a result, Lukez also takes time at the end of the book for three shorter case studies of Amsterdam, Dedham (another Boston suburb), and Shenzhen. Illustrations are plenty and the ideas presented exciting. In fact, this is perhaps the book's greatest strength: its ability to turn a seemingly dire problem (the proliferation of soulless suburbs) into a golden opportunity. Suburban Transformations envisions the dramatic altering of the suburban landscape. And whether or not the process described in the book is ever widely used, the true value of this book is how effective it is in dramatically altering the reader's perspective.

Suburban Transformation (Powells.com)

Paul Lukez Architecture


"You Can Fix All the World's Problems in a Garden"

Hot damn.

Bite-Sized City

The bite-sized book is an idea being pioneered by a site called DailyLit, where, according to Trendwatching.com's blog Springwise, "books are sent by email or RSS in individual instalments on the days and times selected by the reader—for example: every weekday at 7:45 a.m.—and each instalment is small enough to be read in less than 5 minutes."

This format strikes me as a particularly interesting (and easy) way for a person to explore the urban environment. Imagine that you've just moved to a new neighborhood. You go to the neighbors' association's website and subscribe to a free daily mini-tour. Each Saturday at 1:00 pm, you receive a text message with a starting point. Once there, you open a temporary audio file on your Blakberry or iPhone or whatever wired mobile device you're carting around, and you're talked through a 15- to 20-minute exploration of another corner of your new surroundings. The tours could even be recorded by a variety of people who are active in the given neighborhood, and could seamlessly integrate opportunities for community involvement into what might otherwise be aimless walks by highlighting local events, organizations, and landmarks.

Now imagine that you're a tourist on a first-time trip to New York. Subscribe in advance to a feed like this and have bite-sized neighborhood tours sent to you every three hours. These tours could even be sequentially linked to start you off in each neighborhood, allowing for a few hours of independent exploration between tours. Heck, with the ubiquity of GPS technology, you could download a series of geo-coded tours in advance that would be triggered when you passed from one neighborhood to the next. As you walk north across Houston Street from SoHo to the Village, your phone rings. You answer, and a voice suggests that you walk three blocks east to Houston and Thompson to begin the Greenwich Village tour.

With this sort of technology, unfamiliar territory becomes a bit less intimidating. Recent transplants get out and meet more of their neighbors. Tourists get a boost in confidence that would likely encourage them to cover more ground and venture farther off the beaten path than if they were wandering about with nothing but a street map and a dated copy of Fodor's New York. Perhaps part of the reason that there are so many people in Times Square is that people can recognize where they are; they understand their position in the city. For the intrepid urban explorer this may seem superfluous, but any city hoping to increase tourism or revitalize a neighborhood is woe to underestimate the power of the sense of disorientation.

Making cities and neighborhoods more friendly, inviting places -- for visitors and locals alike -- is an important step in the struggle to improve urban conditions. People naturally avoid places where they feel uncomfortable. Encourage them to expand their understanding of their surroundings, and half the battle is won.

(Photo from Flickr user morethanreal. The original full-color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Books in bite-sized portions (Springwise)