One-Night Hiatus

I just moved today...a process that is draining in every way imaginable. Especially when you do it after a full day of work. Regardless, I'm now settling in and I have a belly full of awesome Thai (if you're ever in Chicago, don't miss Joy's Noodles & Rice.) I have to do some craigslist-ing for a bookcase, though, so I'm taking the night off. In the event that this should cause someone to experience feelings of sadness or disappointment, I've thrown together a mini, mid-week version of Weekend Reading. Let's call it "Brendan is Too Tired to Post Tonight, You Guys" Reading. See you tomorrow.

In case you missed it (which is unlikely), LA has a new Urban Design Studio.

Disturbing displacement results from India's rapid economic development.

Bette Middler takes on interstitial spaces in New York...no, really.


Conscious Urbanism: World House

The World House Project is a Toronto-based studio that is examining the past, present, and future of housing. Ultimately, the project team hopes to create a system that "operates on the principles of sustainability, universality, technological responsiveness and balance, so that we may create dwellings that promote the long-term health of nature and human cultures." After the global disaster of 1960s and 70s modernist housing projects, it's encouraging to see a group brushing the dust off of the concept of social housing and trying to infuse it with some new energy. We've learned a lot since the "commie blocks" went up, and it's time to start re-imagining how to implement a sustainable system for providing safe and comfortable housing to all residents of our cities.

The WHP's website has a really fantastic outline of the incredibly complex network of system that is the contemporary dwelling. While the second half of the list breaks down the more practical elements (water, energy, waste), the first few illuminate, very eloquently, some of the less tangible aspects of what turns housing into homes. My personal favorite is the first:

"Identity: Home is where the heart is – a popular phrase that captures the role that place plays in defining personal belonging. Our sense of self, our cultural patterns, and our relationship to society are embodied in dwellings. The creation of ‘home’ pages on the World Wide Web is a testament to the role the home takes in representing ourselves to the world at large."

Quiet ideas too loud to ignore at the Institute without Boundaries (Globe and Mail)

World House Project

WHP's Twelve Systems of Housing Design

The Sound of the City

It's been several weeks since my trip to Atlanta, and the experience that remains most vivid in my mind is that of being driven down Peachtree Street in my friend's car, windows down, with the song Party Like a Rockstar by Da Shop Boyz blasting at full volume. I can almost still feel the base and the wind. What struck me about the whole thing was how incredibly "of the moment" the city felt. I felt like I was tap dancing shakin' my ass on the razor's edge of society.

Granted, semi-trashy hip-hop (a not-as-guilty-as-it-probably-should-be pleasure of mine) is hardly cutting edge in the artistic sense. But Atlanta, in that moment, really felt like the epicenter of contemporary American culture that it is often purported to be. It was kind of an intense moment, and I've been trying to figure out how to work it into a post since I got back.

Enter Jay Walljasper, a senior fellow at Project for Public Spaces, and his article on musical geography over at Terrain. After mapping out the geo-melodic history of the US (with bits of Europe mixed in), Walljasper makes the following statement: "While the power and meaning of music certainly travel well, there’s still something rich in hearing favorite styles on their home turf." My experience in Atlanta had felt so au courant because I was in the very place where what I was listening to had been launched into the mainstream, the "big time." The music was part of the place and the place part of the music.

Walljasper also makes a great pitch for vibrant urban neighborhoods at the end of the article, explaining how these places foster the kind of regular, chance interactions that inspire creativity and collaboration. It's no mistake that great music scenes usually center on specific neighborhoods or cities. Placemaking and music are intrinsically tied...great places give birth to great music movements, which in turn enrich the history and culture of the places from which they spring forth. It's symbiotic. And hey--it sounds great.

Sweet Home Chicago (and Memphis, Motown, and Vienna) (Terrain.org)

World Music Central


Bureaucracy in Urban Placemaking is the Very Definition of Corruption: A Rant

I'm going to break with my system and put the link to my subject at the top of the post. Please read it before you read anything else.

That being read: I have reached a point in my life where I no longer watch or read the mainstream news. The internet, fabulous social tool that it is, allows me to stay aware of what I can do to help create change at the local level. Beyond that, I very strongly believe that the best way for me to be a productive member of society is to stick to my own specialized interests and work toward making one facet of the human experience a little more enjoyable. In other words, most of my media consumption is focused on architecture, planning, placemaking, geography, and related fields. I love places; they are my passion. The politics of place are more than enough to raise and rile me every day.

So I always see red when this type of fussy, petulant, bureaucratic bullshit bleeds into the physical environments of cities like a vile pus. True, all we're talking about here is a mural being painted over. But it's the reaction of the people at Transport for London that is so fundamentally disturbing. The Banksy mural was a local landmark. It was part of the character of the neighborhood, and it was appreciated by locals and tourists alike. To suggest that the mural created a "general atmosphere of neglect and social decay which in turn [encouraged] crime," or that its removal "makes the transport system safer and more pleasant for passengers" is a joke. What would make London safer and more pleasant is, apparently, a regime change at TfL. Or, at the very least, the hiring of a few of the "art critics" that the spokesperson's comments are so blatantly distainful of.

Cities are messy places. They are the most fantastically, gloriously frenetic environments on the face of the planet. This is true because they are simply built representations of humankind. And we, as a species, are messy and frenetic. It is the diversity of cultures and interests and habits and all of our trillions of idiosyncrasies that makes our lives--and, by extension, our cities--so full of vitality. To try to regulate and standardize the urban environment is an outright crime against humanity. It denies the human nature of cities, and creates a general atmosphere of spiritual neglect and social decay which in turn encourages mass apathy.

(Photo from Flickr user melfeasance.)


WEEKEND READING: April 21-27, 2007

It's Friday again (yipee!) and that means it's time for some more weekend reading. This week's first entry comes from Eikongraphia, where they've been so busy with those architecture blog rankings that it was especially refreshing to read this insightful post about Norman Foster's new Beijing airport. And if you don't like that whole "reading" thing (wink, nudge), the post is packed with snazzy, colorful renderings (as seen at right.)

Remember when you used to play The Sims and you'd create huge mansions for your characters and each room would have a different, kind of cheesy "theme" to the architecture and furnishings? Someone took that concept a bit too far.

This really doesn't have anything to do with urbanism or places or any of the stuffy in this blog's subtitle, but check out the coolest couch ever made. Those are nickels. I know.

Two weeks after my hope-for-humanity-inducing trip to Atlanta, the Journal-Constitution reports that not all is well in autopia. Apparently, traffic is so backed up on in-town roads that the congestion problem is as bad, if not worse, than it is for suburbanites. In response, the demand for walkable, New Urbanist-style developments continues to grow. That's mixed news, but I think that it leans in a good direction...

This one is actually more than a week old, but Jamais Cascio's Earth Day interview over at WorldChanging looks iiinto the fuuutuuure and imagines our planet as four very, very different places. (I love futurists.)

And finally, anyone who enjoys seeing doublespeak paragon "Reason" Magazine dressed down will love this Planetizen post about mass transit. While I'm a fairly opinionated person, I try to keep this blog relatively neutral when it comes to out-and-out politics...but I'll say this much: Libertarians freak me out.

Wait, I lied. One last thing: make sure to check out this Where post from yesterday...I'm still looking for someone who'll be willing to report back about this weekend's DisPlace Me event. Post a response on the blog, or email me; contact info is located in my profile, at left.


Not Just Thinking Inside The Box -- Living In It

Places are usually defined by buildings, streets, borders, landscapes. And while Paris, the Great Wall of China, and the Grand Canyon are all huge areas, people's experiences of them are very small-scale. We move through large places slowly and come to understand them piece by piece. The amount of space that we take up as individual human beings is infinitesimally small; it is something that cannot be changed by status, ethnic, economic, or other. Even though we vary slightly in size, we take up relatively the same tiny, tiny amount of space.

However, we can change how much space we claim as our private domain and limit who can experience it, and when. Personally, I tend to think that people these days want to own far more space than is necessary thanks to the the kind of quantity-over-quality thinking that seems to be driving our society to the brink of implosion. Soapboxing aside, students at the Technical University of Munich have taken things to the other extreme, managing to pack all of the luxuries of a modern condominium into a 76 square foot cube. No joke.

I would LOVE the chance to live in one of these $96,000 miracles for a week. Probably couldn't do it for much longer, but it's amazing how slick this thing looks on paper...a remarkable amount of storage space, two double beds, toilet, shower, stove, fridge, LED lighting, and a flat-screen TV would make for comfy living. It would also be a great way to reevaluate how one uses the space allotted to them. To have a house that is only marginally larger than the space that one naturally inhabits sounds like an eye-opening experience. For the time being, most of us will have to live vicariously (there's that word again.) So make sure to check out the slide show.

Condominimum (Wired)

DisPlace You

I found out today that a prior commitment will be preventing me from making the trek down to Soldier Field to take part in Chicago's DisPlace Me event this weekend. I was really hoping to do a follow-up to my earlier post about the event, so if there are any Where readers planning to attend the event in any of the 15 cities who are willing to report back about the event/what you learned/etc., please post a response to this entry or email me. If there are multiple responses...well hell, I'll put 'em all up (providing that they're constructive and at least tangentially related to the whole "loss of place" theme.)

Thanks in advance to anyone willing to lend me some vicarious experience.


Madrid, As Understood Through Its Metro Map

Maps are fascinating things. In our daily lives, most of us travel the same routes so frequently that it becomes easy to take the ease of movement within familiar neighborhoods for granted...but plunk us into a new location, and we tend to get lost pretty quickly. Unless we have a map. Maps translate the physical world into images that help us to understand how places work on a functional level. Each map is like a unique micro-language, with its own symbols and signifiers and whatnot--but when creating maps, cartographers must also use written language to help people translate their visual systems.

Much as we get used to routes and places, we get used to the maps that help us understand them. Especially in a world where cities and their surrounding regions blend together into "metropolitan areas," we are expected to know and understand very large areas to function on a day-to-day basis. Basic road and transit maps become vital, then, because we rely on them to give order to systems that are too large for us to memorize. Without these maps, simple route deviations could become long, drawn-out detours as we struggle to find our side destination and then return to our original route.

When a map changes, it casts new light on the mundane geography of users' routines. Madrid recently changed the map used to represent its metro system (a change brought to my attention by The Map Room, a wonderful cartography blog.) The change, as reported by TimesOnline, has not been well-received by Madrileños. "The old one was more realistic," one complains. But the really interesting quote comes from the new map's designer, Rafa Sañudo. From the article: "Mr Sañudo stands by his creation. 'We knew that whatever we did, we would get hit from all sides,' he told El PaÍs. The old map, he said, was not geographically correct either. 'But because people are used to seeing it, they think it is,' he said.

The two maps are actually very different. The old map is a veritable spaghetti bowl of colored routes. The new map, on the other hand, creates a rigid grid of lines that all crisscross at perfect 90-degree angles. While probably much easier for tourists to read, I can understand why residents of the city would be bothered by the change. The new map is, in a way, a reimagining of the geography of the city. For long-time transit users, this new system is a misrepresentation not just of their train lines, but of the size and the layout of the city--important factors in its character. Looking at the map, one might think Madrid to be a very carefully gridded, almost mechanical place as opposed to the more organic, compact, and relaxed city that it is. The new map is tantamount to an insult, then, because it tries to reinterpret a place that is familiar and, most likely, beloved to those who have to use it. Put simply, the new map challenges the ways that Madrileños understand their world.

On a related note, there's a reworked New York Subway map that's apparently been around for years...I, however, first read about it today. It's a pretty great map...though, to throw in a somewhat ridiculous critique, it's almost too clean to represent the MTA.

You've gone wrong way about new metro map... (TimesOnline)

Alternate NYC subay map, via Built Environment Blog


Vision and Innovation in Public Spaces

According to a new study out of the UK, contemporary urban design is what's driving people away: “The ‘urban renaissance’ agenda appears too concerned with matters of urban design, as well as being distinctly metropolitan in character...Most public spaces that people use are local spaces they visit regularly, often quite banal in design, or untidy in their activities or functions, such as street markets and car boot sales."

While there is a good deal of truth to the first statement, I find the second to be very troubling. It seems to suggest that the fact that frequently used spaces are often banal in character is a credit to the banality of the design. (My vocal response upon reading this: "Whaa?") There is certainly a degree of insularity to the contemporary design community...some might even call it elitism. The idea that planners know best when it comes to public space has been proven, over and over again, to be incorrect. The problem is not that planners are clueless or elitist, as the study seems to suggest. It is that communities are often left out of (or worse, choose to ignore) the [re]design of the public spaces around them.

Actually, I whined a few weeks ago about how uninspiring the results can be when the public is asked how to create successful spaces. Ask a crowd what they want in their park and they'll tell you: street vendors, fountains, playgrounds. This is where I think planners come into the equation. As the British study suggests, human use of public spaces is often much messier than planners would like to admit (much less allow for.) Max Nathan of the Centre for Cities is quoted in an article about the study, saying "There is a danger you can be over focused on design, imposing visions on people and not understanding how they use that space." I would argue that visionary planning is a very important component of successful placemaking. But a truely visionary planner does not need to impose anything on people--they learn how to understand the "banal" needs of a community and translate them into innovative environments that facilitate those uses--and, eventually, inspire new uses.

Public wants space not style, architects told (bdonline)


DisPlace Me

You might have figured out already that I consider place to be a pretty important thing. While it doesn't get the attention that it deserves, individual geography plays a huge role in how we understand our selves and how we fit into the global community. One social problem that I've always found particularly disturbing is the loss of place. Refugees around the world, forced from their homes by war, famine, natural disasters, or any number of causes, often find themselves in places that do not want them. Whether this means that they are not welcomed by the people or by harsh terrain, the outcome is the same. Refugee camps are communities that cannot be, because of the high transience and mortality rates. Nothing in a refugee's place in the world is permenant; they have nothing to hold onto.

Next weekend, in 15 cities across the United States, Invisible Children will be hosting DisPlace Me, a simulation/protest that is designed to help Americans understand what it is to lose their place in the world. From their website: "The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has abducted thousands of children, subjected them to torture or sexual violence and forced them to fight in a violent guerilla army for 21 years—making it the longest running war in Africa. In hopes of providing protection from this rebel militia, the Ugandan government forcibly evicted its Northern citizens from their homes—giving them 48 hours to relocate into camps. Today, more than 1.5 million Northern Ugandans remain far from secure, suffering nearly 1,000 deaths per week due to inhumane living conditions in the camps.

"'Displace Me' is the nationwide event giving Americans the chance to respond.

"By traveling to one of our 15 camps and gathering together, the strength of our size will make a visible statement to our government and media that the citizens of the U.S. demand action in ending the war in Northern Uganda, in order to send the Acholi people suffering in the camps and the abducted children back home. The point is to travel; the point is to become displaced yourself."

Go get lost.

DisPlace Me



WEEKEND READING: April 14-20, 2007

First item on today's Weekend Reading: I can be kind of absentminded sometimes. For example: forgetting that yesterday was Friday. There I sat in a wifi cafe in the Loop, waiting for friends, and trying to figure out what to blog about. Weekend Reading never even crossed my mind. Like I said: absentminded. So anyway, my apologies for the delay. And now:

Google Earth has added what they're calling a "Global Awareness Layer" that incudes features like An Atlas of Our Changing World (check out the Las Vegas overlays!) and the well-publicized interactive history of the Conflict in Darfur. This is a great example of how electronic mapping technology can be used to educate people about conflicts going on around the world--or in their own communities. Neighborhood action maps could be used to indicate dangerous areas in need of increased police presence, damaged or deteriorating infrastructure, empty lots and other community problems. This is considerably more small-scale than the Darfur map, but just consider the possibilities that tech like this has for empowering individual citizens. If you don't already have it, you can download Google Earth, free, HERE.

Speaking of Earth, tomorrow is Earth Day. Yay, Earth. (Image from www.msss.com)

And here's a link to a Wikipedia article about the "Triple bottom line" business philosophy. Sounds like a great way to incorporate the ideas of the market economy and the humane metropolis.

BLDGBLOG is, of course, one of the most delightfully cerebral blogs on the web. This week saw one of my favorite posts yet; focusing on an old interview with Paul Virilio, it draws a subtle parallel between Europe's post-WWII lanscape of fear and today's. The post is accompanied by haunting images of crumbling bunkers and, just in case you're not interested yet, includes this line: "War, in Virilio's formulation, was thus a kind of terrestrial reorganization – a reshaping of the Earth's surface; it was, among other things, landscape architecture pursued by other means." That's good stuff.

Brand Avenue featured a rather lovely essay on architectural context in the urban environment, using a striking City Hall extention in Cork as a sort of case study for how to properly insert modern architecture into an area not rich in the style.

I love benches. Theirs is probably the most egregious absence in American cityscapes. No matter where you go, there's nowhere to sit and relax or people watch...hell, most bus stops in the cities I've visited are bench-free. Here in Chicago, L platforms with more than one or two benches are a rarity. This article from Treehugger brings to our attention "guerilla benchers" in London, who do...well, after the intro there, probably exactly what you think they do. Now if we could just get those guys to start doing "installations" across the pond...

Everyone's favorite random links blog, Growabrain, features a post today entitled Architects in film. There are plenty of architecture/planning-related links to help you justify taking a lazy afternoon, including Mark Luthringer’s fascinating Ridgemont Typologies e-xhibit.

And finally, a short'n'sweet op-ed from the International Herald-Tribune about the important role that cities will be playing in the coming push to create a sustainable global community. Check that out here.


Finding the Future in the Past

Paleo-Future is a great blog brought to my attention by a comment left on one of the posts here at Where. I keep all of my blogs organized with Google Reader, so I only go to the actual pages when I need a direct link for a post. Today, though, I was poking around P-F and I found that there is a nicely-organized page that tracks all of the Cities-of-the-Future-related posts. I found this quite exciting.

As I perused the archived posts about space cities and underwater colonies, I came across a post about the planning of EPCOT Center in Walt Disney World. I have known for a long time that EPCOT was supposed to be an actual, working city (the acronym stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, after all.) Instead, it wound up as my favorite theme park. Still, it was interesting to learn about what Walt used as influences for the plans of his futuristic community. Sir Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities of Tomorrow is, somewhat unsurprisingly, on the list. What really grabbed me was this line: "...[Walt also used] The Heart of Our Cities and Out of a Fair, a City, both by an architect and mall designer name Victor Gruen, who urged the reconceptualization of the city as more ordered, rational and humane." (Emphasis mine.)

Sounds a lot like what I've been talking about all week. I might need to go hunt down those books...

Paleo-Future "Futuristic Cities"

Walt Disney and City Planning


I was going to take the night off, because I'm in that phase at the new job where I'm taking in so much new information each day that I kind of just want to be a vegetable when I get home...but then I saw a truly awful video promo for a new set of condo towers back in my hometown, Milwaukee. It's gross, y'all. You'll be reeling from the clichés by the end, but it's kind of fascinating to see which elements of a location are used to lend status to some fairly bland architecture...I'm particularly interested in how green and pastoral they try to make these twin hulks seem. I was also amused by the way that downtown cultural venues (located more than a mile and a half away) are advertised so fervently when it is within a five minute walk of two of the most vibrant areas in the city (Brady Street and North Ave.)

If it seems like I'm being picky about the distance, you have to take into consideration that a mile and a half actually still means something in Milwaukee, where the metro is really only about thirty miles end to end. Sure, the exurbs stretch further out, but the developed part of the region is very compact. There has always been an economy of space here that had a lot to do with shaping my views on the spatial requirements of individuals and on places in general. Milwaukee was, for quite a while, one of the most densely populated cities in the country...so to see this regionalist attitude that justifies bland design through perceived proximity to downtown is kind of...weird.

Nevermind my ramblings...go and enjoy the video.

Park Lafayette (The video link is in the center of the page.)


The New Pittsburgh: Creating a Humane Urban Model

So a new idea hit the blogosphere a few weeks ago and, because I don't keep up with reading about my favorite city nearly as much as I should, I'm just now getting around to writing about it. It's the Manifesto for a New Pittsburgh, compsed by three Burgh bloggers (Mike @ Pittsblog, Jim @ Burgh Diaspora, and Jim Morris.) These guys have put together a pretty grandiose vision (the inspiring, Daniel Burnham kind of grandiose) for the Pittsburgh region but, as is noted in the introduction to the Manifesto, it's an idea that is not yet set in stone. Responses were requested.

One of the responses to this manifesto, which focuses largely on increasing connectons at the community, city, regional, and international level, asks how, exactly, Pittsburgh can reach out to the diaspora of Burgh natives across the planet. How, in essence, can former Pittsburghers living in Los Angeles or London or Tokyo be persuaded to invest money, time, or resources in their hometown when they live so far away?

Coincidentally, Pittsburgh played host to a Humane Metropolis Workshop just a week before the manifesto was posted. The conferrence is described thusly: "The objectives...include reviewing current urban improvement initiatives in Pittsburgh, promoting partnerships among local citizens and public officials, sharing relevant experiences from other cities, generating new ideas, and fostering awareness of Pittsburgh's emergence as a role model for other cities." There's all that "increased connectivity" talk again.

Greatness is what wins international attention--greatness in vision, leadership, innovation. Pittsburgh is a city that, thanks to its congenial attitude and ecologically rich setting, is particularly well-suited to becoming a global model of the "Humane Metropolis" discussed in the previous post. Most of the Pittsburghers I've met have had a real sense of pride in place; though they may not live there, they have strong feelings about their hometown. Thus, their own pride is, in part, tied to the fortunes of the city. Re-shaping Pittsburgh as the new model of greatness for healthy urban regions in the coming century could serve as an excellent means for inspiring members of the diaspora to contribute to the prosperity of their former home.

The Manifesto includes passages about "enfranchizing new and marginalized voices" and "reaching out to a 21st century global Pittsburgh of many colors, nationalities and ethnicities." It looks to me like there's quite a bit of connectivity between these two ideas already...

Manifesto for a New Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh: A More Humane Metropolis Workshop


Centers of Stuff

Yesterday's faux-post (fauxst?) highlighted an article about the Humane Metropolis. I had one of those awesome moments, reading that article...it was the kind of moment when you see/hear/read something from someone else that alligns perfectly with what you've come to believe, independently. It was a "Yeah...that's what I've been sayin'!" moment. I love those, don't you? So now, in response to said article:

Today, everything is a commodity. Health, love, security -- there is very little that people have not figured out (or are trying to figure out) how to buy and sell. We've even managed to do this with history. For proof, one need look no further than architecture, where wildly popular contemporary developments like New Urbanist villages, Lifestyle Centers, and even urban infill have completely abandoned contemporary architecture for cutsey, Disney-esque historicism. Walt, himself, created the now infamous Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland to play to peoples' sense of nostalgia during a time when many real Main Streets across the country were being abandoned and/or destroyed. People long for the past, which they remember as "simpler" almost without reservation. (This is all kinds of stupid, but I'll resist the tangential rant.) As a result, developers are now making theme parks of our neighborhoods.

The commodification of the past, and the resulting creation of "historical" buildings and places (like that horrific WWII Memorial in D.C.) makes quite a bit of sense, especially in urban/suburban areas. As the beginning of the article on the Humane Metropolis hints at, cities have always played an important role in society: that of the Center. Cities, by their very nature, are often the largest concentrations of just about everything. It follows that cities would then be excellent barometers of social values. E.g. whatever there is the most of in the place where there is the most of everything...well that must be what people care the most about. So it makes sense, then, that in such a materialistic era, where culture and commerce have been (con)fused, cities have become free-for-all zones. Cities are the Centers of Stuff.

If the Material Metropolis is the urban model for today, the Humane Metropolis is simply the healthiest response to this chaotic period in urban development. Cities are communal environments that exist because people need (and like!) to live near each other. Currently they are viewed simply as economic machines. We need to learn to see them as places again. Places for people.

Conscious Urbanism: The Humane Metropolis

Today was this blogger's first day at a new job, so as you can imagine I'm a bit tired. Thus, I'm essentially taking the night off and just stealing a post from Planetizen's home page. This article by Neal Pierce over at the Washington Post Writers Group is pretty amazing. The type of city described here as the "humane metropolis" is exactly what I'm talking about in the Conscious Urbanism posts. I feel like I should rename the series...but I just did that yesterday. Geez.

READ THIS ARTICLE. Also, check out the book which inspired the article, which is published by...oh, wow. The Lincoln Institute. Aka the Visualizing Density people. Ok, that's a coincidence...I swear I'm not shilling for these people. Anyway, tomorrow I will not be so tired, and then I'll actually talk about all this jazz. Don't sit too close to the edge of the seat, now. ;-)

The Humane Metropolis: Are We Ready? (YES!)

The Humane Metropolis (Lincoln Institute)


Conscious Urbanism and City Repair

I've decided that the term "Compassionate Urbanism" doesn't really capture what I'm trying to showcase in the series. Compassion suggests people who are well off--or at least better off--helping those in need. What it does not suggest is the inclusion of those in need into creating a solution to their problems. While initiatives that help those in poverty to survive or make their lives more comfortable are hugely important, the more aptly-described "Conscious Urbanism" is about seeing impoverished members of a community as equal and active, and working to improve their quality of life through community integration. In the end, this integration not only benefits those being helped; Conscious Urbanism lifts up the entire neighborhood through the respect and inclusion of all of its members.

That being said, I recently learned (through this post at On the Commons) about a Portland, OR, project called City Repair...I don't think there could be a better project to kick off the Conscious Urbanism series. City Repair describes itself as a "group of citizen activists creating public gathering places and helping others to creatively transform the places where they live." The group transforms intersections, which currently serve auto, not pedestrian, traffic, into beautiful public spaces. More importantly, they transform the communities around these intersections by bringing together neighbors who had never met and getting whole neighborhoods involved in the creation, together, of quality public space.

The On the Commons post also highlights what City Repair is doing to help build community for those living in poverty in Portland: "[City Repair] helped to create Dignity Village...a community of formerly homeless people. People there have built straw bale houses, a kitchen, solar/gas showers, and a garden. Lakeman says it costs three dollars a day for someone to live there, as opposed to sixty a day at a typical shelter."

What I find particularly inspiring about this project is that it can be so easily replicated. The concept does not require much more than community initiative and creative thinking, and as the post and City Repair's website show, the benefits to urban neighborhoods are great. Be sure to check out City Repair's website, and don't miss the video on the About CR page.

City Repair


Green --> Zero

As I mentioned yesterday in my list-o-links, America seems to have gone batty for "going green." Today I discovered Bird to the North, a blog about "exploring how places are made"--which I discovered, in turn, through this list from Eikongraphia of the top 25 architecture blogs on the internet...which I read about on Daily Dose (congrats to John for making the list!)

Aaaaanyway, apparently Shin-Pei, the brains behind Bird to the North, has noticed the green craze as well, and she posits the idea that the vapid "green" has now been tossed to the marketing hyenas, with the focus for serious environmentalists shifting to "Zero Impact." It's certainly nice to be reassured of the fluidity and evolutionary nature of the environmental movement. Gotta ask, though: what will Zero Impact people be called? "Greenies" was such a nice, succinct nickname. "Zeroies" does not work, by any stretch of the imagination. Zeimies? Z-Imps? Zimplestiltskin?

It will be very interesting to see how this shift will affect cities. Greening a city was relatively easy to commit to. That is to say, it is a lot easier to plan grandiose initiatives for using recyclable materials in future government buildings and put grass on the roof of city hall to make it appear that progress is being made than it is to commit to becoming a zero impact city and actually delivering. (Not to detract from cities that actually have made real environmental progress; I'm just pointing out that it's much easier to fake "green" than "zero.") Eliminating a city's ecological footprint--or even significantly reducing it--will require unprecedented leadership and cooperation...but would deliver truly unprecedented benefits to any city looking to attract educated, creative, wealthy residents.

In related news, Smart City Radio's 4/5/07 episode (the Atlanta trip has me running a week behind on my podcasts) focuses on the "Greening of Cities," and features a conversation with the US Green Building Council's Jennifer Henry on the new pilot program being developed to award LEED status to entire neighborhoods. (While I already liked host Carol Coletta, she graduated to hero status during the interview when she seemed to be literally reading my mind, asking the questions that popped into my head virtually as they did so.) Make sure to check out the podcast, which also features the whipsmart Dr. Helen Mulligan.

Zero (Bird to the North)

US Green Building Council's LEED for Neighborhood Development

The Greening of Cities (Smart City Radio)


WEEKEND READING: April 7-13, 2007

I read a lot of stuff, okay? And until I started Where, I never understood why so many of the blogs that I read every day put up those weekly link pages. I always thought it was lazy. Now I know better.

There is just too much going on in the wide world of placemaking, so I'm going to start putting up links to what I don't get around to discussing during the week. Hopefully you'll find these lists, which will appear on Friday or Saturday, useful for those lazy weekend afternoons when you have nothing to do but sit around and read articles on the internet. You know those afternoons. Sure you do.

Springwise, Trendwatching.com's blog, had an article on a new service in San Francisco that's easily adaptable for any city--a green version of those coupon books every city's tourism department puts out. This fantastic resource for San Franciscans (The Green Zebra Guide) has the dual purpose of making life easier (and a little cheaper) for people who've already made the decision to "go green," as well as encouraging the decision in other people by making the transition less daunting. Check out the guide at www.thegreenzebra.org.

Much noise has been made about the Creative Class since Richard Florida hit the scene a few years ago with his theories about the modern boho crowd. Now, while he draws up pretty (and mildly offensive, in a weird way) charts that show how gay people affect real estate values, some people are actually trying to figure out how to use the internet to turn creativity into a real asset instead of a tool for gentrification. CEOs for Cities announced a new study with Charles Leadbeater on Tuesday, which you can read about here.

Speaking of creativity, the New York Post brings us a story about some art students who turned an MTA train car into a cozy living room, complete with welcome mats. As is often true about places, it's most interesting to read peoples' reactions, which include this comment "This is criminal...It may be beautiful, but that's not the issue. They are obstructing the subway." Iiiiinteresting...

BLDGBLOG brings us this blurb about plant life on other planets. It's nothing I'll ramble about...it's just really freakin cool.

As you may remember, I'm not such an optimist about congestion pricing. The other four transit concepts presented in this article on decongestion over at Good Magazine are pretty interesting, though. I love seeing Curitiba continue to gain more attention for it's brilliant and innovative BRT system (which I think would work particularly well in American cities, which have ample road infrastructure.) The Naked Streets concept is new to me...it seems pretty innovative, too. (The image above came from this article, for the record.)

To bring this list full-circle, "going green" seems to have really, truly gone mainstream in the States. Over the past few weeks I must have read that slogan a hundred times, in publications as diverse as an independent Atlanta weekly (can't recall the name) and Vanity Fair. Interchange has a post about smart growth and urban placemaking very quietly hitting the mainstream as well. It's short and sweet, and while I think that there's still a ways to go in getting the average American to give up their sacred fear of urbanity, it does seem like we're hitting a sort of critical mass.

There are also a few new links up on the Otros Blogos side bar, including Pruned, Inhabitat, and things magazine (all of which I discovered while reading Geoff Manaugh's profile at BLDGBLOG for the first time.) I'm eventually going to get around to creating a list of websites as well, so if there are any kickass suggestions drop me an email or comment on this post.

Sustainability in Sprawlsville

I wrote in an earlier post about my prejudice toward Atlanta and sprawling metros, and of their unique position in the movement toward sustainability. Last night I got a chance to see, firsthand, some of what's going on in The A.

Atlanta is a city of some intersting contrasts. Downtown is, to steal a phrase from my group leader at the convention I'm attending, a hot piece of mess. Transition zones are almost universally the most awkward, unattractive places in their respective cities. Downtown is very disjointed; the area around the State Capitol does not connect well with the retail district of the UnderGround, which in turn does not transition well into the business district to the north or the area around the arena and CNN Center to the west. The aforementioned UnderGround is such a disaster that it's not even worth getting into...all I'll say is that almost everyone I saw (no exaggeration) had a look on their face that very clearly translated to "why did I come here?" Sandwiched in the middle of all these distrcts is a surprisingly lovely (considering the surroundings) historic area called Fairlie-Poplar where my friend and I talked to a street vendor about the policy prohibiting panhandling...more on that in a future post, when I've had time to do some research.

Midtown is a completely different story. I'm shocked to say this, but I actually have to admit that Midtown Atlanta is a walkable neighborhood. It's high-density and very high-energy, there is a very strong retail and restaurant scene, grocery stores, museums--everything within walking distance. Right across the freeway is the stunning, emerald campus of Georga Tech, which had a healthy mix of architectural styles and (not surprising for a school of its size) plenty of pedestrians. It was in and around Midtown/Tech that I saw Atlanta's true potential. Tech Square, a development that spans both sides of the freeway near the historic Biltmore, is a high-density mixed-use development that draws people across the freeway from the university to Midtown. The architecture is attractive (if not particularly groundbreaking) and has a great street presence with mixed retail. Just north of the campus is Atlantic Yard, a truly massive brownfield redevelopment with the highest-density lifestyle center I've ever seen. The architecture was a soupy sort of historicism that, if I'm being honest, made me throw up a little bit in my mouth. But the fact that development like this was going on a mile from downtown Atlanta did wonders for my perception of the capital of the South--which, historically, has set the example for the rest of the region.

I did some searching online after hearing a bit more about the Atlanta BeltLine while I was here, and a link to the project site is below. There's also a great article at WorldChanging today about the sustainability tide change in Los Angeles, the most notorious autopolis in the world. America's sprawlsvilles are really stepping it up, it seems...

The Atlanta BeltLine

Open House, Living Kit and the LA Earthquake: Notes from a Visit to Art Center Pasadena (WorldChanging)


Walkability Map Follow-Up

I e-mailed the Sightline Institute last week when I made this post about a walkability map of Seattle to learn more about the map. Here's the response that I received:

There is more about the walkability maps in the 2006 edition of the Cascadia scorecard, which is available online here: http://www.sightline.org/publications/books/CS2006/CS06

The underlying data for that map is based on a proprietary index, developed using data on population, street connectivity, and the local mix of commercial floorspace. The creators of the data looked at all of those factors in their studies looking at the relationship between city design & active transportation. The information was developed by Dr. Lawrence Frank from University of British Columbia, and Dr. James Sallis of San Diego State University and Dr. Brian Saelens of Cincinnati Children's Hospital. It was funded by King County and the NIH.

(Thanks Leigh!)


Fabulous Frivolity: What City Lists Really Tell Us

I love stupid city lists. My future roommate emailed me a link to an article today that covers the ten most "underrated" cities in the United States. It is, of course, completely subjective and almost entirely inane. That's why lists like this are so much fun: the audacious, unabashed pointlessness manages to entertain even while the nature of the content annoys the fuzz out of me. It's like watching Carlos Mencia...you don't laugh at his jokes...you laugh at the fact that he's dumb enough to think that they're funny.

At any rate, we have the following list:

1.) Baltimore
2.) Fort Lauderdale
3.) Houston
4.) Kansas City
5.) Louisville
6.) Minneapolis
7.) Pittsburgh
8.) Portland
9.) Providence
10.) Sacramento

There is no mention in this article of criteria, of course. That said, I do agree that many of these cities tend to be "underrated" by most people that I have talked to, with Minneapolis and Portland being the exceptions.

I was especially thrilled to see Pittsburgh on the list, since it's my favorite city and I think that it deserves all the press that it can get. Even the silly kind. But here is the entry on the city: Forget Pittsburgh's reputation for smokestacks and steel, because today the city is sparkling with pristine parks, architectural assets, and three rivers flowing into downtown's "Golden Triangle." Several museums — the Carnegie Museum of Art among them — are worth hitting, but don't miss the Andy Warhol Museum featuring over 12,000 of his works. A treasure trove of used books is found on the city's South Side, while nightlife is suddenly sizzling in neighborhoods like Oakland and the Strip District, thanks to thousands of college students from Carnegie Mellon (among others) and young professionals dancing and mingling in the bars and clubs.

The subtle problem here is that all the author is really focusing on is factual information (which, coincidentally, is largely erroneous.) In an article about how these ten cities are supposed to be unique alternatives to well-known urban destinations like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, there is nothing about what really makes Pittsburgh (or Sacramento, or Baltimore, or Louisville...) such a distinct place. All that the article's blurbs highlight are the miniaturized versions of what can already be found, likely in larger quantities (sometimes even in higher quality), in the bigger cities. Chicago's got the architecture. New York's got the museums. San Francisco's got the "pristine parks." Why visit Pittsburgh (or Sacramento, or Baltimore, or Louisville...) over one of the Big Guys when they (by the reading of this article) offer less of the same thing?

Pittsburgh is one of the most unique urban places in America. The neighborhoods, in terms of physical environments, are incredibly diverse; the sheer number and quality of the city's famous bridges is stunning; the dramatic terrain is unparalleled (eat it, SF.) On top of that, the people are some of the most down-to-earth that you will ever meet, and there is a unique attitude here that combines the friendliness and outdoorsiness of the Midwest with the do-as-you-will ways and urban energy of the East Coast. There is no mention of this Pittsburgh in the article.

Why is there nothing said about any of the cities on this list in terms of what truly makes them stand out? What provides them with a sense of place that is different from New York or Chicago in ways other than sheer size? And there are so many silly lists like this that I have to ask: what does their representation in the media suggest about how Americans see the "revitalized" cities of today?

Top 10 Underrated US Cities (MSNBC)

Another Post About Semantics

While we're on the subject, I need to let off some steam. Some vocabulary-related steam. (Seriously? Is that even a real thing?)

There is a word that literally forces my eyes to cross and little puffs of steam to shoot out of my reddened ears. That word, my friends, is "steps." I'm not talking about the synonym of "stairs." I'm talking about the euphemism for "within walking distance." Truly, this has got to be the most singularly heinous term that marketing people have ever come up with. I read it all the time, in every ad for every new building I come across. "Steps from the lakefront." "Steps from the museums." "Steps from shopping."


Oy. That phrase right there, in particular, is just plain skanky. It's just...so...icky. I can't even tell you why. Just say it out loud a few times. Is that not terrible? Ugh.


Open Spaces, Non-Places

There is certainly something to be said for wide open spaces in cities. Large, well-designed parks are a welcome respite from the high-energy city streets. They are perfect for jogging, biking, and walking. They make great places to take children to play. They are often as close to nature as many urbanites can get on a daily or even weekly basis.

That being said, I think that people tend to blindly value "open space" without any consideration for quality. In another example of the public's fear of density, NIMBYs are often quick to cite the loss of "open space" as a reason for their opposing a new structure. I remember, when I was living in Milwaukee, a group of "concerned neighbors" trying to get plans for a high-rise condo building in the heart of downtown scrapped because it was going to destroy what they called open space. In actuality, the lot was a glorified traffic island. Also, it was across the street from one of the city's largest parks, which in turn fronted the great blue expanse of Lake Michigan. A loss of open space? Technically, yes. But the city certainly traded up.

The anecdote neatly illustrates what I think is a major semantic issue that gets little to no attention: people have idealized "open" space when what they should really be focusing on is "quality" space. After all, the endless expanse of cornfields in the Great Plains states are technically open space, yet seemingly everyone who's driven through them is jumping out of their skin to tell you how awful the drive is. The same goes for Atlanta's infamous eight-lanes-in-each-direction megafreeway, which I had the displeasure of traversing (fancy word alert!) in the shuttle to my hotel this afternoon. It struck me as very odd that a city of only 130 square miles would waste such a massive chunk of their land on this non-place, which is essentially a large "open space" that is used by millions of people every day yet is completely devoid of character or any sort of sense of place. But then...that's another post entirely.

When the distinction between "open" and "quality" public space is ignored, it allows not only for the types of ridiculous arguments used by the "concerned neighbors" mentioned above, but on a more subversive level it devalues public space in general. If we continue to dilute parks, squares and the like by lumping them in with plain ol' "open spaces," they lose their importance in the cityscape. Sure, it's a word game. But you'd be surprised how much those can matter.

"Urban Renewal," anyone?


So I'm Going to Atlanta...

...and I have to admit that, while I haven't been to the Big Peach since December of 2001, I am not a fan of the city.

I am one of the many urbanists who ridicules suburbanized auto-centric cities like Atlanta, who makes fun and rolls eyes and dismisses. Whenever I hear about sprawling cities' growing populations I smugly think to myself "That's fine...in another twenty years those cities will be shrinking so quickly that they'll make the decline of the rustbelt look like a glacial recession," though that analogy is not really as applicable to slowness as it used to be, thanks largely in part to places like Atlanta and--whoa, there I go again.

The truth is, many people are finally waking up to the very real dangers posed by global warming--and still more are admitting that even if climate change is cyclical, air pollution is still a bad thing that causes serious health problems and needs to be curbed. With Atlanta turning the massive brownfield ring of abandoned rail tracks into a pedestrian- and bike-oriented green development corridor (not to mention the infamously freeway-tangled Los Angeles aiming to become the Greenest City in America) it's beginning to look like the cities with the worst sprawl problems are going to be some of the biggest and best laboratories for sustainable development ideas.

So I admit my prejudice up front. I will be posting from Atlanta over the next week, and I probably won't be too nice about it because, as an avowed "Northerner," I tend to carry a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the whole "brain drain" thing. But rest assured that I am well aware that Atlanta sees the challenges before it and that the city has a great deal of potential.

The move toward a sustainable global economy is shaping up to be the next frontier of innovation, and will provide America with a golden opportunity to reclaim some of the entrepreneurial spirit and passion for innovation on which our country's reputation was built. If cities like Atlanta are truly up to the challenge (and I'll be looking for evidence) they may not only wind up saving themselves--they could save our international reputation.

Cross your fingers.


Mapping Walkability

"Walkability" is one of the major buzzwords in contemporary urban planning. The idea is simple and makes worlds of sense: living in a neighborhood where you can walk everywhere instead of driving greatly reduces your eco-footprint, encourages a more healthy, active lifestyle, and increases neighborhood safety. It's a buzzword that actually deserves the buzz.

I've always thought that the creation of a system for mapping walkability would be a watershed moment for the urbanist movement. Walkability maps of major cities, provided in some sort of interactive format (read: a website) would not only make choosing a neighborhood easier for homebuyers and renters, but it would serve as a great informal guide for tourists--especially at a time when tourists are becoming less interested in traditional attractions. Knowing where high-traffic pedestrian areas are would be an easy way of figuring out which neighborhoods would provide the best opportunities to explore the local culture.

I found my first walkability map yesterday (there may be more of these out there...let me know if you come across any.) The Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based sustainability think tank, has developed a map of King County's walkable neighborhoods. The color-coded system is easy to understand, though it's not at all interactive and only major highways (oddly enough) are shown as far as roadways are concerned. I also couldn't find any information about how this map was developed (i.e. what factors were included in determining walkability.) Things like living essentials (grocery stores, laundromats, convenience stores), mass transit access, crime, and density are all important factors, I'd imagine. It'd just be nice to see some sort of breakdown. Still, it's a start.

Map of Walkable King County


The Rundown

So a few days of slacking and travel have added up to me being a bit behind on my e-reading and blogging. To remedy this situation, today's post will be a few bite-sized nuggets of info and links to a number of unconnected articles.

First item: I've heard about the Memphis riverfront redevelopment that the guys over at Project for Public Spaces are working on...several times, actually. And forgive me for criticizing a technically good project, but the whole thing just seems really tired. Like, "fountains, playgrounds, street vendors" is kind of...just...bleh. It's the same old stuff, rearranged on a new lot. It seems like the banks of the Mississipi deserve something more innovative. Perhaps an experiential playground like Chicago's Millennium Park?

Perhaps I'm just antsy after reading Josh Stephens' most recent post over at Interchange, the Planetizen blog. Stephens talks about a survey by Mercer Consulting in which the US's cities faired quite poorly in terms of quality of life, with none of our many, many cities breaking the top 25. I'm always very wary of rankings and statistics, but as Stephens points out, it's not the rankings but the fact "that hundreds of millions of Americans live, grow up, and toil in places that are less clean, less safe, less pleasant, less sociable, and less inspiring than counterparts around the globe" that's really disturbing.

Interchange has been lively lately, and another great post comes from Lance Freeman. Freeman saved me the trouble of writing a post I was planning for this coming week on congestion pricing by saying exactly what I was going to say (and he did a better job than I probably would have.) The argument: congestion pricing is bad for poor people. Go read it.

John over at A Daily Dose of Architecture has started a cool new thingy where he'll be quoting relevant pieces from his personal readings on architecture, urbanism, and the like. The first features this kind of amazing excerpt from Bill McKibbin's The Age of Missing Information about the role of the natural landscape as context for buildings and communities.

Finally, a quick shout-out for what I think is one of the best urbanism sites on the web. CEOs For Cities is a very cool organization whose membership list includes some very important people. Everything they do is fascinating, and the blog is a great read. Bookmark it, add it to your RSS, or do whatever it is that you crazy kids do these days. Just keep it on your radar. (I'm sure they'll be popping up again in this blog.) There are two recent posts on gentrification and urban immigration that are more than worth the time it takes to read them.

Ideas for riverfront flow at workshop (commercialappeal.com)

So Many Cities, So Much Mediocrity (Interchange)

The equity considerations of Congestion Pricing (Interchange)

Literary Dose #1 (Daily Dose of Architecture)

CEOs for Cities Blog


You Can Go Home Again...Just Wear Sunglasses

I'm home in Milwaukee for the Easter weekend, and while I only moved out of the city eight months ago, it was amazing how much brighter the city looked today when I was passing through some neighborhoods that I used to frequent. The city's warehouse district, aka the Historic Third Ward, has filled in quite a bit with new condo construction. Some storefronts downtown have been filled. And on the whole, it looked as if the whole place had been given a fresh coat of paint. It was kind of weird, in a very cool way.

I'll admit that there isn't a lot of weight to this post...but isn't it great to return to a place that you used to find mundane and see it in an entirely new light? I always loved showing people around Milwaukee when I lived here, because introducing people to new places allows you to see your daily environment in a new way; by being the tour guide, you get to be the vicarious tourist, as out-of-town friends will often notice little details about your daily environment that you had overlooked.

It's really a lot of fun to come back home and see what changes have been made, and perhaps notice things that had always been there but that you had never taken the time to observe. It has made me appreciate the city that I had taken for granted for so many years. I guess it's true what they say about distance making the heart grow fonder, hey?


The Growth of Local Food Production in Urban Areas

"In the distant past, the city functioned more or less as a self-sustaining system. All that now remains is consumption." -- Regine Debatty, Worldchanging.com

Over the past week I've noticed a number of articles popping up about cities and food. The quote above, which I found particularly provocative, came from an article about an exhibit in Maastricht called "The Edible City," which focuses on the role that food plays in contemporary society. I think that line captures the current problem facing metropolitanized areas, especially stateside. Food plays a huge role in our daily lives, and the idea that it could play a role in the reconstruction of urban communities seems powerful to me.

Another article over at AlterNet covered urban gardening efforts around the U.S. Hearing quotes from proud locals reminded me of the stories that I had heard about Victory Gardens during WWII. These gardens not only lessened demand on the industrial community (so that I could focus on weapons production), they provided their owners with a genuine sense of pride. Victory gardens were a symbol of a family's commitment to the nation during a difficult time.

Cities, now, are facing a difficult time. While gentrification is adding cash to the tax base of many cities, huge stretches still remain impoverished, both in the States and around the world. A big part of the solution to urban problems, of course, is the strengthening of urban communities. It seems natural, then, that the creation of community gardens could serve as a big part of the community-building process. A quote from one of AlterNet's urban gardeners highlights one of the major benefits: "Just having face-to-face contact -- that's something that's very positive...It's the kind of thing that feeds your soul."

By getting people together to work on a project that directly impacts their communities, socially and visually, urban gardens can help communities develop their own self-sustaining systems. These gardens have been around for a while, but they don't seem to have caught on as a major trend...yet. The rumblings on the internets seem to suggest a change in that area.

Urban Farming: Coming to a City Near You (AlterNet)

Edible City: Part I (WorldChanging)

EDIT (4/9/2007 - 7:20 PM): Check out the second (and equally fascinating) part of the Edible City coverage by following this link--and don't miss the part about Fritz Haeg's "Edible Estates" project.


Compassionate Urbanism

So I might come off as a blithering idealist with this post, but I'll go out on the limb anyway. In my readings and my personal life, I have been noticing a trend over the past few years. More and more I'm running into stories about constructive compassion, that potent mixture of energy, indignation, and understanding that really gets things done. I have seen many websites for groups that look to bring people together to create a healthier, more vibrant environment for their communities. It seems, in short, like people are finally starting to understand the idea that having more than just our own interests in mind might be a good thing for everyone.

One of my favorite quotes is from Edith Wharton, who said "There are two ways of spreading light; to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it." Part of my inspiration for starting Where was to create a mirror for all of the great stories that I come across in my perusal of the ever-expanding "internets." Creating healthy, attractive cities is a matter of improving the lives of everyone in them, and I believe that a huge part of the true revival of cities will be the creation of more compassionate urban social structures.

So one of the recurring themes in this blog will be "Compassionate Urbanism." Whenever I see evidence of the cultural movement in urban centers toward constructive compassion in society (which I think is already well underway, even in these chaotic times) I'll re-post the article or website (or whatever) here. If you see something that you think is evidence of this movement, let me know and I'll put 'er up.

For the inaugural post in this series, I want to highlight an article over at Worldchanging.com about mitigating the negative effects of gentrification. It talks about the social problems created for the poorer residents of San Francisco by the city's amazing resurgence, and the ways that one group is trying to involve these people in the process that is improving their communities--and keep them living there after the improvements are made. Ch-ch-ch-check it out. ;-)

Linking Social Equity and Smart Growth (WorldChanging)

Progress vs. Nostalgia

We live in the present. This is one of our great strengths, as it allows us to impact the future. I'm pointing out the obvious here to highlight a parallel, because being of the present is also one of our great flaws, as it can hinder our ability to visualize the future that we are creating by limiting our ability to think in anything beyond the short-term.

When I had the "Chicago moment" described in the previous post, it got me thinking about the L. We experience our environment through the five senses, and the rumble of the L trains is a distinctive part of how we hear Chicago. It is understood that the L was not always a part of the Chicago experience, a truth deemed unimportant because that was the Chicago of the past. The Chicago of the future, naturally, will always involve the L. It is part of the city's soul, part of what makes Chicago, Chicago. In other words, it's an important piece of the cultural legend that society has created for the city.

But I got to thinking recently with the recent press about the city's deteriorating infrastructure (even the New York Times got involved) and considered the possibility that the L and its mightily consoling rumble could one day cease to exist. While it is wonderful to hear the trains rumble by in the distance from three blocks away, I long ago realized that living up against the tracks might not be so enjoyable. And while the lowering of the entire system below grade seems like an incredible undertaking, it is not so hard for me to imagine, especially with the accelerating rate at which technology progresses, that one day in the not-too-distant future Chicago might see (or hear...or, rather, not hear) whisper-quiet trains. (Such trains already exist elsewhere, after all.) This idea brings into focus the central struggle that we see in placemaking is that between "progress" and "nostalgia." To wit: if the CTA were to come to a financial position that would allow it to replace the current L trains with much quieter, or even noiseless, trains, there would likely be some argument over whether or not it should do so due to the value that the rumble of the L adds to the unique Chicago experience.

But where would the validity be there? It is certainly true that, while improved technology can help to increase quality of life, it also poses the danger, at least in this case, of eliminating a distinct part of the cultural experience associated with a specific place. At the same time, not making the upgrade could be viewed as a feeble attempt to cling to the past. After all, if citizens of Chicago at the time that the L was built had argued against the noisy trains and won, the city would never developed this aspect of its identity in the first place.

I like to think that I'm a progressive person, and I consider creativity and innovation to be the juice that runs the human system...but I just can't imagine Chicago without the L.