Thursday, 31 January 2013
Monday, 21 January 2013
Friday, 18 January 2013
Boston (USA), ranks as #4 among the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the US in the percentage of the population over 25-years with a four-year college degree. That high ranking may be due to the large number of higher-education institutions in and around the city, but perhaps it is due to the influence of being in an innovation-rich city. Whatever it is, Boston boasts both a high number of educated and innovative residents.
From solar panel sales training to responsible waste management companies, Boston is home to many innovators committed to making their city and the planet a better place. Some notable projects and programs in Boston include:
- Hubway – a bike sharing network that allows members to bike one direction without having to worry about where they leave their bike
- Life Totes – a “green” service for moving homes or businesses, because why waste cardboard boxes when you could rent reusable plastic ones?
- Save That Stuff – a waste management company that helps organizations most efficiently and responsibly dispose of their unwanted items
Boston’s Mayor, Thomas Menino, has supported Boston’s trend towards innovation through the creation of the Innovation District in January 2010. While there are no set boundaries, the South Boston Waterfront is filling up with creative thinkers and doers. Part of this is due to the work of MassChallenge, a startup accelerator that offers a prize competition to aspiring startups. Some notably “green” startups include:
- E-POL, which is working to turn glycerin, the waste product of biodiesel production, into useful products
- Bootstrap Compost, a food scrap pickup service
- GreenCampusPoints, a coupon-based program that incentivizes consumers to purchase sustainably
What green initiatives do you see popping up in your own community? Which of these do you see as being helpful or viable in your city?
Wednesday, 16 January 2013
Every livable city has its own unique character that is expressed in its architecture and arrangement of streets and open places. It is not inappropriate to propose the metaphor that the livable city, like every living thing, has a genetic code, or a DNA structure.
The DNA of a city is expressed in those architectural and spatial characteristics best loved by the city’s inhabitants that contribute most to its sense of identity. These may consist of certain building materials and colours, a typical arrangement of scale and architectural forms, building lot size, roof lines, scale of public and semi-public spaces.
In order to fit into the urban context, new buildings must respect this “genetic” code, reflecting at least some of the existing patterns, or interpreting them in a contemporary idiom.
As there used to be a consensus about a community’s values, so was there also a consensus about what materials, architectural and spatial forms represented the unique character of one’s city.
Each person in the community recognized and understood this unique character, and worked within its constraints, although there was still considerable variation possible, in choice of colours and materials, detailing, degree of elegance, as well as in the architectural expression of the city’s varied functions.
This consensus has been lost in many places, but there are still many citizens who are intuitively able to recognize their city’s unique character, and can identify appropriate and inappropriate development. There are architects who design context-specific buildings exemplifying the best of the city’s heritage. And mechanisms exist to reinforce a city’s special qualities.
One of these, for example, is the historic heritage survey, which chronicles a city’s architectural legacy and the cultural significance associated with some of its buildings.
Some developers and architects argue that the individual city’s identity, and the community’s recognition of the unique character of their city no longer exist, and that, therefore, they are not obliged to consider the city’s past identity in their projects. The results of this view can be seen in almost every city in the world.
In many North American and some European cities, architects and developers have been allowed to build structures that bear no relationship either to surrounding buildings, or the city’s character and tradition. Buildings compete for attention but do not pay attention to each other. The dialogue among building is too often characterized by fragmentation and discontinuity, and the collage of buildings and public spaces creates a profound sense of anomic dissociation.
We internalize the built environment. But we are gradually eroding our urban sense of identity. A true sense of identity can only be maintained through a dialogue between community and architects, through community participation programs, and the development of design guidelines sensitive to each city’s specific historic heritage.
Through public discourse we need to develop again this “communal eye”, this vision of the characteristics of the buildings and places that are valued, that give a sense of place, identity and meaning to the city. And to facilitate this, of course, we need to create public spaces, streets and squares that are hospitable to social contact, connection and civic dialogue.
The architecture of the city embodies the city’s memory. When a building is destroyed, then the memories that each individual had in connection with that building can no longer be passed on to others. And when too much of the original texture of the city is replaced by inappropriate structures, our own memories fade.
If too much of the architectural heritage is destroyed, the city’s communal memory of its unique identity is violated, making it susceptible to social problems.
But even a city badly damaged architecturally can recover if the citizens understand its genetic code, and define developmental goals based on this code.
Monday, 14 January 2013
It's now conventional wisdom that human capital (what economists call educated people) is a key factor in the growth of cities and metro regions. Cities are engines of economic development, and the skilled people are the high-powered fuel that drives them.
Most studies of the role of human capital in regional economic growth track its effects on and across metro regions. But metros vary widely in size, shape, and spatial and demographic compositions; human capital doesn't always cluster in the same places at the same densities. The revitalization of the urban center in cities has fueled in-migrations of more skilled and affluent people. Other cities still suffer from the proverbial "hole in the donut" effect, with their more educated, higher income populations spread out across their suburbs while their urban centers lag.
Studies found that suburban human capital is important to metros of all sizes, with the percentage of college grads in the suburbs having a positive effect on their income levels and housing values across the board. Suburban human capital is especially important in smaller and medium-sized metros, those with fewer than one million people.
But as metros increase in size, human capital in the center city plays a bigger role. For example, metros with more than three million people have roughly twice the density of college grads than those between one and three million — 443 versus 227 college grads per square kilometer on average. The percentage of college grads in the center city plays a greater economic role in large metros (those with more than one million people), especially with regard to housing values. But, it has no statistically significant effect on either income or housing values in small and medium size metros.
This makes intuitive sense. As metros grow larger and more congested and commutes become more arduous, higher-skilled people seek out more central locations to live in. A post on the blog Old Urbanist highlights a tradeoff between location and commute times, citing a classic study which argues that "individuals and firms mutually co-locate in response to congestion costs, and thus reshape those costs." The theory thus implies, as the post makes clear, that "commutes beyond a certain length of time are undesirable despite any other advantages that might be gained from the location (e.g. housing cost, school quality, taxation level, crime)." The post also points out, drawing from data on the New York metro area, that commutes tend to level off at about 30 minutes. When metros get large and congested, a sort of "Manhattan" or "Brooklyn Effect" sets in, as higher income, more affluent households seek more central locations, increasing the concentration of human capital in the center city.
For all the importance economists and urbanists accord to human capital, surprisingly few efforts have been made to examine its workings at a granular level. Not just academics but place-makers of all stripes — planners, politicians, developers — need to have a better understanding of where and why human capital clusters — and of the different roles that those different kinds of clusters play in economic development.
Friday, 11 January 2013
In Jeff Speck’s new book, Walkable City, he suggests that there are ten keys to creating walkability. Most of them also have something to do with redressing the deleterious effects caused by our allowing cars to dominate urban spaces for decades. it’s a heck of a good menu to get city leaders and thinkers started in making their communities more hospitable to walkers.
Here are the author’s ten steps of walkability :
1. Put cars in their place. ("Traffic studies are bullshit.") Startling quote, no? Jeff believes that a car-first approach has hurt American cities. This is in part because traffic engineers too often have failed to acknowledge that increased roadway traffic capacity can lead to more, not fewer, cars on the road. The resulting phenomenon of "induced demand" results in unanticipated consequences not only for traffic on freeways but especially in neighborhoods and downtowns, where streets are sometimes treated not as critical public spaces for animating city life but as conveyances for motor vehicles. Jeff generally supports congestion pricing, but cautions that we must be very careful about assuming the merits of pedestrian-only zones.
2. Mix the uses. ("Cities were created to bring things together.") The research shows that neighborhoods with a diversity of uses – places to walk to – have significantly more walking than those that don’t. Jeff makes the point that, for most American downtowns, it is housing – places to walk from, if you will – that is in particularly short supply. He also points out, quite correctly, that for most (still-disinvested) downtowns, affordability is not much of an issue, because relatively affordable housing is all there is. For those booming downtowns susceptible to gentrification, he recommends inclusionary zoning and "granny flats," or accessory dwelling units.
3. Get the parking right. ("Ample parking encourages driving that would not otherwise occur without it.") As do many progressive city thinkers, Jeff points out that we have a huge oversupply of underpriced parking, in large part due to minimum parking requirements for buildings and businesses. A side effect is that adaptive reuse of historic properties can be discouraged, because there isn’t sufficient space to create parking required for the buildings’ new uses. Jeff recommends consolidated parking for multiple buildings and businesses and higher prices, especially for curb parking, and shares a number of successful examples.
4. Let transit work. (“While walkability benefits from good transit, good transit relies absolutely on walkability.") Jeff cites the disappointing experience of light rail in Dallas as an example of what not to do to support transit: insufficient residential densities, too much downtown parking, routes separated from the busiest areas, infrequent service, and a lack of mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods near the stops. Jeff recommends concentrating on those transit corridors that can be improved to support ten-minute headways, and working there to simultaneously improve both the transit and the urban fabric. Quoting transportation planner Darrin Nordahl, Jeff also reminds us that public transportation is "a mobile form of public space," and thus should be treated with respect and made pleasurable.
5. Protect the pedestrian. ("The safest roads are those that feel the least safe.") Here again, it comes back to driving. Jeff asserts that roadway "improvements" that facilitate car traffic – such as wider lanes or one-way streets – encourage higher speeds; thus, we should instead use narrow lanes and two-way streets. Intriguingly, he argues – as have other new urbanists – for stripping some roadways of signage and mode delineation. The idea is that, if drivers feel they might hit someone or something, they really will slow down or change routes. Jeff supports on-street curbside parking, because it buffers the sidewalk from moving vehicle traffic.
6. Welcome bikes. ("In Amsterdam, a city of 783,000, about 400,000 people are out riding their bikes on any given day.") This step is only minimally about walkability, except for the point that bike traffic slows car traffic. It’s all about making cities more hospitable to cycling, which many U.S. cities are now doing. Although the drivers complain, both the research and my personal experience as a driver suggest that car traffic isn’t really inconvenienced much if at all when the addition of cycling infrastructure is thoughtful. Jeff does discuss the very interesting point that some experienced cyclists actually prefer riding in the main roadway rather than in a designated lane.
7. Shape the spaces. ("Get the design right and people will walk in almost any climate.") This chapter is mostly about providing the sense of enclosure we need to feel comfortable walking. And, once again, the main villain is the car, this time in the form of surface parking lots along the walkway. But Jeff also takes some shots at blank walls (correctly) and look-at-me architecture. He believes, that the amount of density to support good city walkability does not necessarily require tall buildings.
8. Plant trees. ("It’s best not to pick favorites in the walkability discussion— every individual point counts— but the humble American street tree might win my vote.") Even though street trees correlate with fewer automobile accidents, many public transportation agencies seek to limit them because they believe they interfere with visibility. But Jeff points out that, in addition to contributing to auto safety, trees provide myriad public benefits, including natural cooling, reduced emissions and energy demand for air conditioning, and reduced stormwater pollution.
9. Make friendly and unique [building] faces. ("Pedestrians need to feel safe and comfortable, but they also need to be entertained.") Of the ten steps, this is the one most about design, or at least the most about design of things other than roadways. For me, it evoked Steve Mouzon’s wonderful theory of “walk appeal,” holding that how far we will walk is all about what we encounter along the way. Stores and businesses with street-level windows help (meaning that most banks and drugstores don’t), as does disguised or lined parking, vertical building lines, and architectural details. Jeff isn’t so kind to parks, though, or green infrastructure designed to absorb stormwater.
10. Pick your winners. ("Where can spending the least money make the most difference?") The subtitle here could well be, "in the real world, you can’t do everything." True enough. Jeff argues for focusing on downtowns first, and on short corridors that can connect walkable neighborhoods.