Monday, December 30, 2013

Two women, both dead, one wearing a beadnet dress.

This is the story of two women.  Both are dead. 

One of them wore this dress when she was buried in ancient Egypt.  It is called a beadnet dress.

That, her burial that is, happened during the reign of King Khufu, which would mean about 2,550 B.C. 

On March 30, 1927 she looked like this, when her tomb was opened by a Harvard-sponsored archeological expedition to Giza. 

The pattern of the dress was recreated by modern scholars who found places on her mummified body where the beads still lay in their original configuration as when she was placed there 4.5 millenia ago.

The second woman died in Dresden, Germany.  In February, 1945 she looked like this.

She was killed by the Allied firebombing of that city after British and American planes dropped more than 650,000 incendiary devices such as these over a three-day span from the 13th to the 15th of February, 1945.

These two women's deaths were separated by 4,500 years of human history, but only by 1,700 miles as the crow flies.  Their lives sat equidistant to the Mediterranean Sea and to the birth of Christ, almost.  About them I know nothing else.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The New Urban Mechanics.

It's hard not to be stunned by the sheer energy that Nicole Fichera brings to her job.  I don't think I've ever met someone so able to pack so many words into a sentence in such a short amount of time.  I've heard her described as the Rachael Ray of innovation and a walking Wikipedia page.  I would say she's the hub around which the wheel of her Boston Innovation District turns, a connector supreme, a Woman for All Seasons.  Her official title is Innovation Director at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, but she is much more than that.  Just meet her.  You'll see.

For starters, she is in charge of the transformation of an area in Boston that is rapidly growing and has some of the most expensive real estate in the city.  She's 30 years old, if that, but probably not even.  She has no staff.  She has no budget.  She has only her energy, her ideas, and her connections.  These seem to be sufficient.

By the time she showed us the sixth floor of the Dry Dock building south of the Seaport District, our tour group from the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program was tired.  I was exhausted.  A morning in cold Kendall Square in Cambridge followed by time in the Boston Innovation District left us all worn.  Not unnourished, but worn.

There is a certain type of building that I call a Cathedral of Modernity.  Perhaps it is more properly called a Cathedral to Modernity.  It had an industrial use, usually built about 100 years ago.  Other cities like Lawrence and Lowell are filled with them, old factories and warehouses and the like.  The Dry Dock building in Boston is one such building and its essence is unmistakeable from the moment you drive up to it.  Seven stories high, as long as the Prudential building is tall, it's massive and refined but not delicate.  Its utilitarian design doesn't hide an elegance of simplicity.  With so many large, multi-paned windows, it's an odd mixture of transparency and solid.

Back in the Second World War, tanks rolled off these lines onto waiting ships nearby.  Now this space will hold MassChallenge, the startup accelerator that reeks of the new innovation economy, but also represents the massive economic change underway in Boston, Cambridge, and in cities around the country most perfectly.

The MassChallenge move into the Dry Dock is only one small part in a much larger picture of the Boston Innovation District.  Mayor Tom Menino declared that this area would be an urban laboratory.  Fichera, on her tour, shared some of the fascinating new concepts being working on, like the idea of shared open ground floor space.  Yes, new residential buildings in the District are being asked to design with the idea of communal, open, ground floor work and meeting space.  Anyone can walk in off the street, sit down on a couch, pull out a laptop and work.  Anyone.  This is innovative.   Smart parking is also coming to the neighborhood, with sensors telling drivers where free parking spaces are, to reduce the amount of driving around the block until you find what you're looking for.  It's about increasing the efficiency of the resources we already have, like lobbies and parking spaces.  That's the part of the revolution in our economy that is both not new and entirely new.  It's about sharing more and owning less.  It's Millenial as opposed to Gen X or Gen Y.  It's technological, and it's communitarian.  It's about efficiency and it's about environmentalism.  The amazing faith in innovation to solve problems is awe-inspiring, but also possibly naive. Regardless, the Innovation District is undeniably a radical explosion of energy and creativity by a generation that is convinced it can do.  And seems to be doing. 

The District calls itself an urban lab, and by the sounds of it, it is.  Iterating a city as opposed to planning it is one of the radical concepts now being tested out in cities across the country.  In Boston, Tom Menino deserves the credit for this.  He was derided for being an urban mechanic when he was first elected.  No big vision, just a fixit guy.  At the end of his long tenure, he turned that around and said, let me be the new urban mechanic, the guy who rethinks this stuff.  And like most good elected leaders, he had the vision, created the office of New Urban Mechanics, and then has let it run. Thank goodness someone had the good sense to put Nicole Fichera in charge of her part.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Art? Sure. Modern? Not so sure.

A recent trip to the Met in NYC left me wondering: museums still seem to insist that Picasso is the pinnacle of modern, followed closely by his acolytes and other like-minded travelers.  Disclaimer - I know nothing about art.  But I do know this --

Pablo Picasso painted this painting 100 years ago:

The world as it looked to Picasso, back before the First World War.
This may be an arresting image.  It may still be a revolutionary image in some ways.  But it is no longer new.

Monday, November 18, 2013

On the Waterfront.

There are some upsides to not winning an election.  For the first time in my 47 years, I have seen On the Waterfront.  Even the Vatican considers this a significant film.  I am glad to know that my views and theirs are in line. 

Brando.  Brando!  Even 60 years later, he's as fresh and new and revolutionary as ever.  Even more so, given all the film that's happened in between now and then.  The naturalness and the attention to detail are unique.

Kazan.  Kazan?  Who is Elia Kazan? Coward and traitor? Fighter? Neo-con?  A very gifted director.  That he would get in bed with HUAC offends.  But life is always more complex than that. HUAC was an American Star Chamber, in a democracy no less.  But according to Kazan, he'd already broken with the Communists.  Faced with an unacceptable choice, he chose an unacceptable option.  But no worse than the other option.  Furthermore, the Communists were not just wrong, but dependent on coercion, that most pernicious of political tools.  As it turns out, in the next five decades, the capitalists won the day if not the argument and have managed to break the labor movement and hollow out the middle class all at the same time. 

For all the inherent brutality of the On the Waterfront world, both physical and psychological, the scenes depicted are quaint now.  Not that they aren't still brutal, it's just that they no longer exist in such proximity to our world.  Politically, we are different.  Economically too.  Find me an American city that has a dock scene like that?  Maybe union politics still aren't all that different. But unions don't play the role they once did.  And more to the point, our cities aren't like that anymore either.  They turn not on grease but on electrons.  Good, unless you try to make your money by manipulating grease.  

Both the personal and the political are not just the things of drama but of life, which is why art can imitate life, but more commonly it is the other way around.

The other thing about this film is that its 1950s-ness shines through. Any urbanist will love it for its grittiness. 

Today a city is pretty: a playground for the very rich or an absorber of the very poor. In the winter of 1953, people still went up on rooftops without a second thought.  No health and safety regulations there.  I am a nostalgist, but there is a glory in that time.  Kazan's camera unintentionally captures details that tell the story of that world so well: the brick chimney with its mortar gone, brick on brick. The Empire State Building makes a cameo across the Hudson in the background.  Meanwhile, the film's most famous line, one of the most famous lines in all of film, is said in one of its quietest scenes.  Not some waterfront ballet scored by Leonard Bernstein but in the back of a taxi cab, one brother to another. Brando utters "I could have been a contender."  We've all felt that way.

Bold, black and white, beautiful -- Story, Location, Actors -- On the Waterfront is so palpably itself.  Unlike so many films, this film carries its own weight, easily. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Needed Revolution

I once heard Mitchell Silver, the former president of the American Planning Association, say something I believe to be very very true.  Silver said that every planning meeting, regardless of what community it’s in, takes place in a room filled with 65 year olds, and their answer to every question is “No”.  He went on "That's no way to plan."

Indeed, and what he noted about America more generally is true in Cambridge too.  A cynical pol walks into that room, reads it correctly and exploits it. An unsuccessful pol (quod vide) simply gets fed up with the feeling of entitled opposition and grows dismissive of it. 

It’s the odd but all too common scenario that exactly the wrong people are in the room shaping the discussion, guiding the outcomes.  None of the huge investment in Cambridge right now is happening because of the AARP generation.  None of it.  That they should be the tastemakers is an awful paradox that needs to be upended.  This latest local election is a reflection of the start of that.  The greatest political revolution waiting to happen in Cambridge is the generational one.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

No Middle Income Housing Without Subsidies

At a NAIOP breakfast meeting this morning, a panel looked at the housing boom in Boston.  The market is strong there particularly at the high end.  With the recent City Council race done here in Cambridge, it's time to look very seriously at a campaign promise that all candidates made (including myself) to create more middle income housing.

According to Steve Faber of the real estate development firm Related Beal at today's NAIOP panel, there is no way to build middle income housing in high rise construction in Boston without some subsidy.  I'm going to wager that what is true in Boston is also true here in the People's Republic.  So where is the subsidy going to come from?

It can come either as cash in some form, or it can be a subsidy from other market rate units, or it can come in the form of helping on the land costs.  This last option is particularly interesting because Cambridge owns some land in Central Square.  The parking lots that sit off of Massachusetts Avenue are the city's.  It is my belief that the city should hold onto this land, and use it in the same way that MIT uses land -- long-term leases for tenants who can build on it.  That way, the city doesn't relinquish the land, which would be near impossible to buy back once it was gone, and it can generate money for the city.  Additionally, it will allow the city to pursue policy goals it seeks to outline, such as this middle income housing.

Of course, these are all for the next Council to deliberate.  Had I been there, this is what I would be advocating for.  I wish them well in their work.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Lawrence, Mass. A thing of beauty

If you like urban things, as I do, you'll love Lawrence, Massachusetts.  The buildings that line the Merrimack River are of brick and stone, once great big belching machines of production fed by water power and human power and for many years devourers of the raw materials of the American south, cotton grown by slaves.

Thousands of people arrived here every morning
The architecture of these cathedrals of mechanization is no less than majestic, grand in scale but delicate in detail, showing a care for small things in large things that has largely departed us in the intervening century.
A clock tower for the workers, or perhaps for the burghers

An 1848 factory, as beautiful as any building
Towers to the sky

The city was a planned city, created by our first industrialists for efficiency of production.  Its plan is simple and obvious.  Technology beckoned a new way of thinking about work.  Land was found, and wealth responded.  This is one of the first instances of the American spirit expressed in the industrial age.

Of course, all of that is gone now. 

A lonely, boarded up diner amidst the empty buildings -- a final remnant from a century of activity

The economics that made Lawrence possible has all changed. The New England farm girls that worked the mills and the looms, later to be replaced by immigrant men and women who filled these factories by the thousands and created the labor movement -- they are things of the American past.  What's left isn't even their memory, since so few actually remember.

The 1912 Bread and Roses strike started here

But on the banks of the Merrimack River sit empty buildings that seem to call out for some new use, hoping to be rediscovered not just for their beauty but for their value in this post-industrial American age. 

New tenants fill this old building -- these people work on laptops instead

And then of course, there are the windows.

I see a sea of glass, as beautiful as any

Thursday, July 25, 2013

What I saw on Pearl Street

I was on Pearl Street talking to a voter the other night.  He had been trimming the hedges in front of his house. The sun had set but the summer's evening light was lingering.  Our topic was the development pressures in Central Square.

A young man walked by us with a backpack on his shoulder.  He looked like a college student.  We paid him no mind but when he got to the corner, he started to shake his bag violently, distributing the contents onto the sidewalk.  It's the kind of thing a crazy person might do, but he didn't look like the type of person who'd be losing his mind on a Cambridge street.

He then approached the two of us, and asked "do you hear something ticking in my bag?"  As preposterous as it sounded, we did.  Loud enough to hear from five feet away, and persistent.   Should he call the police?  Well, yes, if you have no idea where this sound is coming from.  So he called the Cambridge police and explained his unlikely tale.

The police showed up within a couple of minutes and cordoned off the area, blue lights flashing and all.  There we were, standing a few feet from this bag, waiting for someone to do something.  I think none of us was particularly sure who or what.  But we waited.  Even the police waited.

Then a plain clothes officer arrived.  His chinos and his madras shirtsleeves and his shaved head would have allowed him to slip innocuously into any crowd, his only giveaway being the radio attached to his hip.  He walked past the uniformed sergeant and approached the bag at a deliberate but unaltering pace.  It was neither a professionally trained caution nor foolhardy bravado.  It was however bravery. Few things are truly scarier than the unknown, and he was walking toward it. The rest of us stood around and watched.

He kneeled over the bag and leaned his head toward the sound.  He began to peel back the top flap, looking for the source of the tick.  I looked down the sidewalk at him in the fading July light.  His head was no more than two feet above this thing and I thought to myself -- if there's a bomb in there and it goes off, he's dead.   

What kind of job is it that takes you from a coffee break to a possible backpack bomb within minutes just as part of your everyday work?  It's impossible to be there and not to feel the tension of the moment. 

He pulled out a ticking black box from bag and announced "I don't know what it is, but it's not a bomb".  The student approached and realized that it was a metronome, something musicians use when they are practicing.  Maybe his friend had put it in his bag.  The situation had defused. I started to walk away, but it didn't escape my thinking that for the police, this constitutes a normal day on the job.  Acts of courage are seen as nothing more than doing your work. And they go largely unknown, unnoted or unnoticed by the public at large. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Koontz decision and planning in Cambridge

(Below is a letter I submitted to the Cambridge Chronicle)

While the Supreme Court's recent rulings on the Voting Rights Act and on the Defense of Marriage Act were getting all the attention, an equally important but much less noted decision came from the Justices on land use.  The case, referred to as Koontz, has wide-ranging implications.  "The Court's decision today has jeopardized local governments' ability to ensure that the costs of new development are fairly born by its developers and users," wrote W. Paul Farmer, the head of the American Planning Association. Professor John Echeverria added in a separate opinion piece, "The decision will very likely encourage local government officials to avoid any discussion with developers related to permit conditions that, in the end, might have let both sides find common ground.”

What does this decision mean for Cambridge? As many would agree, the challenge in this city today is not how to attract investment.  The challenge is how we maintain a sustainable community, a community that will thrive in its diversity and vibrancy in the 21st century. Talk to any real estate agent and they will tell you the same story -- a condo for sale receives multiple offers all above asking price.  The winner in these sweepstakes is the one who can pay cash up front.  This is not sustainable in the long run.

One of the ways that we are countering these pressures, not just in housing but across the range of needs in this community, is through agreements that the city and developers reach during discussions over development.  The message has been clear: companies in Cambridge must focus beyond just their workforce and see themselves as partners of the whole community. Ultimately, their success depends on the city's success.

To achieve this, we must strive to create predictability in the process, where companies and the city know what the ground rules are.  Make no mistake, these agreements provide significant benefits to the city and its citizens.  The Foundry Building is just a recent example.  

It’s a set of challenges that most municipalities would welcome, but to navigate these waters successfully requires real leadership and vision about how this city can be vibrant, diverse, and eclectic while holding on to its role as an epicenter of economic activity. Negotiated agreements have been an important part of the answer.  Now, let’s hope Koontz doesn’t bring to Cambridge something else that everyone is predicting from this decision: litigation.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The shape of things

A recent trip to Gotham City reminds me that full urbanity can be a fabulous experience, and few places do it better than New York.  In fact, that city does two things so well, two things that come so naturally. 
  • It embodies history through its buildings.
  • It never abandons its dramatic sense of the theater of place.  
These come together in many wonderful moments when New York is experienced as stage set.  While walking down one of its avenues, the thought can linger that this might be a movie.  It happens often.

Here are some of the sights that prompt:

What honeycomb looks like as a building

Right out of Hitchcock's Rear Window

Would The Thin Man dash down these stairs?

In a city of so much wealth, a couple of old Hondas now mark true distinction

It's not Oxford, it's Central Park West

Ducking the sunset

Brave New World

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

To inflect or to coincide?

Today feels like an inflection point, a time of change.  It may merely be the coincidence of big events happening on the same day, or it may reflect a tectonic shift, pressure that has accumulated along the fault lines of our debates finally releasing their pressure, exposing the places where we differ and how time has changed our needs.  Here's my list for June 25, 2013:
  1. President Obama came out with a strong statement about climate and the environment today.  My fellow Cantrabrigian and climate activist John Pitkin summed it up this way in a blast email:
    This big news is heartening.  President Obama just did two of the biggest things he could to lead the fight against climate change: committing to move forward on rules to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants, and committing to reject Keystone XL if it increases carbon pollution - which it does. Our work is just beginning, but today is an important day to thank the President for his leadership.
  2. The Supreme Court struck down what the New York Times calls "the heart of the Voting Rights Act" in what on its face seems like an awful decision, saying that nine states, almost all of them in the South, no longer need federal "pre-clearance" before taking action on issues of voting.  The impact of this decision will be immediate, as Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott demonstrated with the statement: “With today’s decision, the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately. Redistricting maps passed by the Legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government.” 
  3. I believe when polls close at the end of today, Ed Markey will be elected the next United States senator from Massachusetts, filling the seat vacated by now Secretary of State John Kerry. While a Markey victory will come as no shock to anyone, it is a great boost to the work that needs to happen on the environment, on gun control and on a whole host of other issues.
  4. And a random tidbit to add to all of this: I find that Cambridge, MA has a higher population density than greater London, but has one almost equivalent to Copenhagen.  It turns out of large North American cities, New York is a leader in efficiency.  All of this comes from the website: thisbigcity -- and the nice graphic can be found here:

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Technology, Efficiency and the 83 bus

It is trite and true to say that technology changes things.  Of course it does.  Think of the steam engine, or the automobile.  Or in a more modern context, think of the internet or the iPhone.

One of the changes technology brings is increased efficiency to old systems.  Ready information at our fingertips today, so prevalent and growing more so, gives us much greater knowledge and much greater confidence in our decisions -- removing a lot of the second-guessing that humans are known to do.

The example in my mind -- Pocket MBTA -- an iPhone app that provides real-time information about when the next bus will arrive at your stop.  Because this information is based on GPS data from the bus itself, the estimates are very accurate.  This fundamentally changes the old truism that waiting 5 minutes at a bus stop feels very different from waiting 5 minutes on a train platform.

Indeed the T has opted for online apps over installing electronic signs in bus shelters for a host of reasons, chief among them that smart phones, already widely used will become close to universal so the T can share information without incurring a cost. This is the power that public data and the private market can have to change old behaviors.

Of course, now opting for the bus -- over walking, over the train, over riding a bike, over driving -- is no longer an exercise in patience and pain management.  Choosing the bus now makes sense, and this no doubt helps explain why ridership has continued to increase, with total T trips topping 400 million in 2012.

None of this could happen without the Charlie Card, it must be added.  Paying for your trip without having to fumble for change makes that trip more enjoyable and therefore more likely.

These two aspects make my favorite bus ride not simply more practical, but also more possible and therefore more probable.  You see, this was all an ode to the 83!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Tiananmen in Berlin, a memoir

Twenty-four years ago today, I was sitting in a tiny bedroom in a second floor apartment on Boddinstrasse in Berlin, Germany.  Though it was a sunny day, the room was shrouded in tangerine  light from the orange curtain draped across the window. 

I was renting the room from a guy named Beil, which means ax in German.  He was never there, always at his girlfriend's apartment somewhere else in the city. 

Berlin still had the Wall then, die Mauer as it was called.  It was a wild city filled with anarchists, homosexuals, draft resisters, artists, feminists and the occasional fascist. If you were a German willing to live in Berlin, you didn't have to do your time in the army.  It was a very liberal city with a very illiberal past.  For a guy who'd just been living in Berkeley, California, this was an eye-opener.

There was a beautiful museum in the city.  I don't remember its name, but it was housed in a square building of balanced 19th century proportions.  Somehow, it hadn't been destroyed during the war.  Next to it were the old underground cells where the Nazis used to torture Communists in the early days of Hitler's reign.  The white porcelain tiles on the walls were still seeable down in the trench where the rooms still sat - part ruin, part trash, part historical artifact.  Presumably the tiles made washing the blood off much easier. 

Erich Honecker was one of the most famous occupants of those cells.  He was a young Communist in the 1930s, but forty years later he was the head of the East German government, just across the Spree, in a different country, with the same language.  In what seemed to me a very German way, this place had been "forgotten about" until it was "discovered" during a construction project.  When people realized what it was, they preserved it as a lesson for future Germans. 

Elsewhere, the old Anhalter Bahnhof, one of Berlin's glorious train stations, still lay roofless, cordoned off and collapsed.  It was 44 years after allied bombs ceased falling on the city.  That was just normal old Berlin. Who knew it was about to turn into a wild time. 

On June 4, 1989 Michael Chang was climbing the ladder of the French Open.  The California teenager would go on to beat Stefan Edberg on the hot red courts of Roland Garros, one of the great finals ever of that tournament.  That happened later.

June 4 wasn't a Saturday, it was Sunday. Regardless, my German wasn't that good.  Watching the news generally wasn't very enriching, but it wasn't always totally futile either.  Information came to me in dribs and drabs.  This time it didn't really matter because something visual was going on -- some guy in a white shirt was standing in front of a row of tanks. Some guy in Tiananmen Square was holding back a row of tanks.  The driver of the lead tank tried to coax his metal behemoth around the lonely guy.  It was not an act befitting a massive, armored killing machine.  It was more like a guilty dog trying to skirt past his master.  Why he didn't just run him over we will never know.

In my tangerine room I had a tiny black and white TV on which I watched all these events unfold.  I got West Berlin news, and I got East Berlin news.  Often it was very different news, but on June 4 the pictures were the same.  The guy.  The tanks.  Still, the descriptions were very different, one might even say worlds apart.  Either this was a defiant stand against oppression or counter-revolutionary forces undermining the march of progress.  Talk about an ideological schism. 

I was later to learn the phrase "Where you stand depends on where you sit".  It's an old bit of Washington wisdom that says your point of view is highly reliant on what responsibilities you have.  The expanded statement would read something like "Where you stand [on an issue] depends where [on which Congressional committees] you sit."  Well, in the great battle to define history, two German newscasters, one East, one West, sat no more than a few miles from each other and through battling copy editors and compliant teleprompters ushered in the era that would be called the "End of History", an era that also generated plenty of American talk of a "Peace Dividend". 

Does anyone even remember George H.W. Bush?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Innovations in planning

This past week, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council held its annual meeting in the drab desolate spectacle called the Marriott Hotel in Quincy, MA.  Getting to the meeting was no joy either -- a 25 minute ride on the Red Line down to the Quincy Adams stop was augmented by a 20 minute walk from the T station to the hotel on sidewalks that could claim nothing other than being afterthoughts in a world made entirely for the automobile.  That urban environment is a perfect example of why we will spend the next 30 years trying to undo the last 50 years of planning and construction. 

Being at the conference however was better than the trip there.

Ever since my panel discussion at Harvard's GSD on innovation districts this past April, I have been thinking about innovation in planning.  The panel spent two hours trying to understand how "innovation districts" work and why they work, but it occurred to me at the end of that session that the next question is not how the districts help to encourage innovation, but what planning itself needs to do to innovate and incorporate some of the new capabilities that exist through technology.  I think it was Nicole Fichera's wrap up question that got me to that thought.

This week's MAPC meeting brought me back to it.  In one presentation, a transportation planner argued that interventions will happen better by testing out possible options before making the full investment.  A temporary bike lane with cones in the roadway will show more than a six-month planning process ever could.  At least that is his thesis, one which I fully support.

He was really asking -- can we problem-solve through an iterative approach?  Must we always plan before we act? These questions are not at all dissimilar from what happens in innovation districts.  Trying and then trying-again is one of the fundamental aspects of our innovation economy.  The can-do attitude of most entrepreneurs  follows this path, and the investment money in the innovation world certainly supports it.  Not every dice roll needs to come up double-sixes.  It's an interesting concept for a high-tech startup, but an even more interesting way to think about a city. 

There can be no better example of this than what is happening in Las Vegas right now.  Downtown Las Vegas is being rebuilt currently by an energetic team of youthful dynamic leaders almost none of whom have traditional urban planning or design backgrounds.  What they do have is confidence, energy, access to money, and a belief that the same qualities that make the start-up world go can also be applied to cities where the return will come not in dollars but in community value.  What they are doing has huge implications for the future of cities in the United States and globally.   This is a fascinating study of 21st century urban planning in which planners are not being asked to participate.

The example in Las Vegas is familiar these days -- Tony Hsieh, the founder of the online retailer Zappos, decided to move his company from a suburban office park in Henderson, NV into the heart of downtown Las Vegas, 20 miles away, to draw and retain talented workers.  Yet it posed many significant challenges: the new headquarters is surrounded by nothing but vacant parking lots.

The land that the Zappos/Downtown Project will be redeveloping, across from the new Zappos HQ

To manage this complex development challenge, Zappos created Downtown Project, a group that is re-building a city from the ground up.  They are defining success by some of Ed Glaeser's metrics in his book The Triumph of the City.  It remains to be seen what this lack of urban expertise will mean for their results.  What is undeniable is that this team is approaching their many challenges with a high degree of creativity and willingness to risk.

Both of these examples point to a concept I find very powerful, "The City as Platform", and they ask the question: Can you iterate a city? In some ways, the answer is obviously yes.  That is what cities are, after all: iterations of design, construction, market, demographics, management, politics, outside forces, broader economic trends. But can you iterate a city quickly?  That answer is probably no.  Development projects by their very nature are long-term investments, both of capital and also of concept.  Undoing something that took ten years to move from initial design through permitting to construction and occupancy is not likely to be undone hastily.  Yet this is exactly the large question that the Downtown Project folks are putting to planners.  Their energy is infections and their confidence sincere.

The MAPC meeting wrapped up on Wednesday and then offered a tour of downtown Quincy, which points to the final innovation in planning.

Quincy, Massachusetts is an ancient city by North American standards, and birthplace of two American presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams.  It is also in the midst of a large redevelopment effort partnering with Street-Works, a private development team.

Street-Works comes across as an innovation in handling urban infrastructure investment costs.  The Street-Works model is that the city does not do all the hard investment up front and then go out and solicit bidders to come fill in the rest -- by the S-W accounting, this is the traditional model of urban re-development, and generally  doesn't work particularly well.  Instead, what S-W does is build infrastructure as needed.  They own the infrastructure until such time as the city buys it back from them.  Meanwhile, by prior agreement, the landowners in the zone where this work will happen have agreed to cover the cost of these improvements through an additional levy.  Does it all work?  According to S-W it does, based on their experience in Connecticut.

Street-Works co-founder Richard Heapes explaining the model of downtown Quincy
It has a strong component of privatizing the public realm (and responsibilities), but with the notion that the tax-payers are not stuck holding the bag for improvements that most communities can never afford to make.

Altogether, these three examples are efforts to rethink planning and its processes both at very large scales and at much more micro scales.  These approaches, and many other related efforts to re-think anew, will be the thread in planning over the next two decades.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Michelle, ma belle

My friend Michelle Cottle recently emailed me that her friend Norman Kelley is raising $10,000 to finish a movie about Charlie Peters, the founding editor of the The Washington Monthly.

What Michelle, a former TWM editor herself, neglected to tell me was that she had just had a bilateral mastectomy.  She only alluded to it by pointing me to one of her links -- what she had written about it:

It catches you, news like this.  It really catches you.

With such hard news, I sent her a link to a Burt Bacharach song.  That may be a laughable statement, but it's true.  Straight out of the Brill Building in Manhattan, Bacharach and his song writing partner Hal David got the 1960s right on the mark and wrote a beautiful lyric when they wrote: "What the world needs now is love sweet love ..."

At the risk of triteness, what Michelle had was not breast cancer, it was courage. Both courage and language.  Language to talk about it.  Courage to endure it.  Courage to share it.

These are words that go together well.

You can hear a wonderful YouTube medley of Bacharach tunes played by Stevie Wonder, Arturo Sandoval, Diana Krall, Lyle Lovett, Sheryl Crow, Shelea and others at a White House ceremony for the Gershwin Prize here:


You also can support Norman Kelley's efforts to record the importance of Charlie Peters and TWM by going to his website where he's running a '100 x 100' campaign to raise the funds.  Both Charlie and TWM are Washington institutions, and for good reason.  Peters is the apostle of a brand of journalism that does not renounce opinions but embraces them.  Foremost among these is the thesis that government can do good and should try.  Its creed seeks neither softness nor toughness per se but honesty and a secular faith that our capacities are to be admired and employed, not denigrated and hamstrung.  His magazine meanwhile has served as a starting point for many of Washington's best writers, editors, and journalists for decades now. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Friday Grab Bag: Descartes, bodies, carpets, Cleopatra

It's a Friday, and it's been a little while since I've posted and a long while since I've posted a Friday Grab Bag.  After all we've been through, it's spring finally and beautiful in Massachusetts today.  This leads me to think that some random thoughts on random topics with no discernible thread is what people need.  So, here goes.

Friday philosophy (complete with a dead body). Think about this sentence for a minute: "Police confirmed yesterday that the body found floating in the river belonged to Sally Jones, a sophomore at the local community college who had been missing since last Friday."  While this sentence is made-up, it nevertheless could appear in a newspaper article reporting on an ongoing investigation. What's interesting to me is this -- what can it mean for a corpse to "belong" to someone? It makes no sense.  The body is not in my opinion distinguishable from the "self" and furthermore, even if it is, the "self" referred to in the sentence is dead, and therefore no longer able to own anything.  This is a case of Miss Marple meeting Rene Descartes and the offspring not being too pretty. 

Cleopatra dons a disguise. On a completely other note, I was talking to a 7th grader the other day and she was telling me about her project on Cleopatra (queen of ancient Egypt famed in part because of her relationship with Marc Antony and in part by her dramatic demise by an asp).  Of the facts she related to me about Cleopatra's life was this one that I did not know (retold here by me using her emphases):

Long before Marc Antony, Cleopatra was intrigued by Julius Caesar who was in the process of installing himself as the first emperor of Rome.  Cleopatra wanted to meet Caesar but going to Rome overtly would have been a complicated issue politically, so she opted for another method -- clandestinely.  Of course she would travel by ship, but how could she be on the ship without being spotted?  Her answer was to go to Rome rolled up in a carpet, a carpet that would be delivered to Caesar as a gift, and which when unrolled would produce this woman, the queen of Egypt.

A fabulous story, though it is hard to imagine what the travel accommodations were like.

Note: Wikipedia fills out the story wonderfully and dramatically and gives a much more accurate telling of this story, correcting my bad information, such as -- this happened in Alexandria, Egypt not in Rome, and Cleopatra sought Caesar as a trump card in her power struggle with her brother Ptolemy.  The fact that she had Caesar's child 9 months after the "carpet encounter" is an interesting fact too, as is the source of this tale, Plutarch.

Of course there have been many images made of Cleopatra over the centuries, so pivotal is her story to our imaginations.

Here are two separated by 19 centuries:

Cleopatra.  Egypt, ~30BC

Cleopatra meets Julius Caesar.  French, Jean-Leon Gerome, ~1867.

Friday, April 26, 2013

A city. A shutdown. A suspect. And us.

It beggars the mind to jot down last week's events in Boston and Cambridge and Watertown - Monday's two bombs near the finish line at the Boston Marathon that killed three and wounded many more; the release of the video footage identifying the suspects and possibly precipitating Thursday's very violent night -- the robbing of a 7-11, the killing of MIT police officer Sean Collier, the car chase from Cambridge into Watertown and the shootout in Watertown that killed one of the suspects and sent the other one into hiding; finally, Friday's day-long manhunt for suspect number 2 culminating in his capture while he bled under a tarp in a boat parked in a backyard.  The first of funerals have taken place, and if injury weren't enough, Westboro Baptist Church showed up to add insult.  Teamsters Local 25 set up a human chain to protect the mourners. This week, Cambridge City Hall held a minute of silence and Officer Sean Collier was remembered by the MIT community with Vice President Joe Biden in attendance.

I still cannot grasp the meaning of last week's events though many good efforts have been made to parse them.  As an urbanist, I am interested in what this says about cities, though I must concede that Shakespeare probably got it best when he asked "What is the city but the people?"

Many smaller stories tile the larger people mosaic -- the police officer able to weep only in the solitude following Officer Collier's funeral; the acquaintance's girlfriend who got shrapnel in the chest from the exploding backpack; the friend woken on Thursday night to the sound of a war on the street outside her house in suburban Watertown; these cannot be minimized.

What transpired on Friday, however, is equally baffling. What can it mean when a whole urban area of over 1 million people comes to a self-imposed halt so that law enforcement can pursue one man?  Where have we come to, and should we be happy that we are there?

The day certainly showed not only the determination but the capabilities that America and an American city can bring.  Within four days after the bombing, one of the suspects was dead and the other was in custody, wounded. 

This incredible law enforcement capacity exists for a host of reasons - training, cooperation, technology.  But there are other reasons too. The streets on Friday offered not a soul nor a sound other than the wail of sirens of motorcycle police joined from time to time by the rumble of heavy trucks rolling down the center of the street, canvass-topped and painted in the light tan color appropriate for desert warfare.

The streets were empty because the people stayed inside, in response to a "shelter in place" statement by the governor, a statement that was not an order, but a request. 

How does such a request produce such a result?  Social media must be a crucial element.  Only by our interconnectedness - the fact that we are wired to each other and to the web - could Friday's complete shutdown occur.

It brought results.  Still, it produced worries too.  Ought we have been more circumspect? Do we risk group-think building a momentum of its own with unsettling and potentially dangerous outcomes?  Simply believing that we act for the right reasons does not protect us from being wrong, which is only a rephrasing of the aphorism that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions". 

The confirmation on Thursday that the body found floating off India Point Park in Providence, Rhode Island this week belonged to 22-year-old Brown University student Sunil Trepathi points out the danger.  Wrongly identified by online sleuths as one of the bombing suspects, Trepathi's name was blasted around the Twitterverse as if he should be sought by the FBI.  The viral nature of the accusation got so bad - while so completely unfounded and incorrect - that the editors of Reddit later apologized to family for what they described as a "witch hunt". The family no doubt appreciated the contrition, but the Genie had left the bottle.  The family issued this statement:

"As we carry indescribable grief, we also feel incredible gratitude.  To each of one  you -- from our hometown and to many distant lands -- we extend our thanks of the words of encouragement, for your thoughts, for your hands, for your prayers, and for the love you have so generously shared.   
"Your compassionate spirits is felt by Sunil and by all of us.  This last month has changed our lives forever, and we hope it will change yours too."
They concluded: "Take care of one another.  Be gentle, be compassionate.  Be open to letting someone in when it is you who is faltering. Lend your hand. We need it.  The world needs it."

In the odd paradox of the human spirit, those who have the most legitimate reason for hardness often evince the opposite and ask others to do the same. 

It is always tempting to assume we have entered some new era, that technology has fundamentally changed us, that "history has ended" -- to quote one of the great whoppers promulgated after the fall of the Soviet Union.  History hasn't ended. Technology has changed many things, but it hasn't fundamentally changed us, and as Americans, we have an obligation to maintain  the most important aspect of our freedom -- the weary, wary sideways glance by which the governed and the governing view each other. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Surely some revelation is at hand.

For some reason, two lines from William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" have been rattling around in my head over these past few days:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 
To whom these lines apply, I know not, but Yeats said many things well. This is no exception.

You can read the whole poem here.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Innovation Districts: Fad or Future?

Are innovation districts a passing fad, or are here to stay?  This was the motivating question behind a panel discussion I moderated at Harvard's Graduate School of Design on April 3.

Watch the discussion here:

The event was organized by an ambitious group of planning students at the school, and in the course of preparing it, we covered many aspects of innovation districts and developed a series of important, interrelated questions about what they mean.  Here's how we phrased it:
Innovation Districts are all the rage, with cities around the world attempting to create them. What makes them work?  What are their local and regional implications?  Can they be planned, or must they occur organically?  Can they be replicated? These are just some of the questions to be discussed by a panel of experts on April 3 at Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

The distinguished panel consisted of:
  • Tim Rowe, founder, Cambridge Innovation Center
  • David Dixon, principal, Goody Clancy
  • Guillaume Pasquier, deputy director, Paris Saclay
  • Gavin Kleespies, executive director, Cambridge Historical Society
  • Marc Draisen, executive director, Metropolitan Area Planning Council
Click on the link above to watch the discussion.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

New Construction: These numbers just in.

In 2012, Cambridge witnessed groundbreakings for over 1.8 million square feet of new construction, almost all of it in Kendall Square.

Meanwhile across the river in Boston, three million square feet of new construction is underway right now in their innovation district, with another 20 million planned.

This deserves an exclamation point! These are very large numbers in very small geographic areas.  If ever there were statistics that screamed "Cities are the 'it' thing in 2013", these would be them.

We're a long way from 1975.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Remember to chew before swallowing.

After Mitt Romney's crash and burn in the 2012 elections, the radio waves were alive with anger, gloating, recriminations and analysis over the outcome.  Sensible people on the right (which means only not on the extreme fringe) pointed out that this is the fifth time in the last six presidential election cycles that the Republicans have lost the popular vote.  Of course that's true.  Starting in 1992, in every election but one, Americans have chosen the Democrat over the alternative: Clinton, Clinton, GORE, <Bush>, Obama, Obama.

Still, the wisest observation I heard about GOP's problems boiled down to this: "George W. Bush is an undigested political fact in the Republican Party."  

Also true. Without facing the long trail of destruction that Bush 43 and the neo-cons left in their path (dare we call it their "trail of tears"), the Right's hope of building a winning national coalition will be held back a generation at least.  My advice: Start chewing.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Kendall Square, a brief historical sketch.

[Note: The panel discussion on innovation districts held in April at Harvard's GSD is viewable by clicking here.]

Kendall Square is the story of the life and death and rebirth of an urban landscape in the heart of one of the Northeast's most important regions, the Boston metropolitan area.  Kendall Square is also the story of the transformation of the American economy from industrial powerhouse immediately following World War II to today's post-industrial knowledge economy.

It is odd to look at a 1947 aerial photograph of eastern Cambridge and realize to what degree industry was an integral part of the urban fabric.  What today would be referred to as "noxious uses" -- industrial machine shops, gas storage tanks and the like -- were very much woven into everyday life in cities across the country, even in university enclaves like Cambridge.  While these uses were often put on waterfronts because in a pre-environmental era flushing waste into water bodies was seen as an acceptable solution to an otherwise challenging problem, these types of facilities were never far from the homes of the customers they might be serving or from the labor they might be employing.  The side-by-sideness of it -- industry so near residential -- is very foreign to American sensibilities in most urban centers these days, but it was taken as fact by urban dwellers of all income-strata.

1947 view of Kendall Square with old industrial uses.  Residential commences just outside of photo.

By the 1960s, times were changing.  The long-term viability of the city's industrial base eroded while John Kennedy's 1962 promise to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade produced land-use consequences in Cambridge.  This was the era of governmental reach and big visions.  NASA was in growth mode and chose to site its Electronics Research Center in the city, in part because its administrator James Webb had long-standing ties to MIT.

NASA Electronics Research Center under construction in Cambridge, circa 1966

Meanwhile, the promise of urban renewal animated many decisions in municipalities across the country.  These two forces combined to radically alter the landscape of the eastern section of Cambridge.  The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority worked with all deliberate speed in conjunction with the federal government and local officials to assemble land and clear it.  The CRA didn't stop at the boundaries of the NASA property.  Everything out to Binney Street was stripped of buildings.

Kendall Square as it appeared in late 1970, with all the land cleared by Cambridge Redevelopment Authority

NASA unexpectedly departed Cambridge in 1970, the only NASA center ever to close.  While there is some speculation that Richard Nixon's antipathy to the Kennedys had something to do with the decision to shutter the facility, it nevertheless left Cambridge with an unpleasant question: once you've created a moonscape, how do you repopulate it with buildings and people?

The answer they came up with: do a plan, then find a developer who will build.  In a decade-long effort culminating in the 1979 agreement between the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority and Boston Properties, the CRA spelled out a grand vision for the land, and the developer promised to deliver.

This is the plan that Boston Properties has followed since the initial agreement in 1979.

And deliver they did.  Over the following decade, Boston Properties constructed close to 2 million square feet of new buildings on lots that had been used for parking.

A 1975 photo looking west on Main Street. On the right are the parking lots that will be filled in.

A 2013 Google Earth view of Main Street, with the parking lots on the right completely filled in.

There is widespread agreement that this urban fabric falls short of current tastes, but back then a building was a very welcomed thing.  Cambridge is trying to retrofit this area now, but today's concerns are worlds away from the challenges of 1975.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Dogs and cats (and dinosaurs), Oh My!

There are matters of great consequence to discuss.  We are creatures of mind and body and spirit.  Literature awaits our thinking selves.  As do politics.  So similarly, science and religion. History, yes! Languages, ancient and modern, they too can join!

So was I ungenerous yesterday to turn a haughty nose up in the Harvard Coop?  Yes, it's a place where generations have trod ... to get their readings, begin their learnings, march down the path of academia, knowledge, thinking.

I felt first a blip of surprise that comes when an odd notion passes before your mind.  Then with further reflection (and hardening confirmation) came a light grip of disdain coupled with fleeting queasy nausea.

Why, I asked myself, were there so many damn books about dogs and cats on the display tables of the Harvard Coop?  I mean, where the hell have we come to?

The questions flowed like water: Is this a fad? Is it like a virus that has swept through the book publishing world?  Is Cambridge, MA one of those target audiences, too smart to read Proust, but not too overburdened to read about Fluffy?  I mean really!

It's an odd coalition when a book publisher sees a market, a bookstore sees a customer, a book reader sees a non-threatening topic in which to while away some time, and book writers -- all serious and committed -- pump this stuff out.  It is where economics meets Zeitgeist, and it all aligns to produce this.

Herewith is my evidence.  You be the judge!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Push out leaves to look for light, these little plants, that's what they do.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Union made.

Eddie Wright wasn't going to take "shut up" for an answer.  The former business agent (read: president) of Iron Workers Local 7, Eddie was having his moment in the spotlight, and he was going to have it, all of it.  Last week's NAACP annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast was the venue, and after a long life of lifting iron, organizing men, fighting bad developers, and building the cities of Cambridge, Boston and the region, now was his time to talk.  Eddie Wright was being recognized.  Eddie Wright was being honored.

Eddie Wright isn't a tall man.  Perhaps he's 5'6", and that's stretching it.  But he's a stout fire plug of a big heart.  He's a Cambridge kid through and through.  Back when you could be a working class boy from a working class family in this town, he was one of them.  Silver-haired now, he remembers his old neighborhood with the touching fondness of age and loves his high school even more.  He's a Rindge man -- that is, the old Rindge Tech.

Eddie Wright is from a dying breed: working class whites who linked their politics to Robert Kennedy and accepted his dream of America as their dream of America.  Deeply conservative in some ways, these men are more radically liberal than most every person in the audience last week at the Cambridge Marriott.  Eddie Wright is not a yuppie and never was one.  Eddie Wright is not a man of iChat and Google Earth and cappuccinos.  Eddie Wright is from a time when organized labor was a force in our economy and working men were hard hard men, but strong enough inside and out to raise the liberal banner.

Eddie Wright, a man who has organized many a picket line in his day, told the story of Martin Luther King organizing pickets in the South in early Civil Rights days.  Eddie commented to his well-healed listeners just how hard it is to maintain a picket for 365 days, something King was able to do.  Of course, the protests were getting people arrested.  That was in part the point, but no one had money for bail.  Eddie said a rich Jewish philanthropist from New York City who also happened to be a Communist was posting bail so the protesters could exit jail and go right back out on the picket line.  This was the "struggle" part of the Civil Rights struggle, and Eddie Wright knew it intuitively better than the multi-racial audience he was talking to.

Eddie Wright is not the glossy veneer of most Cambridge liberals.  He's not Harvard-cut and groomed, all polished to vote Democratic and own a Volvo.  He is the remainder of the dying world that liberals say they want to protect, but most have never seen.  

Eddie Wright is also a man who could have walked off the screen of a Sydney Greenstreet film.  But he's real.  And he is a treasure.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Woody Allen on my mind.

I've been watching Woody Allen films recently.  As with most things, it's not entirely clear why.  To the best of my knowledge, it all started when I saw a three minute clip from Hannah and Her Sisters on YouTube.  It was one of those accidental YouTube sightings, when you're actually looking for something else, and then out of the corner of your eye, you see a "Suggested Post".

I loved Hannah and Her Sisters.  It came from that halcyon time (whatever the hell that actually means) in Allen's movie making -- the decade and a half centered around the 1980s when the ink that formed in drops at the nib of his prolific pen was all pearls ... and movies upon movies, each of deceptive depth, bounced like too many little pink playground balls before our eyes.  In New York, these balls were called Spaldeens, though you would have spelled them correctly "Spaldings".  Wisdom cloaked in neurotic New Yorkese.

One of the great moments in Hannah is a meal around a large table in a New York apartment.  I can think of no other scene that conveys that New York better, by inhabiting so intimately the room in which the complexity of Manhattan life takes place.

Then there's a scene when Woody walks around the Upper West Side, including a portion on Broadway.  I cannot quite place the actual location though I know I know it well.  It's like trying to remember a dream.  The knowledge is there, deeply ingrained, but not responding.  Of course, Hannah was filmed almost 30 years ago. 

A street setting caught on film becomes a historical record of place.  But why can't I remember?

Our minds distill the past.  Then we construct narratives that link these memories together.  We are trying to explain ourselves to ourselves.  This is literally the story of our lives as told to us by us.  It helps us take meaning out of the mincemeat of experience.  But we only achieve this by blurring the rest.  Even when confronted with the actual photographic record of it, we see only our memory.

I mean, who really remembers when a gallon of gasoline cost $1.03, as it does at one gas station in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)?  Who remembers when you could see a whole row of pay telephones like in Manhattan (1979)?  Who else finds it odd to see interior shots of New York offices where the electric typewriter, not the computer, is the professional's writing tool, as in Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)?

And btw, exactly where was Klein's Pharmacy on Broadway?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

T.S. Eliot and snow.

When it snowed in Massachusetts the other day, I thought of T.S. Eliot. 

He had so many good lines of poetry.  Some so concise as to be bons mots, really.

For example, "Winter kept us warm" which is as true a statement about winter as there ever could be, especially when followed by: "covering Earth in forgetful snow".  How true.

But there are others …

"I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be."  The great indecider who could not even fill the starring role.

And of course, there's

"Do I dare to eat a peach?"

And this one, that gives me the pall of unease:

We shall not cease from exploring
And at the end of our exploration
We will return to where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It has a "Through the Looking Glass" quality to it, but its guilt comes by association. Robert McNamara, one of the most beguiling public figures of the last century, secretary of defense to presidents Kennedy and Johnson and a prime architect of the Vietnam War, declared his love for this quote as he reflected back on his life in his final days.

That McNamara would grab onto Eliot seems odd to me.  It runs two of my 20th century themes into each other, and they should not cross.  At least not in my mind.  I picture them each waiting in separate waiting rooms. Both there.  Both eager to see the doctor.  Both oblivious to the other waiting next door.

Eliot: Anglo-American.  Traditionalist.  Modernist.  Literary. 1920s.  Inheritor and observer of the disillusionment that followed the First World War.
McNamara: Technocrat.  Warmonger.  Wizkid.  New Frontiersman. 1960s.  Decision-maker and instigator of the disillusionment that followed the Vietnam War.

Regardless, their world is a bygone era now. I should let it go.  All of it.  And besides, the wench is dead.

Thursday, February 7, 2013


WBUR reporter Sacha Pfeiffer has a story on the radio this morning about "netiquette", the rules of DOs and DONTs in our online-saturated life.  (You can find it here.)

It is very funny, and painfully accurate about the torments of social media angst we've opened up for ourselves with emails, texts, Facebook, Twitter and on and on.  Example: Post on Facebook but not getting a lot of "likes", or Tweet, but not getting a lot of "retweets"?  What does this say about you?

And there was the question of condolences - should you ever use a text message to express condolences on the death of a colleague's loved one?  For a 50-something, this was a NO-NO: it was too impersonal and therefore not considerate.  For a 20-something, this was a YES-YES, it was intimate and did not require a response.

Finally, there came the question of the exclamation point "!".  You know, the hyper-activated response on a mundane subject matter that nevertheless gets many!!!!  A comedian interviewed said that when he got one of these emails, he immediately became super self-conscious about ending his sentences with a lowly period "."  It made him feel like he was conveying that he was an internet serial killer, or a Goth girl, sitting there sulking.

Great story.  Worth listening to.  And I mean it!!!!!

Here is the story, one more time:

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Green & Building: Do They Ever Really Go Together?

Cambridge's commercial real estate is exploding and almost entirely in Kendall Square.  Last year, according to the city's website, six new projects broke ground, totaling over 1.8 million square feet in new construction.  That is a staggering number in a city of 6 square miles and 105,000 inhabitants. 

How should environmentalists, particularly those focused on carbon reduction, view this construction?  Should they oppose it all because of its net impacts?  Should they support construction in Kendall Square because this new construction is geared toward innovation, and from this innovation may come answers to our oil dependency?  Is there ever a point at which we will say that economic activity must cease because of its impacts on our planet?

In a recent group email, I rambled in these pastures.  The organizing question of the exchange was -- should a local environmental organization take a position on the massive amounts of development happening in Cambridge.  My view is "yes", it should.  But there is no need to over-simplify an admittedly complex issue.

Here's what I wrote:

Here are some "green" questions that come to my mind --
  • Should we support new development at all?  If yes, then how much?  At what point should we oppose it?
  • Where should new development locate?
  • What types of development do we prefer to see -- housing? commercial? Why?
  • What conditions should we seek to put on new development -- required LEED construction, incentives to reduce auto travel to and from work such as reduced parking availability, subsidized T passes for tenants, etc.?
  • Should we have an opinion about the appearance of buildings, or just about their net impact on the environment?
Because the new development is transforming the city in so many ways, here are some "other-than-green" questions that I can't avoid as I think about the development question --
  • How do we incorporate 21st century buildings into what is in effect a 19th century city?
  • As a community with a progressive value set, how should we respond to economic activity that represents the forefront of human scientific endeavor (the Human Genome Project as only one example), but requires big buildings to accomplish these goals? 
  • Who are all these new people moving in -- they all seem to be half my age with twice my intelligence?
  • Where are they going to live, and with all of their plentiful disposable income, what are they doing to housing prices?
  • Does Cambridge need to house them all, or can Medford take some of them?  Would anybody want to live in Medford anyway if they had the option of living in Cambridge?
  • How many coffee shops does a city really need, and does a cup of drip coffee really cost $4.00?
  • Should I hate this development because it fattens the city's coffers, or should I love it?  Or can I have a third thought about it?

And, as another person has already pointed out -- is anybody doing any regional planning here? (I agree -- I think the answer to this is "no".)  Are we just left to fend for ourselves and try to do the best we can?

These are just some of the questions, but I will add this --

The mantra among urban planners these days is "Put density near transit" which can also be phrased "If you have a transit node, then density should go there".  This is especially true when there is a rail line.  It is a more efficient use of resources -- land, infrastructure, energy, and reduces per capita energy consumption significantly.  I agree with the sentiment.  I also do not agree with the contention that the Red Line is at capacity -- which is sometimes heard these days.  

Getting one's mind around the technology explosion underway, particularly in the life sciences, is difficult to do.  From an urban perspective however, the Red Line forms the spine of today's Massachusetts technology corridor -- from Alewife station in the north down to UMass Boston in the south with stops at Tufts (Davis Square), Harvard, MIT, Mass General, the state legislature (Park Street), and connections to the Seaport District, Logan Airport and Amtrak (NYC and Washington DC) at South Station.  There are few transit lines in the world that can boast this level of "connectivity".  A regional planner -- particularly one focused on economic development -- would notice this and work to augment it, not undermine it.  How we view it may be different, but regional planning cuts lots of ways.

I also know from studying innovations clusters that the activity happening in Kendall Square is fairly unique (read "exceptionally unique") in the United States, and indeed in the world.  Paris, France for example, is trying to replicate this phenomenon.  NYC is too.  San Francisco/Bay Area has it in some ways, but at much lower densities.  Google has solar panels shading their parking lots Mountain View, CA, but an employee has a 40 minute drive to any meeting in San Francisco.  At some level, it doesn't matter what the rest of the world thinks of us, but it's worth noting.

The development in Kendall Square is being driven by forces that extend well beyond the boundaries of Cambridge.  Companies build buildings here because they want to hire the bright, energetic young minds who have loads of ideas, skills and ambitions.  These people may develop a revolutionary Alzheimer's drug, or a next cancer therapy.  And many of these young scientists are also entrepreneurs.  They may have arrived here because of MIT, but they stay here because Novartis or Microsoft offers them a job after they finish their PhD.  Or they decide to start their own company.  Companies -- particularly drug companies -- want to be near this talent pool, especially because world-class research hospitals are just across the river. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On Hitchens on Orwell.

I'm reading Christopher Hitchens on George Orwell now.  As is often noted about Orwell -- in his short 46 years on this planet, he contributed the adjective "Orwellian" to the English language.  Not bad. 

On Hitchens, for me it's like and hate.  The like and the hate probably come from the same place.  Somewhere in his condescending Oxford drawl was a tone that said, I know more than you. I will show you how stupid you are. 

From a man who began his political journey with Leon Trotsky and ended it with George W. Bush, maybe Hitchens felt there was a lot of explaining to do about his long ideological road.  Or maybe he was just a blind arrogant fool with a canvas sack slung over his shoulder filled with words. Imagining himself to be some ancient mythical hunter, he grasped his quiver replete with the arrows of righteousness tightly. He was a verbal pugilist looking for fights. 

I shouldn't be so angry.  Hitchens got his in the end.  We all do.  A lifetime of smoking and drinking finally caught him, gave him throat cancer and didn't take it away. 

No rapier wit, nor parry nor thrust, fends off one's own mortality.  Even a know-it-all doesn't know.  None of us do. That's the honest response, but maybe it sounds too close to defeat.

I have no doubt that in his dreams Christopher wore the black tights, held the skull aloft in his hand and wondered out loud for the audience to hear.

In truth, in the graveyard scene, he was Yorick.