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.