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Archive for the ‘Cities’ Category

Jan Gehl’s Vision

In a documentary film.

The Human Scale

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This winter and spring, I will be posting a series on two projects I’m working on – a public health/neighborhood environment survey that I am very excited about and a studio class that I am teaching. The study area for the research and teaching are roughly the same, so there should be quite a bit of overlap. Together, both efforts allow me a rare opportunity: immersion in a set of related topics and, in this case, they are my favorites!

First a bit on the studio class. The subject, broadly, is urban transformation. By studying our home city, Syracuse, New York, the students and I will be examining forces that have and are transforming Syracuse. I’m casting Syracuse as “Everycity” – a unique place, yes, but with a set of opportunities and challenges that are fairly universal (for sure they are common to medium-sized cities and Rust Belt cities). The students will be studying the city as a whole and then shifting to a neighborhood scale. It is the neighborhood unit/scale where, I think, the lessons learned (including such lessons as how to study a city) are most transferable to other locations (i.e., all cities are composed of an array of neighborhoods). An archival search into historical records will set the stage for spatial analyses using geographic information systems: physical and biological environmental features, demographics, economic conditions, and so forth. And what shall we do with this information? Two things. First, students are charged with “telling a story” about urban transformation in Syracuse through a set of graphic representations depicting trends over time, especially the evolution of urban infrastructure and employment since 1890. This exploration will take half of the semester. The second outcome will be a project with a neighborhood group – yes, a “real” project. We have a small grant to help a neighborhood and its elementary school create a plan for its grounds, including an adjacent public park. The neighborhood might be called “disadvantaged,” so the question of how urban transformation might take place in this setting is one we will be exploring. I call it “shaping the public realm,” the intersection of design and planning. One word for this work? Fun!

The research project is worthy of a post of its own. For now, I will say that it is an interdisciplinary research project (team of 12 – medical researchers, sociologists, public health expert, and landscape architects) funded by a seed grant, by definition exploratory. Our team decided to bridge disciplinary boundaries with a survey research project. I, happily, am the lead. What are we doing? The grant was for diabetes research; our survey is aimed at gathering information for the design of diabetes awareness/prevention programs in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The central focus: relationship between health and neighborhood conditions, including social cohesion. We are attempting to conduct a simple random survey, in-home and by appointment, in a single neighborhood in Syracuse, the Southwest Neighborhood. Our survey takes 30 minutes, and we are providing a $20 gift card to respondents as an incentive for participation. The best part so far? My field survey team – five neighborhood residents paired with five graduate students, all trained to conduct human subjects research (CITI). Amazing group of people, and they are all loving it! The respondents seem pretty happy so far too. Now to get a random sample of sufficient size! More fun for winter days ahead.

I am lucky, lucky to have my days filled with such satisfying work. My plan is to post regularly over the coming months as the studio work and research project have their own “transformations”/evolutions. Stay tuned.

 

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Lead_Crime_325

Last winter, Kevin Drum reported in Mother Jones on the lead – violent crime connection, and I missed it!  Just in case you missed it too, I am posting the link here. Informed urban gardeners know of the overwhelming presence of lead in urban soils. Between leaded paint in adjacent buildings and the legacy of leaded gasoline, lead is everywhere in dense urban areas. Drum’s mission was to sort out the theories on why rates of violent crime have plunged in recent years, and it turns out that lead contamination rates parallel the violent crime rate. Drum cites the work of Rick Nevin (2007) whose 2007 paper in Environmental Research (Vol. 104, No. 3, pages 315-336) suggests that this association is found in cities around the globe. Even though lead remains in urban soils, the daily dose of lead has fallen precipitously since lead was banned in paint (1978) and gasoline (1986 for all of the U.S. except Washington State where it was banned in 1991). The promising news is that further lead remediation is attainable.

A series of posts in Talking Points Memo alerted me to the Drum article. A reader post draws out the various factors at play in the rise and decline of violent crime.

American lead contamination is embedded within the growth of the new urban ghetto, a period of rapid segregation of new cities, along with the decline of the urban economy and white flight.

Any sort of silver bullet based theory is going to be wrong. The problem of the lead contamination argument is that its appeal is, in part, the lack of an actively malignant empowered white population. It makes the main problem not the racism and its role in American capitalism, but a naivete that is easily beaten with science. That’s just not how it happened—it is certainly a part of how it happened, and it is important for us to understand what lead does and how to fight it. But to do so without also actively highlighting the role of local, state, and federal government as well as private industry in creating the ghetto, depolicing (and then repolicing) it, and devestment is to paint an overly rosy picture of one of the most inhumane things Americans have done on the basis of race. Lead exposure is a part of that, but it is important not to let medical\/biological explanations lose the basic fact that they are embedded in our social experience.

 

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Next City published an excerpt from a new book, The Metropolitan Revolution, by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, and it has stayed in my mind for the past few days. I’m sharing the first few paragraphs from the Next City article here. What Katz and Bradley lead with is the research of the economic sociologist Sean Safford on the role of networks in Youngstown and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Short version: networks matter to urban vitality, and “networks must cut across class, social and political boundaries to be effective.”

When economic sociologist Sean Safford first began comparing midcentury board lineups of local Boy Scout chapters and garden clubs in the cities of Youngstown and Allentown, the idea that such data could have any bearing on the future of a city seemed shaky at best. Safford’s research, about who knew who and from where, was coming at a time when communities had begun to take seriously the idea that civic participation, even participation in something as seemingly superfluous as a bowling league, mattered to the health of a community. Even so, his question — how the structure of civic relationships shapes economic trajectories — seemed rather far afield. Networks mattered. Did their composition matter to a region’s economy?

That was the early 2000s. A decade later, Safford’s argument that networks must cut across class, social and political boundaries to be effective — laid out in the book Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown — is particularly on point. Through his careful reading of archived society pages and board minutes dating from 1950 through 2000, Safford determined that Youngstown, Ohio, a fading steel industry hub, was actually stymied by its most powerful insiders. The network of elites that called the shots in the city were too tightly enmeshed, intertwined and isolated from other groups in the region to effectively guard against the steamroll of change that would gradually wipe out the local economy. In other words, there were too many strong ties and not enough weak ties.

These elites, marooned on their own small island, lost power as the domestic steel industry declined all around them, leaving behind a fragmented and uncoordinated region. Allentown, Pa., by contrast, had looser networks that provided alternative relationships that cut across social, class and political lines, encouraging new alliances and exchanges. All this meant that while these two areas of the Rust Belt had very similar demographics, economic structures and challenges, Allentown was better equipped to bounce back from the decline of the steel industry, specifically because it had individuals and organizations that could serve as bridges between the various groups that needed to be engaged in the region’s recovery. It turns out it did matter who was on the board of the Boy Scouts.

When telling stories of transformation and turnaround, it is tempting to shape them into personal stories about heroes. One charismatic visionary — a mayor, school superintendent, entrepreneur, outraged citizen — steps up and, with unrelenting vigor and inspirational leadership, starts an irreversible cascade of change. But there is a growing body of research suggesting that, as a system or problem becomes more complex, arriving at a solution requires multiple minds from multiple sectors or perspectives. As Safford found in Youngstown, this search for the lone superhero, or one lone team of superhero buddies, is misguided. Metropolitan areas are so big, complicated and diverse that they don’t need heroes. They need networks.

Check out the Next City article called The Post-Hero Economy and then the new book!

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Earlier this month, the Pritzker Prize jury declined to retroactively include architect Denise Scott Brown in the 1991 award given to her husband and design partner, Robert Venturi. The jury’s action came in response to a petition created by two Harvard design students. An award-winning planning blog in my hometown, Smart City Memphis, used the occasion to remind readers about the last downtown plan that Brown worked on – the plan Downtown Memphis from 1986-87. In a post titled, Cobwebs Greeted Prestigious Downtown Plan, Tom Jones of Smart City Memphis relates the discouraging side of long-range planning as revealed by Brown’s experience in Memphis:

Downtown Memphis became the canvas for her firm’s last plan of its kind, primarily because they were losing money on them.

If it was her swan song, it was a magnificent one.  The Center City Development Plan was released in 1987 and its erudition, insights and recommendations were captured in the most impressive report ever delivered to Memphis.  There were about 20 volumes [!! emphasis added] replete with drawings, thoughtful insights, and provocative and solid recommendations.  As an associate with Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, respected Memphis architect James Williamson – now an associate professor of architecture at University of Memphis – was a vital part of the team that developed the downtown plan and was instrumental in weighing options.

Unfortunately, the ambitious and impressive plan was largely ignored.  Instead of funding the summary volume that would lay out next steps and implementation, the Center City Commission took that money and paid for yet another redesign of Court Square Park.  It was also a time of leadership transition at Center City Commission and a time when government and developers were largely unreceptive to a scholarly approach to the future of downtown, instead of quick fixes like festival market places.  The failure of Memphis to embrace the plan was another factor in her firm’s decision to end planning of this kind.

Jones goes on to evaluate why the plan floundered.

It’s likely that her work was doomed from the beginning.  Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates selected by a one-vote margin.  Developer-friendly representatives on the selection committee supported a firm whose trademark was festival marketplaces.  The other half of the committee was people more interested in the urban fabric and the historic character of downtown.  At the end of the selection process, the votes were divided down the middle, and the deciding vote was cast by the chair of the selection committee.

In retrospect, while the plan was excellent, its impact and import were undermined by lack of support by some key downtown interests.  They criticized Ms. Scott Brown’s style, her approach to planning, the extensive public input process, and her openness in public discussions.

As one of these people said at the time, “we could have had a festival marketplace but instead we got a lot of preservationist talk.”  Over time, they would be proven wrong as festival marketplaces opened with banners and fanfare and closed some years later.  The public wanted authenticity and governments and downtown agencies were delivering up artificially contrived shopping arcades.

A video of Denise Scott Brown discussing the Memphis plan:

In Her Own Words

 

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Massive urban tunnel projects, like the Second Avenue Subway construction project in Manhattan, are mind-boggling in scale and complexity. The MTA just released some photos that have a lot of people talking. Read more about the project here.

Second Avenue Subway construction. MTA photo, Creative Commons license

Second Avenue Subway construction. MTA photo, Creative Commons license

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Predictions for the Big Apple haven’t been so great lately, at least as far as climate is concerned. News from a week ago was that heat-related deaths are predicted to rise by 20% by the 2020s and by nearly 100% by the end of the century. Scientific American summarizes the work published this month in the journal, Nature Climate Change, and includes this quote from one of the authors:

“This serves as a reminder that heat events are one of the greatest hazards faced by urban populations around the globe,” said coauthor Radley Horton, a climate scientist at the Earth Institute’s Center for Climate Systems Research.

The record 2010 heat wave that hit Russia, killing some 55,000 people, and the 2003 one in Europe that killed 70,000 are potent examples of the devastation that extreme heat can cause, Horton added.

This week, Scientific American published another warning for NYC and the rest of the East Coast. The climate threat in this case is flooding – the possibility of Hurricane Sandy-like flooding every two years by century’s end! Salon summarizes the SA behind-the-paywall story here.  A few planning details:

Municipalities rarely plan for anything greater than the so-called one-in-100-year storm—which means that the chances of such a storm hitting during any given year is one in 100. Sandy was a one-in-500-year storm. If sea level rises by five feet, the chance in any year of a storm bringing a three-foot surge to New York City will increase to as high as one in three or even one in two, according to various projections. The 100-year-height for a storm in the year 2000 would be reached by a two-year storm in 2100.

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