Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Copyrighting of Public Space

Following up on my post discussing the uselessness of Frank Gehry's "BP Bridge" at Chicago's new Millennium Park, a story in today's printed version of the Chicago Reader speaks to some other problems with the park.

This time the issues are not so much with the design, but with its use. In keeping with the contemporary trends of privatizing public space, Millennium Park is a copyrighted public space.


The Reader recounts the experience of photojournalist Warren Wimmer's attempts to photograph Anish Kapoor's sculpture, Cloud Gate (more commonly known as "the Bean"). When Wimmer set up his tripod and camera to shoot the sculpture, security guards stopped him, demanding that they show him a permit. Wimmer protested, replying that it's absurd that one needs to pay for a permit to photograph public art in a city-owned park.

Ben Joravsky, the author of the Reader article, attempted to contact park officials for an explanation and received a response from Karen Ryan, press director for the park's project director:
"The copyrights for the enhancements in Millennium Park are owned by the artist who created them. As such, anyone reproducing the works, especially for commercial purposes, needs the permission of that artist."

Hence, Millennium Park--a nascent destination for countless citizens and tourists that was built with $270 million in city funds--is slowly emerging as Chicago's most privatized public space. Photographers beware!

**Update** I've scanned in the original article from the Reader below. Click on the thumbnails to go to my Flickr page for larger versions.

Reader1 Reader2 Reader3

**Update--Feb. 13, 2005** Please see this recent post for updated discussion of the city's interest in enforcing the copyrights of the park's "enhancements."

Architect Philip Johnson Dead

Johnson lead a long and contradictory life. His extended flirtation with fascism and the Hitler regime was unconscionable.

From the standpoint of urban development his modernist and, later, post-modernist sensibilities shared one problematic characteristic: a general disregard of the context of the urban landscape. My "favorite" Johnson travesty is the Town Hall in Celebration, Florida with its superfluous columns that valorize the lack of democracy in the corporate planned community.


Aside from the authoritarian political statement made by the building, it fails on the level of engendering usable public space and relating to the larger urban fabric. Whereas many of the other buildings in downtown Celebration enhance the pedestrian experience and create spaces of interaction and leisure, Johnson's building is a fortress, off-putting to passersby.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

"Shared Space" and Road Design

James Joyner at Outside the Beltway comments on a NY Times article on Hans Monderman's "shared space" traffic design experiments in the Netherlands. Instead of relying on traffic signals, Monderman removes them, which creates a more anarchic space and one where drivers slow down and are more alert due to the action and unpredictability of the urban landscape.

Joyner suggests by his title that "unregulated" roads may be better.

It is important to remember that there is no such thing as an "unregulated road." What Monderman is engaged in is establishing more sensible design practices.

Most new roads built in the US--primarily in suburban areas--are designed specifically for automobiles. They are also designed specifically to handle speeds in excess of the posted speed limits. Your typical 4 lane suburban arterial road may have a posted speed limit of 45mph, but it is engineered to accommodate speeds up to 65mph or higher.

What Monderman has done is not to do away with regulation, but, rather, has designed the roadway differently with an eye towards multiple forms of mobility. He has narrowed roads, encouraged on-street parking, and put up visual "distractions" like trees and flowers to make the landscape diverse and give drivers more reason to be aware of their surroundings. He has also resisted calls to widen roads to accommodate more traffic.

Monderman accepts a simple principle that could be useful for planners in the United States to adopt: urban space should be shared and diverse in function. In order to accomplish planning on this level, there needs to be a clear commitment to multi-modal forms of mobility in our funding and planning processes. Due to the entrenchment of an automotive mindset in the US, this will be a difficult principle to realize in practice.

Hazards of Sprawl

The recent mudslides in Southern California reiterate the long-standing critiques of suburban development that argue that environmental realities of diverse landscapes are frequently ignored, causing areas of human settlement to be subject to environmental disasters. Rather than thinking of the damage caused by mudslides simply as the result of unfortunate "acts of god," we should rather note the poor planning and land use guidelines that support poor development decisions.

The USGS has developed a sophisticated prediction and warning GIS system that can provide data identifying hazardous areas, providing ample information policymakers need to make sensible decisions about rebuilding and exurban expansion in mountainous regions.

In addition to dramatic "natural" disasters like mudslides, it is important not to forget the more banal hazards that are being exacerbated in exurban mountainous regions. A recent AP story points out the increasing traffic usage on rural and mountain roads as people use them as alternatives to freeways. While the article mentions the push to make "safety improvements" on mountain roads to keep up with growth, given the fact that such expansion will undoubtedly require changes in the landscape, it seems as if this activity may engender future hazards in the form of landslides.

A better solution would be to minimize the amount of development in ecologically-sensitive areas while at the same time investing public transportation dollars into policies that create multiple forms of mobility, rather than privileging the automobile.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Oil and the Future of Urbanism

The Associated Press is reporting that the idea of "peak oil" is moving into the mainstream. The "peak oil" thesis, according to the article, corresponds to the belief that global oil production is on the decline and that policymakers need to urgently address what could become a significant crisis.

I am not sure how "mainstream" the peak oil thesis is--at least from the perspective of its articulation in the dominant political discourse--but certainly knowledgeable observers (including independent analysts contracted by the US Department of Energy) believe that there is cause for concern.

The article reports on a recent conference on the subject held in Yellow Springs, Ohio where the keynote speaker, Richard Heinberg, argued that the crisis:
"means the undermining of the whole way of suburban life that has been developed in America"

As a remedy, some participants argued for what curiously sounds like a revision of Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City. According to the article, one participant "sees the suburbs being replaced by small, self-sufficient communities - many in the country - that use alternate energy sources and grow their own food."

The immense appetite for fossil fuels in North America is certainly unsustainable. However, the "back-to-the-land" remedy seems insufficiently capable for being the basis of sound public policy.

An article posted in the Pittsburg, KS Morning Sun entitled, "Agriculture for Urbanites," presents a possible opening for developing a sustainable urbanism. The main focus of discussion is how agriculture is being introduced into the curriculum of urban schools. While any attempt to "ruralize the city" is as futile as Wright's vision to "civilize the countryside," plans that creatively connect people with sources of sustenance may engender new types of thinking that blur distinctions between "urban" and "rural," causing a type of urbanism to emerge that recognizes the importance of ecological health in the development of metropolitan areas.

This type of "new urbanism" would eschew both the nostalgia of "back-to-the-land" movements and that of the Traditional Neighborhood Design paradigm to create urban forms that address the realities of shrinking energy supplies and long-standing patterns of land use in such a way that is germane to a sensible response to emerging urban challenges.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)

Friday, January 07, 2005

Snow closes Chicago's Millennium Park Bridge

The Frank Gehry-designed "BP Bridge" at Millennium Park in Chicago has been closed due to snow. The bridge, which connects the park with the eastern section of Grant Park, is made of a Brazilian hardwood that could be damaged by applying the ubiquitous salt that is used in Chicago to prevent pedestrian slippage.

One would think that an architect of Gehry's skill would recognize the climatological particularities of Chicago and the ways in which Chicagoans negotiate with the harsh winter climate.

Perhaps this could be an opening for the City of Chicago to consider more environmentally-friendly anti-slippage agents, as the salt is especially corrosive.

In other Millennium Park news, the Sun-Times reports on new changes to the 6-month old park.

Class and Exurban Transition

Last month's arson at the Hunters Brooke subdivision in Charles County, Maryland gained national media attention. Destroying 26 houses in a largely unoccupied site of new construction, there was immediate speculation as to the motives of the perpetrators.

Environmental activists were first suspected as similar acts of arson in Colorado, Arizona, and California, had been perpetrated by individuals claiming allegiance to the "Earth Liberation Front." The development of Hunters Brooke had been criticized by the Sierra Club as it has destroyed a sensitive wetland habitat.

A competing theory regarding who set fire to Hunters Brooke speculated that it was the action of local white supremacists who were trying to intimidate African-Americans from settling in the county.

Today's New York Times has an interesting article that does a good job at exploring the complexity of exurban sprawl through the example of the Hunters Creek Arsonists.

Six men in their twenties have been charged with the incident. While reports indicate that some of the accused who were taken into custody made racist remarks, the article suggests that their motives were more complicated.

Many seemed to be long-time, working class residents of a county whose growth was bringing with it a significant change in both demographic makeup without an expansion of jobs that paid decent wages.

The exurban fringe--where land use has been quickly transforming from agricultural to upscale housing--is the site for a host of socio-economic, cultural and ecological challenges. In the case of Charles County, the reaction of these young men in the face of change was to engage in a pointless and materially destructive act.

Planners and policymakers in exurban areas should recognize the potential explosiveness of the dynamism of growth and seek ways to develop open processes of planning that address the impact of limited economic opportunities and ecological damage. Keeping social equity, diversity, and ecological sustenance at the center of discussions surrounding exurban change could minimize anti-social reactions to urban growth and make more sustainable communities.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Finding Funds for Roads: the Referenda?

Lake County, Illinois encompasses the northern suburbs of Chicago, situated between Cook County and the Wisconsin state line. In the last decennial census, it was one of the fastest growing counties in the state.

While the eastern part of the county has several established pre-War suburbs and cities, the western portion was primarily agricultural and has been the site of much of the recent growth. Investments in the transportation infrastructure have not kept up with the growth and the county has been scurrying to meet residents' complaints about congestion.

One way politicians have been dealing with the gap between funding for infrastructure needs and citizen demands has been to propose tax increases to be approved via popular referenda. While it is often assumed that people are unwilling to vote to increase their own taxes, there are numerous recent examples of voters approving transportation plans. If a plan is thoughtfully conceived and capable of enhancing mobility--like the People's Transportation Plan approved by voters in Miami in 2002--voters may be open for approving a tax increase.

The leaders of Lake County, however, have not been as lucky. Last March, the County Commission put before the voters a referendum to increase the sales tax for general, unspecified road improvements which failed miserably. This year, the Daily Herald reports, they are back to the drawing board. This time, they are planning on specifying the road projects to be funded in the hope that this will persuade voters to approve the tax increase.

It is laudable that the commission is providing some transparency to the proposed spending process. However, I am expecting the measure to once again fail primarily because it restricts its focus simply to road widening. Transportation is a function of land use and without land use reform, road widening projects are rather Sisyphean. Instead, the County Commission should consider a referendum that funds its Year 2020 Transportation Priority Plan which calls for a mulitmodal approach to transportation development. It doesn't necessarily get to the crux of the land use problem, but its multimodal approach may strike voters as a wise alternative to the interminable widening of roads.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Where are the most dangerous intersections in Illinois?

...according to the Chicago Sun Times, "the state's top 11 interchanges with the most accidents were in Chicago's suburbs."

This, of course is not surprising, as nearly all of these intersections are situated in long-established, post-War, auto-centric suburbs. Rather than the exurban areas of high population growth, these are places where the design and planning decisions of 40 years ago are showing little in the way flexibility.

Elmhurst, the site of the state's most dangerous intersection (North Ave. & IL 83) is a good example. Low density, segmented functionality of land use has been the rule in the town since the 1950s making transportation development essentially constrained to increasing automobile capacity. The growth of communities miles west of Elmhurst is putting stress on the massive North/83 intersection. The population of Elmhurst has remained stagnant at 42,000 since 1990 while its most dangerous intersection accomodates more than 100,000 vehicles daily.

If you visit the Sun Times' page you will see an interactive graphic that provides maps of each of the intersections. One commonality among many of the intersections in the Top 10 is the fact that they are situated right off the clover-leaf exits of restricted access highways.

This brings up an interesting fact regarding interstate and toll highway systems: they tend to externalize the costs associtated with the risk that is requisite for their efficient functioning. While the highways themselves are generally safe, the places where you embark or disembark are more risky and the public service costs of dealing with accidents and their aftermath are borne by general municipal funds rather than by the state or individual users.

(Linked with Outside the Beltway)

Monday, January 03, 2005

Andrés Duany on the problems of Contemporary Architecture

John Massengale posts an interesting brief commentary by architect Andrés Duany:

“The problem inherent in the contemporary architectural situation is not that it is modern, but that it is avant garde. The relentless pursuit of the unprecedented undermines two essential roles of architecture: the collective endeavor that is required for an urbanism; and the establishment of a transmissible body of knowledge....Ours must be a deeply serious pursuit of an ethical architecture engaged in the important issues that confront our society."

I am hesitant to crtiticize Duany too much since I am not sure of the particular context of his remarks. I do, however, agree wholeheartedly with his support for "urbanism" as a "collective" endeavor.

The assumption guiding this critique is the fact that so much of the suburban built environment is comprised of an aggregation of disparate elements that are planned and developed without regard to the local climate, landscape, neighboring buildings, or environment. The central credo of the New Urbanism is to reverse this trend.

This brings me to one of the persisting questions surrounding the efficacy of the New Urbanism--which is not entirely their fault. Namely, how can we engage in urbanism as a collective effort when our current market-based system of metropolitan development is structurally inimical to (certain types of) collective planning? Given the power of the real estate and development industries at local levels (especially suburban), the obstacles seem exceedingly daunting to overcome.

Maybe Duany's "transferable body of knowledge" could provide the germ of change: a reprofessionalization of architecture that privileges ethics over sheer pursuit of profit.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Bikes vs. Segway

The Missouri Bicycle News reports that the city of Columbia has purchased bicycles for their public works employees to be "used for experiencing the riders perspective when designing roadways or intersections and when evaluating locations that have been identified as potentially unsafe."

Designing safe, multi-use roadways is a well-studied phenomenon and it seems silly to think that engineers need to ride bikes to practice effective design--a thorough study of John Forester's book, Bicycle Transportation would certainly be sufficient.

Nevertheless, utilizing bicycles as transportation options for local government staff should be promoted.

Police have been doing this for years--although the recent trend by many big-city police departments using the ridiculous Segway should be of concern.

Never mind the fact that Segways don't add much aesthetically to the urban landscape, bicycles are much more versatile and inexpensive. More public servants on cycles will also improve the general awareness of bikes as efficient forms of transportation. Let's hope that the engineers in Columbia, MO translate their new commitment to multi-modal transportation into sensible road design.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Detroit Establishes "Blight Court"

Click for larger version.
AP reports that Detroit is following in the lead of Chicago in the establishment of a "blight court."

It is essentially an administrative court that has significant legal powers to fine, garnish wages, place liens, and other penalties on property owners who do not meet code violations.

This is a great idea, since previously, complaints about specific properties had to work their way through the regular municipal courts. Criminal courts in the city are overburdened and these types of cases were often not a high priority.

Now, community residents can have a more responsive forum to penalize irresponsible landlords. This is especially hopeful for Detroit--a city with a remarkable architectural heritage, but whose urban landscape is a pretty poor state of decay.

Abandoned and unkempt properties can kill a neighborhood--particularly when there is not a high proportion of local, residential property owners. For many low income residents of Detroit where decent paying jobs are limited, homeownership is often out of reach. Banks are also less enthusiastic about providing mortgages in distressed neighborhoods.

If local residents have the ability to get city government to enforce code violations--which the "blight court" is designed to accomplish--it can contribute to the revitalization of Detroit's neighborhoods.

Above is a map of Detroit's percentage of vacant properties by census tract with the darker green cooresponding to the higher percentage of vacant properties. If you click on the image to make it larger, you can clearly see spatial concentration of these blighted neighborhoods in the center city--something that should come as no surprise as anyone who has visited those neighborhoods. The darkest green areas have between 40% & 57% vacant/abandoned properties!

* Update* (Linked to Outside the Beltway)