Saturday, October 29, 2005

Everybody Loves a Parade

Not too long ago I saw John Norquist, CEO of the Chicago-based Congress of New Urbanism, give a lecture extolling the virtues of traditional urban design as a remedy for suburban sprawl. One of the New Urbanists' big claims is that sprawling suburbia inhibits the spontaneous social interaction that is essential for vibrant urban life.

To demonstrate this point he showed a picture of your standard seven lane suburban arterial highway hosting a parade. It looked like a miserable event: spectators were far removed from the action, lined up in an unpaved ditch with no shade on a sunny day. For Norquist, this was the epitome of the lack of civic connectedness that accompanies dominant forms of suburbia.

Norquist must have been pleased yesterday as Chicago was ground zero for civic parades. The largest event was an outpouring of love and appreciation for the city's heroes of the baseball diamond--the Chicago White Sox. Long eclipsed by the north-side Cubs, the White Sox dominated the major leagues this year, culminating in one of the most awesome displays of mettle as they shut down opponent after opponent in the playoffs.

Mayor Richard J. Daley, a life-long Sox fan, pulled out all of the stops for the city's celebration and the parade itself epitomized the majesty of the city and the selfless nature of the team as it proceeded from the team's stadium at 35th and Shields through a panopoly of Chicago's working class neighborhoods. From Bridgeport to Bronzeville, Chinatown to Pilsen, Little Italy to Greektown and culminating in a ticker tape waltz down the city's financial and governmental strip, LaSalle Street, the players--and more than a handful of corporate sponsors--marched victoriously through the city to lined streets.

According to estimates given by the city, approximately 1.7 million people witnessed the event! In sum, it was a great finale for an excellent season and a fitting tribute to the city, the players, and the White Sox's long-suffering fans.

Congratulations Oswaldo Guillén and the players! As always, Chicago legend Studs Terkel offered insight on the meaning of the Sox win to the city in yesterday's New York Times.

Parading in Chicago didn't stop with the Sox extravaganza. The monthly Critical Mass ride commenced at Daley Plaza at its usual late Friday afternoon time. As a tribute to the legacy of the great US civil rights leader, Rosa Parks, the Mass visited many of the sties of importance in African American history in Chicago.

Its great to see the citizens of Chicago reclaim the streets for a celebration of the city's great cultural and social legacies!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

"Sustainable" development in Fulton County?

Metropolitan Atlanta is ground zero of suburban sprawl. Like in other suburban areas throughout North America, the denizens of Atlanta's suburbs have a love/hate relationship with sprawl. They get fed up with the traffic generated by sprawl, elect a governor with a strong regional planning agenda and then promptly dump him when he tries to implement significant policy change. Additionally, as Clark Atlanta University's Robert Bullard has argued, Atlanta's sprawl has the "convenient" side effect of spatially segregating the city's minority population, making it difficult for them to access economic opportunities.

Thus, anytime we hear about efforts in the Atlanta to quell sprawl and develop in a more "sustainable" manner we approach them with a dose of healthy skepticism.

Nevertheless, the Serenbe development in south Fulton County merits some attention. The New York Times recently described the genesis of Serenbe. It seems that local land owners partnered with the Nature Conservancy of Georgia to establish the Chattahoochee Hill Country Alliance which devised a master plan for over 40,000 acres of largely undeveloped land. The Alliance is promoting condensed development with the protection of significant parcels of greenspace. In order to quell land owners who count on selling their land to developers for a handsome profit, the Alliance persuaded the state legislature to adopt a streamlined "transfer of development" legislation that allows landowners to sell the development rights to their land.

Under the TDR scheme, Fulton County determined that certain undeveloped lands in the area of Serenbe would be eligible for the transfer of development rights. They have also determined that other areas of the county will be eligible for higher-density development.

When a landowner is ready to sell, in exchange for agreeing to protect their undeveloped land they are actually getting development credits that they can sell on the market to a developer in the zone where higher-density is allowed. The idea is that undeveloped land will be saved while higher density will be encouraged elsewhere.

Serenbe is designed in a high density fashion to maximize protected land and insure that areas around will not be subject to rampant development.

It is an interesting scheme, but whether it can be effective in quelling sprawl without significant regional planning is questionable. Nevertheless, there do appear to be some bloggers out there who were impressed enough with Serenbe to buy...

Rebuilding the Gulf Coast

Over the past week there have been numerous stories in the New York Times covering the urban planning and architectural aspects of the rebuilding of Gulf Coast communities damaged by the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

I concur with the folks at theboxtank in their assessment of Nicholas Ourousoff's piece on New Orleans. He offers a healthy skepticism about attempts to turn New Orleans into a theme park caricature of its former self.

There is good reason to be worried. As Naomi Klein has reported, there is a strong fear that rebuilding attempts in New Orleans are likely to be dominated by corporate growth machine interests with a desire to "cleanse" the city of its poor, largely minority residents.

Reporting from Mississippi, today the Times' Robin Pogrebin discusses the recommendations of the Mississippi Renewal Forum--a panel of architects and town planners convened by Governor Haley Barbour and led by New Urbanist guru Andres Duany. The results of the six-day "charette" were pretty predictable. They advocate for the creation of a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly form of redevelopment.

While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with new urbanist design precepts, the entire redevelopment process in both New Orleans and Mississippi has proceeded without input from people displaced by the storm. This exclusion is significant as many people of low socio-economic status are being locked out of important discussions relating to the re-building effort. With decision making ensconced in the hands of elites and ideologically-driven planners like Duany, the theme park vision of reconstruction increasingly seems likely to dominate the new Gulf Coast. Disaster survivor groups that have emerged in the weeks since the storm should certainly have a seat at the table to insure successful reconstruction.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Toronto Bans Segways

Lawyers for the City of Toronto, thankfully bucking the trend embraced by many of the Western world's urban tourist districts (like Washington [pictured above], Chicago, and Paris), have said "NO" to operating Segways on city streets and sidewalks.

Aside from being an incredibly idiotic and dangerous form of transportation, the Segway is profoundly anti-urban. Swarms of the pesty vehicles inhibit pedestrian circulation due to their size. They transform a space of sociability into a mini-road, converting one of the last spaces designed for humans into a playground for machines. They lack the maneuverability and speed of a bicycle and offer no advantages over walking.

Although there have been reports of an uptick in their popularity due to rising petrol prices, it is highly unlikely that they can eclipse the bicycle as the most ecologically- and economically-friendly forms of urban transport.

linked to Outside the Beltway

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

New Songdo - EPCOT for the 21st Century?

The New York Times reports today on the New Songdo City development in South Korea. New Songdo is interesting to look at within the context of the history of utopian planning projects. It is being constructed on reclaimed waterfront in Incheon, about 40 miles south of Seoul.

Billed as a "ubiquitous city," the Times piece focuses on how information technology is going to be permeated throughout the built environment. According to the Times;
A ubiquitous city is where all major information systems (residential, medical, business, governmental and the like) share data, and computers are built into the houses, streets and office buildings.
Given the quick pace of technological change and the comparative slow pace of constructing urban spaces, the digital specifics of the "ubiquitous city" are few and far between. The Times piece--which appeared in the paper's reconstituted "Circuits" section--focused on the predictable issue of urban surveillance that is part and parcel of the increasing power of digital technologies.

More interesting to me, however, are the parallels between New Songdo and urban utopian theorizing and building of yore.

Like George Pullman's eponymous town built in the 1880s, New Songdo is an idealized expression of the values and desires emanating from the dominant forms of political economy at the time. New Songdo fuses the techno-fetishism of the "ubiquitous city" with a full embrace of the major components of globalization: free-markets, linguistic homgenization, and rhetorical promotion of "sustainability."

The town is being financed both by Korean governmental sources and through U.S. capital--most specifically, the New Jersey developer, the Gale Company. Having a foreign developer like Gale invovled represents a fundamental change stemming from International Monetary Fund dictates leveled in the mid-90s that Korea liberalize its investment policies to allow more direct investment of foreign capital.

Like Walt Disney's original vision of EPCOT, New Songdo's planners want the city to be self-sufficient and a site for the latest in technological advances to be developed and implemented.

This will certainly be an interesting project to monitor.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Dealing With Suburban Wildlife: A Tale of Two Suburbs

Increasing metropolitan expansion has had dramatic effects on wildlife habitats, the animals that count on them for survival, and the new human neighbors. How communities deal with the human/animal interactions in suburbia provides an interesting glimpse into cultural values.

First: outside of Atlanta, in the Gwinett County community of Lawrenceville, we have commissioners from the local Water and Sewage Authority considering opening up their land to hunting to get rid of the pesky coyotes, Canadian Geese, and deer seen in the area.

Next: outside of New York, in Westchester County, Cornell University announced they will spend almost half a million dollars to put tracking devices on representatives of the increasingly prevalent coyote population to get an understanding of their migratory habits. Interestingly, they are also going to study human attitudes and behaviors towards the animals.

I am not anti-hunting by any means, but the Cornell project seems much more sensible in its approach towards understanding of the human/ecological dynamic than the folks in Georgia.

linked to Outside the Beltway