Saturday, January 29, 2005
Book Review #1
In Preserving the World's Great Cities, Anthony Tung, a former New York City Landmarks Preservation Comissioner, uses his particular expertise in urban preservation to survey the built history of what he considers to be the 18 most important cities to human civilization. The cities covered by Tung include many of the usual suspects like Rome, London, Paris, New York City, Venice, and Athens. Other cities featured are Kyoto, Amsterdam, Charleston, Warsaw, and Singapore - to name a few.
Impressively, Tung actually traveled to all eighteen cities in the book, which allowed him to to most accurately depict the triumphs and failures of the the world's greatest urban forms. This epic voyage, which would make any urbanoid or history buff jealous, not only enriches the author's analysis, but also furthers his ability to communicate the amount of sheer change inherent to the evolution of all cities, both ancient and modern. His sharp historical analysis and descriptions only help the western reader feel the sights, sounds, dynamics, and living history of the world's greatest cities.
Perhaps the most important part of Tung's comprehensive work is that he is able to succinctly explain the social, political, economic, and historic events that have caused the destruction of some of humanity's greatest physical and social accomplishments. Though each city could easily be a book of its own, Tung clearly illuminates the destructive nature of human civilization and how the confluence of greed, war, and ideological change have forever impacted human-made environments.
Tung is especially critical of the modernist movement, which is made obvious in a brutally honest chapter about the recent failures of his hometown - New York City. I found this chapter to be one of his best because he has a such a deep understanding of the history of NYC, and how modernist architecture has managed to sever the all-important and time-honored principle of creating strong relationships between buildings, streets, and the public realm. Though he questions similar developments in every chapter, his own life experiences in NYC make for a level of knowledge that simply cannot be matched by his analysis of the 17 other cities.
Tung efficiently covers thousands of years of history in relatively short chapters. Thus, if you are looking for extremely detailed historical information, this book might not be for you. However, if you want to gain a broader understanding of World history, historical and modern planning theory, and the pains of preserving some of the most impressive architectural sites in the world (think Venice, Italy!) then I would highly recommend Preserving the World's Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis.
Tuesday, January 18, 2005
According to a recent article from the Akron Beacon Journal, (http://www.planetizen.com/news/item.php?id=15531), "cohousing" is making its way to Ohio. For those of you who are unaware of this concept, cohousing is a movement that started in Denmark during the 1960's that emphasizes communal life in residential neighborhoods by including shared spaces within the design of the actual development. Thus, housing lots are clustered, houses orient to the shared public space of the street, paths and sidewalks link neighbors together, and community buildings are used for public dinners, meetings, and activities. The simple design of the community fosters neighborliness and places value on the overall community, not the individual. According to the article referenced above, American cohousing developments first appeared in the 1980's. Today there are more than 100 cohousing developments in the United States, and more are on the way. Though cohousing communities have primarily been located in more progressive areas of the country like Colorado and California, the demand for communal living is growing. Hence the new cohousing development outside of Cincinnati- the first of its kind in Ohio - mentioned in the article.
Cohousing communities seem to present a plethora of benefits to its residents. I certainly respect the emphasis on community and support its mission of changing the American pattern of suburban housing development through eco-friendly design. However, I am still learning about the details of cohousing, and should hold off on any real critique until I have a better understanding of how these developments are integrated into the contexts of their larger towns or cities. However, I will say that much like new urbanism, cohousing faces the problem of supply and demand. In other words, the supply of communities that actually foster civic involvement is much too small for the demand. On the positive side, the shortage of supply proves that Americans are looking for change. The negative side is that living in a cohousing community is expensive and currently out of reach for the average home buyer. Let's be honest, cohousing communities do not even try house people of various incomes. If you care about social equity, like I do, this is a major shortcoming. Nevertheless, the American real estate market proves that people want more options in how they live, and movements like cohousing are finally starting to provide choice.
"Prairie Crossing is a 'conservation community' located 40 miles northwest of Chicago, and an hour south of Milwaukee, in the town of Grayslake, Illinois. Based on a set of ten guiding principles, the community strikes a balance between preserving the natural landscape, providing energy efficient homes of Midwestern vernacular, and presenting a variety of opportunities for resident involvement. While most development to date has concentrated on relatively low-density housing, higher-density homes are being built near the Metra train station, and plans are in the works for a mixed-use 'Main Street.' Additionally, an onsite regional branch of Lake Forest Hospital is under construction." -
In my opinion, the Prairie Crossing development and its goal of fostering "lifelong learning" present a great alternative to the traditional suburban subdivision. I have yet to see the actual plan, but the article makes it seem like the developer of the project, George Ranney Jr, understands the importance, and long term marketability of producing communities that are sustainable. Though the built portion of the project is low density thus far, the developer has real plans for a more dense TOD town center, which will be adjacent to a Metra train stop. This village center will include a school and services that will allow this development to actually develop into a real town - a major malfunction of most suburban development. What's more, Prairie Crossing is the first community scaled project for the U.S. Department of Energy's Building America Program. What this means is that all of the houses and commercial buildings within the development will become a model for developing context sensitive and energy efficient homes. Thus, Prairie Crossing has already demonstrated that it is not only serious about learning, but also about teaching others.
The "Village Homes" development in Davis, California, prides itself on changing, er, reverting to a better pattern of suburban development. Architecture Week online, http://www.architectureweek.com/2005/0119/building_1-1.html even states that it uses some new urbanist principles in its design. This includes narrow streets and bike paths that don't cater to the automobile, an emphasis on open space, a small mix of retail (a dance studio, a restaurant, and a community daycare center), and sustainable context sensitive house design. These factors along make it better than most suburban development.
Though I agree that the open space, narrow streets, and "eco-friendly" design of the development contribute to a more convivial atmoshphere, the overall design and function of the neighborhood does not seem all that different from most vapid suburban cul-de-sac "community" developments. But in an effort to keep this part of the article short, I will only pick on one aspectof Village Homes.
All of the streets within the development are cul-de-sacs so there is no real connectivity within the development, or to the outside. This would be more reasonable if the entire town of Davis were based on meandering bike paths and sidewalks. But the truth of the matter is that people still use their cars for most, if not all of their daily needs. Thus, the paths are great for moving within the neighborhood, but as the article mentions, most people still drive to the grocery store, even though it is just minutes away via bike. What this says to me is that the collector road that the Village Home cul-de-sacs force cars onto is not pedestrian or bike friendly. Therefore Village Homes acts like any other development in that it really limits the ability for those without a car to explore, make communal connections outside of the development, or to obtain the necessities of daily life.
Though Cohousing, Prairie Creek, and Village Homes all have their weaknesses, all three offer proof that that the paradigms of suburban development are slowly starting to change. This is a good thing.
Saturday, January 08, 2005
Get On The Bus
Americans love the fact that they can pay for gas at the pump, buy movie tickets online, and check out at the grocery store without having to interact with a single human being. After all, who has the time? Americans also loves their tiny cellular camera phones, and portable music devices (none of which are made in this country), because there convenient size makes it easier and more “efficient” to call their friends while simultaneously listening to sweet tunes and taking pictures of beautiful wilderness vistas from a remote mountain apex, which they traveled to in their bloated SUV. Oh, wait…that only happens in the commercials.
The sad reality is that our culture has placed itself into an entrenched pattern of existence that is built on the pursuit of efficiency (happiness?), which has become wholly inefficient. In other words, we’re the mad scientist who did not consider the unintended consequences of our invention. For example, the bigger roads that we build to transport us to bigger stores only create higher taxes and more traffic jams. The bigger cars we drive to shuffle more people to and fro use larger amounts of gasoline, which create increased amounts of pollution and as supplies peak, rising oil prices. And finally, the bigger meals that we feed our families while traveling on said roads to said shops only creates bigger people. My God! We’ve created a monster!
But seriously, the further use of all of our oversized cars, houses, stores, meals and tiny digital devices only serve as a distraction from the lack of real progressive ingenuity that pervades our civic and socio-cultural institutions. Thus, this is a call for the reconsideration of American inventiveness.
Today, my contribution to the reclamation of American ingenuity is going to come through an admittedly half baked idea (I’m not sure if it is original or not, so I welcome your feedback) that I have for rural, exurban, and suburban public transit, or the lack thereof. I’m from Maine and contrary to popular belief, I did not grow up in the woods sans electricity, and I certainly do not find my cousin to be a good source of future progeny. Nevertheless, I am extremely familiar with the beautiful bucolic nature of the state and am aware that most people need a car to obtain life’s necessities. Of course that does not mean that everyone indeed has a car, or likes to use one, which is why I believe a state like Maine could really benefit from some creative thinking.
Currently Maine is like most states in that it has severe budget issues. Federal funds have been scarce recently, and the state faces increasing demands on its public services – education costs have skyrocketed even though enrollment numbers have declined. Thus, the state could simultaneously combat some of its transportation issues while actually earning some income from the only public transit that exists in most rural locations – school buses.
Why should such expensive vehicles be used strictly to shuffle children around for two hours a day? Is there any reason why school buses are not used in communities to help shuttle the elderly, those without cars, and those who do not like driving? The ability to get on the bus and go to town, or a regional center could reconnect the isolated, and increase communal connections. Moreover, one would almost think that since local and state tax money is used to purchase the school buses that citizens, especially those without school aged children, would insist on reaping the benefits of their own tax dollars.
Sure, there are some restrictions, as buses are used roughly from 7am to 8am and again at 2:30 pm to 4pm. You might even argue that some buses are used in field trips and for after school sporting events, but certainly not all of them. Why not charge $1.00 per ride and establish a local and regional bus route that travels on a regular schedule during off hours? Why not establish full service on the weekends and during the summer? Has this idea even been considered? I certainly do not have all the answers, and I do recognize issues of mechanical upkeep and the accrual of high mileage at a faster than normal rate, but I think the benefits of using buses as public transportation in rural areas are tremendous. Thus, I encourage Maine, and all other areas that are deprived of public transportation to get on the bus.
Monday, January 03, 2005
Red Vienna? Brilliant!
As I was reading Anthony Tung’s Preserving the World’s Greatest Cities (A Wonderful book that I will review in full when I finish it) this weekend, I came across an extremely important and enlightening chapter entitled “Historic Preservation and Social Conscience,” which featured Vienna, Austria. As a subsection to the chapter Tung covers “Red Vienna,” which unbeknownst to me, was a period of progressive socialism in Vienna during the early 20th century. This impressive period produced one of the most innovative and intelligent public housing policies in modern history. Though America has always struggled ideologically with socialism, Red Vienna’s housing policy was a program that regardless of its ideological origin, should have been mimicked as soon as the American federal government decided that they should offer housing to those who could not always provide there own.
In short, Red Vienna’s housing policy supported close to ten percent of the cities population (200,000) within 400 housing “blocks” dispersed throughout the city. All of these housing projects, which were completely unlike America’s conception of a housing project, were built within 15 years and were accompanied by the creation of facilities like health clinics, playgrounds, theatres, shops, and green space. Integrating these services into the overall public housing plan ensured more economic equality, and gave the lower economic classes in Vienna a great sense of dignity, as well as access to all the pleasures of urban living that meet the panoply of human needs.
Yet, the entire public housing program in Vienna could not have been possible without the Federal Rent Control Act of 1922. This act helped ensure that the average rental rate within the city would be less than 5% of an individual’s salary – a concept that today could not be any more foreign to the average urban dweller in the western world. Although the rental freeze program enveloped close to 25% of the cities annual budget, it significantly decreased the profitability of speculative real estate development. The rental freeze decreased the value of Vienna’s land, which helped the burgeoning city purchase cheap land on the open market. This allowed the City of Vienna to double its land holdings from 17% to 34% of the total land mass within the city’s limits. The city then created a graduated tenant rental tax that focused on taxing the wealthy and their luxury apartments, which kept rental rates affordable for the poor and generated 40% of the money needed for the cost of its ambitious public housing policy.
Though the creation of rent control, the graduated tenant tax, and the suppression of the speculative real estate market were essential components in the creation of a successful public housing policy, they were merely a representation of the larger ideological framework from which the city was operating. That is to say, the leaders of Red Vienna envisioned a collective humanist society where the poor were not to be marginalized from the social and cultural achievements of a city that was entering the rapidly industrializing world of the 20th century. (Wow! A society that cares just as much about its people as the bottom line!?)
Before all of the public housing projects were actually built in Vienna, they were conceived as being both public buildings and private dwellings, or communes that supported a shared vision of a convivial urban social life. This vision contributed greatly to the integrity of the actual housing stock created for Vienna’s underclass. Amazingly, none of the land that the public housing was built upon in Vienna was acquired via eminent domain. Impressive. Can you imagine this happening in America? I most certainly cannot.
Perhaps what is more impressive is that since the housing blocks were interspersed throughout the city, there weren’t any heavy concentrations of the urban poor. Thus, the communes were established gracefully into existing neighborhoods that were already connected by Vienna’s existing mass transit system (an impressive subway system that featured stations designed individually to fit in appropriately within the context of the neighborhoods for which they were a part). Such an amenity is not known by most poor urban dwellers, especially in early 20th century Europe.
Because the new housing developments were either fully integrated into the existing urban fabric, or were extensions of established neighborhoods, they easily could have completely distorted the architectural pattern of Vienna’s historic neighborhoods. Yet, the architecture of the communes sought to simultaneously show the progress that the socialists were making in Vienna, while also honoring the historic architecture of existing buildings. As a result, there were no generic housing plans capable of ruining the aesthetics of Vienna. The result of which was a proletariat class that believed their housing stock helped assimilate them into the established culture of the city. The new buildings, though larger in scale, incorporated several components of the architectural language and patterns endemic to the unique styles of the historic city. Moreover, most buildings were built by hand to guarantee unique craftsmanship, and to employ several workers, craftsman, and artists.
By giving the poor dignity through housing, Red Vienna was able to engender the widespread political support of the proletariat, which was quite an accomplishment during the tumultuous times of early 20th century Europe. Moreover, the city was able to create a fluid transition between its great architectural history and the imposing force of modernism, which began pressing down on Vienna as it industrialized. Yet, like many great social and cultural strides that were made in Europe during this time period, most were virtually erased by Adolf Hitler and his goon laden squad of misanthropes. Nevertheless, Red Vienna and all of its public housing glory should simply serve as a lesson in how to properly integrate the poor into a successful city. Once again, we have the wheel and it does not need to be reinvented.
 All of the information contained in this article may be found on Pgs. 206-211 in Preserving the World's Greatest Cities, By Anthony Tung.