Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Memory Lane: Camden, New Jersey
If you know anything about Camden, New Jersey, you probably know that it is one of the poorest places in America. In fact, despite its history, today it is probably more famous for its urban blight than anything else. This is a shame. Though my experiences in Camden were brief (three wonderful DMB shows over three days in June of 2002), they have yet to be duplicated by any of my other concert travels.
Interestingly, my three days in Camden always started and ended in the tony New York City suburb of Short Hills, New Jersey. Though I would have liked to be a little closer to the actual venue, I had a good college friend that lived in Short Hills and he offered his house to me and my concert mate for the three day run of shows. Thus, not only did I get to spend my three days in two completely disparate environments, but I also got to travel along some of New Jersey's most crowded highways, the very same highways that helped facilitate the blighting of Camden.
My first impression of Camden was that it had to be one of the most depressing urban landscapes in America. For the entire three day period that I was in Camden I couldn't help but ponder how a country with so many resources could completely turn its back on a city that was once so vibrant. Who let this happen?! Though I could not answer my own question at the time, I now know that the answer to my question is not so much who, but what.
The collector road that brings a motorist from the highway into the empty "core" of Camden passes boarded up building after boarded up building. These places looked absolutely unfit for human habitation. So much so that I nearly rammed into the traffic stalled cars in front of me when I began to notice that people were actually coming in and out of these places, as if they was nothing inherently wrong with their decayed state of existence. Sadly, at one time they were probably elegant houses. However, that was then, in the present most of the buildings looked as though they had suffered from fires that were not quite strong enough to damage the entire structure. I remember thinking to myself that maybe all Camden had was a really responsive fire department.
If the windows were not boarded up, they were mostly without window panes. When the motorists in front of me began to notice this pattern, they began rolling up there car windows, in an almost mocking manner. I kept mine down. This was an education into the America that most people do not want to think about, and an America that I certainly had never seen. As I sat in priveledge I wanted to smell, hear, and see it. Never before I had ever been so aware, of my own fortunate situation in life.
As traffic creeped its way closer to the venue, I half expected to see a slightly more positive urban environment. Afterall, on the maps that I had with me the waterfront park district - with a new amphitheatre and a new aquarium - looked like a vibrant urban location further enhanced by its location across the Delaware River from downtown Philadelphia. What I learned is that in an environment like Camden, maps displaying cultural attractions don't mean a damn thing. In fact, the shiny new lamp post signs, which were like band aids on open wounds, directed SUV infested traffic to the Camden waterfront. These signs almost seemed like a cruel joke, as I'm quite sure that most of those sitting on the stoops of the nearly destroyed houses had never set foot in the aquarium or the Tweeter Center. Thus, like many urban renewal projects that bank on the development of large inorganic cultural institutions as the solution to blight, the aquarium and amphitheatre were not doing much for the actual people of Camden. This is a major shortcoming in the field of urban planning.
As we began to approach the venue I realized why we had been moving so slowly. Someone had thought it was a good idea to plan a festive Puerto Rican Pride Day parade along the same thoroughfare that was suppossed to move thousands of concert-goers from highway to venue! Though I was rather upset about the traffic situation, it was AMAZING to see the tail end of this parade. I had never seen so much fervent and authentic national pride. This was not the post-9/11 consumer hyped-get-a-flag-on-your-car-or-die type of patriotism. I loved it, as it reinforced that beauty, joy, and humanity can, and do overcome even the most depressing of situations.
Upon arriving at the venue, I instantly noticed that the area surrounding the amphitheatre and aquarium was an urban wasteland of mostly surface parking lots. I imagined that when there aren't any events at the amphitheatre - say half of summer and all of winter - the acres of surface parking must be pretty useless. There was one large parking structure, but not much else in the way of urbansim. This is an area that needed infill development in the worst way. Development that create restaurants, shops, parks, and other basic ammenities that might actually create real destinations, beyond special summer amphitheatre events.
The last thing that I noticed before entering the venue is that though it was getting close to show time, several of the lots had not even filled up. I began to think maybe the location of the venue actually scared away much of DMB's white, upper-middle class fanbase. I was wrong. Most fans were just arriving by ferry from across the river. Apparently, parking in Camden after dark, even for events, was not a good idea. I didn't let this bother me too much. Of the three evenings that I spent in Camden, I never once felt threatened. However, maybe I was just too tired from the concert to really notice.
Like all of my Dave Matthews Band concert experiences, the entire weekend was full of music and joy. Unfortunately, the surrounding environment was not (except for the Puerto Rican Day parade). Though I did not think too deeply about what I experienced in Camden at the time, those three days have strongly influenced the way in which I view this country, and its social problems. I was able to carry that experience through my remaining two years of college and apply it to several of my courses that delved into the roots of the problems that are so prevalent in Camden. Today, my memories of Camden seem stronger than ever. To be honest, I hope they never leave me, as they serve as the inspiration for me to become an urban planner that works to better the human environment at all times, and for all people.
Saturday, April 16, 2005
1) The structure of the public planning sector
I do not feel the need to fully expound on the well known and ridiculous challenges that municipal planners face in their town and city governments. Nor do I feel qualified to speak about changing planning curriculums, as I have yet to experience a single graduate course. However, I would like to share my thoughts on passion.
It is my feeling that many planners are simply uninterested in the lifelong process of studying and learning about the planning profession. Informal education is essential to planners who are 5, 10, or 25 years out of school. The problem with many planners, I believe, is that this type of education must be self-directed, and can only come by committing oneself to truly learning about changing theories, trends, and ideas. I have worked with planners in Maine, Vermont, and now Massachusetts, who are so robotic and entrenched in status quo bureaucratic thought, that thinking outside their steel reinforced box of muncipal planning codes is not even an option for them. These are the types of people who love to complain about new urbanism. Yet, they don't ever take the time to understand what it is. If someone with a firm understanding of new urbanism (or simply what makes good urbanism) wants to tear it apart, fine, because I can learn from that. But making snap judgements without taking the time to understand what new urbanism is, shows lack of interest for the profession.
It’s also my impression that many planners enter school as idealistic, forward thinking people with a desire to create change. As a young professional who is looking to go back to planning school, this is where I stand. Yet, if planners are not disillusioned by the time they leave their graduate program (many recent grads that I have spoken to for advice have had less than stellar things to say about their respective planning schools), they will eventually morph into embattled professionals that spend passionless days reacting to new development with antiquated and ineffective regulations, which is not planning. Unsurprisingly, this has created a profession without true municipal leaders, and a profession that has unintentionally harmed the human environment, rather than enhanced it. Many recent posts on the previously mentioned list serves have explained this phenomenon by positing that a planner without a true urbanist as a city manager or mayor, will be handed a one way ticket to unemploymentville if they challenge the status quo. Though this provides some explanation for my preference for the private sector, I believe the problem runs deeper than that. Planners must start showing more leadership by educating themselves, and educating those who help shape development in their respective communities.
As someone who is disheartened by those who lose passion for the profession, it is my goal to never stop learning from, or about the art of placemaking. In fact, I think my best chance at helping to solve America’s collective placemaking amnesia is to constantly educate, and re-educate myself about architecture, economics, urban design, politics, history, and culture. Staying on top of these disciplines and the wealth of connections between them, will only help me change and adapt to our ever-changing culture. Furthermore, I will always stand up and be vocal.
To me, one of the biggest values of the new urbanism is that it has created a lasting and meaningful dialogue on the many problems associated with post-World War II planning methods. What other methodology has made such progress? Moreover, new urbanism has recreated lasting solutions that employ time honored principles of truly successful urban planning methods. New urbanism is also a movement that is full of people who like myself, are self-taught, passionate people. People who believe that there should be no more complacency within the profession! People who believe in change! We hold meetings and have discussions about the harmful nature of past and present planning methods. We hold conferences. We tell family and we tell friends. Most importantly, we believe in teaching and being taught. We stand up.
In the context of history new urbanism is still an immature movement. Yet, with the passion for placemaking that new urbanists have, its should be no surprise that after only 15 years of real work we are already asking “what’s with the planners?” "Why don't they get this stuff?" Well, I believe that the answer to the question is the utter lack of intellectual curiosity. Most municipal planners have not taken the time to truly understand the principles of the movement, or to stand up and demand better methods for community building. New urbanism has its shortcomings and imperfections, but it has done so much for getting us back to creating the type of places that have social and cultural worth.
Sunday, April 03, 2005
Placemaking: Continuing the New England Tradition
When those of us on the conference committee started organizing this conference in late January I remember thinking that our passion for educating New England about the new urbanism might be clouding our judgement on how quickly we could actually pull off a successful conference. Afterall, none of us had any real conference planning experience, and most conferences are planned over the course of a year, not two months. Regardless, serving on the planning committee once again proved the wise and often repeated words of my dad to be true, "You get out, what you put in." Well, we put in a whole hell of a lot, and the results on Friday spoke for themself. If you were not there, I have provided a review of the sessions that I was able to attend.
Members Meeting (CNU NE members)
The first meeting of the members went well. Quorom was made, and our first official board of directors were voted into office. In my opinion this was the most important part of the meeting because with at least one representative from each New England state, our chapter has grown from a disproportionately Boston-based organization, into an organization that truly represents the region. This bodes well for both the chapter, and the villages, towns, and cities of New England.
On a personal note, I was very proud to sign my name to the official chapter charter as a founding member. Though this investment will never pay itself out in direct financial gain, it certainly helps plant a seed that will grow into planning, building, and re-building places of lasting value in New England. To me, that is worth all the money in the world.
Keynote Address (John Norquist)
When planning a conference it is always a good idea to get a well known person to deliver the keynote address. However, it is equally, if not more important to have that well-known figure be someone who truly understands the topic at hand. We were lucky enough to have John Norquist, President of CNU, who is both well known in new urbanist circles, and clearly someone who understands what the movement is about. Though Mr. Norquist looked half asleep when he started his presentation, he effectively caffeinated the crowd by mixing humor with a compelling powerpoint slide show that displayed the importance of placemaking. My favorite portion of the address was when Norquist compared post-World War II Berlin and post-World War II Detroit. By comparing post-war Berlin to the Berlin of today, and the condition of Detroit in 1945 to present day Detroit, one would instantly surmise that Detroit was the city that was destroyed by war, not Berlin. The message resonated loudly, and set the stage for the rest of the day.
The Urban to Rural Transect and Form-Based Coding (Catherine Johnson, Ann Daigle)
The urban to rural transect, which is adaptated from the natural transect of topography found in the natural environment and applied to the built environment, codes the type of development that should occur within one of six different transect zones. I often think that for a newcomer the transect is the most esoteric of new urbanist principles, and therefore waspleased that we devoted a session to it on Friday. Both presenters did a great job of illuminating the relationship between transect zones and code.
Catherine Johnson related her experience as an architect in Connecticut to the importance of coding. As an experienced code writer, she emphasized the use of language within the actual formation of design codes. For example, using "build to" lines as opposed to "set back" lines help create good urbanism. She also emphasized the important difference between "codes" (something that is upheld by the law) and "design guidelines" (something that is merely a suggestion and hold no weight).
Ann Daigle picked up where Catherine left off by explaining her experience as a code writer on the national level. By applying the transect to communities throughout the United States Ann mentioned that her passion is planning for development that will be the "historic preservation" of the future. With a half century of building meaningless places behind us, this is a nice thought indeed.
Integrating Charrettes into the Public Process (Paul Ostergaard, Margaret Marshall)
Everyone knows that for various reasons many great plans never come to fruition. Thus in my opinion one of the most exciting things about new urbanism is the use of the charrette. A charrette is an inclusive community planning process that builds consensus around a plan in a short amount of time. This method of planning ensures that every interested party is heard and the plan is a reflection of the community's aspirations, not just those of a municipal planning office.
Paul Ostergaard, of Urban Design Associates, took the audience through the process that UDA has developed for their charrettes. Mr. Ostergaard emphasized that the entire purpose of the charrette is building consensus, or as he referred to it "building the bandwagon." To do so, UDA first utilizes a prepatory process that includes research and preliminary meetings with all interested parties. This method lays the groundwork for the entire process, which takes between 3-6 months - lightspeed by most municipal planning standards. Paul advised that charrettes should always include a mechanism that produces at least 4 loops of community feedback and that charrettes should always keep a local planner on staff. Mr.Ostergaard also advised that because the charrette is an intense experience, that those leading the process should always "dine well, and lodge well," to help rejuvenate themselves for the activities of the following day.
Though Margaret Marshall's firm, Dover, Kohl, and Associates, have a different approach to charrettes, she echoed many of UDA's principles throughout her presentation. Most importantly, she mentioned that as long as consensus is built, there is no right or wrong method for an effective charrette. However, Margaret emphasized that a community must be ready for the charrette process. She advised that if the town or neighborhood is not open to creating a shared vision, then a charrette of any variety will be ineffective. While answering questions from the crowd Margaret mentioned that getting the local media on your side early is extremely important. She also advised that when community members show up at meetings to share their hopes, ideas, and grievances, a charrette leader should always hold the microphone!
Let's face it, food at conferences is normally one small step above hitting up the local high school cafeteria. However, lunch at the Park Plaza hotel was actually pretty good! Attendees sat at tables of 8-10 people, and seemingly enjoyed good conversation alongside their three course meal. In order to spur interaction, we had participants write topics for discussion on cardstock throughout the morning. We then placed them at random tables so that attendees could find a topic of their choice to discuss or not discuss at their leisure. My favorite topic was "Cranky Old New Urbanists," which was created by Bill Dennis. I stayed away from that table.
New England Urbanism ( Russell Preston, Robert Orr)
This was my favorite session of the day. Russ Preston, of Cornish and Associates, began the session by explaining what it was like for him to grow up in the miasma of suburban Florida and then recently move New England. He said that exploring New England's coherent village, town, and urban centers "was liked being dropped into the middle of Europe." His presentation was a mixture of rhetorical questions and answers regarding "what makes the New England urban form so unique in America." He emphasized that though sprawling patterns of development have taken over the New England tradition of placemaking, our historic patterns are rich, and should inspire the creation of new places that operate like those of old, which everyone loves so much. As a life long New Englander, I enjoyed Russ's perspective as an outsider looking in.
Robert Orr's presentation of New England urbanism was extremely thorough and intellectually engaging. Though Orr spoke from a much more academic and historical standpoint, it jived nicely with the questions of design and intention that Russ posed. Orr skillfuly explained that the history of the urban form in New England had much more to do with the local patterns of settlement than anything else, as location, culture, and historical precedents all accounted for the way New England began to develop. Unfortunately, I cannot offer a much more detailed description of the speech, as I was too caught up in Orr's presentation to take notes.
Afterwards someone suggested that Mr. Orr expand his presentation into a book. I imagine that such a transformation would be easy for Orr. Such a book might also illuminate the paradoxical tragedy of building great American places in the 1700's, but with ample knowledge and technology, building cartoon nowhere's today. Three cheers for people like Robert Orr who have kept this tradition alive, and to Russ Preston for keeping hope alive for the future of built environment in New England.
Critical Case Studies of New England TND Plans (Bill Dennis)
As a long time new urbanist, Bill has been involved in some of the most significant NU projects in the United States and abroad. However, as he put its, "it was time to start living in the kind places that I was designing." Fortunately for us, that means he is back in New England. As new urbanism and traditional neighborhood development starts to take hold in New England, the timing could not be better.
Bill, who combines sardonic wit with a wealth of experience, and an incisive critical eye, made attending this session a real joy. Though the stated goal of the session was to rake all of the current NU/TND projects in New England over the coals, it was mainly a participatory critique of the Weymouth Naval AirBase Redevelopment plan (Weymouth, Rockland, Abbington, MA), with only a little bit of ad-hoc criticism of South Village (Burlington, VT) and Madison Landing (Madison, CT). Several of the members of the audience spoke out against the current plans, and offered suggestions for improvements, which would enhance the current plans and enable them to become real places over time, not just knock- off NU developments.
This session was particularly entertaining because several of the developers, designers, and consultants who worked, or are currently working on these developments were in the audience! Having no fear of criticizing or being criticized, is another great aspect of new urbanism, as it provides a level of instant peer review that is unmatched in any other planning realm.
After the conference, roughly 1/3 of conference participants attended a networking reception/party at the offices of Goody Clancy. I enjoyed several conversations, free Harpoon Beer, and the sounds of a jazz trio from the Berklee College of Music. Special thanks to Goody Clancy and Associates for hosting this wonderful event, and to everyone else on the conference planning committee who helped make this first event a success. Cheers!