Wednesday, August 24, 2005


New Home: Ann Arbor

Despite the ridiculous levels of tourist congestion, leaving coastal Maine in the middle of August is never an easy thing to do. Yet, that is exactly what I did last week as I packed my bags, bike, and hand-me-down furniture to head to my new home in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Fortunately, I have never had a problem with anxiety or new places. If I did, I'm sure leaving New England for the midwest could have caused a panic attack. Well, to be completely honest, I almost did freak out as I drove through the Canadian province of Ontario and witnessed all the new sprawl that is occuring outside of some of the region's largest cities. Seriously, do our friendly neighbors to the north not see the monumental planning mistakes that Americans have made in constructing our built environment? It's almost as if development outside of Ontario's cities is roughly 10-15 years behind the suicidal precedent that America set in the 1980's and 1990's. Almost every open farm field along the QEW Highway, for which there are many, has a sign with some iteration of "Will build to suit." We all know that development can actually enhance a community when done right. But, if what has already been built in this region is a sign of what is to come, I do not hold out much hope. Ugh! Can you hear the death rattle? I sure did. Anyways, after being thoroughly dissapointed with Canada's recent patterns of development I realized that I have my own country to deal with, which is why I was heading to Ann Arbor, Michigan in the first place.

In less than two weeks I will be starting my masters in Urban and Regional planning, with a concentration in physical planning and urban design. As someone that willingly admits to being a little too interested in urban planning, this is a dream come true. However as a life long New Englander, getting used to the midwest is going to take a few minor adjustments. Frozen custard chains, crazed football games with 110, 000 fans, and an automobile lobby stronger than Jose Canseco on steroids are not things that I consider "normal." Nevertheless, Ann Arbor itself is a very cool, liberal college town. Though there is all the requisite sprawl near the highway, downtown Ann Arbor is full of independent businesses, restaurants, shops, theatres, and cool bars. Furthermore, real neighborhoods, with real sidewalks that make real connections are the norm, public parks and open spaces are ample, bicycling is more than accepted, and so far the local Michigan microbrews that I have tried are quite tasty. Some places even serve Harpoon!! I am settling in nicely here, but will wait to make a full analysis of my new home after I spend a little more time here. I expect that I will only enjoy it more.

Interestingly, Downtown Ann Arbor has hired Calthorpe Associates from Berkeley, California to assist in its new downtown masterplan. All fall there will be a series of lectures, public meetings, and workshops that will result in a brand new 25 year vision for Ann Arbor. Original CNU founder Douglas Kelbaugh is currently the Dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and new urban downtown finance guru Christopher Leinberger was recently added as a faculty member. What a great time to be here! Moreover, Detroit and all its urban maladies are a mere 40 minutes away. Every year the Urban Planning department holds a charette in a different part of Detroit, which allows students and Detroit citizens realize the potential of their forsaken city. The chance for me to learn here are great, and I look forward to taking full advantage of every available opportunity. On Friday, I have an interview to work part time for the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce's Get Downtown Program, which encourages those who work and play in the downtown to get there by using alternative forms of transportation. I hope to land this job, and if hired I expect that my work at MassBike will certainly come in handy. Wish me luck.

I miss New England already, but am excited to be here. A wise man once said that change is as good as a holiday, and I think that he was right. Its time to go exploring!

Friday, August 12, 2005


Book Review: The New Civic Art

The New Civic Art: Elements in Town Planning (2003), By Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Robert Alminana is essentially an updated version of The American Vitruvius: An Architect's Handbook of Civic Art (1922), which is one of the most well-known architecture books ever to be published. It is my opinion that over time The New Civic Art should not lag far behind, and that every planner, architect, or active minded citizen - young and old - should be exposed to the principles that are rediscovered and deeply explored in this seminal text.

The ambitious project that is The New Civic Art includes over 1,000 written entries and more than 1,200 illustrations, which display the best, and sometimes the worst, examples of urban planning from around the world. All of which are treated as important historical documents to be carefully examined by the reader, just as each plan, theory, and diagram was carefully critiqued and reviewed by the authors.

Some of the documents are well known, such as Ebenezer Howard's garden city number 5 diagram or Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Musuem in Bilbao, while others probably have not been uncovered and considered for their grace, efficacy, and contribution to the always evolving urban form in quite some time. The first thing that comes to mind as an example of the latter are the U.S. Housing Corporation public housing projects, which were built during the post-World War I era and were the United States' first attempt at producing public housing. These first attempts at public housing in America shame the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) projects of the 1960's and 1970's, most of which are widely considered to be failures. They also serve as the inspiration for the soon to be defunct (Thanks G.W.) Hope VI projects that have managed to repair much of the urban fabric that was destroyed so ruthlessly by the HUD projects.

Within the book's 369 pages, Duany et. al. were remarkably able to cover every theory, plan, diagram, and practicioner with an honesty and a veracity that only those at the top of the field could produce. The care and clarity from which the authors write make it seem almost impossible that we as a society could even make planning mistakes today. I guarantee that even the most seasoned and skilled architect/planner could take something positive away from this book, and that they should add this new found knowledge, or newly rediscovered knowledge to their own practice.

I believe that the greatest strength of The New Civic Art is that it proves that before we ever look forward, we must always stop and look back to learn from history so that we can adapt and build the kind of places that we all deserve to live in. To me, this is an important lesson, and one that those in the planning field should always remember. Just think of all those amazing places that everyone loves to visit - Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Boston, Charleston etc. -now think of the basic principles that made each place possible. We don't have to reinvent the wheel, we just have to look at it again, and that is exactly what Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Robert Alminana have done in The New Civic Art, and they have done it masterfully. This is a book worth owning, and one that I know that I will continually refer to for the rest of my professional career.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Is this Developer Confused or Reformed?

I recently read an article about Henry Rodriguez, a self proclaimed "civic investor," who is currently working on his first new urbanist development in Osprey, Florida. The development is called Bay Street Village & Town Center, and if built it will include a library, a town square, 30 shops, and 532 condos, villas, and town homes.

Rodriguez admits that he calls himself a "civic investor" because he believes that the term "developer" conjures up heinous mental images of the sprawlscape that has decimated much of Florida's natural beauty. Smart man. However, developer or otherwise, Rodriguez's 41 acre new urban project is quite the departure from his most recent effort in Osprey, which is a Super Wal-Mart sited on route 41 in Florida that is slated to open later this month.

Yes, you read that correctly, a Super Wal-Mart. If you ask me, that's not much of a civic investment. In fact, I would actually call that one hell of a civic disinvestment. Nevertheless, according to the Florida Herald Tribune article, found here: , Rodriguez belives that the suburban sprawl that has persisted for 60 years is responsible for road congestion, environmental problems, and antisocial behavior. He says, "Everybody is isolated. Our social systems are breaking down to a point where you don't know your neighbor."

Though he is absolutely right, please forgive me for not being totally convinced that Mr. Rodriguez is truly worthy of his civic investor title. It's more like he has caught on to the fact that new urban communities are high in demand, and high in profitability - especially in the south. And though it seems like he has reformed his ideas to include new urbanist principles with Bay Street Village, we'll have to wait and see how this development actually pans out.

Yet regardless of his intent, if a recent Sprawl-Mart developer (not civic investor) wants to abandon that approach to development, in order to create smart growth and new urban projects, then I say that is a step in the right direction. I hope we see more developers change their tune, like Mr. Rodriguez, so that they include the new urbanism in future developments.

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