14 Mar 2013 Leave a Comment
25 Oct 2012 Leave a Comment
01 Sep 2012 Leave a Comment
01 Sep 2012 Leave a Comment
11 Aug 2012 Leave a Comment
The numerous advantages of urban street trees are too often overlooked. Just as trees play an integral part in the natural ecosystem, they play critical roles in the urban ecosystem. The benefits of street trees are many-fold and include the improvement of traffic and pedestrian safety on roadways, increased economic activity, lower temperatures, crime reduction, higher land values, improved overall health, longer pavement life, and absorption of water runoff, carbons, and pollutants (Burden, 2006).
02 Aug 2012 Leave a Comment
by Nate Berg, Aug. 2, 2012
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has not made many friends within the city’s community of urban thinkers, designers and practitioners. His first move in office was to reverse course on a planned $8.15 billion light rail system expansion and instead propose a significantly more expensive – and politically controversial – subway system. He even tried to ditch a plan long in the works to revise the waterfront with a proposal fora shopping mall, monorail and Ferris wheel – an idea so hated in the city that more than 100 urban planners and thinkers signed on to an open letter to city councilors pleading to turn the idea down. They did.
Christopher Hume, the architecture and urban affairs writer at The Toronto Star, has written column after column criticizing Ford’s policies since taking office in December 2010, from his subway proposal and waterfront scheme to his opposition to pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. One especially colorful column paints Ford and his politically cooperative city councilor brother Doug as turning the city into a circus.
So when the city’s chief planner, Gary Wright, announced last fall that he’d be retiring in March 2012, many there worried that it would be hard to convince somebody to come in to take his place.
After a months-long search, Toronto has found its new chief planner in Jennifer Keesmaat, a principal in the Toronto planning consultancy Dialog. She’s a longtime Toronto resident, a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, and a pedestrian advocate who argues passionately in this TEDx presentation about the importance of children walking to school. In an interview shortly after her new position became official, Keesmaat tells Atlantic Cities she isn’t worried about being able to do good work within the city’s current political climate. She argues that there’s a “necessary tension” between the long-view of planners and the politics-driven actions of politicians, and that her role is to try to develop more alignment between those two sides.
Keesmaat contends that the politics of the city are more complicated than one person. Canadian cities don’t have the strong-mayor system common in many U.S. cities, so the mayor has just one vote on a 44-person city council. The city also operates under the Ontario Municipal Board, an appeals board that acts as a check on the council. But despite the seemingly limited power of the mayor, Ford has proven effective at developing factions within the council to support and push forward his ideas.
“Toronto, to say the very least, is a city that is extremely divided now, with very troubled politics,” says Ken Greenberg, a veteran Toronto planning consultant who for ten years worked as the city’s director of architecture and urban design.
The prime example of this division is the story of Gary Webster, the chief general manager of the Toronto Transit Commission who was fired in February after voicing his opposition to Ford’s subway plans.
“He gave the city council his professional advice in a very careful and attempting to be objective way over an issue of some transit decisions and he was fired for that,” says Greenberg. “And I think that sent a real chill. It sent a message that, ‘We don’t particularly want your professional advice. We want political advice.’”
Speaking before the announcement of Keesmaat’s hiring was made, he worried that message had turned away some of the more outspoken planners who might have considered pursuing the chief planner job.
“As a senior civil servant, you want to be in an environment where your professional advice is valued, and where you have an opportunity to give it directly,” Greenberg says.
Paul Bedford, Toronto’s chief planner from 1996 to 2004, calls Webster’s firing “disgusting,” but worries less about it dissuading people from wanting to do good planning in the city. He says that the role of the planner is to offer professional advice, not to try to win a popularity contest.
“People expect the chief planner to say what he or she thinks. That’s what I did, and that’s what I’d expect the next person to do,” Bedford says. “You’re there not as a bureaucrat, you’re there to make a difference.”
But volatile politics could potentially get in the way, making it much more difficult for a planner to make a difference. Two high-profile planners who were approached about the top planning job in Toronto suggest that the city’s politics under Ford would have limited the amount of good work they’d have been able to do in the position.
Rollin Stanley, a former planning director in St. Louis and Montgomery County, Maryland, was under consideration for the job earlier this year. Originally from Canada, Stanley spent 21 years working for the city of Toronto before heading to the U.S. He says that there’s always been what he calls a “we know best” attitude within Toronto government that has limited it from learning from other cities enacting more progressive urban policies, such as New York. He says that attitude persists.
“I read quotes from some of the council members and particularly the mayor, and I’m thinking, ‘People, you need to get out more. You really need to see what’s happening in other places and learn from those things,’” Stanley says.
He recently took a different top planning position in another Canadian city, Calgary. With a booming population, a growing economy and a popular new mayor in Naheed Nenshi, Calgary offered the opportunity to make a significant impact on a place, according to Stanley. The mayor’s politics and ideas – seen widely as progressive – were big factors in Stanley’s decision to take the job.
“It’s always best to be in a room where the smartest guy in the room is the leader. And this guy is smart. When I say smart, I don’t just mean the IQ kind of smart. He gets it,” Stanley says. “He embraces ideas. That’s what you want. I couldn’t see that happening down in Toronto.”
Brent Toderian, the former planning director in Vancouver whom we profiled in February, says he was dissuaded from Toronto’s top planning job mainly over concerns that, like the TTC’s Webster, his professional opinions would not be heard or considered by the administration.
“There were several reasons why I ended up not being the right person for it, nor wanting to take it, but one of them was that I think a city planner has to ask themselves, can they function properly in a city if they have a fundamentally different perspective on cities than the city mayor?” Toderian says.
Toderian’s answer turned out to be no. He’s since opened a private consulting firm in Vancouver.
Bedford, the former chief planner, is skeptical that politics were the determining factor in Toderian’s or Stanley’s decisions, suggesting they simply “didn’t make the cut.”
“The notion that those two guys shied away from this opportunity because of Mayor Ford is just bullshit,” Bedford says. “I think it’s an amazing job, notwithstanding who the hell the mayor is.”
It’s a more hopeful outlook for the city’s newly appointed chief planner, Keesmaat, who takes office September 10. She acknowledges that politics have bled into many of the city’s planning efforts recently, but that ultimately Torontonians and elected officials alike want their city to change for the better.
“There’s, I would say, 100 percent consensus across the political spectrum that we need innovative new solutions to addressing our traffic and congestion woes,” Keesmaat says. “How we do that? Yeah, that gets complicated, but it gets complicated everywhere. There’s some really important things that need to be negotiated, and some really important values, quite frankly that need to be negotiated.”
Keesmaat isn’t lighting any fires, at least not before actually starting her new job. But she does say that she wouldn’t have taken the job if she didn’t think she’d be able to help Toronto become a more mixed-use, multi-modal city.
“Will it be tricky? Absolutely,” Keesmaat says. “Will it demand a high level of effort? Absolutely.”
02 Aug 2012 Leave a Comment
Roberta Brandes Gratz, August 4, 2010
First came urban renewal, destroying more residential units than replaced by towers in the park.
Then came the highways through the cities, piggybacking on the massive clearance of urban renewal, this time demolishing whole neighborhoods. Thousands of industrial and small businesses and the jobs that came with them were lost, along with countless housing units.
Then came “planned shrinkage,” the idea that cities should close down failing neighborhoods, shut off the infrastructure built to accommodate density and concentrate investment in neighborhoods still worthy of middle income investment. Places like the South Bronx were left to burn.
Then came the endless number of parking lots to accommodate all the cars driven by the commuters who fled the urban wreckage for the suburbs and were now driving on the highways that drew them out of the city. Countless recyclable buildings of all periods and architectural styles – not to mention historic structures – were lost.
Then came Hope VI which has destroyed more low-income public housing units than it has replaced, all in the name of creating economically integrated projects instead of warehouses for the poor. Invariably, however, a smaller number of low-income units replaced what was demolished. The displaced families not rehoused in the new units were sent with Section 8 vouchers to already marginal neighborhoods guaranteed to create the next blighted neighborhood worthy of “replacement.”
Then came urban agriculture which — although a good idea for backyards, empty lots and modest-scale community gardens — suddenly scaled up to whole neighborhoods whose remnants are often old houses which even in their deteriorated condition are built more solidly than any of the flimsy new structures replacing them today.
Now comes the ‘theory’ that the salvation of distressed cities is to once again ‘shrink,’ as if shrinking had been tried before and succeeded somewhere but who knows where.
Can anyone point to one city, just one, where any of these ‘renewal’ schemes have worked to regenerate, rather than further erode, a city? Just one. No theory please; just real on the ground success.
When does a city become a “non-city,” in fact a town or a village?
Conventional wisdom today clearly notes that a key to a successful city is density. New small businesses, old big businesses, innovative start-ups, street life, public transit, walkability, community connections, diversity and appealing indoor and outdoor entertainment attractions only emerge from or follow density.
Yet, the ‘theory’ that troubled cities need to face reality and ‘plan’ for ‘shrinkage’ proliferate.
The question is why.
Endless examples of success – not theory – of the opposite strategy DO exist, from the dollar houses Baltimore initiated in the ’70s and the regeneration of the South Bronx by the community efforts that successfully fought ‘planned shrinkage’ to the current efforts from Buffalo to New Orleans to Houston to Portland. All these efforts represent innovative strategies to bring people back, to regenerate instead of shrink, to build on observable successes instead of following simplistic theory.
Reasonable sounding rhetoric seems to accompany the “creative shrinkage” (hard to know what is “creative” here) theorists. But let’s look at some of the actual implementation differences between following the demolition path and the regeneration path. Clues to the real motives become apparent.
Demolition money is easy to come by, often CDBG money provided by the federal government. Demolition contracts are easy, often big and, of course, given to the familiar cast of eager characters who also often represent big political campaign contributors.
In contrast, money for stabilization and/or renovation has to be patched together from multiple sources. Lenders don’t like the look of dilapidated old buildings, even if they are historic and architecturally beautiful. They do, however, understand demolition and formula building projects.
Bureaucrats have little or no experience handling such rescue and regeneration projects. Renovation doesn’t easily conform to today’s building codes and building inspectors don’t have enough experience to understand how to deal with this. Money doesn’t exist for just cleaning out, stabilizing, securing and landbanking worthy structures.
And, sadly, remaining residents are under the misunderstanding that demolition of the next door vacant nuisance solves crime, cleans up neighborhoods and improves the community.
Instead of improvement, the land lies fallow for ages and eventually, if suddenly the idea of “shrinking” is not being promoted, a developer comes along to build a very surburban-like community of garage-front, look-alike dwellings with a smaller number of occupants than could ever be characterized as urban. Without the density, no public transit is viable, no local stores and community-serving businesses develop, more car-dependant shopping malls and business centers perhaps get built and thus is created a non-urban enclave detached from the remaining city adding no strength to the existing urban fabric.
Despite the obstacles – and there are certainly many – - to regeneration, tried-and-true strategies for regeneration exist, sometimes in the same cities where shrinkage by demolition is occurring. But the successful efforts share a common characteristic. In each case, something positive is being added; nothing is being taken away. Even in the neighborhoods where vacant lots are offered to remaining resident next door for a garden, an extension or something else, something new gets added. In some community-led efforts where non-profits retrieve and renovate, or help a new occupant renovate, an abandoned structure, new investments small and large become visible.
Areas where artists are moving into cheap or free spaces seem to be the most noticed successes, where the positive is achieved instead of the negative. The addition instead of the subtraction.
If one looks at the history of some of our cities’ most desirable neighborhoods today and recognizes what a staggering number of them were once miserable, deteriorated slums, then a truly “creative” path reveals itself. Clearance was never the key but rebirth was the result.
Roberta Brandes Gratz is an urban critic and author of the newly published The Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, Nation Books.
28 Jul 2012 Leave a Comment
Shanghai’s skyscraper district is ultradense, but New York, London and Milan are better at promoting innovation.
Ours is the century of the city. For the first time in history, more than half of the people in the world, 3.3 billion of us, live in cities. By 2050, according to the best projections, urbanites will account for as much as 70% of the global population.
Over the next 50 years we will spend trillions of dollars on city building. The question is: How should we build? For many economists, urbanists and developers, the answer is simple: We should build up. But the answer is more complex than that.
Researchers at the Santa Fe Institute have been able to demonstrate that bigger, denser cities literally speed up the metabolism of daily life. Larger beasts may have slower metabolisms in the animal kingdom, but the opposite occurs in cities, which get faster as they grow. Doubling a city’s population, the Santa Fe researchers found, more than doubles its creative and economic output, a phenomenon known as “superlinear scaling.”
Still, density is only part of the solution. In the hyper-crowded skyscraper districts of Shanghai, densities can approach 125,000 people per square mile. Giant buildings often function as vertical suburbs, muting the spontaneous encounters that provide cities with so much of their social, intellectual and commercial energy. People live their lives indoors in such places, wearing paths between their offices and the food courts, always seeing the same people.
In terms of innovation and creative impetus, Shanghai pales in comparison to New York, London, Paris and Milan, not to mention high-tech hubs like Silicon Valley, the Bay Area, Seattle, Boston, Austin and North Carolina’s research triangle, all of which have much lower densities.
It turns out that what matters most for a city’s metabolism—and, ultimately, for its economic growth—isn’t density itself but how much people mix with each other. And there isn’t just one formula for that. It can happen in the pedestrian-oriented sidewalk culture of New York and London but also—to the chagrin of many urbanists—in the car-dependent sprawl of a suburban nerdistan like Silicon Valley. That region, as Jonah Lehrer has pointed out, manages to emulate the functions of bigger, denser cities by encouraging the clustering of talent and enterprise and fostering a high level of information-sharing.
In fact, there are two types of density, according to a recent study by Peter Gordon of the University of Southern California and Sanford Ikeda of the State University of New York, Purchase. “Crude” density is achieved by districts packed with taller and taller buildings but doesn’t, on its own, generate innovation or economic development.
By contrast, what the authors call “Jacobs density” sparks street-level interaction and maximizes the “potential informal contact of the average person in a given public space at any given time.” It makes networking and informal encounters more likely and also creates a demand for local products and diversity—not just of populations and ethnic groups but of tastes and preferences.
The authors dub it “Jacobs density” in tribute to Jane Jacobs, the renowned urbanist and author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” She famously said, “In the absence of a pedestrian scale, density can be big trouble.”
Look at New York City. Its hubs of innovation aren’t the great skyscraper districts that house established corporate and financial headquarters, media empires and wealthy people (an increasing number of whom are part-time residents who hail from the ranks of the global super-rich). The city’s recent high-tech boom—500 start-ups in the last half decade, among them Kickstarter and Tumblr—is anchored in mid-rise, mixed-use neighborhoods like the Flatiron District, Midtown South, Chelsea and TriBeCa.
Google’s New York office, second in size only to its headquarters in Silicon Valley, is in the old Port Authority terminal building across from the Chelsea Market, for which it paid $1.8 billion in 2010. These neighborhoods are filled with the sort of old buildings that, in Jacobs’s famous phrase, new ideas “must use.”
None of this is to say that New York should be preserved in amber. The move to increase density in Midtown East, for example, raising height restrictions to as high as 80 stories, will generate much-needed development in an area that’s set up for it.
But balance is key. A great city needs a mix of neighborhoods and districts of varied heights and densities. And great care must be taken not to muck up those critical areas that spur true innovation and creativity. “Densities,” Jacobs cautioned, “can get too high if they reach a point at which, for any reason, they begin to repress diversity instead of to stimulate it.” It’s a crucial lesson to absorb as our world grows ever more urban.
22 Jul 2012 Leave a Comment
Why is NY so glorious on summer weekends? Partly the quiet. Noise pollution is the next ecological challenge for the city.
21 Jul 2012 Leave a Comment
Designing and building the new McCamley vertical axis wind turbine took decades, but it may have been well worth it, as the company believes their innovative design could revolutionize urban wind power.
The McCamley MT01 Mk2 is designed to be easy to install, without any need for a tower, on urban rooftops, and is claimed to be able to operate with minimal noise and vibration and be able to self-start (no grid power input) at low wind speeds. The McCamley turbine was specifically designed to work in the variable and turbulent winds typically found in the city, and because it can continue to operate in extremely strong winds, may be able to harvest energy from a wider range of wind conditions than other designs.
The lightweight turbine is mounted on multiple legs, cutting down on vibration and stress on the roof, and the rotor design is said to be “bird and bat friendly”. The Mk2 self-starts in winds as low as 1.8 meters/second, and a self-regulating speed system allows the turbine to continue to operate efficiently in gusting and turbulent winds by keeping the rotor at a consistent speed. The turbine’s direct-drive design also eliminates the need for a gear box, simplifying the maintenance or repair of the units.
A prototype 1kW McCamley turbine has been installed at Keele University(UK), following a successful field test at an installation in Lyaskovets, Bulgaria:
“We believe that this design has the potential to be the new face of wind energy and is completely scalable, from 12kW designs to larger megawatt designs.” – Dr Scott Elliott, CEO of McCamley UK Ltd
Elliott believes McCamley will be able to build a 12kW version in the next six months, and that the technology is scalable up to 24kW. They also plan toincorporate solar panels into the stator, enabling the generation of electricity from both the sun and wind from a single installation.