Sunday, January 31, 2010

Paving the Road with Iron Bars

On this frigid February's Eve- that most demoralizing of all northern months- it seems appropriate to address one of the big questions in urban planning from a psychological perspective- mass transit and future infrastructures. Writers such as those excellent journalists over at The Infrastructurist are constantly reporting on and advocating for new and significant public transit.

In New York City a majority of residents already use forms of mass transit, the most famous and heavily used of which is the subway. At this point in the year, the subway has become an oppressive component of the unfortunate workday tradition of house-subway-office-subway-house without ever seeing the light of day. This affects the psyche of the city, and one of the biggest factors in this collective malaise is the fact that so much of New York's mass transit is below ground.
[you may be tempted romanticize this image as interesting.  do not be mistaken, it sucks]

There is a fundamental difference between below ground, on grade, and elevated rails in cities. It affects not only the physical spaces and interstitial zones created in the public right of ways, but also alters the psychological experience of the city. Each method has its particular benefits and difficulties. However, when a system is dominated by below-ground subway, the effect is disorienting and dehumanizing.

New York City has the second most extensive subway system in the world after London, and is by far the busiest serving some 4.5 million passengers per day. In addition it features 134 miles of tunnels, the largest underground network in the world. Originally Manhattan and Brooklyn both were serviced primarily by on-grade and elevated public transit rails, vestiges of which can still be seen throughout the city.
[old 9th avenue elevated rail, at 110th street]

A fascinating article published in Scribner's Magazine in 1892 surveyed the state of public transit in European and American metropolitan areas and examined the various modes of transportation for their economic and social impacts. It provides a fascinating snapshot of the discourse surrounding public transit just before subways became the de facto mode of urban public transit in New York City. (Read here for a fascinating story of the initial pilot tunnel and the political intrigues involving Tammany Hall and the then-editor of Scientific American).
[3rd Avenue Elevated Train, at South Ferry stop]

Despite the ambition of the private companies running the elevated trains, passengers were often ill-served by the uncoordinated elevated train lines (most of which ran north-south in Manhattan, and from downtown to the Coney Island-region in Brooklyn/Kings County). They also created messy street conditions, blocking light and showering noise and filth onto the streets below. Around the time that Brooklyn and Manhattan (along with Queens, Staten Island, and The Bronx) merged to become New York City, there was a shift to make the public trains subways. Public hearings were held throughout the 1890's and after some delay, the city's first subway opened in October 1904 running under Broadway from City Hall to 145 Street (click here for an incredible inventory of the Construction and Equipment necessary to maintain the original subway infrastructures).

Except for the absence of any environmental rhetoric or analysis, the article is shockingly contemporary and I recommend reading it. However, one aspect that is never discussed are the psychological effects of the various forms of public transit on the collective psyche of the city. This is strange, since this sort of qualitative argument is often used to great effect to justify the style or scale of major buildings and places of civic importance in the city.
[9th Avenue Elevated Train at 29th Street, Manhattan]

Over on the Urban Omnibus, planner Steven Dale recently extolled the virtues of air cable transit (and offered a fair, harsh critique of Santiago Calatrava's proposal for New York City) in his article "Off the Road and into the Skies". In it he argues that not only is cable air transit feasible economically and competitively efficient, but it is also more fun. I would argue that any chance to be above ground, especially in the air or elevated above grade, be it on rails or cables, can be an inspiring and pleasurable experience, offering novel perspectives and educational experiences. Seen from above, the re-contextualized buildings, urban geography, infrastructures, and street life offers insights and provokes visceral responses otherwise unavailable, especially when compared to being underground.
[6th Avenue at Bryant Park, the elevated train is at the bottom, the public library is above]

A few months ago I mentioned the interesting "Safari 7" exhibition put on by Kate Orff and her cronies at Scape and the Urban Landscape Lab. It was a fun and fascinating exploration of the various cultural and ecological environments that one passes through on the 7 train. In the brief they stated that they chose the 7 train because it cuts through and unifies some of the most disparate and interesting cultural and ecological sites and histories in the city. I say that is debatable, but it is a significant train ride because the majority of it is above ground; one can see the old World's Fair Grounds, the infrastructure and ethnic neighborhoods in outlying parts of Queens, the heavy industry and factories and new residential towers of Long Island City, and the skyline of Midtown Manhattan looming across the East River. In a tunnel, one perceives none of that.
[Proposal for street level rapid transit on Broadway]

The effect of this must not be understated. Before it became commonly accepted that the mode of mass transit for Manhattan and much of Brooklyn was subway, fantastic speculative projects were developed considering how streets and plazas and buildings might work in concert with elevated rails and station hubs. The areas they touched buildings or landed in parks created hubs of activity that have now been replaced by people hurrying into holes like so many muskrats.

We know that subways are attractive because they meet the 20th century prerequisite regarding infrastructure- keep it out of sight, at least in affluent neighborhoods. In that vein, work continues in New York City on the infamous 2nd Avenue subway. However, varied examples from Tokyo, Medellin, Curitiba, and Copenhagen all offer mass transit options that are not psychologically repressive. The now of New York would be different if two hours of every day wasn't spent underground, and February would suck less.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

WPA 0.0 - Design for Labor

This past week there were a couple of good write-ups over on Places regarding the past year's WPA 2.0 work by the folks at cityLab. The piece by Nancy Levinson, well worth the read, focuses on the larger discussion surrounding infrastructure in the United States. It posits that infrastructure is in a deplorable state, inadequate even to meet today's needs, much less the problems of climate change, sea level rise, water, urbanization, and suburban ghost towns and that this is an effect of the larger attitudes toward the idea of the state and the concept of "the public".

The WPA 2.0 projects- and many other expansive and heady theses, articles, and competitions- are currently focusing laser-like on the issues of energy, transportation, social and economic infrastructure in our built environments. We are desperately clamoring for the attention of Secretaries LaHood, Chu, and Donovan, freely offering ourselves and our ideas- "Listen guys, we have a plan..." And our plans are fantastical, speculative ways of combining building technologies with new forms of transportation and energy infrastructure. They are proposals for finely tuning or amplifying our current way of living (read here for an intelligent philosophical take on the fallacies of this outlook) and the best proposals range from the utterly macabre to the sublime.

In the most recent issue of Harvard Design Magazine, Dominic Vitiello and Michael Nairn discuss their ongoing inventory of the community gardens in Philadelphia. In discussing urban agriculture, they mention the idea of vertical farming and give their view that it is handicapped by being "a capital-intensive strategy for a labor-intensive industry". That comment elucidates the problem with our contemporary dialogue surrounding infrastructre- we are proposing solutions that are almost exclusively capital-intensive. We need to consider labor, designing with labor and for labor. We need to be showing our proposals to Secretary Solis, too.

In the discussion about infrastructure there are a couple of points that need to be clarified:

1. Our nation's infrastructure is in a deplorable state.  This is an extremely biased perspective based on 50 years of assumptions about how to build a nation. There are problems and our systems are aging, but in comparison with most other places in the world, our infrastructure is a robust system that is not functioning efficiently primarily because of the way it is employed, not for lack of major new capital investments.

2. The only way to address these issues is through massive single shot engineering solutions. We project out the needs of the system for 20 [sic] years based on past performance and growth and then assume when new improvements are anticipated in 20 years, the tax base will have grown to be able to accommodate the next super project. This improvement is, of course, quickly overwhelmed as use habits and populations change to fill the newly created environmental opportunity (think a road being widened from 2 to 4 lanes).

It is a wonderful, hard time to be involved in the building professions; we are no longer relegated to putting icing on cakes, so to speak. But there is a problem, and the problem is the second half of the sentence: "We have a plan... and it's going to cost 50 [sic] billion dollars." Our proposals, almost without exception, still involve capital-intensive interventions. 50 years of working in the world's richest nation have framed not only our rhetoric in economic terms but also our proposals and design processes. We are still trying to design the machine of the modernist movement. Sure the context and cultural values are now a bit different, but our approach is still to design a Machine for [energy, driving, playing, entertainment, leisure] Living.

I should state that I admire many of these proposals and I love that the collective voice of the building/design professions is eager to get to work. However, we are almost exclusively designing with capital, and we need to be designing with labor, at least at times. We also need to incorporate labor- jobs created, maintenance and operations needed- into our rhetoric.

Now, I understand that we are not experts are quantifying these dynamics and have to now left it as implicit (or, I would argue, rendered it away). However, a lack of expertise in understanding the details of our creative proposal doesn't stop us from speculating on windmills in cities, algae as urban fuel, and building our own mountains or islands. And that is not a bad thing- at some point, it is good to ideate freely and work on the details later. However, when we are going to Secretary Chu and showing him our new ideas for blanketing deserts in solar panels and floating energy islands of algae, we undermine our own credibility.

These speculations- more mashups of nascent scientific experimentation rendered prettily than serious architectural proposals- seem sadly out of step with our current national situation. As things stand (to generalize broadly) we are a capital-poor, labor-rich nation with a divisive political climate and a floundering middle class. When Secretary Chu and Donovan (or their underlings) get together and see these clever renderings of an urban waterfront with white-rendered buildings and huge windmills and models strolling along and then compare them to national debt and unemployment figures and divisive polling numbers (accompanied by nightly eviscerations on the news) it is unlikely they file it in the "to do" pile.

I love the beautiful failure, and the silly romantic notion of new cities, the fantastical speculative project. And we should work towards smart grids and widespread production of new fuels and new infrastructures integrated with quotidian life. But that is not the only project typology for addressing infrastructure problems in the United States.  If anything we have been an over-capitalized, over-leveraged society for too long.  There are possibilities for interesting, edifying work that can contribute to designed landscapes, and they don't have to simply be limited to feel-good anecdotes about urban agriculture.  The profession, especially the academics and editors and leaders in the profession, should give at least equal measure to the alternative ideas, to non-sexy sophisticated interventions, to proposals that design with labor, not capital. 

Maybe a little less Girl Talk, and a little more Destroyer.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Design for The Dude, man...

There is a general predilection today in landscape architecture toward designing socially vibrant public spaces. Designers' renderings all show exuberant children and multi-racial families flying kites and eating snow cones and parks are considered successful when they attract hoards of middle-class people looking for leisure and active recreation.

A confluence of factors, including the canonization of Holly Whyte's amazing work and the need to sell people on the idea of city living have led to this tendency- the emphasis on social euphoria. And it is not a bad thing. However, the celebration of spectacle and the proliferation of images and experiences for consumption have come to dominate the conceptualization of public life. Now we have people like the Project for Public Spaces and the New Urbanists who want to triangulate the hell out of the city, making it one cute social interaction and capitalist transaction after another.

The role that landscape architecture has played in the last two decades in designing popular public spaces in cities is commendable. But this is not the only way to create successful public spaces. Vibrant is not the same thing as vital, and one vital typology that is rarely designed or advocated for is the quiet space, where one can simply abide. E. M. Forster captured the sentiment in A Passage to India when he said "There are periods in the most thrilling day during which nothing happens, and though we continue to exclaim, "I do enjoy myself," or, "I am horrified," we are insincere. "As far as I feel anything, it is enjoyment, horror"- it's no more than that really, and a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent."

But what does a landscape look like where one can simply "abide"?  Two common characteristics are: a sense of bigness and a lack of active recreation. Regarding the first characteristic, the space itself need not be huge. It may borrow extended views of water or sky but in the space a person needs a sense of something overwhelming. They need to feel small. This may be on a shoreline or in an open field, a forest, or under some piece of infrastructure. The second characteristic, lack of active recreation, is indicative of the need for separation from the myriad rituals, and compromises, ecstasies and inconveniences of active recreation and work. This separation can be visual, physical, psychological, aural.

These first two characteristics, while integral, are common to many landscape typologies and not necessarily indicative of socially vital spaces. Often, a vast, empty space with no actively programmed uses is a failed space; it is not socially vital. It may still function ecologically, but the built environment is always a balancing act between the social and ecological dynamics of a given place and a place must function on both levels.

To understand what makes a big, quiet space socially vital it is helpful to consider: what would The Dude do? Sure, The Dude may have lived according to an alternate set of values of dubious legitimacy and may have occasionally gotten involved with some perfidious characters, but when it came to a space he knew what was important.

I would posit that it is the non-sequitur that is the defining characteristic of vital quiet space. Something big, not entirely intelligible or logical, interesting in some way; this is the thing that gives us pause, a "what the..." moment. It's enough to distract us from our momentary concerns, yet it's not explicit enough to create another narrative for our minds to run with. It introduces wonder and awe and mystery, and this is reassuring; to know that in a time when our city is totally mapped and everything is ADA accessible and built to be safe and clean, there are still beautiful things that make no sense. In the words of The Dude, the non-sequitur is the rug that really ties the room together.

Quiet vital spaces and socially vibrant spaces are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The obvious example is most places in the city in the winter. With the cold weather people tend to hibernate bear-like and places that are an utter madhouse in the summer become beautiful in their seasonal desolation. The prime example of this is the Coney Island boardwalk. The walkway that traces the grey sea and sky, punctuated by monstrous amusement contraptions and unfortunate Moses-era park shelters create a haunting beauty. Yet in the summer, the place becomes all about the spectacle of human exhibition.

It can be a hard row to hoe convincing clients to invest in a place that isn't going to attract multitudes. After all, the masses buy things and vote in numbers that matter to politicians and businesses. However, if the quiet vital space can also be shown to function ecologically or seasonally as a vibrant space, perhaps we can work in a few more places where well-adjusted folks like Mr. Forster can go just to take a load off, just to sit and be quiet for a bit.

Riverside Park South, New York City

Paseo de la Costa, Buenos Aires

Fort Hamilton Park, Brooklyn (view of the Verrazano Bridge)

The Dude, Los Angeles

Sunday, January 10, 2010

El fin de la profesion

Here at FASLANYC, we (me and my lucha libre alter ego- Don Roman dela Mancha) are particularly concerned with new methods of practicing landscape architecture, of intervening in the built environment. It's not that traditional private practice or speculative academic work are irrelevant, but with their focus on paternalistic pedigree and their conservative approach to work, they are extremely limited. The Office for Unsolicited Architecture seems to capture exactly what I am describing. But it's not; it's just a bunch of unintelligible esoteric bullshit, at best a smarmy take on the traditional professor-student team intellectualizing masturbatory architecture projects.

For innovation in this area, it seems that one needs to look outside of Europe and the US. To the south, we find the group Supersudaca and the architect Jorge Mario Jauregui, both of whom are coming up with creative ways not just of defining and executing program, or speculating about architectural memes, but of mobilizing and empowering constituencies and financing projects (explored in an earlier post here). And this is one area that the European and North Americans come up woefully short, perhaps because design is a class issue, and here landscape architects (and architects) come from a particular social and economic class and we have a relatively effective way of "designing for the other half"- government.

There are many issues people have with our governmental systems and officials, but compared to the majority of the world, our systems work. People pay taxes, people get education, corrupt officials get the boot. Some of those tax dollars also go towards huge bureaucratic agencies that put in sewer lines, build new roads, erect public buildings, and maintain public spaces. That this system works well enough that it has to this point precluded new entities from evolving to fill other roles is to their credit. Designers engaging in public work- institutional and infrastructural projects, open space designs, masterplans, and urbanism- build careers servicing these agencies. Below is a basic diagram illustrating the basic service model for a private or public client.

The process represented by the above diagram has many limitations, the most prominent and consistent of which are:
- community is 2 steps/entities removed from the design process and 3 from the implementation. this despite the fact that they are ostensibly financing it and will consume it at the end.
-government has a heavy hand with money and directives. because of its size, projects must be of a certain scale to register. This trends toward bigger commissions implemented all at once because of long hierarchical chains inherent in governments, and to a lesser extent, private firms.
-consultant produces plan for the government, to be implemented by a contractor. The community is often marginalized through a patronizing community design process and is reduced to consumer of the project once it is deemed completed.
-definitions of "complete", alien to process and landscape, are necessary and become hugely important.

The design project becomes an object to be constructed by mercenaries and consumed by constituent groups. It is then up to disinterested third parties to maintain it and grow it, until such time as an agency allocates another inappropriately large sum to redoing the area.

I should acknowledge that there are smaller, non-governmental agencies organizing around myriad issues. However, these are largely ignored by designers because the scale that they work on is too small and the projects too prosaic to draw our attention. Heretofore it has not been profitable to engage in these small scale projects, and the bureaucratic nature of city agencies makes it unfeasible to fund micro-projects. This means they are usually not addressed because ngo's and community groups rarely possess the knowledge and skills (and "permission") to implement their own project.

This week there is a competition of a different sort wrapping up- the PayPal Developer Challenge. I'm a fan of paypal because of its convenience, security, and anonymity. For instance, it allows me to painlessly and anonymously order new lucha libre masks direct from the CorazonFairTrade factory whenever Don Roman has soiled his.

More to the point, I am interested in ways landscape architects might be able to use PayPal and similar tools to construct new business models and methods for offering design services. If we can circumvent the traditional bureaucratic and hierarchical models there would be new ways for intervening in the landscape that current systems don't enable. Right now we try to change what work is done by writing about it for years, establishing experts in our fields, and getting them recognized by other powerful mouthpieces and decision makers. And with good reason. But this isn't the only way to affect the discourse, trends, and ultimately the built environment.

To that end I've sketched out the following diagram and accompanying key for each of the different vectors in a new method of practice. It is a schematic at best but offers the beginnings of insight into how we might be able to go about doing different work.

Implementation of this method would likely have the following results:
-more community involvement and investment. This would likely create a "lower quality" or less professional finished product project, but a more dynamic and robust process project.
-more accountability for designers.
-almost exclusively utilized for small scale projects.
-favoring of more open-ended initiatives. This is consistent with the intellectual discourse today but extremely rare in practice because of litigious and bureaucratic considerations.
-the work of the professions would become more specific and less specialized. This would lead to a demystification of the profession which would encourage new and more varied forms of practice.
-less of a paternalistic attitude regarding government; projects would be financed by a process of aggregation, not allocation.

It is of particular importance to figure out new ways of practice to address the countless small-scale interventions that currently have no recourse. The deliberate turn towards the huge and the sexy by the intelligentsia of the landscape/urbanism professions (see Joe Brown and Belanger) is at first glance a good, ambitious move in dragging landscape architecture into relevance. However, a singular focus on these projects would be foolhardy and indeed is contrary to general trends in ecology, science, and technology, and culture. (For a more intelligent discussion of this theme, see mammoth's excellent post on the subject).

With cities becoming bigger, more corporate, and pressed by environmental and economic constraints, there is a market for millions of $5K projects proliferating across the landscape, enabling armies of interested and capable citizen designers to address contemporary issues on a micro scale. Projects will grow through aggregation of small sums, not allocation of huge sums.  To get ready, I'll be in the basement hanging out with Howlin' Wolf and working on the details.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Using the F#@% out of Public Space

A pragmatic post this week concerning the role of skateboarders and bmx bikers in the landscape. It is an activity that has been getting a lot of press recently with NPR doing an excellent interview with Tony Hawk and bmx biker Danny MacAskill being profiled in the New York Times last Tuesday (he also had the most astounding youtube video of 2009). Designing any sort of public urban space, be it the crowded streets of NYC or modern day Mayberry, requires consideration of that scourge of benches and walls everywhere and so I thought I would haphazardly explore the topic.

 First, let me frame the dialectic: landscape architects like to put pretty veneers on things outside- grass carpets, stone paving, and veneer in perfect little geometries and such. We then take a photo of it in the most flattering light and submit it for an ASLA award. Skateboarders and bmx riders like to take these sweet little forms and use the hell out of them, employing all manner of bad-assery in jumping, rolling, and grinding across our precious creations.

Second, let me state some anecdotal stereotypes countered by some poorly-vetted facts that are always part of the argument: 1. skateboarders are a homogenous group, primarily young males 2. skateboarding is an exclusive and aggressive activity 3. they mess up the pretty things we put out there.

It is true that skateboarding (and bmx biking) is a sport that is predominantly young males. However, it is no more homogenous than other more accepted recreational sports. Field sports (baseball, football, basketball) also primarily attract young males and are often more exclusive in their participation. Additionally, these sports require huge amounts of specialized, programmed space that can be difficult to use for other purposes. Skateboarding can be done almost anywhere there are hard paved surfaces and as it is not a team activity it is more given to open participation. Additionally, the damage that is inflicted upon the built environment by skateboarding is superficial and would likely be negligible if as much design thought and project budget were directed towards it as towards other "minor" activities. At the moment, unless it be the rare skate park, they are designed against.

Many would argue that skateboarding and bmx biking is often more akin to social recreation than to a sport, and indeed it is versatile enough to be both. In that respect it compares favorably to other more accepted social activities that the urban landscape is built to accommodate. While skateboarding is not an aggressive act (it's never about the other person, but rather the environment, your tool, and your body), it absolutely is an assertive one. It is the taking possession of a space and exploring its potentials toward some end (whether that potential is a 720 or drinking from a brown bag is up to you and your local law enforcement official). This exuberant attitude toward the built environment is what landscape architects are often aiming to encourage and enable. This is evident in how frequently our celebrated built environments actually resemble skating elements. In fact, the forms and proportions of skateparks are usually more compelling than all but the most expensive landscapes.

Skating is a physical activity, it is social, it provides for a traditionally ostracized constituency, it provides spectacle, and it is cheap! For contrast, think of the street scenes painted by advocates of New Urbanism which are always implicitly structured around leisure commerce. In addition, these guys are a hardy breed and if it weren't for them many of Peter Walker's designs would still be awaiting their first user. Like the lowly phytoremediating weed, they occupy the spaces that are abused and overlooked, making something beautiful out of the unloved. I once asked a skateboard professional to take a look at my wall details and make comments on whether or not they would deter skateboard abuse. His reply, to paraphrase, was "Hey Bro, good to hear from you. First, know that nothing you put out there can totally stop skateboarders. The challenge just makes it more attractive..." He went on to say that my details likely would be sufficient in deterring excess abuse, which I took to mean he was licking his proverbial chops for the groundbreaking.

Skateboarding and bmx biking should be considered a legitimate urban use and while you wouldn't necessarily want to provide a smooth low wall right next to where grandma might sit on a sunny day, we shouldn't be putting up cheap veneers that are going to chip and crack with a few years of freeze/thaw and a couple of skateboards grinds and then topping them with sex toys. Just as we wouldn't design a sidewalk too narrow or a paving section too thin, we shouldn't create details that are too delicate and precious to withstand some skating. In addition, we should use subtle moves like exaggerated joints, split face finishes, and outside curves to deter abuse.

Well, enough of that. I’ve got to run out and shoo the damn neighborhood teens off of my sidewalk before they leave black marks all over my benches.