Book ReView – The Radiant City

Hello readers – I’d like to begin this post by apologizing for my somewhat intermittent posting over the past month and a half. The summer season is particularly busy at my job that pays, and my blogging time unfortunately has had to take a hit. I am by no means finished with this project, and as long as I remain in suburbia a new post will always show up, sooner or later.

A big part of my free time in these past six weeks has been spent reading influential books on urban planning, architecture, and whatever else I’ve been able to get my hands on. In this new series, I’ll be writing about those books as I read them – the good, the bad, and the Le Corbusier. If you have any suggestions on books I should read and review, please leave them in the comments. I have a long list already built up, but I’m always looking for more reading material.

Review: The Radiant City – Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier’s rambling manifesto should be mandatory reading for all budding planners, not as a guide but as a warning: this is where arrogance can take you. The Radiant City is based around a simple idea: the modern planner knows what’s best for a city, thank you very much. It’s easy to crack a smile reading the book now when the idea that we would completely raze Paris in favor of a utopian “paradise,” featuring gargantuan mass-produced buildings set in idyllic park scenery, is ludicrous. It’s harder to laugh when you realize how much these ideals have shaped the modern city. So many of the 50’s and 60’s housing projects that have become some of the most crime-ridden areas of major U.S. cities mirror his “city in a park” philosophy, and the “planner knows best” concept pervades urban planning culture even today.

Let’s back up for a minute. What exactly is a “Radiant City?”

A major component of the ideal deals with the physical construction process. Le Corbusier’s modern city is built with modern means, namely using then-new prefabrication techniques. The only remaining construction job is that of fitter, and all of the pieces of these cities would be manufactured in factories out of concrete, glass and steel before being shipped and assembled on-site. All rooms would be the same height, all apartments built of the same modular components, changing only based on the number of residents. Each apartment would be within a short walk of an elevator (for making a person walk up more than three flights of stairs “should be a crime”). They would even take advantage of climate control techniques to ensure that the natural world would never impinge upon utopia, and modern sound-reducing technologies to prevent any transmission of noise between neighboring apartments.

Each building would be build on pilotois to ensure that the maximum ground space is available for what is apparently the only appropriate use of ground space: landscaped parks. These walking paths meander from building to building, but one wonders why any resident would ever bother to leave their immediate vicinity, for all amenities are accommodated for in short walking distance. The only “street” traffic would occur at the opening and closing times of nearby factories, as streams of drones leave their buildings, enter the factories, and leave five to six hours later.

“Idle hands are the devil’s plaything” – surely the modernist Le Corbusier wouldn’t claim to support this religious cliche, but his writings betray a deep fear of what a city’s populace might get up to if given an overabundance of leisure time. His at-the-time not unreasonable assumption that the workday would be rapidly reduced through more efficient manufacturing techniques left him quivering with fear. To solve this issue, he provides for extensive athletic facilities and walking paths, counting on every citizen to fulfill the ancient Grecian ideal of the perfect man. As much as he ignored the trend of some of his contemporaries to blatantly copy the architecture of the ancient world he took the Athenian philosophy to heart in his idea of what a citizen (read: male) should be.

And what about transportation in the “Radiant City?” He provides for the complete separation of vehicle traffic through frequent elevated highways for cars. Although he anticipated sunlight and fresh air for every citizen, it’s hard to imagine how either of these would be accomplished as great swaths of the city sit in the shadow of housing complexes and the park scenery is constantly interrupted by multi-lane highways rumbling above. He also provided for a complete underground rail network, but it’s difficult to understand where anyone would want to go in the Radiant City. When every section is identical, why travel outside of your small sphere?

If Le Corbusier’s influence weren’t so abundantly evident in cities today, it would be easy to study him simply as the quintessential modern architect. All of the arrogance of that movement is evident in his writings. The arrogance that modernism was entirely superior to all traditional techniques, and more importantly, that nothing would ever surpass the modern. It was truly the end of history, and, like every other time that claim has been made, it was definitively wrong.

Unfortunately, you can’t walk around modern cities without seeing his mark everywhere. It is nowhere more evident than New York City. As you approach on I-95, your first view of the metropolis is Co-op City, a true radiant ideal. Everything identical, everything “perfect.” As the big box stores reveal, it is hardly a design conducive to innovation or creativity. Co-op city functions far better than many of the other areas that show his influence.

The ultimate irony is that Le Corbusier would have recognized the flaw in the haphazard implementation of his ideas. He didn’t want to augment existing cities with new projects – he wanted to destroy the cities and replace them with his utopias. It’s impossible to say now whether or not this would have worked, but I can’t imagine a “Radiant City” turning into anything more than a droll, lifeless semi-suburbia where every resident who could afford to would depart for a city with life, a city with culture, not a “Radiant City” but a city that was radiant. Le Corbusier forgot that the best thing a city has to offer to the world is its people. I hope our next generation of urban planners can avoid his mistakes.

Why Amtrak’s On Time Performance Has Been So Much Worse This Year

Great article from Atlantic’s CityLab – why have Amtrak trains been late this year?

I noted a few months ago that Amtrak needs to pull their on-time percentage up in order to stay (or become) competitive with inter-city bus providers, but the US Supreme Court hasn’t made that easy. An October 2013 ruling reduced Amtrak’s ability to negotiate with freight providers, who own most of the track Amtrak uses – 72% of all miles traveled are on track not owned by Amtrak. The result? A nearly 12 point drop in on-time percentage.

Before Death and Life

Before Death and Life

A friend recently pointed me toward this fascinating piece by Peter L. Laurence about the pre-Death and Life writings of Jane Jacobs. Sometimes it feels like her career began with Death and Life, and she certainly made no effort to associate the book with her previous work. Her first published writings were for Vogue when she was still a teenager, documenting the daily life of residents in various sections of New York City. During the Second World War, she began the activism that would define her later life, advocating for a move of wartime industry to her lagging hometown of Scranton, PA. The rest of her career included a stint with the State Department (where she, like everyone else, was investigated for communist ties) and a long period writing for Architectural Forum. The last two jobs spurred her interest in urban renewal, and she took time off in 1958 when she was forty-five to write Death and Life – and we all know the story from there. 

Cutting the Gordian traffic knot

“Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities.”
― Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead

As the New York State Senate votes on whether or not to lower NYC’s default speed limit to 25mph (from 30mph), I’ve found myself marveling at how difficult it is to make any significant changes to our traffic problem. Sure, the 5mph reduction is a big deal for the city, and will certainly save lives. But it won’t even touch the real issue – private cars are simply not compatible with dense urban areas.

So what’s the solution? It sounds drastic, but I don’t see another option: eventually we’ll have to ban private vehicles from urban areas, starting with central business districts and spreading out through the dense areas of our cities. Obviously this can’t happen in isolation, and any measures of this sort will need to be accompanied by improvements in public transit (although certainly eliminating traffic congestion will do plenty to improve bus or streetcar efficiency and regularity anyways). Again, it’s a drastic measure, but everything else is only pulling at frayed strings. Our traffic problem needs a sword.

It certainly isn’t a new idea. As I’ve noted before, Julius Caesar banned wheeled traffic from Rome’s streets during the daytime. Cities around the world already have car-free zones in increasing numbers (the Wikipedia article on the subject contains an oddly thorough list). The shining star in that category is certainly Venice, whose residents have never seen fit to “modernize” their city to fit the needs of the automobile. Earlier this year, in an emergency effort to reduce smog, Paris banned half of all traffic from their streets.

That last example contains an important lesson. When forced to abandon cars, Parisans still traveled around the city, via the temporarily free public transit system or their bike-share program. If the alternatives are there, people will use them. Sometimes they just need a push first. In Paris, that was oppressive smog. In NYC, it may very well be the sheer level of traffic.

Even in NYC, it’s not a new idea. It was a key point made in the venerable Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, where she suggested allowing only buses, taxis, and delivery trucks onto city streets. She also addressed an important issue that critics of car-reduction proposals often bring up. It’s usually expressed simply: where will the cars go? They hold it as self-evident that there are a fixed number of cars, and they need to go somewhere. To counter this, Jacobs cites the case of NYC’s Washington Square Park, which was entirely closed to cars in 1958. Critics predicted that millions of new cars would be shuffled onto side streets, creating unbearable traffic problems. This wasn’t the case: the cars “have not noticeably gone anywhere else instead.” It mirrors the phenomena of traffic generation, in which building roads designed to reduce traffic (like an extra bridge over the East River, for example) actually ends up increasing traffic on both. More roads means more traffic, and fewer roads means less traffic.

The eclectic Paul Goodman (described by Wikipedia as being a “novelist, playwright, poet and psychotherapist… social critic, anarchist philosopher, and public intellectual”) wrote regularly on the subject. In a piece with his brother Percival entitled simply “Banning Cars from Manhattan,” they noted:

Manhattan is a world center of business, buying, style, entertainment, publishing, politics, and light manufacture. It is daily visited in throngs by commuters to work, seekers of pleasure, shoppers, tourists, and visitors on business. We have, and need, a dense population; and the area is small and strictly limited. Manhattan does not sprawl. It can easily be a place as leisurely as Venice, a lovely pedestrian city. But the cars must then go.

While there are pieces of their grand vision for Manhattan I disagree with, the fundamental idea is correct. It’s a radical problem that requires a radical solution.

Of course, I know that no candidate who ran on a platform of completely banning private vehicles would ever actually get elected as mayor in a major U.S. city. So what steps can we take in the interim, with this ban as a long term goal? Speed limit reductions are great. Local road closings are great. Prohibitive congestion charges are great. Ensuring that public transit systems provide a quick, comfortable, and reliable experience is even better. Americans like choices, and they can still choose to drive – but we can make sure it is obviously a worse choice. Once the number of private cars is reduced enough, our radical measures will seem a bit more palatable.

Either that, or congestion and smog will inevitably become so bad we will be left with no other option but the radical one. That day is rapidly approaching, and I hope we can head it off before it arrives.

Friday Roundup: Virtual Edition

This post was very nearly called “Friday Roundup: Saturday Edition,” but I pulled it together just in time. Once again I’ve compiled a few of the most interesting pieces on cities, transit, and urbanism I’ve read this week. This week I stuck with a very digital theme, featuring articles ranging from video game cities to a really amazing data visualization of Boston’s MBTA. Work (the one that pays) has ended up in the way of writing this week and it will do so again for the next, but I hope to pick up the pace of writing after that, so if you like what you’ve read so far there is much more on the way.

From Watch Dogs to GTA V, why ‘video games are going to reshape our cities“‘ – from The Guardian Cities

Cities have centered in art for thousands of years, but video games have the potential to take that representation to a new peak – we don’t have to limit ourselves to a static artistic representation of an existing city, or even a magnificent city imagined by someone else’s brain. Imagine the combination of the limitless potential of sim-style games fused with character and story. They will never be able to mirror the full sensory experience of wandering around a new city for the first time, but could provide a truly amazing tribute, a work of art.

Wright believes open-world developers are taking the wrong approach entirely. “You look at GTA, and this amazing world Rockstar have created, and it’s all hand-built,” he says. “An evolutionary process didn’t lead to Los Santos: it was 300 artists studying pictures, building models. They’re just painting a portrait of a neighbourhood. It only gets you so far.” That way of thinking, he says, hinders developers from bridging the gap between static (if beautifully rendered) city backdrops and true, dynamic simulations. Rather, he envisions games that work like evolution: an open-ended, unpredictable system. The challenge is how to make such a thing compatible with the personalised drama, all those sagas of rogue gangsters, cops and assassins so crucial to drawing in the player.

You Might Soon Be Able to Watch Netflix on Amtrak” – from The Atlantic Citylab

A step in the right direction (and one that makes me feel prophetic). It seems like a small thing, but the ability to binge-watch your favorite show during a long train trip could make all the difference for many people when booking travel.

Amtrak first began offering free wifi to riders on its fastest service, the Acela, four years ago. The city-skipping executives who make up that service’s ridership reacted at first with celebration, but by popular account have since soured. In 2012, the wifi received the ultimate in coastal elite rebukes: It was the subject of New York Times trend story. “The wireless service,” the Grey Lady sighed, citing annoyed laptop users, “has become a symbol of the problematic state of train travel in the Internet era.”

Visualizing MBTA Data

A really amazing data visualization project from two WPI grad students. It features full analysis of Boston’s Red, Blue, and Orange lines. In an unsurprising turn of events the MBTA doesn’t have real-time train information for the Green line yet, but they expect it in 2015. If it follows the standard delay of your average Green line train, we can expect it by 2020 – but it might be packed full and you’ll have to wait for the next one.

When you look back at the Marey diagram, the slope of each line tells you how fast a train is going and the time it takes to get between stations. When all of the start and stop times are lined up you can see a drastic variation in the time it takes to get between stops throughout the day. If you have ever ridden the subway during rush hour then you have experienced what the steep lines in the Marey diagram feel like first-hand.

What causes these delays? It’s hard to know for sure, but it appears that number of people riding the subway is a factor.

London Now Has a Robot Sculpture You Can Sleep In” – from The Atlantic Citylab

I have nothing more to say about this.

So what’s it like to stay inside? Photos right now are scarce, but according to the artist’s description it might be something akin to being buried inside a refrigerator box. When the lights are shut off, Gormley intends the space to encourage retrospective thinking, much like a sensory-deprivation tank.


A View from Ft. Lauderdale

Fort Lauderdale is a strange city. At first glance it’s a perfect example of the typical sprawling, strip-mall filled, car-friendly Florida city. As I visited last weekend for work my first impression certainly supported this – as we attempted to walk to grab a burrito we had to make our way to the only crosswalk in either direction for half of a mile, then dodge (read: jump over) the hedge that surrounded the shopping complex, preventing anyone without a metal shell from entering the facility.Image

When you travel a bit around the county, a few incongruous elements start to emerge. The whole region is linked by both national inter-city rail (via an Amtrak station) and a comprehensive regional rail system connecting Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and Palm Beach. Bike share stations are scattered throughout both the downtown business core and the surrounding suburban counties. Water taxis transport people along Ft. Lauderdale’s extensive canal system. A planned streetcar system will soon connect several major areas of the downtown core. They’re in the process of creating an elaborate greenway system with 370 miles of trails throughout the county. 

So what makes this community of 165,000 in the city proper and over 1.8 million in the county different than dozens of other similar areas spread throughout the southern U.S.?

I’m putting my money on tourism.

Continue reading

Friday Roundup: What the heck are hipster economics?

I don’t know either, but the top story today (sort of) answers that question. No common theme this week – that first link is on gentrification, the next one is on development through demolition (spoiler alert: it’s not a good idea), and the other two cover traffic laws and trains respectively. These are all subjects that will very likely re-appear in this space for the duration of this blog’s existence.

The Perils of Hipster Economics” from Al Jazeera English

I don’t like the trend of classifying everyone involved in the gentrification process as a hipster (it oversimplifies both a complex process and a non-homogenous social group), so the title of the article gets on my nerves. Other than that, many of the observations are spot-on.

Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it “cleaned up the neighbourhood”. This is often code for a literal white-washing. The problems that existed in the neighbourhood – poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services – did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.

That new location is often an impoverished suburb, which lacks the glamour to make it the object of future renewal efforts. There is no history to attract preservationists because there is nothing in poor suburbs viewed as worth preserving, including the futures of the people forced to live in them. This is blight without beauty, ruin without romance: payday loan stores, dollar stores, unassuming homes and unpaid bills. In the suburbs, poverty looks banal and is overlooked.

Is demolition ever the best way to regenerate?” from The Guardian Cities

No matter how you spin it it will never be economically feasible to introduce a load of new development into a community while providing rents that residents affected by demolition can afford. Old buildings are important to cities (thanks Jane Jacobs!), and unless a building is totally impossible to salvage renovation should be the first go-to in this sort of situation.

But why not fix the buildings instead, and let the residents stay? There’s certainly no financial reason to prevent most buildings from being renovated. Architectural consulting firm Gensler found that the Heygate could have been renovated for as little as £14,000 per unit, approximately £17m less than the £44m Southwark has spent on emptying the dwellings – though, of course, then the council wouldn’t receive the £50m Lend Lease paid for the site. So why do we continue to think that the only way to improve an area is to blow it up?

New York’s Big Step Toward Safer Streets for All” from The Atlantic Citylab

Will New York City see zero traffic fatalities in 2024, like Mayor de Blasio is aiming for? Probably not. Will these laws promote safer streets for everyone (even those still in cars)? Definitely.

Cooper’s Law now exists, and it gives the city the power to suspend or revoke the license of a cabdriver who kills or maims a pedestrian with the right of way on a New York street. This may not sound like a radical idea, but as things stood before the council voted to pass the measure last week, taxi drivers who killed or grievously injured pedestrians faced relatively minor penalties and often could head back out on the streets again with little consequence.

All Aboard: The Growth of Global Rail and our Future Cities” from Urban Melbourne

It’s important to remember as we dwell on America’s failed or reduced transit projects that things are getting better.  Twice as many cities with light rail systems since 1995? Not a bad rate of change.

The cities of America and Australia grew mostly in the era when cities were built for automobiles; they are about five times less dense than European cities. Space for car use is much more available. Car ownership and car use grew to a much higher level but is now plateauing and declining. They have reached a limit on the growth of freeways and other urban space (such as parking) for cars, so average traffic speeds have plateaued or reduced.

The urban structure or fabric of the city has prevented any further growth in car use. The only way forward seems to be with alternative transport, especially urban rail.

An unlikely source for lessons in traffic reduction

Hate sitting in traffic? You aren’t alone – Americans spend, on average, 38 hours per year stuck in traffic. We tend to think of congestion as a uniquely modern problem – that wasted time seems like a concrete result of the age of cars, not something with which our pre-industrial ancestors would have had to deal.

As it turns out, traffic plagued cities long before the internal combustion engine became a centerpiece of our society. It was particularly a problem in Ancient Rome. Historians estimate that the capitol city of that great empire peaked at around a million people, and most of its roads were little more than dirt paths. Other than the two main thoroughfares Via Sacra and Via Nova, most streets in the city were too narrow for two carts to pass side by side.

To deal with the problem, emperors took measures that wouldn’t go over well in modern times – soon after he gained control of the city, Julius Caesar banned all wheeled traffic from Rome’s center during the first ten hours of the day (which was twelve hours). Although similar proposals have been tossed around for several major cities, it’s hard to imagine a complete ban on traffic in central Manhattan, Boston, or (perish the thought) Los Angeles within our lifetimes.

Unfortunately for the impoverished citizens of Rome, Caesar’s mandate just confined traffic to the nighttime. The poet Juvenal wrote of the racket:

Insomnia causes most deaths here . . . Show me the apartment that lets you sleep! In this city sleep costs millions, and that’s the root of the trouble. The waggons thundering past through those narrow twisting streets, the oaths of draymen caught in a traffic-jam, would rouse a dozing seal—or an emperor.  (Juvenal, Satire 3.232–238)

The restrictions didn’t end with Rome – Claudius took the idea of the daylight ban and spread it throughout Italy, and Marcus Aurelius spread it throughout the empire. Hadrian took aim at nighttime traffic, placing upper limits on the numbers of carts allowed in the city at all.

It’s important to note that traffic problems didn’t end with the crowded streets of urban Rome – it was an issue throughout the empire, even in the well-planned towns and cities with relatively wide streets. The Romans discovered traffic generation millennia before we figured it out. They never mastered the problem, but I’d like to think we have a chance. We have more cars than ever before, but also more options for mass and alternative transit. People will keep moving, but as long as they do it in personal vehicles traffic will continue to choke our cities. The best we can do is provide those alternatives – we may not be the first culture to deal with traffic issues, but if we play our cards right we could be the last.

For more light reading on Roman traffic, check out The Embattled Driver in Ancient Rome (1960). Although not for the faint of heart, Lewis Mumford’s imposing tome The City in History (1961) also covers the subject (and many others) well in Chapter 8, “Megalopolis into Necropolis.” 

Friday Roundup: The First Edition

Welcome to the first of (probably) many weekly news roundups, covering the most interesting urban and transit related things I’ve read this week. The most interesting thing of any sort I’ve read this week was probably Neverwhere, but that is only tangentially related to the subject of this blog. 

Airport Connectors” from Pedestrian Observations

I agree with parts and disagree with parts, but it’s all well-written and well argued.

But before going on, I would like to clarify a distinction between bad and overrated. Airport connectors, as I have argued many times, are overrated: city elites tend to like them disproportionately to their transit usage, as do many urban boosters, who think a comfortable airport connector is a necessary feature of a great global city. The result of this thinking (and also the main evidence we have that this thinking exists) is that airport connectors are built at much higher costs per rider than other transit projects: the JFK and Newark AirTrains cost more than $100,000 per weekday rider, much more than other recent rail projects in New York; even the far over-budget East Side Access, at current estimates, is about $60,000.

However, overrated does not mean bad. There exist airport connector projects with reasonable cost per rider. They’re still overrated, which means they’ll be built concurrently with even more cost-effective non-airport projects, but they’re good enough by themselves.

Jerusalem’s light railway: commuting with a rifle through the conflicted city” from The Guardian Cities

Fascinating read on what light rail means in a divided, conflicted city. 

According to Danny Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer who focuses on political issues concerning Jerusalem, the impact of the railway has been huge for Palestinians in the city. The planners were disinclined to route the railway through Shuafat and Beit Hanina, he says, for fear of deterring Israeli passengers and fuelling fears of terror attacks. “But were it only to go through ‘Israeli’ areas, they would be open to the charge that it was a racist railway. So it was routed this way with great reluctance.”

Massimo Vignelli, Visionary Designer Who Untangled the Subway, Dies at 83” – from The New York Times

Also check out The Standards Manual for a fascinating primary source look at graphic design for transit systems from the late Mr. Vignelli.

Mr. Vignelli described himself as an “information architect,” one who structures information to make it more understandable. But when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority released his new subway map in 1972, many riders found it the opposite of understandable. Rather than representing the subway lines as the spaghetti tangle they are, it showed them as uniform stripes of various colors running straight up and down or across at 45-degree angles — not unlike an engineer’s schematic diagram of the movement of electricity.

Pretty ugly: Russia’s suburbs lack charm or beauty. All the more reason to celebrate them” – from The Calvert Journal

A first-person account of Russian suburbs – the buildings look different than I’m used to seeing in American suburbs, but the spirit is the same.

Every Russian has memories of the suburbs, and mine are quite straightforward. I lived in a suburb in south-east St Petersburg from the ages of five till ten. I remember looking out of the kitchen window — on the 12th floor of a beige brick high-rise — and staring at а square patch of grass, crossed by a diagonal path, with two other absolutely identical high rises on the right and on the left. Sometimes a barrel on wheels arrived to sell milk or kvas (a drink made from fermented bread) and tiny people in tiny jackets, like beads on a string, formed a queue. There was a hill we used for sledging in the winter and, as I later found out, it was made of rubbish from a time when this distant part of the city only had wastelands and dumps. Behind the patch of grass there were rows of tin garages, and behind the garages was the dusty sky criss-crossed by wires. A couple of years ago they built a big highway that stretched over the garages, connecting the edgeland of my childhood with some other edgeland.

Select Bus Service Launches on 125th Street

Select Bus Service Launches on 125th Street

I was lucky enough to live on an SBS line for three weeks during the summer of 2012 – I was working temporarily at NBC for the London Olympics and crashed with a friend on 191st in the Bronx. Walking 20 minutes to the D at Fordham Road in the middle of August was not a fun experience, so when the air conditioned (if crowded) Bx12 pulled up at the right time it was always a relief. 

I was also unlucky enough in 2011 to pick up a friend (complete with suitcases) at La Guardia and escort him back to Brooklyn, all via public transit. By far the worst part of the trip was the ride on the M60 between the airport and 125th – as packed as any bus I’ve ever been on and running all local stops. 

As you might imagine, I’m quite in favor of the new service along 125th – it improves the airport connection, provides a smoother connection between Harlem and Queens, and links East and West Harlem together far more efficiently than the local bus service (which should see reduced crowding to boot). 

SBS isn’t the last word in transit, but it serves an important role as part of a long term regional strategy along already busy routes where installing anything else would be either infeasible or absurdly expensive.