Tuesday, October 9th, 2012
[ I was privileged to get to run a few pieces written by Drew Austin that originally appeared in the Where blog. Drew is back, now with his own blog called Kneeling Bus. I highly recommended it as his observations and conclusions are often of a type you can't find in your typical urban blog. Drew can make you think. Here's a piece he wrote recently to give you a sample. I'm including this one because of a recent debate in the comments about bricks and mortar versus online retail - Aaron. ]
One of the more interesting recent developments in the urban planning sphere has been Tony Hsieh’s multimillion-dollar investment in revitalizing downtown Las Vegas. Hsieh, the CEO of online shoe retailer Zappos, wants to redevelop the city’s core with his company’s offices as the anchor, creating a dense and vibrant environment where his creative class employees can live, work, and otherwise thrive. The plan reflects a corporate philosophy that applies Jane Jacobs’ urbanist principles to office environments, an approach explained well by Malcolm Gladwell, but Hsieh’s scheme is unique in that it won’t be confined to the Zappos headquarters: Hsieh wants to remake downtown Las Vegas as a whole. In both cases, a more innovative workplace culture is the ultimate goal, but Hsieh seems interested in creating something with positive externalities.
Las Vegas City Hall (Source: Brandon Wiegand)
Hsieh’s plan for Las Vegas is idealistic, ambitious, and controversial, but most of all it rests upon a great irony: Zappos has perfected a business model that undermines physical retail and thus helps to erode the vitality of many American downtowns. The clearest example of this is Amazon’s impact on bookstores. If you live in New York or San Francisco you might not understand how much a Borders could matter to a city’s downtown, but many smaller cities with fewer cultural assets depend more on whatever they’ve got. In many cases, “what they’ve got” has been a chain bookstore like Borders (which can remain vacant for years after the tenant goes away—I’ve seen it happen). While Zappos has not affected shoe stores as drastically as Amazon has affected bookstores, the company has certainly captured plenty of revenue that shoppers previously spent in their own city’s commercial districts. The basic economic reality that Zappos represents and Hsieh’s high-profile, symbolic intervention in downtown Las Vegas are seemingly at odds: the latter putting a band-aid on a wound the former is currently making worse.
Bookstores and a few other niches aside, we haven’t really begun to see the full impact of online shopping on urban retail. E-commerce has become much more sophisticated in the last few years, with Amazon Prime offering a level of convenience that rivals a trip to the CVS on the corner, and it would not be surprising to see many other types of stores fall by the wayside as their online competition surpasses them in convenience. The logical conclusion of those developments is the (admittedly extreme) prediction made by Stephen Gordon: In the future everything will be a coffee shop. That is, the only spaces we’ll need for working, shopping, and learning are comfortable places where we can get on the internet together.
The future of everything (Source: blakethompson.net)
If everything will eventually be a coffee shop, then Tony Hsieh’s business and his Las Vegas plan start to seem more consistent. They’re both manifestations of what I’m going to call the Meatspace City: the fully wired urban condition. Even when online shopping becomes entirely frictionless, a lot of shopping will still happen in meatspace because of its tactile nature. Shoe shopping, for example, generally requires trying the shoes on. Book shopping is much less tactile, which is why the internet absorbed it so easily. Shopping is slowly bifurcating into a component easily handled online (price comparison, item selection, payment) and a component best accomplished in a physical store (trying things on, picking them up). Increasingly, stores will be showrooms where we decide what we want and then order it online (see: Bonobos). Urban commerce will be increasingly based upon the purely physical: food, drink, showrooms, and coffee shops. Brooklyn feels like it’s getting there. Everything the internet can’t do better, and only those things. The Meatspace City.
This post originally appeared in Kneeling Bus on September 20, 2012.
Tuesday, January 5th, 2010
[ I've touted Jarrett Walker's Human Transit blog before. It is an incredible resource for non-dogmatic analysis of transit issues from a professional in the field of transit design. He also does more general writing about cities from time to time, including this piece, which is reproduced with permission. If you like this piece, you might also want to check out Creature of the Shade, his personal urban travel blog. - Aaron ]
While the city plays a crucial role in American culture as a test-site for exotic street names, I suspect we'd mostly agree that it's not going to be a leader in sustainable urban form anytime soon. While the grid pattern of the city has some advantages (more on grids soon), Las Vegas has a particularly bad habit of building blocks of apartments in places where efficient transit will never be able to serve them, and where basic commercial needs are still too far to walk, thus achieving all of density's disadvantages and none of its benefits.
But there are surprises. I just completed my annual trip to Las Vegas, to see family there, and thought I'd update this 2007 item from my personal blog about this capital of churn:
All urbanists are supposed to hate Las Vegas. Sprawling, car-dependent, water-wasting, Las Vegas is almost gleefully unsustainable. Yet walking the Strip last month, and driving it again late at night, I was forced to refine my disapproval. In its energy the Strip reminded me of giant tropical annual plants, like the banana tree, which are designed to burn themselves out and collapse in short order.
The metaphor is wrong as ecology — plenty of unsustainable destruction is bound up in Las Vegas’s cycles of revision — but the admiration I have for banana trees, their ability to hurl themselves to tree-size without any of the trappings of permanence, resembles the feeling of walking a Las Vegas Strip where virtually nothing is 10 years old, where everything is an endless novelty, and where today’s new towers are dwarfed only by construction cranes promising an even bigger tomorrow.
A generation ago, every student of urbanism or architecture read Robert Venturi’s 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas. In a now-familiar attention-grabbing move, Venturi sought meaning in a place that the intelligentsia had scorned, in this case the hotel-casinos, parking lots, and enormous flashing signs of the Las Vegas Strip. Las Vegas, he argued, heralded a new but perfectly legitimate aesthetic, one that we had all better study to be ready for the future.
The book made me notice that I give my own environmental values a veto over my sense of beauty and ugliness, at least as applied to cities. To me, a hot-desert city designed to waste water and oil was simply delusional, and there was no point in arguing about the aesthetic merits of a delusion. I resented Venturi lumping me in with a paper-tiger intelligentsia that condemned Las Vegas as ugly, but if asked I’d have said yes, any human landscape that conditions its citizens to think of scarce resources as free would never appear beautiful to me in aggregate, no matter how beautiful parts of it might be.
I don’t always conflate the true with the beautiful, and the delusional with the ugly; I’m receptive to fantasy in literature and film, and I did a degree in theatre after all. But a city is an act of collective imagining, one that conditions its citizens to unconscious habits even more than mass-media do. An efficient city with no imagination is dull, but one founded on delusions about the capacity of its land is suicidal, and I don’t entertain aesthetic comparisons between different kinds of suicide.
Although Venturi intended Learning from Las Vegas as an aesthetic study, the book is typical of much anti-environmental writing on urban issues. The standard move in these works is to treat environmental concerns as though they were aesthetic ones, and then take a long view in which these aesthetic arguments look narrow and culturally contingent, as aeshetic arguments always do. This move — ridiculing environmental judgments as though they were aesthetic ones — is sadly common these days; Robert Bruegmann's book Sprawl: A Concise History is an especially painful recent example.
But back to Las Vegas. Seen from the air, its sprawl clearly signifies permanent car dependence on a massive scale. But in its heart(s), and its face to the world, Las Vegas has rediscovered pedestrian scale, and swept Venturi into the ashheap.
Of the major Strip hotels that Venturi studied in 1972, every single one has now been demolished and rebuilt on a larger scale, and even today the working hotels are haunted by cranes promising still larger towers in the future. (I wrote those words in 2007, but they're still true in 2009. The lead-time for development is so long that it will take another year to see the full stop to construction that you'd expect the crash of '08 to induce.)
The old Strip was a standard car-based fantasy: each hotel/casino complex was its own unrelated composition, situated up to 1/4 mile from the street behind a vast parking lot. Today, the parking has been moved to structures in back, so that the hotels can reach toward each other with walkways and courtyards to create a vast continuous pedestrian realm. Competing hotels find that they both come out ahead if people can walk from one to the other, and even further ahead if they plug into public transportation, including both the sexy casino-funded monorail and the unremarkable but jam-packed double-decker buses, called "The Deuce," that ply the street. The effect is an extraordinary massing of pedestrians typical of San Francisco, New York, and other similar bastions of the urbanist left.
There’s plenty to dislike about Las Vegas, but as I walked the Strip, I had to acknowledge that it was reaching out to me, welcoming me as a pedestrian. This new principle of design, more than the ostensible new preoccupation with “family” entertainment, is what makes the Strip seem so much less sleazy than the place Robert Venturi and I both knew in the 1970s. Even I contributed to the new economy, buying a latte and a margarita in the course of the afternoon. I’d never have done that if I’d had to drive there.
This post originally appeared in Human Transit.
Friday, July 31st, 2009
High Speed Rail and Transit Roundup
Wisconsin is ordering Talgo rail cars capable of 200 MPH operation. These will be placed in service on the Amtrak Hiawatha line for now. This seems to be an effort to build HSR support in Wisconsin, boost its chances of federal funding, and to secure the US manufacturing site for the trainsets.
A mix of federal and state funding is finally getting the CREATE program off the ground in Chicago. This is designed to both dramatically reduce freight rail congestion in Chicago, and also to boost passenger service (Metra and HSR) by building several overpasses.
The CTA “Max” car experiment on the Brown Line came to a halt. This was where seats were removed to make more room for standees and expand capacity. Apparently passengers hated them. That’s why you do a trial. And I think this was definitely a good experiment to try. Kudos to the CTA for first doing it, then being willing to back track when it didn’t get the passenger response they hoped for.
The Tribune has a great story on the private rail car that runs on Metra’s UP-North line.
John McCarron writes in favor of investment in metro transit over high speed rail. (Thanks Robert Munson)
Here’s an awesome op-ed on rational public transit policy from a director of the Bay Area’s BART system. (Hat tip Human Transit)
Best Cities for Singles
Forbes has another one of their controversial lists out, this one their annual “Best Cities for Singles“:
- #3 – Chicago
- #9 – Milwaukee
- #14 – Cleveland
- #19 – Minneapolis
- #23 – St. Louis
- #24 – Pittsburgh
- #28 – Columbus
- #31 – Indianapolis
- #34 – Detroit
- #37 – Kansas City
- #38 – Cincinnati
Given the Midwest bashing of most Forbes surveys, it’s good to see at least some places here get some love.
Newspapers and Urban Culture
There was a mini-furor in online communities in Columbus about this article about dining in Columbus. The Dispatch apparently runs these type of “Where I Eat” articles profiling various locals. In this version, a woman talks about Applebee’s being her favorite restaurant, as well as saying that’s where she would take someone new to Columbus.
Now, nothing against this woman personally. In fact, I’d have to second her endorsement of Potbelly’s, chain though it might be. But there is a legitimate concern about what type of message this is sending about Columbus. I’m not saying newspapers need to be civic boosters, but what is the journalism value in something like this? And how was this person selected?
Clearly, stories like this only allow people from larger cities to have a laugh and reinforces the prejudice against smaller Midwest cities that exists out there in the world. Editors should take care to consider not just how articles will be perceived locally, but also nationally and internationally in the age of the internet. I’m sure there are many fine local restaurants in Columbus, and to cherry pick someone who says Applebee’s is their favorite place does the city a disservice.
The Louisville Metro council has to approve the creation of a new tolling authority to pay for the Ohio River Bridges Project. Some councilors who wanted to have more debate and hearings introduced an ordinance for that which was shot down. However, the recitations section had an amazing collection of facts worth noting. Here is an excerpt (hat tip Broken Sidewalk):
WHEREAS, the Ohio River Bridges Project (ORBP) is now estimated to cost $4.1 Billion; and
WHEREAS, State of Kentucky traffic counts indicate that traffic in Spaghetti Junction did not increase from 1992 to 2007; and
WHEREAS, in 2008 traffic volumes declined by more than 11% on the Kennedy Bridge and by more than 5% in Spaghetti Junction; and
WHEREAS, according to the Texas Transportation Institute 2009 Urban Mobility Report, congestion in Louisville “stayed relatively constant” over the decade from 1997 to 2007; and
WHEREAS, according to INRIX National Traffic Scorecard, in 2008 traffic congestion in Louisville decreased by 39%; and
WHEREAS, six years of actual traffic counts are now available to compare to the assumptions in the ORBP 2003 Environmental Impact Study; and
WHEREAS, a November 2008 study conducted by Wilbur Smith and Associates for Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) determined that an alternative which included only an East End Bridge provided the same “system wide performance” as the Ohio River Bridges Project;
There’s a lot more, but I found these particularly compelling. Broken Sidewalk also has even more great 8664 coverage. And a hot off the presses series of pictures that will either make you cry or drool depending on your perspective.
There’s plenty of talk of brain drain and people being sucked up into global cities. But a counter-trend is starting to attract notice as some become disenchanted with high costs and other hassles. And it is affecting surprising places, such as Scranton, PA, which is now growing in population again.
There’s a distinctly white-collar movement behind Scranton’s comeback. A return of college-educated natives from cities like New York and Philadelphia is fueling a population rise and a civic makeover. Bringing them back are the very small-town qualities many once wanted to escape: the likelihood of meeting acquaintances and relatives on the streets. The embrace here of modest ambition. The deeply held belief — only heightened by ridicule from the outside world — that Scranton matters.
For six decades Scranton lost an average of a thousand residents a year, many bound for college. The return of even a fraction of them — along with their families — could confer substantial economic benefits. “There was a diaspora of Scrantonians, and now we’re inviting them back,” says the Chamber’s Mr. Burke. The group has a campaign called Rediscovering Scranton, which includes a Web site with testimonials from returning natives.
A population rise of about 3,000 in the last two years, to about 75,000, has given hope that the long exodus is over. School enrollment is up to 10,000 from 8,500 seven years ago. And downtown is buzzing with the sounds of construction. A Radisson hotel is in the city’s old train station. Other recently vacant buildings now house advertising agencies, architectural firms and financial offices, many started by professionals who have returned.
Cities like Scranton lack a lot of urban amenities. While those are to some extent needed to attract people, they can also be a lagging indicator. The amenities are built in response to people moving in, and its feeds on itself. Here’s another perspective from NPR. Definitely something to watch, though to early to call a major trend. More like “green shoots”.
“Starchitecture” in Action
If you needed any more indication that starchitecture as currently practiced is past its sell-by date, check out this piece in the Las Vegas Weekly about this Frank Gehry building:
A Lesson in Skepticism
A group of people put out a hoax proposal to turn Central Park into an airport. Here’s their proposed map of the site:
This came complete with a realistic web site, as well as Facebook pages and a Twitter account.
I don’t think this really fooled anyone, but what I find interesting is just how similar to almost every real proposal the rhetoric was. For example:
New York City is the cultural and financial capital of the world. It is also our nation’s most densely populated urban area. Yet surprisingly, New York City has no viable airport. JFK, La Guardia and Newark may work for people who live in certain outer boroughs. But they are not an acceptable option for the majority of New Yorkers, requiring travel through some of the most congested traffic arteries in the nation. A journey which by train takes nearly two hours and by automobile can take up to three hours. For a place which purports itself to be the greatest city in the world, this is not a workable model.
Or this from their FAQ:
I own an apartment alongside Central Park. What will Manhattan Airport do to my property value?
History has proven that bringing a transportation amenity to an underserved region elevates the perception and economic well-being of the area. In the past, these types of transformative public works projects have created an influx of interest and new investment in the neighborhoods in which they have been built. There may be some who resist the progress. But as neighborhood residents, small business owners and local civic organizations begin to experience the economic “trickle-down” effect these types of large scale redevelopment projects have precipitated time and time again; Manhattan Airport will be embraced.
What about the environmental impact of building Manhattan Airport?
Research shows that single-passenger car-service and taxi trips between Manhattan and JFK/EWR/LGA account for up to 9% of automobile-created carbon-based emissions in the region. Reducing our environmental impact is a major concern for all of us and preliminary findings indicate that building Manhattan Airport can be a critical first step as we strive to live up to our long-neglected environmental responsibility
I think we’ve all got to admit that the arguments in favor of most projects don’t sound much more impressive than this. They are plausible stories about what would happen, backed up by research that it is difficult to independently evaluate. History has shown that our cities have built way more than their fair share of “Manhattan Airports” based on this exact type of faulty reasoning, many of which had to be ripped out later at significant cost. Of course, not everything will work out as planned and any entrepreneurial venture has high risk of failure, but we should at least look at these things with clear eyed realism. That includes, of course, even the things I’ve spoken in favor of.
Economic Development Roundup
“Unconventional Thinking” A counter-argument to convention center led economic development strategies.
“Failure is not an option; it’s essential“. Thoughts on the culture of innovation.
Failure to invest in new power transmission lines endangers the wind power revolution.
A Ball State University study says city-county mergers don’t help economies.
National and International Roundup
President Obama launches his Office of Urban Affairs.
The NYT Magazine profiles President Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett.
The NYT had a great article on cities that are uncovering long buried waterways, focusing on Seoul. In previous years it was not uncommon to bury urban streams into underground channels that doubled as sewers. Now cities are turning these back into surface streams as recreational and neighborhood amenities.
Let the water wars commence. A landmark federal ruling says Atlanta can no longer draw water from Lake Lanier unless it reaches a water sharing agreement with surrounding states. It has three years to do so. This is big, big news so stay tuned to this one.
Apparently highway spending isn’t the stimulus it was envisioned to be.
The Where Blog has the best collection of High Line photos I’ve seen yet.
The New York Times is exploring whether they can implement a foundation model for news.
The latest from Brookings I’ve yet to digest: “The New Geography of United States Immigration“
Oh, and those Marxists in Toronto (they describe themselves this way, btw) who hate Richard Flordia? They now have their own web site.
O’Hare’s New Runway Improves Arrival Times at Airport and Unclogs US Airways (WSJ) – The title says it all. Keep it coming!
Chicago, City That Works? (Tribune op-ed)
Bid to raze Western Ave. overpass takes shape (Tribune) – Hmm – I don’t think I support this one. Traffic on Belmont is already a nightmare.
Changing strategy direction in Cleveland (Ed Morrison @ BFD)
Proposal for new form of Cuyahoga County government gets on November ballot (Plain Dealer)
Plain Dealer Wants to Profile from Cleveland’s Carcass (Roldo Bartimole @ Cleveland Leader)
Quicken sets mid-2013 target for new Detroit home (Detroit News) – Quicken to move HQ downtown, bring 2,200 jobs. A big win for Detroit.
Is right-sizing the right fix (Free Press) – via @GreatLakesGuy
Is it time for Milwaukee to Consider a Combined City-County Government (Urban Milwaukee)
Is it time to dissolve Milwaukee County government? (Milwaukee Talkie)
City of Steel (and other stuff) to Get Its Turn on the World Economic Stage (NYT) – G20 meeting to be held in Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh Scrubs Up for Visit From the G20 (WSJ)
Cray supercomputers to bring 225 employees to downtown St. Paul (Minnesota Public Radio)