Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Summit for NYC Videos Now Posted + Lathrop Homes Radio Segment

The Metropolitan Art Society has posted its collection of online videos from the sessions of the Summit for New York City last month. There were some great talks by a variety of people on any number of topics, but all around the general theme of “livability.”

Below I’m embedding the video of my session, which also included Rahul Bhardwaj, President of the Toronto Community Foundation; Lynn Osmond, President of the Chicago Architecture Foundation; Peter Bishop, former Planning Director of Design for London (the mayor’s design office); and Brent Brown, an architect and founder of bcWORKSHOP in Dallas. Everybody had great things to say, but this was a long session, so if you are interested only in Yours Truly, you can skip to 46:00. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Lathrop Homes Radio Segment

Thanks to all of you who came out the Lathrop Homes redevelopment kickoff last night. It was a great turnout.

I talked a bit about this project with a representative from the CHA on Chicago Public Radio yesterday. The audio of that segment is below for your listening pleasure. For anyone in a reader or email, it likely won’t display, so click here to listen. There’s a brief news summary at the beginning that lasts about two minutes.

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Topics: Public Policy
Cities: Chicago, New York

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

New York: The State of the MTA’s Mega-Projects by Carson Qing

[ New York has a number of ambitious major transit expansion projects underway. While these aren’t perfect projects, feature grossly inflated price tags, and are being financed with bonding that has put the MTA in a tough spot, they are critical investments for a city that is at an all time high in population, near an all time high in employment, and in which the transit system is groaning under the load. I’m happy to be able to present this construction update courtesy of the NYU Rudin Center. If you like this you may be interested in checking out their blog – Aaron. ]

On October 25, Dr. Michael Horodniceanu, President of MTA Capital Construction, provided an update at the Rudin Center for Transportation at NYU Wagner on the statuses of the MTA’s four ongoing transit “mega-projects,” each of which are scheduled for completion within the next five years. These projects will each have an enormous economic impact on both New York City and the surrounding region, by shortening commutes, relieving traffic congestion and overcrowding in existing transit lines and hubs, improving transit connections, facilitating accessibility to job locations in Manhattan, and supporting transit-oriented development projects.

The New York City economy is far more dependent on its transit systems than any other urban economy in the country: half of Manhattan commutes are taken by subway and almost three-fourths of such commutes are taken by transit. More than 5 million riders take the MTA subway on a daily basis, which is more than the populations of Chicago and Houston combined, and approximately 560,000 riders take the MTA suburban rail lines each day. Modern, efficient, and reliable rail systems will be key to the continued economic competitiveness of New York City in the 21st century, and the MTA’s investment in the following ambitious infrastructure improvements illustrates their unwavering commitment to the city and the region’s future.

Fulton Street Transit Center

The planned Fulton Street Transit Center will serve as a major transportation node in Lower Manhattan, with connections to the 11 MTA subway lines and 6 stations, New Jersey-bound PATH trains, and the new World Trade Center site.

The plan calls for construction of a modern transit facility with improved street-level access at Fulton Street and Broadway, and an underground pedestrian concourse (the Dey Street Passageway) linking the redeveloped World Trade Center site and PATH transit hub with the E and R trains and the Fulton St. hub. This will facilitate transfers and connections between subway lines, provide more access points to the Lexington Avenue 4 and 5 trains, and integrate the Corbin Building next door as a neighboring retail hub. The $1.4 billion project is expected to be completed in 2014, and should play a key role in maintaining the economic vitality of Lower Manhattan with the improvements in access to and from the World Trade Center site and the Financial District.

Second Avenue Subway

According to Dr. Horodniceanu, the crowded 4-5-6 subway lines along Lexington Avenue on the East Side of Manhattan have more daily passengers than the entire CTA subway system of Chicago, with an estimated 1.3 million daily riders. A subway line along the Second Avenue corridor has been discussed for decades as a means to relieve overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue lines during rush hour commutes.

These plans have become reality, as the MTA broke ground in April 2007 for a new “T-train” extending from Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan to 125th Street in Harlem, and the extension of the Q-train from 57th Street to 125th Street. Construction of the Second Avenue Subway will proceed in four phases, with the first phase consisting of the extension of the Q-train from its present terminus at the 57th Street-7th Avenue station northward to the new 96th Street-2nd Avenue station. New, state-of-the-art subway stations at 63rd, 72nd, 86th, and 96th will be constructed during this phase, and are scheduled for completion in 2016. By then, the $4.4 billion project is expected to have a significant impact on reducing crowds on the 4-5-6 trains (projected 13% decrease) and travel times for those living in the Upper East Side.

7-Train Subway Extension

Like the Second Avenue project, the extension of the 7-Train to Manhattan’s West Side will provide subway access to a part of Manhattan that has long been in need of it. The extension is designed to serve the transit needs of the Hudson Yards redevelopment project, which will feature a mixed-use, medium-to-high density development extending from 42nd to 30th Street along Manhattan’s West Side and the expansion of the Javits Convention Center. As Dr. Horodniceanu noted, the extension of the 7-Train from Times Square to its new station at 34th Street-11th Avenue in the heart of the site will make the Hudson Yards a “transit-oriented development,” which will be crucial to its future success.

The 1.5-mile extension was originally proposed for the purposes of New York City’s 2012 Olympics bid and the construction of a West Side football stadium for the New York Jets at the Hudson Yards site; while both the Olympics bid and the Jets stadium proposal fell through, plans for the 7-train extension remained intact, and the $2.1 billion project is expected to be completed by 2013.

East Side Access

One of the largest mass transit infrastructure projects in the nation, the East Side Access project will have the greatest regional impact among all four of MTA’s ongoing “mega-projects,” as it will connect the Main and Port Washington lines of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) to Grand Central Terminal, which currently only serves MetroNorth commuters from the Hudson Valley and Connecticut. Currently, the Park Avenue corridor near Grand Central has emerged as a major hub of corporate headquarters and high-paying jobs, as many financial services and corporate management jobs have moved there from Lower Manhattan in recent decades.

The East Side Access project will enable the 157,000 Long Island residents currently working in Manhattan to take the nation’s busiest commuter rail directly to Grand Central Terminal, potentially reducing commutes by 40 minutes. This would be a significant asset for suburbs in Nassau County such as Great Neck on the Port Washington line, where currently more than 20% of residents commute by rail to work, one of the highest rates of any municipality in the nation. Shorter and more attractive transit commutes can not only increase property prices in suburban Long Island, but also provide additional opportunities for transit-oriented development (T.O.D) near key nodes. The project would also relieve congestion at New York Penn Station, thus reducing delays for Manhattan commuters from New Jersey.

The project will consist of the excavation of tunnels in Manhattan and Queens and the construction of an underground passenger concourse at Grand Central Terminal with eight train tracks, four platforms, and mezzanines and concourses. Overall, the East Side Access is the MTA’s most ambitious mega-project with a cost of $7.3 billion, and is slated for completion in 2016.

This post originally appeared in the NYU Rudin Center blog on November 7, 2011.

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

Chicago: Lathrop Homes Redevelopment Public Kickoff

Children at Lathrop Homes

Cities are about people, not just buildings. So you can’t love the neighborhood if you hate the neighbors.

Northside Chicago residents will get a chance to see if they measure up to the progressivist urban ideals they espouse as one of the last and perhaps one of the most important of the public housing project redevelopments in the CHA’s Plan for Transformation gets underway soon at the Julia C. Lathrop Homes on the north side.

This is perhaps a bit more of a neighborhood project than I’d normally write about. But this is my neighborhood, and the people who live in Lathrop are my neighbors. And I believe the particulars of this project make it important to the city and, if done right, potentially an example for the nation.

The Lathrop redevelopment project has been controversial for some time, but I won’t rehash that history here. Instead, I’ll just say that the CHA selected a consortium called Lathrop Community Partners last fall to lead the development of a master plan for redevelopment

The team has been conducting preliminary interviews, and the official public process is about to begin with a public meeting on Wednesday, November 16th at 6:00pm at New Life Community Church, 2958 N. Damen Ave. at Wellington, across the street from Hamlin Park. Anyone is welcome to attend. Please spread the word especially to those you might know who live in the neighborhood. You can find out more about what’s going on at the Lathrop Community Partners website.

What Are the Lathrop Homes?

The Julia C. Lathrop Homes is a public housing project at the intersection of Diversey, Damen, and Clybourn with 900 units, though only about 200 of them are currently occupied. But it’s a housing project unlike any other in the city. When you think public housing in Chicago, you think of the post-War urban renewal high rises like Cabrini Green, Stateway Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes.

Buildings at Lathrop Homes

But Lathrop is completely different. It’s a low rise development constructed under the auspices of the New Deal’s WPA in 1937. The construction quality and architecture are of a much higher order than anything constructed post-War. Frankly, the exterior looks better than some new condo buildings. The WPA built a number of these around the country and they form a unique and historic collection of developments. Alas, not all have survived, and ensuring that Lathrop doesn’t share the same fate as the likes of the partially demolished Lockfield Gardens in Indianapolis is one of the issues at stake in the matter.

Lathrop Homes, aerial view of site

Lathrop is also different in that it was for quite some time an all-white project. Today Lathrop Homes is extremely diverse, including white, black, and Latino residents, making this perhaps the only project in Chicago with a trans-racial history and present. Megan Cottrell wrote about this history in more detail, and actually went on a tour with some former residents from the old days of Lathrop, who decided to knock on the door of the unit they used to live in. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Problems, or Lack Thereof, With Lathrop

Given the vastly different history of Lathrop from other CHA developments, it’s unsurprising that it had a different trajectory. While not immune from problems, Lathrop has not become the byword for dysfunction and criminality that the high rises did. Everybody knew the Cabrini Green had to go. It would simply never have been possible to make that project function. But Lathrop is different. It made me nervous to drive through Cabrini in broad daylight, but I’d walk around Lathrop at night even before it was depopulated by the CHA. The types of crime you’d hear associated with Lathrop is more on the order of tagging than hard core gangbanging.

Most importantly, there doesn’t appear to be any real community opposition to Lathrop or public housing generally in the neighborhood. I know people who’ve owned upscale condos near there and never once have I heard a complaint about Lathrop.

In short, while there are problems I’ll address in a moment, unlike with other CHA projects, there’s no burning platform for scraping Lathrop and starting over, nor for any displacement of existing residents. Quite the opposite in fact. There are many reasons to want to both preserve Lathrop architecturally and as a significant source of public housing units in the area.

So what are the problems.

Firstly, the buildings are old and in need of repair. Also, while Lathrop was one of the better projects, we know that warehousing exclusively poor people in a high density setting isn’t a very good idea. And Lathrop has traditionally been in an isolated spot along the Chicago River in an industrial corridor without good connections to the surrounding areas, a problem that persists today. It’s difficult to even say what neighborhood it is officially in. The project is split across two city wards, for example.

Intersection of Diversey, Damen, and Clybourne

Beyond Lathrop itself, the Clyborn corridor is an unmitigated disaster, save possibly from a purely commercial perspective. It’s generally low grade strip malls of the early Schaumburgian variety, giving it a grade of F- on sustainability and basic urbanity. Obviously better advantage needs to be taken of the Chicago River. The area is a huge barrier to east-west bicycle and pedestrian traffic. The six way intersection at Diversey/Damen/Clybourn is one of the most pathetic in the city. It is under-served by transit. Only a fool waits for the #50-Damen anymore without checking bus tracker first. This area doesn’t even function well for the yuppie condo owners who don’t live in Lathrop. And yikes, how many different kinds of street lights can you spot in that one photo? That alone shows the extent to which this area has been an afterthought by the city.

The Lathrop Opportunity

The unique history, condition, and setting of Lathrop provides what I believe is a unique opportunity for Chicago to do something truly special. If there’s community and city leadership will to make it happen, we could stack up a truly staggering list of wins here:

  • Nearly zero displacement of residents. Supposedly 400 units of traditional public housing are penciled in for Lathrop, and the city has guaranteed a unit to anyone who is a current or recent resident dating back to 1999 who meets some qualifications. The devil will be in the details here for sure, particularly on matters like “lease compliance” requirements. Certainly no one should be compelled to stay nor be blamed if they take the money and run, but unlike with previous CHA redevelopments, there’s simply no excuse not to make sure the vast bulk of residents end up back in the new Lathrop. In fact, given Lathrop’s depopulated state, there should actually be a net increase in public housing residents when the project is completed.
  • Creating a true mixed income, diverse, cohesive neighborhood in a city that desperately needs it. It’s no secret that Chicago is heavily segregated and balkanized. The pure gentrification wave that was sweeping through the area crashed with the housing market, leaving the Hamlin Park area bordering Lathrop as an interesting pocket of diversity, with an eclectic mix of pretty much at least one of everybody. It reminds me a bit of my old neighborhood in South Evanston – and in a good way. Because of the diverse surroundings and general lack of suspicion of Lathrop by non-residents, I believe there’s an opportunity to achieve something very special here. It won’t be easy, and the process will be as important to achieving it as the master plan itself, but the potential is there.
  • Preservation of the historic buildings. Again, this is a much higher grade of architecture than typical public housing, and these buildings are historic. Wholesale demolitions are not warranted here.
  • Leading edge sustainability. In addition to energy efficiency upgrades and such in the buildings, this ought to be Chicago’s first actual LEED-ND development actually built. There’s no reason not to do this, and again the neighborhood desperately needs improvement in this arena.
  • Reconnecting with the Chicago River. Helping to build another major link in reclaiming that waterway for people.
  • Enhancing the boulevard system. Another unique aspect of this project is that it is on the Chicago Boulevard system. Both Logan Blvd and Diversey are technically part of that, though neither seems it. The difference between Logan east and west of the Kennedy is profound. The entries in the NETWORK RESET competition to re-envision the boulevards have to contain good ideas that could be adopted into the Lathrop plan. This redevelopment could also be the first phase in the next generation boulevard treatment.
  • Improving multi-modal access and connectivity. Damen Ave. is already a major north-south bike route, but is still less than bike friendly in my view. East-west connectivity from Logan Square and beyond into the lakefront and adjacent neighborhoods is poor. I noted the extremely pedestrian-hostile six way intersection and less than idea transit service in the area. All of these need addressed. This is of particular importance for the Lathrop residents who are isolated by the poor design features of the area, as well as the commercial district that does not well serve the needs of anyone without a car.
  • Starting the healing process of the Clybourn corridor. There’s no reason more neighborhood serving retail and other institutions can’t be included in the mix.

I don’t see any of these as mutually exclusive. Funding may be challenging for some of the capital elements, but this is a multi-year process and there’s no reason everything has to have money in the bank on day zero.

It won’t be easy, but if Chicago can pull this off, it would not only be the best outcome for the neighbors, Lathrop residents and non, but would create an national showpiece and demonstration of what a mixed income area could be and how to provide affordable and public housing in a way that’s great for everyone involved.

How You Can Help

I’d encourage everyone, especially those who live in the area, to attend this meeting or otherwise get involved and be a strong advocate for the right outcome.

I believe strong, collaborative, and positive neighborhood involvement is critical to getting the right project here. I think city leadership through the aldermen in the area legitimately wants a good outcome. So I don’t believe it would be productive to assume “the fix is in” or the other various conspiracy theories people often love to tout when it comes to local government. I personally don’t believe that to be the case, though obviously different parties have different perspectives on what should be done.

On the other hand, like Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.” I’ve got concerns myself. For example, that the CHA will impose templated elements, particularly around housing mix, based on the rest of the transformation program in a place that is very different from other CHA properties and in an environment where market conditions have changed radically. Everything I have heard to date suggests that the CHA plans to shoot for their typical 1/3 public housing, 1/3 affordable housing, and 1/3 market rate housing mix. But with 46% of all Chicago mortgages underwater, we need more “market rate” condos like a hole in the head. There’s no reason why there couldn’t be a significantly increased public housing component here.

Also, the CHA has already deferred this kickoff meeting for six months. They basically forced everyone who lived north of Diversey to move south of it. And they planned to seal off the north part of Lathrop with a huge 8-foot perimeter wall built right to the sidewalk. Not neighborhood friendly to say the least. So there are reasons to be concerned about what’s going on.

That’s why I plan to be involved, to make sure there are strong voices advocating for the right outcome for our neighborhood. I hope you will be too.

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Back to the City

Update: The NYT just ran an interesting story called “In Shift, More People Move In to New York Than Out” that provides further info on this trend using recent Census data.

My latest post is online over at New Geography. It is called “Back to the City?” and examines the question of whether in fact there has been a movement back to the city. Census figures suggest that while many downtowns flourished, albeit often showing large percentage gains on a small base, cities generally underperformed in the 2000s vs. the 1990s.

In this piece I look at intra-metro migration to measure people moving from the city to the suburbs and vice versa. Because data is only available at the county level, I selected four cities where counties offered a good proxy for the urban core: New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.

As you can see from the chart above, there has been a shift in trends in the 2000s, with out-migration falling off late in the decade, while in-migration remained steady or even increased. The most striking trend was in Philadelphia, as shown above. That chart shows the migration values plotted as a index to render them in the same scale. There is still a net out-migration to the suburbs, but the gap has narrowed in these places. Here we see that on the chart with raw numbers:

Obviously with the late decade featuring a steep recession and housing bust, migration has been affected. It remains to be seen what will happen in the future. But these numbers do clearly show improvements for core cities in the underlying migration trends.

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

A Year in New York

Here’s another in my series of very cool city videos from around the web. This is yet another NYC one called “A Year in New York.” (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

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Topics: Architecture and Design, Urban Culture
Cities: New York

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Are Food Deserts Exaggerated? by Angie Schmitt

Much has been made of the food desert phenomenon afflicting the industrial Midwest.

GOOD Magazine, Dateline, NBC and countless others have weighed in on the apparent market failure that causes grocery stores to shun cities like Detroit and Cleveland like a bad case of head lice.

Detroit’s grocery stores, or food markets

This whole storyline reached a fever pitch earlier this year when it was widely circulated that the city of Detroit — all 140 miles of it — lacked a single grocery store. This was, of course, patently false. A quick Google search shows that there are dozens, even hundreds, of foodsellers populating Detroit’s neighborhoods.

What type of grocer does business in down-and-dirty Detroit? One example is the Honey Bee Market, a family-owned business that has been operating in the city for five decades. It carries a wide selection of Central American ingredients, in addition to plenty of fruits and vegetables. The store was voted “most fun” by Detroit’s Metro Times.

So how did the Wall Street Journal, Dateline and NBC get it so wrong about Detroit? I argue that it is all about semantics, along with a large dose of cultural relativism.

The argument about food deserts seems to be premised on the assumption that supermarkets — suburban-style, big-box, corporate chain stores with plenty o’ parking — are inherently superior to walkable, family owned food markets that serve low-income populations. The media portrays these corner markets as liquor stores or “discount” stores carrying little fresh produce and lots of Hostess cupcakes.

While there is certainly a class of convenience store that lacks healthy food options, many analyses have completely ignored the presence of small, family-owned food markets and their important role in feeding urban populations.

The USDA — which recently released its “food desert locator” to wide fanfare — admits to using “supermarkets and large grocery stores as a proxy for sources of healthy and available food.” Mary Reardon, a spokesperson for USDA said, “We define supermarkets and large grocery stores as food stores with at least $2 million in [annual] sales that contain all the major food departments found in a traditional supermarket.”

“We do not address smaller outlets that have fresh food,” she said. But she added that there are some local studies that have examined the issue. Here definitions are important. One of the two studies cited by the USDA [PDF] showed that depending on which definitions are employed, between 17 and 87 percent of New Orleans is a food desert.

To say that food sellers who do more than $2 million in business provide fresh food and those who sell less do not is a rough estimate to say the least. In fact, in my experience, it’s false. According to the locator, I live right on the border of a USDA-defined “food desert.” The thing is, I’ve never had better access to food in my life. The corner market by my house is exactly the type of place the USDA or CNN would ignore. The Deli, as it’s called, is kind of shabby looking from the outside and there’s no way it’s more than 10,000 square feet. But I love it.

The Deli in Cleveland is a small food seller, but it carries all the essentials. Photo: Angie Schmitt

It’s run by a family. They sell fresh-sliced cold cuts, fresh fruits and veggies. They have everything you’d need on a day-to-day basis, at prices I think are more than fair. I know because it’s helped me many times in a pinch. You can get eggs, potatoes, grapes, cheese (real cheese), sardines and even even pulpo (octopus) in a can. And of course you can also get essentials like band-aids, cheap beer, good beer, baby formula, toilet paper and macaroni and cheese. I have a recipe that calls for Jiffy corn bread mix and sour cream. They have them both.

It’s not the only market within a short walk from my house; there are literally half a dozen. There’s a Vietnamese market that I’ve grown to like for its unusual baked goods, selection of fish and exotic produce including escarole. There is Stockyard Meats, a family-owned butcher and general grocery, where you can order a whole pig for roasting. Right next door is a Save-A-Lot, which is a grocery in every other sense than the USDA/CNN definition. It’s no Whole Foods, but it has produce, meat, canned goods, frozen foods at prices that are appropriate for the neighborhood’s median household income ($25,000 at the last Census).

Just over a mile away is a “traditional” grocery store, by USDA definition, with a fish counter and a dairy aisle. It’s an easy trip by bike. But most of my neighbors, the low-income folks that that these types of studies are generally concerned with, don’t drive and don’t bother making the trek. And why would they? You can get everything you need in a short walk.

What the USDA fails to realize is that if food stores are located very close to your house, they needn’t be as large. You can pop in many times a week and pick up a light enough load to carry. That’s what many of my neighbors and I do. As a result, we don’t need SUVs. We don’t need acres of asphalt. Our neighborhoods are more livable thanks to corner markets.

What The Deli lacks in selection, it makes up for in accessibility. I’ll take walkability over 50 kinds of cereal and 14 kinds of peanut butter any day of the week.

Women haul groceries on foot in near west Cleveland. Photo: Angie Schmitt

As for the claim that that small food stores are unfairly exploiting their consumers, even the USDA’s analysis doesn’t support that conclusion. A 2009 study by the agency [PDF] found that those in the lowest income bracket (those that make between $8,000 and $30,000 annually) pay just 1.3 percent more than those in the next highest income bracket for food. Factor in the fact that many of these folks don’t need to pay for gas, car insurance and maintenance, and suddenly walkable food markets start to seem like a bargain.

Why does all this matter? The food desert problem, at least the way it’s been framed, seems to make a strong argument for cities to offer tax incentives for suburban-scale grocery stores to enter the city. Indeed the Obama Administration has offered $400 million to help expand food access in American food deserts. But if a big, corporate supermarket gets an unfair, taxpayer-funded boost, what will that mean for The Deli or Stockyard Meats?

There is a very logical, business explanation for why this hasn’t occurred already. The new grocery store would have to be within one-half mile to serve people who don’t drive, which is a significant part of the Cleveland market. The city simply doesn’t have the density to support so many large, walkable groceries. Instead, small markets fill that niche.

Without small markets like The Deli, food access and malnutrition would be a much bigger problem in Cleveland and many other cities throughout the United States. Rather than dismissing these businesses, the USDA should study these stores, how they make their stocking decisions and what room there is for improvement. Large grocery stores may offer a wide variety of fresh produce, but they come with a built-in deficit when it comes to accessibility for car-free people.

This post originally appeared in Streetsblog on May 10, 2011. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Toronto Tempo

Reader Steven Lee passed along this nice time lapse of Toronto. As I’m a sucker for these things, here it is for your viewing pleasure. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

Cities as Software by Marcus Westbury

[ For those of you who haven’t heard the story or checked it out, I highly encourage you to check out Renew Newcastle, which is a great urban success story out of Newcastle, Australia. There are a lot of lessons here to be learned, particularly for places that struggle with a lack of financial resources. Hopefully this article can give you some ideas and some hope – Aaron. ]

This article was written for the latest edition of the Dutch architecture/ design journal Volume

Let me put a scenario to you. Say you live in an aging, fading industrial town. One that has been on receiving end of repeated shocks from earthquakes and natural disasters to the closure of its largest industries and mass unemployment. A city where an old urban core – a legacy of an era of trams and public transport long gone – has hollowed out and emptied. Retail has moved to the suburbs and a growing suburban sprawl. A city with dozens, if not hundreds of empty buildings in the old downtown. A place where the feedback loop has become so desperately negative that many of the shops and offices that remain are forced to leave by the growing vacancies around them.

How do you turn such a place around? How to bring life and people back to it? How to bring interest, curiosity and commerce? How to make it – or at least some of it – liveable and desirable again and to bring its decaying urban character back into flower?

Almost always, the answers to those questions are about physical things. They involve long planning process, research, workshops and facilitation followed by attempts to attract large amounts of capital to invest in new buildings, public amenities or to kickstart new industries.

But what if you can’t do that?

Suppose you have access to none of the above. Suppose that to varying degrees of quality and effectiveness all of the above has been tried and failed or at least stalled – lost in posturing and process.

Imagine that you have no money. That you cannot buy or build anything – that you are stuck with the building stock and the hard infrastructure. Imagine you are not the government and have little or no capacity to persuade them to make major investments or decisive changes.

If all that doesn’t make things difficult enough, let’s say the budget you have to work with is tiny – amounts you can put on a credit card. All you have is the city – beautiful, fading but endowed with many interesting small scales spaces, a talented enthusiastic creative community and a generous broader community willing to donate their skills and time and resources in kind.

What could you do?

Actually, this is not a thought experiment. It’s a real place. It’s my home town of Newcastle, Australia. As recently as 2008 the situation in Newcastle was pretty much as described above. Yet as of a few months ago more than sixty new creative projects, initiatives, galleries, studios, and creative businesses – all experiments of various kinds – had started up in the old downtown. The city – far from being a failed post industrial basket case – was being hailed by the world’s biggest travel publishers Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit in 2011 on account, in large part, of a vibrant creative resurgence that had taken place in the long dead downtown.

So how did we get here from there? Two years is too short and the budget was too limited to address any of the city’s real hardware problems. Instead, Newcastle took a different tack. To do so we engaged the immediacy of enthusiasm and activity and stepped back from the contentious and divisive debates about what should and shouldn’t happen in the long term. To do that you need to start by rewriting – or hacking – the software to change not what the city is but how it behaves.


Perhaps this is an Australian thing but virtually every urbanist I know is a hardware person. They come from backgrounds in town planning, engineering, design, architecture or activism around the preservation or possibilities of the built environment. They like to draw things, design things, build things. They like tangible things. The futures that they desire, imagine and will into being are full of hard physical things from bike lanes to green buildings, transport links and physical amenities imagined and preserved.

The built environment and geography of a city is its hardware. It defines much of what a city can and cannot be. The hardware of the city – its topography, the scale of its spaces, its architecture, its patterned dense grid or its narrow laneways or its chaotic sprawl – places a hard limit on what is and isn’t possible. While the hardware of cities can and does change and evolve slowly over time, in the short term it remains relatively fixed – major changes are invariably expensive, can be paralysingly slow and often contentious.

The ability to design, imagine and build the hardware of a city are valuable skills and important catalysts but for better or for worse I am not a hardware person. I’ve spent much of my life as a festival director. Festivals – or at least the kind of un-institutional ones that I have been involved in – are places where artists, DIY media makers, installationists treat cities as places of opportunity and experimentation.

Unencumbered by the possibilities of permanence, they treat cities not as fixed places in which to build fixed things but as laboratories in which to try and experiment. The extent to which they can and can’t is defined only in part by what the city is – creative people are usually capable of hammering their own ideas around whatever starting position or location you give them. To a much larger extent their possibilities are defined by how a city behaves in response to their initiative. It is the software of the city – which is often intangible, bewildering and complex – that defines their possibilities.

Cities are also software – they actually have many layers of software. They have an operating system – a hard set of rules and constraints that are imposed and enforced by governments. Operating systems are hard boundaries too – they are laws that forbid and allow. They define what you can and can’t do as much as the hardware does. Far from open to opportunities, the operating systems of cities are often defensive, risk averse and closed to possibility.

In many respects the operating system needs to be defensive – it is vulnerable to exploitation and malicious intent. In Australia at least, many who seek to use the city are attempting to do little more than run a virus – a parasite of a program – called something along the line of Maximising_my_commercial_return.exe. They are attempting to do little more than build the cheapest building, with the greatest amount of saleable space, in the shortest time possible. Cities have quite rightly developed a series of strategies to mitigate the virus and its impact.

Yet processes that assume that this is all that people wish to do with a city misses the point. Artists, creative types and community minded collectives are often caught up in the same defensive systems. The fact that they have limited capital, their limited access to political processes and specialist expertise, their limited opportunity to recoup an expensive investment, and their precarious ability to survive complex and time consuming processes means that they are often more vulnerable to being stopped by process than malicious developers.

In my previous life as a festival director I was often asked by artists “can I do this?” Too often I had to tell them no, they could not – despite the obvious benefits it would bring. More often than not it was not for any particular reason but for the absence of a process – a software error. A failure to distinguish the nature of the activity. A category error around scale that could inadvertently treat a one night only event for 30 or 300 people in process terms in the same way that it treats the building of a new development or planning a subdivision. It’s a software error that fails to distinguish between creative and commercial intent. A process error that did not allow – or did not easily allow – the intended use despite the absence of objections or even wide community consent. A bug that introduces compliance, complexity and costs to people incapable of navigating it. Cities often fail to recognise the transformative powers of momentum and enthusiasm by blunting it with confusion, cost and complexity.

In many respects the software of the city is subtle – it is at least partially the cultural context, its history and its economic circumstances. Yet, in most respects the software of the city is codified and hard-coded – height and noise restrictions, planning processes, rules that enable certain possibilities and disable others. They can be embedded in common law rights and privileges. As an ephemeral user of cities I had inadvertently spent many years experimenting with the limits of what types of a behaviour a city will and will not tolerate. The more you do so the more it becomes apparent that cities can be arbitrary, irrational and incentivise entirely the wrong the things.


Renew Newcastle, the not-for-profit company that we established in late 2008 is a piece of software. It is a broker. It is an enabler. It is an interface between the aging, decaying, and at times boarded-up built environment and those who seek to use and activate it. It connects the many empty spaces in the city with the passion of people who want to experiment and try things in them. It has facilitated more than 60 projects in more than 30 once empty spaces in just over two years. It has done so without building, buying or owning anything other than some computers and some second-hand furnishings. It does not fund things – nor was it funded itself in its early stages – it just allows them to happen.

It has done so by changing the software of the city. Not in the slow and traditional way – the hard way – of seeking the political power to amend the rules, change the laws and rewrite the operating system. It has done so in an easier but less obvious way – it has followed the path of least resistance. Rather than rewrite the operating system it has hacked it and made it work in new ways.

Renew Newcastle started by hacking how much spaces cost and the terms they were available on. While there were over 150 empty buildings in Newcastle few if any of them were cheap or simple to access. They were bound up in complex rules – from bad tax incentives to complex, costly and long-term commercial leases that made it difficult to access them flexibly. Renew Newcastle traded cost for security. We created new rules, new contracts, and convinced owners to make spaces available for what was effectively barter – we would find people to clean them use them and activate them and they could have them back if and when they needed them. We stepped outside the default legal framework in which most property in Australia is managed and created a new one. We used licenses not leases, we asked for access not tenancy and exploited the loopholes those kinds of arrangements enabled. While such schemes are institutionalised in many European countries they have little precedent in Australia – in Newcastle, the entire scheme was devised, brokered and implemented directly from the community without the involvement of a government or formal development authorities still grasping at hardware based solutions. Only after the first dozen buildings had been activated did any funding appear. More than two years later any changes to rules and regulations – to the operating system – are yet to transpire.

Yet cheap space is not in itself enough. It is not enough to simply change how much space costs, it is also vitally important to change how it behaves in the face of initiative. Renew Newcastle created a whole system to lower barriers to initiative and experimentation. We created another layer – between the operating system and the users to make it simpler and easier to enable experimentation and risk.

Again we followed the path of least resistance. We decided to make things simple that could be made simple and not butt up against what would remain impenetrably hard. We managed to do what is easy rather than get caught up in waiting for the ideal – to find spaces that were usable and use them. Renew Newcastle designed systems – an API in programming terms – that made activation simple. We took spaces, brokered cheap access to them and gauged what could be done in them easily – what they were already approved for – and set out to find it and plant and water it.

In doing so we effectively made a whole system to make space behave as quickly and responsively. To allow people with enthusiasm and passion to direct it into the city. We made it quick for people to try and cheap for them to fail. We removed capital and complexity from the equation and in doing so we seeded more than 60 experiments – unleashing the energy of hundreds of people.

We made the city work for people for whom it had not worked in a long time. People without capital for whom low barriers to entry and not certainty of outcome were the defining issues. Those who were operating digital cottage industries and Etsy stores, artists and fashion designers, bedroom record labels and Flickr photographers. In effect we made the physical space behave as their virtual spaces did – easy to get into and out of, allowing of experimentation and failure and most importantly full of tools and structures and plugins designed to make it simple and cheap for them to do what they are passionate about.


As cities age, the challenge is not always to rebuild them physically but to re-imagine how they might function and adapt. In Newcastle in many respects nothing has changed since 2008. The buildings are mostly the same. The hardware is unchanged. Nothing has been built. No government has fallen. No revolution has taken place. Yet, on another level much has changed – dead parts of the city are active and vibrant, 60 projects have started, hundreds of new events have been created, and whole new communities are directly engaged in creating whatever it is that the city will become. The software – the legal templates, the contracts and the thinking – that has enabled has changed Newcastle is becomng a kind of shareware – downloaded, hacked and implemented in cities and towns across Australia from Townsville to Adelaide.

Cities are software. Yet as hard as the software of the city is to conceptualise the consequences of changing it are very real. It is only the results that give it away. They are as evident and visible as the process that led to them is invisible. There are new stories and narratives, new people and new possibilities, and a glimmer of renaissance where there was previously only ruin.

This article is reposted from with permission of the author.

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Announcing the Walk Indianapolis Architectural Tours

I’m pleased to be able to tell you all about another civic project I’ve been working on for some time, the Walk Indianapolis architectural tours.

These were inspired by the delightful guided tours of Chicago sights provided by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Those are awesome, but Indianapolis doesn’t have the sheer volume of visitors or sites to make that model work locally. Instead, we decided to provide tours using a self-guided, mobile device enabled model. We recorded local architects giving overviews of significant buildings and public spaces, then made those available to be consumed on the web via audio or text, or for download to your mobile device to take with you as you walk the tour route. There’s full integration with iTunes simple downloads. (Click here to check out the downtown landmarks tour, for example).

There are two tours up presently, but hopefully more to come. I’ve already had inquiries from those looking to contribute additional content. So we’ll see what happens. You may also want to check out a similar and more extensive project out of Los Angeles called Downtown LA Walks.

This was a project I originally proposed in my Pecha Kucha presentation “15 Quick, Easy, and Cheap Ways to Make a Big Urban Design Impact in Indianapolis.” I decided to take this one on myself because I figured even if I couldn’t find anyone to help me, I could do 100% of it myself.

As it turns out, most of what I had to do involved just asking others for help. This was a joint production of many volunteers including Jeff Robinson at the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association (recording, web hosting, and project management), Sarah Hempstead at Schmidt Associates architects (scripts, narration), and Nathan Sinsabaugh and his team at Kristian Andersen and Associates (web design). The AIA Indiana chapter also contributed to the projects, as did Sanford Garner of A2SO4 architects (narration), Jonathan Hess of Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf architects (narration), and Megan Fernandez at Emmis Communications (editing and fact checking). Thanks to all of them for making this a reality. It turned out not to be quick – it took two years – but it was cheap (i.e., free) thanks to all of them.

I think this is but one example of the ways we can use digital media and mobile device technology to enhance our experience of public space, and to just plain make our cities more functional. When you think about the transit tracker apps, the augmented reality navigation systems, etc. that are out now, you can see we’re on the verge of something big. It’s something every city and lots of entrepreneurs ought to be looking at.

Related: Announcing the Indianapolis Neighborhood Map (another project I worked on I’d encourage you to check out)>

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Rahm Emanuel Brings Congestion Pricing to Chicago

I’ve been very impressed with the Rahm Emanuel administration so far in Chicago. He’s made a lot of good moves. These range from hiring Gabe Klein as transport commissioner to a plan to hike water rates that will enable to city to collect more from suburbanites. (I suggested as long as a year or two ago that privatizing water might be a good idea because it would enable the city to establish that revenue stream – I’m glad to see him thinking that way).

There’s more, but what I want to highlight today is a plan for the first steps towards congestion pricing in Chicago. I don’t believe a London style congestion charge makes sense in Chicago. Unlike with the City of London, business in the region is not as compelled to locate in the Loop, so maintaining convenient access there is important to business growth.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for congestion charges, and one of them is in parking. The Tribune reports that Emanuel plans to implement parking surcharges for downtown garages and lots during weekdays. The money will be used for transit capital improvements, including a new Green Line station at McCormick Place.

This is a great move. In fact, it was one of my recommendations from my transit plan from a couple years ago. Parking surcharges encourage people to use our existing (fixed cost) transit system, and can also make a nice stream of additional money for transit at a time it is desperately needed. Plus it is a way to make drivers pay for the congestion costs they impose on others.

Also, the fact that this is a weekday only charge is a step in the right direction towards variable pricing by government in response to demand. There’s a lower elasticity of demand for commute trips during the week, plus great transit alternatives for those who don’t want to pay to drive. Weekends have lower transit availability (particularly on Metra), and have a higher percentage of discretionary trips.

The Tribune ran a story in which some criticized the city for not including meters and not going with a pure congestion charging solution. Part of the problem is that the city’s parking meter lease has a fixed rate schedule embedded in it, which, while it could be changed, would be cumbersome to do so. I already directly highlighted how this lease constrains policy adaptations to changing conditions. It’s one of the bad attributes of the lease, but that’s not Rahm’s fault.

From a practical standpoint, a tax is the simplest way in the short term to make this work, particularly since such taxes are already collected today. There’s no reason that in the future the city can’t evolve towards a more pure congestion pricing model, but when you are trying to move fast, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

There is one thing I’ve heard causing anxiety out there. Private spaces in residential buildings would be exempt. But some downtown residents rent spaces in buildings they don’t live in and are concerned they are going to get zapped. I don’t know what the details of the proposal are, but I’d encourage the city to get out in front of this issue. If there’s no problem, then be sure to aggressively communicate why not. If there is, then probably some tweaks need to be made to avoid hurting bona fide full time downtown residents.

In any case, in my view this is a good proposal and part of a series of moves that are taking the city in the right direction.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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