Thursday, May 2nd, 2013
Politically left magazine The Nation just published a special issue devoted to New York City called “The Gilded City – Bloomberg’s New York.” As you can guess from the title, they aren’t necessarily great fans. There are a ton of articles and perspectives in there that are worth reading no matter what your take on Bloomberg or New York (or left wing politics for that matter). Here are some samples.
What Happened to Working Class New York? “But scratch a little and things do not look so good. During the recession, the city had big job losses in relatively well-paid sectors, including government, construction, manufacturing, finance and insurance, and wholesale trade. The biggest gains since then have been in low-paid industries: restaurants, retail trade and home healthcare. Between July 2008 and July 2012, New York City had a net loss of nearly 60,000 jobs paying $45,000 a year or more, while gaining more than 130,000 jobs paying less than $45,000 [see chart, page 18]. The changing mix contributed to a nearly 8 percent drop in real median wage earnings between 2008 and 2011. An analysis by Hofstra University economists Gregory DeFreitas and Bhaswati Sengupta suggests that many newly created jobs have gone to commuters, exacerbating the difficulty city dwellers face in getting good jobs. For residents of the five boroughs, the official unemployment rate in February was 9.1 percent, well over the national level of 7.7 percent. Though New York is festooned with displays of luxury, its median household income is below the national median and falling. In 2011, 21 percent of New Yorkers lived in poverty, compared with 16 percent nationally.”
The Legacy of the 1970’s Fiscal Crisis. “Today, the fiscal crisis in New York may seem a distant memory, like the graffiti-covered subway cars of the era or the fires that once blazed through Bushwick, a neighborhood now dotted with artisanal chocolate shops and pizza places that win raves from The New York Times. But the diminished expectations we have for the public sector and the increasing difficulty of living a middle-class life in the city suggest the legacy of the fiscal crisis even now. City governments today—including New York’s—seem primarily to be vehicles to attract and maintain private investment. Business improvement districts and public-private partnerships involve companies directly in paying for the services they receive, while the city sweeps away community challenges to business-oriented development. This is supposed to lead to improved services for all; yet over the same years that have seen the rise of this business culture in city government, New York has become the most unequal city in the country—the gulf between rich and poor widening in ways that would have been hard to imagine even in the early ’70s.”
The Education of Michael Bloomberg. “The notion that there had been a great improvement in the public schools, leading to sharp increases in achievement among minority children—the majority of the city’s public school students—was echoed in the mainstream media. It helped Bloomberg retain mayoral control of the public schools, which the state legislature had granted him shortly after his election in 2002, and to win a third term in 2009 (a campaign in which he spent a record $108 million). Unfortunately, his claims of closing the achievement gap proved misleading. On the reliable national assessment known as the NAEP, there had been no significant increase in scores or narrowing of the gap since 2003, when the mayor’s policies were first imposed. In 2010, the state Education Department finally admitted what observers had long suspected: that the state exams had become overly predictable and that scoring well had grown easier over time.”
Dreams Built and Broken: On Ada Louise Huxtable. “The role of the critic is to tangle with reality—its politics, players, construction, destruction—to remain skeptical but not cynical, to have strong opinions but be open to being wrong. The reason Huxtable’s criticism continues to resonate is that she never let her opinions grow stale. One can disagree with her conclusions, but rarely with her identification of the central question. As history brought highlights (Lever House) and lowlights (Lincoln Center) back around, she gave them, as with the Barnes, more than a second glance. Huxtable ended her Beaux-Arts essay looking out her window across 42nd Street: ‘I raise my eyes for an architecture-break in a city that is as heartbreaking in its beauty as it is in its poverty and decay. It is still a city of dreams—promised, built, and broken.’”
Wednesday, May 1st, 2013
In the comments to last week’s roundup of more of the coolest and best city videos, reader Giacomo Biraghi posted links to these two of Milan. I hope you enjoy.
First, “Milan Dreaming.” If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Next, “A Walk in Milan.” If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Tuesday, April 30th, 2013
[ Chuck Banas is a Buffalo based urbanist and fantastic writer who runs a blog called Joe the Planner that sadly only gets a few articles a year. But they are all money. Thankfully he's allowed me to repost them here, but be sure to check out his site for all of them. The latest repost is his take on Madison, Wisconsin and farmer's markets - Aaron. ]
Madison, Wisconsin is an incredible place. I mean that in both the literal and figurative senses of the word. The city has tangibly more vitality than say, Denver, at about one-sixth the size.
That’s the thing that immediately struck me—how few people it takes to create a vibrant, energetic city. At least in this country, that is. Madison is in complete defiance of the way that the vast majority of U.S. cities and towns have developed, with their ubiquitously dead downtowns and placeless, mind-numbing, soul-sucking, vitality-sapping, automobile-based sprawl. In this sense, the city has much more in common with Europe than North America.
You’ve Got to Be Good to Be Lucky
Madison got lucky, however. It’s both a college town and a state capital. The 40,000 or so students at the University of Wisconsin virtually guarantee a lively pulse of street life and nightlife. There are thousands of well-paid middle-class jobs, from university faculty and staff to the jobs in state politics, government agencies, and museums. Many world-class cultural institutions are the inevitable product of both the university and the omnipresent state government. All of these things add value to the city, attracting talent and investment in a virtuous cycle.
On top of that, Madison was never an industrial city, so it never really suffered deindustrialization, and never contained the over-concentration of noxious industrial activities that, over time, helped to devalue cities like Buffalo. Madison also never truly experienced the race and poverty problems attendant on larger industrial cities, which helped to drive out the middle class in the decades following World War II.
It’s tough to screw up that equation. Not that some cities haven’t. Around here, building the North Campus of UB in Amherst immediately comes to mind. But Madison made some very wise choices over the last few decades that have helped turn it into one of the hippest and most valuable mid-sized cities in the country.
The Cold-Weather Straw Man
Before discussing this further, a perniciously popular myth about weather must be debunked. Madison’s success has absolutely nothing to do with its climate. The brutal Wisconsin winters are longer and more extreme than in Western New York, with nearly as much snow. Summers are hotter and more humid.
Obviously, Madison’s luck doesn’t include its weather, but the city’s success certainly doesn’t seem in any way impeded by it. Yet in Buffalo we spend a lot of time carping about our weather when it’s hardly different from Madison, Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, or Toronto, or everywhere else in the Northeast and Midwest, and in many cases much better.
This pathetic bellyaching is not just demonstrably wrong, it’s disempowering. It perpetuates an ignorant stereotype among ourselves and outsiders. It’s lazy. It’s fatalistic. It absolves anyone of any responsibility or ability to do anything. It robs us and future generations of hope. It’s a non-issue and we simply need to get over it.
There it is. Weather myth debunked. Now can we move on?
The Public Realm: Design and Behavior Are the Same Thing
So, finally, here is the disclaimer: Madison is a reality distortion field. Yes, the conditions that undergird much of that city’s success can’t be duplicated in most other places. However, that success wasn’t divinely ordained, either. Their reality is simply the cumulative product of the choices and sustained efforts of Madison’s leaders and citizens. They’ve intentionally created a city for people, not cars. This is clearly reflected in the design of their streets and public spaces, which is the focus of this piece—and why Madison was an obvious choice of venue for the CNU.
In the United States, public space mostly comes in the form of the street, and sometimes the square or park. These spaces are often referred to by planners as the “public realm,” which can be thought of as all of the spaces owned collectively by the public, freely accessible to everyone.
Once upon a time, American cities did a fine job designing public space. Market plazas such as those pictured here were often not as ornate or refined as European plazas, but they were designed using the same principles. The top image is Market Square in Portsmouth, NH, 1853 (wikipedia.org). The bottom image is the Chippewa Market, Buffalo, 1896 (buffaloha.com).
Public space can be designed for different purposes. If one wants social, public activities like an outdoor market, a memorial service, or some other such event, one needs a specific type of space for that to take place. But in recent decades, almost all older cities and towns either mangled or entirely removed most of their good public spaces, usually in the effort to accommodate the automobile. As a result, we’ve lost much of the knowledge, and even the language, of good urban planning: witness the misnomic appropriation of words like “plaza” or “square” in the branding of suburban strip shopping centers.
Speaking of which, one of the primary goals of the CNU is to reclaim the language and revive the knowledge of civic art and placemaking. In terms of the design of public or civic space, the concepts of square, plaza, and park are a very good place to start.
Before World War II, American towns and cities did a pretty darn good job of creating all types of civic space, including market plazas. Here in Buffalo, over the last 60 years or so, the city removed four or five outdoor marketplaces that were distributed throughout various neighborhoods. Like almost every other American city, many were converted into parking lots. Others were demolished, often along with their surrounding neighborhoods, in the name of “urban renewal.” Yet others were simply put out of business by the new economics of sprawl and the supermarket.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of the suburbs were designed around the car from the very start, and have never had any of these types of civic space. Even the most basic and normal civic activities, such as parades or fairs, don’t work very well in a strip mall parking lot or on a traffic-clogged suburban arterial. You can’t have a civic life if you don’t have good civic spaces. This is a big part of the reason why suburbs are often described as isolating and socially disconnected, even by some of their staunchest advocates. And, because of their car-centric design, low population density, and segregated-use zoning, most post-WWII ’burbs will probably never be able to build and sustain successful public spaces other than large, drive-in parks and sports complexes.
In any case, the design of parks and other types of civic space is much more sophisticated than just plopping down some trees or baseball fields. Urbanistically, there are three basic types of civic space: the square, the plaza, and the park. These fundamental types are designed to meet the three basic needs of a community: the civic, the economic, and the recreational. Properly designed, all types of public space also serve the fundamental social needs of people. Meeting these needs is essential for healthy, thriving civic life. For the purposes of this discussion, here are short definitions of the three types:
- The square (known otherwise as a town square, neighborhood square, or village green, depending on context), usually fronted by civic buildings like the town hall, is designed for civic functions like parades, speeches, and demonstrations. The center of a square is the natural (and intentional) place for civic monuments, or in the case of Madison, the entire Capitol building, whose dome creates a beautiful vista for the eight streets radiating outward from the square.
- The plaza (sometimes called a market plaza or market square) is intended for economic activities such as public markets, fairs, and festivals. The design of a plaza has some interesting caveats: most activities associated with a plaza have high foot-traffic, and vendor vehicles must also have access to the site. These activities are tough on grass surfaces, so plazas typically contain little or no greenspace. This runs counter to most Americans’ intuition; market plazas have been absent from our culture for several generations. However, all that hardscape doesn’t make plazas any less attractive than squares or parks; some of the most beautiful public spaces ever created are found in the lovely market squares of Europe.
- The park (and the smaller playground) is designed for differing types of passive and active recreation and other social activities. A note on parks: in Buffalo and throughout the U.S., we’re quite familiar with large, sprawling parks of the type that Frederick Law Olmsted designed. Indeed, Olmsted designed Buffalo’s park and parkway system, the first such system in the nation, and the first of many more commissions throughout the U.S. Olmsted had more influence than any other figure in American landscape design, and his principles shape how we as a culture think about the role of parks and public space. The Olmstedian park is typically a large, spawling simulation of the natural landscape, intended to be an escape from hectic urban life. This is all well and good, but because Olmsted’s ideas have become so pervasive, American cities and towns tend to lack the smaller, more formal, more accessible types of local parks that are integral to functional, beautiful neighborhoods.
Another subtlety that may surprise many Americans is that there aren’t always strong distinctions between these types. Indeed, most civic space is hybrid to some extent, and there are many fine examples of civic spaces intentionally designed to serve double- or triple-duty. These hybrid spaces are often more successful than single-use spaces because they support a variety of simultaneous activities, or have varying activities at different times of day, or on different days of the week—as Madison’s Capitol Square attests.
How to Do a Farmers’ Market
Madison’s Capitol Square is a well-designed public space, with buildings that front the sidewalk and define the space of the square, with formal parkland inside the square. There is just enough hardscape so that the space can do double-duty as a marketplace or festival; the square doesn’t turn into a mud pit during an outdoor market. In comparison, Buffalo’s excellent Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers’ Market unfortunately takes place in a public space never designed for such a high-traffic function, resulting in problems like mud and dead grass on Bidwell Parkway.
Let’s take the specific example of the Dane County Farmers’ Market. On Saturdays during the spring, summer, and fall, the market is arrayed around Madison’s Capitol Square.
This is not a coincidence. Capitol Square is the natural location for this kind of event; it’s the physical and psychological center of the city and region. It is a beautiful public space, with the Wisconsin Capitol building at the center of a large, tree-lined square, and dignified downtown buildings containing shops, restaurants, and offices framing the edges.
Of course, this design is also no accident. Most great places are the product of intention. Like public squares in most older American cities, the space of Capitol Square was planned and designed precisely for both daily life and for special civic events like a public market. Many types of activities, from the mundane to the ceremonial, reinforce each other and activate the sidewalk. In addition to people on foot and bicycle, cars circulate around the square. But the outer roadway is relatively narrow, so cars move efficiently but slowly. They don’t threaten the safety or peace of people using the public space.
The whole effect is one of civility, vitality, and fun. From the very center of town, Madison is a city that cares about people. And people respond by using the streets and squares. There are shoppers, loungers, street performers, and people just passing through. Even on a day-to-day basis, there is more vitality here than in American cities many times the size. It’s a refreshing, ennobling experience.
The Whole Kit of Parts
From a design perspective, the basic tools of planning employed to make a healthy public realm come from a sort-of “kit of parts.” While there is a lot of flexibility regarding design, certain basics are mandatory. In order to be successful, you need the whole basic kit of parts, which includes the following:
- Sense of enclosure. A successful space that is defined emphatically by buildings and/or trees. A public space must have a sense of enclosure; it must feel like an “outdoor room.” Orderly rows of trees and buildings that line up along the sidewalk do the trick.
- More space for people, less for cars. There must be a significant amount of space devoted to the pedestrian: wide sidewalks and, in case of a square, generous areas of orderly hardscape and greenscape. Roads and travel lanes should be narrowed to provide safe, efficient traffic flow.
- Permeable ground floor. In the case of squares or retail streets, buildings must contain a mix of uses, not just office space or some other single use, with a “permeable” ground floor fronting the sidewalk, containing shops, restaurants, and cafés.
- Connected and walkable. The space must be physically connected and in close proximity to the rest of the city or town, easily accessible by various modes of transport, but most importantly within walking distance of neighborhoods.
Here in Buffalo, the weekly Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers’ Market is a very successful event, and has been a wonderful, natural addition to its neighborhood. Like so many other such markets across the nation, the Elmwood-Bidwell Market has become not just a forum for local agriculture, but for local culture as well. The market not only fulfills its basic economic function, but is also a place to socialize, to engage in those daily communal acts that create an authentic community.
Unfortunately, Buffalo’s Elmwood Village never really had a market square, so the only logical place to put it was at the only true civic space in the neighborhood: the intersection of Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway. In the future, the community might do well to consider creating a proper plaza. If this happens, it probably won’t be at its current location, where there are strict protections for the historic Olmsted-designed parkway. Luckily though, there are a few parking lots and other empty parcels along Elmwood that could be converted into a beautiful, functional market plaza. It would be wise to identify and reserve one or two of these sites before they are privately developed. As local agriculture makes its way back into all of our lives, this would provide a much-needed type of public space, adding even more value to an already vibrant neighborhood.
Buffalo’s Niagara Square was once a lively public space, accommodating a healthy balance of pedestrians, trolleys, and cars. Removal of streetcar tracks, widening of the roadway, and elimination of interior on-street parking have created a comparatively desolate environment dominated by high-speed automobile traffic. The top image is Niagara Square in 1913 (buffalonian.com); bottom is Niagara Square in 2011 (gsa.gov).
A final note on one of Buffalo’s most important, visible, and abused public spaces: Niagara Square. The square is the center of Joseph Ellicott’s radial street plan for Buffalo, and the proverbial heart of the region—much like Madison’s Capitol Square.
Over the years, however, Niagara Square has become less and less people-friendly, as intrusive alterations were made in the attempt to accommodate the automobile. The roadway is far too wide, and fast-moving cars are a dominating, threatening presence. The square feels inaccessible and disconnected from the surrounding city.
Serving as Buffalo’s civic “front yard,” Niagara Square should be one of the city’s most beautiful and welcoming public spaces. The list of design problems might be long, but it’s a pretty easy prescription to start civilizing the square: narrow the roadway, widen the sidewalks, add pedestrian islands and well-marked crosswalks, add curbside parking (or even angled parking), change the asphalt to brick, add rows of trees (and use proper species of tree), and replace the highway-style “cobra” lights with lanterns.
That’s a tall order, but the good news is that the work can be done incrementally, and any one of those changes will make the place noticeably better, adding real value.
The Value of Public Space
Speaking of value, perhaps the best test of the design of public space is how many people naturally go there even when a festival or other special event isn’t going on. Great public spaces are great not just due to practical utility, but because people enjoy just being there. They’re beautiful. They’re spiritually rewarding. And because they are a physical part of the daily lives of citizens, great public spaces help to give a neighborhood that intangible but palpable “sense of place.” Going to the grocery, post office, or pharmacy may be a mundane chore, but a properly assembled public realm can dignify the trip, and help connect you physically and psychologically to your community.
Well-designed public spaces raise the value of the whole neighborhood, and in aggregate, the whole city—including everyone’s property values. These days, that’s a message most Americans would love to hear.
This post originally appeared in Joe the Planner on June 6, 2011.
Thursday, April 25th, 2013
Last summer I put up a post with a selection of the coolest and best city videos I’d found. Since then, a lot more quality ones have come out, so here’s part two of the “best of.” Enjoy.
If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
A Year in New York
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San Francisco: The City
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Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
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Murmansk in Motion
Just because you may never have heard of Murmansk, don’t overlook this truly fantastic video. If the video doesn’t display, click here.
Rio de Janeiro: The City of Samba
If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
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Wednesday, March 27th, 2013
The stunning architectural masterwork that is Sagrada Família in Barcelona got a nice feature on 60 Minutes called “God’s Architect: Antoni Gaudí’s Glorious Vision.” If the video doesn’t display in your reader or email, please click here.
If you ever visit Barcelona, Sagrada Família is the number one must visit. However, there’s a lot of other Gaudí buildings that are also stunning. And Barcelona has a lot of great contemporary architecture too. If you went to Sagrada Família like I did the first time when it was a still a huge construction zone in the interior, you’ll absolutely want to go back now that the interior is finished and it’s actually a functioning basilica. The exterior, including the gigantic central spire, won’t be wrapped up for a several years yet.
Wednesday, March 6th, 2013
The video below, Never Built Los Angeles, was from a Kickstarter campaign for an art exhibit looking at things that were proposed (at least at some level) but never actually built in LA. It’s a fascinating look at what might have been. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
h/t New Geography
Here’s a bonus fun one of LA. It’s a time lapse of the space shuttle Endeavor crossing LA to reach its new home. This actually gives a better look at the city than you get out of a lot of time lapses that are specific city features. If this one doesn’t display, click here.
Wednesday, February 20th, 2013
Here’s a pretty new time lapse of Philadelphia from Angelo Leotta. Great to see this city get a quality time lapse. I particularly like the way workaday scenes like dirt being loaded into a dump truck or a juggler were included to complement the typical architecture/streetscene/waterway shots. The music is nice too. As always, viewed best in full screen high definition. If the video doesn’t display, click here.
Tuesday, February 19th, 2013
[ I used to have a team in Buenos Aires when I was doing consulting work and got to visit the city. It is absolutely fantastic, if sadly too much of it is run down. Its energy is palpable. The people and culture are fantastic. It was one of the rare non-US cities I've visited that made me say to myself, "Oh, yeah. I could live here." Unfortunately, Argentina has been run into the ground for decades by a series of dysfunctional governments. The current one certainly fits the mold and I expect its denouement will be disappointingly standard. Regardless, it's an amazing city and country. I'm pleased to be able to present this Buenos Aires essay by Lee Epstein. - Aaron. ]
Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, has a metro area population of 12 million people, making it the second largest metropolis in South America. The city is situated at the lazy, braided mouth of an estuary (the Rio de la Plata) formed by the confluence of the mighty Paraná and Uruguay Rivers. (At more than 3,000 miles/4,880 km long, the Paraná is the second longest river on the continent after the Amazon, with a watershed of more than a million square miles.) With a temperate but humid climate, the Argentine capital (“BA”) never gets too cold in the winter but can be really hot and sticky in the summer. From December through February, it can be uncomfortably hot, but my family and I were there in mid-spring (early November), enjoying near-perfect weather.
Considering cities through the lenses of urban function and sustainability is in my blood, so while in BA – and especially since returning – I’ve been thinking about what makes the city work. Are there things about Buenos Aires that can inform us, one way or another, as we consider urban environments in the US?
Buenos Aires’s Urban Assets
There is certainly a lot to like. The city has dozens of unique neighborhoods (barrios), from the upscale Recoleta and Palermo Soho, to the funky, edgy San Telmo and La Boca. (There are, of course, some pretty rough and unremarkable neighborhoods as well.) There is not much colonial era architecture left, but BA’s 19th century, European-styled, three- to ten-story buildings are beautiful, featuring large windows and balconies with iron grill-work, sometimes overlooking tree-lined streets; many of these (thankfully) seem to be undergoing renovation. Major cultural institutions, such as the Teatro Colon, one of the world’s premier opera houses, are sumptuous.
The city has an incredibly wide central boulevard (Avenida 9 de Julio), intersecting with another monumental street (Avenida de Mayo) that connects the president’s home and offices (Casa Rosada) with the home of the National Congress (Palacio Congreso). These central features, with their parks and squares and fountains – and an obelisk – memorialize a rich if somewhat unsettling past.
Some Porteños (as BA residents call themselves, since they reside in a major port city) gather at these places regularly to protest and argue about politics — which is one of several major passions; we happened to witness the remnants of a demonstration of veterans who served during the Malvinas/Falklands war, seeking benefits. Another major passion is very good coffee, celebrated in a relaxed way in (literally) thousands of neighborhood coffee houses; some are dark, wood-paneled beauties, like the Café Tortoni, classic and culturally venerable. A third passion is tango, as practiced and performed in a range of venues from neighborhood tango clubs (milangos) to national competitions. And the fourth great passion is, of course, futbol – soccer to us. (Lionel Messi, the current and four-time winner of the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player, is from Argentina and plays on the national team when he isn’t with his pro team, European champion FC Barcelona.) I’d definitely be hesitant to put these passions in any order.
Porteños walk a lot, very fast and often on crowded sidewalks, and the transit system (colectivos or buses, and the Subte or subway) can get you anywhere, cheaply (though you’ll wait in long lines and often stand in those crowded buses during morning and evening rush hours). There also seem to be about 6 million taxis in the city – and they don’t so much drive as perform a sometimes dizzying arabesque, based on a liberal use of the horn and 1 ½ – 2 ½ cars per “lane.”
Finally, and literally, the city never sleeps. A few shops and restaurants close for a long lunch when some residents rest at home, but most in this busy capital city don’t. Dinner is a leisurely affair, usually beginning between nine and ten in the evening. Many restaurants, bars and clubs are open until six in the morning, and it’s not unusual to find throngs of young people returning home from a long evening out as the sun rises on a fresh Saturday morning above the Rio de la Plata.
The Presence of a Great City
There is something intangible about the “presence” of a great city. It throbs with life, its people are busy and moving, but the culture also supports moments — sometimes long moments — at a much-reduced pace, as well as places in which to savor that experience: for example, the corner coffee houses, or the hundred parks and plazas, riverfront greens, open markets, and pedestrian-oriented, tree-lined places to stroll that are found in BA. Great cities may undoubtedly be big, sometimes noisy, busy, and very urban places; but thoroughly integrated within them are various-sized green spaces for rest and shade and play; in the case of BA, many of them enjoy access to he river.
What about the neighborhood scale? Again, BA’s many walkable districts have the right characteristics. Indeed, they are often complete in and of themselves, with medical clinics and lawyers, restaurants and small food markets, pharmacies and the kinds of small businesses helpful to daily living. This is enabled in Buenos Aires because land uses are often mixed, or at least nearby as largely commercial streets are just a block or two from largely residential ones. Schools and day care centers are found in the neighborhoods, too, and usually a nice park or square. The commercial and residential diversity yields some resilience to changing economic conditions.
I have no illusions, though. There is some stark economic segregation by neighborhood, such as exists in every major city in the world. Some neighborhoods mix incomes better than others, but the physical fabric of poorer areas (infrastructure, housing quality, commerce and services) still suffers greatly from decades of neglect. While BA has many of the features of a modern European city, Argentina is still in the midst of overcoming a colonial, kleptocratic past and these areas require urgent attention.
(Even with the income disparity, there is a degree of mixing: because the city’s public life is rich, old and young, rich and poor cross paths daily. Portenos of all social classes share traditions such as family walks in the park, watching soccer leagues on weekends, enjoying coffee at a corner café, or watching or participating in tango.)
Importantly, BA’s architectural scale is conducive to walkability. While there are tall buildings along main commercial streets, as well as scattered high-rises (many of the most modern are in a reinvigorated commercial neighborhood along the docks, called Puerto Modero), for the most part this city is highly dense but moderately scaled, the residential and commercial buildings retaining an intimate, proportional relationship with their streets. A critic might call these rows of 6-10 story buildings squat and blocky (a complaint raised by some about Washington, DC, which I don’t share), but they are often quite elegant, and there is an undeniable pedestrian comfort in their dimensions. In many of the neighborhoods, walkable density is achieved with buildings of only three and four stories, fronting on narrow streets — reminiscent of the best tight neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New York.
As noted above, public transport is easy, plentiful, relatively cheap, and ubiquitous. Walking and biking are also common modes of choice (BA has a growing bike lane system). Of course, there are still tens of thousands of cars and there is crazy traffic – this is a major city still transitioning. Like others of its ilk it sometimes eschews the careful orderliness of traffic on most US streets. But there are good alternatives to driving everywhere, and they are heavily used by everyone, in part because fuel is so expensive but also because these alternative modes are safe, readily available, and get you where you need to go.
Residents of BA also harbor an awareness of the cultural importance of the vast Argentine countryside (although see below). In at least one way, private enterprise is helping to conserve the extensive pampas (extremely productive farm, ranch and rangeland) with an extensive system of agro-tourism called estancias (basically “dude ranches” that range widely as to size, type, cost and services) that are hosts to both Argentines and foreigners seeking a country respite. These add substantial income and incentives for continued agricultural and ranch use.
Causes for Concern
The province (versus the city) of BA is absolutely huge, covering almost 119,000 sq mi (more than 307,000 sq km) – bigger than Italy (though not as big as California). Much of this land area comprises the pampas and the country’s popular Atlantic beaches; both are crucial components of the Argentine economy and, to Argentines, major parts of their self-identity. But, while there is thus some incentive to protect and preserve these areas, there are also forces at work that are sadly consuming them with suburban and exurban sprawl at the metropolitan area’s (and numerous municipalities’) extensive edges.
Until recently, the periphery of the city of Buenos Aires was lined with low-income settlements (and highly polluted rivers) that were only slowly growing in land area. These included small and informal loteos populares without services.
In more recent years, however, American-style suburbanization has proliferated. Gated communities and privately planned “cities” now appear on the mostly flat, extraordinarily fertile landscape outside of the city. This haphazard suburbanization continues to eat away at BA’s vast pastoral surroundings of working farm and ranchland – pushing it farther and farther away, threatening eventually to sap energy and investment from the province’s towns and BA’s city center.
These newer, sprawling suburbs are highly (indeed, solely) managed by the private sector, for the exclusive benefit of high and middle-income populations. This is enabled by highly fragmented and uncoordinated legal authority (as between municipalities and the province), and an immature to non-existent process for land use planning and management. While there are signs of awareness of these problems (at mid-decade the national government proposed the creation and implementation of land use plans in all Argentine provinces), progress is very slow, at best. Changes in land management law and practice are very much needed.
Beyond land use, national politics are not helping to solidify a sustainable future for metro BA and its residents. In particular, I believe the aspirations of lower-income Argentines may be threatened by the form of populism espoused by the current president, which is so insular and protective as to restrict or repel foreign investment. As a result, many consumer goods from other countries may become so expensive as to keep them out of the hands of everyone but the very wealthy. I suppose the “good” news on this front is that elections are but a few short years away.
Lessons North and South
From my perspective as a committed urbanist, Buenos Aires was fascinating. I believe that many of its good features are, in fact, transferable to North American cities as many in the US and Canada seek to re-urbanize: the parks and plazas, the lively public life, the many “third places,” the rich menu of transportation choices, the relatively complete neighborhoods, the pleasant scale and walkable streets. The resulting urban form or practice that we create in our own country of course won’t be precisely the same as in BA, but there is still much to learn from another culture as our own cities grow and change.
At the same time, BA clearly needs stronger land use authority. This is an area in which US municipalities and states are superior, if only in theory: our problem, of course, is that few US jurisdictions actually use the authority that they have, or use it in perverse ways that thwart sustainability. As a result, our reality on the ground is that we have become all too good at making the worst of problems that are now beginning to show ill effects in BA, including lack of coordination among adjoining jurisdictions, the politics of development money, poor or absent planning and land use management, and resulting sprawl. Just as we in the US might do well to look south for some things to emulate, residents and leaders of Buenos Aires might do well to look north to see what they should try harder to avoid.
Lee Epstein is an attorney and land use planner working for sustainability in the mid-Atlantic region of the US.
This post originally appeared in Kaid Benfield’s Blog at the Natural Resources Defense Council on January 10, 2013.
Sunday, February 17th, 2013
One of my favorite weekly sites to visit is Peter De Lorenzo’s Autoextremist, self-described as the “bare-knuckled, unvarnished, high octane truth”. Interestingly, I had that motto in mind when starting this blog, though I hope I’m a bit less bare knuckled than Mr. Autoextremist.
A recent rant of the week was about what it takes to make people love cars. I thought virtually all of this was true of cities as well. He notes first that what people tell you in focus groups or surveys isn’t at all what they really base buying decisions on.
Get a group of people in a room and ask what’s important to them when they consider the purchase of a new car or truck, and the answers are as predictable as the sun coming up in the East. The words that will be regurgitated back to the moderator are inevitably ’safety,’ ‘fuel economy,’ ‘reliability’ and of course, ‘quality.’
And manufacturers that actually take those responses as gospel do so at their peril, because everyone will recite those words when asked, but no one will actually go to a showroom or an auto show and abide by their own list of ‘must haves’ when picking out a new car or truck.
Why? It’s simple, really. Words alone don’t motivate people to buy cars or trucks. There has to be an emotional connection on some level, no matter if you’re spending used car money or picking up a new Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe.
Exactly. If you want to inspire people to want to live in your town, whether that be to stay there or to move there, you need to be selling a product that creates that emotional connection. There’s no magic formula for this. You see both big cities and small towns that do it, and those that don’t.
How do you create that emotional connection? Branding and marketing is part of it, but that’s only the icing on the cake. Continues De Lorenzo:
Great advertising can create an aura for a car or truck, there’s no doubt (e.g., Hal Riney’s original Saturn campaign), but that won’t matter if the vehicle in question has the emotional appeal of a rake.
Like they say, “lipstick on a pig” isn’t going to cut it. So what does? For automobiles, it is great design.
This is where great design comes in. Some people in this business still need to be reminded of the real impact of great design, which is shocking to me. You only have to look as far as the new Malibu to be reminded of the power of great design. Do you remember the previous model? Didn’t think so. It was swiftly relegated to Rental Car Land because it had all the presence of a fax machine.
GM did a superb job on the 2008 Malibu in every respect, and they even spent proper, big-time money on a comprehensive launch – for the first time in its history – in order to get the car into the public’s consciousness. But if the new Malibu didn’t have great design language inside and out, it wouldn’t be having near the impact on the market – or on the company’s bottom line – that it is today (transaction prices are up anywhere from $4,000 – $5,000 over the previous Malibu).
I’ve been an advocate for great urban design for quite sometime. I think it can be a key ingredient in the overall package. But for a city, that’s not enough. I’ve said before, you’ve got to identify a target market, and a vision that appeals to that target market. This comes from a rich understanding of what you authentically are as a city and what you want to be. Vegas figured it out. Austin figured it out. Portland figured it out. As I recently noted, even Houston figured it out. There’s nothing stopping other cities from doing the same. It takes finding that vision, then a relentless focus on execution over the long term.
This post originally ran on April 2, 2008.
Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013
This week’s video is from Toronto and is called “City Rising.” This is another one best viewed in full screen high definition. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.