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Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Don’t Design Streets For Death by Chuck Banas

[ Chuck Banas doesn't write that many blog posts, but when he does, they are money. Here's one he filed from Madison, Wisconsin during a CNU conference in 2011 - Aaron. ]

Let’s start with a specific issue: street design. The Congress doesn’t officially start until tomorrow, so I’ve used today to get to know a bit of downtown Madison and critique the design of the streets and public spaces. This didn’t stop me from trolling the online pages of The Buffalo News; during a break this afternoon I spied an article today about sidewalks and pedestrian safety. Author Bruce Andriatch merely scratches the surface of this important issue, falling short of addressing it properly.

But who’s to blame him? A design subtlety that is lost on most non-planners, including Buffalo News columnists, is that sidewalks are a necessary element for safe street design, but insufficient in themselves. If pedestrians are being endangered, the design speed of the road is usually the culprit. Many if not most roads in this country are intentionally designed for much higher speeds than the posted limit. A 30 mph speed-limit sign on a road designed for 50 or 60 mph is a futile—and sometimes fatal—exercise in wishful thinking.

Pedestrian Injury Frequency and Severity Based on Vehicle Speed (Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, image from the Bicycle Alliance of Washington)

Here are the sobering facts: at 30 mph, vehicle-pedestrian accidents are fatal in about 5% of cases; at 40 mph, fatalities are 90%. This is not to mention injuries, which can be devastating in their own right: incapacitating injuries are significantly less likely and less severe at slower speeds.

Therefore, the actual, effective solution involves “traffic-calming” the roadway so that drivers naturally move at slower, safer speeds. There are many methods to accomplish this, used in various combinations according to the specific situation. These include: fewer and/or narrower lanes, planting orderly rows of roadside trees, allowing curbside parking, using brick or other types of pavers for the road surface, curb bulb-outs, employing roundabouts instead of signalized intersections, smaller corner radii, etc.

State Street in Madison, WI employs virtually all of the basic traffic-calming devices, including a narrow roadway, wide sidewalks, and orderly rows of curbside trees. This results in a street that easily accommodates all modes of transportation while being a pedestrian destination—it’s simply a pleasant place to be.

Done properly, traffic throughput is still maintained, with less stop-and-go frustration for drivers, and much greater safety and civility for all users of the roadway, including pedestrians and bicyclists. For the vast majority of surface roads, there is simply no reason to design for a speed limit over 30 mph. Doing so seems careless and downright irresponsible, but this is the unfortunate norm for most highway departments.

This isn’t to say that traffic engineers are malicious—they’re just following a prescribed set of rules. The engineering standards that govern most roadway design were written in the mid-20th century, in the midst of a obsession with the automobile and the high-speed expressway. Higher design speeds were considered safer for cars and drivers. This myopic goal ignored any other users, as well as the physical context of the road itself. That the road might be part of a town or city neighborhood hardly entered into the equation. Under these standards, still in effect today, roads are too-often treated identically to expressways, designed only for the high-speed convenience and safety of cars. What happens beyond the curb or shoulder doesn’t matter.

Buffalo’s Elmwood Avenue, the urbanistic equivalent of Madison’s State Street, employs many of the same traffic-calming methods, but sidewalks are often too narrow, driving lanes too wide, and street trees are often missing or poorly maintained.

The good news is that the rules are changing. The old standards, embodied mainly by the AASHTO highway design manuals, have been superseded by new tools and standards, most recently (and importantly) the ITE design manual Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach, adopted in 2010. Traffic engineers and citizens alike now have a sophisticated set of official standards with which to design roads that serve all users and all contexts.

Incidentally, on May 24, Transportation for America released a comprehensive report on pedestrian deaths. Dangerous by Design studies 47,000 pedestrian fatalities in the US from 2000-2009, mapping them on an interactive web page. Enter any location, and find out details on fatalities, thoroughfare type, etc. Check out pedestrian fatalities in your neighborhood; you may learn something about street design and safety in the place you live.

This post originally appeared in Joe the Planner on May 31, 2011.

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

Replay: Shock and Awe

This post originally ran on November 1, 2012


Felix Baumgartner’s record setting jump from 120,000 feet. If the video doesn’t display, click here.

Last month I attended a supper club event in Indianapolis were the topic was urban design in the city. We started the conversation by having people give their personal pick for best and worst urban design. My choice for worst design decision was changing the zoning to allow skyscrapers. I believe that for many years Indy restricted building heights such that nothing could be taller than the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, similar to other restrictions in DC, Paris, or Philadelphia.

My argument was that skyscrapers function very poorly in smaller, auto oriented cities. This is because skyscrapers require huge parking pedestals or attached garages to put all the cars. Each skyscraper thus ends up taking up pretty much an entire city block, which produces horrible urbanism and isn’t even very dense. The perfect example in Indy here is the American United Life Building. It consumes an entire city block, the building is set back from the street on all four sides and sits dead center on the block, and it is surrounded by many surface parking lots. The planned Block 400 project I heavily criticized is converting one of these blocks – into a big parking garage with nothing at street level. These buildings basically create huge dead zones, especially after 5pm when the buildings empty.

This past weekend I was with my friend Kristian, who organizes the supper club events, and he asked me why I’d said that. I explained my rationale. He countered by asking whether there wasn’t value in the overwhelming power of an urban skyline to announce a city.

This reminded me of a post I previously ran called “Saint Jane” by Will Wiles. He makes a similar argument saying:

The Nurbanist vision of carving up the city in this way is as diagrammatic and retrograde as Moses’ planning – and, similarly, it’s an assault on the complexity of the city, the city’s ability to generate its own fabulously complicated internal patterns that defy cursory inspection. The emphasis on little neighbourhoods, the stoop, local shops and walking distances, the “human scale” only tells part of the story of the city – after all, these things can be found in villages and small towns. All cities need sublimity, a touch of holy terror, a defiance of human scale that asserts connection to the greater urban whole. Elevated highways, crowds, tall buildings, interconnection and confusion – these things can be to some people dismaying and unpleasant, but the awe they strike is the overture of accepting the condition of living in a city. The Tube roundel is vaguely holy to Londoners – intensely reassuring – because it is a sign of connection with a system of vast complexity and importance.

Kristian and Will haven’t convinced me that skyscrapers in auto oriented cities are a good thing. European cities like Paris and Barcelona have proven that you can build real cities and great density without them.

But there is something to this idea that cities need to contain structures, systems, and symbols of overwhelming dominance and power, shock and awe. It’s notable that from earliest days, cities were set around immense temples and palaces that served this very functions. Skyscrapers can do this well, but so can stadiums, massive airport complexes, rail yards or ports, vast flyover interchange complexes, or huge industrial parks or buildings.

In our quest to humanize every element of the city, we have in a sense dehumanized it, by robbing it of the primal human longing for the transcendent, to be part of something larger than or outside ourselves, to find the limits of existence and go beyond them. Our obsession with Mars landings or Felix Baumgartner’s jump shows this uniquely human quest in action.

Creating a link to the transcendent is one of the most important things cities do, and perhaps more than anything else what separates them from a town. I believe this is at some level the fuel that powers so much else that happens there, why they are the locus of innovation, etc.

Part of this is by creating structures and systems that not only overwhelm, but at some level cannot be understood or grasped. It is one of the under-recognized virtues of megacities like New York, Sao Paulo, and Mumbai that it is impossible for any single human being to comprehend them.

In a secular age, the idea of the transcendent has little currency. Most people lack even the awareness to engage with the concept. Yet engage we must. To sever a city or society of its link to the transcendent by “humanizing” it or applying overly rigorous cost/benefit analysis to everything is perhaps to drain it of its lifeblood. The extravagant, incredible, overwhelming, and almost seemly pointless and impractical gesture may in fact be the most practical of all.

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer

I recently sat down to talk for about half an hour with Louisville, Kentucky Mayor Greg Fischer. We had a wide ranging discussion that ventured from branding to globalization, regionalism, talent attraction, legacy, and more. If the audio player below doesn’t display, click here for the MP3 file.

Mayor Greg Fischer. Image via Wikipedia.

Here are some edited highlights of our discussion. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.

On an economic development partnership between Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky’s second largest city:

[Globaization] is central to who we are as a city. We have a very high export ratio here. We out export, we punch above our weight if you will, as a city. My background is one as an international business guy and we’ve spent a lot of time growing a broader regional economy. The city of Lexington and Louisville have a joint economic development plan that we did with the Brookings Institution called BEAM, Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement. And a central thrust of that is growing exports throughout the region. We have people that go out and help businesses understand that’s the way of the future.

As a business guy, I’ve been more of a small, medium sized business person, 500 employees and below, so frequently I would compete with large, multinational corporations. When you start your career, you’re like, “My gosh, how can I compete against this firm that’s got manufacturing plants or offices all over the world and 10,000 employees?” What you find is as a small company, you have a lot of advantages that the big company doesn’t have. You’re closer to the customer. You’re nimbler. You can speak for the company.

So when you take a look at the challenges of a state like Kentucky, we’re not one of the biggest states. We’re certainly not one of the smallest, either. So what we’ve got to do is be excellent at partnering with each other internal to the state so that we can use that as a competitive advantage when we compete with other countries or other states for economic development. Louisville and Lexington combined metro region, including Southern Indiana, is about two and a half million people or so, more scale than just us at 1.3 million and certainly, more scale than just Lexington.

On regional cooperation with Southern Indiana:

When people move to Southern Indiana, they identify as moving to the Louisville area, typically. Our restaurants over here, our housing options over here are complementary to what’s in Southern Indiana so if a company is going to say, “Okay. I’m going to be in Southern Indiana or I’m going be in Missouri,” I want them in Southern Indiana.

Southern Indiana’s got some advantages that we don’t have. We don’t have that much open land left in Jefferson County. River Ridge, which is just opening across the river, is going to be helped by these bridges going in right now, these megaprojects, the Ohio River Bridges Project. It will be where a lot of these businesses are going to locate. I’d rather they locate there again than in some other state. So we win as a region because people live regionally. We’re happy to cooperate and brainstorm with Southern Indiana.

On how Louisville’s relationship with the state of Kentucky is evolving:

Evolving is the right term. Louisville produces about $2.4 billion a year of taxes and we get back $1.2 billion. Kentucky has been cited as the fourth most centrally controlled economy in the country in terms of states. In other words, sending taxes to our capital and redistributing them throughout the state. So it’s a challenge for us. I’m working right now to get the state constitution changed so that all cities and counties have the right to levy a local option sales tax where their citizens have the right to vote on specific capital projects, paid for in a specific way with that temporary sales tax sunsetting. Part of that is so local cities, whether it’s Louisville or Pikeville or anywhere in the state, could have more specific control over their built environment. So, that’s one way to address it.

Long term, we need some type of overall state tax reform. But in any state, you’re going to have an economic engine like we are here in Kentucky that contributes more to the balance of the state than what it is they generate. Our rural legislators are very good at teamwork, if you will, and our metropolitan legislators are not so good at teamwork. So they can be our own worst enemy in terms of directing more funds back to where they were originally generated – in this case, Louisville.

On the local food scene:

It’s been an interesting way to see how the rural parts of the state and the metropolitan areas really appreciate the partnership that we have with our local food movement. Like many places around the country but particularly here, when you go into restaurants, you’ll see the origin of the food in terms of the farmers that they came from. We were the first city in the world that we know of to do a demand analysis for local food, how much local food do people want to consume here. We did that deliberately to help our partners in the rural areas of the state, the farmers, so that they can understand that they’ve got a big, growing market in the biggest city in Kentucky.

When we did this survey, no matter what somebody’s socio-economic background was, everybody supported local food. They said, a), it’s healthier and b), we want to help local businesses. So, it kind of busted this myth that local food, farmers markets, all this was just yuppie kind of thing. Everybody appreciates good local food.

On why a 2014 college grad would choose Louisville over other cities such as Cincinnati or Nashville:

One, you want to take a look at the culture of the city. Are you going to be able to fit in? Are you going to be able to make a difference? You know, not every city is perfect for every student. So, is there a connection? Do you like our art scene? Do you like our local food scene here? What about the innovation we’re doing with the makerspace, for instance? Because I think we’re among the best in the country in that regard.

Take a look at the economic development clusters that are important to a city. In our case, are you into lifelong wellness and aging care, or food and beverage, or logistics and e-commerce, or business services, advanced manufacturing? Where is that fit for you? I can guarantee if you’re going to live here, you’re going to have a good quality of life and enjoy yourself, but are you going to be able to be employed in a meaningful way?

Any city that says they’re everything for everybody is being disingenuous. It’s just like a company. When you look at the city, find a place whose values mirror yours and whose opportunities mirror your interests at the same time. Make sure it’s got a beautiful, natural environment like we have here that’s full of nice people, and then you’ll have a good place to live – and it would be nice if it was Louisville.

There’s a lot more where this came from so listen to the whole thing or read the complete transcript.

Some may be wondering about the Ohio River Bridges Project. There were no restrictions on what topics I could ask about, and I haven’t changed my opinion on it. But I felt the discussion time would be productively spent elsewhere so did not ask about it.

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

A Cleveland Anthem

I heard a while back that Cleveland’s new marketing slogan was going to be “This Is Cleveland.” I was not exactly inspired by this (“Hello, Cleveland!”?). But Matt Wootton sent me this first video in the campaign, and I’d have to say it’s a step in the right direction.

What’s more, remember last week how I mentioned that Richey Piiparinen had been put in charge of a research group at Cleveland State to develop his talent strategy? This is another big example of official Cleveland signing on to the Rust Belt Chic program. This is in effect the branding team translating this 2012 Rust Wire post by Richey into a video. Take a look.

Update 3/31/14: Well, I guess a step forward was still a step too far. The original video has already been yanked and replaced with the one below that seems at my watch and that of commenter John Morris to be tweaked back towards the “ordinary” side of the spectrum. Still an advance, just less far than before. I guess that shows how far Cleveland has to go.

If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

It’s not perfect. There’s too many standard issue “me too” items. Not that I think they are bad or inappropriate, just a bit jarring when the video itself proclaims that “we never followed their rules” and that in Cleveland “we made our own.” I saw some rules being followed in there. But apart from the tag line dissonance, I thought the mix was actually good and this represents progress on the marketing front for Cleveland. It will be interesting to see how far Cleveland is willing to take this new direction.

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

A New Urban Revitalization Model For New Times by Pete Saunders

[ Following on from Richey's piece last week, Pete Saunders asks how we can create urban revitalization strategies that connect with minorities - Aaron. ]


Cover of the East Garfield Park Quality of Life Plan, prepared by LISC through the New Communities Program. Source: Garfield Park Community Council

How is it that so many of the recent theories or models on effective urban revitalization absolutely fail to connect with minorities, especially African-Americans?

New Urbanists, Smart Growthers, Creative Class supporters and even advocates of the nascent Rust Belt Chic movement are bumping their heads against a low ceiling, trying to figure out how to achieve escape velocity and gain greater acceptance among the general public. General support from the African-American community seems to elude them all.

Let’s look at a few examples. Recently, the New Urbanist-oriented website Better Cities lamented the lack of support it has attained from minority communities for bike lanes and other measures that support pedestrianism and walkability. In Cincinnati last week, mayor-elect John Cranley defeated former mayor Roxanne Qualls by running on a platform to halt construction of the city’s streetcar project – a project supported by Qualls and that enjoyed the support of many urbanists. However, Cranley, a Democrat backed by many Republicans, enjoyed the support of a significant part of the African-American community. In New York, the election of populist Bill de Blasio as Michael Bloomberg’s successor has caused some consternation among corporate-oriented New Yorkers who may wish to continue New York’s Creative Class-style of revitalization.

All in all, this is causing adherents of the various theories and models to reevaluate their inclusiveness. In reality they need to reevaluate their mission, goals and message. If you look at what each theory has to say, it’s pretty clear where they fall short.

New Urbanists, who broadly support the notion that better design can create better communities, have a message that was crafted with the sprawling post-WWII suburbs in mind, and intended for implementation there. New Urbanists get their guidance from the pre-WWII urban development patterns of many of our nation’s cities, but often have little to say about how those cities should move forward today.

Smart Growth supporters may share the design sentiment of New Urbanists, but their focus is often on revisiting the regulatory environment that creates the cities we have. Similar to New Urbanism, Smart Growthers also get inspiration from pre-WWII cities, but have a message designed to appeal to suburban revitalization.

Creative Class advocates come a little closer to addressing the needs of cities. They broadly support the idea that establishing an environment for innovation and creativity in cities can drive urban revitalization. Perhaps, but that message seems to neglect a huge segment of the population of cities that don’t fit the high-education, professional, tech-oriented label at the heart of the Creative Class.

Finally, the new Rust Belt Chic model is gaining notoriety and followers. Supporters of this model believe that authenticity is key to urban revitalization. Cities, particularly Rust Belt cities, are who they are; they will attract new residents who seek an alternative to homogenous suburbia or Sun Belt by becoming better, and often more ironic, versions of themselves.

You can disagree with my characterization of the various models. They’re overly broad, I admit. What’s also overly broad is the role that African-Americans, and in fact other minorities, play in their formation and implementation. How can we have models supporting urban revitalization without really including all members of the urban landscape?

Let’s be real. The reason New Urbanists, Smart Growthers, Creative Classers and Rust Belt Chic-ers are looking into their appeal to minorities to go to the next level is that the Great Recession has changed everything. Prior to the financial crisis none of these models needed minorities to move forward. Whatever you think about the Occupy movement, it exposed growing income inequality in this country, and forced people who care about cities to consider inequality’s impact. Being on the short side of the haves/have nots divide is something that blacks are quite familiar with.

Touting bike lanes, streetcars, tech-led revitalization and amenity-rich areas has meant little to many blacks because they don’t deal with the structural inequities of our cities. Otherwise, the strategies simply seem like so many relocation efforts, reminiscent of urban renewal efforts from a half-century ago. For too long, the New Urbanism, Smart Growth and Creative Class models (Rust Belt Chic gets a pass for now) have all but neglected cities because they believed their strategies would indirectly improve cities – and they steadfastly avoided facing urban challenges directly. Now that more of suburban and exurban America is as structurally alienated as urban minority America has been, they want to reevaluate their message.

Blacks and other minorities have been looking for an urbanist response to the challenges they face. Our communities are plagued by rising violent crime, even as violent crime continues its steep decline at the national, metro and even city scale. Our communities are not only lacking poor physical connections to metro job centers, but poor social connections as well. The divide between challenged inner-city communities and all other parts of a metro area is reinforced by an inadequate educational system.

All our current urbanist models have been neglecting these challenges.

Addressing these challenges requires a social as well as a physical or economic approach. The best model that I’ve come across that unites these three is the comprehensive community development model, or quality-of-life planning. The model can be viewed as an outgrowth of the community development model that got its start in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and has largely been supported by the philanthropic community. Early community development efforts were geared toward alleviating poverty – providing affordable housing, connecting people to job opportunities, and stabilizing community decline. But the model took a leap more than 10 years ago when the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) launched its New Communities Program in 2003, and expanded it to more than 20 cities nationwide. The model seeks to develop neighborhoods through five strategies:

  • Expanding investment in housing and other real estate
  • Increasing family income and wealth
  • Stimulating economic development
  • Improving access to quality education
  • Supporting healthy environments and lifestyles

The comprehensive community development model has succeeded where implemented, but has largely escaped attention from the general public. Why? It hasn’t exactly gained wide acceptance in political quarters, where politicos feel the spotlight on low-income residents and communities highlights deficiencies in their efforts. CCD is resource-intensive. The model operates in a social realm that few people who focus on physical or economic matters feel comfortable. But I’ve found that the CCD model provides answers to questions that New Urbanists, Smart Growthers and Creative Classers are just now starting to ask themselves.

Since the onset of the Great Recession Richard Florida has talked about this particular time in history being the Great Reset. I agree. Times have changed, and advocates of the earlier models may not fully understand the depths of the changes. However, I’d encourage people to dig a little deeper – there are people who’ve been addressing these challenges – and developing solutions – for some time.

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on November 11, 2013.

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Don Giovanni and the Human Tragedy

Some years back I tried to figure out what I would have to give up if I moved from Chicago to Indianapolis. I came up with only two big things, clothes shopping and world class opera. The internet took care of access to fashion in short order. And world class opera got fixed by the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts.

Most opera lovers know that you can now see the Met Opera in high definition in movie theaters around the country. It’s not exactly being there, but it’s pretty good. And it’s a great way for newbies to try out opera without breaking the bank. Your max burn is less than $20 vs. upwards of $200+ at the opera house, so the price/performance can’t be beat.

But what even many opera folks might not know is that London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden is now also into the movie theater game. It’s not as ubiquitous as the Met, but pretty widely available (see end for details).

The next Royal Opera House production to screen in the US is Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which is coming up this week. I want to take this opportunity to promote it. Selfishly, if these things aren’t patronized, we’ll lose them, and I’d like to make sure this opportunity sticks around.

Don Giovanni is considered by many – including Yours Truly – as the greatest opera of all time. It tells the story of Don Juan (Giovanni in Italian), the mythic Latin lover many of us have heard of, but may not know much about. In fact, Mozart’s version has become the definite telling of the Don Juan myth. The music is also spectacular and easy on the ears. This makes Don Giovanni an ideal choice as a first opera to see, so this week is your big opportunity if you’ve never done it.

To get you in the mood, and to help you make sense of what you’re seeing, I’ll give a bit of an explanation of the opera. But first a musical sample, “Protegga il giusto cielo” (Protect us, O righteous heaven – click here if the video doesn’t display for you).

The Plot

First the plot, which it helps to know in advance. (Adapted from Wikipedia)

After an ambiguous offstage sexual encounter, Donna Anna chases a disguised Don Giovanni from her home. Anna’s father, the Commendatore (Commander) insists on fighting the Don. Reluctantly, the Don is forced to fight, kills the Commendatore, then escapes. Anna’s boyfriend Don Ottavio arrives and Anna makes him swear vengeance against the at this point unknown Don Giovanni.

The Don and his sidekick Leporello come across a woman singing of betrayal by her lover. The Don decides she’s to be his next conquest. But as they approach it turns out she is Donna Elvira, whom the Don had already used and discarded, and he’s the one she’s singing about! The Don bolts for the exits, leaving Leporello with Elvira. He tells her not to waste her time on the Don, singing the famous catalogue aria regaling her with the Don’s thousands of prior conquests – 1003 in Spain alone! Here is a concert version (click here if the video doesn’t display):

Elvira swears she’ll get revenge. Meanwhile the Don and Leporello stumble across the celebration of a pending peasant wedding between Masetto and Zerlina. The Don decides to seize his opportunity, inviting everyone back to his castle to celebrate. He forces Masetto to depart with Leporello, leaving him alone to woo Zerlina with promises of marriage.

The Don is on the verge of closing the deal when Elvira barges in and steals Zerlina away. Then Anna and Ottavio enter. Not knowing that the Don is the one they are seeking, he persuades them he’s on their side. As he leaves, Anna realizes to her horror that the Don is the one who killed her father.

Back at the Don’s castle, Leporello informs him that everyone’s there, but that Elvira had brought Zerlina back and had caused trouble. The Don is unperturbed, and anticipates the fun ahead with his so-called champagne aria (click here if the video doesn’t display).

At the party the Don pulls Zerlina aside to continue his seduction. But Masetto is watching and when the Don discovers him, he’s forced to back off. Meanwhile, Ottavia, Anna, and Elvira have put on masks and come to the party. (Their praying for God’s help in their mission is the first trio above). While Leporello distracts Masetto, the Don drags Zerlina off to have his way with her. But she screams for help, and to cover himself the Don grabs Leporello as if he’s the assailant. The masqueraders reveal themselves and tell the Don they know the real score, but he escapes again.

Act 2 opens with the Don convincing Leporello that they should switch identities. He leaves the disguised Leporello to try to seduce Elvira, while he goes off to try to find Zerlina again. It turns out that Elvira is still in love with the Don, and so responds to Leporello’s serenades. Meanwhile the Don runs into Masetto who, not knowing who he’s really talking to, reveals his desire to kill the Don. The disguised Don, offended at this, beats up Masetto and leaves.

Leporello dumps Elvira but ends up running into Masetto, Zerlina, Ottavio, and Anna who are going to kill him. Elvira arrives to try to protect her “lover”, but Leporello unmasks his true identity, apologies, then escapes in the confusion. When Ottavio and Anna are alone, he begs her to marry him but she refuses to until her father is avenged.

The Don and Leporello regroup in a graveyard near a statue of the Commendatore adorned with an inscription promising revenge against the person who killed him. Leporello is freaked out, but the Don only laughs and tells Leporello to invite the statue to dinner. Much to their surprise, the statue accepts.

The Don and Leporello go back to the castle and throw a lavish banquet. Elvira shows up and tells the Don to change his ways. He only laughs and sends her packing. But as she’s leaving she screams as she sees the statue of the Commendatore arriving for dinner. Leporello goes to investigate but likewise is terrified. So the Don himself goes to the door and invites in the statue.

The Commendatore takes the Don by hand and demands that he repent of his sins. The Don refuses multiple times, upon which with fires of hell erupt through the floor and suck him down to his doom. All of the characters rush in as Leporello explains what happened, and they sing a festive song of celebration explaining their future plans. Elvira will retire to a convent. Leporello says he’ll go in search of a better master. Zerlina and Masetto are to be married. Ottavio wants to marry Anna, but she puts him off for another year, this time for mourning.

Interpretation

What then are we to make of the opera? At one level, it’s simply supremely beautiful music, maybe the best ever written. French opera composer Charles Gounod said of it, “I regard it as a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection.” GB Shaw said it was “eminent in virtue of its uncommon share of wisdom, beauty, and humor.” Kierkegaard’s Aesthete in Either/Or said, “Anyone who wishes to see Mozart in his true immortal greatness must consider his Don Giovanni, in comparison with which everything else is incidental, unimportant.” This is all true even just considered as great music, to which you can simply listen and enjoy.

But opera is a dramatic medium as well, and there’s much more to be gleaned from this opera than simply pretty notes. In fact, there’s a nearly inexhaustible supply of things. As with all classic works – Hamlet, Plato’s Republic, and so many others – Don Giovanni is pluripotent. It carries an infinitude of meanings. It’s also highly problematic and impossible to decipher. Just as it’s been said that there’s never been and never will be a perfect singer in the role of the Don, there never will be a perfect interpretation.

My personal view is encapsulated by the diagram below, which I call Don Giovanni In One Chart:

Don Giovanni is a contrast between the world as we would like it to be, and the world as it really is. In our idealized world, the contrast is between the Commendatore and the Don, between the honorable man and the rake. Alas, this is not the real world. In the real world the Don’s opposite is not the Commendatore, but Ottavio, the pathetic, feminized man. This speaks to the nature of masculinity, but also to the human condition itself and the tragic dilemma we face.

Don Giovanni is a scoundrel. Some have tried to paint him as a sort of Enlightenment hero, one liberated from the prudish constraints of a more primitive age. And there is in truth some of that. The Don is living the Sexual Revolution well before his time, and maybe as a 1%er too. Yet, he is exploitative towards women, whom he treats as objects of his lust, he abuses his social status, he’s a liar, he breaks any promise when it’s convenient to do so, is a complete coward, someone who sucker-punches his opponents, and probably much more I don’t recall at the moment. He is pure appetite, pure impulse, completely unreflective, with no self-denial and no self-control. He lives according to man’s more elemental, animalistic nature. Kierkegaard’s Aesthete sees the Don as representing the fleshly sensual nature of man within the context of medieval Christian though, and thus an embodiment of the demonic. Given that he was sucked down to hell at the end, it’s hard to argue with this.

The Commendatore we know little of, but he appears to be a perfectly honorable man. He was a noble, had a prestigious position, defended the honor of his family, was fearless and godly (going to heaven when he died, presumably with his sexual fidelity intact), his quest for justice enduring beyond the grave. As the inscription on his statue shows, he was a man who made plans, ones rationally conceived and patient in their execution. Like a genuine Christian, his first call is to repentance, not judgment.

The Commendatore then is what a man should be, the Don what he should not. It’s tempting them to see them as opposite potentialities within the heart of man. Choose wrong and become the Don, right and become the Commendatore.

However, this is not the case. Except at the very beginning and end, the Commendatore is absent from the scene. He’s literally a ghostly, otherworldly figure. Instead, we are treated to three other men who exist along a continuum extending from the Don. There’s Leporello the sidekick, a potential Don in training though with a conscience. There’s Masetto the peasant. And there’s Ottavio, the pathetic, feminized suitor of a reluctant Anna.

These men display progressively lower levels of masculinity, awareness, and power. Leporello knows the score and is capable of taking action, if only within the Don’s parameters. Masetto also knows the score but is impotent to do anything about it. Ottavio is clueless. Each of these is paired with a woman in the opera – Elvira, Zerlina, and Anna, respectively. Notably, while the Don is irresistible to women and has power over them (even Elvira is still in love with him), these women have progressively greater degrees of control over the other men. Elvira is a somewhat loose match to Leporello and exerts but little influence. But Zerlina has Masetto wrapped around her finger. And Anna is actively deceiving, exploiting, and abusing the hapless Ottavio as an almost inverted female version of the Don. Whereas the Don takes what men stereotypically want from women – sex – without marriage, Anna takes what women stereotypically want – loyalty, support, protection,and commitment – without marriage. Clearly in progression from the Don to Ottavio, there’s a progressive increase in bonding to, dependence on, and control of the men by women.

Of these additional male characters, who comes closest to being in the mold of the Commendatore? Clearly Ottavio. In fact, Ottavio, with his half-drawn sword, excessive devotion to Anna, and promises of revenge, is almost a parody of the Commendatore.

Given that the Commendatore is absent and Ottavio is present, what does this say? It tells that Ottavio is what happens when we try to civilize the rake. In taking away what’s bad from the Don, one also takes away what makes him great. He even loses his attractiveness to women at a sexual level. Anna may sleep with the Don, but she’s never going to marry Ottavio.

Looking at the chart, the oppositions at the bottom are those between evil and good, except for the last. Masculinity and femininity are different but not opposites and don’t map to good and evil. There’s no obvious reason why as we move from evil to good, from appetitive to rational, from the flesh to the spirit that the Don would become Ottavio instead of the Commendatore. But that’s what happens. And therein lies the tragedy. It’s impossible to remove the worst in a man without also removing the best. They are too deeply intertwined one with the other. Civilizing a man is tantamount to unmanning him. It’s why stereotypically nice guys (boring) finish last, and women want to date the jerks (exciting).

This dilemma is also made manifest in the incompatible existences of the Don and the Commendatore. When they come into contact they obliterate each other like matter and anti-matter. They aren’t capable of inhabiting the same universe. It’s not just that in the first encounter the Don killed the Commendatore and in the second vice versa. Rather, both were destroyed in the first encounter, of which is the second was but its completion. The Don never put another entry in his famous catalog of conquests after it. His power was finished. Like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, he was already dead, he just didn’t know it yet.

But what makes this more than a male tragedy but a human one is that the Don represents more than just the male gender. He represents here our more primitive, beastly nature as a species. In that regard, Don Gionvanni tells us it’s not just a man like the Don who becomes enfeebled and pathetic through civilizing, it’s also humanity as a whole.

It’s been observed that the Don is the animating force of the entire opera and all the characters in it. As Kierkegaard’s Aesthete put it, “With the exception of the Commendatore, all the characters stand in a kind of erotic relation to Don Giovanni.” When the Don is removed from the scenes, the wind goes out of the sails of the other characters. Elvira is off to the convent, her life figuratively finished. Leporello becomes a wanderer in search of a mythical better master. Anna and Ottavio enter a type of stasis. Only Zerlina and Masetto seem to have a normal future in view, albeit an utterly pedestrian one – no more adventures for them. One wonders how happy these people will be with the Don no longer around. (I think this point would have been made less ambiguously had the opera ended with the Don being pulled into hell, as Mozart originally wanted it to).

How many over civilized and decadent empires have fallen to barbarians? It is not because the life force of humanity comes from its barbarian nature, not its civilized side? Shorn of its more primitive nature, how long will any society endure? This is the reality that underpins Machiavelli’s famous dictum that, “A man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil. Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.”

Especially in the modern age of technological wonder we have this conceit that we can perfect humanity, that if we can only eliminate the bad, we can achieve a just society and human flourishing. Don Giovanni says not so fast. It doesn’t go quite like that. But the opera does so in a way that goes even beyond the Christian concept of original sin. Whereas medieval Christianity says damned if you do, Don Giovanni says damned even if you don’t. Even if you live righteously or successfully repent, the results won’t be what you’re imagining. The defect is too deep in our natures and in the cosmos to be eradicated even by truly walking the straight and narrow. Humanity is caught between the Scylla of its savage animal nature, and the Charybdis of the enfeeblement of over-civilization. Only a new heavens and new earth indeed can ever truly resolve this dilemma.

Don Giovanni is in US theaters starting March 27th. Cities, theaters, dates, and times are available at Screenvision. Many European opera companies are infamous for obscure modern stagings of operas and unfortunately ROH’s Don Giovanni seems influenced by this, and it got mixed reviews. But the music is fantastic so this remains a good one to go see. For more information on the production, see reviews in the Telegraph, the Guardian, and the New York Times.

Friday, March 21st, 2014

Detroit Emergency Manager Seeks to Unleash an Infero of Moral Hazard

One of lesser followed aspects of Detroit’s bankruptcy is a lawsuit filed by emergency manager Kevyn Orr to repudiate $1.4 billion in debt by claiming it was illegally issued. This appears to be mostly a negotiating tactic, but if the judge ends up agreeing with this, it will unleash an inferno of municipal moral hazard that will no doubt be exploited by politicians around the country.

Michigan, like many states, limits the amount of indebtedness cities can incur. To top off pensions, former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick borrowed $1.4 billion. To circumvent debt limits, he created special purpose entities to do the borrowing. Orr now claims these were sham entities, and so the debt issue was illegal, so the city is entitled to pocket the $1.4 billion and not pay it back.

Keep in mind that creating special purpose corporations of various types for this sort of purpose is widespread municipally and in the corporate world. Also keep in mind that Kwame Kilpatrick was a crook who’s going to spend the next 28 years in prison for corruption. It’s an interesting claim that an outright criminal who borrows money can claim that because his scheme is crooked he doesn’t have to pay the money back (Both Kilpatrick and Orr were both speaking ex-cathedra as municipal CEO). What kind of logic is this?

If Detroit successfully repudiates this debt, municipal leaders elsewhere would almost have to be idiots not to take advantage of the same trick. Elect a crooked mayor or merely one with few scruples. Borrow an insane amount of money by skating on the edge of the law. Then sue yourself claiming you couldn’t possibly have legally done the deal, so don’t have to pay the money back. Rinse, repeat.

The feds should drop the hammer on this hard on this. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for big banks. On the other hand, when someone takes out the municipal equivalent of a “lair’s loan”, they shouldn’t be allowed to profit from being a crook.

In large municipal bankruptcies, it’s pretty common to claim that the indebtedness is all the fault of those greedy bankers who deceived the poor servants of the public. I believe similar claims were made and generated quite a bit of municipal recovery in Orange County and Jefferson County, Alabama. But look closely and I think where you find a shady banker operating, you’ll often find a shady client as well.

Why do people keep electing crooks like Kilpatrick to office? Well, if it turns out those guys are able to fleece out of town bankers to the tune of $1.4 billion, why wouldn’t you? Looks like he might have cut a pretty savvy deal after all. This sort of behavior shouldn’t be rewarded. You can be sure shady municipal borrowing will only be on the increase if the courts allow the Detroit to play a heads we win, tails you lose game with the banks. Think about that the next time your city engages in legal contortions to dig itself even deeper into debt.

Speaking of Detroit, the free market Manhattan Institute will be doing a one hour live streamed event this Monday the 24th with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr. It’s at 1pm ET and is called “Detroit: The Next American City of Opportunity.” You can access the event at: http://www.publicsectorinc.org/2014/02/detroit/. If you want to submit questions, tweet them to @ManhattanInst with the hash tag #SaveOurCities.

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

The Problem Is Not Enough Implementation, Not Too Few Ideas

My latest column is online in the March issue of Governing magazine. It’s called “How to Harvest Good Ideas” and it focuses on a theme I’ve written about before, namely that the real problem in cities isn’t a lack of good ideas, but a lack of an ability to select and implement good ideas. Thus the focus we tend to have on ideation can be misplaced. Here’s an excerpt:

Indeed, if you look at the cities that have achieved notice for their accomplishments, it’s usually as much or more an implementation story than an idea story. Most of the transportation changes implemented by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan were not original ideas. The real lesson to take away from New York is less the ideas than the implementation strategy. It’s about a mayor who provided air cover and empowerment to his department chief. And about a commissioner who used very low-cost pilot projects, often done with little more than cans of paint, to create working demonstration projects without getting bogged down in endless planning studies and red tape.

True, some cities have better ideas than others. But the bigger divide is between can-do and can’t-do cities, or perhaps more realistically, cities in which its easier versus harder to get things done.

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Chicago in the 1940s – In Color

A 30 minute short film about Chicago that was shot c1947 has been making the rounds bigtime in the last week or so. Someone found a print of it at an estate sale and it wasn’t previously known before. It was produced by the Chicago Board of Education (who today doesn’t seem to know anything about it) for some purpose unknown, but appears to be a promotional type film designed to sell the city. It’s very interesting to see Chicago during that era. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.


Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

The Persistence of Failed History: “White Infill” as the New “White Flight”? by Richey Piiparinen

[ I've featured the work of Richey Piiparinen before. Described by the Cleveland Plain Dealer as a "trouble-making demographer", a recent study he and Jim Russell put out got quite a bit of attention. And it paid off for Richey, who's just been appointed a research fellow at Cleveland State University. He's being put in charge of the new Center for Population Dynamics there. Congrats to Richey. In his honor I'm running today's piece by him, which has been sitting in my posting queue for quite a while. Enjoy - Aaron. ]


Image via Columbus Underground

“There is a secret at the core of our nation. And those who dare expose it must be condemned, must be shamed, must be driven from polite society. But the truth stalks us like bad credit.” – Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates

***

With the recent Supreme Courts strike down of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was created to protect minority representation, the headline in the Huffington Post read “Back to 1964?” While some contend the title hyperbolic, the HuffPost lead, if not the strike down itself, reflects the reality of a country still tethered to its discriminatory past.

This reality is reflected in all facets of American society, including urbanism. Specifically, is the “back-to-the-city” movement destined to become 1968 inverted; that is, instead of “white flight” there’s “white infill”? If so, the so-called “game-changing” societal movement will be a process of switching out the window dressing, with the style du jour less lace curtains, more exposed brick.

While debatable, there appears to be a back-to-the-city trend, particularly the inner-core areas of America’s largest and most powerful cities. For instance, according to a recent report by the Census Bureau, Chicago’s core exhibited a 36% boom in its population from 2000 to 2010—a gain of nearly 50,000. Rounding out the top five core-growth gainers were the cities New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. The report finds that, on average, “[T]he largest metro areas—those with 5.0 million or more population—experienced double-digit percentage growth within 2 miles of their largest city’s city hall…”

Who is moving into these “spiky” urban cores?

Whites largely. For example, much of Chicago’s core gains comes from the downtown zip code 60654, in which 11,499 (77%) of the area’s 14,868 incoming residents were white, and where the median family income is $151,000. Other zip codes in Chicago’s core share similar proportions of growth, such as 60605, with 70% of its 12,423 new residents being white. Contrast this with a 5% growth rate for blacks.

As well, according to research by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute examining the zip codes with the largest growth in the share of white population from 2000 to 2010, 15 of the top 50 were located in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington D.C. Philadelphia’s downtown zip code 19123 grew its population by nearly 40%, and its proportion of whites increased from 25% to almost 50%. In D.C., the growing core zip code of 20001 increased its white share from 6% to 33% in a mere 10 years. While in Brooklyn, the zip codes 11205 and 11206 showed similar growth dynamics, with overall gains of 15% and 18% respectively, and corresponding increases in the white share of approximately 30%. Also on the Institute’s list are zip codes in not-quite-global cities such as Chattanooga, Austin, Atlanta, St. Paul, Indianapolis, Tampa, and Portland, with the vast majority of the “whitening” areas located in, or besides, the downtown core.

Now, why does it matter if whites are leading the charge into those cores frequently championed as evidence of a new social order? After all, it is a step forward, right? Or, as urbanist Kaid Benfield recently wrote:

Inner cities are growing again. People of means, especially young people, want to be in cities today. While that carries its own set of challenges, I would submit that addressing the challenges of gentrification is a far better problem to have than coping with massive abandonment and rampant crime.

While that line of argument has merit, what’s missing is a deeper examination about those “people of means”. Specifically, a recent study out of Brandeis University showed the wealth gap between blacks and whites has nearly tripled over the past 25 years. That said, the people of means wanting to be in cities is largely the same people who always had means, and they are simply taking their means from one geography to the next; that is, from the suburban development to the urban enclave.

Gap

Of course many argue that infusing affluence into an area will create broad spillover effects. Tweeted urban planner Jeff Speck:

“A beautiful and vibrant downtown can be the rising tide that lifts all ships. #walkablecity”.

Yet there is little evidence of a “trickle down” effect within “rejuvenated” space. For instance, in his piece examining the aforementioned D.C. zip code of 20001, Dax-Devlon Ross writes:

In 2011 alone, condos accounted for 57 percent of total home sales (276), most at triple the 2000 median price. The zip code now boasts an Ann Taylor, a Brooks Brothers, an Urban Outfitters, enough bars to serve several university populations at once and a mind-boggling 10 Starbucks…

…What’s telling about the zip code’s “new build” makeover is that it did not move the poverty needle. The zip code’s poverty rate is exactly what it was in 1980, 1990 and 2000 — 28 percent — and the child poverty rate is nearly twice what it was in 1990 (45 percent).

In other words, such developmental strategy is a game of whack-a-mole in which the raison d’être for the mole won’t stop until real economic restructuring happens, or until equity truly starts entering into the lexicon of our shared language. Instead, we get the apologia of the status quo that is shifting the same affluence to the same pockets, switch out the spatial aesthetics of the parking lot for the parklet.


Trump Towers Chicago. Image via Medill New Service

That said, there is real doubt the country has the stomach for such discourse, let alone for policy that can affect the prioritization of human and community capital. From the article “Separate, Unequal, and Ignored”, the author suggests that “[r]acial segregation remains Chicago’s most fundamental problem”, and he questions why the issue remained muted during the recent mayor’s race. Answered Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey:

“[Segregation] is a very difficult and intractable problem. Politicians don’t like to face up to difficult and intractable problems, whatever their nature”.

Unfortunately for city proponents, this same inability to face the issue by leading urban thinkers is making the “new urbanism” movement look really old. Asked about the risk of racial and economic homogeneity at the hands of the “back-to-the-city” movement, Alan Ehrenhalt, author of “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City”, answered this way:

I think you’re going to have class segregation no matter what you do. It would be nice to have people of all classes living right next to each other in gentrified downtowns. That’s probably not going to happen. It is true that a gentrified area tends to become less diverse. Cities can’t solve all problems.

No, cities can’t solve all problems. But neither should cities be used to make existing problems worse. Re-urbanism, or specifically the opportunities it creates for equitable reinvestment, should be respected for what it is: a chance to move forward from a divided, destructive past.

Yet such will take collective will and reflective honesty. Or the ability to look deep in the mirror at the American face and know that behind us is a persistence of failed history.

This post originally appeared in Richey Piiparinen’s blog on Jun 25, 2013.

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