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After Oil: dispatches from a conference on the challenges facing cities worldwide

I couldn’t get to Philadelphia this past weekend for the symposium at the University of Pennsylvania titled Re-Imagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil, but a set of journalists and academics blogging at the web site of the magazine Next American City posted some 16,000 words.

I’ve distilled some thought-provoking excerpts below. My overall conclusion is that, however much civic energy is spent on individual controversies (like, um, a certain Brooklyn megaproject), there are huge systemic issues we have to address, and, as noted by some of the bloggers, many of those at those conference--though more motivated than most, obviously-- didn't grasp the urgency of the problem.

(I don’t provide links to each post, but my excerpts are in chronological order, while the live blog entries are in reverse chronological order.)

The official web site states:
The event marked the 50th Anniversary of the 1958 University of Pennsylvania/Rockefeller Foundation “Conference on Urban Design Criticism,” whose participants included Jane Jacobs, Louis Kahn, Kevin Lynch, Ian McHarg, Lewis Mumford, and I.M. Pei. That historic conference helped shape the new field of urban design in the 20th Century. Now, we hope you will participate in this critical exploration of new directions for 21st Century urban design.

What about AY?

I don't know if Atlantic Yards came up at the conference, but, as a quick aside, consider whether AY would be a green development.

Well, density is good, but too much density can be extreme. Transit-oriented development is good, but less good if it includes significant amounts of parking and isn't accompanied by upgrades of local transit. Forest City Ratner aims to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for buildings, but isn't a lot of embodied energy lost when existing building are demolished, especially ones that have already been rehabbed?

Paging Jane Jacobs

The conference began, perhaps with Jane Jacobs. Andrew Blum cites a Jacobs line posted on the wall of the exhibition accompanying the conference: “Hundreds of thousands of people with hundreds of thousands of plans and purposes built the city. Only they will rebuild the city.”

Diana Lind cites two other quotes. One is from Jacobs: "In order for a society to flourish, there must be a flourishing city at its core."

The other is from Judith Rodin of the Rockefeller Foundation, former present of Penn: "Progress always starts with bold ideas."

Navigating the disconnect

Nate Berg cites Adil Najam, of Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, who points to an incredible disconnect between urban policy and climate policy. He adds:
David Orr of Oberlin College argues that we don’t even have an urban development policy for one of the actual countries in our world, the United States

Berg concludes:
Building policies that address urban planning issues and climate change will need to happen soon, and ithese policies will have to be drafted together in a unified way. Maybe a good way to start that policymaking is by looking at the world as Najam’s single third-world country.

Randy Crane reacts to the opening panel:
What I am not hearing are serious proposals for institutional and political reform, or even discussions of the feasibility of such efforts.

(Maybe they should’ve been talking about congestion pricing?)

Crane observes that it's not so easy to stop sprawl, get people out of the cars, and build compact, mixed-use communities:
But each of these represents huge, extremely problematic tradeoffs that must be productively negotiated with full attention to the competing constituencies at each step of the way. 

Transit vs. autos

Randy Avent, reporting on a session on regional urban planning, disagrees with a contention by Dinesh Mohan of the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi suggests that underground transit does nothing to impede automobile flow, but merely increases supply.

Avent adds:
It’s also important to remember that transit is far less competitive than it should be, relative to driving, because of the favoritism we show to automobiles. We allow drivers to use roads at no cost in most cases, leading to congestion. We provide massive volumes of parking. We build at low densities that make walking problematic.

Brief window of opportunity

Elizabeth Dickinson quotes Alex Washburn, Chief Urban Designer for the city of New York: “Cities are a confluence of politics, finances, and design and design is often the weakest. The window of opportunity for design opens and closes quickly, so when that window opens, we need to be prepared to rush in.”

Washburn warned attendees to be sure they had a place at the table: “I would challenge every designer to take a sabbatical in government and be a part of the decisions as they hang in the balance.”

Beyond Jane Jacobs?

Blum cites an “overwhelming” scope of interconnectedness that suggests the “uncomfortable inadequacy of the past century’s urban planning toolbox.” Cities, he writes, are global organisms, “a shockingly different singular image than the Jacobsean one that dominates today.”

He quotes Najam, “We’re going to spend the day as people who think about cities thinking about climate. But how do people who think about climate think about cities?”

Skepticism about LEED

Lloyd Alter quotes Himanshu Parikh, who’s skeptical about LEED, the certification system for green buildings, and prefers simpler systems that “encourage simplicity, natural ventilation, traditional ways of building as we did before electricity.”

Management vs. design

Berg, in reporting on a discussion about three global cities (Philadelphia, New York, Durban), notes that participants said that city management is more important than city design. One example: PlaNYC 2030, because it has 127 separate initiatives. (Of course the biggest one, congestion pricing, has yet to get off the ground.)

Crane reports on New York City sustainability chief Rohit Aggarwala, who noted that average carbon footprint of a NYC resident is 29% that of the national average, so one solution for climate change is to move people to big cities

Mark Alan Hughes, Philadelphia’s director of sustainability, advised that solutions are piecemeal, and major change may require fundamental governance and organizational reform.

Better understanding consumption

Dickinson cites a coinage by Alex Steffen of the magazine Worldchanging, “the Prius Effect.” Just as drivers of Priuses are more sensitive to their mileage, additional transparency in the home--and in society at large--would help us understand the costs of our decisions.

A post-oil city

Crane reports on a speech by UK Engineer Peter Head, who cited Dongtan, near Shanghai, and Brazil’s Curitiba and Colombia’s Bogota (both known for bus rapid transit, or BRT) as sustainable cities.

Among the solutions: more vegetation on roofs and roads, high speed rail, zero emission mass transit, and consolidated centers for freight delivery.

Blum was a bit skeptical, calling it
Arup’s invigorating vision of happy eco cities circa 2050—all the way through to suburban garages turned to vegetable stalls and big city buildings bragging about their energy conservation on electronic billboards.

Avent follows up by noting that China, because of its rapid urbanization, has ample opportunity to experiment, while in the United States, whether city or suburb, “the probable resistance to a wholesale rethink of our building techniques is daunting.”

The issue, he suggests, is more political than technical.

Crane, in reporting on another session, quotes population ecologist William Rees, who suggests that we must give up on material wealth, and U.S. cities must reduce their ecological footprint by 80%.

The politics of that would be even tougher.

Goodbye to cars?

Alter suggests that panelists on the “future of automobility” were “surprisingly blase” about accepting the persistence of cars.

He writes:
I frankly am a bit shocked. I would have thought that the single biggest factor affecting urban design in the age after oil is the virtual elimination of private cars, replaced by denser, walkable cities, transit and bicycles.”

Making priorities

Avent wanders the exhibition space, and notes that participants were asked to answer big questions in urbanism by placing a marble in a jar corresponding to their preferred answer.

He notes that the use of urban brownfields for agriculture was far more popular than the elimination of car lanes for bike lanes, and the latter topped congestion pricing. Even though participants were urban planning professionals, he notes, “ordering the policies by their effectiveness on those measures would likely generate the exact reverse ranking.”

Also, he points to participants preferences on how to accommodate the rising urban population. Dense urban infill topped suburban infill or suburban greenfield development. While dense urban infill is desirable, he suggests there’s much more opportunity to increase the carrying capacity of the suburbs.

In other words, it’s a regional problem.

A skeptic in the house

Blum reports on a plenary session, Getting the Message Out: Urban Design and 21st Century Media, in which author Witold Rybczynski “referred to the topic of the day as ‘this green thing’—a phraseology that seemed the urban design equivalent of McCain’s ‘that one.’”

Asked critics should some day evaluate a building’s green credentials, his response, to Blum, was unconvincing: “I think it is quite possible, and I think we’re probably getting there.”

Indeed, many architecture critics not only shy away from green issues, they shy away from larger urban planning issues. Can you critique the design of Atlantic Yards without discussing the process?

The governance crisis

Diana Lind cites Ottawa City Councillor Clive Doucet, who emphasized “a crisis of governance—in his country and others.” Why Lind wonders, don’t New Yorkers carpool in the way they did during the December 2006 transit strike?

Alter observes that Doucet’s vision of the future is the vision of Ottawa of his past, where the cops take the bus, where there are local farmers markets, walk to the pub, walk to the store, where the first thing you do is use your feet, not your car.

The problem, Alter notes, is that such a vision won’t accommodate a billion Chinese.

Still, he reflects on a walk down Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street, which has upper floors that could be adapted, signs of much “excess capacity all over America.”

Crane reports that the success of Curitiba in Brazil, which was partly an incremental process of discovery in a rather unique governance and administrative setting (the country was under military rule at the time, so the political accountability of these decisions was not exactly a democratic one), a point on which I’ve written briefly before (by way of comparison with Bogota).

Avent quotes Curitiba’s Jonas Rabinovitch, who contends that people need an economic incentive to act, and “only later do they develop their environmental conscience.”

“Cars are the new cigarette”

Dickinson notes that several people have suggested the metaphor of smoking, that the societal shift came about after research and political advocacy. She quotes Stephen Goldsmith: “Cars are the new cigarette. We have to teach people that cars are cancerous.”

One commenter notes that many people assumed that smoking could not be banned in American cities and especially Ireland--but the culture changes.

Where from here?

The skeptical Alter, at a closing breakout session, expresses dismay “at how little attention was actually being paid to the issue of urban design after oil.”

He writes:
William Rees of the University of British Columbia got it, and tried to get some focus on the issue of the end of oil. A few others got it, and stressed the need for urgency and action. But most were less concerned about mitigation or adaptation than they were about more traditional planning issues.

Avent observes:
I appreciate the idea of an ecological approach to city planning... but our immediate task is more specific.... Planners must act to cajole both households and leaders into accepting changes that constitute, on the surface at least, a painful alteration of lifestyle. Forget, for the moment, total recycling of waste. How do we get people to want to walk from one place to another? Forget, for the moment, the encasement of buildings in energy-producing algae tubes. How do we attract young families back into cities from the suburbs, reducing their carbon footprints in the process?

His conclusion:
We have to sell the people something they’re not sure they need, and it seems unlikely that merely telling them they need it is going to change their minds. Planners have to convince them they want it, through the power of their design.

No time to waste

Alter notes that it took a lot of time for the lessons of the urban design conference 50 years ago to be absorbed, but we don’t have that luxury today.

The issue, he concludes, is that people's lifestyles must change:
This is why I thought that the preoccupation with carbon dioxide and climate change was a misdirection; what we have is a planning and design issue, that we have planned our nation around cheap individual transportation. The main impact of peak oil is not that we will run out of the stuff, but that it will get more and more expensive as the supply dwindles.... That will affect planning and urban design in real, not academic time. When gas hit four bucks a gallon the value of suburban real estate took a severe hit. Sales of sophisticated personal alternate power sourced vehicles, called bicycles, soared. Business owners started questioning why they pay for office space when they can have people work from home. Trains still didn’t run on time but they suddenly were filled.

New problems, new media

Alter suggests that reaction must occur in blog-time, not book-time:
My hope is that somewhere in that conference, among the presenters, observers or students, there is another young woman or man putting these thoughts together like Jane Jacobs did fifty years ago. I hope she writes more quickly and that the professions are quicker on the uptake. Frankly, I hope she blogs, it’s faster and we don’t have a lot of time. We have a little economic time-out right now to put our thoughts together, to consider what we have to do to respond to the problem of Re-imagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil.

That should remind us of an April 2006 quote from journalist and Streetsblog founder Aaron Naparstek: "If Jane Jacobs had the tools and technology back when she was fighting Robert Moses' plans to bulldoze Lower Manhattan, I bet 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' would have been a blog."