A sociologist goes to the Urban History Association meetings, Part Two

I posted several observations yesterday from my time at the Urban History Association meetings. I turn today to the three most interesting ideas or debates I heard when attending sessions and panels:

  1. On a session on public housing, the discussant made this observation: with all of these negative cases of big government involvement in public housing, perhaps we need to turn away from seeing this as the solution. The main issue is this: when the federal resources are earmarked for the poor and redevelopment, it always seems to end up in the hands of the wealthy and developers rather than with those who really need the assistance. (For another example of this that involves lots of government money but not public housing, see the book Crisis Cities about New York City after 9/11 and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.) He suggested then and in later conversation that doesn’t mean that government should be completely removed from public housing. However, more local efforts seem to allow more opportunity for success rather than a completely top-down approach.I’ve argued before that the private market can’t do much about affordable housing in the United States, let alone public housing. At the same time, I would agree that the record of the federal government regarding public housing is mediocre at best. Are there some middle-range solutions? (I’ll also acknowledge that sometimes it does seem to take the federal government to help local governments do the right thing. For example, the Chicago Housing Authority was a mess for decades and required some oversight.)
  1. On a panel on Jane Jacobs, one of the scholars highlighted her upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania as being particularly formative. While Jacobs is most associated with New York City and Toronto, she was shaped by this smaller big city, the third most populous Pennsylvania city at the time and a city that attracted a variety of residents to work in the coal mining industry. This made me think of two things: (1) Why don’t more scholars pay attention to smaller big cities that may not be as important on the global stage but still contain a large number of American residents and (2) how might Jacobs and fictional resident and booster Michael Scott of The Office get along?
  1. A later panel discussed the history of Silicon Valley. In a response to a question about the representativeness of Silicon Valley for understanding other places in the United States and around the world, at least one participant suggested the ideas, social life, and spatial dimensions of Silicon Valley were likely to spread elsewhere and become normal. Another participant pushed back, suggesting that many places have no interest in becoming like Silicon Valley or don’t have the knowledge or resources to follow such a path. Such a discussion highlights how a place devoted to creating things for the masses may be in its organization and daily life be very separate from the rest of the country.

A bonus nugget from a session: when the Illinois Tollways first opened, there were not enough customers/drivers. Thus, a marketing campaign kicked off and the commercials featured Mary MacToll. Enjoy.

Getting a handle on the increasing complexity of large cities

Richard Florida interviews the author of a new book on cities and complexity. Here is one of the more interesting questions:

What do you think is the best way to think about cities: as machines, ecosystems, living organisms, or something else?

The fascinating thing about cities is that different aspects of them allow us to think about them in many different ways. At the level of urban infrastructure, cities certainly have features of machines, with vast constructed networks involved in transporting people, water, electricity, and waste.

At the level of the economy, cities resemble complex ecosystems, with companies and individuals filling specific niches and all living and working in a symbiotic dance. And at the level of growth and change, cities also feel like living, breathing, constantly growing and changing organisms.

But ultimately, the fact that a city has features of both a machine, a societal ecosystem, as well as a living thing means that a city is truly its own category: a novel type of socio-technological system that humans have made, and is perhaps one of our more incredible inventions.

I like this response: we have a tendency to reduce complex social phenomena to understandable objects (like machines – think of how often the brain is compared to a computer) but this often isn’t possible. Understanding all of the social relationships involved – and this could include relationships between people as well as between people and objects or nature – should lead us to some humility of how much we can know and predict as well as a fascination regarding how it all works. (Or, perhaps this fascination just applies to people like sociologists)

If indeed cities are complex systems, this could lead to questions of whether that complexity has drawbacks in the long run that cannot be overcome. (Parenthetically, such questions could also apply to nation states.) At some point, complexity may produce diminishing returns as argued by anthropologist Joseph Tainter. This reminds me that Jane Jacobs suggested organizing cities in districts that weren’t too big or small so that they could attend to smaller matters while also allowing community involvement. Americans tend to like smaller local government but the combined resources and interactions between larger groups of people can lead to more unusual benefits.

Overcrowded sidewalks in Manhattan

Manhattan is crowded and this includes the sidewalks:

While crowding is hardly a new problem in the city, the sidewalks that cemented New York’s reputation as a world-class walking city have become obstacle courses as more people than ever live and work in the city and tourism surges. The problem is particularly acute in Manhattan. Around Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, two of the city’s main transit hubs, commuters clutching coffee cups and briefcases squeeze by one another during the morning and evening rushes. Throngs of shoppers and visitors sometimes bring swaths of Lower Manhattan to a standstill, prompting some local residents to cite clogged sidewalks as their biggest problem in a recent community survey.

Foot traffic has slowed to a shuffle along some of the city’s most famous corridors. On Fifth Avenue, between 54th and 55th Streets, 26,831 pedestrians — enough to fill Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall combined — passed through in three hours on a weekday in May 2015, up from 20,639 the year before, according to city data.

Transportation officials are taking measures to alleviate the congestion. To help accommodate foot traffic, they are adding more pedestrian plazas across the city, expanding the presence of a streetscape feature first embraced by the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. One is scheduled to open soon on 33rd Street near Penn Station. There are also plans to widen a half-dozen sidewalks in Flushing, Queens, in the next year (the city’s sidewalks vary in width, but must be at least five feet wide).

While a crowded sidewalk is simply a symptom of a crowded city, it resonates deeply because it affects almost everyone. Unlike overstuffed subways or tourist attractions like, say, Times Square, there is no going around the sidewalks. They are to New York what freeways are to Los Angeles: an essential part of the infrastructure. Sidewalks not only get people from Point A to Point B, but also serve as a shared public space for rich and poor, native and tourist alike.

As Jane Jacobs highlighted, crowded sidewalks are critical for thriving cities. And, don’t most urbanists today want more people walking? As the article notes, this is a problem in numerous cities where tourism is encouraged and there are a mix of important uses in proximity.

There seems to be an easy answer that is not discussed here: close more streets for stretches to allow for more pedestrian traffic. If there are so many people walking, this shouldn’t hurt businesses too much. Additionally, it could allow for pedestrian corridors that might also then reduce foot traffic on nearby streets. At least, perhaps some areas would benefit from road diets. If you have so many people in a small area and then prioritize vehicular traffic, problems like this will arise.

Even more radical than limiting vehicles in major urban stretches would be some version of the High Line in high-trafficked areas. Imagine raised platforms for walking above the sidewalk that could add both capacity and recreation options.

“Forty Percent of the Buildings in Manhattan Could Not Be Built Today”

Manhattan’s zoning code is complicated and there are a number of buildings – many built prior to 1930 – that would not meet current standards:

New York City’s zoning code turns 100 this year. That may not sound like cause for celebration — except maybe for land-use lawyers and Robert Moses aficionados. Yet for almost every New Yorker, the zoning code plays an outsize role in daily life, shaping virtually every inch of the city…

New York’s zoning code was the first in the country, meant to promote a healthier city, which was then filling with filthy tenements and office towers. Since it was approved in 1916, the ever-evolving, byzantine code has changed many times to suit the needs of a swollen metropolis. Just in March, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio won approval for a vast citywide plan that would encourage sleeker, more affordable developments…

Mr. Smith and Mr. Trivedi evaluated public records on more than 43,000 buildings and discovered that about 17,000 of them, or 40 percent, do not conform to at least one part of the current zoning code. The reasons are varied. Some of the buildings have too much residential area, too much commercial space, too many dwelling units or too few parking spaces; some are simply too tall. These are buildings that could not be built today…

Nearly three-quarters of the existing square footage in Manhattan was built between the 1900s and 1930s, according to an analysis done by KPF, an architecture firm based in New York. In a way, the zoning code helps to preserve such architectural diversity. The laws have gotten more restrictive over time, giving an edge to properties built in earlier eras.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. I particularly like the two examples of buildings cited in the story where it is clearly shown what would have to change should the buildings be subject to current standards.
  2. It is not entirely clear but it looks like this article credits zoning for protecting a lot of these older buildings. If you wanted to purchase an older building, tear it down, and build a new one, the new structure would not be quite the same. This means that zoning acts as a kind of historic preservation. Of course, we could ask how many older buildings are too many?
  3. There are calls to overhaul the zoning code to make it simpler. One of the problems is that different areas of Manhattan want different standards. Even though New York City the global city, many of the building decisions are local and residents want some control. Think of Jane Jacobs’ efforts to save Greenwich Village and certain structures during the 1960s. A more vanilla zoning code would make things simpler but could hinder local character.

Richard Florida: we lack systematic data to compare cities

As he considers Jane Jacobs’ impact, Richard Florida suggests we need more data about cities:

MCP: Some of the research around the built environment is pretty skimpy and not very scientific, in a lot of cases.

RF: Right. And it’s done by architects who are terrific, but are basically looking at it from the building level. We need a whole research agenda. A century or so ago John Hopkins University invented the teaching hospital, modern medicine. They said, medicine could be advanced by underpinning the way doctors treat people and develop clinical methodologies, with a solid, scientific research base. Think of it as a system that runs from laboratory to bed-side. We don’t have that for cities and urbanism.  But at the same time we know that the city is the key economic and social unit of our time. Billions of people across the world are pouring into cities and we are spending trillions upon trillions of dollars building new cities and rebuilding, expanding and upgrading existing ones. We’re doing it with little in the way of systematic research. We lack even the most basic data we need to compare and assess cities around the world. There’s no comparable grand challenge that we have so terribly under funded as cities and urbanism. We need to develop everything from the underlying science to better understand cities and their evolution, the systematic data to assess them and the educational and clinical protocols for building better, more prosperous and inclusive cities. Right now, mayors are out there winging it. Economic developers are out there winging it. There’s no clinical training program. There are some, actually, but they’re scattered about and they’re not having much impact. It’s going to take a big commitment. But we need to build the equivalent of the medical research infrastructure, with the equivalent of “teaching hospitals” for our cities.  When you think of it cities are our greatest laboratories for advancing our understanding the intersection of natural, physical, social and human environments—they’re our most complex organisms. This is going to be my next big research project: I’m calling it the Urban Genome Project. It’s what I hope to devote the rest of my career doing.

The cities as laboratories language echoes that of the Chicago School. But, much of the sociological literature suggests a basic tension in this area: how much are cities alike compared to how much are they different? Are there common processes across most or all cities that we can highlight and work with or does their unique contexts limit how much generalizing can be done? Hence, we have a range of studies with everything from examining large sets of cities at once or processes across all cities (like Florida would argue in The Rise of the Creative Class) versus studies of particular neighborhoods and cities to discover their idiosyncratic patterns.

Of course, we could just look at cities like a physicist might and argue there are power laws underlying cities…

Cities will need to adapt to self-driving cars

If self-driving cars arrive soon, cities may not be ready:

Just six percent of long-range transportation plans in major US cities are factoring the impact of autonomous cars, according to a report released in the fall by the National League of Cities. That’s a bad sign. “Even though driverless cars may be shoehorned to fit the traditional urban environment in the short term, it won’t be a long-term solution for maximizing potential benefits,” says Lili Du, an assistant professor of transportation engineering at Illinois Tech.

The Driverless Cities Project is developing a comprehensive answer, folding in urban design, landscape architecture, transportation engineering, sociology, urban networks, and planning law. (The project is a finalist for the university’s $1 million Nayar Prize for research with meaningful social impacts.) The idea is to explore current research around the country, along with the more forward-thinking planning initiatives, and fold in their own studies to create a suite of guidelines—including model urban codes that determine so much about city environments—for municipalities to incorporate into their planning.

There’s plenty to consider. For example, we don’t know how parking will work for autonomous vehicles. Should cities be building lots outside urban centers? Is parking still necessary at all? Wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communication will lets cars pack together more tightly, which raises questions about how we fit them onto our streets.

Their autonomous operation alone can obviate the need for traffic signals and road signs. That’ll go a long way toward beautifying city streets, Marshall says, but brings up other problems regarding pedestrian safety, speed limits, roadway design, and the need for and sizes of driveways and curbs. Even further, vehicle ownership and usage patterns will change, once we’re able to summon an autonomous car through an app and then shoo it away once it delivers us at our destination. Who’s going to own and operate those cars, and what will they do when not serving their owners? Park in the ‘burbs? Infinite-Uber-loop?

It sounds like there is a lot of good that could be done in helping to reverse the changes that occurred from the early to mid-1900s where cities were altered in significant ways – wider streets and smaller sidewalks, the construction of highways – to make it easier for cars to operate in the city. Of course, making some of these roadway changes doesn’t necessarily lead to a Jane Jacobs urban paradise. Take downtown Manhattan: you could reduce the size of roads and give pedestrians more space. Yet, the scale of the buildings often would not help; you can create all sorts of sidewalks but if they are shrouded in shadows from skyscrapers, is it inviting? Or, adding more pedestrian space may not necessarily lead to more lively street life if there isn’t a mix of uses to attract people. On the whole, having to emphasize cars less could be very attractive but a lot of additional work would need to be done to truly take advantage of the opportunity.

Early American urban planning at the Boston Common

Several weeks ago we visited the Boston Common which has this plaque located at its eastern corner:

BostonCommonPlaque

Established in 1634, the Boston Common provided common space for grazing and later served as a military camp, site for public hangings, place for public assemblies and speeches, and a major urban park. But, it is hard to imagine central Boston without this large open space. What would it be otherwise – more space for office buildings and residences? To have it set aside at an early date and originally toward the edge of the city just like Central Park looks quite prescient today. Having the city grow up “organically” around it also helped compared to new cities and major developments where parks may be planned but have a difficult time developing a welcoming atmosphere. (Perhaps this is where Jane Jacobs’ ideas about parks needing more than just existence to be successful could be useful.)

Although this area isn’t really nature (too much ongoing human interference), it still is a welcome respite from the activity all around it. Indeed, urban parks like these really do help make cities all that they are even if they might be “negative space” in their lack of buildings.