December 27, 2005

"Stop talking about putting the city back into its 19th-century state to make mass transit work."

"Instead, let's see what people want to do, then see how the city can be built around them."

A quote from "Sprawl: A Compact History," by Robert Bruegmann, reviewed by architecture critic Kevin Nance.
"There's a certain contrarian glee that Bob takes in goring sacred cows, and I think there's value in challenging us to look at these issues fresh," says Ned Cramer, curator of the Chicago Architecture Foundation. "But I don't think I can set aside my prejudices about the vacuousness of life in suburban sprawl. Gertrude Stein said, 'There's no there there,' and I still on an emotional, psychological and intellectual level fail to find any 'there' in the vast majority of sprawl-style developments that I visit and have lived in. And it's interesting that Bob lives and works in a traditional city. I don't see him moving to Aurora."

Still, the early critical response to Bruegmann's book has been mostly positive, with reviewers such as Witold Rybczynski, the architecture critic of the online magazine Slate, lauding Sprawl as an "iconoclastic little book" that "demonstrates that sprawl is not the anomalous result of American zoning laws, or mortgage interest tax deduction, or cheap gas, or subsidized highway construction, or cultural antipathy toward cities."

Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman is equally enthusiastic.

"The intellectual perception of sprawl is a snobbish one that says it's all crap, and Bob points out that it just ain't that way," Tigerman says.
Here in Madison, people tend to gasp about sprawl, but absurdly, they also object to tall buildings downtown. We're progressive: we don't really want anything to change. Except we want light rail. Because light rail would be a wonderful way to spend money to help us feel really good about ourselves.

30 comments:

PatCA said...

When I was in WI this summer, I was surprised to see that people are settling in communities an hour away from Milwaukee. Sprawl is indeed coming. But what is the alternative? People gotta live somewhere.

I liked California when it was truly suburban. It was easier to live than in big cities like Chicago. People were nicer, less road rage, less noise, less crime. Today, we are full up and fully urbanized, so developers and planners are trying to sell us on the 'soullessness' of sprawl, of the vibrancy of three-story walkups over stores and offices or next to a freaking train statiobn. IOW, they are trying to sell us tenements. Then, as now, more people (free immigration) than homes causes property values to increase and tax coffers to bulge.

MD said...

Hmmmm, regarding the professor who thinks there is no 'there' there in exurbia:

In some places it's up to you to create the 'there' there. If you lack the imagination for it, well......

Sebastian said...

Because [X] would be a wonderful way to spend money to help us feel really good about ourselves.

Which I think sadly drives too many folks' motivation to support cause X or Y. I can recall one of my left leaning friends talking about being at an anti-war rally being "exhilarating to feel like a part of something so profound and important". Whether or not the protest would convince anyone to turn against the invasion seemed to be of secondary concern.

I sometimes wonder if many of these people, raised in different times or in a different culture, would channel their energies into devout religious faith. I think there is certainly a need for people to feel part of something bigger than themselves, and perhaps it says something about modern society that so many find it in places where, at least in my opinion, they are mostly doing just that, feeling, rather than actually accomplishing something.

Palladian said...

Light rail is one of those things that makes "progressives" vaporous, yet few of the Volvo Cross Country crowd would actually use it. Just as long as it is there. Sometimes it works out; Houston recently built a light rail line and it seems to be doing fairly well, though I don't really know the economics of it. New York is one of the few places where the mass transit system seemed an intrinsic part of the city. Being composed of a tiny island and several larger land masses separated by rivers there's not enough room for even a fraction of the city's residents to have their own vehicles. The vastness of the subway system here really puts it on a different level than most urban transit schemes; here it's actually more efficient in many cases than driving.

But I do think large cities are a relic of the nineteenth (and earlier) centuries and that, with the internet and other communication technologies, there is less reason to live in big, dirty, bloated cities. I only live here because of my work (and that I don't drive) but I look forward to moving out sometime in the somewhat near future. 15 years ago, in the unimaginable time before the web, it would have been difficult and isolating for some. Small towns and open air are now an attractive and realistic option for many people.

And as for the soulless part, I agree in a way, but it has nothing to do with any intrinsic quality of suburbia. It's mostly because there's no good architecture out there. If these sophisticated urban architects would actually start thinking about how to inject some beauty and grace into smaller-scale suburban and rural architecture, maybe things wouldn't be so bad. They need to take a lesson from Frank Lloyd Wright.

Jake said...

Humans were never designed to live in cities. They were designed to live in wide open spaces. That is the reason that violence, corruption and pollution is the hallmark of every large urban city in the world.

It is no coincidence that 85% of our population do not live in an urban core city. The drive to own a piece of land with a home on it is so strong no politician in American can stop it.

Lou Minatti said...

Houston recently built a light rail line and it seems to be doing fairly well, though I don't really know the economics of it.

I do since I live here. What Houston Metro did was eliminate many bus lines that went directly to downtown or to the Texas Medical Center. Instead of terminating at these employment centers, the buses stop at light rail stations, forcing patrons to "ride the rails" to reach their final destination. Voila! Ridership is magically up on light rail, even though it is less convenient for riders.

But the light rail train is pretty, and as we all know any "world-class" city requires a train of some sort.

BTW, did I mention that Metro's overall ridership has declined since light rail was installed?

HaloJonesFan said...

O'Rourke described a city as "the mess left over from people getting rich". I tend to agree. I've lived near Philadelphia and Alameda, and I could barely tell the difference between the two (except that Philly had cheesesteaks and Alameda had burritos.)

Jake said...

Subways are economically viable only in cities originally designed for horse or oxen travel.

XWL said...

As far as suburbia being uglier than cities, I prefer beauty that comes from the relationships between folks rather than from edifices.

Could suburban architecture be better, sure, do ugly mini-malls make ugly communities, no way.

And my answer to mass transit problems is to go over them

Slocum said...

Here in Madison, people tend to gasp about sprawl, but absurdly, they also object to tall buildings downtown. We're progressive: we don't really want anything to change. Except we want light rail. Because light rail would be a wonderful way to spend money to help us feel really good about ourselves.

Damn -- I sometimes wonder if there's anything that can be said about Madison that can't be said about Ann Arbor. That is *exactly* the fight that's going on around here. One group of local Dems is pushing for a downtown 'greenway' and fighting tall buildings and another local group of Dems (Republicans, it goes without saying, are irrelevant here) is fighting for increased density. The historical district commission just killed a 10-floor project that had been given the green light by the planning commission and city council. And so it goes.

The thing that nobody can seem to figure out is that to the extent that downtown is made more vibrant (it's pretty healthy now), that is going to *increase* not decrease the attractiveness of living a few minutes away in the surrounding townships. No developer will decide not to go forward with a housing project because there are also new buildings going up downtown.

Al Maviva said...

Humans were never designed to live in cities. They were designed to live in wide open spaces. That is the reason that violence, corruption and pollution is the hallmark of every large urban city in the world.

Oh my. Who's the Southern Agrarian philosopher then?

The basic concept of “let’s see what they want to do and then build it around them” is a good engineering approach to managing transportation. I think there is also a libertarian/conservative vibe to that approach, which is refreshing.

If you ever have a chance to visit the Rochester Institute of Technology, I urge you to do so. Before you go, pick a couple spots on the campus map that sound interesting, which would be nice to visit but require a walk around the campus.

You will be shocked, no doubt, to find that there are walkways leading from one major point of interest, directly to the next. How’d they do that? Simple. Put up the buildings first, then see where people walked. Wherever a straight line was worn into the grass, they put a sidewalk. So now all the sidewalks go *exactly* where you want them to.

While this was no doubt born of some engineer’s fertile mind, one sees in it the bones of the Hayekian narrative about the wisdom of groups and private choice.

A city doesn't have to be a nasty place to live... it just has to be designed around us, rather than building a city in an attempt to design us instead.

bill said...

Al maviva, I've heard that story before about the sidewalks. Unfortunately, when I shared it with the local government officials they did not agree that it meant I could drive through my neighbor's backyard.

John A said...

For centuries, people congregated in cities because that was where jobs and goods were to be found. And being there, enough people with similar interests (and money) could get together to do things like build and support theaters. That is less true now.

As to "mass transit" I hope for a development of tech by which people could request transport and a computer would schedule needed capacity in all areas - sort of an enlargement on taxicabs. For a couple of years, I was dependent on buses - and found that most places I wanted to go (especially to apply for work) were a couple of miles from routes. Yet I believe the system here to be pretty good and relatively comprehensive.

Too, many years ago, I noticed that a fund-raiser for an activist group promoting mass transit was attended by people I do not believe had been on a bus or subway/light-rail for more years than I had then been alive. They obviously believed buses and such were to provide access to stores and theaters from outlying parking areas, not to jobs from living neighborhoods.

brylin said...

The major reason people leave the city for the suburbs is to flee crime. Young families with children leave the city to escape bad schools.

Do you blame them?

Pogo said...

1. Mass transit is for the masses, of course. Buses and trains are for the proles and lumpenproletariat, the other, while cars and planes are for the elite, the nomenklatura. Madison is no different than the USSR in that respect. "Remember, I do this because it is good for you. Trust me."

2. It should be interesting that many of those who believe in evolution and decry intelligent design believe in the opposite method when it comes to cities and economies.

But it's not interesting to them at all.

Word Verification: isicmpz
Lumps of animal excrement all of one identical size.

David said...

That Gertrude Stein qoute is so over, and wrongly used.

It was when she went back to Oakland to find the home she was raised in - when she went back, she could not find it.

It had nothing to do with there being no "sense of place", it has to do with what was there once was now gone

Eli Blake said...

If a feasibility study shows that light rail will work, then get it built and running-- don't make the mistake that Phoenix made.

When I lived in Phoenix in 1989, the city proposed a light rail system, but a bunch of anti-tax activists got together, and got it cancelled.

Fast forward to 2005, and nearly everyone agrees that in light of the massive growth that the Valley (Phoenix and surrounding communities has had) that it is necessary, so it is being built. And a lot of the plans are the same ones that were shelved in 1989. But since a lot of the then vacant land has been developed, and even where not developed it has increased massively in price, the project now costs thirteen times what it would have cost in 1989. That's almost like if they had built it then and then torn it down and rebuilt it again every year since.

And not too surprisingly, the people who led the charge against it in 1989 have refused any requests for interviews.

P. Froward said...

Okay, millions of Americans have chosen to live in a soulless exurban nightmare! So what? So what if it's crap? They like it! If you don't like it, don't live there.

What these narcissistic knuckleheads mean by "soulless" is just that it isn't to their taste. Well, tough titties. It's a free country.

Still, it'd be cool if all those soulless suburbanites moved to fashionable lofts in major cities. Imagine if "Ned Cramer, curator of the Chicago Architecture Foundation" walked into his favorite fabulous little tapas restaurant and found it overrun by Buick salesmen swilling lite [sic] beer, loudly discussing their golf swings, and telling dirty jokes. He would, at that moment, be enlightened, the schmuck.

Richard Fagin said...

Palladian: Message from Houston - the light rail here is a total economic loser, to the non-surprise of most rational observers. Did I mention that the little "choo choo" has just about the worst accident record of any crossing-at-grade rail transit system in the U.S.?

Kev said...

"Did I mention that the little "choo choo" has just about the worst accident record of any crossing-at-grade rail transit system in the U.S.?"

You beat me to the punch there; I just got back from visiting family in a suburb of Houston, and I read about the latest car-train accident down there. Evidently, a lot of people are pretty dense when it comes to not running a red light in this situation (though the latest victim swore the light was green).

"And as for the soulless part, I agree in a way, but it has nothing to do with any intrinsic quality of suburbia. It's mostly because there's no good architecture out there."

I'm sure some may disagree with me on this, but to me, one of the coolest trends of late has been the replacement of the enclosed mall with the "lifestyle center" or "town center" concept--a retro, open-air urban-type center with open spaces, street-level retail and second-story offices, done in an older style. We got one of these a few months ago in my previously-nondescript suburb, and it's already started to transform things out here.

onelmom said...

I do not feel good about spending my money on the Houston Light Rail.

Although I haven't lived here for a long time, I visit my parents in an annexed suburb at least a few times a year, sometimes for extended periods. Despite my intentions not to, I always wind up shopping- which means that 8.25 cents of every dollar goes to the geniuses in the Loop. (And they tax everything here!)

Today was my very first Light Rail experience. We actually drove into town for the specific purpose of riding "Spencer." (My 2 1/2 year old thinks the light rail looks like one of the engines on Thomas.) It was a comedy of errors. Madison, take heed!

Fares are on the honor system (seriously!). Metro police officers spot check fare cards. Coincidentally, when they get on a train, a lot of people exit on the other side and wait for the next train.

I learned this while chatting with a police officer whose partner was writing my dad a ticket for showing his MetroPass instead of a "valid" fare. The crazy thing is that three minutes before writing the ticket, the same police officer helped my dad buy our fare cards and didn't say anything when my dad told him, "I don't need one. I have my MetroPass." (Dad has commuted by bus daily for decades. Who says suburban oil execs can't be green?)

The other crazy thing is that the ticket has no monetary penalty, but the officer told my dad that if he gets caught again, he'll go to jail- because they have a "zero tolerance" policy. I am not making this up.

But the best part is that the thing stops at red lights! At least a bus can make turns.

Houston has been a world-class city for a while now. (Mattress Mac said it well in his Christmas Day Chronicle ad.) But the light rail is a very expensive, unfunny joke.

Kev said...

Oh, and one more thing:

"Put up the buildings first, then see where people walked. Wherever a straight line was worn into the grass, they put a sidewalk. So now all the sidewalks go *exactly* where you want them to."

This is how it's been done at my alma mater, the University of North Texas. Some of the original sidewalks went places where people didn't necessarily want to go, so many of the students said "screw it" and walked on the grass. Eventually, after a well-worn path appeared, the university succumbed to the obvious and built a sidewalk atop the path.

PatCA said...

Here in LA, our newest "light rail" which is really just a big bus, is getting broken in.

Crash Course in Transportation.

Kev,
Did you ever walk up all three stories in one of those lofts? I hope you're in good shape!

Simon Kenton said...

The Denver light rail tools past, empty of riders but full of our self-congratulation on being environmentally conscious. Economically it is a total loser, but much of modern urban life irresistibly reminds one of an addict's thinking: nobody is using it, so we're going to build more. It doesn't start where people are, or stop where they want to get off, but now it will have spurs for more people not to use.

When it was first started, lots of drunks in cars got into turf wars with the trains. This came out, of course, the way it works out when the occasional rutting bull moose in the north country challenges a log-train engine.

The solution - hand me the envelope, please, Vanna - was Education. The solution to so much is Education. They actually put billboards on the trains' sides urging the drunks not to drive in front of them. And after a while the collisions abated. Don't tell me those drunks aren't docible. Especially don't tell me they darwined out. So you guys in Houston can advocate for a billboard campaign on your choo-choo, and when you've planted the susceptible drunks, can claim a huge public relations success.

Kev said...

"Kev,
Did you ever walk up all three stories in one of those lofts? I hope you're in good shape!
"

Actually, our town center only has two stories, and all the upstairs space is strictly offices (the lofts are coming in '07, and I'm pretty sure they'll have elevators). And it's funny you mention fitness; I walk around the entire "streetscape" of the town center on pretty much every day that I don't get to go to the gym. I'd never do that at a conventional mall; I'd be the youngest person doing that by three or four decades, and besides, walking through a(n admittedly contrived) small town of sorts is much more interesting than doing so in an enclosed space.

onelmom--You mentioned the Metro transit passes. I have to pass along this funny anecdote: My parents, being over the age of 70, get free Metro passes "for life." The only trick is, they expire after three years! My folks wondered what kind of a message Metro was trying to send there...

Verification word: "dpdwgums." If the M had been an N, it could have been the "Dallas Police Department with guns"--makes sense. (One would hope the officers would also have gums.)

Palladian said...

"Still, it'd be cool if all those soulless suburbanites moved to fashionable lofts in major cities"

Their kids certainly have... been to Williamsburg, Brooklyn lately?

Henry said...

We're progressive: we don't really want anything to change.

That's dead on. It's the new Feudalism.

knoxgirl said...

If all the people who extolled the virtues of public transportation actually took the bus every now and then, it'd be a different world. The truth is, they don't want to anymore than anyone else!

Townleybomb said...

"Kev,
Did you ever walk up all three stories in one of those lofts? I hope you're in good shape!"

There are few things that make me gladder to be an urbanite than hearing some tubby suburbanite whine about how epic some minor physical exertion (walking a mile, for example) is.

somross said...

I haven't read Bruegmann book, although I'd better do it double-quick. I have, however, met him and given him a quick tour of downtown Naperville, Illinois, (a quintessential suburb)and have hired him as a speaker at our college in Feb. For the record, although I'm an English prof. I spent 10 years on the Plan Commission of our city, the last 5 as its chair as it grew from about 85,000 to about 125,000 in population. I like both city and suburb and recommend the book "Suburban Nation" also as a new way to look at the burbs. I've just returned from a trip to Spain and Morocco, and if you want to see a different kind of urban environment, visit the medina (walled city) in Fez, which is less than 400 acres in size, dates back a thousand years, and has an immense population: we were told over 300,000 although I think it's really a lot less.