So, finally, here it is. After nearly two years of thinking about this work, the final copy is in. Is it the grand culmination of all my urban knowledge? Well, no. But I think it is a rather good synthesis of my thinking about cities, about Denver, after a summer of research and a year of trying to realize what that summer meant.
Check out this video from the ULI Placemaking Conference about the deficiencies of Englewood City Center, the first TOD in Metro Denver.
Just wanted to make sure that this was up here on the blog: the presentation I gave at Mellon Forum on January 26, 2010.
Also, the video I used: http://ecards.aecom.com/dencity/
I post this to remind everyone that I am indeed still working, although it was not easy to see for the past few months, as my attention has been diffused among many shifting priorities. This semester, especially the next two months, will be laser-focused on this thesis. I finished a statistical analysis of the DRCOG Who Is TOD? Business Survey on Christmas Day, had a couple of days rest (and saw Avatar), and then got back early to Yale to continue work.
I am working right now going through over 100 academic articles in a variety of journals, and will integrate all of this into a much better literature review than has been thus far. I will be talking with DRCOG in the near future to secure better sat imagery to finish my GIS analysis of different predictors that I have been looking at (traffic counts, street connectivity, and density). Then, I will finish writing anecdotal perceptions (based on my summer and fall interviews), and hopefully crafting all of this into a focused piece of work by the end of January (really, my goal is my birthday), with revising and editing afterwards.
I think I might be getting more skeptical about TOD as THE solution, and will be arguing that real transportation behavior shifts will require a suite of implementation and some large-scale transformation. But never have I felt that changing our human habitat to a more sustainable path is more important that I do now. We are talking about making the places we live resilient to whatever comes next: human creations that are both the synthesis of all we know and the best home we can make for everyone in our short time here on Earth.
I met today with an economic development official in the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, and was pleasantly surprised when we started talking about industrial land, and where she was directing manufacturers that wanted to come to the area. Denver manufacturing is apparently on the upswing, especially when it comes to renewable energy related products. For example, Vestas, the huge international wind turbine maker, has three plants in Colorado.
Industrial land is not something normally thought of by urban planners, who like thinking of mixed-use residential, office, and retail, hopefully clustered around transit stops. Industrial uses are always… well… somewhere else. You know, China or somewhere. So, industrial land is often converted into residential and commercial zoning, and once shifted, will never be shifted back, less they anger nearby residents. It’s a one-way street, one that she referred to exclusively as “downzoning.”
Anyway, it seems ironic that envisioning a sustainable metropolis does not take into account manufacturing, even for wind turbines! I am not sure what the solution is, because modern industrial uses require large floorplates and access for freight, two things incompatible with most New Urbanist visions. However, addressing these issues will be necessary.
For now, as central cities like Denver convert industrial land into space for residences and offices, new factories manufacturing sustainable products are being placed in the most unsustainable places, on the periphery of the metro area requiring long travel distances for these workers. Truly ironic.
I am turned off by very prescriptive notions of land use planning and code. Good planning should be an enabling framework for strong and equitable urban growth, both economically and in quality of life. Urban policy makers should strive to make sure connections stay open and – to the greatest extent possible – that the region is blended.
Eliminating acidic divisions and pockets of deep poverty should be the goal of urban planning; creating the infrastructure needed for everyone to participate in the economy. To the extent that this is not facilitated by private market forces, and we have seen that enclaves of like-minded people predominate, urban planning should be enabling these connections to take place. Divisions – such as the racial and city/suburb divide in Metro Detroit, are inefficient for the overall economy, limiting the benefits of urban agglomeration and stifling prospects for productive economic growth. The goal of a good urban region should be to create a place that is welcoming to the world, as well to all of its own citizens. There of course will obviously be inequalities and divisions in a capitalist society, but the most successful areas will mitigate these issues by constructing an enabling infrastructure (transportation, educational, economic, and recreational) that binds the region’s populace together; this is the way that the greatest urban synergies and economic growth can take place.
Denver has succeeded on many fronts in doing this, and the city/suburb divide is almost non-existant. FasTracks will only serve to further integrate the metro region.
I’ve now spent two weekends in Kansas City, and this weekend was a fun one. Starting after work on Friday, I went over to the AMC Mainstreet Theatre in the Power and Light District, to see the mega-blockbuster “Transformers 2,” which was altogether very mediocre, although I still enjoyed going to an “event movie.”
Saturday was initially going to be time for me to get the Focus (a name should be forthcoming, watch out for a blog post to that effect) checked out (have its transmission and steering fluids replaced, as was recommended when I bought it). Anyway, I woke up too late, and they said that they probably wouldn’t get to my car that day. So, that left me with a free Saturday. I mean, free Saturday! I decided to go and visit Lawrence, KS and see the college town. The drive was pretty short (about 45 minutes along K-10), and all in all seemed awfully similar to Ann Arbor (smaller, though). Funny how college towns are pretty much the same no matter where they are. This one was definitely representing its University of Kansas Jayhawks.
Rock Chalk Jayhawk.
Anyway, so I went strolling up and down Massachusetts Avenue downtown, checking out the stores. I left at about 4:00 pm, and drove south into Kansas farmland. Flat. But actually not as flat as I thought. Turned left, drove into Johnson County and back into its sprawl, and the start of the KC Metro. Got home and baked some frozen pizza.
Today, I went for a walking tour of my neighborhood (Brookside) in Kansas City. I went to see one of the big parks just a couple of blocks away: Jacob Loose Memorial Park. I sat by a fountain and read a couple of chapters of Dune (I’m at page 217). I then started south (like yesterday, I guess) into Brookside (the quaint commercial district at 62nd and Brookside where I buy my groceries at the Price Chopper. I continued south, joining up with a well-maintained trail, and walked to Waldo, at 75th and Wornall, another commercial district. I rode the MAX back to my place at 53rd Terrace and Brookside, and then went for a quick drive out south (again) into the exurban fringes of KC, down by Belton and Raymore. (I think I’ve explored all the growth corridors now.)
Anyway, sorry about the quick telling of all this: I really need to get to bed, but thought I should at least get this off my chest.
The first week in Kansas City is winding to a close. I think I am finding the character of this area, its spatial contours and its cultural barriers, and generally like the metro (as they call it themselves). I think this weekend will be a further test of this, since I will be exploring the Plaza and Westport for the first time, two of the most interesting urban core neighborhoods.
The suburbs are perhaps easier to classify and understand. For three days now, I have gone exploring after work, getting a feel for the various suburban frontiers in Kansas City. Overland Park and Johnson County to the SSW is obviously the most affluent, with McMansions interspersed with corporate office parks and a plethora of retail options. The county is interesting especially because, as you drive down Metcalf, you can clearly see each wave of suburbia, from immediate postwar, to split-level 60s and 70s to office tower 80s to subdivision and strip mall 90s to the faux new urbanism/neotraditional architecture of the most recent development. To the east lies more working-class suburbs, in the areas of Independence and Blue Springs. I haven’t really been to the west and north yet, but will keep you posted.
I have gone through a quite interesting evolution in metropolitan thinking this week, though, but I think I am in a good place now to push forward with research efforts (more on that later). My first drive led me to conclude something about suburbia that really makes sense, which is that suburbia is the physical representation of an ideal capitalism, of discrete products operating in a context where each can be autonomous, anonymous, and complete. As such, it is a very simple system, and, as with all habitats, simplicity means fragility, compared to a system that is complex and robust. It is very easy for decline to cascade through suburbia, and only the affluent suburbs age well, since they have the resources to maintain this huge built environment. Working-class, and even middle-class, suburbs age less well, and once the gleam fades from a new strip mall, the edges fray quickly.
It perhaps made perfect sense for us to experiment in this way of building cities over the past 60 years. Our affluence, unparalleled in history, compelled everyone to take hold of aspirations at the same time, and the new suburbia offered an amazing choice for an exciting new life. It was novel, and a whole generation latched onto that version of “The American Dream.”
But maybe, as Christopher Leinberger suggests in “The Option of Urbanism,” we’re simply bored with this mode of living, and of having no other real choice. It seems like we stand at a crossroads on how and where we live and work and society. Beyond all the buzzwords of the “creative class” and the “information economy,” we have a choice on how we build the habitat in which we live. Do we want to live in meaningful communities of quality places, or are we fine living in products dictated by the simple formulae of capital markets? How do we want to live in the future, and should we invest (because we certainly have the money) in doing it right?
I don’t think we can really let this pattern of metropolitan growth continue, because of a host of problems it has created, namely social isolation and persistent residential segregation, increased CO2 emissions, oil and auto dependency, and inefficient infrastructure outlays. The status quo is unsustainable based on a variety of metrics.
Obviously we do not all want to live in high-rise apartments, nor should we. A wealthy, advanced society should provide the most choice as possible for all members in society, a choice of house, apartment, or condo, a choice of many transportation modes, and a choice of geography. Choice is a linchpin of democracy, and our society would function better with even more of it. There need to be cities with freight and industrial parks, perhaps still autonomous and connected to the world economy, with healthy, vibrant cores with a diverse population, of leafy suburbs for families with kids, of suburban centers that provide a variety of housing options – metros whose wealth of services is accessible to anyone and everyone.
We need to have a habitat that makes sense, an infrastructure for living, and places that are home. A human habitat that respects and interacts with the other animals’ habitats around and within ours. Especially with the profound economic transformations and technological changes that lie ahead, society cannot have anything less, and the market must have the mechanisms to provide for it.
Providing for this future habitat, by cataloguing some of the places that can be leveraged to make it happen, is the point of my summer research. Determining how transit improvements are linked with land use changes is the exact focus of my senior essay, as well as what kinds of nodal networks make the most sense.
We can build the lasting cities of the future, cities that provide a healthy structure through which society is made better and technological innovation is unleashed.