Tag Archives: Urban Growth

Planning Naked | March 2017

Planning Naked | March 2017
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

Your (hopefully hilarious… but not so much this month) guide to most everything about the latest issue of APA’s Planning Magazine

NOTE: The United States of America inaugurated Donald J. Trump as its 45th President on January 20, 2017 and, in response, Planning Magazine turns the crazy up to eleven.

Making Joseph Goebbels Proud. “Placemaking as Storytelling” by James M. Drinan, JD (From the Desk of APA’s Chief Executive Officer, pp. 3) contains some disturbing language. Drinan points out, “Research shows that coupling stories with data produces a significant increase in the retention rate of that data.” Basically, he is correct. However, it is important to clarify Drinan is not precise. FYI: Never expect precision from a lawyer because you will always be disappointed. It is more accurate to say that using data to better tell a story about an objective truth is an excellent means of increasing retention about both that story, the data, and the truth. It reinforces the objectiveness of both observer and the observed. Using data loosely to reinforce a lie is propaganda. This is a nuanced but important distinction. This is because Drinan goes on to state, “it is crucial to control (our emphasis) the narrative-the story.” This is a defensible position for a propagandist but not a scientist. Drinan (perhaps unintentionally) reveals he is discussing politics and propaganda, not scientific truth when you consider what he manifestly fails to say in a subsequent sentence. The key is the citation of planners as storytellers, authors, illustrators, and editors. What is missing? The answer is scientists. This ‘frontpage editorial’ is one of the most disturbing things I have read in Planning Magazine in years because it advocates for the very thing it pretends to be against. This is the insidious nature of the status quo reasserting itself against change. Forewarned is forearmed. NOTE: Having now read this, I am angry with myself for leaving this March 2017 issue of Planning Magazine sitting unread on my desk for two months. The previous months’ issues lulled me into a false sense of security. My mistake…

OMG! And I am only on page eight. “Federal Tax Credit Uncertainty Puts Affordable Housing at Risk” (News Section, pp. 8-9) by Dean Mosiman – a Madison city government reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. RED FLAG, RED FLAG: Scott Walker is evil incarnate – contains some really bad reporting as Planning Magazine embarks on Drinan’s explicit promise to attempt to ‘control’ the story. First, it assumes a reality that is non-existent. “For 30 years, federal affordable housing tax credits have been the nation’s most potent tool to create housing for the homeless and low-income households.” Really? Have you been to Los Angeles lately? This bastion city in a bastion state of the Democratic Party has one of the worst, most despicable, and most shameful homeless problems I have ever seen in the Western world over the last three decades. It makes me sick to my stomach just thinking about what I saw and smelled in L.A. Everyday, there is another article in the mass media about an overwhelming lack of affordable housing in cities around the world including the USA. The tax credit is not a potent tool but a failed one. According to the article, the tax credit “had a major impact on the nation’s housing stock, helping create 2.8 million affordable units nationwide.” The use of ‘major’ here is shameless hyperbole and the ‘helping create’ means there might be an indirect benefit but not direct causation. Of course, these 2.8 million units were most likely woefully insufficient to replace the smaller (in square footage), more affordable historic housing stock demolished by public and private agencies during the same period. This news article is about one thing: fear that the pigs might not be able to eat at the government trough in the near future. Then, at the end of the article, the author implicitly concedes this is fear-mongering by stating the tax credit “is likely to survive.” Nothing to see here, folks, move on home! This is ‘fake news.’

People Matter. Planning Magazine ‘buries the lead’ with the “Miami Street Experiment Prioritizes People” by Susan Nesmith (News Section, pp. 9-10) by discombobulating the story across two pages, which is bad editing and bad graphic design. It makes you wonder what APA has against putting “people over cars” and “slowing traffic (with) no big gridlock.” The experiment is over but the “fancy crosswalks” remain: really, fancy crosswalks? Fancy? It is a good thing I have plenty of hair to pull out. This experiment and the subsequent attempts for a more humanistic redesign of this Miami boulevard is something that Planning Magazine needs to herald and promote, not deride as some quaint idea. Is this a failure of Ms. Nesmith’s writing or the editors of Planning Magazine? Perhaps both. I am not sure.

In ‘Do No Harm’ News. “Remaking Vacant Lots to Cut Crime” by Martha T. Moore (News Section, pp. 10) is an interesting story about a low-cost, temporary solution for vacant properties in urban conditions; as long as people and agencies understand it is not a long-term solution. All in all, however, I like the concept.

Beware of Florida Lawyers Bearing Gifts. This months’ Legal Lessons section (“Staff Reports: A Lawyer’s Take by Mark P. Barnebey, pp. 11) is one of those standard-type of articles Planning Magazine re-runs every 3-5 years due to new, young professionals entering the workforce. I remember reading the last two iterations of this article about staff reports (respond the young people, “He must be really old”). Barnebey’s article is fine for this purpose though he undersells just how influential of a role the staff report can play in quasi-judicial decisions by elected officials, if carefully constructed.

Strike that. Reverse It. Welcome, Florida Lawyers Bearing Gifts. However, having said that, the more advanced state of staff reports in Florida – due to their quasi-judicial nature associated with the 1985 Growth Management Act and subsequently, Mr. Barnebey’s greater experience with the best of such staff reports – starkly contrasts with the next article, “The Better STAFF REPORT” by Bonnie J. Johnson (pp. 20-24). Allow me to state more simply the point that I believe Dr. Johnson is attempting to convey: the best staff reports combine: 1) well-written content with 2) well-designed visuals and 3) promptly get to the point. Like most planners, Dr. Johnson’s article manages to fail on all these counts. Johnson does not even seem to know her audience for this article (i.e. there are lots of different types of planners and staff reports) so she makes the mistake of trying to address ALL possible audiences. The result is inadequate for everyone. The graphic design of this article makes the content even more confusing. I mean it is really, really bad but hardly surprising. In my experience, most planners are woefully under-trained in the art of graphic design. I do not know if this is the fault of Dr. Johnson or Planning Magazine but, seriously, reading this article gave me a fucking headache.

Meanwhile. “Here comes the Sun” by Charles W. Thurston (pp. 25-29) is the type of article you get from professional organizations nearly four decades after a nation abandons nuclear power.

The Blood Pot Boils Over. But what really gets the blood boiling is Planning Magazine: 1) makes the preceding article the subject of this month’s cover (see above) instead of this article ‘buried’ at the end of the feature articles, “Life and Death Every Quarter Hour” by Jeffrey Brubaker (pp. 30-33); and, 2) seems blissfully unaware of the contrasting traffic fatalities data in this article (35,092 death in 2015) compared to the article about wildlife crossings, i.e. 200 fatalities associated with collisions with wildlife. That is right. This month’s Planning Magazine dedicates twice as many pages to an issue involving 6/1000th the number of traffic deaths. Worst still, the subtitle of this article claims “mixed results” for what is a complete failure. Finally, at the end, Planning Magazine adds a “The opinions expressed in the article are his own” (meaning Mr. Brubaker) disclaimer. God forbid that anyone might think APA and Planning Magazine are anti-automobile. And the thing is, Mr. Brubaker’s article is mild. It does not go nearly far enough in pointing the profession’s hypocrisy on this issue. Here is the gist: in 60 years, nothing has changed. There is still a death caused by vehicular traffic every quarter hour in the United States.

That is it. I cannot take any more of this month’s issue. I may have to stop reading Planning Magazine in the best interests of my health because you would not believe the migraine headache I have right now. Shame on you, Planning Magazine. The best article this month was written by a Florida attorney.

Planning Naked is a series of observations and comments about a recent issue of Planning: The Magazine of the American Planning Association.

Share the knowledge!

FROM THE VAULT | The Ideal Communist City

ideal-communist-city-v2“The physical planning of the new city reflects the harmony and integrated nature of its social structure. A unified planning approach assigns to each element a role in the formation of human environments.”
– The Ideal Communist City

The Ideal Communist City by Alexei Gutnov, A. Baburov, G. Djumenton, S. Kharitonova, I. Lezava, and S. Sadovskij (Moscow University), Translated by Renee Neu Watkins, Preface by Giancarlo de Carlo

First written during the 1950s and translated from Italian to English in 1968, The Ideal Communist City (1968) is very much a product of its time. This does not only mean the ideological struggles of the Cold War (Capitalism vs. Communism… SPOILER ALERT! Capitalism won). It also means the symbolic height of propagating and implementing the principles of Modernist architecture and planning around the world. The principles discussed in The Ideal Communist City are merely a reformulation, repackaging and, yes, redistribution of these same ideas found in the new towns model (referred to here as the “New Unit of Settlement or NUS”) of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-morrow, housing models of Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM), and Harris and Ullman’s multi-nuclei theory in collusion with Euclidean zoning/modern transportation planning, which conveniently tells us almost any urban function can be randomly inserted almost anywhere in the city as long as ‘incompatible’ land uses are segregated.

New Unit of Settlement (NUS) diagram from The Ideal Communist City
New Unit of Settlement (NUS) diagram from The Ideal Communist City

Of course, the key difference is the authors’ explicitly state the failure of these ideas to “reach their full potential” in Western societies is due to the corrupting influence of capitalism as a political and economic system. This is a conceit that has been badly exposed with time. If anything, capitalism more ruthlessly exploited the economic potentials of Modern ideas by taking them to their logical and, ultimately, extreme conclusion; probably more so than even most devoted CIAM architect ever imagined. The real danger about The Ideal Communist City is that younger readers (Millennials and generations thereafter) without any first-hand experience of the Cold War might make the mistake of thinking they are reading something original and entirely different because it’s wearing Soviet-era clothing. However, it is the same, tired planning paradigm we have been hearing about and (unfortunately) living with over the last 80+ years. To be fair, another key difference in this book is the desire of Soviet-era planners to adopt a model that segregates land uses from one another while still actively promoting manufacturing, mass production, and industrialization. Younger readers might also think this represents a somewhat unique perspective from the point of view of architecture and planning. However, it is really only evidence of Soviet preoccupation – even obsession – with Western societies’ manufacturing prowess at the time. In this sense, Soviet failure to compete with the success of Western capitalistic societies contradicted the ‘means of production’ arguments underpinning Karl Marx and Frederick Engel’s The Communist Manifesto and Marx’s Das Capital; that is, direct evidence that communism was a flawed political and economic system based on totalitarianism masquerading as a false ideology

Having said all that, The Ideal Communist City is an important historical document that anyone interested in town planning should probably be exposed at some point, as long as the book is placed within its proper context for readers, especially post-Cold War ones. There are, in fact, relatively few flights of fancy in this book; the most amusing one being the common idea in science fiction that cities will eventually be covered by climate-controlled plastic domes (see Featured Image of this post at the top). The authors’ statistical projections of urban populations are way off, hilariously so. Early in the book, the authors project that 75% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by the year 2000 when it fact we only passed the 50% threshold in the last decade (due to the corrupting influence of capitalism, no doubt). The model of the NUS stretches believability despite the authors’ best – though somewhat halfhearted – efforts to address accommodating population growth during the transition period between one NUS being occupied and the next one being constructed. This is because these Soviet-era planners ultimately have a static view of the city. In hindsight, one might fairly argue the communist NUS model has already been better implemented and realized in cities such as Milton Keynes in England, the Pilot Plan of Brasilia in Brazil, or perhaps even some areas of America Suburbia, despite the problematic nature of such places as extensively discussed elsewhere in the literature. In the end, the Ideal Communist City is perhaps best at asking some interesting questions about cities but the answers provided are all too familiar and depressing to seriously contemplate. As Christopher Alexander famously said, “a city is not a tree.” It seems the same is as true for communist cities as it ever was for capitalistic ones. In the end, human nature is always more pervasive than any political ideology.

ideal-communist-cityThe Ideal Communist City by Alexei Gutnov, A. Baburov, G. Djumenton, S. Kharitonova, I. Lezava, and S. Sadovskij (Moscow University), Translated by Renee Neu Watkins, Preface by Giancarlo de Carlo
Hardback, 166 pages
1968, Boston: George Braziller, Inc.

You can download a PDF of the full book for free here.

From the Vault is a series from the Outlaw Urbanist in which we review art, architectural and urban design texts, with an emphasis on the obscure and forgotten, found in second-hand bookstores.

Share the knowledge!

Life, Liberty, Happiness: the need for heroic planning | Blab

CURJCoWWIAAi_Lo.jpg_largeThe Outlaw Urbanist, Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, will participate in online broadcast with Don Kostelec of Kostelec Planning this Monday, November 23, 2015 at 8:00 pm EST titled, “Life, Liberty, Happiness: the need for heroic planning,” hosted by Andy Boreau of Urbanism Speakeasy.

The content is pretty wide open though it will tend to focus on what is wrong with our current development practices. We will be able to answer your questions and, hopefully, have a pretty good debate.

You can subscribe to the broadcast on Blab here.

Share the knowledge!

10 Blogs We’re Reading… well, keeping an eye on

10 Blogs We’re Reading… well, keeping an eye on…
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

We say ‘reading’ but really it is ‘periodically checking in on’ because there is way too much content to keep up with everything on the web. We have over 30 newspapers and online journals from the United States and Europe alone bookmarked for daily review! The Outlaw Urbanist is backlogged over a year with interesting news articles we have saved for re-posting on the blog. We are only now (very slowly) beginning to diligently work our way through this backlog. In the meantime, we encourage you to visit these blogs (in no particular order).

1.  Clusterfuck Nation by James Howard Kunstler
Now archived on www.kunstler.com but still worth a periodic visit. He is on Twitter but not much so you can follow @Jhkunstler.

2.  The Original Green and StudioSky Blog by Steve Mouzon
Mouzon is on Twitter a lot but his feed ebs and flows, you can follow .

3.  The Power of the Network by Tim Stonor (Twitter: @Tim_Stonor)

4.  The Pure Hands by Dr. Nick “Sheep” and Professor Ruth Dalton
You can follow Sheep on Twitter and Ruth . He is on Twitter more often than her.

5.  Tiny House Blog by Kent Griswold (Twitter @kentgriswold)

6.  Failed Architecture by Michiel van Iersel et al out of Amsterdam (Twitter @FailedArch)

7.  Spatial Disjunctures by David Jeevendrampillai
(UCL Research Student whose blog has gone quiet for over a year but we hope returns soon)

8.  Urban Formation or Mapping Urban Form and Society by Dr. Laura Vaughan
Professor of Urban Form and Society at UCL, whose blog has also gone quiet for six months… we’re all very busy these days. Laura tends to be on Twitter more than most and she often actively engages in interesting discussions via her feed @urban_formation.

9.  Moser Design Group by R. Eric Moser (Twitter @Moserdesign)

10.  Urbanism Speakeasy by Andy Boenau
We’re not sure if this qualifies as a blog since it is a podcast series… perhaps an audio blog. Andy is a active participant on Twitter .

PoorRichardv2_FrCoverPurchase your copy of Poor Richard, Another Almanac for Architects and Planners (Volume 2) today!

Available in print from Amazon, CreateSpace, and other online retailers.

Available on iBooks from the Apple iTunes Store.

Available on Kindle in the Kindle Store.

Share the knowledge!

The City’s Essential DNA | Mark David Major

BS_figure_03Form and process in the urban pattern: (left to right) grid expansion, block size manipulation, deformation, street extension, and discrete separation.

The City’s Essential DNA
by Mark David Major, AICP, BA, BA, MSc
Founder, The Outlaw Urbanist

Email:               mark@outlaw-urbanist.com
Web:                 www.outlaw-urbanist.com
Twitter:           @OutlawUrbanist

NOTE: This is a shorter, punchier, reference-free version of “The City’s Essential DNA: Formal design and spatial processes in the urban patterns”, which appears in Volume 4, Issue 1 of The Journal of Space Syntax, 2013, pp 160-164, ISSN: 2044-7507. It was prepared at the request of a Planning Department for their academic publication but they decided to pass on the article because it was “too technical”.

Our descriptions of cities are often based on their physical form. In urban theory, the description of ‘organic’ and ‘regular’ cities is one of the most persistent and useful. The first stresses process over time in terms of unplanned growth whereas the second on conscious design. This ‘shorthand’ provides a basic understanding of cities across different times, cultures, and geographical regions, which is useful precisely because they are theory-loaded terms. They seemingly convey a lot of information in an easy-to-grasp manner. Regular explicitly describes physical form and the design process that gave rise to it. Organic explicitly describes process over time in terms of urban growth, tacitly understood such cities tend to be characterized by deformed grids. The explicit and implicit description of urban form and process is the basis of their descriptive value since most cities are easily classified as having common or different attributes when characterized as organic or regular. There have been frequent attempts to develop better terminology. Utilitarian, deformed, surface order, neutral, offset, gridiron, radial, uniform, homogeneous, undifferentiated matrix, sprawl, geomorphic… the amount of jargon is enough to give anyone a headache. However, describing urban form as deformed or regular is also theory-loaded since cities are characterized in geometrical terms. The key is the incidence or deficiency of a readily apparent geometry in the physical composition of streets and blocks in plan. American cities tend to possess such geometries so they are regular grids. European or Middle Eastern ‘organic’ cities appear to lack such geometries so they are deformed grids. Others have defined this as the difference between composition and configuration to better distinguish between how we view the city (static form) and how it works (dynamic process). Composition is an easy-to-grasp, understand-all-at-once description and configuration is a more complex view of relations amongst elements that potentially affect urban functions. This distinction is often confused or misunderstood, inevitably leading us to a theoretical dead-end.

At a detailed scale, the Urban Transect specifies this distinction between form and process in the design of the street itself for those transitioning from Euclidean zoning to form-based codes. Several formal elements (street width, road sections, building footprints, landscaping) are tied to functional uses (density and intensity). If cities are interfaces between scales of movement, as suggested by John Peponis at Georgia Tech, then the Urban Transect creates an idealized model of this essential urban dynamic of form and process for the design of streets to better classify it for application in form-based zoning regulations and streetscape design. Duany and Talen’s explanatory diagram of transect planning specifies a geometric logic (all urban streets connect at right angles) but the applicability of transect planning for types of cities seems readily apparent. What varies from one city to another is geometry and scale as realized in the layout. The true brilliance of transect planning is, the more it is applied in real world conditions, then the less tenable becomes the roadway classifications of modern transportation planning. Those beholden to the dominant 20th century planning paradigm should beware of New Urbanists bearing gifts.

BS_figure_02Andres Duany and Emily Talen’s The Urban Transect

Transect planning is largely silent about generating an urban pattern above the level of the street, leaving this to the design sensibilities of the professionals. This appears to leave a gulf of understanding between the urban whole and the street itself. However, this is precisely where the essential dynamics of form and process as it impacts on urban functions are realized in cities. Hiller and Hanson argue in The Social Logic of Space the physical arrangement of space “has a direct relation – rather than a merely symbolic one – to social life, since it provides the material preconditions for patterns of movement, encounter and avoidance which are the material realization – sometimes the generator – of social relations.” New Urbanists have been basically arguing the same for thirty years. In everyday practice, this becomes complicated because we tend to view and design space in discrete terms, independent of a larger geographical, topographical, and/or urban context. In doing so, the importance of design in establishing the material preconditions for our everyday use of urban space is often minimized, misunderstood, or even ignored.

Our design decisions in generating the urban pattern are important. For example, it is in this realm that an important (and little discussed) distinction arises between intra-connectivity (street connections within the bounds of a site) and inter-connectivity (street connections between bounds of different sites). Historically, intra-connectivity has been strongly realized in New Urbanism developments but inter-connectivity weakly so. We cannot simply leave design of the urban pattern to the (varied) abilities of professionals and hope for the best. We must identify and understand it so we can intervene better and smarter. If we focus on the static and dynamic relationship between form and process, composition and configuration, in the design of the urban grid, a basic set of design decisions having formal and process implications for urban space can be identified.

We could describe this as the essential DNA for all types of cities. There is grid expansion and deformation, whereby the urban pattern expands in a consistent manner or else deforms in relation to some external factor, usually topography or land ownership patterns. In regular cities, deformation usually occurs whilst still adhering in some manner to the basic conceptual order of the existing urban pattern but in different cardinal directions. In organic cities, deformation tends to occur during up-scaling of the urban pattern to relation to its ever-growing edges by introducing more geometrical order in the layout. There is street extension, whereby an existing street is extended in one of both directions. In regular cities, this tends to occur as a straight-on continuation in adherence to the conceptual order of the regular grid. In organic cities, this tends to occur as an open-angled continuation, which generates its distinctive deformed grid pattern. Street extension is also the primary tool for strip development in the growth of linear and crossroad settlements, especially during the early stages of community growth, of which Las Vegas is probably the most famous example. The most easily recognizable form of the essential urban dynamic is block size manipulation.

PrintPhiladelphia, Yesterday and Today: Philadelphia urban pattern in 1682 (left) and today (right) within bounds of William Penn’s original 1682 plan.

The dynamic nature of block size manipulation in our cities can be easily seen in a side-by-side figure ground representation (blocks in white, space in black) of Philadelphia yesterday and today. There are two remarkable yet seemingly contradictory things about this comparison. First, is the degree to which the original block scheme of Penn’s plan has changed, principally through a process of block subdivision and, second, is the degree to which the integrity of Penn’s original plan concept has endured despite hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small- and large-scale interventions over 330 years. Finally, there is discrete separation by linear segregation of streets. Street connections are either broken (as in American suburban sprawl through interruptus in extremis) or complicated (as in Middle Eastern cities by narrowing street widths to generate labyrinthine-like but still well-connected layouts) to isolate (usually residential) areas in the urban pattern.

These design methods can be found in the urban pattern of all cities. The spatial processes associated with formal design tend to converge on the ortho-radial grid model. This is a prime example of what Carvalho and Penn mean, saying “the impact of local controls on growth… is, at most, spatially localized… at a macro level, cities display a surprising degree of universality.” In fact, the essential variation across different types of cities appears the scale of street lengths and connections tied to their degree of geometrical articulation; longer, more connected and expansive in regular cities primarily using right angles whereas shorter, less connected, and more compact in organic cities using open and right angles. In the end, cities are not so complicated; rather, it is our theories that tend to complicate our understanding of them.

figure_7.8The Urban Pattern: Istanbul, Turkey (left), Paris, France (center), and New York in the United States (right) (Note: not to scale)

Based on excerpts from forthcoming Relentless Magnificence: The American Regular Grid by Mark David Major.

Share the knowledge!