Utopian writers and the creation of the America West

O, my America, my Newfoundland, My kingdom, safest when with one man mann’d

John Donne, To His Mistress Going to Bed, (1654)

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Engraving of Amerigo Vespucci awakening a Native American from her hammock slumber (Johannes Stradanus, circa 1615)

The future of America had often been writ into the imagination of frontier settlers long before their emigration. In fact, Utopian writers used America as a stage for their writings so frequently that the land’s history is often conflated with the stories of its fictional pasts (and futures) — as a palimpsest from which multiple visions of futures are derived.

After the Civil War, these fictions took on a near fervent ideological bent; from Edward Everett Hale’s Sybarist and Other Homes (1869), and William Dean Howell’s A Traveler from Altruria (1894), to perhaps the most profoundly influential novel — Edward Bellemy’s Looking Backwards: 2000-1887 (1887).

This last novel spurred a revolution of sorts in American politics. By the early 1890’s the adherents of the novel, those who worked to realize the future-America envisioned in the science fiction book, had formed a network of Nationalist Clubs that spanned the American continent — and poured resources into the formation of a new third party on the national stage, the People’s Party (or Populist Party). By the 1892 Presidential Election, the People’s Party had garnered the electoral votes from six western states — fully carrying Kansas, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho. In fact, Idaho had a Governor from the People’s Party, a U.S. Senator, and two U.S. congressmen (James Gunn and Thomas Glenn 12). In 1898, Idaho itself had become the subject of another Utopian work of fiction, Francis H. Clark’s The co-opolitan: A Story of the Co-operative Commonwealth of Idaho (writing under the masculine pen name Zebina Forbush). In this novel Ms. Clark borrowed heavily from the actual settlement history of the, then, four year old community of New Plymouth, Idaho (which she renamed Co-opolis in the novel). Her story is set thirty years in the future (1927) — and it recounts how the cooperative commonwealth idea found its highest and best expression in Idaho, leading to a nation-wide socialist revolution.

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Still from Fritz Lang’s silent film, Metropolis (Model-maker/Set-designer Walter Schuzle-Mittendorf, 1927)

By 1975, a nearly dormant world of Utopian Science Fiction once-again emerged with a seminal work once-again written on the pages of Western America; with Ernst Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston. The novel is set in the year 1999, and is a compilation of newspaper reports and personal diary entries of the hard-nosed New York reporter William Weston (a character whose name serves as an homage to the protagonist in Bellemy’s Looking BackwardsJulian West). Weston is the first American reporter permitted to enter the break-away nation of Ecotopia in the 25 years since its succession from the Union (it being composed of the former states of Washington, Oregon, and the area of Northern California — with the city of San Francisco serving as its capitol). Callenbach uses the novel to introduce the somewhat radical notion of an entire country whose economy and urban forms are based off the principals of ecological sustainability. The book has been cited as profoundly influential to both the Green Movement and the advent of Eco-socialism.

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Concept painting of San Francisco in 2048 as an Ecotopia for the film, “The Fifth Sacred Thing” (Jessica Perlstein, 2012)

“Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous, agonizing process, with no end. Struggle forever.”

Kim Stanley Robinson, Pacific Edge

Perhaps the most significant Utopian Science Fiction writer today is Kim Stanley Robinson, starting with his wonderfully written set of novels covering three separate possible futures for the same spot of western America — Orange County, California. In the first novel, The Wild Shore (1984), Robinson explores the oddly Eden-like world of a quiet fishing village in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Then, in a jujitsu-like move, Robinson introduces a radically different future in his second book, The Gold Coast (1988), where the area’s economy is mired in defense industry contracts and the urban landscape is dominated by automobile-centered autotopia. In his third book, Pacific Edge (1990), Robinson returns to a type of ecotopian future envisioned by Callenbach. In this novel, although the protagonist (Kevin Clairborne) is an architect/builder who converts old “dead” buildings into communal homes with integrated biological components and heuristic control systems, the primary focus is on the problems the character faces as he steps onto the local city council and is faced with a potentially environmentally damaging development proposal.

“We are here to inscribe ourselves on the universe, and it is not inappropriate to remind ourselves of this when blank slates are given us.”

Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312

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The Return to Abalakin: Part 1 (Alexander Preuss, 2006)

More recently, Robinson has written another Utopian work of fiction, 2312 (2012). In this novel humanity has spread throughout the solar system, bringing with it every conceivable type of settlement pattern. Not only has Mars been terraformed (part of the same universe created by Robinson in his Mars Trilogy), but Venus is in the middle of a monumental conversion — and a great number of asteroids have been converted into Space Habitats; which have been given differential orbits through the inner planetary system allowing them to be used as a type of interplanetary mass transit system. Many of these asteroids carry within their hollowed out cores entire biomes: African Savannas, Amazonian Jungles, Alpine ecosystems — each carrying their unique animal and plant species; flora and fauna now extinct on a future polluted and radically climate changed Earth.

I think cities are important because they are so densely populated…and I think that a lot of city life is fairly paleolithic in a strange way because it gets away from the automobile. Cities encourage face-to-face interactions with other individuals, so I like it for that. And I think that rooftops need to be used for urban gardens and that cities need to be greened, less for the auto and more for people and public transit.

Kim Stanley Robinson

As part of a lecture series for the Museum of Modern Art (“Speculations: The Future is___.”), Robinson has been pulling together the various strands of his Utopian writings and launching into a public discussion about climate change and the unique role cities, and urban planning, will play in reversing the environmental degradation associated with such apocalyptic shifts. He has also been speaking out about economic shifts, at least as tectonic as the climatic shifts we’re experiencing. In particular, he’s been musing over the inherent flaws of Capitalism and what a post-capitalist world might look like. Here Robinson traces Capitalism to its Feudal roots and in so doing, brings its connection back to the American West — with its dominant European settlers having striven so valiantly to free themselves from political and economic serfdom.

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Boise Skyline at Dusk (Talo Pinto, 2011)

As an American writer whose novels are often set in the American West, Robinson knows we are not oblivious to the deep connections between our imaginations and our communities. As a Science Fiction writer he is surprisingly open about the limitations of technology, and about how we often abuse our intelligent manipulation of energy and material to craft far too unreal fantasies.

We see these contortions in our western world every day; from large-scale gated communities (where the wealthy residents attempt to sequester themselves from the vagaries of poverty) to the squirrelly activities of Doomsday Preppers (who seem to be rooting for the collapse of society itself). In the midst of this, Robinson strikes an amazing balance between hopefulness and caution — about our common past and our shared future.

Related articles:

A “Small Community” within the Community?

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Boise City Comprehensive General Plan (City of Boise, 1963)

“In the consideration of residential areas, the neighborhood is usually considered to be the basic unit. It is generally conceived of as a small community within the community having more or less homogeneous physical character and interests. The preferred pattern for a neighborhood centers about the elementary school site and play area and is designed to be free of unnecessary vehicular traffic.” (Boise City Comprehensive General Plan, 1963)

I suppose we’ve all read words very similar to the above statement, in a myriad of comprehensive plans and general use plans from communities throughout the united States. And Boise, Idaho is not unique in its inability to achieve the lofty goals of a true “community within a community”. Today, in places like Seattle, Fort Worth, and Arlington, such a vision is most often couched as a desire for urban villages.

Let’s take a moment to look at Boise’s 50-year history attempting to make such urban places, and perhaps there are lessons to learn from this singular case study.

In the Beginning

In 1963 Boise, Idaho launched an ambitious effort to craft a community-wide comprehensive plan, and (for the first time) adopt a zoning ordinance that would govern all land uses within the city’s jurisdiction.

Within three years the planning effort was complete, and the new zoning ordinance was adopted. There were three volumes to the plan documents: 1) a comprehensive plan which included a city-wide future land use map and a detailed map showing the complete reconstruction of the city’s downtown business district, 2) a volume containing all the planning research and administration documents, and 3) the new land use-based zoning and subdivision ordinances. Although these plans were quite forward-thinking compared to the state of the planning profession in Idaho during the early 1960’s (the State itself would not obligate cities and counties to craft similar planning documents for at least another decade), the plans for the community’s new neighborhoods were based on principals that had been first espoused over three decades earlier — based upon sociological precepts which were already beginning to receive considerable criticism within the planning profession.

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Boise Neighborhood Plan, (Boise City Comprehensive General Plan, 1963)

The above image was offered as a typical new neighborhood for the city. The plan indicates an area roughly 640 acres in size, bounded by thoroughfares representing the major section line roads that the plan called to be widened and extended. A large commercial complex would be located at an intersection of these thoroughfares, while a phalanx of higher density apartment buildings would buffer the commercial area from the remainder of the lower-density single-family detached housing development. This wall of apartments would then turn inward, forming a corridor of higher density-housing leading towards the center of the new neighborhood. At this center we see two elements; first, the apartment corridor terminating at a new public school and second, a significant amount of new and/or preserved Open Space with both trees and a water course cutting diagonal across the entire neighborhood.

Where did this idea come from?

This diagram compares favorably to the Neighborhood Unit diagram created by Clarence Perry, in his 1929 Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs (see below). Comparing the two diagrams, the similarity is striking — the perimeter retail, the centralized school, the bordering higher capacity roadways, even the internal collector roads into which the local residential streets feed.

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Neighborhood Unit Diagram (Clarence Perry, 1929 Regional Plan for New York and its Environs, Cornell University Library Rare Manuscript Collections, Accessed 3/4/2014)

While both the Perry and Boise diagrams indicate a centrally located school, the former indicates a number of neighborhood-oriented uses to accompany that school, including churches and a public facility. And, while the latter indicates a similar amount of green space, it is essentially rural in character with only one delineated “park” — the rest of the open space would be “wooded”, replete with a “stream” (which, in Boise’s arid climate, could only be either an irrigation canal that would have serviced the former farmland, from which the new neighborhood would be have been carved, or a similar farmland drainage lateral).

All of the open space illustrated in the Perry diagram represents improved parks, bounded by roadways that would provide access for residents. Further, all of the homes in the Perry diagram would be located within a block of one of these parks, while in the Boise diagram nearly half of the residents would live more than a 1/4-mile from any form of open space (and access would be far more restricted, being provided only at the small number of intersecting local streets).

How are these two ideas really different?

What’s most striking though is the difference in scale. The Perry diagram indicates an internal radius of 1/4-mile, and while the Boise plan does not provide any type of scaling map element, its implied internal radius is a full 1/2-mile (since the section line roads, indicated by the bounding thoroughfares, are one mile apart). So, while the majority of residents in the Perry diagram would live within a quarter-mile of retail shops (easily reachable with a five minute walk), the majority of residents in a new Boise neighborhood would live over a half mile from the proposed commercial land use. It’s easy to see that the framers of the Boise plan did not intend their residents to walk to retail but to drive, graphically evinced by the large areas of dedicated parking surrounding the new shopping area.

“As Perry’s theory evolved and was modified, many of its enthusiastic adherents began to ascribe rather “mystical” powers to it. These new powers largely reflected a nostalgia for rural living.” (Jerrold Allaire. American Society of Planning Officials. Information Report No. 141. December 1961)

This is not to say that the Perry diagram represented the most advanced thoughts on how to craft neighborhoods. In fact, the proponents of the diagram were already under siege from a number of quarters. The chorus of Perry critics had been growing so loud that by 1960 (three years before the Boise planning efforts were launched), the American Society of Planning Officials issued a detailed report discussing the drawbacks of Perry’s Neighborhood Unit and offering some corrective measures. Chief among those critics was Reginald Isaacs who, as early as 1948, had been publicly stating that Perry’s concept of the neighborhood had become a planning tool used to institute racial, ethnic, religious and economic segregation. Others felt that the Neighborhood Unit was itself a straightforward attempt to modularize suburban development, leading to a generally monotonous character.

“From Atlantic to Pacific and from Canada to Mexico, the basic Perry neighborhood unit, with only minor modifications, has served as the development module. The formula is simple, and the result is tidy, perhaps too tidy. As too often happens through the use of a modular system, the end products are so standardized as to become almost undifferentiated. Thus one might feel just as at home, or just as lost, on the curvilinear streets of a “Desert Mesa” in Arizona, at the neighborhood super-shop in a “Prairie Estates” in Illinois, or in the centrally located elementary school in a “Rolling Meadows” in Pennsylvania.” (Jerrold Allaire. American Society of Planning Officials. Information Report No. 141. December 1961)

What did these differences mean to Boise?

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Boise Neighborhood (Notes by Author, Google Earth image, Accessed 3/6/2014)

The above image shows one of those neighborhoods (located within the West Valley Neighborhood Association). It has a centrally-located elementary school, an adjacent (singular) city park, while the Settlers Canal and its adjacent gravel pathway (running through the neighborhood’s northwest quadrant) fairly-well mimics the initial plan’s “wooded area with stream.”

All in all, the new neighborhoods that emerged after the 1963 plan was adopted were significantly compliant with the vision outlined in the 1963 diagram. While the plan had purported that the Boise population would reach an incredible 110,000 residents by 1980, it had (in fact) attained a population of just over 102,000 — which was a fairly accurate prognostication, given that the 1960 census (the last census conducted before the planning process was initiated) listed the city’s population at just over 34,000 residents.

But as you delve deeper into the 1963 documents, an internal inconsistency emerges. On pages 13 and 14 of the Comprehensive General Plan, discussion is given to what was termed Neighborhood Commercial uses. This type of commercial use is broken into three categories:

1) Shopping Centers (located at major intersections, as delineated in the neighborhood diagram),

2) Ribbon Commercial Development (located along thoroughfares), and

3) Corner Grocery or Convenience Stores (located within residential neighborhoods).

This last category is most dependent on foot traffic, and in Perry’s diagram the 1/4-mile service radius would place the majority of retail shops within easy walking distance of a large majority of the neighborhood’s residents.

“The corner grocery stores, frequently of the type known as the “ma and pa” store, are located in almost every neighborhood in Boise City. To a large extent they cater to walk-in trade, provide a convenience to the neighborhood, and generate little vehicular traffic. The curb parking provided is usually adequate.” (Boise City Comprehensive General Plan, 1963)

Perhaps the area covered by the Boise neighborhood diagram made delineating the presence of these smaller, walk-in, “ma and pa” commercial activities troublesome, but when their diagrammatic absence is paired with the proscriptive language of the land use zoning ordinance written to support the General Plan some light is shed.

None of the newly called for residential land use zone categories (R-1A, R-1B, R-1C, R-2, or R-3) permitted any kind of commercial activity beyond some limited home occupations, and only a severely restricted set of personal service businesses could be permitted via a conditional use permit — no food or grocery services were to be allowed under any circumstances.

The lack of pedestrian-accessible retail uses, as well as the increase in the scale of the neighborhood (from 160 acres to 640 acres), and the relatively restricted open-space access, all contributed to the creation of an automobile-dependent neighborhood environment. And while much advertising space was given over during the build-out of these new neighborhoods to their rural-like freedoms and conveniences (access to wooded areas, model homes with “farm kitchens”, sometimes even near-by working farms, etc.), only but the first few home buyers were able to enjoy these rural-like settings. As the larger former farm-lots were further subdivided and zoned for residential uses, these emerging neighborhoods lost their rural character. And, due to the inadequate accommodation for neighborhood/pedestrian retail activities, they also grew into sterile residence-only environments.

What’s the take-away?

Perhaps the two most significant opportunities for refinement, for any community contemplating the development of “urban villages” (communities within a community), is to ensure the scale of each neighborhood is appropriate, and that there are amply opportunities and regulatory encouragements to develop and maintain small scale neighborhood commercial and personal service uses.

As professional planners we must not conflate the political artifacts of neighborhood association boundaries (often created by residents’ opposition to some proposed new development, or social justice issue) with a true neighborhood. Such places are often no larger than 125 acres; an area that one can walk across (from edge to edge) in no more than 10-minutes, and which has a distinct architectural and social character.

Lastly, the advent of mixed-use zoning can help resurrect the small neighborhood-oriented commercial uses that have been excised from our communities through the instrument of conventional single-use land use codes.

The Curitiba Experiment

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Grafite em Curitiba (Photo: Fernando Rosa, January 18, 2013) http://alturl.com/8dzyq

How would cities look if urban planners, not politicians, were in charge?

Recycle City: The Road to Curitiba (New York Times, May 20, 2007)

Planning from the Outside

The long history of the city of Curitiba, in southern Brazil, demonstrates that it is perhaps the most heavily planned city in the western hemisphere. The layout of the original town, like many such colonial developments in the Americas, had been heavily influenced by the Laws of the Indies — a set of precepts from the 16th Century that dictated much of the governance of Spanish and Portuguese land holdings; which included rules for town planning. And, though Brazil gained independence from Portugal in the 1820’s it’s various cities were still governed by many of the land use laws inherited from its former European ruler.

Even 250 years after its founding (and 120 years after Brazilian independence), Curitiba’s first true Master Plan was still developed, not by locals but, by the French architect and sociologist Alfred Agache in 1943 — a Beaux-Arts trained architect who was a leading theorist, teacher and practitioner of the Société Française des Urbanistes (SFU).

 “Planning – as we have often said in our conferences – is both a science, an art and a philosophy; A science because it proceeds from the systematic review of the facts based on a detailed study of the pasts of cities and their characteristics. The Planner’s next step is to investigate the causes of development or discomfort; and finally, only after a specific detailed analysis, is it possible to provide for the required improvements for the future development of the city. Observation, classification, analysis and synthesis — all required characteristics of a scientific study. ” … “But if science alone could solve the problems of city planning, urbanization could undoubtedly be reduced to a number of formulas. It is not so. Urbanism is also an art because the intuition, imagination, and composition play an important role in its application: the Planner must translate into proportion, volumes, perspectives, silhouettes, the various proposals suggested by engineers, economists, public health concerns and financial constraints.” … “Urbanism is also in the field of social philosophy — The city, in fact, seeks to achieve plastically the appropriate framework for the existence of an organized community.” Alfred Agache, 1932

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Alfred Agache’s plan for Curitiba (Alfred Agache, 1943) http://tinyurl.com/lvssvbm

Agache’s plan for Curtiba was profoundly influenced by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept, borrowing the following elements:

  1. A Central Railway
  2. A Perimeter Avenue
  3. Interstitial support avenues
  4. A Central Railway station located on the Perimeter Avenue
  5. A main avenue leading from the Central Railway station to the City Center.
  6. A series of parks located beyond the city, and
  7. A peripheral greenbelt Park Avenue that would connect all the city parks.

Agache’s plan assumed a maximum population for Curitiba of no more than 900,000 people, all residing in buildings constructed to be between six to eight stories in height. Understandably, this would have resulted in a fairly compact city.

This time around, the plan would be local-grown.

Even though the town’s population had only reached 430,000 by 1960 it had already outpaced the land area envisioned in the Agache Plan (essentially by growing less densely).  Spurred on by residents’ concerns over the loss of easily accessible green space and the loss of the city’s unique character, in 1964 the mayor of Curitiba (Ivo Arzua) issued a call for proposals for a new plan for the city.

This time around, the initial plan was prepared by an energetic group of local professionals led by Jaime Lerner — a 27 year old local who had just graduated from architecture school. The following year, Learner help form the city’s first-ever planning department, the Institute of Urban Planning and Research of Curitiba (abbreviated the IPPUC in Portuguese). Over the next few years the Lerner-led IPPUC refined the initial plan, readying it for the city’s adoption in 1968.

This new, local plan for the city lead to nothing less than a revolution in urban planning.

If you want to make life better for people, make the cities better for people.

Jaime Lerner

Video: How a Brazilian City has Revolutionized Urban Planning

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRD3l3rlMpo

This new plan more fully integrated transportation planning and land use planning, as well as tying social welfare programs for some of the poorest residents to the development of the city.

Transportation as the backbone for sustainable practices

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Curitiba’s Trinary Road System (IPPUC, accessed 2014) http://tinyurl.com/n79qt3b

By 1974 the reorganization of the city’s road system into a new hierarchical network was implemented; this included the formation of a radically new road type — one whose central component is a mass transit spine. Unlike similar network systems in the United States and elsewhere, where the lead position in such a hierarchy is the limited-access Freeway, in Curtiba the position is held by the Sistema Trinário (or, Trinary Road System). These five trinary road corridors, radiating outward and encircling the city, are actually composed of three parallel road sections. The two outer roads are for local vehicles and pedestrians (serving as a paired one-way couplet) while the central road is a wider road section composed of two outer one-way streets and an inner two-directional street reserved exclusively for bus mass transit.

The picture below shows the development surrounding the central spine road of one of the Trinary Road network.

Trinary Road Spine Development (Photo: Joel Rocha, 2015)

This full-integration of transit accommodations in the road design itself allows the buses running along the central spine to operate at a level of efficiency similar to that of rail transit.

It’s asserted by proud Curitibanos that if you miss your bus, you have to wait all of 90-seconds to catch your next ride.

In less than 20 years, this Trinary Road System, with its integrated Bus Rapid Transit System, was expanded to cover the entire city.

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Evolution of Curitiba’s Transportation System (Jonas Rabinovitch and Josef Leitmann, 1993)

Curitiba’s BRT was constructed at a cost of only $200,000 per kilometer, nearly 450-times less than the cost of a new subway, and it transports 2.3 million passengers a day, not bad for a city with a population of 1.75 million.

With such success, Curitiba’s BRT system has heavily influenced the development of similar transit systems throughout the world.

Video: Curitiba’s BRT: Inspired Bus Rapis Transit Around the World

https://player.vimeo.com/video/12499536

Other Sustainability Efforts

As part of the municipal plan, the city has pushed other sustainability efforts. These include a dramatic increase in the amount of green space per resident, and some innovative efforts like the “garbage that’s not garbage” program that trades fresh vegetables for trash brought in for recycling.

Even Bill McKibben, the American environmentalist, has written about the environmental and social successes of Curitiba.

The Downside of Success

Although the city has undergone quite a renaissance since the adoption of its own locally grown plan, there have been some recent setbacks.

The Atlantic Cities blog recently published an article titled, Has South America’s Most Sustainable City Lost Its Edge?, which highlights a recent 4.3% decline in BRT ridership, and emerging failure to more fully integrate its suburbs into a more coherent regional plan.

Stefan Gruber, the Austrian architecture and urbanism professor, has written that the city’s more paternalistic attitude towards its citizens (and resultant lack of democratic outreach) has hobbled the city’s ability to elicit a sense of civic responsibility among its residents.

Conclusion

As American towns struggle to implement sustainability and livability measures, Curitiba’s frugal example of putting the needs of the people first in all its planning efforts is worth emulating.

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Curitiba as Vita the Turtle (Jaime Lerner, 2006) http://alturl.com/6gvqo

While the city does loose marks for its comparative lack of democratic input from its citizens (compared to other Brazilian cities), the IPPUC does engage in extensive outreach as it develops its plans (far more than most U.S. cities).

From its focus on social, environmental, and transportation improvements — all through the lens of free enterprise (its BRT system runs with very minimal government subsidy) — Curitiba may provide the best example for growing towns throughout the American West.

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Downtown Curitiba (Photo: Francisco Anzola, February 3, 2010) http://alturl.com/jbqk7

When is it okay to fail?

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Aerial Vignette – Katy, TX (Salon des Refusés, illustration by author)

As I ponder the flooding throughout south Texas this season, I recollect a New Urbanist design competition I had the good fortune to help propose a while back. One specific focus for this proposal was to show the unique stormwater management benefits of truly traditional urban development patterns.

In 2010 I was a member of an ad hoc design team backed by the environmental groups, Sea Grant Texas and the Texas Coastal Watershed Program. We pooled our resources in order to create a conceptual project for a design competition — for a piece of land in rural south Texas.

Called the Low Impact Development Design Competition, it was sponsored by the Land / Water Sustainability Forum of Houston, Texas. The purpose of the competition was, “… to develop a residential neighborhood with the look and feel of a master planned community in a market area where no other community of that type currently exists.” — that is, a Greenfield development project. But, unique to this project was its requirement that all design proposals demonstrate a reduction in storm water run-off from the pre-development 5-year, 10-year, and 100-year storm event. A laudable goal, to be sure, especially in a part of the country racked with significant soil erosion during its frequent torrential downpours.

Our team included a number of excellent designers, an out-standing civil engineer, and a number of urban activists. And yet, we knew we had no chance of winning the competition. Our conviction was so sure, we named our team (and our proposal) the Salon de Refusés — for we definitely felt our design was outside the bounds of the “Académie”.

Why we intentionally set out to fail

The competition organizer provided a set of plans for the proposed site; including the full 640 acre section’s plat survey, an earlier proposed Conventional Suburban Development (CSD) scheme, and a set of target housing typology criteria for the proposals. Interestingly enough, the organizer referred to their CSD concept as a Traditional Design — despite it presenting nearly every aspect of conventional suburbia, replete with embarrassingly low target parcel densities (with an average residential parcel density of 3.8 homes per acre). To put this figure in perspective, the average household density required to support a descent transit service is 7 homes per acre. To provide a little background on what CSD looks like, here’s a brief summary of the development type put together by the design firm Dover Kohl & Partners.

Conventional Suburban Development:

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Meridian, Idaho (Google Earth image, accessed 2015)

1. Dispersed form with no distinct edge, disturbing the majority of the site’s buildable land;

2.Single-use pods, containing one kind of lot and building type in each (e.g. office parks, residential subdivisions, and strip shopping centers);

3. One way in and out of each pod;

4. Garage doors and garbage pickup facing the street;

5. Large blocks with irregular shapes and cul-de-sacs;

6. Open space in the residual “left-over” land between pods and around regulated wetlands; and

7. Strip shopping centers with big box retail and large parking lots between buildings and the street.

One other aspect of the organizer’s site was its massive 142 acre dedication to the local school district, on which would be built a very large high school, equally large junior high, and an elementary school. Now, I’ve written before about the inherent problems associated with large-scale schools — and the type of urban pattern they induce. But, the Land / Water Sustainability Forum would not permit any competition entrants to propose any alternative use for that 142 site, let alone any alternative configuration for the schools.

What we chose to design was contrary to almost every intent of the organizer. 1) We proposed a fundamental change to the proposed schools, 2) We proposed a housing typology that would actually support transit service, and 3) We proposed a pattern of development that was an integrated whole unto itself (without the dependencies typically demonstrated by conventional suburbia, i.e., bedroom communities).

So rather than this:

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Ventana Lakes “Traditional” Design (Land / Water Sustainability Forum of Houston – 2010)

We proposed this:

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Salon des Refusés (Competition Entry – image by author)

We took the 142 acre school site and proposed, instead, to build upon it an entire village. The village would not only still have a high school, junior high, and elementary school — but it would accommodate 1,480 homes (300 more than the organizer’s mandate) at an average density of 11.8 homes per acre. These homes would be built over a wide typology of forms (single-family detached homes, townhouses, and apartments). It also would have churches, a village square, pedestrian oriented commercial operations, even a grange for the local farmers and community members. The remainder of the site would support nearly 500 acres of truck and hand farms that would grow a substantial amount of the food consumed within the village.

And, oh, the entire site’s stormwater discharge (the Gold Standard for the competition’s selection panel) was zero. That’s right, not a single drop of stormwater would leave the site. This was not simply a reduction in discharge, as requested in the competition requirements, it completely eliminated all discharge.

How was this possible? In addition to our greatly reduced footprint, all the streets in our design were to use pervious pavement which would allow a portion of the stormwater to infiltrate the ground — and all the street profiles included a landscaped shoulder swale that would simultaneously convey excess stormwater toward a recreated wetland (while cleaning the runoff via biofiltration) and permit further infiltration of the stormwater.

And yet, as we suspected, our proposal was resoundingly rejected by the Sustainability Forum’s selection panel.

So why do it?

Our goal had always been to start a conversation about appropriate urban forms, and place-specific design. We were able to touch upon a number of community design subjects even Sustainability experts tend to ignore — and do so within a forum in which these experts were to be gathered.

In a way, this design competition became the perfect sounding board to critique a number of flaws that arise when organizations isolate their interests from each other.

Not only did we have the opportunity to highlight these subjects within the confines of this small competition, we took the conversation to the national level. After the competition, we took our proposal and submitted it to the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) for review as part of its annual Charter Awards recognition process. Fortunately for our purposes, the CNU granted our proposal a national Charter Award for our design.

We were able to take this award back to the Land / Water Sustainability Forum and its selection panel and re-engage in a substantive conversation about true sustainability.

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Village Center View (Salon des Refusés – illustration by author)

Only through continued effort, even in the face of detractors, will it be possible to change the world in a positive way.

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I’m a (yawn) Planner

I hate to say it, but planning is so… well… boring.

“Duller than the dinner party bore” (Gareth Dunlop, http://www.fathom.pro/blog/2010/03/duller-than-the-dinner-party-bore/)

This isn’t to say planners themselves are boring people — though I’ve known a few who could put a meth-fueled gorilla to sleep with their talk of tax-increment financing and the fine points of inter-agency coordination.

Just one tired gorilla (Magic and Marvels blog, 2013 - http://magicandmarvels.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/justonetiredgorilla/)

Just one tired gorilla (Magic and Marvels blog, 2013 – http://magicandmarvels.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/justonetiredgorilla/)

No, planning seems to have wrapped around it a cloak of social invisibility. Maybe this is due to a lack of perceived cool-ness by the glitterati, or an unwillingness among practitioners to engage in a bit of socially relevant boat-rocking — but regardless, the profession has all the avant garde qualities of a meatloaf dinner at grandma’s.

Why can’t we be like architects?

Architecture, as a profession, is a bit different. Architects carry a certain social cache — people lie about being architects.

George Castanza as Art Vandelay, Architect (Seinfield,

George Castanza as Art Vandelay, Architect (Seinfield, “The Race”, 1994)

I don’t know anyone who lies about being a planner.

Yet Architecture, perhaps because of its cool-ness, has a personality problem. There’s a huge discrepancy between what actually goes on in an architecture firm, and what society thinks is going on. The public thinks most architects design beautiful buildings, have impeccable taste, live in gorgeous homes, travel to exotic locations, and make tremendous amounts of money (or, if they’re “poor” it’s because they’re choosing to suffer for their art). The reality is a quite a bit less glamorous; with careers choked with project schedules, pay applications, specification editing, and a myriad of management issues that leave most architects wishing they had switched majors when they were in undergraduate school.

But… there is a certain amount of success that comes with perseverance, and those architects who do succeed feel a kind of cultural pressure to justify their success by sponsoring and supporting more socially relevant work. So we see efforts like Sam “Sambo” Mockbee’s Rural Studio at Auburn University’s School of Architecture. The Rural Studio dedicates itself to providing architecture students a hands-on working experience as they design and build community-oriented projects in several poor counties in rural Alabama.

Also, there’s the DesignBuildBLUFF  program at the University of Utah’s College of Architecture. DesignBuildBLUFF provides an opportunity for architecture students to design and build sustainable architecture on a Navajo reservation; with an eye towards graduating more compassionate architects.

And then there’s Cameron Sinclair’s mothership of compassion, Architecture for Humanity. Architecture for Humanity serves as a type of clearing house that connects professional architects, designers, and contractors with communities in need; taking the position that “design is the ultimate renewable resource.

What we in the planning profession tend to lack are comparable outlets for our creative energies. Where are the university-based community-oriented efforts? Where are the connections to our under-served populations?

Is Tactical Urbanism cool?

Maybe this is why Tactical Urbanism is so popular in planning programs these days. Is it an effort to make planning as relevant as the planning students, and social activists, feel it should to be?

And maybe… just maybe… worth lying about at a dinner party?

To be clear, there are precious few academics pushing the subject of what Jaime Lerner calls Urban Acupuncture — and even fewer professional planners (lest they risk violating their AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct)

B2. We shall not accept an assignment from a client or employer when the services to be performed involve conduct that we know to be illegal or in violation of these rules.

B25. We shall neither deliberately, nor with reckless indifference, commit any wrongful act, whether or not specified in the Rules of Conduct, that reflects adversely on our professional fitness.

(AICP, Our Rules of Conduct)

But, for many reasons, it’s hard to draw equivalencies at the level of the profession between fully-supported academic programs like the Rural Studio and grassroots efforts like Tactical Urbanism. And, unfortunately for most planning students, such efforts are rarely led or initiated by professional planners.

But here’s the point — do most of us really need lessons on being a decent human being?

Isn’t planning, with all its homely charm, simply the act of being decent to each other?

Guy Guy Greg - Public Planner (http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/288059-good-guy-greg)

Guy Guy Greg – Public Planner (http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/288059-good-guy-greg)

So yeah, I’m rockin’ the boring.

Let me regale you with my ideas on tax revenue expenditures, on the finer points of public open space strategies, and the pernicious problems of urban sprawl.

Let’s go seed bomb an abandoned lot, paint an “illegal” bike lane, and share our stories about how we protested outside a public hearing.

Or while we’re working on the next bit of hacktivism with Code for America, building an app that’ll help kids catch their school bus or make it easier for folks to find the closest healthy food store, let’s discuss better ways to craft a long-range regional transportation plan. Maybe, we’ll push for broad municipal participatory budgeting, or work on a new mixed-use neighborhood plan.

How you doin'... I'm a Planner.

How you doin’… I’m a Planner.

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How to have fun as a planner

I was lucky enough to serve up a heapin’ helpin’ of sarcasm this last April Fool’s Day.

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The neighborhood converted into a multistory shopping arcade.

When my local weekly paper, the Boise Weekly, contacted me in March about a proposed article that would run on April 1st. I was happy to lend a hand. The article, titled “The Changing Face of Hyde Park: An iconic Boise neighborhood morphs into a shopping complex” would report on recent development efforts to change a beloved local historic district – loved by cyclists, neighbors, and preservationists.

The writer would publish under the pseudonym Roberta T. Axidea Ph.D, and I would provide the illustrative sketches to lend an air of authenticity to the story. My colorized contributions would be listed as coming from the Palo Alto-based architectural firm of Birdwel/Caar Meta-designs. This fake firm that was to coin the development’s name, “Hyde Park Commons: where neighbors come to see neighbors” – as original as any of the names created by this random real estate subdivision name generator. For those old-schoolers so inclined, one can simply insert the name of the thing the development will obliterate and add a glowing adjective: Happy Glen, Green Meadows, Sunshine Creek, etc., etc., etc.

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The proposed development (in the background) connected to the local park and hiking trail by a new urban gondola.

The fake project showed how the ersatz developer was buying up properties with an eye towards converting the district into a shiny new, suburban-like lifestyle center – replete with vaguely familiar sounding “local” retail outlets and historic pastiches.

hydepark04_color_update

A local shop co-opted to sell curios to hipsters and wannabes to promote their uniqueness.

What neither the author nor I expected was the hue and cry from locals. When the story was published it generated a considerable number of calls into the community’s development services department from citizens voicing their opposition to the project.

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A beloved cafe and brewpub re-branded as an outlet to sell sunglasses.

Neighbors promised to launch a petition and conservationist rallied to protest the developer’s business. Even a professor teaching in the local university’s planning department expressed outrage over the “author’s” supposed bona fides. Soon, the story was picked up by other news agencies, and the Twittersphere erupted with comments.

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A local cobbler, a business dating back to 1863, re-envisioned as a tennis shoe shop.

Only a few realized the connection between the publication date and the story.

The following week, the paper’s editor felt compelled to issue a statement that the whole story was a hoax. Well, it was fun while it lasted 😉

River by Design – Essays on the Boise River

I was fortunate enough to contribute a chapter to a new book that will be published in June 2015.

River by Design

For those interested in reading the book (published under Creative Commons, by Boise State University), here’s the link to the Dropbox folder:

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/8um90jjpb8lfh9h/AACLjbLPngj7lqu01Im5djIVa?dl=0

My chapter (also in the folder) is titled, Daylighting Caldwell. It’s an example of solid local leadership implementing urban renewal, but with a great range of public participation. The community was able to counter FEMA’s flood hazard determination and successfully create a new urban riverwalk, through the daylighting of a long-forgotten creek.