New Media Workshop

new-media-cover-416Today I will be attending the New Media Workshop hosted by by friend Steve Mouzon. This workshop will be jam-packed with the latest New Media know-how! Follow my tweets today to see what we are are working on.

I would encourage you to read through my review of Steve’s book New Media for Designers and Builders.

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Voting Results

20130416-070526.jpgIt’s November and we are now recovering from the barrage of marketing telling who and how to vote. Over the coming days, there will be an abundance of political pundits who will ad the tea leaves and tell us what to think. As urbanists we need to rise above this.

Urbanism is not a Red or Blue issue. Urbanism is a neighborhood issue. We must remind ourselves as we wade through the political talk that will fill our airways.

Urbanism requires a long term vision that must outlast the changing winds of our legislative branch. Our cities will outlast this month’s vote. Our cities will even outlast all of yesterday’s voters.

Regardless of your political view, urbanists need to focus on a community’s values and not a single issue or politician. Yesterday removed one variable in our work. Now that the votes are counted, we know the name of who we need to work with within our government.

As a Restless Urbanist, there are many issues running through my mind that we must tackle in our cities. In addition to a clear vision, we also need partners. I encourage all of you to reach out to the newly elected.

Take the time to share your passion, and the vision for your neighborhood with the elected. You will be surprised that Politicians are people to, that they also live in your community, and that they want a better future for their constituents. You just might be amazed at how they can help to support your community’s vision.

We watched a tidal wave of red roll across the map last night. It is no surprise that I lean to the right which I promise to share what it means to be a conservative and an Urbanist in a future post. I also work in a Red state in a very conservative community.

Over the past five years working in my community, we have been able to implement a wide variety of projects and policies that support compact, walkable, urban development. This is just one case study that illustrates that Urbanism is not a Red or Blue issue; Urbanism is a neighborhood issue.

I challenge all of you to start knocking on doors and share you passion for your community with the newly elected.

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Trunk or Treat

IMG_2333I love Halloween, and I want to reflect as I pick through Eddie’s holiday spoils. Now that the Son of the Restless Urbanist is old enough to understand that if you put a pumpkin basket in front of an adult you will get candy, the holiday takes on a new meaning. I am already a big fan of the costumes, the candy, the frights, are all great, but this is not why I love this holiday. Halloween is an opportunity to meet your neighbors, and walk your streets.

I know I mention this every year, but this ghoulish ritual cannot be under estimated. It is even more adventurous with a 20 month old that can run is dressed as a monkey. Trick or Treat is a great opportunity for all of us knock on our neighbors’ doors and to take a moment talk to talk to your neighbors.

This year we dressed Eddie up, pulled out the red wagon and went on our way. As we left IMG_0031that house, I am reminded how unfortunate that communication with your neighbor becomes a holiday novelty such as peeps at Easter, or lights at Christmas. This is just one of the results of the great suburban experiment.

Our neighborhood is composed of seasonal retirees. On Halloween, the majority of non-retired are working, and the seasonal have yet to arrive. We also do not have very many children on the community, so we needed to seek an alternative. This is how we were introduced to: Trunk or Treat.

For those of you that do not have kids or live in a walkable neighborhood, let me explain this suburban celebration.

A Trunk or Treat is where people gather and park their cars in a large parking lot. They open their trunks, and pass out candy from their trunks. Many times, people will decorate their cars, or dress up themselves, i believe to conceal the asphalt jungle. Trunk or Treat is promoted as an event that provides a safe family environment for trick or treaters.

Trunk Or Treat is very troubling and on the verge of offensive to me. This new Halloween tradition is used as an alternative to going door to door in your neighborhood trick or treating. Have we really given up on our own neighborhoods, and conceded that it is unsafe to gather with your neighbors?

This year we took Eddie to our first Trunk or Treat. I first want to say that this was a wonderful event hosted by one of the churches in my community. It was safe, full of kids, and packed full of activities. It was also the only activity in walking distance to our house where we could communally celebrate Halloween.

I had to step back and think about this event. As the Restless Urbanist, I am really uncomfortable with this event. Are we really supposed to feel safe in the asphalt playground that we all have to drive to? Are the trunks of our cars more inviting then the front door of our house? Outside of Trunk or Treat, we go to great lengths to keep our kids away from stranger’s vans?

I want us to start asking some really tough questions. Why are our neighborhoods so unsafe, that our children cannot walk the street or talk to their neighbors? If two hours of community celebration is dangerous, what about the 365 days of time a year you spend in your neighborhood?

I grew up in the suburbs, and Trick or Treating was a special time in my community. All of our neighbors would lock their cars up for two hours in their garages and give the streets over to the children of the neighborhood. Even the police would pull over their cars, and walk with the kids. For over two hours, our neighborhood streets filled with people.

Halloween in my suburban neighborhood was like an Open Streets Project before Open Streets was cool. There are no excuses why we cannot take back out streets and enjoy our communities on Halloween.

My sister has recently moved back into my childhood neighborhood with my niece and nephew. These traditions are occurring still to this day in the neighborhood, and now the Fire Department has joined in. She shared some great pictures showing her children playing on a Fire Truck, and the fire fighters passing out candy.

I share all of this with you because Trick or Treating is not place based. It is people based. My community is the one with the better Walkscore, but the worse Trick or Treating. This celebration takes the whole community to make it successful. It is one of the many layers and markers of a great community.

I trust that all of you had a safe and fun Halloween. Share your stories from the Trick or Treat that took place in your community.

Posted in Advocacy, Children, communities, Erfurt, Holiday, Son of a New Urbanist, Walkability | 3 Comments

Engineers Have Lost Their Purpose

Interchange-1778Engineers enjoy working on unrealistic grand visions. I want to continue to discuss the Myths of Development and Planning. In my first post, I shared the two myths that are commonly at the core of poor development. In the second post, I shared this from the perspective of the planner. Today, I would like to describe these myths through the perspective of the Engineer. More specifically, I want to share this perspective from the transportation engineer.

Every community no matter how large or how small has a transportation engineer, who is advising and directing the future of your community. Your community’s transportation engineer is possibly the most powerful person in you community, and is someone you need to know.

Transportation engineers have the key to the pocket book of our cities. I am amazed at the grand respect that transportation engineers receive in our cities. There is no other profession or government department that can walk into a public meeting, make billion dollar recommendation, and walk out as heroes.

Engineers are also immune to many of the realities the rest of us face in planning cities. They can promote the construction of new bigger and faster roads to justify the transportation model which projects exponential growth in car trips, and at the same time may obliterate walkability. They can gold and platinum plate every pipe or curb, as if this infrastructure will never degrade or become obsolete over time. Finally, the biggest of all is that all of this can be done in the present without ever accounting for the   expense of the maintenance of these projects.

Let me illustrate this in a different way. You own a 1999 Ford Torus with over 150,000 miles on it. Out of the blue, your car’s mechanic calling you up and offering to put the latest seats in your car that offer anti-fatigue features, heat, and lumbar massage. These are great features, and will allow you to drive more miles because you will be so comfortable. The problem is that you really need to replace your ball joints which are at risk of failing on your 1999 Torus. The mechanic explains that even though the seats cost more then the needed ball joint repair, there is a factory rebate on the seats and he will reduce his labor costs to install the seats. You only have enough money for either the seats or the repair. The mechanic Recommends the seats over the repair, because of the rebates and reduced labor costs. You chose the seats at the Recommendation of the professional mechanic.

A day later, you pick up your car. The seats are the best seats you have ever sat in before in your life. You can imagine the hours you can now spend behind the wheel in comfort. As you pull out of the mechanic’s shop, you turn the corner and you hear scraping metal. You pull over and you find that the front ball joint gave out and your car is immobile.

You call your mechanic with great concern. The mechanic responds simply and says,  despite your car not being able to to move, you are siting on the best seats available on the market.

This parable is completely absurd, and you probably said that I know better then this. Unfortunately, we do not know better because this is what is happening everyday in our cities under the direction and advice of our transportation engineers. New, wider, and faster, roads can be funded with federal funds and gas tax dollars. These funds perversely translates to free money through the rose colored glasses of local government.

When we return to the great myth of development and planning, we have to remind ourselves that we cannot build ourselves out of this mess. Engineers are programmed like ants. Given the time, they will construct the greatest structures and systems the world has ever seen. Unlike ants, the engineers can lose sight of the the other important issues like funding, or where these structures are placed.

We also have to recognize that the funding for building and maintaining infrastructure is limited. Our great-grand parents built amazing places without credit, bonds, or debt. They understood that you build what you can, when you can. The development myths would have been easily recognized by our great-grand parents.

There is hope out there once you can recognize these myths. I will continue to share how we can build great cities once we abandon these myths.

Posted in Colleagues, communities, Design, Engineering, Infrastructure, Planning, Transportation | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Planners are Developing the Wrong Plans

Planners enjoy working on unrealistic grand visions. I want to continue to discuss the Myths of Development and Planning. In my previous post, I shared the two myths that are commonly at the core of poor development. Today, I would like to describe these myths through the perspective of the planner.

I do believe that every community needs a grand vision. Daniel Burnham created the grand vision for the Plan of Chicago, which inspired the city to rebuild after the great Chicago fire. This grand planning was completed by hand in his office in a relatively short period of time.

Burnham’s great plan for Chicago influenced the post disaster construction and provided an image for the city. If you are interested in learning more about this plan, I would encourage you to read the original plan. The Plan of Chicago can be purchased through many book sellers, and is available at many libraries.

There is also a lot of critical debate over the Plan of Chicago. Whether you love or hate the plan, it provided a vision that captured the image of Chicago, and it provided a clear starting point for the rebuilding. The Burnham plan expressed the big vision in defining Chicago as the capital of the mid-west. This great plan is a vision aspiring the future, and not a day to day manual to rebuilding the city.

The problem with the grand visions planners are creating today, is that they are more master plan and less grand visions. These plans result in the conclusion that we can build ourselves out of our current condition. This is the first myth I outlined in the Two Myths of Development. This may not be self evident, so let me explain this in context.

I have attended a lot public meetings recently, and watched the presentations by modern planners explain the future vision for a regional or city. These elaborate presentations represent months if not years working on large scale plans. These plans range in solving climate change, designing to accommodate population, or reducing the demand of the car. These are important issues that require the brightest minds to work through.

Every one of these presentations start with a projection showing where the future is headed using the current trends. This leads to the conclusion that we need to take action. The action is then broken into complex phases that requires funding to build something.

The first problem with this process is that long range planning today is a complex projection. A projection is not a vision. Projections are complex mathematical computations based on other complex computations. You can modify the input of these projections to get different results.

I do agree that many places have problems, and these projections help to rationalize this complex issues. I want to explain the problems with projections and why this is a rabbit hole. Long range projections reach out fifty to sixty years out. Think about what 50 years means to a city and the citizens that populate it. First, all the people that are young inspired professionals at the adopts of such a plan will be retired or dead at the end of the plan. This is morbid but true.

From www.StreetsBlog.com

Secondly, once a projection is adopted, the charts never seem to recede. Every projection assumes that things will continue to grow and expand. Rarely do we go back year on year and review the reality of a place against the projection. Some of this is by design. For example, in Florida, our transportation model does not allow for a reduction in trips. All of our tables for traffic projections require a positive number to be entered. Even though we have seen a dramatic decline in Vehicle Miles Traveled, every traffic model shows an increase in trips.

Throughout the life of the plan, the planners become paralyzed when trying to implement the various aspects of the plan based on the projections. The small first generation projects are bypassed or stopped because these do not fit into the ultimate vision. For example, the plan calls for five story mixed-use buildings with retail on the ground floor and housing above. Sounds great for a vision, but what if this is a new main street with only one or two existing buildings. No new or additional buildings will be built if the bar at year one is this high. This requires placing the burden of a long term goal on the implementors of today.

This results in a disinvestment in our communities. These plans focus on the projection and lose sight of natural growth and investment. Urban design should be a slow and steady approach. A community’s projections can be in continual flux, ever changing depending on multiple variables.

However, a community’s vision and identity should never be in flux. A true grand vision embraces and memorializes the values of a community. A vision allows for a community to develop over time, and it allows a community to actively discuss how they can continue to improve. A true grand vision or master plan does not require more construction to make a place great, it supports investment within a place that grows from within.

Posted in building, Colleagues, communities, Florida, Planning, Urban Design, Urbanism, Visioning | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Two Myths of Development and Planning

There are two myths of development and planning.

  1. We can build ourselves out of this mess.
  2. We can always get more money.

Both are false statements. I will be spending the next few days discussing these two myths from the perspective of the Planner and the Engineer. I want to share these myths because they are the foundation statements used by both of these professions.

I really enjoy listening to the insanity of planners and transportation engineers. Both professions have successfully created a generation of professionals that base their life work on these two myths. We have learned a lot in the recent market crash to defiantly define these statements as myths.

Strong Towns has been on the forefront of  this realization. I would encourage all of you to check out the Strong Towns Blog and Podcast. The fiscal argument is laid out to abolish these myths through the management of cities.

The last five years have proven that money is finite resource, however this message has not reached every profession. It also does not seem to apply to projects that were planned or engineered prior to the crash. I predict that some of the worst projects are yet to come.

The past 50 years have shown us that the way we plan, develop, and build, is not sustainable. We built more in the past 50 years than any other time in history, however we struggle with the result. For example, we have proven through practice that we cannot build another freeway to resolve congestion. Every city in America has multiple test tracks you can see this principle up close. Just get in your car and head to the state highway system at 5:00 pm.

These myths are the fundamental root of the problem. We cannot fight or demand for investment in strong and healthy community until we can identify these myths and call them for what they are.

Over the next few posts, I will be sharing my thoughts on the perpetuation of these myths. I want to shed light on where they are used, so you can recognize them. We need to remove these myths and have a real conversation of how we can support and develop strong communities.

Posted in Advocacy, Colleagues, communities, Engineering, Planning, Public Policy | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Building an Empire

From the Fullerton College Library

Throughout history, the Military has been the lead for urbanization. The military is the backbone that not only destroys civilizations, they are responsible for building civilization.

Cities formed around markets and surplus. Surplus led to wealth, which in the human experience leads to jealousy. Essentially, early in the process of urbanization, a military force would form to protect wealth.

We can only assume that after a couple of tries of building markets first, and then being sacked, a better plan for building cities was formed. Civilizations would learn that defense is a critical first step in planning for cities. The success of the first defended city, could provide an opportunity for the military to take a lead in the planning of cities

The result of this theory is supported through ancient Roman writings. The writings of Vitruvius through his 10 books on Architecture illustrate the authority the Roman Military had over city building. The practices described by Vitruvius were based on a long history, and are still used today in the siting of new towns.

I recently came across a book on the history of temporary buildings constructed during World War II. World War II Temporary Military Buildings: A Brief History of the Architecture and Planning of Cantonments and Training Stations in the United States. This book was written to document the buildings that the Military Construction Authorization Bill of 1983 required to be demolished.

There are a couple of very interesting observations in this book that carry forward to the way we build American Cities today.

In late 1890, the United State Military posed a question: “Could the military build enough structures to train and house 1.1 million soldiers?” Architects, builders, and engineers, where put to work to develop a plan for the military to construct temporary buildings to meet this need.

I am sure at the time, this not only seemed like an impossible task, but also appeared to have no need at the turn of the century. Despite this, over the next years, plans were developed. The military began to plan and simplify the process to build structures. Just like any military action, the plan organized the issues into the most simple, and easy to replicate procedures.

These building plans organized the United States was divided into two climatic regions. This provided the basis for warm weather and cold weather buildings. Research was started to explore the benefits of manufactured buildings verses site built homes. Both plans show the same basic layout, however, each address the climatic needs of the region through small plan modifications.

From Fort Belvoir Website

We can look back at history today and see that this planning at the turn of the century provided the backbone for America’s success in World War II. In a matter of weeks, military camps popped up like small towns. This construction did not require skilled labor, require massive resources, or years to approve. The generals opened the book, tallied the total number of buildings and pointed.

Fort Leonard Wood Missouri, 1961

I may be over simplifying all of this, but the fact is that sound planning allowed quick results. The other lesson here, is that these camps and buildings were intended to be temporary. Once the threat of war and need for a standing army was over, these buildings could be removed. The entire concept was temporary, or so we thought.

This temporary buildings actually were built quite well. Many of these World War II buildings remained in service through the Vietnam War. I have also found these buildings hidden away in older communities adjacent to former World War II military bases. Following the end of the war, the Defense Department sold off many of these buildings as surplus. You haul it, and you can have it, provided a second life to these structures.

The architects and students of this type of instant town building have filled the professional ranks as well. The great post war building boom that morphed into the great suburban experiment stated with this military concept. Instead of housing 1.1 million soldiers, the challenge was to house 1.1 million families. With military efficiency, the American landscape transformed into rolling suburbs.

I would encourage you to take a look at the World War II Temporary Military Buildings: A Brief History of the Architecture and Planning of Cantonments and Training Stations in the United States. It is an amazing documentation of building technology.

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Second City Minneapolis

Minne_003Downtown Minneapolis is a unique place. The midwestern values are ever present and celebrated in the downtown. Public At, historical plaques, and numerous cultural centers, line the streets sharing the rich culture of the region.

Downtown is also built in a form that reflects the hard working attitude of the region. So much so, the Minnesotans have built not one but two downtowns. I would describe the second downtown as the Second City.

Let me first describe the first city. Downtown Minneapolis is one of the nicest and active downtowns I have visited in a very long time. During the work week, there is a warm bustle and movement through the city. There are a healthy balance of uses. Retail fronts line the Main Street, and there are the traditional storefront displays drawing you into the store.

At night and after the work day, the sidewalks become inhabited with outdoor dinning. The workday bustle transforms into visitors headed to theater shows, and dinning. The downtown has the healthy balance of active daytime and evening activity. Like a responsible person, the city goes to bed at a responsible time, and awakens at the crack of dawn.

This street ballet all occurs in one of the country’s coldest downtowns, in a region with Country’s largest indoor mall, and a region with the ever expanding suburban belts.

After my tour of the first city, I was drawn to a strange oddity that crisscrossed over my head. Like the freak shows off the circus midway, I was drawn to these floating glassy bridges. I had to investigate these strange objects and see where they would take me.

IMG_1912A simple escalator ride dropped me into Minneapolis’s Second City. Locally known as the Skyway. I felt as though I had entered into an entire second city floating above the original downtown. Shops, offices, and restaurants populated this second city.

The grid of this place is rotated 90 degrees from the city below. Each Skyway bridge is composed of glass and steel. These hamster tubes provide the users of the second city in obstructed views of the first city below.

Most of you would describe this as the Jekyll and Hyde of cities. The well behaving civic street on the ground, enslaved by a heavy handed evil beast. The knee jerk reaction is to villainize   this second city, and demand its termination or removal. My first impression was such, and I did have my angry mob of Urbanite Villagers at the the ready to kill the beast.

Minne_002I stood back and took another look at this Second City. The Skyway grew on me and I wanted to study this oddity before I persecuted it. I actually came to several realizations, that have changed my initial opinion.

My first observation is that the local planners and architects have a really hard time describing and explaining the Second City. The Skyway was either described to me as a necessary evil due to the extreme winter cold, or as the Anti-Christ to the city sucking the life from the street. There is no real good middle ground on the issue, and I got the impression that this debated is fueled with the regular retail battles between the first and second levels of the city.

I have a completely different outsider’s perspective. I understand this as a Second Downtown. The two downtowns have may pro’s and con’s, but the fact that they both survive and thrive says something. There is a positive polarity between the street level and the Skyway.

I also would attach credit to the people of Minneapolis for the success of having two downtowns. There is nothing more midwestern and reflective of their hard work ethic then the fact that they have built not one, but two downtowns. Embrace this as a positive, and leave the negativity at the suburbs.

Minne_001The Skyway debate is very similar to the pedestrian only malls. So many downtowns have been destroyed when the political leadership permanently close the Main Street to pedestrians. However, there are several examples that are extremely successful. Lincoln Road in Miami Beach is one of the most successful pedestrian malls, so we cannot jump to a single conclusion on these issues. The complexity and combination of the parts of Lincoln Road support its success.

The complexity and combination of many parts contribute to the success of downtown Minneapolis. The first and second cities of this downtown should be studied. To be clear, I am not suggesting adding sky-bridges to your downtown. However, if your city has started a second downtown in the sky, then come to Minneapolis and learn from their success.

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Immersed in Strong Towns

15969_195660306602_5193579_aI am shoulder to shoulder this weekend with representatives from across the country this weekend at the Strong Towns National Gathering. This first ever event has brought together those of us that have been impacted with the Strong Towns message.

The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model for growth that allows America’s towns to become financially strong and resilient. The American approach to growth is causing economic stagnation and decline along with land use practices that force a dependency on public subsidies. The inefficiencies of the current approach have left American towns financially insolvent, unable to pay even the maintenance costs of their basic infrastructure. A new approach that accounts for the full cost of growth is needed to make our towns strong again.

The theme is “What is a Strong Town, and how can You make your town a Strong Town?” Over the following days, the National Gathering is the first time for a collaboration of individuals who believe in the Strong Towns Approach to meet in person. We will be sharing our successes, and refine these practices so they can be repeated.

I do not expect any silver bullets here, frankly because there are no silver bullets. I do however fully expect that we will have a much better understanding of the issues facing our cities, and we will have a collection of techniques that can assist us as engaged citizens to build a Strong Town.

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Never Forget

20130416-070526.jpgToday is the anniversary of the horrific terror attacks here in the United States. This is a somber day, and I take time to remember the senseless loss of life.

Like many of you, I can remember where I was at and what I was doing as I watch the attacks happening live on TV. Words cannot explain the feelings and emotions I had on this day. I watched the last minutes of thousands of Americans. Even today I cannot comprehend what I saw.

The following days of these attacks, I witnessed amazing acts of citizenship and pride. America came together under a common purpose, and shared their pride for their community. Regardless, people had great pride in their community.

Take a minute today to reflect on the history of this day. Fly an American flag, talk to your neighbor, and bask in the great freedoms we have today.

Never forget.

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