Urbanism

CITIES AND BAD DRIVERS

PotentialCarAccidentLawsuitAn interesting recent article in Slate asked the question, “Which U.S. City has the Worst Drivers?” The authors studied the 200 largest cities in the country, and using a complicated matrix of measures (which is explained in a useful spreadsheet) they compiled the list of shame. Miami was the worst by a wide margin, followed by Philadelphia, Hialeah, Tampa, and Baltimore. I see two possible patterns here. Obviously, three of the five cities are in Florida so either: a) the heat makes people drive badly (unlikely); the larger number of elderly drivers makes for a dangerous environment (possible); or Latinos are reckless drivers (Hialeah and Miami are overwhelmingly Latino, but then so are many cities in Texas and California, which were generally rated as much safer). As for  Baltimore and Philadelphia, both have high poverty rates (Philadelphia has the highest percentage living in poverty of any major U.S. city). Are poorer people less law-abiding drivers, or is it simply that a poorer city has less ability to enforce traffic laws? My guess is the latter. For example, Philadelphia is a city where cars regularly park on downtown sidewalks. Speed limits are rarely enforced. Laws are flouted as a matter of course, and nobody, but nobody, actually stops at STOP signs. I remember that one year in my district, the police started ticketing cars that were parked “on the wrong side of the street,” i.e. facing traffic. There was an immediate outcry–it was unfair, we’ve always done it this way, it’s our neighborhood we can do what we want, etc. The police stopped issuing tickets.

Stiltsville

P1000914Beachtown is a New Urbanism second-home village in Galveston. Construction began in 2005, after a protracted planning and permitting period. The projected size is about 2,000 houses. Progress has been slow, but then Galveston is hardly a hot development area. Although only fifty miles from Houston, the city never really recovered from a devastating 1900 hurricane. The hurricane, and the Houston Ship Canal, ensured that Houston prospered while Galveston languished. So building a Texas version of Seaside, even when it is planned by Duany & Plater-Zyberk, is a real estate challenge (I saw only a single house under construction). Equally challenging is the requirement that since Beachtown is immediately adjacent to the beach, all habitable space must be raised above the base flood elevation (BFE). Since Hurricane Ike (2008) had a 15-20 foot storm surge, the BFE is high, and the houses are raised about twelve feet above grade on closely spaced timber piles. The P1000915effect is unusual. While the project has all the features one would expect in a DPZ design—interesting plan, sidewalks, thoughtful planting, pathways—the scale is distinctly different. Instead of cottages, the houses resemble Victorian mansions, in part because this is Texas after all and they are very large, and in part because they are in some cases four-stories tall, thanks to the BFE. As you walk down the street you don’t see friendly porches, only driveways and parking bays. Next to Beachtown is a rather incongruous 14-story condominium tower. Or perhaps it’s not so incongruous. If one insists on living next to the water in such a dangerous location—a dubious proposition—one would want to be in a concrete structure high, high above the flood surge.

The White City

K Street, Washington, DC

K Street, Washington, DC

During the last decade or so, Washington, D.C. has undergone a little-noticed but remarkable transformation: a city of stone is becoming a city of glass. Ever since the McMillan Plan, and even before, important civic buildings in the capital were built out of marble, limestone, or concrete. There were a few early brick outliers such as the Smithsonian Castle, and the Pensions building, but generally architects followed this custom. This was not a question of style, since modernist as well as postmodernist architects—Breuer, Bunshaft, Pei, Stone, Obata, Erickson, Graves, Freed—all followed the age-old practice, which had been virtually codified by Burnham, McKim and company in the early 1900s. This materials choice, not confined to government buildings, gave the city a pleasant uniformity. Today, the capital is quickly becoming a city not of masonry, but of glass. With the notable exception of Moshe Safdie’s Institute of Peace and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives headquarters (both precast concrete), federal and commercial buildings have adopted glass as the new lingua franca. And precast concrete buildings of the 1960s are being retrofitted with glass curtain walls. This architectural fashion is not confined to DC, but it is more striking there given the city’s predominant neoclassic fabric. The new city has a somewhat schizophrenic appearance, since the transparency of the glass is contradicted by rings of security devices: screening pavilions, guardhouses, Delta barriers, and rings and rings of bollards.

Urban Topos

Vancouver, BC

Vancouver, BC

There are many ways to measure cities: population, unemployment, crime rates, pollution, literacy rates, and so on. Aesthetics is harder to quantify, and so it is easier to ignore, yet beauty is also an important urban variable. Beauty in the manmade environment takes the form of streets, squares, and buildings, so it is tempting for cities to seek improvements in the urban equivalent of facelifts and makeovers: new boulevards, parks, civic monuments. But there is a type of urban beauty that is harder to improve: the natural setting. Cities on islands (New York, Stockholm) have a sort of self-contained magic. Cities with hills (Montreal, Rome) feel as if they are tied to something elemental. Rivers used to be an indispensible attribute for a thriving city, but today they are purely an amenity. A city with an attractive river (Paris, London, Prague)—not too large and not too small—gains not only river walks. Crossing a bridge in a city feels like a temporary natural reprieve. That’s why lovers meet on bridges. The presence of water is always nice, even when its manmade (Venice, St. Petersburg) but not all water is created equal; there is nothing like the view of a beautiful bay (San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro) to spice up the urban scene. Views of majestic mountains (Seattle, Vancouver) are almost as good—plus they mean nearby skiing and hiking. There are inland cities on flat sites without charming rivers or mountain views (Houston, Beijing, New Delhi) that have overcome the lack of a beautiful setting. But the cities with beautiful natural settings will always have a leg up.

Mike’s Place

6639BloombergPlaceNorth_pic1

Bloomberg Place is a commercial development under construction in central London. The two wedged-shaped office buildings, linked by sky bridges, are designed by Foster + Partners, which is also responsible for the lumpy building next door. What is interesting about Bloomberg Place is its height: ten stories, since this part of the city has a fifty-meter height limit. Washingtonians, currently engaged in a debate over raising the long-time height limit in that city should take note.