Tag Archives: urban design

January 2017 in Review

I just realized I forgot to do a month in review post in January. Well, I had a lot going on in my personal life in January, most notably the arrival of a tiny new human being. Blog posts are not the only thing I forgot – I forgot to pay some important bills and to do some important paperwork at my job too.

3 most frightening stories

  • Cheetahs are in serious trouble.
  • The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • “Between 1946 and 2000, the US and the Soviet Union/Russia have intervened in about one of every nine competitive national-level executive elections.” The “Great Game” is back in Afghanistan.

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

September 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

  • The U.S. and Russia may have blundered into a proxy war in Syria. And on a loosely related war-and-peace note, Curtis LeMay was a crazy bastard.
  • The ecological footprint situation is not looking too promising: “from 1993 to 2009…while the human population has increased by 23% and the world economy has grown 153%, the human footprint has increased by just 9%. Still, 75% the planet’s land surface is experiencing measurable human pressures. Moreover, pressures are perversely intense, widespread and rapidly intensifying in places with high biodiversity.” Meanwhile, as of 2002 “we appropriate over 40% of the net primary productivity (the green material) produced on Earth each year (Vitousek et al. 1986, Rojstaczer et al. 2001). We consume 35% of the productivity of the oceanic shelf (Pauly and Christensen 1995), and we use 60% of freshwater run-off (Postel et al. 1996). The unprecedented escalation in both human population and consumption in the 20th century has resulted in environmental crises never before encountered in the history of humankind and the world (McNeill 2000). E. O. Wilson (2002) claims it would now take four Earths to meet the consumption demands of the current human population, if every human consumed at the level of the average US inhabitant.” And finally, 30% of African elephants have been lost in the last 7 years.
  • Car accidents are the leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 24. The obsession with car seats may not be saving all that many lives, while keeping children out of cars as much as possible would be 100% guaranteed to save lives. And one thing that would be guaranteed to help us create more walkable neighborhoods and therefore save children’s lives: getting rid of minimum parking requirements in cities once and for all. And yet you don’t hear this debate being framed in moral terms.

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • Monsanto is trying to help honeybees (which seems good) by monkeying with RNA (which seems a little frightening). Yes, biotech is coming.
  • Some people think teaching algebra to children may actually be bad. Writing still seems to be good.
  • There have been a number of attempts to identify and classify the basic types of literary plots.

May 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

  • There are scary and seemingly reckless confrontations going on between U.S. and Russian planes and ships in the Indian Ocean. And yet, it is bizarrely humorous when real life imitates Top Gun.
  • The situation in Venezuela may be a preview of what the collapse of a modern country looks like.
  • Obama went to Hiroshima, where he said we can “chart a course that leads to the destruction” of nuclear weapons, only not in his lifetime. Obama out.

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • I try not to let this blog get too political, really I do. But in an election season I just can’t help myself. This is a blog about the future of civilization, and the behavior of U.S. political, bureaucratic, and military elites obviously has some bearing on that. In May I mused on whether the U.S. could possibly be suffering from “too much democracy“, Dick Cheney, equality and equal opportunity, and what’s wrong with Pennsylvania. And yes, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, TRUMP IS A FASCIST!
  • The world has about a billion dogs.
  • It turns out coffee grounds may not make good compost.

January 2016 in Review

I’m going to try picking the three most frightening posts, three most hopeful posts, and three most interesting posts (that are not particularly frightening or hopeful) from January.

3 most frightening posts

  • Paul Ehrlich is still worried about population. 82% of scientists agree.
  • Thomas Picketty (paraphrased by J. Bradford Delong) says inequality and slow growth are the norm for a capitalist society. Joseph Stiglitz has some politically difficult solutions: “Far-reaching redistribution of income would help, as would deep reform of our financial system – not just to prevent it from imposing harm on the rest of us, but also to get banks and other financial institutions to do what they are supposed to do: match long-term savings to long-term investment needs.”
  • Meanwhile, government for and by big business means the “Deep State” is really in control of the U.S. In our big cities, the enormous and enormously dysfunctional police-court-prison system holds sway over the poor.

3 most hopeful posts

3 most interesting posts

  • There are some arguments in favor of genetically modified food – they have increased yields of some grains, and there is promise they could increase fish yields. 88% of scientists responding to a Pew survey said they think genetically modified food is safe, but only 37% of the U.S. public thinks so. In other biotech news, Obama’s State of the Union announced a new initiative to try to cure cancer. In other food news, red meat is out.
  • Not only is cash becoming obsolete, any physical form of payment at all may become obsolete.
  • The World Economic Forum focused on technology: “The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.”



City Observatory has a long article arguing against the idea that a right-left consensus is emerging against zoning, making the obvious point that existing homeowners fight zoning changes when they perceive they might affect their investment, which often makes up a large part of their savings.

homeowners dominate local development politics in large part because their homes make up such a large proportion of their total wealth that any decline in property values could devastate them. (Or, conversely, cut into huge capital gains, if they are lucky enough to own property in, say, San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.) As a result, they’re extremely wary of any change to their surroundings that might reduce their property values—and zoning gives them the legal ability to stop those changes.

So even to the extent that there’s a consensus about the damage of zoning among policy wonks, part of that consensus is also that zoning is incredibly difficult to change, because the interest local homeowners have in preserving it is so powerful…

When housing decisions are made hyper-locally, the only interests taken into account are those of nearby residents, who may have worries about their property values, the visual “character” of the neighborhood, or even more directly exclusionary concerns about the type of people who will leave near them. It also creates a sort of “prisoner’s dilemma” in which no neighborhood wants to be stuck with “undesirable,” or costly, land uses. But when decisions are made at a broader geographic level, the people who stand to gain from new housing—renters and potential buyers who want more housing options, businesses that might gain more customers, and people thinking about how more density might support the regional transit system—also get to have a voice. Scholars of zoning and segregation have argued that more local fragmentation in decisionmaking is a crucial part of using land use laws to impede integration.

The basic idea the “policy wonks” are proposing is kindergarten simple – when zoning restricts the supply of something, the price of that thing goes up, and some people who would like to have that thing have to do without. So what we need to do is find ways to promote zoning rules that allow residential density to increase, and commercial intensity to increase along with it, without allowing drastic, sudden changes in the character of the neighborhood.

biking as the only form of transport

This article has an interesting slide show on what a city really designed around biking (aka cycling) might look like. Bike lanes go right into and out of buildings. I like the concept, but I wonder what it would be like to walk in this city. I like the idea of a city built for walking as the first and preferred form of transport, then bicycling second, then maybe personal rapid transit third. In my utopia, homes, work places, shopping/resting/gathering places, and natural areas are located so that most people take most daily trips on foot, hop on their bikes a few times a week to go to a meeting or visit friends across town, and hop on some form of motorized transportation maybe once or twice a month to go out of town. Actually that pretty much describes my typical month right here in decidedly non-utopian Philadelphia, USA.

Edible Infrastructures

Just an interesting site I came across in random web surfing. If you really had a clean slate and could turn a computer loose to design an efficient city for you, it might look something like this.

Edible Infrastructures is an investigation into a mode of urbanism which considers food as an integral part of a city’s metabolic infrastructure. Working with algorithms as design tools, we explore the generative potential of such a system to create an urban ecology that: provides for its residents via local, multi-scalar, distributed food production, reconnects the traditional waste-nutrient cycle, and de-couple food costs from fossil fuels by limiting transport from source to table.

Our research is conducted through the building up of a sequence of algorithms, beginning with a Settlement Simulation, which couples consumers to productive surface area within a cellular automata type computational model. Through topological analysis and interpretation of the simulation output, we explore the hierarchical components for a new Productive City, including: the structure and programming of the urban circulatory network, an emergent urban morphology based around productive urban blocks, and opportunities for new architectural typologies.

The resulting prototypical Productive City questions the underlying mechanisms that shape modern urban space and demonstrates the architectural potential of mathematical modelling and simulation in addressing complex urban spatial and programmatic challenges.


street congestion ideas

Here is a nice compendium from Plan Philly on dealing with urban street congestion. Although, the term congestion to most people implies high traffic volumes and low speeds, which you could argue are acceptable in cities. I will admit though that here in Philadelphia we need solutions to temporary delivery, loading and contractor parking. These legitimate business activities block bike lanes, sidewalks, and travel lanes because they often have no choice. I’ve done it myself. Pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers can curse at each other all day – but the same person can be all three at various times, so we are cursing at ourselves. We need solutions and compromises that work for everyone. There are some good, pretty obvious ideas in this article that really shouldn’t encounter bureaucratic or political resistance: larger loading zones, metering loading zones, letting people reserve them in advance, congestion pricing, and off-hours delivery, to name a few.

Joel Kotkin

Joel Kotkin has penned a transparently political anti-urban piece, so transparently political that it’s in Real Clear Politics rather than a major newspaper. He creates a picture of “forced densification” – I imagine people being marched into cities at gunpoint and into Soviet-style high-rise apartment blocks.

Roughly four in five home buyers prefer a single-family home, but much of the political class increasingly wants them to live differently… it has been decided, mostly by self-described progressives, that suburban living is too unecological, not mention too uncool, and even too white for their future America. Density is their new holy grail, for both the world and the U.S. Across the country efforts are now being mounted—through HUD, the EPA, and scores of local agencies—to impede suburban home-building, or to raise its cost.

Of course, people who actually choose to live in cities know this is absurd. Sure, there are high rise apartment blocks and some people choose to live in them. But many people choose to live in row homes, town homes, brownstones, etc. These are single family homes, Joel. Let’s think about land use for a minute. Density is defined by residents per square mile. Density allows infrastructure, open space, and economically productive space to be shared more efficiently by more people. It also allows more people to get around under their own muscle power, i.e. by walking and bicycling. This promotes physical health and mental health, social activity, creativity and innovation. Time spent “commuting” to work on foot or by bicycle is not empty, useless, or wasted time.

Once density drops to a suburban level, most people have to make most trips by car. Cars require enormous amounts of space, for driving but especially for parking. This space is wasted – it is not available for housing or for recreation. It is not economically productive. The infrastructure cost in the suburbs has to be much higher per person, and the economic production and tax revenue has to be much lower per square mile. The enormous amounts of time spent commuting by car are just wasted time – they are not economically productive, supportive of physical health, mental health, or families. Add air pollution and civilization-crushing greenhouse gas emissions on top of all this.

So what does all this add up to? Resources are being sucked out of the efficient denser areas, where they are generated, and used to subsidize the time-, land-, money-, and health-wasting lifestyle in the suburbs. And yet, contrary to what Joel would have you believe, not only are people not being forced into walkable, bikable, communities, but these choices are not available to most Americans.

Forcibly marching people into high-rise apartment blocks wouldn’t be American. Some people really want privacy and large private open spaces to themselves, and certainly those choices should not be taken away. But many people would love to live in truly walkable, bikable communities, and those choices have been denied most citizens of the United States. Giving people true equal opportunity and a free choice of lifestyles, and letting them choose to pay the true cost of their choices, would be very American. Don’t fall for the deceptive double-talk people are throwing out there to try to convince you to support having your choices taken away.

green roofs

Everybody kind of likes the idea of green roofs, but water professionals are not always 100% confident we understand them well enough to promise they will meet water quality and flooding regulations. But the studies are gradually trickling in. Here is a new one from Ecological Engineering:

Increasing recognition is being given to the adoption of green roofs in urban areas to enhance the local ecosystem. Green roofs may bring several benefits to urban areas including flood mitigation. However, empirical evidence from full-scale roofs, especially those that have been operational for more than several years is limited. This study investigates the hydrologic performance of a full-scale extensive green roof in Leeds, UK. Monitoring of the green roof took place over a 20 month period (between 30th June 2012 and 9th February 2014). The results indicate that the green roof can effectively retain and detain rainfall from the precipitation events included in the analysis. Retention was found to correspond significantly with rainfall depth, duration, intensity and prior dry weather period. Significant differences in retention values between the summer and winter seasons were also noted. Regression analysis failed to provide an accurate model to predict green roof retention as demonstrated by a validation exercise. Further monitoring of the green roof may reveal stronger relationships between rainfall characteristics and green roof retention.

Beyond questions on performance, there is a kind of chicken and egg problem where they are not used much (in the U.S., at least) because they are expensive and they are expensive because they are not used much. That is true of many emerging technologies. Of course, this “emerging” technology has been used in Europe for centuries, not to mention it is also popular with hobbits.