Tag Archives: urban planning

November 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • We should probably be sounding the alarm just as urgently, if not more urgently, on biodiversity as we are on global warming. But while the case against global warming is so simple most children can grasp it, the case against biodiversity loss is more difficult to articulate.
  • A theory of mass extinctions of the past is that they have been caused by massive volcanic eruptions burning off underground fossil fuels on a massive scale. Only, not quite at the rate we are doing it now. Rapid collapse of ice cliffs is another thing that might get us.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • You can get an actuarial estimate of your life span online. You can also search your local library catalog automatically whenever you consider buying a book online. Libraries in small, medium, and large towns all over the U.S. appear to be included. Only, not my library. Boo, Philadelphia Free Library.
  • “Transportation as a service” may cause the collapse of the oil industry. Along similar but more mainstream lines, NACTO has released a “Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism“, which is my most popular post at the moment I am writing this.
  • It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.

 

the most rat-infested cities

Orkin has released a list of which cities it has trapped the most rats in. Interesting, except they don’t appear to have controlled for population or area. So, the biggest cities have the most rats, which doesn’t tell us much except that rats are present in cities. It would be more interesting to know how many rats are present per square mile or per 1,000 people per square mile. Which I suppose you could try to figure out from this data.

  1. Chicago
  2. New York
  3. Los Angeles (+1)
  4. San Francisco – Oakland (+1)
  5. Washington, DC (-2)
  6. Philadelphia (+1)
  7. Detroit (+2)
  8. Baltimore (-2)
  9. Seattle – Tacoma
  10. Dallas – Ft. Worth (+4)

population growth and cities

According to this article in Governing, some economists question whether population growth is always a good thing for cities.

Although the preponderance of media opinion has always been that more people make a better city, there has long existed a cluster of academics who challenge that wisdom. Perhaps the leading voice in this contrarian club is Paul Gottlieb, an economist at Rutgers University. He has argued for decades not only that local elected officials should take a measured approach to growth, but that metropolitan areas with stable or slow-growing populations are likely to have greater economic prosperity. Fifteen years ago, in a paper titled “Growth Without Growth,” Gottlieb called attention to 23 of the largest 100 metro areas, which he nicknamed “wealth builders.” Those were places with below-average increases in population and above-average increases in per capita income.

Another group of metro areas, which Gottlieb labeled “population magnets,” had excelled at gaining residents but performed below average at increasing per capita income. The data seemed to suggest that mayors shouldn’t frame future population increase as a guaranteed path to a better economy, especially when it comes at the cost of greater congestion, pollution and the loss of open space. “My paper was controversial in the sense that it questioned the desirability of population growth in any way,” Gottlieb says now. “It’s not obvious why you would want population growth except as a means to the end of increased income or increased wealth.”

It seems to me that bringing in more affluent taxpayers has to be good for a city as a whole, particularly legacy cities that have lost population density and have vacant, undermaintained housing and infrastructure. Of course it is not good for some residents in some neighborhoods if they feel as though the newcomers are concentrating and displacing them. I don’t have the answer to this any more than anyway else, except that providing excellent transportation and other infrastructure might tend to encourage people and well-paying jobs to spread out a bit more geographically. In Philadelphia, what is happening is that the newer, more affluent taxpayers are concentrating in neighborhoods closest to the central business district where they work, so they can walk, bike, or have a reasonable commute on public transportation to work. There will not be any lack of housing in Philadelphia as a whole any time soon, but the less affluent are getting pushed farther out from the city center and neighborhoods with good transportation links to the city center. Philadelphia actually made a plan for a comprehensive subway system a hundred years ago, built a small fraction of it, then stopped. Nobody has the imagination to even suggest finishing that system. We don’t even have the imagination to consider taking diesel buses offline in favor of the electric buses and trolleys we used to have, even as we have a serious air pollution problem. Schools and parks that have been in a state of disrepair for decades are very gradually improving in the more affluent neighborhoods, and continuing to languish in the less affluent ones. All this leads to tension between black and white, rich and poor, recent arrivals and long-time residents. Increased tax revenues could be invested to help solve these problems, but our politicians and bureaucrats just continue to fail us.

planning and landscape architecture podcast

The American Society of Landscape Architects has a blog post listing a bunch of podcasts about planning and landscape architecture. I have no professional training in either (actually, I have plenty of training and experience in practical water resources planning and green infrastructure, just not urban and regional planning the credentially profession), but these sound pretty broad so I might try a listen in my vast free time. Okay, realistically, if I find myself having a bout of insomnia in the near future.

July 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new cancer treatment genetically modifies a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Shareholders of big fossil fuel companies are starting to force some action on climate change business risk disclosure.
  • Richard Florida offers five ideas for solving poverty and what is wrong with cities: taxing land based on its improved value, massive investment in public transportation and public education, ending the mortgage interest tax deduction, and guaranteed minimum income.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Technology is marching on, whether or not the economy and human species are. The new thing with satellites is to have lots of small, cheap ones instead of a few big, expensive ones. Even if the coal industry were to make a comeback, today’s coal jobs are going to data analysts, remote control machine operators, mechanical and electrical engineers, not guys underground with pickaxes and headlamps. But the coal can be produced with a lot less human effort (i.e. jobs) than it used to be. Iris scans like in Minority Report are now a thing.
  • Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • Isaac Asimov says truly creative people (1) are weird and (2) generally work alone.

Some combination of the Trump news, the things I see every day on the streets of Philadelphia, and events affecting friends and family led me to question this month whether the United States is really a society in decline. Actually, I don’t question that, I think the answer is yes. But the more important question is whether it is a temporary or permanent decline, and what it means for the rest of the globe. I am leaning slightly toward permanent, but maybe I will feel better next month, we’ll see. Maybe I need to get out of this country for a little while. Last time I did that I felt that the social glue holding Americans together is actually pretty strong compared to most other places, even if our government and its approach to other governments have become largely dysfunctional. We need to get through the next couple years without a nuclear detonation, hope the current vacuum of leadership leads some quality leaders to emerge, and hope things have nowhere to go but up. There, I talked myself off the ledge!

 

Richard Florida: The New Urban Crisis

Richard Florida has a new(ish) book out called The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It. You can also get the general idea from this article he wrote in City Lab. He offers five policy prescriptions, which I summarize below.

  • land value tax – Tax the value of land rather than the value of the developed property on it, so that land owners have a disincentive to sit on property and an incentive to develop it to the most economically valuable use a particular neighborhood will support. (My take – I like this idea. I wouldn’t get rid of zoning and building codes, but these can focus on the “look and feel” of the neighborhood rather than restricting height or density, requiring or prohibiting a certain amount of parking, etc. There also needs to be a strategy to preserve a certain amount of public open space under a system like this, whether it is public or held by some sort of land trust.)
  • invest heavily in public transportation – This decreases commute times, allowing people to live in more affordable locations and work in higher wage ones. (My take: makes sense, although we should rethink whether the same old 20th or even 19th-century ideas of public transportation and transportation agencies are going to serve us well in the 21st. I think we need flexible routes, flexible vehicles, and flexible modes that can adapt to changes in the economy, landscape and technology as they come.)
  • end the mortgage interest deduction so single-family homes are not unfairly subsidized relative to multi-family rental housing. (My take: makes perfect economic sense, but this would need to be phased in over a long period of time to not be a slap in the face to today’s middle class and working class homeowners who have made their decisions under the current system.)
  • Set minimum wage at 50% of median wage on a city-by-city basis – his argument is that this is essentially how the high-wage manufacturing jobs of the U.S. postwar period were created. He brings up Henry Ford and the idea that even if prices go up somewhat, a newly broadened middle class is able to afford them. (My take – I’ve always been a little skeptical of minimum wage as a policy prescription because it only redivides the pie rather than growing the pie, at least in the short term.)
  • Better fund public education, including early childhood development programs. What is there really left to say about this, except it is shameful we haven’t been doing it all along?
  • Guaranteed minimum income, or negative income tax. The idea is to replace the hodgepodge of housing, food and other assistance programs we have now with cash outlays to the poor, which they can then decide how to spend on market price goods. (My take – it could be done in a revenue neutral way, and should appeal to rational, logical parties of all political stripes. Of course, politics and human nature are not particularly rational or logical, especially lately.)

getting out of a burning building

There’s no perfect way to get people out of a burning high rise quickly.

Fire evacuation in high-rise buildings: a review of human behaviour and modelling research

A review of literature related to fire evacuation in high-rise buildings was carried out with the following objectives, (1) to identify the key behavioural factors affecting the performance of people during a fire in a high-rise building, the singularities associated to this type of buildings and areas of future research; (2) to review the procedures and strategies currently adopted in high-rise buildings; (3) to review and analyse the capabilities of evacuation models by reviewing their current characteristics and applications in the context of high-rise building evacuations. The review included both findings on human behaviour in high-rise buildings and modelling techniques and tools. Different categories of building use were taken into account, namely office buildings, residential buildings and health care facilities. The individual or combined use of different egress components was analysed. Egress components include the use of stairs, elevators as well as alternative means of escape (e.g., sky-bridges, helicopters, etc.). The effectiveness of the egress components is strongly affected by the building use and the population involved. The review shows that evacuation models can be effectively employed to study relocation strategies and safety issues associated with high-rise buildings. The suitability of egress models for high-rise building evacuations is associated with their flexibility in representing different egress components and complex behavioural processes. The review highlights that there is not a definitive model to be used but that the predictive capabilities of evacuation modelling techniques would be enhanced if more than one model is employed to study different egress aspects. Future research and model developments should focus on the study of the impact of staff actions, group dynamics and people with disabilities. Given the increasing height of buildings and the gradual reduction in the physical abilities of the population, the effects of fatigue on evacuation need further studies.

Philadelphia’s comprehensive subway system

Like Boston, New York, Chicago, and many European cities, Philadelphia had a plan to build a comprehensive subway system early in the 20th century. Hidden City Philadelphia describes why most of it was never built.

The “Taylor Plan” outlined creating subway lines along Chestnut, Walnut and Arch Streets, a loop to distribute riders of the Broad Street Subway around City Center, a spur into Northeast Philadelphia on Roosevelt Boulevard, and a line along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to points north. In his plan, Taylor outlined this Parkway line as an extension of the Broad Street Line, which eventually opened with service from City Hall to Olney Avenue on September 1, 1928. The Parkway-Roxborough (or Northwestern) line would have started as an subway at City Hall and then proceed below the Parkway to 29th Street, where it would have continued as an elevated line to Henry Avenue, following that road north past Wissahickon Creek…

The majority of Taylor’s planned routes never came to be nor did Philadelphia’s original transit master plan. Taylor was replaced in 1916 by a more pragmatic transit commissioner, William S. Twining, who took exception to many of Taylor’s ideas. Where Taylor saw transit as a stimulant of growth, Twinning believed that lines should only be built where there was already demand…

The last gasp of an enhanced mass transit system came in July of 1929 when Mayor Harry Mackey signed an ordinance for a ten-year transit program that included the Ridge Avenue subway line, the Locust Street subway line, and several other never-built transit routes. The Mayor authorized a $55,000,000 loan that never materialized. Unlike New York City, Philadelphia did not move forward with subway expansion projects to alleviate the city’s crushing unemployment rate during the Great Depression.

It’s a sad missed opportunity. It could still be done, and in fact it is being done throughout the developing world today. But U.S. leaders generally do not have the vision or imagination to consider even the possibility of picking up a plan like this.

best practices for sidewalk closures

Here are some best practices for sidewalk closures published by the city of Oakland, California. In a nutshell, contractors have to provide a walkway rather than make pedestrians cross the street in downtown areas, expect for very short periods. The walkways have to be ADA accessible. If the walkways take up a bike lane, there has to be a safe place for the bikes to go. Barriers have to be substantial enough to actually protect pedestrians if vehicles hit them. I could walk 5 minutes in any direction in Philadelphia and see every one of these principles violated.

February 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • Russian hackers are cheating slot machines by figuring out the pattern on pseudo-random numbers they generate.
  • From a new book called Homo Deus: “For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.”