Friday, October 29, 2010

What is a city?

This is one of my half-baked ideas from when I wrote the posts on Speck's document, expanded into a "I didn't have time to write you a short blog post, so I wrote you a long one" post.

So, what is a city?

This seemingly silly question is important because it cuts deep into a lot of the important ideas behind plans like Speck's and highlights the source of the complaints about it: Why do it?  Why have cities?  If we can't define what we're trying to have here, we can't have a constructive discussion about it.

The dictionary defines a city simply as "a place bigger than a town" whereas a town is "a place that isn't rural."  OK, that's totally useless, so here is my definition: 

"A city is a place where humans chose to live closely together.  They do so to engage in trade and for economic opportunities, for convenience, and to participate in the development, expression, and consumption of culture.  The economic basis for the city and its expression of culture -which can only occur in an economically prosperous climate- defines the settlement and contributes to the unique characteristics of a city as well as the cohesiveness of its citizenry."  

This definition held well for thousands of years, but over time, it has started to fall apart a bit as technologies have changed.  Where does it still hold, where has it lost ground, and what does that mean?  After the jump.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Albany, New York

As I mentioned previously on my old site, I spent my college years in Troy, NY.  Troy is across the river and just to the north of the state capital of Albany.  The Albany area...how do I put this nicely...like much of the Northeast, has had ... challenges? ... with urban blight over the past 30, 40 ... 50 years.  I've always felt it's a region with so much history, character and potential, but for some reason, nothing seems to be going their way out there.  But, like here in the Merrimack Valley, there is a can-do spirit out there.  Their paper, The Times Union, appears to have a blog writer who covers urban issues as part of his real estate task.

So, I was Googling around today and by chance stumbled across an interesting blog post associated with the Times Union.  The article was Poll result: Interstate 787 was a big mistake.  The brief article, and many of the comments (this paper, unlike ours, seems to be written for and by a left-leaning populace*), discuss how the riverside interstate highway, much like Boston's old Central Artery, cut the city off from its waterfront.  As someone who lived in the area for years and drove 787 plenty, it's worse than that even because it's underused.  Worst traffic jam in Troy?  Trying to head east out of the city on Route 7, where it went from four lanes to two, on its way to Troy's suburban grocery store and Wal-Mart (the closest grocery store to downtown Troy closed about 2002).  Being ex-rural soon-to-be perfect suburbia out there, there were no real alternate routes.  Back to Albany: Albany's population has fallen from 130,000 in 1950 to about 95,000 today.  While I won't claim that 787 destroyed Albany (I don't think that's fair), it also didn't help it thrive at all.

In Lowell, we might lament the JFK Civic Center.  Well, look what Albany did to itself in the 1960s (allegedly in response to redeveloping a blighted neighborhood): Empire State Plaza.  That's right: tore down an entire neighborhood (about half the size of the North End) for an underground mall, a dead plaza, and some international-style concrete high-rises.

Take a look at an areal view of downtown Albany: note all the pavement, the expressways, how they cut the downtown in half and away from the river.  Look at the Empire State Plaza mega-block, then notice all the vacant lots around downtown (this article on a site by a retired San Francisco urban planner, compares what's wrong with Albany with what's right with Portland, OR).

But, like I said, people out there, like people here, are getting it.  Notice this anti-freeway letter to the editor:  Don't Widen the Northway.

It is nice to see that, at least in some (sizable) circles, interest in re-urbanizing America.  It's nice to see things like Speck's report here in Lowell, and the sentiments of preservation and human-scale living in places in much worse shape, like the Capital District around Albany.  It's also always heartening to see how well Lowell does at this stuff in relation to other struggling cities in the United States.

* A left-leaning media source is going to favor "socialist" topics like urban planning, so why The Sun supports taxpayer-funded, subsidized things like the Hamilton Canal District and Speck's plan is beyond me to be quite honest.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Lowell Downtown Evolution Plan - full report

Jeff Speck's full plan is now available here.  It's over 150 pages with over 100 pages not being full of traffic count data.  I read most of it, skimming a few sections (traffic data included in skipped).  While I'd love to recommend you read it, it's pretty long, so I took care of that ;-)

My summary, a few choice excerpts and a few of my thoughts after the jump.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Latent Demand

I've made two separate attempts tonight to write a post about the Executive Summary for Jeff Speck's Lowell Downtown Evolution Plan; both went wildly off-topic and lacked focus.  So, here's a third try.  Perhaps if I focus on a very precise topic, I'll have better luck.  Expect the rest of my thoughts to be organized in the future, probably as the actual full report comes out.

Speck's plan is heavily focused, like many modern urban-design plans, on walkability and dense development oriented towards efficient use of mass-transit.  This is wildly different from the car-centric models we used throughout much of the second half of the last century.  To those familiar with the design methodologies of the past, some of Speck's ideas, like making most streets downtown two way and shrinking the width of lanes, seem totally crazy.  In addition to other complaints, the commenters on Jen Myers article often fall into this mindset (Dan Phelps, on the other hand, trusts Speck on this particular point [I'll try to get to some of the other chief complaints another time]).  In fact, many of them are supporting an extension to the Connector around downtown to get cross-town traffic off the streets and/or connection of the Rourke Bridge crossing to Route 3 as the long-discussed extension to MA-213.  After all, we had purposely made these streets wide one-way roads and eliminated on-street parking to try to eliminate the traffic issues downtown and increase businesses only 50 years ago, and people are still complaining getting into, through, or parking in downtown is too hard.  It clearly wasn't enough, so why undo it?

Because of Latent, or Induced, demand.  It's applying basic economic principles to the automobile.  The basic idea is, the more space you give to the car, the more cars will use that space.  You will never, in the long run, satisfy the car's lust for more pavement.  You will only temporarily fix the traffic problem while making the place less attractive to pedestrians.

As an example, there was a rainstorm last week that slowed the AM commute southbound on Route 3 to about 30 MPH.  My Facebook was full of people complaining about how long it took for them to get to work.  Somebody asked, "didn't we widen Route 3 to fix this!?"  Why, yes we did.  We removed all of the trees from the median and sometimes the edges, widening the highway to as many as five lanes in places from two, and what did we actually accomplish other than invading people's back yards along the right-of-way?  We helped people that were used to hour-long commutes on the old  route 3 move further away from population centers along the new route 3, where their commute will still be an hour...until more people get the same idea and slow the traffic once again.  Land usage and annual miles driven are growing far, far faster in the US than the actual population.

If we hadn't widened Route 3, what would've happened instead?  People would've made a time-is-money economic decision where they hit a tipping point: "enough is enough!".  They might've adjusted their schedules to avoid peak hours.  They might've moved closer to work.  They might've clamored for better mass-transit options along the corridor.  Their jobs might've moved closer to them.  They might've moved somewhere else entirely.  Probably all of these options encourage less gasoline use than widening the highway, and most also reduce sprawl, which is the taking of open land for automobile-oriented, low-density development.

So, pull that logic into extending the Connector into Dracut.  I personally would never live in Dracut because of the traffic situation: it's not worth the trouble, and it's only getting worse.  Adding more highway capacity to the town is going to do only one thing in the medium-term: increase development pressure on Dracut, Pawtucketville, Tyngsboro, Pelham, etc.  These towns will be more than happy to meet the demand for financial reasons.  In a few years time, we'll have added to the miles people are driving a year, while ruining the remaining rural character of the area, and helping the traffic none whatsoever.

Instead, planners like Speck suggest focusing our development efforts on compact urban areas like Lowell, and focusing on transit in particular (where mass transit can be efficient).  However, there's a mental leap here that isn't that easy to make:  While I think it's unarguable that cars have damaged Lowell, can we really say that by redesigning Lowell to not be focused on the car, that we will improve things?  What is to say that jobs will relocate to Lowell to take advantage of the now less-mobile workforce, as opposed to people and jobs just leaving the city en-masse?

I think this actually might not be that complicated of a choice when we look at all our options: either we do nothing and Lowell continues to suffer losses to suburban locations for the same reasons it has for the past 50 years, or we do something and Lowell continues to suffer losses to suburban locations for accessibility reasons.  OR - the third option, we do something, this plan actually works, and Lowell is poised to grow as a re-invigorated place to work, play, and live.