The Turmoil

Just finished The Turmoil, a fierce roar from a hardened lamb named Booth Tarkington who with it attempted to to take down the American heartland of 1914 and very nearly succeeded. For us transpo dorks, it contains fascinating descriptions of a society coming to grips with its recent surrender of safety, community and sanity to its new overlord automobile:

There was a heavy town-fog that afternoon, a smoke-mist, densest in the sanctuary of the temple. The people went about in it, busy and dirty, thickening their outside and inside linings of coal-tar, asphalt, sulphurous acid, oil of vitriol, and the other familiar things the men liked to breathe and to have upon their skins and garments and upon their wives and babies and sweethearts. The growth of the city was visible in the smoke and the noise and the rush. There was more smoke than there had been this day of February a year earlier; there was more noise; and the crowds were thicker – yet quicker in spite of that. The traffic policemen had a hard time, for the people were independent – they retained some habits of the old market-town period, and would cross the street anywhere and anyhow, which not only got them killed more frequently than if they clung to the legal crossings, but kept the motormen, the chauffeurs, and the truck-drivers in a stew of profane nervousness. So the traffic policemen led harried lives; they themselves were killed, of course, with a certain periodicity, but their main trouble was that they could not make the citizens realize that it was actually and mortally perilous to go about their city…

There’s something sort of naive and juvenile in his determination to make this charging, heaving, American machine take a breath and a look in the mirror, but he does it with a passion that’s charming. Worth a read.

ps he’s the guy who wrote The Magnificent Ambersons, which Orson Welles later filmified.

Walkable City

The great tragedy of urban planning is that its practitioners, constantly challenged by their arch nemeses the civil engineers, feel compelled to discuss it as though it were a science. Confusion here is understandable, both because it’s common practice in the radically libertarian United States to consign all planning tasks to the engineering office (or alternately in the radically corporatist United States to the economic development office), and because, as a bureaucratic practice, planning comes with a plethora of codes, ordinances, regulations, and complicated maps.

Planning is not a science anymore than music, with its galaxy of modes, notations, and technologies, is a science. Just like there is no one song for every situation (well, maybe MacArthur Park), there is no one planning technique for every situation. Even worse, there is no one set of proscriptions that apply to a given set of conditions. In other words, urban planning doesn’t have an instruction manual, it can’t have an instruction manual, it can only be done well by someone with an eye who takes time to know a subject location intimately.

But if urban planning did have an instruction manual, Walkable City by Jeff Speck would comprise an important chapter. As you might guess, I see that both as a strength and a weakness. On the strength side, it’s probably the most complete and readable compendium of the current state of urbanist thinking (the urbanists being the faction that dominates discussion in the planning field, if not practice) on urban design. Speck does a great job organizing what is in reality a complex set of tools and approaches into 10 comprehensible categories. An example is the chapter Make Friendly and Unique Faces, which I’d summarize as the need to front public space (e.g. parks and streets) with permeable or at least interesting building frontages. Speck of course goes deeper than that, to cite just two examples: demanding parking ramps have first floor retail or be hidden on the interior of blocks, and recommending right-sized parks that facilitate recreation but don’t cut neighborhoods off from each other. These two topics could have been covered in a chapter about parking ramps and a chapter about open space, respectively, but by instead organizing them according to their effect, rather than their mere form, Speck guides the reader to the next level. This approach is a means of understanding the components that make up a place not just as a collection of Dungeons and Dragons characters with their various powers and differing attribute points, but as a collection of unique individuals that don’t always fit into categories and come together with unpredictable results. This approach is an artistic one.

Unfortunately it is not found consistently through the book. Speck too often falls in the engineeringist trap of absolute declarations. One that rubs me the wrong way is his insistence that on-street parking is always a good thing for a street. Certainly, in a place with high parking demand on-street parking will act as a buffer for pedestrians against the motorized traffic in the roadway. But even this is only beneficial if the parking also has the effect of making the roadway feel narrower for moving traffic, resulting in reduced speed – too often (Lake St in Uptown is a local example) roadways are designed with 12′ traffic lanes and 12′ parking lanes, in which case the parking is also a mental buffer for motorists, who can speed through their expressway without having to draw their attention to the human life in the margins. And on-street parking can have a significant downside at intersections if not paired with bump-outs or at least significant clear zones, since parked cars can often obscure any traffic using crosswalks to a turning motorist. Finally, on-street parking is only a buffer if it’s used. Empty parking spaces, as can be seen locally on 38th St, are just a psychological widening of the roadway, predictably increasing top speeds of cars and degrading the walking experience. For all the buffer that on-street parking can provide, a well-landscaped and ample boulevard is just as good a buffer, as can be experienced on Chicago’s State Street or even in places on our own Hennepin Ave. My point, of course, isn’t that on-street parking is always a bad buffer, but rather that it’s one of many tools in the toolbox and shouldn’t be universally prescribed as Speck seems to do at a couple points in his book.

But such absolutist moments are the exception, which is itself exceptional. The best ever book on urban planning – Death and Life of course – took an artistic approach as well, famously describing cities as a sidewalk ballet that couldn’t be taken apart and rebuilt as so many interchangeable or even reliably specialized lego blocks. Unfortunately, Jane Jacobs didn’t win the 20th century, the engineers did. And so engineeringese has predominated in too much of the planning discussion, which wastes vast quantities of hot air attempting to prove that because such and such a signal timing or so and so code phrasing worked in Town A, it’ll do the same thing in City B. While not perfect, Walkable City is a step in the right direction towards a discourse that acknowledges that cities are not perfect either, and as such there is no perfect approach to urban planning.

Binge Traveling: Phoenix, or The Worst City

A possible test for the presence of even minute traces of ecological awareness in an individual is to ask whether he or she feels a disconnect when golfing in a desert

A couple months ago when I posted about my plans to travel from Minneapolis to Phoenix to transport my grandmother, I was waaaaaay too easy on Phoenix.  Just because I happen to be a pretentious snob doesn’t mean Phoenix doesn’t deserve the scorn I heap upon it, which I should have known thanks to my having visited the town far too many times.  But wrapped up in my own white middle-class critiques, I also wasn’t aware of just how terrible Phoenix is.

It all came flooding back when we arrived, coming from the east on the enormous Beeline Hwy that mysteriously carries heavy traffic through deserted mountains, and then stopping and starting through 15 miles of thick suburbia on 8-lane Shea Blvd, somehow congested at midday on a Monday.  Sure, Phoenix is one of the most auto-dependent cities in the country, and I took pictures of endless parking lots with views of dessicated peaks, and even worse, the serpentine sidewalks that constantly meander around turn lanes and curb cuts.  But I had no idea how truly bad Phoenix was until I read, upon my return to relatively green Minnesota, Bird On Fire.

I wasn’t expecting much from this book, to be honest.  Being from flyoverland, I get defensive when a guy from NYC writes a book about a city that’s not on the coast without even moving there.  And as someone who has gone to somewhat ridiculous lengths to avoid flying to or from Phoenix, I scoffed at how often he had to commute to Phoenix by plane in order to write a book about how damaging to the environment Phoenix is.

South Phoenix Industrial Hellscape

But to tell the truth, I ate it up.  The guy knows his narrative journalism, and peppers the book with characters that have analogues to Minneapolis:  the urban-pioneering artist, the hippie farmer, the vaguely green mayor.  But things started getting heavy when I read the chapter on environmental injustice in South Phoenix, which is home to 85040 or what the author calls “the nation’s dirtiest zip code.”  I’m going to reproduce a few paragraphs that make me feel a little douchey for complaining that someone refused to yield to me in a crosswalk:

CRSP [a coalition of South Phoenix resident organizations] was formed in 1992 after fire gutted a circuit-board manufacturing facility (Quality Printed Circuits) in a South Phoenix neighborhood not far from the riverbed.  In the aftermath of the 12-hour fire, which burned off several thousand pounds of sulfuric acid and hydrogen fluoride, residents complained of a wide range of illnesses… City Hall, it transpired, had granted the company a permit to rebuild in the same neighborhood after a smaller but similar kind of fire burned down its former facility in 1989, and the new permit actually included an exemption for installing overhead sprinklers.  After the 1992 fire, tests of selected homes conducted by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) found evidence of elevated fluoride and zinc concentrations, but the agency concluded that no adverse health impacts would result.  Several years later, more systematic EPA tests found statistically significant levels of these chemicals that were consistent with the symptoms.  Residents had been living for several years with poisons and toxics circulating through the air ducts of homes that lay downwind from the fire.  Many of the houses were subsequently demolished, but lax, or nonexistent, ADEZ inspections of other facilities in South Phoenix all but guaranteed that other fires would break out.

In August 2000, the area saw one of its worst airborne toxic catastrophes when the main warehouse of Central Garden, the Valley’s largest supplier of pool and lawn chemicals, exploded and caught fire.  “It was like the Fourth of July,” recalled Pops [founder of CRSP].  Firemen, motorists, and residents were captured vomiting in the streets on nightly news footage as the blackened fumes billowed far and wide.  The fire burned for two days, hundredes ended up in the hospital, and many died or suffered debilitating ailments in the years following.  Emergency responders had no idea what chemicals they were dealing with, and to this day, no adequate inventeory of the warehouse contents has been compiled.  ADEZ only tested air quality for standard hydrocarbon releases and, five days after the fire, announced that there was no “public health concern” to the residents of South Phoenix.  Yet, a month later, the agency’s water tests, not announced to the public, showed arsenic at 100 times the maximum level allowable for drinking water.  In the fire’s aftermath, community pressure stepped up to legislate electronic reporting of the hazardous contents of facilities.

Something funny in the water, from Bird on Fire

Inspired by the high degree of citizen involvement after the 1992 fire, Pops’s organization looked to other sites that needed preemptive action.  The area’s hazardous waste management facilities (five of the city’s seven were located in South Phoenix) were an obvious target, and one in particular, operated by Innovative Waste Utilization, stood out as a threat to the entire neighborhood.  The former owner of the site, which had several contaminated areas, including one from a significant arsenic spill, had operated for seventeen years without a permanent permit and had been allowed by the ADEZ to store hazardous waste (including DDT and lead) exported from California.  When the new owner applied for an expansion of the facility in 1999, Pops and other activists responded with a civil rights complaint aimed at the ADEQ’s long-term complicity in allowing toxic waste facilities to cluster in their neighborhoods.  The expansion permit process was arrested, but the agency still approved a permit to store hazardous waste.  The company subsequently contracted with the state of California to accept toxic waste collected in West Coast methampetamine busts.  Pops recalled that “the stench in the neighborhood was so vile that we accused the city and county of burning animals in incinerators.”  Over time, employees took to selling the seized chemicals to local meth labs, and the facility was raided in 2003.  “The odor,” Pops reported, “stopped immediately when the place was busted” and then shut down by the ADEZ.  The state legislature, outraged that the agency had finally found some regulatory teeth, debated whether to abolish it.

A state with leaders so dedicated to free markets that they threaten to shut down an agency that infringes on the community’s narcoentrepreneurs is a good indication of what Phoenix is about:  growth.  But is that so different from the Twin Cities?  Minneapolis’ last comp plan was dedicated in the title to delivering growth, which modified by that adjective ‘sustainable’ may mean that the City wants to sustain growth indefinitely.  St Paul’s last mayor, Randy Kelly, had a focus on population growth that was only matched by his dedication to the reelection of George W. Bush.  And those are just the two cities in the metro area that aren’t actually growing.

The Twin Cities don’t necessarily measure well against Phoenix on “green” living.  Their light rail system is around 7 miles longer, with a bus system that provides much better coverage for local routes, if their frequency is comparatively pathetic.  Minneapolis may out-brag Phoenix when it comes to biking, and I’m not sure of either metro’s total mileage, but Phoenix claims 500 miles of bikeways (including routes, signed or unsigned), and based on maps I’d guess they’re fairly comparable.  Phoenix is a truly terrible place to walk, but the Twin Cities are pretty bad themselves, outside of maybe a few core neighborhoods.

So our superiority complex will have to rest on the damaged lungs and carcinogenic water of South Phoenix.  While not without environmental justice issues, the Twin Cities have nothing on the scale of South Phoenix, the dumping ground for all their heavy industry.  Phoenix is notorious for its sprawling form, but it has the framework for a multimodal paradise:  the bones of transit and cycling systems and, as noted in Bird on Fire, vacant land totaling 40% of the land area on which to add dense infill.  The trickier issue will likely be a history of pervasive environmental injustice that’s poisoned relations between different socioeconomic groups as much as it’s poisoned neighborhoods.

Oh yeah, and their primary water source is a river more than 300 miles away.

The humid desert air

Departing Barmi, next stop San Rafael

Barmi in the 6th century, from Jordi Ballonga's website

For better or for worse, children are the future, and that’s why it’s important to get them started thinking about cities now.  Just like many children are unaware that meat comes from animals, many children are unaware that suburbs come from cities, or that many cities were once suburbs, or of numerous other urban paradoxes that seem to perplex even many adults.

My interest in cities was kindled in my youth by a series of books primarily written by a professor at the University of Barcelona, Xavier Hernandez, and primarily illustrated by Jordi Ballonga, “a specialist in the illustration of urban subjects”.  Barmi and Lebek tell the story of two cities in southern and northern Europe respectively from their founding to the present (well, the late 20th century anyway).  Measuring a good 9″x12″, the books depict every phase in the development of these cities in an amazingly detailed birds-eye perspective splashed over two pages.  You will never see Barmi and Lebek on an e-reader.

A detail of a cathedral in Barmi from Jordi Ballonga's website (alas the book is black and white)

As a child, I spent hours following the two cities on their journeys through time, with each era illustrated in such incredible detail that I seemed to never run out of new unnoticed details.  (Reopening the books many years later, I see that I apparently added my own details in the form of pencil-marked walls or buildings in places.)  Perhaps less linger-worthy but no less fascinating were the pages between the birds-eyes, which gave a narrative history of the era depicted and had detailed cut-away drawings of specific buildings or infrastructure, such as cathedrals, skyscrapers, or subways.

Barmi was the first book I got, and today it is the most yellow, worn and pencil-marked.  Sometime later I got Lebek, but I never was able to find the third book in the series, San Rafael, which tells the story of a fictional city somewhere “in the region that lies south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and north of Guatemala’s Sierra de las Minas, an area that includes the Mexican state of Chiapas, Guatemala’s central region, southern Belize, and western Honduras.”  Finally I got around to digging in the children’s nonfiction stacks at the Minneapolis Central Library, where San Rafael lay waiting for me after all these years.

Uaxacmal thrives in the 4th century

While the Central American city obviously represents a history far removed from those of the earlier two books, it has the same familiar format, including the gorgeous two-page birds-eyes alternating with narrative history and details of certain buildings.  San Rafael’s story begins in 1000 BC, when a small village of corn farmers cut into the jungle on the banks of a large river, and continues through the late 20th century, by which time the small village has been replaced by a sprawling metropolis centered on a Spanish colonial center and a cultural park of preserved Mayan ruins and ringed by factories, housing projects and slums.

The writing in San Rafael is concise and unadorned enough to avoid overwhelming younger readers, but not too dumbed-down or simplistic for adults (at least this adult) to enjoy.  Hernandez doesn’t shy away from more complex topics such as class conflict or religious persecution, but perhaps could have spent a bit more time on them.  But it’s not surprising that the focus is on the physical characteristics of the city that are so brilliantly depicted by Ballonga (with the assistance of Josep Escofet for this venture).

"The game of pelota has fascinated Central America's diverse peoples for centuries."

The depictions of Mayan life are probably the most interesting parts of the book to me as a result of my unfamiliarity with the topic, and so the lack of a bibliography is probably the most obnoxious intrusion of the characteristics of children’s literature.  Scenes of villagers in the act of constructing the famous pyramidal temples – “Stonemasons squared blocks with hammers fashioned from stone.” – will excite any adult with even a remnant of imagination.  The stimulating scenes continue through the Spanish military colonization and the American corporate colonization – I just can’t emphasize enough what a jewel this book – as well as the previous two – is to anyone with an interest in cities or history or human culture or life itself.

In the course of writing this blog post, I’ve found a fourth book in the series – Umm El Madayan, which apparently depicts a North African city and is not primarily written by Xavier Hernandez or illustrated by Jordi Ballonga.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to the library to check that book out.  I promise to read it quickly – I don’t want to interfere with any younger readers who may stumble upon it, kindling their imagination and stoking a lifelong love of cities.

Cross-posted to streets.mn

Reviewing Politics and Freeways

I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted to track down the parties responsible for some dunderheaded planning decision and ask them what they were thinking.  In more violent moods, I confess to wanting to track them down and do more than ask them more than a question.

That’s why the premise of Patricia Cavanaugh’s Politics and Freeways was so intriguing to me:  the book aims to be an oral history of the contruction of the Interstates in the Twin Cities, as told by the engineers and policymakers giving birth to them, and the activist groups intending to abort.  Sensibly but frustratingly, the persons interviewed for the book were kept anonymous, probably for reasons like the second sentence of this blog post.

Mysteriously, the book never really picks up its mission, and relies more heavily on newspaper articles and government documents than the dozens of interviews the author conducted.  While that move gives Politics and Freeways more legitimacy as a history, it robs the book of the personal touch that would have made it a more compelling story.  At a slim 125 pages, I think the book could have incorporated more of those personal perspectives and emerged perhaps a bit more frayed but  not overly long.  At the very least, an appendix with transcripts of the interviews would have been valuable.

Politics and Freeways is still a good read for anyone interested in local history or the influence of politics on infrastructure.  The coverage of the early era of Interstate construction, that of I-35 and I-94, is a bit short, but still summarizes the action and provides useful details.  For example, the route of I-94 originally followed the design of City Planning Engineer Hermann Olson through the Seward neighborhood, crossing the river around 26th Street, but was detoured to its present route through the mechanations of the wealthy and connected downtown business interests.  Cavanaugh seems to mostly take her interviewee’s word for it, crediting the efficacy of citizen advocacy for burying the planned elevated segments of I-94 through St Paul, when really the generous layer of topsoil in the Twin Cities made a sunken construction cost-competitive with the extensive framework of an elevated freeway.  In a final dubious detail, Cavanaugh cites a Minneapolis Star article pricing the 9-odd miles of I-94 built in the 60s at $80m, which would be around $490m today.  Excuse my skepticism that a project that purchased and destroyed some 80 blocks of fully-developed urban fabric cost around the same as I-394, which was built largely on existing right-of-way.

I’m not as interested as Cavanaugh in the era from the 70s to the 90s, in which freeway construction was delayed and eventually forced to incorporate (or at least appear to consider) the opinions of neighbors.  This era saw the cancellation of I-335, the planned segment that leveled several blocks of Old St Anthony so commuters from New Brighton would be able to shave off a minute or two of their drive. Cavanaugh does a good job of describing the debate that occurred in this era, and how the cancellation of this segment was as much due to the development of the I-394 downtown spur as a replacement as due to the efforts of city activists to stave off more destruction.  I wish the author had devoted as many words to the earlier era as she did to this one.

Ultimately the historical documentation in Politics and Freeways succumbs to Cavanaugh’s academic interest in creating lessons out of the events she describes.  While the latter is valuable, what we really need is the former.  The Interstates impact most of us every day to some degree, and most of us have never lived a life without them, but it is important to imagine what life was like before they were built and the process that led to their construction if we are to truly understand our options in future transportation decisions.  To that end, Patricia Cavanaugh does us a great service with her book.  If you have wasted any time reading my blog, I urge you to spend it more wisely in the future by reading Politics and Freeways.