Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cause and Effect

The last decade has seen a proliferation of ideas about cities and their environment.  One theme that recurs is the idea that cities must become "cool places" with a specific set of amenities to attract college grads.  Ed Glaser has previously made that argument.  The state of Michigan under governor Granholm pushed the "cool cities" initiative which was supposed to market Michigan's cities to college grads.

The problem, of course is one of causality.  Do cities attract college grads with amenities?  Or do college grads moving into a city attract the amenities?  Adam Ozimek quotes a new book by Enrico Moretti that makes the case for the latter.

"While it is true that economically successful cities tend to be culturally rich and open-minded, he argues that Florida essentially gets the causation backwards"

It is interesting that a key piece of evidence is Berlin, a city once lauded by Matthew Yglesias for low rents. Matt writes:

"For that matter, both of those essays recapitulate things I've read elsewhere about why Berlin has Europe's hottest art scene. It's all about the rent. Berlin was built in the first half of the twentieth century to serve as the financial and business hub of the German Empire. Then during the Cold War, it was doubly-built as the industrial center of East Germany and as a subsidized showpiece of the superiority of capitalism in West Germany. Then comes reunification and it turns out that all the business in Germany is conducted in Frankfurt or Munich or Hamburg or the Rhine-Ruhr area and now you're left with this massively overbuilt city. The result -- extremely low rents compared to the western world's other major capital cities and a vibrant/innovative food/tech/scene that's the envy of the world."

Adam, by contrast, writes:

"Yet despite this, Berlin has had the highest unemployment rate in Germany over the past 10 years, nearly double the national average, and the second lowest growth in income per capita. Even the creative class are unemployed in this city: 30% of social scientists, and 40% of artists are jobless. Similarly, Tyler Cowen calls Berlin ”a big playground with relatively little business life or production, lots of space, and amazingly low rents”."

Comparatively, Chicago has low rents for a big US city, but also low pay.

For Chicago the problem of affordable housing stock is tied into both supply of housing stock and wages.

In 2009, renters needed to make about $33,000 annually to afford the median monthly rent of $823 in Cook County for a two-bedroom apartment while spending no more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing. The median income of renters in 2009 was $31,367. About 40 percent of Cook County households are renters.

The median household income in Chicago trail Illinois' average and the general US average.  For Chicago, with no shortage of amenities, things are looking more like Berlin.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Chicago then and now: Grand Central Station

Chicago's Grand Central Station sat on the corner of Wells and Harrison from 1890 until it was demolished in 1971.

Via Wikipedia, looking south down Wells in 1963


The same view down Wells taken in 2011.

I previously explored this area and now can come full circle.  New construction is taking place.  Apparently a new coal fired power plant is being built on the site.  Or maybe not and the power plant story is just a hoax.  Regardless, something is being built here.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Master Plan

Successful cities have long engaged in successful planning.  The apotheosis of this is the city "Master Plan", a key to guide the city through a successive era of growth.  Cities have the responsibility of infrastructure, and that requires long term coordination.  Roads, sewers, and other such basic implements of everyday life must be built and maintained.  If a city is growing in population then ancillary services such as schools must be built.  But not every city has been successful.  It stands to reason that not every master plan is successful, therefore there is a great importance in creating a quality master plan.

Quite possibly the gold standard in city planning was Haussmann's plan for Paris.  It is interesting to note that some of the features of the plan were a reflection of the day's scientific thinking.  Rending the terrible old medieval city asunder:

For centuries Paris had grown with no plan and by 1850 the population was over one million, having doubled since 1800. By 1848 the streets were dark, evil-smelling, polluted with noise and smoke, and appalling to the senses. Moreover, the center of Paris, inhumanely overpopulated, was a labyrinth of alley-like passages with hundreds of narrow, airless routes clogged with heavy wagon, carriage, horse and pedestrian traffic. So serious was the traffic problem that the streets were a menace for pedestrians, many were run over and frequently they died. Here rains formed deadly pools infected with the organic matter of fermented excreta. Pedestrians often fell into one of the numerous "city matter" cesspools that formed overnight.

The majority of these sunless passages still, in 1848, as in Medieval times, depended on streams in the gutters to carry rain, the dregs of stagnant water and garbage, raw sewerage and all other miasmic accumulations to the nearest, hopelessly inadequate underground sewer. More than a quarter of the city's streets had no water conduits. Rain caused the streets' gutters to overflow into ground level buildings, courtyards and cellars. Small wonder that Paris had the highest death rate in the country. Only one house in five had iron pipes and running water and this luxury, limited to the ground floor, seldom produced clean drinking water. Only the upper economic groups could afford to have drinking water delivered.

The success of this plan is reflected in the Paris of today.  Or, one can measure it by counting the number of cities that have at one time or another considered themselves the Paris of the __.

Not the first city plan, to be sure.  Even in America's early youth cities engaged in long term planning.  New York's 1811 Commission is another benchmark in urban planning.  You can see how both the 1811 Commission and Haussmann's Plan both left a huge impact on the character and growth of the city for over a century.

Detroit's current master plan is available to read online.  It is largely descriptive rather than prescriptive.  It gives no clear guide for how the city should change over the next few years.  Should Detroit plan on losing population?  If so, how should the city react to that?  For example on infrastructure:

GOAL 1: Promote regional growth management through infrastructure investments 
Policy 1.1: Utilize regional agencies as a forum for evaluating infrastructure needs. 
Policy 1.2: Prioritize regional infrastructure improvements that repair existing infrastructure before adding new capacity. 
Policy 1.3: Ensure infrastructure projects do not adversely impact disadvantaged communities or the natural environment. 
Policy 1.4: Advocate for new growth areas to assume more of the cost of new infrastructure.

No plan is a plan.  How should the city manage all the acres of vacant land?  Should the city continue to maintain streets that no longer service traffic?  Should the city fence these areas off?  Police them?  Keep them as wild frontier?  These are important questions which ultimately will be decided in time.

One can go back and re-evaluate the 1992 master plan for Detroit.  What were the goals of the plan?  Were they met?

Chicago too has a long history of plans.  Most famous is Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago from 1909, from whence the aphorism "make no small plans" originates. Interestingly Daniel Burnham had extensive experience in drafting city plans prior to the 1909 plan.

Burnham accepted his first such offer in 1901 as head of the McMillan Commission, a group charged with developing an architectural plan for the development of Washington, D.C. Influenced by Pierre L'Enfant's partially realized 1791 plan for the city, the Commission revived much of that scheme while adding to and amending it in order to satisfy current needs and sensibilities. The plan created the National Mall, the Burnham-designed Union Station and the Lincoln Memorial which was not completed until 1922. The Cleveland Group Plan—conceived in 1903 by Burnham, John Carrère, and Arnold Brunner—was built largely as the group envisioned, as a mall consisting of several formally landscaped parks flanked by a series of neoclassical civic and governmental buildings. The implementation of the San Francisco Plan of 1905, however, was sacrificed to the the calamity of the 1906 earthquake and fire. Burnham's final city plans, for the Philippine cities of Manila and Baguio, were developed concurrently in 1905. The Manila Plan, which was to redevelop portions of the city south of the Pasig River, was formal in nature though uniquely sensitive to the city's physical characteristics. Unlike the largely unrealized Manila Plan, the Baguio Plan for the Philippine summer capital was an opportunity for Burnham to design a completely new city.

Do current city planners have such a resume?  The appointed chair of the Chicago Plan Commission is Martin Cabrera Jr., who seems to have no experience in city planning.  Several aldermen sit on the Commission, including Edward Burke, an attorney by education with apparently no previous urban planning experience prior to holding public office.

From the website one can read several plans for different aspects of development and different areas of the city, but no grand master plan.  Is it merely a coincidence that the city is no longer growing?  Consider the CTA and its future plans, which seem to be uncoordinated with other aspects of the city's plans.  Wouldn't it make sense for the CTA to plan in accord with an overall goal for the city's growth?

A tale of two red line stops.

Many of the master plans from the 19th and 20th century reflect the rapid industrialization of the era.  Consideration for planning railroad lines and train stations, sewer lines and water treatment, was essential for the growth of the city.  And city planners were well aware of the nature of the times.  I question if today's civic leaders are aware of the times.  One of the most successful American cities of the 21st century is New York, and their plans seem to be the most well written and the most acutely aware of the economy of the 21st century.  Compare this plan for West Harlem in New York with this plan for the South Works in Chicago.  New York's plan is longer, more detailed, and is prescriptive in tackling some of the real challenges of financing and coordination.  Chicago less so, and Detroit's plans resemble an undergraduate presentation, sadly.

The best laid plans do not always come to fruition.  I am not arguing that the city plan is the end all be all of a city's success, however one chooses to measure it.  A good plan poorly executed or ignored completely is not to blame.  And sometimes cities thrive despite a poor plan or none at all.  Coming full circle we see the Haussmann's Plan being executed completely - critics would say ruthlessly - to fruition.  And you will know a good master plan by the fruit of its labors.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The old face of new

On the south side of Chicago, redevelopment burns away at a slow crawl.  Sandwiched between 105th and 107th street in the Washington Heights neighborhood, a new block of single family residences is going up.  Unlike developments ten years ago, this is going up one house at a time.

Beverly Ridge

This area is next to the expressway and has a Metra stop at 103rd.  It isn't that far from the the southern terminus of the red line at 95th, and is fairly close to the more frequent subline Metra service in East Beverly, which you can see on the far left side of the map.

Beverly Ridge

This is the only home currently under construction.  Interestingly the homes seem to be constructed piecemeal.  Some are adjacent to other homes and some are, like this one, alone.

Beverly Ridge

One thing that won't be built on is the center lot.

the city will create a two-acre park at the center of the development.

The architectural style in particular strikes me.  Highly reminiscent of late 19th century architecture, the use of brick instead of wood (at least for the front facade) is also very similar to old Chicago neighborhoods, which used brick after the Great Chicago Fire.

Beverly Ridge

If you came here blindfolded, you might get the impression that this was a new development on the edge of suburbia.  Not only is this large area building up from empty lots, it is also next to a trail and some small wilderness.

Beverly Ridge

Major Taylor Trail, which looks like an old train line repurposed, which it is.

Beverly Ridge

Beverly Ridge

This home is not part of the new development.  Across the street, it stands in contrast to the new homes in every way.  Squat and with a front driveway, it is short and wide to the new tall and narrow.  The fleet of cars in the driveway is also reminiscent of the the far far suburbs.  It, as well as the home next door, has a large yard; far larger than the new developments.

Beverly Ridge

Not much of a back yard, which is common in Chicago.  In some places intrepid developers will put a deck on top of the garage roof.  No one has yet done that here, but you never know what will be built.

New home prices are far below the original plans.

Where the original developer had priced the residences from $300,000 to $500,000—and managed to sell only five—Smagala listed them from $179,000 (for buyers who qualify under the city’s affordable-housing rules) to $285,000.

Beverly Ridge

I personally prefer front porches, and a few homes have them.  The homes at the end of the block tend to have the large front bay window.  I wonder if that is coincidence or part of the plan?  I didn't come at the right time to check in with the front office to see.

Beverly Ridge

Having the front of the house close to the street and the garage in a back alley is typical of houses built in Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century.  In a way we have come full circle in the last 100 years.  I haven't yet discovered what was built here before.  Maybe one day I will get to the historical society, as I'm sure they have the answers.

Beverly Ridge

It almost feels like it is lying dormant, waiting for the economy to pick up at which point it will spring to life.  Only time will tell if that's true.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Sprawl from above?

Today's urbanists often debate the merits of different forms of streets.  Once upon a time in America, streets were laid down in a grid.  Downtown Chicago is but one of many examples of this regular repetition of right angles.

We see most streets intersect at right angles and run in almost perfect parallels and perpendiculars.  Very few are dead ends.  This in constrast with the cul-de-sac.

You can see that the roads have fewer parallels, perpendiculars, and right angle intersections.  This looks, from above, remarkably similar to something quite a bit older.

Yes, Dublin Ireland.  And ancient city with a downtown full of winding streets and dead ends.  The difference is, of course, how it looks on the ground.  But we are looking at downtown Dublin.

I have yet to see a street like this in Buffalo Grove.  As a side note I find the sidewalks strikingly narrow.

But moving out to Chapelizod, where James Joyce set the story A Painful Case from Dubliners (1914), and going in near Phoenix park, where Joyce once got into an altercation, the view is more familiar.

This is of course Buffalo Grove, Illinois

And this Chapelizod, Dublin

I encourage you to explore with Google Maps.  Challenge your assumptions - I know I did.  The comparisons are rather striking, and lead one to question the matter of urban forms and some of the assumptions associated with them.  For example, ancient Dublin with its old neighborhoods and the way it is both similar and different from more modern American neighborhoods.