“The Future Is Not Retro”: Urbanist Realities and “Her”banism

•September 9, 2019 • Leave a Comment

The massively urbanized, but not entirely alienating, Los Angeles of Spike Jonze's Her

Alon Levy, an urbanist whose crunchiness I’ve greatly admired, makes a point I’ve routinely tried to make about the future of “urbanist” urban development:

If you want to see what 21st-century TOD looks like, go to the richer parts of East Asia, especially Tokyo, which builds much more housing than Hong Kong and Singapore. The density in Tokyo is anything but uniform. There are clusters of high-rise buildings next to train stations, and lower density further away, even small single-family houses fronting narrow streets far enough from train stations that it’s not economical to redevelop them. It offends nostalgic Westerners; the future often does.

via The Future is not Retro — Pedestrian Observations

Asian development patterns do seem to offend the West. A region whose rapid development, growth, and rise to affluence is most recent and thereby the most prominent bellwether for that of others has shocked international tastes to the point that there are pejoratives like “Bladerunnerization” thrown at these kinds of logistics by virtue of their existence.

But exist they do, and in a time of climate reckoning, exist they must. Media acknowledges these realities implicitly often by filming near-future settings in China, whose massive and recent cities (Shenzhen is not even 40 years old and has 20 million inhabitants in its commuter shed) are at once impressive, shocking, and unrecognizable to Western audiences.

This was the case with Her, the 2013 Spike Jonze joint about a relationship between Joaquin Phoenix and his digital assistant. In addition to being a fantasy about Millennials in midlife, it is also a vision of the future of urban development, as might be necessitated by migration and environmental realities. It is set in a massively densified Los Angeles, which does not play itself – Beijing and Shanghai largely stand in for this conceptual urbanism. It is incredibly vast, but in soft glow – a city of skyway piazzas connected by seamless and extensive rail transportation.

Ironically, this isn’t terribly different from the redevelopment of Tysons Corner underway as a consequence of the relatively recent Silver Line expansion – Tysons Corner Center built itself a front room in the form of a piazza opening onto a skyway and metro entrance, a seasonal lawn and/or skating rink lined with new entrances to its anchor stores, restaurants, and hotels. The mall was retrofit to accommodate the opportunities represented by the reality of its new logistics.

Western urbanists need to accept that densification, while necessary, will likely not take the form of either the town centers we’re familiar with nor the mid-century modernist megaprojects that gave us the likes of Pruitt-Igoe. It appears developers and planners will borrow richly from both, but create a new contemporary vision for urban life. It is the responsibility of planners to ensure that this vision not only meets the demands of the present crises of affordability and environment but represents the desires of the broader public.

“McMansion Hell” is Architectural Jargon Heaven

•September 5, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Everyone who loves architecture should read McMansion Hell. He occasionally drifts into the neotrad trap of putting the pictures in the wrong order, but he has a strong case for the three primary aesthetic failures of McMansions: they’re too busy, they’re cheap things pretending to be expensive things, and they fail to understand the vernacular styles they poorly mimic.

Anyway, he uses the word “McNub” for what I called a “Georgian ziggurat” – a mad, terraced roof line that’s haunted me ever since my teenage years had me drive by Pat Robertson’s CBN compound, wondering if the deal he made with a dark god had him build a Mesoamerican pyramid out of brick and cover it with cheap shingles. If I can muster up pictures, I will – that thing was galling.



Build It And They Might Not Come

•September 4, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Casinos (and even eds-and-meds) are the economic base equivalent of gnawing off your own limbs: desperate, and superficially nourishing, but….

Granola Shotgun

I have conversations with folks all across the country who are concerned about the state of their town’s financial status . They keep coming to the same conclusion. “We’re doing absolutely everything we can to make our town solvent, but it isn’t working.”

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Town X already has a premium outlet mall out by the highway that was supposed to generate loads of sale tax revenue. The beauty of an outlet mall is that there are no homes or residents to burden municipal services – only cash registers. That worked for a while. But now every other town on the highway also has some version of an outlet mall so the shops are languishing. In response, this same town just built three! shiny new clusters of big box stores along the same highway using the same theory of economic development. And this is a town that’s had a strict slow…

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•April 4, 2015 • Leave a Comment

The Nation appears to have discovered Richmond:

In 2013, Richmond was the eleventh most unequal large American city (most of the cities populating the bottom tier of this collection are Southern cities). And it is ringed by suburbs which are largely inaccessible to city residents, thanks to a complete lack of public transport routes from city into suburb and by the toll-roads which were built on land previously lived on by black residents. Nearly 109,000 suburbanites commute into the city to work. Yet the city receives none of those workers’ tax dollars.

Out of sight, out of mind, Richmond’s poverty has festered for decades.

Is the Former Capital of the Confederacy Finally Ready to Confront Its Poverty—and Its Past? | The Nation.

Upcoming Event: Future of WMATA Panel

•March 16, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I have made shamefully little comment on the slow collapse of WMATA (and still have some words on the “Millennial urbanism” of Tysons and the Silver Line upcoming), but there’s a panel next monday intimating what we might be able to do about it.

WMATA Wants a Circle Line

•December 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Faced with a serious existing core capacity crush – something that’s expected to get worse when the Silver Line spreads rolling stock even thinner, at least in the interim – WMATA has decided the best long-term solution for downtown is a circle line.

True to WMATA planning tradition, the maps make it look much more complicated than it has to be. Metro went thru periods in which each train color indicated a different direction of service in the early 1980s, and more recently proposed the current Rush Plus service changes as a bifurcated blue line that intersected with itself before better design prevailed on them. Deconstructing the diagrams, we can see that this is actually a jughandle circle line combined with what appear to be express tracks bypassing “Orangington“.

Because some idiot decided to describe this one long-term concept for heavy rail as WMATA’s “long-term plan”, there’s already been tons of outrage over its lack of connectivity to just about anywhere else – neglecting the Purple Line, communities east of the Anacostia, and any number of desired extensions to Centreville, Laurel, Fort Belvoir, etc.

On one hand, this is overstated. The concept ignores existing proposals for surface transit, especially levied by other agencies like the DDOT streetcars and the Purple Line (officially an MTA project). On the other, however, this does highlight that Metro doesn’t appear to find heavy rail connectivity EOTR to be of sufficient value or importance to plan for and/or consider funding on its own, and this is a problem.

Personally, if it were my fantasy, I would combine a plan like Neil Flanagan’s circle line and Blue Line to National Harbor with various existing light rail/premetro and streetcar plans, as well as much higher frequencies, more stations and thru-operation on MARC/VRE akin to SEPTA Regional Rail, which has historically set best practices for commuter rail service in America. But as long as I’m dreaming, I’d also like Blue Line service to Landmark and Shirlington, to solve some of their respective be-on-the-way issues:

Metro 2040

The Question Of Affinity, viz. Craziness/Smelliness

•September 25, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Why I talk about intersectional affinity sometimes when I talk about urbanism, from a friend. The last paragraph is golden, and addresses something I regularly have problems with, to be frank:

The question of ‘identity politics’ – whether there is any politics without ‘identity’ or whether the description ‘identity politics’ even marks out anything coherent – is much more interesting and complex. I find virtually all blanket denunciations of ‘identity politics’ to be, well, dunderheaded. They’re invariably from people who know a fair bit of Marxism but have read virtually nothing else in the history of political philosophy, so they’re arguing some kind of straw man. Yet there’s also something about the critique which gets at something real that I’m finding it hard to articulate….

‘What! You want me to ignore class, which is produced by material relations of production, and organize ourselves around class-posterior forms of subjectivity like sexuality and race! That just divides!’ Yeah, except nothing about that characterization is true of any politics I’ve ever heard of, because it’s absurd. Why would anyone recommend that?

There’s a moment I always had with students when they would finally get to the point of extracting a main idea from a text, and then they’d push it to some kind of mutant extreme and say to me, always in this same tone, ‘Why would anyone believe that?’ To which I’d always say, well, it’s really on you to figure that out. (By that, I meant on us, because this was a class, and it was a teachable moment, but in the privacy of your own home it probably is on you.)

Partly, it may be you’re missing what they’re really saying. It may also be you don’t get the context yet, or understand what the idea is trying to do. But you’ve missed something.

For all the problems of such a notion, there really does need to be a moment of interpretive charity – if the idea seems to you an insane dead fish, just lying there, crazy and smelly, please consider that you may actually have it wrong, and you should try to figure out why a smart person may have said this, other than that they’re a crazy asshole who wants to hurt you. That should not be your first recourse.