Imaginary BART map

December 9th, 2011 § Comments off § permalink

Ten-car train for Trancas in five minutes.”


October 6th, 2011 § Comments off § permalink

Yesterday was my last day as a city planner. I spent eight years in the field—six as a professional, and two as a graduate student. That’s nearly a quarter of my life.

Yesterday, of course, was also the day that Steve Jobs died.

I left my job in part because of something Steve Jobs said in his famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford University:

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.

Most of us will never be anything like Steve Jobs.1 But we can all try to make sure that we love what we do.

I’m trying. I haven’t figured everything out just yet. But I’m trying.

  1. And it’s just as well. Can you imagine a world filled with nothing but Steve Jobses? What a nightmare. []

Where it’s at (I’ve got two neologisms and a portmanteau)

February 27th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

An article in today’s New York Times Magazine about Broken Social Scene, a Canadian musical collective that’s all the rage with the kids today (including me), described one Toronto musician as having “an interest in hipsterish pursuits like urban planning.” I’ve long known that I am one trendy, trendy bastard, but there it was in black and white, and in the Times no less: My very profession is a hipsterish pursuit.

As I sat reading the article, wearing my favorite American Apparel hoodie and sporting black plastic glasses, slightly shaggy hair, and a day’s worth of stubble, I thought about commemorating the moment by taking a photo of myself using my cellphone camera. Thankfully, I stopped myself at the last possible moment, thus averting what would surely have been a cataclysmic hipstersplosion.

The power of visions

February 2nd, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

Ken Greenberg, one of North America’s most gifted urban designers, isn’t shy about high rises. Tonight at UC Berkeley, he gave a talk that focused on how cities can create great public spaces and attract high-quality private development by developing a vision that the public supports; implementing it in the public spaces that it controls; and insisting that private developers follow suit. Much of his audience was composed of mayors from Central Valley cities, most of which are about as suburban as it gets, but Greenberg showed them examples from major metropolitan centers, including Vancouver, Saint Paul, Boston, and Toronto. I have no idea what the mayors thought of, say, the residential towers in Coal Harbour, and sadly, there was no chance to ask them (nor, perhaps, would it have been prudent to do so). They’re in Berkeley for a workshop about city design, which will take place over the next few days. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for those meetings. Of course, Greenberg’s point wasn’t that it was appropriate to build 40-story towers in, say, Fairfield; it was that cities can create urbanity and lively centers when they value those qualities enough to insist upon them.

One of the techniques that Greenberg emphasized is putting forward a really great concept at the very start of the planning process, something that captures people’s imaginations and gains widespread support (ideally with some juicy watercolor renderings to back it up). In Saint Paul, for example, the architect Ben Thompson provided a vision in 1992 of the city as a “Great River Park,” oriented towards the Mississippi River. The vision continues to inspire new plans, and actual development, today.

Of course, it takes more than just a great vision to make change happen; lots of different people, even just within a city, have to get on board. In Saint Paul, a powerful nonprofit, the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation, started a design center where city officials and staff mingled and informally discussed how the goals of traffic engineering, public works, and urban design could fit together. I don’t know that that organization could be replicated elsewhere, but it’s an interesting example of how public officials can move past the political divisiveness and differences in professional training that often keep city departments from working in concert with one another.

As I left campus after the talk, I was delighted to see how foggy it was outside. I love foggy nights; they create a wonderfully noirish atmosphere in even the most banal places. Every cobra head streetlight becomes pregnant with meaning. I pedaled away from campus and flew down Telegraph Avenue on my bicycle, watching the wet mist swirl about in floating pools of light.

The spreading decline

January 9th, 2006 § One comment § permalink

From Oranges, by John McPhee:

Some foes [of orange trees] attack underground, most notably the burrowing nematode, a small worm that is the author of a disease called the spreading decline. The nematode feeds on small roots and increasingly cuts off the food supply of the tree, which dies slowly, from the top down, as more and more skeletal branches appear each year and the amount of fruit steadily decreases. When people in Florida are feeling depressed and miserable with some unspecific malady, they sometimes tell one another that they have the spreading decline. Since no one has yet found a way to kill the nematodes without killing the tree, decline brings economic disaster. Whole groves of affected trees and a surrounding margin of healthy trees often have to be bulldozed into a great pyre and burned; after the land they stood on is fumigated, it must be left empty for three years. As we drove along, [the orange grower] Mathias would now and again point to areas full of half-dead trees and say, “Decline.” Some were all but leafless, and looked like Northern apple trees in February. Once, we were on a secondary road, moving along between healthy, thick-foliaged orange groves, when perhaps fifty acres of treeless land suddenly came into view, covered with new houses, all of which looked alike. “Decline,” Mathias explained.

Pimp my density

November 13th, 2005 § Comments off § permalink

I decided to apply a little city planning analysis to my current residence. Here’s what I learned:

I live in a 16-unit apartment complex, with 12 studios and 4 one-bedrooms. There are 10 parking spaces, or 0.63 parking spaces per unit. It’s built on a 9,757 square foot parcel, according to Oakland’s parcel map, for a net density of 71 dwelling units per acre. (For comparison, a typical suburb with detached single-family homes would have about five dwelling units per acre. North Beach, in San Francisco, has about 100 dwelling units per acre.)

The buildings in the complex have two stories and are about thirty feet tall. The buildings’ total footprint on the ground is about 4,610 square feet; since they’re all two stories, its floor-area ratio is 0.94.

In a typical apartment building, 20 percent of the space on each floor is used for shared hallways and the like. Assuming that’s true in my complex, the average unit would be about 460 square feet. My own apartment, which is a studio, is about 400 square feet including the closets.

Based on a quick look at Oakland’s zoning ordinance, my apartment complex conforms to most of the current zoning regulations, even though it’s about 70 years old. That means that it could be rebuilt more or less as-is if it were destroyed (although the owners would need a conditional use permit for a multi-family building, and they would almost certainly change the floor plans to remove some of the buildings’ less-charming eccentricities).

Other songs include “One of My Protected Left-Hand Turns” and “Waiting for the ‘Burbs”

October 17th, 2005 § Comments off § permalink

I’m working on an epic rock album and film about a troubled city planner’s descent into madness. It’s called The Mall. Here are the lyrics for two of the songs, titled “The Happiest Allees of our Lives” and “Another Brick in the Mall, Part II”:

When we got into planning school
There were some professors
Who would change a streetscape any way they could

By putting London planes and benches in the right of way
No matter what the well-intentioned traffic engineers
Had to say

But in the studio, we knew when they got home at night
They led sad suburban lives
At strip malls in the SUVs they drive

We don’t need no Lewis Mumford
We don’t need no William Whyte
No traffic calming for the locals
Robert Moses had it right
Yeah! Robert Moses had it right

All in all, it’s just another brick in the mall
All in all, you’re just another brick in the mall

Turning pro

September 23rd, 2005 § Comments off § permalink

The past week has been incredibly hectic, but because of something positive—I’m starting a job next week! I’ve been hired by a consulting firm in Berkeley that does city planning work for various Bay Area cities. My job will focus on urban design, which is a tough field to summarize, but I’ll try: Urban designers focus on making cities attractive and functional for the people who use them. At a small scale, that could mean adding trees and benches to a street or requiring the first floors of buildings to have windows instead of blank walls. At a large scale, that could mean using height regulations to sculpt a city’s skyline or organizing new development around major transportation corridors. Sorry if that sounds nebulous; I’m still working on my elevator story for urban design.

Anyhow, I’ve taken advantage of my last week of unemployment to run as many errands as humanly possible, including the acquisition of what amounts to an entirely new wardrobe (and yes, a great deal of it is black; surprise, surprise). But I’ve had fun as well. On Wednesday, my friend Paula and I went to the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco to see Sean Hayes and Jolie Holland, both of whom were excellent. Last night, a bunch of friends and I went to the Latin American Club to celebrate my new job. And today, my friend Thomas and I took a walking tour of hidden public spaces in downtown San Francisco, about which I’ll post more later.

Now I’m going to spend a few minutes adjusting to the idea that I’m going to be in an actual office all day on Monday. I’ll hold off for now on thinking about Tuesday through Friday, since I don’t want to shock my system.

End of the semester

December 14th, 2004 § Six comments § permalink

A friend and I were talking in the computer lab at school, and we agreed that this semester’s defining characteristic was the frequent expenditure of enormous amounts of time and effort to produce consistently disappointing results. Not necessarily bad results, mind you, but nothing that we felt especially excited about or proud of. Ah, well. At least we have a semester left to redeem ourselves.

Besides, we’re having fun with our mediocrity. Here are some excerpts from a conversation that I had today with my partner for a group project:

Partner: We never had data on that.
Me: Yes, we did. We scribbled it down somewhere.
Partner: The thing is, we can recreate that data in five minutes just by thinking about it.

Partner: I’ll do the pedestrian “counts.”
Me: No, those are pretty legitimate. We really counted.

Partner: (about our final report) At least if it sucks, there’ll be a lot of it.

(I should mention that we’re not actually falsifying data—it’s just a somewhat abstract project, and it includes a number of estimates that are labeled as such.)

I’ve also started keeping a list of all the important city planning-related stuff of which I’m wholly ignorant. My hope is that I can correct most of these deficiencies over the next several months, making me eminently employable upon graduation and thus enabling me to pay off the $719 million of student loans I’ve taken out.

Not that school is taking up all my time. In the past few weeks, I’ve visited the Scharffen Berger factory and the Ferry Building Marketplace, seen an Iron & Wine concert, assisted in the preparation of cheese bread and potato gratin, and watched fellow students mock my professors at the department’s holiday party. But it’s mostly been all about finishing this semester.

Just a few more days to go.

Random link roundup

November 23rd, 2004 § One comment § permalink

Here are some links that I’ve been meaning to post for ages. These should keep you all busy for a while:

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