Cities and nature

August 28th, 2003 § Two comments § permalink

From Kevin Lynch, in Good City Form:

The affection for nature and the desire to be close to natural, living things are sentiments very widely held throughout the urbanized world. Settlements built according to the organic rule are attractive to us chiefly because they allow for this close contact. It is less tenable, however, that nature is what is nonhuman, and that the farther one gets from people and civilization, the more natural one becomes. By that rule, wilderness is more natural than hunting camp, hunting camp than farm, and farm than city. But people and their cities are as much natural phenomena as trees, streams, nests, and deer paths. It is crucial that we come to see ourselves as an integral part of the total living community.

In case you’re curious, the “organic rule” refers to the type of city favored by people like Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park, and Lewis Mumford. Their ideal cities are heavy on parks and other open space.

Easements and property rights

August 24th, 2003 § Two comments § permalink

In his 1968 book The Last Landscape, William Whyte wrote this extraordinarily clear explanation of what easements are and how they relate to our historical conception of property rights:

…Through the ancient device of the easement, we can acquire from an owner a right in his property–the right that it remain open and undeveloped.

To understand the device, let us go back to the origin of the term “fee simple.” In medieval times, a great lord would grant a man a tract of land to use in return for which the man would be obligated to perform certain services, or fees. The land with the fewest strings attached–the simplest fee, you might say–was the closest to outright ownership. But there were always strings.

There still are. The fee simple has never been absolute or indivisible, nor, laissez-faire economics to the contrary, have landowners inherited license to do anything they please with the land. What the landowner has is a bundle of rights–the right to build on the land, for example, or the right to grow timber on it, or to farm the land. Some rights he does not have: his riparian rights to a stream running through his property may not include throwing a dam across it. All of his rights, furthermore, are subject to the eminent domain of the state.

When we wish to acquire a man’s property, we usually buy the whole bundle of rights from him–the fee simple. But we can buy less. To achieve a particular purpose, we may only need one or a few rights in the property. We buy these, in the form of an easement, and leave the rest of the bundle with the owner.

One class of easements is positive; that is, we acquire the right to do something with part of the man’s property. A public agency may buy a right of way for a public footpath or a hiking or bicycle trail; it may buy the fishing rights so the public may use the banks of a stream. Utilities may buy a right to lay a pipeline or high-tension wires across the property, and they have not the slightest qualms about using condemnation powers to do it. Businessmen may buy rights to cut timber on the land, to graze livestock on it, or to dig minerals under it. They may buy air rights to build a structure above it, or to make sure that nobody else does. When a property is being subdivided, municipalities require the developer to give easements for sewer lines and roads. There are few properties that do not have some sort of easement on them.

The other main category of easement is negative. In this case we do not ask for physical access to the property; what we do is to buy away from the owner his right to louse it up. Through a conservation or scenic easement we acquire from the owner a guarantee that he will not put up billboards, dig away hillsides, or chop down trees; with a wetland easement, we acquire a guarantee that he will not dike or fill his marshland. Except for the restrictions, he continues to farm or use the land just as he has before; one of the main points of the easements, indeed, is to encourage him to do just that.

This is the first installment in the Pinchy Dot Org City Planning Virtual Symposium. Expect to see a lot more of this sort of thing now that I’m in graduate school.

What every parent should know about “grass”

May 19th, 2003 § Eight comments § permalink

Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times Magazine has an excellent article about Southern California’s love of lawns. (You can use “pinchydotorg” as the login and password.) The author profiles a couple that replaced their lawn with native plants, only to incur the wrath of their homeowners’ association. He also discusses the history of American lawns and considers whether California’s water shortage will lead to smaller lawns in the future.

Apparently there’s a special word for drought-tolerant landscaping—it’s called xeriscaping. I suppose I’ll have to start learning these things, since I’m going to be in the same department as a bunch of landscape architects.

Institutions

March 28th, 2003 § Three comments § permalink

I just finished reading a book called A New Theory of Urban Design, written by the architect Christopher Alexander and several of his students. After they describe their theory, Alexander and his co-authors document an experiment in which a group of students used the theory to redesign a small part of San Francisco. The students paid no attention to zoning laws or bank lending policies. They even ignored the issue of property ownership; they simply grabbed chunks of land as they needed to and proposed things to build on them. The authors acknowledge that existing laws and institutions would prevent anyone from replicating their experiment in real life. Their proposed solution is to develop new institutions, but they admit that they have no idea what sort of institutions might be needed.

I also read Jonathan Schell’s recent articles in Harper’s, in which he argues that many wars could be prevented, if the United States and other democratic countries were willing, by creating a new set of international institutions—not the United Nations, but other institutions with a different character. Again, though, he isn’t sure what sort of institutions are required.

Finally, while I was in Cambridge in October, I bought a book called The Ingenuity Gap, which argues that our ability to create social and environmental problems is outstripping our ability to find ways of solving them. The book touched briefly on the point that our existing institutions (regulatory bodies, resource management agencies, and so on) are inadequate to solve the problems we face. Once again, I don’t think the author said much about what sort of institutions we need, just that we need different ones.

So there are interesting questions underlying all of these problems. How are institutions created? How do novel types of institutions develop—do they tend to emerge fully formed, or do they evolve from existing institutions? Once an institution is created, how does it adapt to changing circumstances?

I’m sure there are raftloads of books and journals that attempt to answer these questions; do you have any recommendations?

Boxing cities in

January 21st, 2003 § One comment § permalink

Outside of London’s Tower Hill Underground station, at the beginning of what turned out to be an excellent Jack the Ripper walking tour, the guide pointed out an ancient-looking stone wall near the station’s exit. The base of the wall, he explained, dated from Roman times, when London was one square mile of land protected on all sides by the wall. Although most of the wall no longer stands, its effects linger. Jack the Ripper, for example, exploited the fact that the City of London, the area once enclosed by the wall, had a separate police force from the rest of Greater London.

Other medieval cities, such as Paris, were protected by walls as well. The walls constrained the cities’ growth and dictated the extent to which they could expand. Paris built and destroyed three walls before it gave up on them entirely. The pattern was roughly the same each time: The wall went up, and builders filled in the enclosed city; middle-class merchants started building homes just outside of the wall; eventually, a new wall was built that included the land on which the merchants lived. (Some of those details may be wrong, since I’m writing from memory, but you get the idea.)

Anyhow, all of that got me thinking about how American cities have never had walls to constrain their growth, and how urban sprawl is the natural consequence of that historical accident (especially combined with America’s land-grabbing past). It occurred to me that greenbelts sometimes act as the modern equivalent of a city wall, since greenbelts form a definite physical boundary that limits an urban area’s size. There are obvious differences—once breached, for example, a greenbelt can’t simply be rebuilt—but it was an interesting comparison to think about during my vacation.

Suburb of the future?

October 28th, 2002 § Comments off § permalink

A new housing development in Brisbane, Australia promises to be one of the world’s most ecologically sustainable communities. Residents will generate their own energy from solar panels and sewage digesters, treat their own wastewater on site, and even grow some of their own food.

Harlem gentrification

September 23rd, 2002 § Four comments § permalink

The Village Voice has an interesting, evenhanded take on how gentrification is affecting Harlem. Many of Harlem’s residents have very low incomes by New York City standards—the median income in Harlem is $26,000—but apartments are being rented at market rate for the entire city, and Manhattanites have begun to discover the area’s classic brownstones and new rental properties.

If you aren’t sure what gentrification means or how it happens, this article is an excellent starting point.

Respect for the living

September 8th, 2002 § Comments off § permalink

The New York Times, led by its architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, unveiled its proposal for the World Trade Center site today. The proposal displays a breathtaking disregard for the city of New York. It combines some of the best ideas for the site—restoring part of the street grid; creating a memorial; mixing residential and commercial uses—and turns them into a monstrosity. The proposal is a hodgepodge of unrelated buildings, each one designed to glorify an architect’s vision rather than to serve the city. Its one merit is that it is so awful that many will dismiss it and look elsewhere for inspiration.

The Times plan is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with modern architecture. Many of today’s architects have become preoccupied with theory above all else; they appear to have given up on creating buildings appropriate to their uses and locations. Most of the Times architects have even abandoned all but the most rarified ideas about beauty and form, as Muschamp himself admits:

Some of the West Street projects will appear bizarre or perhaps self-indulgent to those unfamiliar with contemporary architecture. But this is not a lineup of architectural beauty contestants. All are conceptually rooted, in step with the level of architectural ambition in Vienna, Tokyo, Rotterdam and many other cities overseas. You have to look beneath the skin, for example, to appreciate the extraordinary elegance with which Charles Gwathmey has manipulated a single duplex unit into a variety of apartment layouts, which then generate the modeled facades.

Has Muschamp forgotten why architecture exists? If the buildings from his plan were constructed, most everyone who lived, worked, and played near them would be “unfamiliar with contemporary architecture.” Most New Yorkers won’t care how “conceptually rooted” the buildings are, nor will it be possible for them to “look beneath the skin” of the buildings to appreciate their “extraordinary elegance.” (And about those conceptual roots: One proposal for a West Street residential building actually cites the video game Tetris as the chief inspiration for its design.)

The World Trade Center site does not need star architects blanketing its surface with strange buildings. It needs architects who will show sensitivity to their surroundings—not just the tragedy that happened on the site, but the evolution of lower Manhattan and the needs of the people who live and work there, both now and in the future.

Rooftop gardens

August 8th, 2002 § Two comments § permalink

Here’s a great way to make cities more sustainable: Turn rooftops into gardens. Rooftop gardens save energy by insulating buildings and keeping cities cooler; they ease the burden that rainstorms impose on a sewer system; and best of all, they look nice and produce tons of tasty homegrown vegetables.

The Earth Pledge Foundation is working to add more rooftop gardens to buildings in New York City. They also have a Web site promoting New York farms, including some excellent recipes that show how to use all that fresh produce. Best of all, you can view the recipes by season–not too useful if you only shop at supermarkets, but incredibly helpful if you want to buy locally-grown food and eat seasonally.

Sustainable communities

August 7th, 2002 § Comments off § permalink

Just so there’s no confusion about yesterday’s entry, I didn’t mean to imply that charrettes, or community meetings, would fix the Bay Area’s housing problems. A real fix will require changes in city, county, and state law, plus a healthy dose of luck. Charrettes should be immensely helpful, though, once the Bay Area starts taking serious measures to resolve its housing problems.

While I’m more or less on the subject, I’ll point you to Sustainable Urban Settlement, from the planning department of New South Wales, Australia (Sydney is in New South Wales). This Web site has some terrific (and very readable) information about how to create a sustainable community. In particular, their introductory guidelines are well worth reading.

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