Fat-tastic! Can Small Thinking Solve Our Super-Sized Problems?

According to a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — more commonly known for crunching global budget and employment numbers  — the United States is on track to be 75% obese by 2020.

3 out of every 4. And if you check with researchers at Johns Hopkins University, they’ll tell you to expect 86% by 2030. Continue Reading

The Suburbs: Arcade Fire, Childhood Memory, and the Future of Growth

I’m in my 40s. I grew up in the suburbs. It was awesome. And then it wasn’t.

Never before and, perhaps, never again will there be as efficient and reliable a machine for manufacturing idealized childhood memories. The suburbs of the 60s and 70s, maybe even the 80s, were like some sort of paradise. Continue Reading

Brave New Codes Reach Tipping Point: When, Where, Why?

A year ago, Apple’s sales of its iPhone and iPod Touch eclipsed 40 million units, confirming their potential to fundamentally retool our future opportunities and patterns of daily life.

Today, a year later, form-based codes hit a similar milestone, with similar implications, as over 330 cities and towns around the worldrepresenting over 40 million people — have embraced the idea of form-based coding as an alternative to the sprawl-inducing zoning models of the past century.

We’ve hit the tipping point. Welcome to the other side. Continue Reading

Zoning: No Longer Just for Nerds

Remember when you could empty a room by trying to work zoning philosophy into a conversation? Okay, you can still do that in most places. But the coolness quotient is on the rise, we swear.

Consider the adoption late last year of a form-based code in Miami, surely one of the most exotic political environments in North America. Very high hipness factor. Continue Reading

Love Ain’t Enough: Put Up or Shut Up

Like any next, big something, placemaking is growing up. And in its role as gawky adolescent, it’s beginning to realize something most of us have long since come to accept: You can’t skirt by on youthful good looks forever.

Today, efforts to create more endearing and enduring surroundings are being subjected to decidedly grown up demands. And with them, smart growthers—from enviros to designers to code reform advocates—are learning one of life’s hardest lessons: Love will only take you so far.

Son, you’ve got to demonstrate sufficient returns. Continue Reading

Community and Charity: Bold Action Inspires a Closer Look

You will always have the poor among you, and you can help them whenever you want to. – Mark 14:07

I’m not sure Jesus could see all the way to the 21st century.

If he could, he may have been more inclined to offer, “You’ll always have the poor, but there are plenty of ways to avoid their unpleasantries. And you can still figure out how to help them if you put your mind to it.”

Think about it. We’ve invested immeasurable resources over three quarters of a century in land use policy specifically designed to ensure that the poor are not among us. As a result, we’ve detached ourselves from certain truths – biblical and otherwise.

It’s more comfortable, to be sure, but is it really better for us?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues lately, largely due to the release of a new book, “The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back.” The premise is moving: Kevin Salwen and his family decide to sell their posh Atlanta residence in favor of one half its size, then donate half the proceeds to a charity they researched and chose together.

What’s equally intriguing is the spark that ignited their endeavor. Sitting at a traffic light with his daughter, Hannah, the two witnessed an otherwise unremarkable juxtaposition of two men – one homeless, one idling in a luxury car.

The jarring contrast woke up 14-year-old Hannah to the reality of extreme inequity and, in subsequent actions as a family, extreme charity.

It’s a commendable, even beautiful, story, but it makes me wonder: Should we be relying on uncommon people doing remarkable things to bridge the gaps between all walks of life?

After all, in many ways, our current development patterns foster the “A-ha” moment experienced by Hannah by isolating us from the circumstances of the less fortunate. When we finally experience them, they’re shocking. In the case of some special people, they inspire dramatic actions. But for many of us, we close our eyes and hope for the light to change.

But what about the way we’ve lived historically—in traditional, human-scaled, diverse and interconnected communities—where people of all classes often crossed paths as a routine part of daily life and, as a result, were more inclined to develop meaningful interdependencies?

If our built world today continued to be governed by such patterns, would drastic reactions like the Salwen’s be necessary? Or, instead, would our eyes be open to the poor among us as a matter of course and charity take the form of a million little things over a lifetime instead of a big thing designed to make up for previous slights?

It’s not a new idea—Eric Jacobsen explored it nicely in “Sidewalks in the Kingdom”—but the Salwen’s book provides good opportunity to reconsider our relationship with the best and worst of others, and what it would take for our charitable actions to come more naturally.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Kevin socially a time or two and my fellow PlaceMaker, Ben Brown, has worked with him in the past, and that allows us the luxury—for a time—of transcending cynicism and simply enjoying the pleasure of experiencing real-McCoy decency. I think I’ll savor it for a bit.

But then I’m going to get back to the work of building stronger communities. Places where the bold actions of people like Kevin can be complemented regularly by a shared smile between two people of different means.

—Scott Doyon

Easy Rider: David Byrne Unfolds Bike, Reviews Cities of the World

Over the holiday I experienced a very 21st century weekend. Upon downloading my new Kindle App on my iPhone, I read David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries, 2009 Viking Penguin. The $14.99 book caught my attention at the local bookstore and became my first Amazon Kindle App purchase for $9.99. I know, I know… but I promise to never buy eBooks that have exclusive Wal-Mart deals.

David Byrne, artist, musician and now author, is this year’s CNU 18-Atlanta Keynote speaker. His Talking Heads music taught me to dance in early 1980′s High School proms and one of my partners was in a punk rock band on the same New York City club circuit. While traveling through Texas recently, I re-watched Mr. Bryne’s 1986 movie, ‘True Stories,’ which I found to be an enjoyably restrained criticism of suburban sprawl. So, I was connecting with the author on many levels and eagerly swiped through the e-book on my iPhone.

Still talking: David Byrne

The hook is that Mr. Byrne sees our townscape as New Urbanist do while writing down his observations from the perspective of his well-travelled folding bicycle. While traveling the world to perform, Mr. Bryne brings his bicycle with him to refresh his senses and understand the places he is visiting. Through his years of bicycling around the world, coupled with his musician point-of-view, the book’s hook on me was his chapters on experiencing cities in an intelligent and artistic manner. He poignantly captures the landscapes of Manila, Berlin, Istanbul, Detroit and Baltimore in political, social and cultural ways. His account of finding the visionary urban planner Jan Gehl, great New York urban theorist Jane Jacobs, and Transportation Innovator Enrique Penalosa, seemed illuminating for Mr. Byrne, and I look forward to hearing his reaction to meeting our Congress this spring.

My personal reaction to the book was that Bicycle Diaries is a more artistic version of James Howard Kunstler’s more caustic City in Mind. After an easy-to-agree-with suburban sprawl critique introduction, I began to feel like a NASCAR spectator awaiting the carnage! Blow up Las Vegas; put Detroit out of its misery; and, yes, San Diegans are rude! The fun part was Mr. Byrne’s unexpectedly sharp critique of European and foreign cities both culturally and while biking. Except for Melbourne, of course. It seems Melbourne has become the new Barcelona – the greatest city in the world – probably because it is located in the far corner of world and most of us can only imagine how great it is.

The ending of the book sort of drifted off for me as I was less interested in Greenwich Village bicycle rack design as I had been about a city of hookers in the Philippines (an unfortunate personal bias). The revelation that resonates with me is because of David Byrne’s desire to simply get out of the car to see and experience the world he has become a well-respected transportation advocate in his hometown of New York.

– Howard Blackson

Learning from Leon

My colleagues have quickly grown tired of my repeated references to the week I recently spent with Leon Krier while he toured Southern California to promote his new book, The Architecture of Community. The book, published by Island Press and co-edited by Dhiru Thadani and Peter Hetzel, is an updated compendium of Leon Krier’s most significant work to date. The book was included in Planetizen’s Top 10 Books published in 2009.

Leon me, when you're not strong..

Before this publication, Geoff Dyer, one of my business partners, and I had been engaged in a silly professional competition to acquire Leon’s books because it was difficult to find his many brilliant books and projects for sale in United States book stores. My rare French copy of Architecture Rationnelle put me in the lead until Leon autographed Geoff’s copy of Architecture: Choice or Fate, led with “To the very talented…”

With a stroke of Leon’s pen, Geoff now sits comfortably in the lead.

Leon came to San Diego to give a lecture on architecture and urbanism to 250 interested people in a beautiful Balboa Park theater and then to 200 excitable students and faculty at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design. Local reporters, planning directors, and political leaders heard, met and learned from Leon throughout the week. San Diego Union-Tribune and San Diego City Beat wrote about his time in the city.

After San Diego, Leon then spoke to a class at Arizona State University with Emily Talen and Nan Ellin. He then joined Stefanos Polyzoides in Pasadena to discuss architecture and urbanism at the invitation of the Mayor of Pasadena. Pasadena Star News and Pasadena blogs Inside Socal and Media Bistro covered the visit.

The lessons learned from Leon while touring the Southwest were varied, complex and meaningful. The more general themes surprised me most. For example, upon picking him up from the airport, I immediately drove Leon to the latest modernist infill project in my turn-of-the-century streetcar neighborhood. The villa savoye copy had been in Architecture Record as the local architect is well known.

Upon passing by the building slowly, I was expecting an affirmation of my disgust when Leon says–disappointingly– “It’s good.” My eyes widened and my hands gestured wildly as I explained that the fenestration was backwards, the building completely out of context, and the urbanism only existent in materials and scale. Leon agreed that all were true, but that for a modernist building it was a very good example.

The lesson being, “If you do modernism (or anything for that matter)… then do it well.” He is correct. I forget how difficult it is to get buildings and places built. He said that to build anything in today’s toxic environment (naturally and politically) was laudable and then to build it well was meaningful. So, I relaxed a little about a building I had previously wished acts of God upon and drove Leon downtown.

Driving past the single core of the city, townhouse-wrapped, Vancouver-model towers proliferate San Diego’s downtown cityscape. I explained the ugly politics that gave additional entitlement to buildings that had green roofs rather than civic spaces. I was expecting a classic Leon Krier diatribe on the lack of value Vancouver brings to the New Urbanist dialog and both the ecological and social failure of high-rise towers as a building type. Instead, he thought San Diego’s towers were somewhat playful and fun. He explained that while towers are regretful, these had an element of lightness and amusement that made them easier to live with than those being stamped across Vancouver and the east coast.

Finally, he quickly surmised that our monotonous grid must become more complex. As he had pointed out years ago in Houses, Palaces, and Cities, the grid is rural in structure with its visual terminus toward infinity. A simple ‘center’ was needed in key locations to ‘urbanize’ the neighborhoods within the monotonous grid. Due to the width of San Diego’s typical streets, 80’, a majority of the infill retrofit could occur within city right-of-way and include civic buildings.

Therefore, mostly what I learned from Leon (besides the fact that driving around was much less informative than walking) was to approach places and projects with a positive, optimistic attitude in order to work towards a better future. Why is this simple lesson meaningful? To see this man remain positive after 35 years of being vilified in our modern design world is very inspirational. While his professional lectures are polemic and absolute, his professional perspective is equally optimistic and conclusive.

The following are Leon Krier’s recent drawings of how to create more urban centers in our more rural grid:

Existing US Condition

           


           

–Howard Blackson