Friday, January 30, 2009

A City Made Of Waste - Second Hand Urbanism

This is a pretty amazing video of how waste from San Diego is recycled in neighboring Tijauna for housing and infastructure.

L.A. Sprawl

Years ago, one of my Urban Studies Professors challenged the current notions of sprawl by stating that Philadelphia has more sprawl then L.A. The professor stated that the Philadelphia suburbs consume more square miles of countryside given Philadelphia's size when compared to Los Angeles and it's suburbs.

Could this be true? Do east coast cities actually generate more sprawl then auto-dependent L.A.? Well, it depends on how you calculate density. The popular myth of East Coasters when they think of L.A. is that it is a giant collection of suburbs when in fact it is a densely populated city.

But how dense is dense? While L.A. is undoubtedly urban is it as dense as Philadelphia? The answer to that question is no. Philadelphia is the most compact city in the county, even more so then New York City. So if one city is denser then another but it's suburbs consume more land, how would you calculate which is more sprawled?

Fast forward to a book review I ran across recently in Metropolis Magazine about Robert Bruegmann’s book, Sprawl: A Compact History. The book which advocated that Los Angeles’s urbanized area is more densely populated than New York’s, set off a whirlwind of debate between planners. While most planners believe in traditional regulation of development, found most prominently in the east coast, there is a rising faction of planners that believe in minimal regulation and allowing the market to dictate development. Bruegmann's book about sprawl and density seem to ignite both camps of planners.

The book review was not favorable to Bruegmann's claim that L.A. was statistically more populated then New York and sought to disprove this notion. The review poked a major hole in Bruegmann's theory by detailing that the units of measurements that was used to compare L.A. and New York were not the same. The article quotes:

"The UCLA study, which appears on the Livable Places Web site, concedes that Bruegmann is technically right since he merely claims that Los Angeles’s urbanized area is denser than New York’s urbanized area. As a unit, the greater Los Angeles metro area boasts 7,009 people per square mile, far in excess of the New York metro area’s paltry 5,239, according to the 2000 census. But just what is an urbanized area? And are they really enough alike to bother comparing?

As the UCLA group discovered, the census bur­eau’s official statistical units vary considerably in size and character. The land mass of New York’s urbanized area—defined as the city and the suburban counties within its gravitational pull—is twice the size of Los Angeles’s. New York’s statistical unit also has a third more people. Thus the two units are the proverbial apples and oranges. 'We believe comparing density by urbanized area is deceptive,' the UCLA group wrote."

That is a major hole to Bruegmann's article. To try to prove that L.A.'s miles of low rise housing is denser then New York's miles of high rises and skyscrapers not only goes against conventional wisdom it goes against common sense by just looking at the two cities. The review later goes onto show that L.A. and the cities that have followed it's growth patterns such as Phoenix and Atlanta have very low urban densities, which further my beliefs that few major cities in the south and west are actually urban. Phoenix and Houston have overtaken Philadelphia as being in the top 5 largest cities despite Philadelphia being in Phoenix case, over 10 times as dense. The article quotes:

"Even a modestly congested place like Philadelphia, where people cherish their single-family row houses and postage-stamp gardens, packs in 11,000 people per square mile, in contrast to L.A.’s 7,828. As for Phoenix and Atlanta, the cities that most closely mimic Los Angeles’s land-use patterns, the density barely hits 1,700 per square mile—hardly an indication of efficient, or environmentally sustainable, land use."

So back to the original question, does Philly have more sprawl then L.A. Technically yes if you just compared the two cities sizes in comparison to the size of their suburbs. However, the lower density of L.A. allows the city to consume more square acreage then Philly. So one can easily make the argument that there is sprawl even inside the city boundaries of L.A. given it's density. On top of that many Philadelphia suburban townships mimic Philadelphia development which would make them denser then the city of Los Angeles. Which means the answer that would be most correct is the Los Angeles Metropolitan region has more sprawl then the Philadelphia region.

Your thoughts?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Secretary of the Arts?

The L.A. Times recently ran a brief article about Quincy Jones lobbying President Obama to create a Secretary of the Arts as a cabinet position. Those familiar with this blog know that I am big proponent of art, which I feel is an essential element to a city's culture.

There is currently a position to create a Secretary of the Arts, I encourage you to sign the petition. From the article:

"Last November, music producer and songwriter Quincy Jones mentioned to John Schaefer during an interview on the New York radio program “Soundcheck” that he thought President-elect Barack Obama should create a Cabinet-level position of secretary of the Arts. “One of the next conversations I have with President Obama is to beg for a secretary of the Arts,” he told the WNYC talk-show host.

Jaime Austria heard about Jones' comments and thought that was a great idea. So Austria launched an online petition. So far, more than 63,000 people have signed, with 'spread the word' e-mails recently making the rounds on the Left Coast."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Baltimore's Billion dollar "Shadow Economy"

The Baltimore City Paper recently ran a great in-depth article called "Shadow Players" about Baltimore's shadow drug economy and how it permeates throughout the city. The shadow economy is as big or bigger then the city's hotel & restaurant trade which provides thousands of jobs to the city. The article points out that the shadow economy also provides jobs dealing with drug enforcement and ironically help funds non-profits groups and city development agencies.

To quote the great character Lester Freeman from "The Wire" a show about "fictional" Baltimore police wiretaps on city drug dealers, " follow the drugs, it leads to the major drug players. You follow the money, you don't know where it will lead."

Here are a couple quotes from the article, which everyone should read:

"Three years ago Baltimore Health Department Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein estimated the number of Baltimore addicts at 50,000...Assuming he's in the ballpark, and assuming each drug-dependant individual must raise $50 each day to pay for drugs...Baltimore's heroin and cocaine market would be worth $912 million annually. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in 2002 "accommodation and food service sales" in Baltimore were worth about $1 billion."

"In other words, the drug trade generates a revenue stream comparable to the city's hotels and restaurants, an industry so important politically that the city government pledged $305 million in revenue bonds to build a downtown hotel that opened last year."

To put 50,000 addicts in context, the total city population is 650,000. So that means 7% of all residents are addicts. The number of people trafficking drugs in the city is unclear but if you included the number of dealers and addicts together and they would probably represent over 10% of all city residents. Add in related activities such as prostitution, con-man, and thieves and legal businesses such as bail bonds man and the percentage of residents in the shadow market grows larger.

The article also shows that those who control the market or the shadow economy want order instead of violence. In a strange but very practical twist, dealers will assist cops with information to take down rival crews to preserve order for the sake of business. The article quotes:

"...using a hypothetical example, 'the question in Baltimore is, if Joe Blow takes over 40 percent of the market, why is that significant? And it's significant if it's actually having some impact on the supply of drugs in the city . . . or if this person actually has some impact outside the drug market. Does this person have any influence on the legitimate world of business and politics? That would be interesting.'"

Operators at that level, Nadelmann says, have an interest in ratcheting down the violence and working with police to shut down rivals. 'If you have anyone who's in a big enough position to think like a businessman, he wants to reduce the likelihood that people are dying," Nadelmann says. "It goes back to the idea of why were the cops working together with the mob in the old days--there was a payoff, but they also had similar interest in public order.''

The flip side to the violence, destruction and decay that the shadow economy brings to city neighborhoods is the amount of funding that the city of Baltimore receives from the Federal government to combat the war on drugs which in return creates hundreds of city jobs. This is not to imply that the ends justify the means but it does show how much impact the shadow economy has on the standard economy. Over 10% of city residents are either contributing or dependent on the shadow economy but this same economy produces even another segment of residents who work to combat it.

"This is perhaps not surprising in a city so dependent on the money generated by drug sales--and the money allocated to counteract drugs. Charitable foundations and the federal government spend $1 million per week in Baltimore on drug treatment programs, creating hundreds of additional jobs--many of them for recovering addicts--which depend on an amorphous, uncountable addict population. City police draw overtime and seize millions of dollars worth of cars, real estate, and cash every year, leaching wealth from the city's drug economy but never really wounding it."

I encourage everyone to read the whole article because the shadow economy does not just affect those who are within it but everyone in the city and it's surroundings. The 10% of residents involved in the shadow economy are not just state and numbers but family members, friends, classmates and even co-workers. Their impact can potentially affect every person and almost any family across all social and class lines.

The other important aspect of this article is the money generated by the shadow economy. The social cost that drugs cost cities is immeasurable...but if drugs went away tomorrow, how would more than 10% of city residents support themselves? The unemployment rate in Baltimore City is well over 7% and is probably higher since most of the people involved in the shadow market have been out of the job market for so long that they no longer count when calculating the unemployment rate. If drugs went away tomorrow, potentially 10% of city residents who most likely lack any traditional skill and formal education would need employment.

How would Baltimore city combat that? How could Baltimore city help it's residents. Almost everyone wants the end of the cycle of drugs and violence in our inner-city communities but have we gone so long with allowing this shadow economy to exist that cities can no longer afford to live without it?

What are your thoughts?

Obama calls DC soft

NBC Chicago reports that President Obama is telling DC to toughen up when it comes to dealing with snow.

The article reports:

"So, it's good to see you guys. Can I make a comment that is unrelated to the economy, very quickly? And it has to do with Washington. My children's school was cancelled today because of what? ..... Some -- some ice?
"... As my -- as my children pointed out, in Chicago, school is never cancelled. In fact, my seven-year-old pointed out that you'd go outside for recess in weather like this. You wouldn't even stay indoors. So it's -- I don't know. We're going to have to try to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town

As someone who grew up in the Mid-Atlantic, I have to agree with the Prez. Although I will say that the Mid-Atlantic has not had a bad winter for 6-7 years now, so the first suspicion of snow makes everyone panic now. I remember during bad winters it would take at least 6 inches to close schools down...but that was more due to the fact the school system could not afford to take any more school days off for weak snow storms.

Monday, January 26, 2009

New Urbanism

The Pros and Cons of New Urbanism. As great as it is to have New Urbanist principles to suburban development, there still remains an emptiness and a feel of exclusiveness that make these New Urbanist developments feel suburban despite their densities.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

25 Examples of Good Urbanism

The International Herald Tribune ran an interesting article a few years detailing various examples of good urbanism throughout the world.

I encourage everyone to read the article, but here is a quick look at the top 10 examples of good urbanism.

1. An Airport Road
2. Street Clocks
3. Bike Lockers
4. Outdoor Cinemas
5. Trams
6. Well-designed apartments
7. Urban Landscaping
8. Child's Play (parks & stores for children & parents)
9. Summer houses
10. Green space projects

Our First Urban President

With so much discussion about President Obama being our first Black President, the fact that Barack Obama is one of our first urban Presidents slipped right by me. This distinction, which is not as significant as being the first black president, is an important one nonetheless. In a country that is 80% urbanized it is time that our leaders stop catering to the heartland and those in the fringes and start governing to fix the persistent problems of urban core of America, where the general population lives.

A recent Esquire Magazine article had an excellent breakdown of urban, suburban and rural voters over the last twenty years to show who they voted for. The article quotes:

"If Bill Clinton was the first black president, then Barack Obama might be the first urban one. He is the only American president in recent history to seem unembarrassed about claiming a personal residence in a major American city. Instead, presidents have tended to hail from homes called ranches or groves or manors or plantations, in places called Kennebunkport or Santa Barbara or Oyster Bay or Northampton."

The articles continues...

"...In 1992, when Bill Clinton won his first term, 35 percent of American voters were identified as rural according to that year's national exit polls, and 24 percent as urban. This year, however, the percentage of rural voters has dropped to 21 percent, while that of urban voters has climbed to 30. The suburbs, meanwhile, have been booming: 41 percent of America's electorate in 1992, they represent 49 percent now (see chart)."

To read the rest if the article, click here.

According to the article, Urban America now outweighs Rural America in voter turnout. What does this mean? And what implications will this have for the future? Well hopefully, we can now hold politicians accountable for their actions or lack thereof in addressing urban problems such as poverty, crime and equality. Too many times the problems of the city where used as a political football to kick around by both parties to either use to exploit or incite fear but never to actually address the problem.

Street Art from Around the World

In an anti-establishment movement that’s taking the art world by storm, 6 of the world’s most famous Street Artists whose work is intricately connected to the urban environment were commissioned to paint artworks for the first major public museum display of Street Art in London. The collaborative artists include Blu from Bologna, Italy, the artist collective Faile from New York, JR from Paris, France, Nunca and Os Gemeos, both from Sao Paulo, Brazil and Sixeart from Barcelona, Spain.
All 6 artists are represented in major collections around the world and regularly shown in gallery exhibitions but their work began in public urban spaces and remains indebted to Street Art and graffiti traditions.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Inaugural Tranist Ride

On January 20, 2009, America witnessed a truly history making moment when the first Black President was sworn into office. Bark Obama who inspired people of all races, genders, cultures and backgrounds drew an estimated 2 million people to the The Mall to watch his inauguration as the 44th President of the United States.

This is an account of one man's experience with the DC Metro Transit System during this history making day.

To begin with, everyone who came to DC knew that the transit system could potentially be shut down because there were early estimates that there would be more transit riders then the Metro could actually handle at full capacity. On top of that, transit stops along with streets would be closed in the vicinity of The Mall and the Capital Building. With that, I braced myself for the worst as I headed to The Mall from the DC suburbs in Maryland.

The beginning of the trip was not that bad. As me and my friend headed toward the nearest suburban transit stop we had noticed a long line of cars waiting to park, we thought this was not a good sign but we only waited 15 minutes or so. As we made it on the train, at 5:30 in the morning it was clear that almost everyone on the train was headed to the Inauguration. The train was semi-packed but nothing crazy as we imagined. As the train crossed into city and we got closer to DC, the train started filling up quickly.

Our first transfer. We transferred to the next train and amazingly the train was right on schedule and we had perfect timing. So far so sweat. Then came the 2nd transfer. The transfer this time was leading us directly to the transit stop that our Inauguration ticket to get off. The trains and the platforms were jam packed but we were eventually able to squeeze onto the train and make it to our stop.

Overall, our train ride lasted only 30 minutes surprisingly. For the overall train ride coming into the Inauguration, I would give The Metro a "B"

Unfortunately the ride back was not as smooth,

After watching history being made and standing on my feet in the cold for 5 hours, me and 2 million others decided to leave The Mall and head back to the Metro. Due to the large crowd it took 1.5 hours to leave The Mall...understandable. What was not understandable was the mass of humanity that was standing in front of our Metro stop telling the Metro Stop was closed and on top of that telling us to go back while hundreds of thousands of people are still coming from The Mall. friend and I snaked through the restless crowd, which took 30 minutes to get through to get to the next Metro station...closed. So we walk to the next Metro station...closed. Then we walked to another Metro station to see the gates locked and a line of people waiting for the gates to re-open at 6:30. It was only 3 pm.

We finally found some cops who told us that they had been sending people back to the first station that we had left because it was closed. The cops were shocked to find out that, that station along with all the others were...closed. As we walk back in a circle to the beginning we saw several sights at various Metro stops. My favorite sights were the National Guard taking over one Metro stop and the 3 block long plus line that surrounded all other transit stations.

Eventually we kept walking...and walking...and walking until we found a Metro stop that was almost 2 miles away from the Inauguration and from most of the Inaugural crowd. In all it took 4 hours to get back to my original destination on The Metro. 4 hours in the cold I might add with no food. But you know what, it was a once an lifetime opportunity. I don't know if I would have done it again but I am sure glad that I did. Not only did I get a chance to see history being made, I have a story to go along with it as well: "The Day the Metro Never Came"


Monday, January 12, 2009

The Relics of Baltimore

Scenes from around town. This for all the out of towners who may not be familiar with Baltimore and for those in Baltimore to see another side of their town. Here's a look at some of the Institutional architecture that can be found in the fair city of Baltimore. Some of these architectural relics are still in use and some have fallen by the waste side. For many Baltimoreans these relics have represented their life and death, their beginning and their end and their downfall and salvation.
Bromo Selzer Tower

Holy Cross Church

Greenmount Cemetary

The American Brewery

State Penitentiary

Johns Hopkins University

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Breathing City

A great video showing the functions of one city block. This video shows the different processes of city buildings and how they interact together to almost form a living entity once shown together in a time lapse series.

This video shows why a I love cities for their variety and their randomness. This video shows that when in a city we all work may live together but we all move at different speeds. As opposed to the suburbs which can force us to live on the same speed.

The Wire: 5 Season

An ode to the greatest tv show ever made...filmed in my fair city of Baltimore, Maryland.