Monday, December 29, 2008

What Disney Films Taught Me about Cities

This is a review of Walt Disney's classic short film "The Little House" released in 1952.

It's amazing how cartoons aimed at children can affect our perceptions of ideas and places. Disney's "The Little House" is one of those affectionate cartoons that make us reminisce but also can enforce negative ideas about the city.

I know, I know it's a cartoon and it was created in the 1950's when American cities were at there most congested but one can not helpt to notice that the film puts the city in a really bad light. The city is being shown as loud noisy boistorius plague that sprang up overnight.

"Everything was bigger and better for this was the age of progress" Claims the self narratoring house as the the film shows tenement houses fighting and throwing garbage at each other. Every time the Little House gains a new neighbor, they become more disruptive and less friendly. In fact all of the city buildings are angry, with the skycrapers being the angriest.

The end of the film, ironically sends the Little House to a new countryside...presumbably to have a new city reach it's countryside. Kind of sounds like sprawl. The cartoon ends with the Little House saying "...the best place to find peace and happiness is in a little house...way out in the country." I wonder how many Americans still believe that and how many developers are still selling that belief as sprawl gobbles up the beloved countryside.

Returning Detroit Back to Nature

A recent AP article covered what I think is one of the most fascinating "urban renewal" projects occurring in Detroit right now, which is Urban Farming. With the city's population less than half of what it was in 1950 there are thousands of empty lots in Detroit that are being converted into mini-farms.

The AP article quotes:

"With enough abandoned lots to fill the city of San Francisco, Motown is 138 square miles divided between expanses of decay and emptiness and tracts of still-functioning communities and commercial areas. Six barren acres of an estimated 17,000 have already been turned into "mini-farms," demonstrating the lengths to which planners will go to make land productive."

To me the irony of Detroit, one of America's most industrialized cities where car production was revolutionised which created negative environmental conditions such as smog and helped cities decentralize only to be converted back into a farm is fitting. We have all seen the Disney Cartoon of the little house that eventually got surrounded by the big city but we have never seen the big city go into reverse. The only times we have seen big cities go in reverse are in a apocalyptic fantasies where nature consumes cities after the people have vanquished. But to see the people return the city into a farm has to be a new chapter in the history of city development. Could this be a new chapter in city planning history that the fate of all cities could face that somehow Detroit had fast forwarded through time to reach this eventual conclusion?

The last question posed is very interesting because while Detroit is one of the biggest cities in the rustbelt of the U.S. it is not alone in the declining population and property value of it's city. There are dozens of small towns and cities across Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania whose fates were dependent on industry which appears will never return. Can Detroit be a model of a new green city in the rustbelt? Can these industrial towns despite the decades worth of toxins in the ground actually produce a life sustaining farm? I was always told by planning professors that once farmland is developed that it can return back to farmland again - is Detroit proving that theory wrong?

What is your opinion?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A not so ringing endorsement of Baltimore Transit by the Baltimore Sun

Whenever you start off your endorsement of public transit system in Baltimore by titling your article, "It's not easy, but it can be fun, to use Metro, light rail," you are kind of bound to fail for a ringing endorsement.

From the article:

"The big flaw of these systems is that they don't interconnect particularly well. They come close at two points - near State Center and at Lexington Market - but there's no such thing as a real hub. That doesn't render it useless, though."

As one transit critic told me years about Baltimore Transit, "it's not a system, it's more of a collection of transit lines." Not having a transit hub and having major rail run on only one side of the city does make public transit almost useless for those who do not live near the Metro or Light Rail. As someone who grew up on the eastern side of the city and the county I always found it maddening that there is not a duplicate heavy rail line that extends to White Marsh as the Metro extends to Owings Mills. In fact it would take me 10 minutes to drive to the nearest Light Rail or Metro stop and by that time I could already be halfway downtown by driving.

The other gem of the article about transferring from the Light Rail to the Metro:

"To get there, we transferred from the light rail to the Metro at the Lexington Market station - a block east of the actual market on depressing Howard Street. The Maryland Transit Administration doesn't make switching easy with its tiny, poorly placed signage, but it can be done..."
"...We could have taken the subway back to the light rail line, but by then darkness had fallen, and we weren't too eager to wander around Howard Street."

Good ole' Howard Street, the dying commercial corridor that was killed during the construction of the Light Rail. I know many of Planners and developers have tried to revitalize Howard Street and there has been significant work done to improve the streetscaping to Howard Street and Lexington Market but...Try Harder! Seriously, Howard Street is poorly lighted and feels desolate. For a major artery to a downtown area, I feel like I could be mugged and left in the middle of the street for hours before anyone would find me.

Enough of my thoughts, what is your opinion?

Update on Baltimore City Students Post

In a preivous post about Baltimore City students not getting into city schools, I had mentioned the cultural barriers that stand in the way of city students going to Maryland colleges. Well today, John Blake of CNN, who hails from West Baltimore, wrote an article about his favorite show, "The Wire," which depicted West Baltimore as well. In the article, Blake mentions his own difficulties growing up in West Baltimore and recalls a moment in the show about a cultural barrier that was similar to an expereince in his own life.

He states:

"Colvin helps run an experimental program for problem students at a local high school. One night, he decides to take three of a school's most disruptive students to a steakhouse in downtown Baltimore. The kids are loud and brash, but they're petrified when they have to sit down in a fancy restaurant filled with white people. They can't function and end up leaving the restaurant, still hungry and angry.

I could relate.

When I was asked in high school to join an academic team that would compete on television against elite, white high schools in Baltimore, I said no. When I attended my first year in college, I wouldn't speak in class and stopped going because I was so intimidated being around people who could actually speak proper English. I almost flunked out. I felt like an imposter.

Sometimes, it's not enough to give kids who come from a world like "The Wire" the chance to get out. They also have to be convinced that they deserve it.

I almost sabotaged myself because I wanted to go back to what was familiar. Even though the familiar was depressing, it was all I knew. Now I know something different because a lot of people convinced me that I deserved to be in that other world."

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Frozen City

Im posting this classic song from Blackstar and Common not just because it personifies the city as being alive but because it filmed in the freezing cold...just like the weather here today in Sunny Baltimore.

Getting Baltimore City Students into Maryland Colleges

One of the most important factors in a city's continued growth or future outlook is the education level of it's residents. Not only does a well educated city bring a multitude of jobs but it can also help bring people out of poverty. That is why it is disheartening to know that some many Baltimore City High school students (89% of whom are black) are not getting into Maryland's most well known colleges such as the University of Maryland (UMD) of Johns Hopkins University (JHU).

The Baltimore Sun recently wrote an article titled, City students find UM, Hopkins out of reach, detailing the scholarship programs that UMD and JHU give to city high school students to increase enrollment for city schools. While the respective programs have gotten a few students into JHU and UMD that have graduated the overall numbers are dismal. Only 13 students from Johns Hopkins Baltimore Scholars programs were taken from Baltimore City schools last year.

Local colleges do face significant uphill challenges in trying to recruit city high school students. Such as this sobering statistic, "For every 100 students who enter Baltimore City high schools, just four will graduate college within six years of starting." As well as, "More than half of city high schools do not offer advanced placement courses - staples of the curriculum for students going to top colleges."

Another significant factor that students face in applying to these schools is the cost to go to these institutions. Johns Hopkins is often out of reach for most middle class families but for working class families and those struggling to pay the bills, an annual price tag of $53,000 to go to JHU puts the college out of reach even with standard scholarships and loans.

These factors lead to a scenario where most city high school graduates can not even make the admission process for these colleges and those that do can not afford to go unless the college pays for their tuition, room and board, books and other fees. Once you add in the culture shock of city high school students coming from predominately black schools to institutions that are majority white and almost exclusively upper class it creates another barrier that deter city students. The article states:

"The pattern was that the state's greatest city was sending very few students to the state's flagship university," Mote said. "Many of the high schools send nobody at all. The pipeline between those schools and the university was broken, and once the pipeline is broken, the teachers and counselors don't see the opportunity, the kids don't see their friends going, the whole pipeline just breaks down. It's hard to restart."

While academic officials at UMD and JHU are optimistic that the admittance numbers of city high school students will improve there are still a number of barriers blocking future success of the program. Educational, economic and social barriers are nothing new when it comes to the status of inner city residents. But the need for education is now greater than ever. Not only are the most high paying jobs looking for post graduate education but low-to-no skill jobs that never required any education are now seeking high school diplomas. With only 4 out of 100 city high school students graduating in 6 years...what possibly can the 94 be doing in today's job market?

For all the development construction boom in Baltimore, if city schools do not improve there will be a permanent underclass in Baltimore City. An underclass that will be almost entirely supported by government aid and under police surveillance and will fuel future incarcerated populations. The future social and economic cost of this underclass will be tremendous. It will be far easier to educate our children now then it will be to support their survival if they become non productive members of our society in the future.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Flashing Lights

Colin Munroe-I Want Those Flashing Lights (Kanye West Remix)

City Lights

Props to the Web Urbanist Blog for the collection of shots.

Tokyo, Japan

Moscow, Russia

New York, USA

London, England

Beijing, China

Athens, Greece

We Almost Lost Detroit

The Associated Press reports:

DETROIT (AP) — Some statistics conveying the breadth of challenges facing the city of Detroit:

916,952: Detroit's latest official population, down from peak of about 1.8 million in 1950s. In a city of 139 square miles, that gives Detroit a population density about half of Chicago's.

201,000: Residential taxpayers in Wayne County, which is dominated by Detroit, who were tax delinquent in October, out of a total of 857,000.

19,708: Violent crimes recorded by FBI for Detroit in 2007, giving it highest violent crime rate of any major U.S. city. San Diego and San Antonio, each with 50 percent more people than Detroit, had less than half as many violent crimes.

$18,513: Average sale price of a Detroit home so far in 2008, down from $40,011 in 2007, according to Detroit Board of Realtors. Average sale price in neighboring Oakland County is $153,695.

47.8: Percent of Detroit children in 2007 who lived below poverty line of $21,000 for a family of four. For children nationally, the rate was 18 percent. Detroit's overall poverty rate of 33.8 percent was highest of any major city.

21.6: Detroit's unemployment rate, according to latest Census Bureau figures for 2005-07. Of all U.S. cities with more than 20,000 residents, only Muskegon, Mich., had a higher rate, at 22.1 percent.

15: Candidates competing in a special mayoral election called after Kwame Kilpatrick was jailed for trying to cover up a text-messaging sex scandal.

14: Losses so far for Detroit Lions en route to what could be National Football League's first 0-16 season.

3: Days each week that Detroit's two newspapers will offer home delivery, as part of new cost-cutting plan.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Favorite Movie Scenes of Cities - Bullitt Car Chase

Watch one of the best car chase scenes in history race through hilltop neighborhoods of San Francisco.

Props Moxthefox for pointing this scene out.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Justin Bua'a Art Personified

Slum Village's tainted video

The Artworks of Justin Bua

For over a decade, artist BUA has been making a mark on popular culture with his unique style of Distorted Urban Realism. Born and raised by a single-mom in NYC’s untamed Upper West Side, BUA was fascinated by the raw, visceral Manhattan street life and found himself absorbing the essence of the burgeoning culture at places like Rock Steady Park and the Douglas Projects. BUA studied visual art at the High School of Music and Performing Arts and complemented his education on the streets by writing graffiti and performing worldwide with breakdancing crews such as The New York Express and The Dynamic Breakers.

The Block


El Guitarrista

Golden Slums

The Artist

Trumpet Man

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Imitation Is Not Flattery

As a city planner the aspect of cities that I love the most is the hodgepodge of styles that make up the facades of cities. Layers of history, culture and style are all brought together as one like a quilt. And like a family quilt some of the sections of the facades of the city are well worn while other sections are brand new but once you bring it all together it defines character and place.

For most of us that quilt would be in our living rooms which serves us as the space that we relax in, the space where we entertain in, the space that we reflect in, the space that we celebrate in and the space that we mourn in.

Our living room are almost never perfectly designed as heirlooms and hand me down furniture will almost never match your new furniture or entertainment system. Your favorite painting may not match with color of the walls but makes you admire it every time you reflect on it. And your favorite chair maybe fading in color and you may drape a blanket over the part covering it's tear but you can never part with it because it's the most comfortable chair.

To me, that is what a city is, a living space where all forms of emotions are celebrated, architectural stylings clash and your favorite building could you a fresh can of paint.

What baffles me as a city planner is when so many developers and some planners try to replicate the fabrics of cities with cheap imitations. While they try to imitate the look of a city it's like replacing your favorite cotton shit with doesn't feel right. The problem is that most of these imitations are based on the belief that creating high density is creating an urban place, like a city.

These imitations are almost always designed to have perfect symmety. Every building is the same height, every door and window is of the same standardized width and distance apart all the building are aligned and to break the monotony the developer will offer you four or five versions of the same styled of house of your choosing.

What should become a living space becomes a museum space where order is the hierarchy of the space and you are to peacefully admire it's arrangements you continue to walk on by. These museum spaces encourage you to all always be presentable and to keep your voices down for ranges of emotions are frowned upon here.

Amazingly enough these dense imitations of cities become what they were intended not to be...another boring suburban development. The creativity and individuality of personal expression gets canned for what others think creativity should look like.

If your living room was replaced with museum furniture that you could arrange, would you still play your music loud...or even have a drink with your friends? If your family quilt only had 4 repeating patterns would it still hold the same character? And if you built a dense standardized development can you would not call it urban community.

Poems about Cities

Here is a link to site that contains over 99 different poems about cities.

Here is my favorite poem off the website so far, entitled Music of the Street by Jennifer Lujanac.

Music Of The Street

Eat-you-alive town.
Nothing here is innocent.
Nothing here is really pure.
There's danger around each corner.
Nothing here is stopping, nothing here is slow.
There's never a moment of silence,
There's never a moment alone.
Horns honking,
People talking,
Vendors yelling,
Children laughing.
The city has a beat,
It pounds into your brain.
There's a rhythm to this city, a shuffle that's contagious.
This city's made of music!
It'll stick in your head and never leave.
It's a fantasy.
A daydream.
It grows on you and makes you want to stay.
You become a part of the music of the street.

It almost sounds like an ad pitch from Don Draper from the TV series Mad Men. What is your favorite poem about cities?

Scenes of the City - The People

From Common's album, Finding Forever

Favorite Movie Scenes of Cities - Trading Places

Shot in beautiful Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, one of the parks planned by William Penn, the founder of the city.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ovnis Urban Art

OVNI a.k.a. Anna Taratiel , this artist has a particular style of controlling the spaces with her deformed figures twisted in thin and multicolored lines. This year she has already had two solo exhibitions in Lisbon and Milano, besides taking part in the Urban Affairs Festival in Berlin next to artists like Zosen, Kafre and Tom14. In this her first solo show in Barcelona Taratiel presented structured compositions born as infinite landscapes, dimensions and colors, a true mix of organic and static shapes.

Luring the Middle Class back to Baltimore through Free Tuition

The Baltimore Sun reports that the Abell Foundation is proposing to guarantee free college tuition to city public school students which could increase graduation rates and lure jobs and the middle class back to the city.

"The program, known as Promise, aimed to attract middle-class families and jobs back to the city, keep the best students in state schools and encourage academic achievement at both the secondary and college levels. The results were immediate: Graduation rates went up, college enrollment increased and families with children began moving back to the city to take advantage of savings that could reach six figures in college tuition costs. Since then, half a dozen other cities have adopted similar programs, including Pittsburgh, Denver and El Dorado, Ark."

There is one big catch to the story though:
"The Abell Foundation estimates that duplicating the program here could cost up to $43 million annually, a sum that might tax even the most generous local philanthropists."

If this program were to get past the funding hurdles this could be a terrific program for not only bringing the middle class back to Baltimore but keep the new middle class that has recently moved to Baltimore here. One noticeable trend especially to those who live on the edges of Baltimore City is that young families and professionals having been moving back to the city because they can no longer afford to live the surrounding suburban counties. With the rise of charter schools many young families are now choosing to stay in the city.

The big if in this story is whether parents will allow their children to go public schools and not charter schools for the chance of a free public education. Also would the promise of college help raise the expectations of students already going to city public schools and entice more parents to the idea of city schools?

I think if this program where to pass, the issue of whether some of the charter schools (some are are quasi-public) would be included will cause a heated debate. What if parents started to take their kids out of the charter schools?

What is you opinion?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Suburbanizing the Village

Columbia, Maryland which was envisioned by one of America's premier planners, JAmes Rouse in the 1960's is facing some tough challenges that threaten it's village center vision.

The village centers was based off of a zoning provision called the "Gatekeeper rule" allowed Columbia to control growth in it's ten village centers to make sure villages always kept a small town feel. Each village center has a gathering place that features amenities like, grocery stores and other essential shops, public schools and recreational centers that are within walking distance of most residents. However the Baltimore Sun reports:

"But a changing economic landscape has taken its toll on the village centers. The introduction of big-box stores in Columbia - such as a Costco on Route 175 and a planned 160,000-square-foot Wegmans supermarket - has drawn away customers.

In Wilde Lake Village alone, a small Giant supermarket closed in 2006. And this year, Produce Galore and Great Clips, a hair salon, shut their doors."

Currently there is a new proposal to raze much of the Wilde Lake Village in favor of a new 500 unit housing development. As a planner, I would like to see Columbia maintain it's original character and not relax it's regulations for a potential short term gain. Columbia is the one of the few communities in Howard County (which is the 3rd richest county in the U.S.) that has a sense of place and does not feel like a combination of sprawling subdivisions and commercial strips.

I would hate to see Columbia lose the precedent of maintaining tight regulation control when developers do have the ability to changed their development to conform to local regulations and codes. What is your opinion?

Urban Densification

Here's an interesting article featured on about sustainability where they interview Jonathan D. Solomon, an Assistant Professor of Architecture at Hong Kong University about a concept known as "Urban Densification."

The term seeks to find wasy to develop plans that are more environmentally sustainable and to build homes that are more compact and closer together but that can also seek to preserve open and public spaces.

I found this quote interesting when it comes to people's perceptions about density:

"Tokyo is one of the densest cities on earth but not very high rise. New Jersey is the densest state in the U.S. and it is entirely suburban. Dense doesn't mean higher, it means being better organized.

When you fill in vacant lots around the city with low rise buildings, you increase density and also link broken communities together. In doing so you increase both environmental and social sustainability. We have the ability to build all these different structures. "

To read more about the article, click here.

A Transit Planner's Nightmare: The 2008 Inauguration

With over 4 million people coming to town and an estimated 10,000 charter buses rolling in, where do you park all the buses? How long is a line of 10,000 buses you ask according to some officials is would stretch around the entire Capital Beltway and then stretch to Baltimore end to end.

The Washington Post reports:

"The sheer size of the charter bus contingent, carrying as many as a
half-million people, has an enormous cascading effect on the rest of
transportation planning. Widespread street closures downtown will prevent
charter buses from dropping passengers off at events, so officials need to
figure out where buses will park. The parking locations, in turn, will
affect where and how many people squeeze on to packed Metro trains

The Metro can't accommodate everyone, so officials also have to prepare for
others to walk to events or set up shuttle bus service from outlying areas to
downtown. However even at full capacity the Metro can not accommodate the crowds
expected at the inauguration.

"The transit agency will run an unprecedented 15 hours of consecutive rush-hour rail service on Inauguration Day. Even so, Metro officials say they can accommodate only 4,700 buses, or roughly 235,000 people, at Metrorail station parking lots, according to senior planner Jim Hughes. More than that would overwhelm the system. Although Metro has about 60,000 parking spaces at 42 stations, charter buses take up two regular spaces, and Metro also wants to keep spaces open for the region's nearly 6 million residents.

If Metro takes 4,700 busloads of people, that means city and regional officials need to find parking for the remaining 5,300 buses. "

If you plan to be in Washington D.C. like I do for the Inuaguration, be prepared to the cold.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Creating Public Works Jobs to Rebuild Cities

Today, the mayors of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami spoke at the Conference of Mayors om Washington today to lobby the Federal Government for what they call, "ready-to-go" infrastructure projects that would provide critical city improvements and jobs.

"Over the last eight years, there's been ... an absence of investment in cities, whether it's the infrastructure, public transportation, bridges, highways, schools, hospitals," Los Angeles, California, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said at a news conference on Capitol Hill. "We are here not for a bailout, but to present a recovery plan."

The news conference coincided with the Conference of Mayors' release of a list of 11,391 "ready-to-go" infrastructure projects that would cost $73.1 billion. The report surveyed 427 cities across the country and includes roads, bridges, schools, city halls and other public works projects. The report says that those projects would create 847,641 jobs.

To read more, click here.

As someone who lives on the east coast of the U.S., I am biased for the Feds to help cities "recover" the infrastructure funding. Anyone who lives in a city on eastern seaboard or in a rustbelt city can tell you that parts of the infrastructure in these cities are old and outdated and would cost billions of dollars to repair. Now I don't need to remind everybody of the calamity that could happen if these repairs don't happen like with the levy walls in New Orleans or the bridge collapse in Minneapolis but fixing these problems now will cost a lot cheap then waiting for the infrastructure to eventually fail.

If the Federal Government were to seriously fund public transportation upgrades and infrastructure it would not only help reduce sprawl and energy but also revitalize cities and create jobs as more people are now more willing to live in cities or closer to cities.

The Artworks of Robert Rauschenberg

Born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1925, Robert Rauschenberg imagined himself first as a minister and later as a pharmacist. It wasn’t until 1947, while in the U.S. Marines that he discovered his aptitude for drawing and his interest in the artistic representation of everyday objects and people.

Rauschenberg is perhaps most famous for his "Combines" of the 1950s, in which non-traditional materials and objects were employed in innovative combinations. While the Combines are both painting and sculpture, Rauschenberg also worked with photography and printmaking, papermaking, and performance.



Combine Piece

Combine Piece


Street Art

Old Philippines 1898-1930

In celebration of the pound for pound best boxer of the world, the Philippines own Manny Pacquiao, who crushed De La Hoya last saturday night, scenes of how the cities in the Philippines used to look including Manilla. Of course Manilla being the site of the famous Ali-Frazier "Thrilla in Manilla" fight nack in 1975.

I Will Possess Your Heart - Death Cab for Cutie

This is a great video showing travel sites fromm all across the globe.