Thursday, May 15, 2014

Lean Urbanism in Baltimore


This is a brief post because the important message is in the video below (from 42:20 to the end):

From my conversations with other young people and from my own experience, I've discovered that so many promising ideas proposed for cities like Baltimore inevitably run into a wall of regulation and crawl off to die. These regulations are well-meaning and well-intentioned, of course - but they're ultimately utterly unwieldy and infeasible!

Whether it's the increasing regimentation of food truck serving locations, or the inability to bypass parking minimums to adapt an old building for a new use, or the paternalistic meddling with slugging, ridesharing, and other bottom-up alternatives to the broken bus system, the established regulatory structure - which is primarily managed and enforced by older generations accustomed to stasis and formal procedure - has severely crippled a generation of urban pioneering. This pioneering built our cities in the first place, but it's no longer allowed to revive them.

Duany argues that Detroit recently overcame this obstacle via sheer municipal collapse: the city passed a threshold in which it became so desperate it could no longer afford to turn away any "illegal" ideas - nor did it have the municipal manpower to enforce any "on paper" regulations anymore. So it simply had no choice but to look the other way and allow young transplants to do almost anything they wanted.

For now, Baltimore is stuck in a slightly different predicament: It has neither the development attraction of cities like New York and Boston to enjoy widespread "risk averse" development, but neither does it feel quite as desperate as Detroit to simply look the other way and allow young people to experiment. Instead, it languishes in a bumbling, in-between stagnation, subsisting on a small platter of the top-down waterfront redevelopment projects Duany alluded to. There is a notion that these projects are a problem, but they're merely a symptom of a larger problem: the regulatory extermination of a fine-grained range of urban pioneers.

When it comes to most barometers of urban health - crime, poverty, drug abuse, abandonment, the quality of public transit - Baltimore is actually right up there behind Detroit, and I think it consequently needs to be just as desperate in accommodating any and all experimentation by the young "risk oblivious." But so far most pending reforms - such as that to the zoning code - have been far too timid in my opinion. Be more adventurous, Baltimore! You might as well tackle the problem consciously now, otherwise you'll default to deregulation anyway via municipal collapse just like Detroit!

- Marc Szarkowski

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Dissolving Border Vacuums, Part 10

We've examined many kinds of border vacuums over the last year – parking lots and arterial roads, trenches and viaducts, institutional facilities and superblocks, antiurban utopian experiments, “green spaces” and campuses – so let's conclude the series with Jacobs' thoughts on vacuum-inducing neighborhood “turfs” and the “great blight of dullness.”

Some border vacuums, like large cemeteries and prisons, are particularly challenging to deal with. We can't exactly encourage cross-use between a prison and its adjacent neighborhoods, so is there any other way to address its border vacuum?

Eastern State Penitentiary presents a blank wall to Fairmount Avenue...
In cases like this, Jacobs suggests using “extraordinarily strong counterforces” to confine the vacuums to small areas: “Population concentration ought to be made deliberately high near such borders, the blocks close to them should be especially short and their street use extremely fluid, and mixtures of uses should be abundant. This may not bring much intensity right up to the borders, but it can help confine their vacuums to small zones (268-269).”

The stretch of Fairmount Avenue across from Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary employs just such a counterforce, and it could be deployed around Baltimore's prison complex as well. Fairmount Avenue's mix of shopfronts, rowhouses, small apartment buildings, and offices helps confine Eastern State's border vacuum to the sidewalk next to the prison's blank wall (but even there the prison's architecture offers some visual interest).

 ...but Fairmount Avenue counters the border vacuum with a mixed-use street wall.
I'll counter the anticipated skepticism – “But Eastern State Penitentiary is a museum, whereas Baltimore's prison complex is still active!” – by pointing out that the mixed-use street wall across from Eastern State was already there when that prison was active!

If (1) the Metropolitan Transition Center’s interesting architecture was extended to enclose the entire prison complex, (2) an intensely fine-grained, mixed-use street-and-block fabric was introduced to extend the Johnston Square, Oldtown, and Jonestown neighborhoods right up to the prison walls, and (3) the border vacuums around the JFX and the nearby housing projects were also dissolved, then I think the complex's border vacuum would be successfully confined.

In short, I don't think it's necessary to move the prison complex out of central Baltimore at all. After all, even though its prisoners can't interact with surrounding neighborhoods, the complex's employees can enliven those neighborhoods with cross-use.

Greenmount Cemetery is ringed by a vacuum of vacant lots.
What about cemeteries, like Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery? A quick glance at an aerial view of Greenmount Cemetery reveals that the decay gets worse the closer one gets to the cemetery.

Save for two portals to Greenmount Avenue, the cemetery presents nothing but blank walls to surrounding neighborhoods. But these neighborhoods in turn present nothing but rapidly-built-up blocks of uniform, single-use rowhouses to the cemetery, and as discussed in the previous post, the resulting border vacuum isn't surprising.

It's possible to deploy “extraordinarily strong counterforces” around Greenmount Cemetery too - the recently-built City Arts Apartments attempt to do this, though they offer a relatively-bland frontage to Greenmount Avenue.

Greenmount Cemetery could be activated with cross-use.
But Greenmount Cemetery actually contains numerous architectural and historical assets, and these could be leveraged to activate the cemetery with cross-use and transform it into a recreational centerpiece for central Baltimore. For example, new Gothic portals could be added to the cemetery's corners and t-intersection streets, which would allow pedestrians and cyclists to use it as a shortcut between surrounding neighborhoods.

Furthermore, if Greenmount Cemetery was enclosed with mixed-use infill, this infill could foster cross-use by supporting recreational amenities placed strategically along the cemetery's perimeter: “An example would be a skating rink brought immediately up to a park border, and across the street on the city side, a cafe where skaters could get refreshments and observe other skaters across the way (166).”

There isn't room for a skating rink inside Greenmount Cemetery, of course, but even though most of its area is dedicated to gravestones and monuments, the cemetery's peripheral grounds offer pockets of space for smaller recreational amenities. (It may even be worth moving some peripheral gravestones to accommodate these amenities.)

Lest anyone think it obscene to turn a sacred resting place into a place of recreation, I hasten to insert that cemeteries like Greenmount were originally conceived as recreational amenities: “Here [in Greenmount Cemetery] were reserved acres of rolling, landscaped ground where visitors could stroll on Sundays and contemplate the meaning of mortality (The Baltimore Rowhouse, 57-58).” Only in the last century or so have we treated them as inert warehouses for the dead!

Jacobs stresses that border vacuums are most problematic where they carve cities into helpless fragments: “The trouble arises when districts are bisected by borders such that the neighborhoods sundered are weak fragments and a district cannot functionally exist. Frequent borders can in this way tear a city to tatters (264-265).”

This city-carving is also a symptom of the “turf” phenomenon, which in turn is a symptom of the feel-good notion that cities are mere collections of putatively “self-sufficient” villages:

“Planning theory is [even today!] committed to the ideal of supposedly cozy, inwardly-turned city neighborhoods. To see why this is a silly and even harmful ideal for cities, we must recognize a basic difference between town and city life. The connections among the people in a town keep crossing to form cohesive communities, but a population in a city has no such innate degree of cross-connections, nor can neighborhood planning change this fact. If it could, the price would be the destruction of a city by converting it into a parcel of mutually-suspicious and hostile turfs. City people aren't stuck with the provincialism of a neighborhood, and why should they be – isn't wide choice and rich opportunity the point of cities? (115-116).”

Bolton Hill retreats from Reservoir Hill...
Unfortunately a large swath of central Baltimore has already been converted into a collection of mutually-suspicious turfs:

“Under the turf system, a gang appropriates as its own territory certain streets, housing projects, and parks. Now consider the “islands within the city” and “cities within the city” redevelopment projects in cities. The technique here is also to designate turf and fence other gangs out. At first the fences weren't visible, but now they have become literal – perhaps the first was the fence around a Radiant Garden City project adjoining Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore (47-48).”

As Jacobs discusses in Chapters 6 and 20, some neighborhoods deliberately induce border vacuums to maintain their turfs, but the resulting pyrrhic victory stabilizes a handful of enclaves at the expense of a city's cultural and economic interaction (116). Eventually the city stops functioning as a city and devolves into a collection of isolated enclaves surrounded by a sea of helpless decay – and why bother sticking around in those enclaves after that point?

 … and Reservoir Hill does the same. Both are mutually-suspicious turfs.
Save for the Charles Street corridor (where Mt. Vernon, Midtown-Belvedere, Station North, Old Goucher, Remington, and Charles Village are gradually stitching together) and the waterfront (where Patterson Park, Highlandtown, Brewer's Hill, Canton, Fell's Point, Harbor East, Little Italy, the Inner Harbor, and Federal Hill are gradually stitching together), there is relatively little unification in central Baltimore.

Too many border vacuums divide this area, and the notion that the city is a collection of self-contained villages only reinforces these vacuums.

Jacobs argues that any single use spread over a large area is prone to border vacuum formation. These struggling “gray areas” tend to be characterized by (1) a large and rapid increment of development, (2) a limited range of building types, and (3) a problematic “in-between” density:

“At any particular place and time, under the given circumstances of regulations, technology, and financing, some particular way of packing dwellings onto the land is apt to be most efficient. In some places and times, for example, rowhouses were the answer for maximum efficiency [as in Baltimore]. Where these crowded out all other dwelling types, they brought a pall of monotony. No one way is a good way to house a city neighborhood. Standardization is fatal, because diversity in types of buildings has a direct connection with diversity in population and enterprise (212-214).”

Unfortunately Baltimore's single-use rowhouse belt suffers from this predicament, and it did not go unnoticed by Jacobs: “The Kostritskys live in inner Baltimore, but Mrs. Kostritsky must commute via car – nothing else is practical – to get her children to school, to do grocery shopping, to use a library, to see a show, and like any mother out in the suburbs, this inner-city mother must drive to a suburban shopping center to buy children's clothing. “I have lost the advantages of living in the city,” she says, “without getting the advantages of living in the suburbs.” In-between densities – too low for cities, too high for suburbs – are as impractical for transportation as they are for other economic or social purposes. The common fate of such districts nowadays is to be abandoned by people with choice (356-357).”

Vast swaths of Baltimore offer neither suburban comforts nor urban amenities.
That last part is important: If I valued suburban living, why would I settle for a rowhouse neighborhood? Likewise, if I valued urban living with its mixed uses and street life, why would I settle for a single-use rowhouse neighborhood either? It may be uncomfortable to admit, but vast swaths of inner Baltimore, having outlived their original industrial dormitory function, are now stuck in Jacobs' “in-between” predicament.

Fortunately the situation is hardly hopeless, and demolition certainly isn't required! Zoning and taxation reforms would give entrepreneurial residents – and there are many of them! – the opportunity to convert gray-area rowhouse blocks into fine-grained districts like Mt. Vernon. This incremental transformation has happened before, and merely needs to be legalized again.

Cities will continue to host transportation corridors and institutional facilities/districts, but their accompanying border vacuums need not be inevitable. For example, although American cities have historically done a poor job integrating their waterfronts into the urban fabric, we need only look abroad to see that most cities manage to integrate waterfront recreation with commerce.

I think Baltimore actually comes closer than most other American cities in matching these cities' waterfront integration. There's legitimate debate over the financing tactics used to revitalize the Inner Harbor, but in terms of form I think the revitalization beats similar efforts in Boston, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia.

Fell's Point offers casual openings for glimpsing the working waterfront.
For example, rather than buffering the waterfront with vacuous “green space” setbacks, the city brought the urban fabric (i.e. people!) right up to the water's edge, ensuring an extraordinarily strong counterforce to what previously had been a desolate backwater of derelict piers. At the same time, the city incorporated a continuous public promenade from Canton to Fort McHenry, ensuring cross-use.

Fell's Point is consequently a perfect example of the waterfront seam Jacobs describes in Chapter 14: “The usual rescue for a decayed waterfront vacuum is to replace it with a park, which only moves the vacuum inland. Let's grasp the problem where it originates, at the shoreline, and make the shore a seam. Waterfronts should be penetrated by casual public openings for glimpsing work and water traffic (267-268).”

We shouldn't expect cities like Baltimore to conquer their other border vacuums in one fell swoop – the process quite understandably takes time – but I do hope cities stop sacrificing long-term stability for an endless parade of vacuum-inducing, feel-good stunts, because these stunts always age poorly: “In spite of much experiment, planned and unplanned, there exists no substitute for lively streets (120).”

- Marc Szarkowski

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dissolving Border Vacuums, Part 9

Institutional campuses sometimes induce the same border vacuums along their perimeters as those found around parks and “green spaces.” These vacuums are perhaps surprising because institutions like hospitals and universities are vital urban amenities. So I hasten to remind readers that even though I'll be critiquing the urban form of several noteworthy Baltimore institutions in this post, this should not be taken as criticism of the value of these institutions!

As discussed in the previous post, parks can sink into dereliction if they're not activated with “cross-use.” As Jacobs argues in Chapter 14, the city side of a park perimeter needs to offer an enclosure that feeds people into the park, and the park side of the perimeter needs to offer edge programming to lure those people into the park.

If the park is poorly enclosed (i.e. it lacks sufficient mixed-use infill), if its programming is concentrated in a secluded center, or if the boundary between the park and enclosing neighborhoods is too unpleasant and/or difficult to cross, then the cross-use doesn't occur and a border vacuum emerges.

The same pattern holds true for hospital, university, and other institutional campuses: if there is no cross-use between the campus and the enclosing urban fabric, then a border vacuum emerges. I think the vast “dead zone” around Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore is one of the most depressing examples of this phenomenon. Many rowhouse neighborhoods adjacent to the country's finest medical institution languish in terrible decay: there clearly has been little cross-use between these neighborhoods and Johns Hopkins Hospital!

St. Hedwig’s Hospital in Berlin supports lively mixed-use neighborhoods.
This outcome is all the more disappointing when we contrast the Johns Hopkins Hospital border vacuum with the dynamic surroundings of great medical institutions in other cities: usually the neighborhoods around these institutions are some of the liveliest and most productive in their respective cities, filled with the students, working professionals, and ancillary businesses that support the institutions. In short, there is ample cross-use between the institutions and their surrounding neighborhoods, something that is sorely lacking around Johns Hopkins Hospital.

To its credit, Johns Hopkins has initiated several projects to overcome the massive border vacuum surrounding its East Baltimore campus. A substantial amount of infill housing for students and young professionals has been built adjacent to the campus, and the hospital has injected resources into surrounding educational and commercial anchors.

A view of the massive “scorched earth” border vacuum north of Hopkins Hospital.
However, I think some of these projects have relied on unfortunate “one step forward, two steps back” redevelopment tactics. For example, the “scorched earth” tactic of acquiring block after block of rowhouses, condemning and clearing them en masse, and replacing them with equally-vast swathes of uniform infill runs the risk of swapping out one iteration of failed “gray area” for a second iteration of “gray area.”

As discussed in the parking lots post, infill needs to feature a small increment of development to be affordable, accessible, and practical for a sufficiently-broad range of residents and businesses. As Jacobs warns us in Chapter 10, rapidly-built-up districts with a limited range of building types tend to incorporate the seeds of their future decay.

Perhaps this is why Johns Hopkins felt it had to resort to such large-scale clearance in the first place: the original rowhouse districts surrounding the hospital were themselves built up too rapidly with too limited a range of building types (almost nothing other than two-bay, two-story rowhouses), and these “gray area” districts never transitioned into the diverse, mixed-use, mixed-form neighborhoods necessary for supporting a diverse medical institution. There was, for example, almost no commerce outside the Monument Street corridor. Like many other struggling, single-use, “gray area” rowhouse districts in Baltimore, this district was arguably destined for malaise from its inception in the 19th century.

An example of recent infill construction near Johns Hopkins Hospital.
But will urban-renewal-style clearance solve the problem? The replacement housing does incorporate excellent urban design (it's largely built out to the sidewalk without resorting to blank walls), but again, I worry that the increment of development is too unwieldy, and that the range of infill types/forms is too narrow.

I think a better redevelopment approach would have (1) engaged a wider range of developers to produce a wider range of infill buildings, (2) urged the city to undertake comprehensive zoning deregulation in the district to allow a richer array of bottom-up property owners and entrepreneurs to repurpose/replace the existing building stock on a finer grain, and (3) downsized/subdivided the district's blocks via laneways and alleyways (something the old rowhouse blocks actually did better than the new infill) to avoid superblock formation, with its attendant tendency to undermine cross-use.

For example, there's been an encouraging amount of rowhouse renovation along upper Broadway, but the fundamental 19th century shortcoming of this stretch of Broadway – that it was built up with a single building type for a single use – remains and should be overcome. Zoning deregulation and incremental conversion/replacement of some of the rowhouses with other building types would, I think, gradually allow the mixed-use vibrancy of lower Broadway in Fell's Point to spread northward.

Another example of the “one step forward, two steps back” redevelopment approach around Hopkins Hospital is the striking contrast between the form of the infill housing and the form of infill hospital buildings. As discussed earlier, for all the shortcomings in development scale, the infill housing does follow good urban design principles. Unfortunately this isn't the case with many of the campus' medical facilities: there is a heavy reliance on superblocks composed of parking lots, parking garages, and blank-walled buildings connected to each other via skywalks and concourses.

How Hopkins Hospital interacted with surrounding rowhouse neighborhoods.
I think this further undermines the viability of the adjacent infill housing: why bother living next to a blank-walled superblock if you don't get any benefits (such as street life, “eyes on the street” safety, convenient commerce, and ease of cross-use) from the adjacency? This is why the old rowhouse fabric decayed as badly as it did: it had no value for reuse because it had no practical connection to the campus.

This is hardly a criticism of institutional agglomeration or even parking per se: institutions like hospitals quite understandably need to concentrate their facilities to accommodate internal cross-use, and skywalks and concourses easily accomplish this. Furthermore, institutions like Hopkins Hospital, which receives a substantial number of national and international patients, need to offer some parking. I merely think amenities intended to foster internal cross-use become problematic when they begin to undermine external cross-use between the institution and its surrounding neighborhoods, and this is clearly the problem around Hopkins Hospital.

For example, despite their usefulness, I think skywalks unintentionally reinforce the border vacuums they're crossing in a destructive feedback loop: the bridges that connect the Orleans Street Garage to the Bloomberg Children's Center ultimately allow Orleans Street to devolve into an ever-nastier traffic sewer, which only makes it more difficult for the vibrancy along lower Broadway to leap across Orleans and spread northward.

Fortunately there are solutions for institutional superblocks, and Johns Hopkins Hospital seems to be increasingly receptive to them:

Firstly, if it is necessary to close a street to enlarge a block, the resulting superblock can retain some porosity by offering promenades that connect to surrounding streets. A continuous street grid is thus preserved for pedestrians and bicyclists, if not for automobiles. Of course, as Jacobs warns us in Chapter 9, promenades are pointless if there's no reason for people to use them – they need to contain the same enclosing mixed uses that ordinary streets do. Fortunately the two promenades in the western half of the Hopkins medical campus – the Jefferson and McElderry Promenades, which were once conventional streets – offer this, in addition to regular event programming such as farmers' markets.

Jefferson Square at Washington Hill places its parking in the center of the block.
Secondly, rather than placing their blank walls, parking garages, and unpleasant-but-necessary service infrastructure (loading docks, ducts and grilles, service doors, etc.) along the street, institutional facilities can employ the “perimeter block” format to conceal these activities in the centers of blocks. Jefferson Square at Washington Hill does this, though it missed an opportunity to extend Fairmount Avenue across its superblock. Parking garages can also incorporate retail liners (as at Johns Hopkins' Rutland Garage), though there needs to be a sufficient pool of residents nearby to support them.

Thirdly, rather than concentrating their semipublic programming deep in the interiors of buildings, institutional facilities can move these activities into retail liners that open directly onto surrounding streets. A quick perusal of the Johns Hopkins Hospital map reveals that the campus' internal loop offers numerous ATMs, chapels, coffee shops, flower shops, gift shops, cafes, restaurants, food courts, lounges, and pharmacies for visitors. But what if this internal loop fronted onto surrounding streets to enliven them and offer amenities for visitors and nearby residents? Perhaps this loop could even have been designed as a fully-public series of midblock commercial laneways that seamlessly flowed into surrounding neighborhoods, potentially preventing their decades-long slide into irrelevance in the first place!

It's perhaps too late to employ these tactics within the existing campus (though there are opportunities for thoughtful retrofitting), but I'd encourage the hospital to consider them as it expands into surrounding blocks.

From many conversations I've gotten the impression that we often assume the best way to experience a perfect “walkable” neighborhood is to visit a medieval town in Europe. But many of us live in similar “walkable” places – college campuses – for several impressionable years in our youth and then forget this when we move into the “real world!”

I've often wondered why this disconnect between our collective experience of a “walkable” college campus and the “real world” exists, and I think the conventional City Beautiful campus is itself to blame. For many of us they are indeed our first and only experience of “walkable” communities, but many also tend to be introverted to a degree such that we may be subconsciously concluding they are “special” places – wonderful to experience for a few years, but irrelevant to the structure and operation of the “real world” urban fabric: “Typically they pretend to be cloistered or countrified places, nostalgically denying their transplantation, or else they pretend to be office buildings (267).”

This sense of separation may also be responsible for the “town-gown” friction between universities and their host cities. The friction is also a result of the hypertrophic “eds and meds” bubble of recent decades, in which universities and hospitals have rapidly expanded into surrounding neighborhoods. Many large state universities, for example, have induced vast “student ghettos” on their peripheries, with all their attendant friction.

The Hopkins Homewood campus is incredibly beautiful, but it sits in a bubble.
In Baltimore, the campus fortress mentality can be observed in the so-called “JHU fear bubble” around Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus. Hopkins is attempting to overcome this insularity by expanding the range of mixed-use, mixed-form buildings in Charles Village (the rowhouse neighborhood adjacent to the Homewood campus), essentially employing Jacobs' “extraordinarily strong counterforces” vacuum-fighting tactic.

In addition to the incremental densification of Charles Village, I think Hopkins could “activate the edge” of its Homewood campus by moving more of the campus' semipublic programming closer to adjacent streets, as Jacobs suggests: “Universities could make their campuses more like seams and less like barriers if they placed their uses intended for the public at strategic points on their perimeters (267).”

For example, future student centers, theaters and performance spaces, clubhouses, galleries, and even dormitories could be placed along the Homewood campus' Charles Street and University Parkway frontages (the Lacrosse Hall of Fame is a useful precedent in this regard). Wyman Park could also be transformed from an overgrown back door “wilderness” into a vibrant front door between the Homewood campus and Hampden.

These campus perimeter tactics, useful as they are, eventually raise the question: do urban universities even need campuses? If they were part and parcel of the ordinary urban fabric, would it be easier for us to make the leap from “walkable” university neighborhoods to “real world” neighborhoods equally hospitable to “walkable” working, shopping, entertaining, and child-rearing? I think the campusless university is better poised to accommodate this mental leap – and perhaps is already doing so in younger generations.

What exactly are “campusless” universities? These are essentially universities that were established in a single building (or perhaps in a small collection of buildings organized around a modest courtyard or quad), but have since grown into prominent institutions by acquiring disparate buildings across their host cities, rather than decamping to blank slates on the fringes of those cities to establish discrete campuses. The University City district in Philadelphia is a famous example, as is the Savannah College of Art and Design, and Baltimore has the local examples of MICA, the University of Maryland, and the University of Baltimore.

The University of Wroclaw is seamlessly integrated into its host city.
Such universities are even more common abroad. Some – such as the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and the University of Wroclaw – are so beautifully integrated into their host cities that there are no discernible campus edges and no consequent border vacuums. Rather than bestowing a sense of importance on their buildings via “open space” setbacks, these universities use lavish architecture to distinguish their buildings from surrounding background buildings.

Furthermore, instead of being cloistered on a single site (or even in adjacent spillover “student ghettos”), campusless students are generally distributed across various neighborhoods around a city. There are fewer “turf lines” between campus and city, and students consequently mature earlier – they learn to use their host city for daily life, rather than consciously leaving special campuses for special trips “into the city.”

How the University of Wroclaw interacts with its host city.
More specifically, campusless students quickly learn how to use the public transit, restaurants, and other amenities in their host cities, rather than having to rely on the infantilizing substitutes – shuttles and dining halls – that conventional campuses provide.

I therefore think campusless students have a better opportunity to transfer their urban educational experience to an equally-viable urban “real world” experience after graduation: “I slept, ate out, did groceries, work-studied, ran errands, explored, and commuted to classes on foot, bike, and transit across this city during my college years, and I can easily continue doing this after I graduate.”

How a generic university campus typically interacts with its host city.
A conventional campus student, on the other hand, arguably has a harder time transferring their bubble experience to a mismatched “real world.” Many cozy campus “villages” don't really teach us how to interact with their greater urban organisms, so we forget their “walkable” settings surprisingly quickly after graduation: if your experience of “walkable” living is confined to a campus, how can you transfer that special experience once you have to leave the campus?

Many campusless universities still have courtyards and quads, but these spaces often serve students and city residents, since they're so thoroughly integrated into the urban fabric. For example, it'd be difficult for a university to claim a plaza like this as its own “turf,” since so many city residents casually use it for shortcuts, meanderings, and relaxation.

I think such fine-grained cross-use helps ease “town-gown” friction, since it becomes harder to divide people into oppositional camps – there's too much sharing of public amenities, and too much mutual benefit. Many conventional City Beautiful campuses, on the other hand, often use their poorly-enclosed “open space” grounds to clearly demarcate their “turf,” with little benefit for adjacent residents and little consequent cross-use.

This isn't to say that campusless universities have impeccable “town-gown” relationships: as observable in places like Philadelphia's University City, there still is friction if the universities are undergoing hypertrophic growth. Blank-walled starchitecture can likewise undermine the connection between university buildings and the supporting background fabric. But campusless universities still seem to be better at easing “town-gown” friction than discrete campuses experiencing a sudden “bursting of the floodgates.”

I would hardly argue that universities like Johns Hopkins should dismantle their existing City Beautiful campuses – in these cases I think the previously-discussed edge activation strategy is preferable. Not all university campuses are problematic either – many college towns are enlivened by their presence, precisely because these campuses take great pains to activate their edges with cross-use. But when it comes to establishing new universities or expanding existing ones, I think the campusless approach is preferable.

Midtown-Belvedere enjoys considerable cross-use from MICA and UB.
Fortunately American universities increasingly seem to be adopting this approach – fewer and fewer are doing what Goucher College did in the 1950s when it decamped from central Baltimore to a suburban campus. Many are instead acquiring disparate buildings across their host cities, ensuring the fine-grained integration of students and city residents, thus preventing the formation of border vacuum turfs.

For all the incredible beauty of a detached Homewood campus, I'd rather have a lively Midtown/Mount Vernon enjoying thorough cross-use from MICA/UB students and city residents alike.

Next time we'll wrap up the series on border vacuums with Jacobs' thoughts on vacuum-inducing neighborhood “turfs” and the “great blight of dullness” (a blight afflicting large swathes of Baltimore!), so stay tuned!

- Marc Szarkowski

Monday, November 25, 2013

Could Baltimore Benefit from a Frequent Transit Grid?

As a follow-up to the recent post on frequency mapping, I thought it'd be worthwhile to discuss the concept of a frequent transit grid. The MTA is currently soliciting ideas for the Bus Network Improvement Project, and the most common suggestions seem to be (1) improving schedule adherence by reducing bus stops, boarding times, traffic delays, and bus bunching, (2) improving service frequency, and (3) reducing overcrowding.

Not only could a frequent transit grid address many of these issues, but I think it'd serve as a sorely-needed update to the current “radial” transit network. I hasten to add that my suggestions are presented from the perspective of a bus rider and amateur “transit geek,” so I encourage those with professional transit expertise to correct any errors or oversights.

A diagram of a typical radial transit network.
Baltimore's transit network is currently organized on a “radial” or “spider web” grid (see right). A radial network is primarily composed of two kinds of transit routes: radial routes that run directly from a city's downtown to its outlying neighborhoods, and crosstown routes that run around downtown in concentric circles to connect the various radial routes.

So what's wrong with radial networks? I've often heard comments along the lines of “Baltimore's transit network is actually very good... for 1950.” These comments reveal the underlying weakness of radial networks: many tend to provide good service to the core at the expense of good anywhere-to-anywhere service outside the core. Before WWII this arrangement made sense: at that time Baltimore's downtown and adjacent industrial waterfront were the dominant employment and commercial destinations in the region, so there was little need to provide extensive crosstown service between the neighborhoods outside this core.

For better or worse, this centralized pattern of urbanization has been considerably diluted since then: not only have numerous employment and commercial nodes sprouted outside Baltimore (BWI, Hunt Valley, Owings Mills, Towson, White Marsh, Woodlawn), but the same pattern has unfolded within the city (Canton Crossing, Harbor East, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Montgomery Park, State Center, Tide Point, and eventually perhaps even Harbor Point, Port Covington, and Westport). While all these destinations are already served by metro, light rail, and/or bus lines, almost all these lines converge on downtown, requiring anyone traveling from one outlying area to another to pass through downtown.

As Jarrett Walker noted when analyzing my frequent transit map, only one crosstown route – the 13 bus – currently meets the frequent transit threshold. So if you live, work, and shop outside downtown Baltimore, it's easier to drive to various destinations than to wait for a spartan, infrequent crosstown bus. Furthermore, downtown Baltimore itself is slowly transitioning into a mixed-use neighborhood, so the transit network increasingly needs to accommodate “reverse commuting” as well.

I think a frequent transit grid would be a good solution to this predicament. Since Baltimore's urban fabric has shifted from the “downtown is the center of everything” pattern to the “diffuse nodes” pattern, so too could its transit network shift from the “spider web” pattern to a diffuse grid that accommodated anywhere-to-anywhere travel.

A diagram of a typical frequent transit grid.
Jarrett describes the geometry of frequent transit grids better than I ever could, but the concept is fairly straightforward: as its name implies, a frequent transit grid is composed of multiple parallel north-south and east-west routes that intersect to form a grid.

Of course, most frequent transit grids are not nearly as orthogonal as the diagram on the left suggests; usually geographic obstacles induce numerous deviations. But even in these cases, the underlying grid structure remains and is very useful:

“In an ideal grid system everyone is within walking distance of one north-south line and one east-west line. So you can get from anywhere to anywhere with one connection while following a reasonably direct L-shaped path. For this trip to be attractive, the lines have to be frequent so you don't have to wait long for the connection.”

That last point is important: transit grids require easy transfers which in turn require frequent service. Many bus riders express an aversion to transfers, which is understandable considering that transfers are often timed to connect routes with relatively spartan service: if your first bus is late (a common occurrence), you'll miss your connecting bus and consequently have to wait a long time for the next one. But in a frequent transit grid you don't have to rely on timed connections; if you miss one connecting bus, another one will come along shortly.

So how do you create a frequent transit grid? In most cases, existing radial and crosstown routes are realigned to form new north-south and east-west routes. Jarrett describes how this process occurred in Portland in such detail that it's worth interrupting this post to recommend reading his post first!

One possible configuration for a frequent transit grid; click for full PDF.
In the above post Jarrett points out, “The old network was wasteful, as many overlapping lines converged on downtown. The new network was efficient, with little overlap between lines, and with lines spaced further apart. This is how the resources were found to increase frequency so much.”

I think a similar strategy could work in Baltimore: MTA and Charm City Circulator resources could be pooled and bus routes realigned to eliminate redundancies. Bus routes can't be altered on a whim – there's quite understandably a lengthy public process – but establishing a grid of frequent buses would still probably be much easier, faster, and cheaper than dedicating considerable resources to far-off metro, light rail, or even streetcar expansions. These expansions all are worthwhile, but the city can't afford to wait decades for them.

So I proposed the following changes to existing MTA and CCC bus routes. As with my frequent transit map, I decided to focus only on central Baltimore to keep the project manageable, but the grid realignment I proposed for this area could just as easily be applied to bus routes throughout the region. Furthermore, the map's intention is not to propose a finalized grid but merely to suggest one possible grid iteration out of many.

The distinctive CCC brand, fleet, and fare structure (free!) would be retained, but the service would be integrated into MTA service to eliminate redundancies. CCC routes would be restructured to accommodate several long-distance feeder routes by serving as central city trunk lines.

To ease transfers and minimize overcrowding – they would, after all, be replacing numerous overlapping local bus routes – CCC routes would offer daily 5-minute (or less) service and 30-minute overnight service. The C1 (currently known as the Purple Route) could be replaced with the Charles Street streetcar in the future, but the streetcar would still function as a free circulator.


Local bus routes would be realigned, split, and/or combined into a grid of routes wherever necessary; many would also feed into transfer hubs. Most of the segments within this grid would offer daily 15-minute (or less) service and 60-minute overnight service. Riders could therefore expect uniform service on all gridded routes regardless of route number. Outside the grid, the frequencies on long-distance local buses would be adjusted to demand as necessary. To facilitate the most evenly-distributed grid possible, several minor one-way street segments might need to be converted to two-way traffic.

Quick buses would be restructured to serve as long-distance extensions of the CCC trunk routes by connecting central Baltimore to regional nodes like Annapolis, Columbia, White Marsh, and Woodlawn (though, unlike the CCC, they wouldn't be free).

Quick buses would continue to offer daily 15-minute service but would also offer 60-minute overnight service. They would retain limited-stop service as well, but the stops would be adjusted to coincide with the intersections on the transit grid (i.e. they'd skip the local stops in between).

At night, certain quick bus routes could deviate from their daytime routing to serve important metro and light rail destinations. The Q1, for example, could run through BWI at night to offer service to downtown Baltimore when the light rail isn't operating, thus replacing Route 17's overnight service to downtown Baltimore.

Commuter buses would be restructured to function more like commuter rail lines by feeding into two transfer hubs: one at Lexington Market with connections to the metro and light rail, and a second at Camden Station with connections to the light rail, MARC, and a new intercity bus terminal (more on this below). Routing to Charles Center, State Center, and Johns Hopkins Hospital would be discontinued since commuters would be able to transfer from the aforementioned hubs to reach these points.

Independent express buses (i.e. Routes 104, 120, 150, and 160) would be discontinued and folded into quick bus service. However, the express buses that supplement local buses would be retained and adjusted as needed. Each supplemental express would retain its branding as a limited-stop, 15-minute, peak hours version of the corresponding local bus (i.e. “19X is a faster version of 19”). Supplemental expresses would be spun off as quick bus routes only if demand warranted full-time express service.

Several other redundant routes would be discontinued, freeing up resources for new routes:
  • The CCC's Banner and Green Routes would be folded into various other routes.
  • Route 12 would be truncated to a transfer hub at Towson Town Center and the remaining segment from Stella Maris to Towson would be converted into a neighborhood shuttle (S5) with improved service frequency.
  • Route 14 would be replaced by the Q1 quick bus; the proposed routing outside central Baltimore would be along Hanover Street to Ritchie Highway, after which the Q1 would follow the former Route 14 routing to Glen Burnie and Annapolis. 
  • Route 30 would be folded into Route 20; the combined route would offer frequent service from West Baltimore to Woodlawn.
  • Quick Buses 46 and 47, which ultimately couldn't support full-time express service, would be demoted back to supplemental expresses (5X and 10X for QB46, 15X and 35X for QB47). 
  • Express Bus 104 would be folded into Route 36 as a supplemental express (36X). 
  • Express Bus 120 would be replaced by the Q2 quick bus; the proposed routing outside central Baltimore would be along Monument Street, Pulaski Highway, I-95, and White Marsh Boulevard.
  • Express Bus 150 would be replaced by the Q3 quick bus; the proposed routing outside central Baltimore would be along Baltimore Street, Hilton Parkway, Frederick Avenue, US 29, and Little Patuxent Parkway (thus serving Catonsville and Ellicott City on the way to Columbia). 
  • Express Bus 160 would also be replaced by the Q3 quick bus; the proposed routing outside central Baltimore would be along Lombard Street, Bayview Boulevard, Eastern Avenue, and Eastern Boulevard.
  • Commuter Bus 310 would be folded into the K1 (formerly 320) commuter bus as an improved extension from the Snowden River Park and Ride to Columbia Mall. Commuter Buses 410 and 411 would be combined into a single K2 commuter bus serving various points in the Bel Air area.

To facilitate easy transfers both on the fringes of the grid and within it, I proposed a series of transfer hubs that would be built in a manner similar to the existing Mondawmin bus/metro hub. The number of bus bays per hub would, of course, vary according to the anticipated number of connecting routes.

  • In many instances, as at Bayview Medical Center, Canton Crossing, Lexington Market, Port Covington, State Center, and West Baltimore, transfer hubs could simply be built into existing parking lots and incorporated into future TOD. In other instances, as at Orangeville, Walbrook Junction, and Westport, transfer hubs could be built atop vacant land and likewise incorporated into future TOD. Certain hubs could even connect to future Red and Purple Line stations.
  • In instances where sufficient open land might not be available, as at Johns Hopkins University and Hospital, transfer hubs could be built into the parking lanes of existing streets, such as 33rd Street and Broadway. At Park Circle, a transfer hub could be built into a reconstructed roundabout.
  • At Camden Station, a bus terminal could be built above the parking lot and MARC trackage immediately to the east of the B&O warehouse. The terminal could accommodate both intercity buses (Boltbus, Greyhound, Megabus, Peter Pan) and MTA commuter buses; it could even contain dedicated bus onramps/offramps to/from I-395. I still think the parking lot north of Penn Station and/or the airspace above the JFX/NEC would have been the best location for an intercity bus terminal, but given the local opposition to that proposal, Camden Station might be a good compromise: it's sufficiently buffered from residential neighborhoods by Camden Yards, the Convention Center, and the Federal Reserve branch (not without ill effect!), but at the same time it offers excellent access to downtown Baltimore. To maintain a decent connection to Penn Station (Amtrak), the frequency of the light rail's Penn Station/Camden Station shuttle could be improved.

These proposed changes – particularly those to local buses – seem unsettling at first glance. To expand upon just one proposed change, a restructured 27 bus would no longer give Hampdenites a direct route downtown. But the current 27 bus only offers a 40-minute off-peak frequency and is notoriously unreliable. If the route was realigned along the lines proposed on the map, Hampdenites would have to transfer to the C1 circulator to go downtown. However, since the new 27 and the C1 would offer much better service frequency (15 minutes and 5 minutes respectively), a trip downtown with a transfer at Old Goucher would ultimately be faster and more convenient than waiting around for the current 27 bus! The other proposed route realignments would likewise offer similar advantages over current radial routes.

A snapshot of Philadelphia's transit grid.
Some might also argue that Portland's transit needs are different from Baltimore's, and that a grid network that worked well in one urban context might not work well in another. But this argument, as well as the accompanying argument that frequent transit grids facilitate crime, can be dispelled by analyzing Philadelphia's frequent transit grid (official map available here).

Philadelphia closely resembles Baltimore economically, demographically, and physically, yet the frequent transit grid has become an integral part of that city's transit system. Moreover, this transit grid connects neighborhoods of widely-varying demographics, and there's no evidence that this connectivity has increased crime – in fact, Philadelphia does slightly better than Baltimore in most categories of crime. This suggests that a frequent transit grid might very well be viable in Baltimore, and that it wouldn't necessarily increase crime.

To address several other common suggestions on the BNIP website, I proposed supplementing the frequent transit grid with the following changes:

  • The light rail would finally be given signal priority on Howard Street. Numerous suggestions for grade-separating this segment of the light rail – such as elevating it above Howard Street or repurposing the Howard Street Tunnel once (if) CSX relocates to a new double-stack-friendly tunnel – have been floated, but the likelihood of these solutions ever becoming reality is so slim that, in my opinion, signal prioritization is the only practical near-term solution.
  • The light rail's Sunday operating hours would be extended to match the metro's hours (6am to 12am), upon which Route 14's Sunday morning/evening service to downtown Baltimore would be discontinued.
  • The Yellow Line's peak service to Timonium would be extended to Hunt Valley.
  • To improve Hampden's access to the light rail, I proposed an infill station at the recently-renovated Mill No. 1. The mill's disused freight platform could be converted into a light rail station with a pedestrian bridge across the Jones Falls to Falls Road and Chestnut Avenue. The station could even contain a pedestrian walkway/stairway to the Wyman Park Drive bridge to connect to Druid Hill Park.

  • Weekend service is finally being introduced on the Penn Line, but I think weekday service on both the Penn and Camden Lines should be further improved.
  • The Penn Line's Perryville service would be extended to Wilmington to connect to SEPTA's Regional Rail.

Perhaps the most-discussed topic on the BNIP website is what the “ideal” spacing between bus stops should be. (On most bus routes, stops are generally spaced a block apart.) As the MTA noted, stop elimination requires the careful evaluation of trade-offs.

I agree that the number of bus stops should be reduced, but perhaps not as drastically as some advocate. I think eliminating every other stop or two (i.e. spacing stops two to three blocks apart) would be sufficient, and that resources from the closed stops could be used to improve the remaining stops. Otherwise, I proposed reconfiguring bus stops as follows:

  • To serve the proposed frequent transit grid effectively, bus stops would be hierarchically organized into three classes: transfer hubs, intermediate stops (intersections on the transit grid), and local stops (stops in between the intersections; not shown on the map). All buses would stop at transfer hubs and at intermediate stops, but quick buses, commuter buses, and supplemental express buses would skip the local stops in between.
  • Eventually each stop would contain a shelter, system map, and comprehensive information placard. This would admittedly be a difficult feat to pull off all at once, so I anticipate introducing these amenities incrementally: they would be added to transfer hubs first, then to the busiest intermediate stops, then to the remaining intermediate stops, then eventually to as many local stops as possible.
  • I actually don't think bus trackers would be necessary at most stops, at least not at those within the frequent transit grid. They could be added to stops serving less-frequent routes first, where they'd be more useful.

Most bus riders have experienced the aggravating phenomenon of bus bunching: you're waiting for a late bus, and suddenly two or more buses on the same route show up! The technical explanation of bus bunching is beyond the scope of this post, but the Walking Bostonian offers a thorough summary here.

I proposed reducing bunching by (1) reducing the number of stops in the manner discussed above, (2) adding curb extensions to most stops, and (3) introducing layovers at strategic stops to stabilize uneven headways.

An illustration of a typical proposed intermediate stop.
As depicted in the illustration on the right, I think the MTA, CCC, and city DOT could cooperate to build a series of bus/crosswalk bulbs (aka curb extensions) at bus stops. These would be introduced in the manner discussed earlier: transfer hubs first, then intermediate stops, then local stops.

Dedicated bus lanes would certainly speed up buses, but on many streets there'd probably be considerable spatial and political obstacles to their implementation. Curb extensions are a good compromise with numerous benefits: (1) they reduce pedestrians' crossing distance at intersections, (2) they improve access for the elderly and disabled, (3) they provide additional waiting space for passengers, (4) they increase curbside parking space by eliminating “transition zones” (the clearance space a bus needs to pull out of the travel lane and into the bus stop), and most importantly, (5) they eliminate delays caused by buses repeatedly merging back into the travel lane.

Regular bus riders will note that, on many routes, buses are already stopping in the travel lane and treating stops as if they had curb extensions. On busier routes bus drivers are under intense pressure to do everything possible to adhere to the schedules, so sometimes they're compelled to stop in the travel lane. In other cases, bus stops don't even have the aforementioned transition zones, so they already function with informal curb extensions. In still other cases, the transition zones – or even the stops themselves – are blocked by illegally-parked cars, likewise forcing buses to stop in the travel lane. So in all these cases, adding curb extensions merely facilitates an already-common boarding practice.

I also proposed a system of strategic layovers at designated stops: buses running ahead would pause at these stops to balance uneven headways. CCC riders will note that this practice is already common on that system, though its implementation could probably be improved. Again, the Walking Bostonian discusses this practice in greater detail, but also notes the practice is incompatible with routes running on schedules.

All-door boarding – which requires a proof-of-payment fare system akin to the one used on the light rail – could also reduce bunching.

I hope this map spurs a discussion on the viability of a frequent transit grid in Baltimore! Next time we'll return to the discussion on border vacuums by examining those around hospital and university campuses, so stay tuned!

- Marc Szarkowski

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dissolving Border Vacuums, Part 8

Having looked at the border vacuums around Garden and Radiant Cities, let's now examine the vacuums around parks and “green spaces.” This might be an uncomfortable discussion at times because some of my arguments may run counter to conventional “green” or “sustainable” thinking.

There has long been a romantic “city vs. country” tension in Anglo-American culture: the friction between Hamilton (who favored urban mercantilism) and Jefferson (who favored an agrarian society) is an emblematic example, as was William Penn's preoccupation with platting Philadelphia as a dispersed “green country town.” Kunstler's City in Mind quotes Vita Sackville-West on this curious phenomenon:

“The English are a rural-minded people, which perhaps explains why our rural architecture is so much better than our urban. Our cities, generally speaking, are deplorable. There is a lack of design which must make the French smile (225).”

This “city vs. country” tension grew stronger in the nineteenth century after England and the US unintentionally fouled many of their cities in the Industrial Revolution, but Jacobs goes even further in discussing its origins:

“Humans are a part of nature and the cities of humans are as natural as the colonies of prairie dogs or the beds of oysters. But a curious thing happened in the eighteenth century. By then the cities of Europe had mediated many harsh aspects of nature, so that something became popularly possible which previously had been rare: sentimentalization of nature. Marie Antoinette playing milkmaid was one expression of this sentimentality, as was Jefferson's intellectual rejection of cities of free artisans and his dream of a republic of self-reliant rural yeomen. Owing to the mediation of cities, it became possible to regard “nature” as benign, ennobling, and pure. Opposed to all this fictionalized purity, cities, not being fictions, could then be considered seats of malignancy and enemies of nature. Consequently what could be more natural than the desire to bring “nature” into the city so it might get some purity by association? But there are dangers in sentimentalizing nature. Most sentimentality implies a deep if unacknowledged disrespect. It is no accident that we Americans, probably the world's champion sentimentalizers of nature, are at the same time probably the world's most disrespectful destroyers of the countryside (443-445).”

I think this sentimental view of nature may have led to a deeply-ingrained Anglo-American notion that the human imprint on the landscape is inherently destructive, and therefore the best way to mitigate it is to mask or dilute the “necessary evil” of urbanism with penitential reconstructions of “nature.”

In this post I'll argue that this notion reverberates through many of our parkmaking and urban design efforts from the nineteenth century to the present (from Olmsted to Howard to McHarg to today's crop of “Landscape Urbanists”), and that the ruralize-the-city tactic has only grown stronger with today's focus on “greening” and “sustainability.”

I'll also argue that the ruralize-the-city tactic has sometimes resulted in our neglecting the design of the human habitat in favor of constantly creating artifices of nature to escape from its neglect. That is, I think we're stuck in a feedback loop: if our cities have historically been “deplorable” (to use Sackville-West's term), especially since the onset of industrialization, we only make them more deplorable by retreating into “nature” rather than undertaking the hard work of making the built fabric and streetscapes desirable such that the impetus to escape wouldn't be there in the first place.

Finally, and most importantly, I'll argue that certain reconstructions of “nature,” if inappropriately applied to the urban setting, can unintentionally create border vacuums. We'll look at Jacobs' suggestions for fixing the border vacuums around parks and see if they could apply to Baltimore.

Baltimore on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.
Before the nineteenth century there were few parks in cities because, save for a few exceptions like ancient Rome, most cities were quite small: you could walk for fifteen minutes and be outside of town (see right).

The Industrial Revolution induced a kind of hypertrophic megalopolis that had never been seen before, and since England and the US industrialized earliest and fastest, our cities were the first to experience hypertrophic growth. (In many cases, like Chicago's, they mushroomed from handfuls of cabins into megalopolises almost overnight.) Because our cities grew so rapidly, they often resorted to the monotonous replication of utilitarian building types (rowhouses in Baltimore's case) unrelieved by any of the felicitous infrastructure that had graced Old World cities, like intimate arcades, lanes, and squares.

Baltimore after only a few decades of industrialization.
Since these rapidly-expanding cities were despoiled by industry (see left) and filled with uprooted rural migrants, a romantic yearning for rapidly-disappearing rural lifeways quickly emerged: “Baltimore's growth fed a wave of nostalgia for rural life. Unlike Savannah or Philadelphia, Baltimore had no public squares. It had instead block after block of houses, factories, and warehouses relentlessly gobbling up undeveloped land. Baltimoreans were not alone in their sense of loss: all across America people expressed concern over the loss of open land in cities (The Baltimore Rowhouse, 57).”

The reaction was an understandable desire to preserve large tracts of the disappearing countryside in the form of parks so that city dwellers could retain access to a landscape that was becoming increasingly remote. Olmsted's Central Park in New York is a famous example, and Baltimore has the examples of Carroll, Clifton, Druid Hill, Leakin, and Patterson Parks, among others. (Many of these parks were created out of formerly-rural estates that had been surrounded by the expanding city.)

Unfortunately, as discussed in the City in Mind, most Anglo-American cities created these large “rural” preserves at the expense of smaller, formal, well-defined squares and allees distributed among the urban fabric on a finer grain. Baltimore eventually became somewhat of an exception: it created numerous “rural” preserves, but it also acquired several neighborhood squares – Mt. Vernon Place and Collington, Franklin, Harlem, Johnston, Lafayette, Madison, O'Donnell, and Union Squares – that are still valued today. The city was also graced with a few boulevard-promenades partly inspired by Haussmann's renovation of Paris, like Eutaw Place.

Olmstedian parks are incredibly beautiful retreats, but the City in Mind argues that the tactic of creating large “rural” preserves unintentionally reinforced the “city vs. country” tension in the Anglo-American imagination:

“The Olmsted park became the dominant model for parkmaking in America. But Olmsted's methods – the methods and traditions of the rural English landscape park – cannot be used for other urban park typologies, especially at small scale. A neighborhood square cannot be composed of rambling vales and rocky defiles. Olmsted's methods omit the one device that can avail on the small scale, and that is rigorous formality of the kind the French use so well to make trees, shrubs, flowerbeds, fountains, paths, pavements, and statuary integral with the surrounding urban hardscape of buildings. Having left us with no tradition for creating small squares, most American cities compare unfavorably with American “nature.” We therefore have a tradition since Olmsted of venerating the places of “nature” and holding in contempt the abode of human beings (246-247).”

After Olmsted it became increasingly difficult to conceive of formally integrating greenery into the city in a manner other than the “rural” preserve. I think we came to believe that the city could never be reconciled with the “natural” landscape: the best one could do was retreat into a “rural” oasis for a few hours, then grimly return to the “necessary evil” of the city until the next opportunity to escape. How unlike the contemporaneous tactics of Haussmann and Napoleon III in Paris, who managed to formally integrate “nature” into the city on a fine grain!

As discussed in the previous post, our efforts to ruralize cities only grew more abstract in the twentieth century: we experimented with Garden Cities and Radiant Cities, but the former proved unrealistic and the latter was a complete fiasco.

I should reiterate that I think Olmstedian parks are wonderful, and that Olmsted's romantic greenswards, walkways, and bridges are intensely people-centric and spiritually gratifying. My point is merely that Olmstedian romanticism can't be the only tactic for urban parkmaking, especially at the smaller scale of the neighborhood square.

In recent decades even Olmstedian romanticism has taken a back seat to an even more abstract effort to create as much “green space” and “open space” as possible. To me the mere fact that we're even using these vacuous terms reveals that we're thinking too abstractly: if you ask for vacuity you'll get vacuities that will be of little use to anyone, and consequently will be shunned.

Baltimore doesn't need more open space; it needs to use existing space better.
For example, in many cases the response to the endless clamor for “green space” and “open space” has been to infuse useless berms, setbacks, and other dreary scraps of ambiguous residual space into the urban fabric. Like any other American city, Baltimore's arterials, megastructures, and superblocks have plenty of residual “open space” around them, but has this “open space” done anything to improve the street-level experience in the city?

Even after the infusion of numerous “open spaces” into downtown Baltimore (see above), there's still a clamor for more. To me this suggests that the existing “open spaces” are, for the most part, unsatisfactory and unappealing. But infusing even more “open space” would only make the situation worse: the downtown would feel even more like a desolate Radiant City than it does now.

I think the solution to this predicament is fairly straightforward: as discussed in the post on superblocks, we should discard the vague “green space” and “open space” terms and begin asking for specific amenities with proven practical uses, like shady allees of trees, public squares intimately enclosed with porous liner buildings, sports facilities and playgrounds, and so on.

The task of repairing downtown Baltimore's ambiguous “open spaces” might therefore necessitate removing (infilling) many such spaces and concentrating public life in a handful of nodes that had the potential to evolve into lively “outdoor public rooms,” like the Inner Harbor Promenade, Center Plaza, War Memorial Plaza, University Square, and Preston Gardens. This is precisely what Old World cities like Florence do so well, and why they don't need to resort to scattering object-buildings among residual scraps of perpetually-unsatisfying “open space.”

Our acquiescence to “open space” and “green space” abstractions may also be a product of the contemporary preoccupation with statistical analysis; that is, of the postwar equation of quantity with quality. One manifestation of this preoccupation has been the rise of quantitative “open space” mandates in development regulations. Under a quantitative analysis, the more “open space” a city has, the better off it supposedly is, regardless of the quality of all that open space. As revealed in Suburban Nation: “Current requirements for open space have been reduced to regulations that are primarily statistical. These requirements say little about the configuration and quality of open space; usually the main specification is [to leave open] a percentage of the site area (32).”

To me an emblematic example of this mindset was Boston's decision to replace the Central Artery with “open space” after it was buried underground in the Big Dig. An arbitrary 75% of the reclaimed land had to be left as “open space,” but what did Boston get for this quantification? It got a boring, sun-baked median strip, interrupted in many places by gloomy tunnel portals, and cut off from the surrounding urban fabric by two moats of traffic. This is what happens when a focus on providing quantities of abstraction (“open space”) comes at the expense of traditional civic art, of the qualitative design of places that are first and foremost understood to be places for people.

In the Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte proved that, contrary to popular belief, there was no correlation between the sheer amount of “open space” and public enjoyment of said space: “Sheer space does not draw people. In some circumstances it can have the opposite effect (27).” Jacobs harshly criticized such quantification as well:

“Open spaces are venerated in amazingly uncritical fashion. Ask a planner how his Radiant City improves on the old city and he will cite, as a self-evident virtue, More Open Space. Ask him about changes in zoning codes and he will cite again More Open Space. Walk with him through a dispirited neighborhood, and though it already is scabby with deserted parks and tired landscaping festooned with litter, he will envision a future of More Open Space. More Open Space for what? For bleak vacuums between buildings? Or for ordinary people to use and enjoy? But people don't use open space just because it's there and because planners wish they would. People can hardly enliven the plethora of malls, parks, and other indeterminate land oozes in typical Radiant City schemes and in the stringent accompanying requirements for leaving high percentages of urban land open. But American cities, under the illusion that open land is an automatic good and that quantity is equivalent to quality, are frittering away money on land oozes too large, too frequent, too perfunctory, too ill-located, too dull, and too inconvenient to be useful (90-111).”

It's distressing to discover that little has changed in the last half-century!

Another driver of urban ruralization has been the realization that the hardscape of the city (the asphalt, concrete, and roofs of buildings) induces an “urban heat island” effect and is impervious to rainwater, thus forcing it into overloaded sewer systems and resulting in “combined sewage overflows.” But one popular solution to this problem – leave as much city land open as possible – only induces a bigger problem: if it's impossible to infill those places already developed, then where will the development go instead? It'll go to the fringe, putting much more pressure on the landscape since fringe development is more likely to come in a dispersed (i.e. land-covering) format with acres of parking. There are practical solutions for making the urban hardscape permeable – such as discouraging megastructures and using porous paving on downsized streets – that don't require detours into “nature.”

The environmental conservation movement brought innumerable benefits to society by placing rivers, wetlands, forests, and other vital ecosystems under extensive protection. One unintentional side effect of environmentalism, unfortunately, was the revival of that old Anglo-American notion of the city as an enemy of nature. This mentality was particularly conspicuous in the writings of Ian McHarg, who considered humanity a “planetary disease.” As the City in Mind argues, there consequently arose a belief that urbanization should be prevented anywhere and everywhere possible, even in places already urbanized:

“In the context of contemporary confusion, “green space” or “open space” means “build nothing.” It is a rhetorical device for putting city land in cold storage in the only currently-acceptable form, “nature.” A large fraction of the public has decided categorically that urbanism is a menace to the human spirit and therefore that the only acceptable use of vacant city land is for the installation of the putative antidote to the city, “nature” (213-214).”

So, despite being thoroughly disillusioned with the previous iteration of urban ruralization – the Radiant City urban renewal projects of the 50s and 60s – we still seem determined to ruralize our cities. Boston's inability to conceive of infilling the land reclaimed from the Central Artery was a typical example of this determination, but a particularly distressing example is our inability to conceive of infilling the Pruitt-Igoe site in St. Louis with anything other than “nature”: the competition entries for fixing the scar left behind by the long-demolished Radiant City project abound with suggestions for ambiguous “green spaces,” for unrealistic heavy-duty agriculture, for starchitectural sculptures set in “open spaces,” for “urban forests,” and so on. The idea that this scar could be healed with the traditional urban fabric of St. Louis, meanwhile, is relegated to the fringes.

One disturbing consequence of the “green” movement is the widespread belief that literally looking “green” is the same as actually being “green.” That is, we've come to believe that anything covered with plants is automatically “green.” If this notion were true, then paved-over cities like Florence, Munich, and Prague would be environmental catastrophes, and all our exquisitely-bermed big-boxes and office parks would be environmental saints. The reality is quite the opposite: urban foliage is certainly a wonderful amenity, but it's not a prerequisite for actually being “green.”

Unfortunately design professionals are besotted with the “slather it with plants to make it green” notion too: many design schools are awash in fashionable “biophilia” chatter, and starchitectural proposals are laden with fanciful greenwashing stunts.

But even more disturbingly, the long-dithering design academy is now attempting to revive the Radiant City. This strategy, known as “Landscape Urbanism,” is once again preoccupied with setting isolated megastructures in ambiguous “green spaces.” As discussed in Landscape Urbanism and its Discontents: “Rather than having an urban fabric based on spatial definition by buildings, landscape would be the 'structuring medium.' The 'look and shape of the city' was to be a matter of 'open space within which buildings are set' (4).” In other words, the strategy is just a continuation of the conventional starchitectural predilection for treating the city as an inert sculpture garden.

The last thing we should be doing is reviving the Radiant City.
My opinion of Landscape Urbanism is thus rather harsh (see left), because I see little value in reviving urban design tactics that never worked the first time around. As Jacobs warned us, this dogged pursuit of failure is the urban design equivalent of medical schools bringing back bloodletting: “The pseudoscience of planning seems neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success (183).”

As Landscape Urbanism and its Discontents reveals, the strategy is also preoccupied with inserting a kind of “look but don't touch” scenery into cities: “The landscapes could be gazed upon, but that was all. An enormous amount of urban space was thereby removed from its primary recreational purpose where it was needed most. A well-known failure came out of Portland with the juxtaposition of Jamison Square and Tanner Springs Park. Jamison is usually packed with people, while Tanner is virtually devoid of humans, whose feet and posteriors would only crush the “native grasses” (19).”

In other words, whereas traditional civic art is concerned with creating places for people, today's scenery-building often results in ersatz hands-off “wildernesses.” The difference between the two approaches is not trivial: this should be obvious, but city dwellers need to use parks, not just look at them!

The traditional ingredients of parkmaking – greenswards, plazas and terraces, formal gardens, pavilions and bandshells, riverside embankments and esplanades, tree-lined allees, fountains and statues, boat and duck ponds, playgrounds and sports fields, seating and refreshment areas, and so on – have all evolved to meet specific recreational needs, especially the need to “be entertained by the sight of other people.” You can sunbathe and play soccer on a formally-maintained greensward, but you can't do this in a Landscape Urbanist “urban wetland” filled with waist-high “native grasses” and mosquitoes. You can get some ice cream and people-watch in a shady allee of trees, but you can't do this in a Landscape Urbanist “urban forest” filled with thick undergrowth.

That last example alludes to a border vacuum problem common in ruralized neighborhood squares: just as there need to be “eyes on the street,” so too do there need to be “eyes on the park,” but this isn't possible in squares composed of pretend wildernesses. As Duany argues, their thick undergrowth inevitably attracts drug dealers, muggers, rapists, and sexual adventurers: “The environmental assessment of the city these days is 'greening' the city by ruralizing it. One of my friends lives in Portland, where they woodlanded one of the squares. He says 'I can't go into the square in the morning because my dog is always running across condoms' (18:00-20:00).”

Even now, decades after Newman published Creating Defensible Space, some designers still seem not to have internalized the lesson that impenetrable blank walls of greenery create hideaways for unsavory people: “For reasons of safety, comfort, and orientation squares must be transparent – that is, you must be able to see through the square to the buildings on the other side. The square is not the wilderness and should not pretend to be (Kunstler, 33-34).”

Whyte essentially argued the same when he evaluated New York's Bryant Park, which had devolved into a cesspool by the 1970s: “Bryant Park has become the territory of dope dealers and muggers. It's cut off from the streets by walls, fences, and shrubbery. You can't see in and you can't see out. There are only a few entry points. This park will be used by people when it is opened up to them (58).” This is exactly what New York did in the 1980s, and consequently Bryant Park is now safe and well-used.

Bioswale or abandoned lot? In West Baltimore it's hard to tell the difference.
Kunstler's point that “the square is not the wilderness and should not pretend to be” is  particularly important. Much contemporary landscape architecture is characterized by a “scruffy” aesthetic in which trees, bushes, and grasses are delivered in the manner they exist in the wilderness – informal, rough, and unkempt. This aesthetic may work in large romantic parks like Druid Hill, but I'd argue it can cause “Broken Windows” problems if applied to the urban setting of the neighborhood square. In real countryside, the “wild” aesthetic signifies a pristine and undisturbed landscape. But in cities the aesthetic can signify decay, disorder, and blight (see above). Unkempt landscaping is the first sign of “deferred maintenance” in city parks, so if they're made to look rustically neglected, they might be neglected.

In Chapter 5 Jacobs distinguishes neighborhood parks from larger city parks by pointing out that most neighborhood parks are “generalized.” That is, while city parks contain attractions that draw people from far and wide (like zoos, conservatories, lakes, sports fields, and swimming pools in Druid Hill's case), neighborhood parks generally don't offer specialized amenities and thus have to work harder to attract people via other means: “Parks intensely used in generalized public yard fashion tend to have four elements in their design: sun, enclosure, centering, and intricacy (103).”

•    SUN: As is perhaps self-evident, a neighborhood park needs to provide a balance between sun and shade to maintain year-round use (i.e. sun in the winter and shade in the summer). Jacobs also warns against excessive highrise construction near parks since they can plunge parks into shadow and generate unpleasant “wind tunnels.”

•    ENCLOSURE: Although parks shouldn't be hemmed-in by highrises, Jacobs stresses that they still need to be enclosed with buildings so they feel like outdoor rooms: “Far from being attracted by indefinite oozes of land, people are repelled by them (106).” The enclosing street walls should, of course, be composed of mixed-use buildings so as many different people as possible use the park for as many different reasons as possible.

•    CENTERING: Parks need focal points just like neighborhoods do. Romantic glades and meandering paths have their uses, but prominent centers (like fountains, statues, or pavilions) and geometric crossroads do a lot more to enliven neighborhood parks: this is where itinerant musicians put on performances, this is where snack vendors set up their carts, this is where children splash around in the fountain while their mothers chat. As Jacobs argued, people tend to gravitate to prominent centers, turning them into lively “public stages” in the process.

•    INTRICACY: Jacobs says “Intricacy is related to the variety of reasons for which people come to parks. Even the same person comes for different reasons at different times (103).” Intricacy is the product of physical features designed to stimulate that range of reasons. For example, a subtle change in elevation – a shallow dais or bowl – could accommodate public performances. Jacobs is quick to remind us that “intricacy counts at eye level” and that doodad-dependent site plans aren't necessarily successful.

Jacobs makes several other important points that fall outside these four criteria. Firstly, she emphasizes that successful parks have “rarity value.” The more parks a neighborhood has, the harder it is to enliven them all with people. Jacobs' advice thus runs counter to the contemporary clamor for as much “open” or “green” space as possible.

Secondly, in the chapter on border vacuums, Jacobs argues that the perimeters of large parks need to be activated to generate cross-use. That is, the city side of the border should incorporate commercial activities that feed into the park, and the park side of the border should incorporate recreational activities that feed into the city: “An example would be a skating rink brought immediately up to a park border, and across the street on the city side, a cafe where skaters could get refreshments and observe other skaters across the way (166).”

I think this “activating the edge” strategy could significantly improve Baltimore's larger parks if (1) restrictions on vending were eased, (2) park attractions were moved closer to park edges, and (3) mixed-use infill and rowhouse-to-shopfront conversions were encouraged along park edges. This was, after all, the strategy used to revive the Inner Harbor.

Steven Dale does a great job elaborating on Jacobs' third point – the need for parks to have frequent entrances – by arguing that “we should encourage people to pass through a park” before we encourage them to use it: “Since there is no initial attraction to a generalized park, it must first provide useful shortcuts for people. These shortcuts create the initial user base, thereby generating “eyes on the street,” which generates further usage. Shortcuts are created by maximizing the park's permeability, portals, and paths, which should be logically and strategically arranged to coincide with the entrances and exits of surrounding streets and buildings.”

Many of Baltimore's parks lack one or more of these features. Some, like Druid Hill, are cut off by moats of traffic. Some parks were crippled by depopulation and consequent disintegration of enclosing buildings. In other cases decades of undergrowth have accumulated under deferred maintenance. In still other cases, like Hopkins Plaza, they're surrounded by monotonous uses, resulting in uneven use of the parks themselves.

Fortunately Baltimore still has several successful parks that offer repair lessons, like Mt. Vernon Place: Its intimate greenswards and tree-lined perimeter offer a good balance between sun and shade. It's well-enclosed by buildings accommodating a rich mix of uses, which activate it with a rich mix of people. It's exquisitely centered with the most prominent focal point in all of Baltimore. It contains an intricate array of fountains, statues, and gardens, all carefully arranged to accommodate complex pedestrian movement and visual delight. It's also very rare: it doesn't compete for attention with any adjacent “green spaces.” Finally, Mt. Vernon Place contains numerous entrances.

So to repair Baltimore's less-successful parks, I think we should identify which of Jacobs' criteria are weakened or missing, then work to improve or introduce them. In some cases, like St. Mary's Park in Seton Hill, it may be necessary to add entrances, paths, and centers. In other cases, like downtown plazas and residential squares, it may be necessary to improve the sense of enclosure and add mixed uses. (The proposed addition of an apartment building to the office-dominated Hopkins Plaza, for example, is a good start.) In short, the city should improve what it already has rather than dragging in any more “green” or “open” space distractions.

Again, I'm worried that today's “Landscape Urbanism” is preoccupied with scenery-building at the expense of these criteria, save for a few exceptions like the High Line. It doesn't matter how many people are photoshopped into a rendering of a prairie: if it isn't people-centric, it'll probably sink into dereliction after the initial novelty wears off, upon which it'll be just another burden for some cash-strapped Parks and Rec department.

Jacobs concludes by reminding us: “Parks are not automatically good. Far from automatically uplifting their neighborhoods, they are drastically affected by the way the neighborhood acts upon them (92-95).” The recent history of Patterson Park reflects this: the park grew increasingly seedier in the 90s, but it was revived the following decade after renewed interest spilled over from surrounding neighborhoods.

Finally, I'd humbly reiterate that rather than constructing artifices of “nature” to apologize for our presence on the landscape, perhaps we could begin leaving imprints capable of garnering affection such that we wouldn't be embarrassed into covering them up with “nature” in the first place. In recent years, for example, we've poured huge sums of money into ruralizing unpleasant arterials, but we still don't have a single boulevard that comes close to offering the intense comfort that Barcelona's Passeig de Gracia offers. Unlike the Floridian highway, the Passeig de Gracia is truly green because it celebrates humanity.

Next time we'll examine solutions for the border vacuums around hospital and university campuses, so stay tuned!
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