Monday, March 05, 2007

Urban Design


Anyway. The Professor’s views, or more accurately my objection to his views, are best expressed in his opinion of the skyways, the second-story bridges that connect most of downtown. They gave rise to a second-floor retail economy that did not exist before, and granted, they had a hand in siphoning off the retail and energy of the first floor. But downtown retail was headed south ever since the end of WW2, and the price seemed fair for what what we got: a sprawling urban center punctuated by enclosed plazas and public places, lined with restaurants and shops, with views of the street below. You can walk to lunch without a coat and come back with all your toes and fingers. In the brutal summer, you can dine in comfort. I love them. They’re one of the truly unique things about this city. The professor, well, he’s less sure.

His opinion of the skyways:

“Good in some ways, but they are too private, exclusive, and don’t help built the 24-hour city [living, working, shopping, mixing] that we need.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. Private? Well, they are privately owned, inasmuch as the system winds its way through private buildings, and the rules of the street don’t apply; you can’t upend a pickle-bucket and bang away for nine hours for spare change, like you can on the street below. Most people are willing to sacrifice this freedom, it seems. Exclusive? I never noticed the bouncers and the velvet rope. If he means that the commercial purposes of the stores has an exclusionary effect on those who don’t have the means to shop, perhaps, but such a person could walk the system all day without anyone asking to see their receipts. “Don’t help build the 24-hour city”? Minneapolis is not New York. Minneapolis is not Chicago. We’re not big enough to have a 24-hour downtown. I don’t even know what that means. People live downtown, work there, shop there, and “mix.” They’re just not doing it at 3 AM. They’re asleep.

You might be wondering just what he’s on about, and I share your confusion. I too am fascinated by urban design, particularly the mistakes made by the previous designers. Like freeways, for example – some of the decisions made about our freeway system were ill-considered and short-sighted. But others will insist that the freeway system itself was a mistake, because it allowed people to leave the city. This almost – almost, mind you – suggests that the traditional model for urban habitation is an unalloyed good that must be held together by force, and that anything that allows people to choose an alternative must be judged not on what it provides people in general, but how it affects the city.

In which camp might we find the subject of the interview? Well, when discussing his concepts of “design,” and how cities might be better organized, we get a whiff:

“We’ve been doing work with homeless teenage mothers,” he says. “In wondering how to make things better –“

Stop. Homeless teenage mothers. One of those conditions is immutable. One of them is a matter of choice. One of them arises from a combination of the other two. If you want to make things better, perhaps you’d concentrate on the attribute most closely aligned with individual choice? Apparently not:

“ – I asked if the problem was housing or train or transportation They said it was all of those. They can’t get from affordable hosing to day care to a job and back again because we’ve designed a bus system for the benefit of the operators (??), housing at the behest of zooming code and jobs that require a car, which people can’t afford. This is a classic design problem.”

Well. As the adage has it, if all you have is a degree in Design, everything looks like a design problem. You, bus driver operator! Move that route closer to the teenaged unwed mother’s house! You there, subsidized day-care – shimmy over a mile to the left and a few versts the south, so the teenaged unwed mother can take the bus to your place without having to transfer. You there, “supplier” of jobs, even though you merely leech off the labor of others and turn the profit into a smooth cream you rub on your spats-chafed ankles - move the jobs into the city near the teenage unwed mother’s house and daycare.

It would be easier if the teenaged unwed mother wasn’t a mother or wasn’t unwed, but those problems do not present the delicious opportunities to Design. And by “design,” I suspect they mean what the mold-breakers and the paradigm-crackers and all the rest of the utopians and revolutionaries mean:

“A whole new mind is required,” the professor goes on to say. Sigh. A whole new doubeplus newthink mind, brother, until oldthink unbellyfeel. “The legalistic way of looking at things – black or white, public or private, win or lose – does not match real life.”

Beware people who regard the distinctions between public and private as a mere legality, and one based on subjective viewpoint at that. In the end, they can define anything private as public, which gives them the right to take it away. And if you lose something you own, well, “loss” is a subjective concept as well that does not match real life. Or at least the real life you can understand if you have a whole new mind.

I still don’t know what he wants, except something that’s well-designed. From the interview:

Q. Let’s consider a local example: Minneapolis’ pending policy on downtown transportation. Most of the emphasis has been on getting bus commuters in and out faster. Is that the best focus?

A. That’s what happens when a project is given over to engineers who think mostly about how fast they can move the traffic and not on the quality of the urban experience itself.

I think if you asked most people waiting for the bus if they would rather A) get home quickly, or B) have a quality urban experience, the first option would nose ahead by a comfortable margin. Is it better to sit on a bus for an hour if you can look at trees and the occasional abstract sculpture, or is it better to get home quickly so you can be with your family, or dog, or just relax in that legalistic private space to which people are so inordinately attached?

More good stuff follows.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I love good urban design. I saw a great example of it yesterday in Capitola. Narow strets, buildings close together, walkability, etc. Same as parts of boston, paris, manhattan, S.F., and many many other places that seem to have been layed out before cars were invented. I love that kind of stuff. But the socialism and social-engineering that so many of the New Ubranists go in for is totally bizarre and addle-brained.