Category Archives: Planning

Walking: Punishable by a fine of $197.

Image courtesy New York Times.

Image courtesy New York Times.

The planning world is (moderately) abuzz lately with news that LA and New York have been ticketing pedestrians for unsafe walking in an attempt to cut down on car-walker conflicts.

While this has generated at least three news articles that I have seen, it has not generated the response that I feel the whole thing deserves.  I don’t think there should be outrage or hysteria or even sadness, but mockery: ticketing pedestrians for walking are ludicrous, and has not been treated with the derision it deserves. It is also reminiscent of a recent traffic safety campaign in London where cyclists and motorists – but really, mostly cyclists – were lectured by police stations around the city (and in some cases fined) for unsafe behavior.  This isn’t because walkers or bikers are inherently behaving more dangerously, but because they move more slowly and can hear more clearly when police yell at them.

The most depressing thing is that it seems like, in both cities, ticketing pedestrians stems from a sincere effort to reduce injuries. In doing so, however, it assumes that pedestrians are to blame for car-on-walker conflicts, and it also assumes that people crossing the streets cannot be trusted to act responsibly and with an iota of common sense.  In fact, most pedestrian traffic injuries occur at intersections when cars are trying to turn into pedestrians’ right-of-way.

My father (who recently called me a proto-fascist for my views on smoking), taught me that there is a clear hierarchy in terms of street priority: people before machines. Practically, this means that pedestrians come first, then cyclists, then I suppose buses.  The easiest take-away is this: cars come last. Cars always come last. While this was a credo that he embraced much more firmly after he started cycling, it is also an easy, simple mantra that guided my notion of good placemaking.  In big cities, the large numbers of pedestrians – who, let’s not forget, also constitute traffic – should be welcomed; they are a sign that the city is a good place to be. Instead, they are cited as obstructions to auto traffic and confined to narrow sidewalks.

Its a truism in planing that people will follow the shortest route between two places. They don’t like long, scenic walks between crosswalks; if jaywalking is the easiest way to get from point A to point B, that is what they will be inclined to do. And that’s a good thing.  Because a lot of what pedestrians do in cities is spend money: when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, I lived on State Street, the city’s most famous commercial (and largely pedestrianised) thoroughfare.  And thank goodness I had a bike.  Because on the rare occasion that I walked, I spent money: I would rent a movie (because this was in the heady early days of streaming video, back when video rentals existed), or buy an ice cream cone or a bubble tea or some other ridiculous thing that I absolutely did not need.  And then I’d walk down the street in the evening summer sun, thinking about how great State Street was and wishing I was old enough to get into bars (not necessarily in that order). WalkBoston, an advocacy group in Massachusetts, have crafted their whole mission around that idea: people on foot are better for the economy that people traveling by any other means, because of their tendency to spontaneously spend money

Cities have an obligation to make their streets as safe as possible for as many people as possible – I think most people agree that public safety is one of the functions of municipal government. And there are all sorts of ways to do that without tickets, for anyone.  As many others have pointed out, the best way to reduce rule-breaking is to make rules that work better for people.  That could mean installing mid-block crosswalks, making traffic crossing times longer, or installing more ‘all green scrambles’ where all car traffic is held at a corner and walkers can cross diagonally, all of which are compromise options (I haven’t even mentioned woonerfs yet!). People have a right to use their own streets, the same way cyclists and cars do. The notion that cars have some god-given priority is laughable, or would be if it didn’t seem to govern city policy all over the world.  When that happens, the whole thing just becomes depressing.

 

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Thoughts on the London Transit Strike

Image courtesy HuffingtonPost.com, which has a number of Tube Strike photos

Regular media and social media are abuzz with ‘Why you really don’t want to be a Londoner right now’ and ‘Top ten worst images from the London Tube strike.’ And its true its caused a little bit of hysteria: the London Underground is running a skeleton service Wednesday and Thursday (scheduled to end in a few hours) to protest staffing changes, including closing ticket offices (possibly to turn them into Amazon or grocery pick-up facilities, which I think sounds kind of awesome). The Tube workers say that the move will make the Tube less hospitable to elderly, disabled and female riders; I did see a Tweet from a disabled-advocacy group so there must be something that I’m missing.

Anyway. The strike is the first of 2 scheduled walk-outs in protest of the changes, and has resulted in a fair amount of chaos around the city, with bus queues stretching down streets and YouTube videos of arterial roads turned into parking lots.

That said, there was far less chaos than I was expecting. In my two days of commuting around London (one in heavy rain – awesome!), there were noticeably more people on foot. And larger were noticeably more aggressive – I saw a white van almost take out a woman my mother’s age on a left turn this morning.  It was so egregious I tried to note down the plate, only to be enraged at the next street when a Royal Mail van did almost exactly the same thing.   That said, motorized traffic through the city centre did not seem substantially worse than normal. And while there were loads of pedestrians around King’s Cross and around UCL, that’s pretty much standard, as well. In general, the most common comment I’ve seen on Facebook in response to ‘look at these crazy crowds!’ is ‘looks about normal to me.’

There have been noticeably more cyclists, though.  Use of the cycle hire scheme is up 50% (with staffing to match) and there was a noticeable uptick in novice cyclists, both on personal and cycle-hire bikes, tooling around the city.  Not only were they novices, they were jerks: lots more cycling on the sidewalk (or pavements, as they’re called here) and the wrong way down one-ways.  There were also a number of efforts to encourage safe cycling, the most notable being the #bikethestrike campaign on Twitter, where regular commuters publicised their routes and led ‘rusty riders’ home like ducklings.  Some of my coworkers have said they wish such a service existed all the time, so I’m hopeful that despite today’s awful weather, some of the cyclists will stick.

On the whole, I think efforts like #bikethestrike and seasoned cyclists’ desire to publicise the benefits have led to really lovely behavior.  I had a nice chat with a man yesterday where I showed him how to work the machines and wished him well in his new job (it was his first day. Poor bastard.)  Later, when I inadvertently cut off a lycra-clad, lithe young man in an expensive helmet, I turned around to apologise, and he said ‘no worries, I liked the look of you.’ While my initial reaction was ‘STILL GOT IT!” I realise now he was probably not flirting with me, after all.  Of course, moments later, as I was cycling down Tavistock Road reflecting on how lovely people can be, a pedestrian stepped in front of a cyclist, who snarled ‘get out of the fucking way!’

Not that it excuses his behavior, but he totally had the right-of-way and the walked was behaving really dangerously by stepping in front of about a dozen cyclists, all accelerating to make it through the light.

While I think the Tube strike was unwarranted, and that ticket offices probably are outdated and expensive to maintain, I also think that things more or less went okay, given my expectations.  If you were stuck in a car, I have no sympathy for you. And if some more people cycled…that’s great.  The Tube transports about 4 million people every day, so I don’t want to suggest that it isn’t an important means of transport. Clearly, it’s one of the world’s great urban transpo networks.  But the city didn’t grind to a halt without it – people walked, rode bikes, and found ways around it, and that’s what they (we) will do again in the event of another strike next week.

 

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Christchurch, NZ and Jan Gehl

I was lucky enough to go to the Hackney Empire last week, a fantastic 1901 theatre slightly off the beaten path (we had to take the Overground to get there – well outside my usual stomping grounds).  We were there for a screening of the film ‘The Human Scale,’ a documentary about the work of Jan Gehl and the way he has worked to make cities all over the world more geared toward people and less geared toward cars and high rises.  His most famous book is called ‘Cities for People’ and he is to urban planning what David Attenborough is to nature documentaries, so I was super, super psyched to get to see the film and to hear the Q&A with him afterward, and the whole evening totally lived up to my expectations.

One of the major tenets of Gehl’s work is borrowed directly from traffic engineering: it is a truism in urban planning that more roads does not ease congestion; it only encourages more driving.  But, it turns out, it holds for public space as well: creating more public space creates more use of public space.  This has been most recently demonstrated by the changes that Jeanette Sadik-Khan has made to the New York City street grid (pedestrianizing Times Square in 2009 being the platonic example). Man, do I wish I’d thought of that.

The film (which is 90 minutes, but we saw an abbreviated 60 minute version) focuses on 5 tenets of Gehl’s work, and chooses a case study (or in some cases 2) to illustrate the ways in which Gehl’s work has been applied and to what effect.  For the most part I thought it was amazing; there was a section on high-rise suburbs in China; on traffic engineering in New York City, on pedestrianization in Copenhagen; in urban interventions in Melbourne; and a final section on the rebuilding of Christchurch, New Zealand.  Gehl gave a short presentation on London, as well.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in New York but none in China, Copenhagen or Melbourne.  However, I did spend two very full days exploring Christchurch about a year ago.  The city was devastated by a series of earthquakes in 2011-2012 that hit the downtown area especially hard – so much so that as of a year ago, a huge section of the city was still completely fenced off, completely inaccessible unless you were part of the demolition crew.  In the initial rebuilding, the city moved to minimise parking and to restrict buildings to 6 stories, which a feasibility study suggested was most appropriate to Christchurch conditions – above 6 stories, buildings need stronger foundations  and reinforcements that render extra stories less lucrative than is commonly imagined. Gehl Architects were called in to help the city envision its future and to create a redevelopment plan that respected the human scale and restored the city’s quality of life, though responsibility for the plan was subsequently taken away from the city government.  And when I was there in March 2013, there were giant boards advertising the city’s bold plan of action.

It did not live up to my hopes and dreams.

The film made it clear that the outcome of the planning process was not everything Gehl Architects (not to mention Christchurch city planners) had hoped. And the scale of the disaster is something that’s hard to comprehend from a documentary film.  Christchurch faces an uphill battle, even with Gehl Architects’ advice: New Zealand, as much as many parts of the US, is a car-dominated city (712 cars per 1000 people, vs. 828 in the US).  A map of Christchurch is almost funny – even the most novice mapreader will be able to tell where the master-planned portion of the city ends:

What were the original boundaries?

What were the original boundaries?

Like many colonial cities, Christchurch was founded on the site of a Maori settlement in the mid-19th century.  The streets reflect the city’s origin and subsequent expansion, which is to say: they are really, really wide. In the US, midwestern cities (the same vintage as Christchurch) were built wide to accommodate streetcars and today are being retrofitted with bike lanes (and, in my hometown’s case, they’re resurrecting the streetcars. Woot!).  I’m sure this is something that Gehl & Co. took into account when they actually made their recommendations to the city. But a few things struck me as I walked around, none of which were addressed by the masterplan the city ultimately ended up with or in ‘The Human Scale:’

1. The city is car-dominated. There are some lovely, quiet residential streets and a big park and some reasonably pleasant stuff, but the routes between them are dominated by wide avenues full of fast-moving traffic. While some early recovery projects have sought to address this, there was not a city-wide effort to address the ratio of pedestrian to car space.

2. The pace of rebuilding is frenetic, even with a big chunk of the city centre fenced off and still being demolished.  Everywhere you go, you see billboards advertising new construction. The use, heights, scale and design quality of the buildings varied considerably.

3. The city masterplan is published and hanging on big boards outside the cathedral (which is fenced off, but as a major tourist attraction, has a special access point that allows yahoos like me to get a good view). The masterplan focuses on a series of mega-projects, like a new healthcare centre and a new conference facility, at the expense of the parts of the city people actually live in.  I thought the future city outlined outside the cathedral represented a huge missed opportunity, and I will be detailing my logic in successive posts.

In the meantime, please note that my experience of the city is already outdated, as is ‘The Human Scale,’ both of which are from 2013.  If there have been developments that I have missed, please let me know.

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Smoking is the Worst Thing Ever and Smokers Should be Ashamed of the Costs They Impose on Society

I’m hoping that my co-blogger will write a counter-p0int to this post, so I’m keeping the title just the way it is.

Because in our family, there is a schism (or maybe just a spectrum): my mother smokes. My sister isn’t bothered by smoking. My father finds it unpleasant.

And I find it completely unacceptable behavior, and cannot believe that the Western world has continued to allow smoking to occur.  The notion that smoking is legal actually boggles my mind. And I do not remember a time when I didn’t think smoking was disgusting.  As desperately as I wanted to be popular in middle and high school, as much as I was surrounded by cigarettes in college, and as much as  I envied the architects (already wayyyy cooler than the urban planners) in grad school when they made an intimate cabal under the pillars, I have never considered smoking.

So all that said, I have become even more militant about smoking.  At (SO CLOSE TO) seven months pregnant, I have become an anti-smoking vigilante, going so far as to involuntarily screech at someone yesterday when they blew smoke in my face from their bicycle.  It was a reflex, I swear.  I stomp behind smokers as I walk to work in the morning and I take a lot of pleasure in farting as I pass smokers (at socloseto seven months pregnant, I can more or less fart on command). They probably can’t smell it but I like to think I’m sticking it to’em, nonetheless.

All of this is a prelude to saying: I think smoking is an urban planning issue.  A public health issue, too, but also something that raises fundamental questions about the way we allocate public and private space, and how we direct public resources (for example: in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, there are hordes of employees tidying the cigarette butts from the meticulously maintained gravel.) And the move to outlaw smoking indoors reflects the fact that, while my opinions are more vehement than most, there is general acceptance of the notion that people who smoke impose a cost on those who don’t. And as smokers are increasingly concentrated in public space, they are increasingly imposing a cost on others who want to use that public space.

On the one hand, all of this is increasingly rendered irrelevant as the number of smokers decreases: in California, the percentage of smokers is only 12%, and in the US as a whole, it is down to 18.6%, which is significant because conventional wisdom has  been that 20% of people are ‘hardcore’ smokers who cannot be persuaded to quit (according to The New York Times). In the UK, the percentage of smokers was 39% in 1979, but has dropped to 21% today (says Wikipedia).  One could argue that my whole rant is moot: smokers are already a marginalised population, right?

I don’t think so. If you smoke, you are not bothered by other people smoking (I assume), even though you are still exposed to the risks of secondhand smoke…and firsthand smoke…  But as the population of non-smokers increases, the amount of people who are unfairly exposed to secondhand smoke, who would really like to have a relatively carcinogen-free walk to work, increases. The relative cost that a single smoker imposes on everyone else increases.

In the US, cities around the country have adopted measures to restrict public tobacco consumption.  In New York City, a 2011 law means smoking in public parks can result in a $50 fine. Boston Common is smoke-free.  Burlington, Vermont has adopted a law requiring all public places to be smoke-free (though not necessarily public streets).  And Boulder, Colorado is currently weighing a proposal to make all public space, including cars parked in public space, smoke-free.  This is ironic given that the same state decriminalised marijuana about five minutes ago. In the UK, smoking is illegal in pubs and transit hubs, but ‘Please do not smoke here’ signs are roundly and gleefully ignored.  Cigarettes are actually cheaper here, and loose tobacco and rolling papers are widely available and much more popular than in the states.

While smoking is decreasing, I don’t think any municipality (save for Boulder – go Boulder) is doing enough to curb smoking. There are a number of things both countries, and any governments (city, county, state) within those countries could do to reduce the prevalence of smoking. Some proposals include:

1. Regulate vapor cigarettes and then make them widely available and subsidised.  The idea that they are a ‘gateway drug’ is preposterous and makes me kind of stabby. How many people took up smoking after they just couldn’t get enough of Nicorette? Zero.

2. Tax the crap out of cigarettes.  They’re $12 in New York, but I’d be happier if they were $15. Or $20! why not? In the UK, a box of cigarettes is about £7 (which equals about $10.80).  This is the only consumer good I can think of that costs less in the UK than it does in the US. For real.

3. Sell cigarettes in a variety of increments. A friend of mine who is trying to quit smoking recently pointed out that though he is down to 2 cigarettes a day (go, friend!), he still buys 20 at a time. And if he buys 20, he’ll smoke 20.  In England you can buy them in packs of 10, and I think there are some brands in the US that sell half-packs. But the act of buying things makes you more aware of your consumption, and makes people more aware of how much they’re spending on cigarettes.

4. A halfway policy: make littering cigarette detritus illegal.  No more flicking cigarette butts! Someone once said to me, ‘if I lit up a piece of paper and dropped it in the street, that would not be regarded as acceptable.’ But that’s exactly what smokers do, hundreds of thousands of times a day every day (except my mom. she doesn’t do that. Thanks, mom). Littering is not allowed. Let’s start there.

5. Make smoking in public places a fine-able offence. I don’t think smoking should be illegal; I think tobacco and marijuana should both be legal and regulated and expensive and commercially available.

On the other side of the coin, let’s please get rid of DARE and other education programs that have never worked, ever, and use that money elsewhere. Let’s make faux-smoking easier to do, and let’s allow THAT in public places (assuming there’s no health risk to everyone else). And let’s use the money from all the fines I just proposed for a public-health bonanza – I don’t know what that would look like, but I would vote for public transit investments and infrastructure to address food deserts, and possibly health care to marginalised people, who are the most likely to smoke (hell, I would too). I don’t want to criminalize smoking; I just don’t think I should have to be faced with secondhand smoke, and nor should anyone else who doesn’t want to be.

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Pruitt Igoe Miscellany

Image courtesy google maps.

Image courtesy google maps.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time.  2012 was the 40th anniversary of the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St Louis, Missouri – one of the most iconic public housing ventures of all time; March 2013 marks the 41st anniversary.  The land where the buildings stood is still vacant, with a fence around it; 57 acres of urban wilderness in the most literal sense.

In recent years, the site has received a lot of attention – most notably, in the form of Pruitt Igoe Now, a documentary released in 2011.  A design competition, soliciting suggestions for what to do with the site, was conducted in 2012 – the winning submissions are viewable on the website; predictably, many focused on urban ag or forestry, though the diversity achieved within the theme is pretty impressive. And the mostly-excellent design podcast 99% Invisible did a piece on Pruitt Igoe for their 44th episode, though most of their content was derived from the film.

Image courtesy Pruitt Igoe Now design competition - from 'Connections,' a finalist in the competition

Image courtesy Pruitt Igoe Now design competition – from ‘Connections,’ a finalist in the competition

There are obviously all sorts of reasons why the housing project failed, and architecture is part of it – similar towers have failed elsewhere; Pruitt Igoe is simply the most iconic. But the film works hard to couch the development’s demise in the larger context of post-war St. Louis, and if you look at the image above, you can get a sense of the devastation experienced by adjacent areas that weren’t leveled. By my count, the twenty blocks north of the development have twenty houses on them.  It is easy to fetishize Pruitt Igoe, but doing so completely ignores the huge swathes of adjacent land that are almost as devastated – and they didn’t have a huge, iconic explosion to help them get that way.

What is to be done with cities like St. Louis, where large chunks of the urban area are essentially ghost towns? Suggestions that the area be allowed to return to nature, that the remaining citizens be relocated, is typically not politically achievable.  On the other hand, neither is it economically feasible to provide urban services to places that have one home per city block, usually with diminishing tax revenue. In New Orleans, the post-Katrina ‘green dot’ map of unviable neighbourhoods provoked a shitstorm of protest from local residents, who in many cases rebuilt with a vengeance in places that should never have been built on in the first place – but that’s a rant for another time.  I’ve written before about neighbourhoods on the cusp, like the Near North Side of Pittsburgh, and I won’t rehash that post anymore here.  Whatever solutions we do come up with for shrinking cities, the testing grounds shouldn’t be limited to the Pruitt Igoe site; while it is absolutely a good idea to invest in the large scale ecological regeneration of  St. Louis, and there is symbolic value to starting with the Pruitt Igoe site, it’s now a 40 year old urban forest and it has value unto itself.  Its not like there’s no other land to work with; maybe just leave well enough alone until such time, if ever, when there’s a reason to redevelop.

And in the meantime, check out the film, podcast, Economist article, MIT studio, and book chapter on St Louis in particular and shrinking cities in general. If you have resources or thoughts on Pruitt Igoe, St. Louis or shrinking cities, please let me know.

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Gondolas!

Happy holidays, internet.  We’ll be having an Ink & Compass family reunion on Saturday, and maybe that post about Toronto I’ve planning since, um, October will finally make it onto the Interweb.

A friend sent me an article last week from Wired Magazine about gondolas.  Not Venetian style – Austrian/Swiss style, like the kind in the banner image of this fantastic blog, although that photo was taken in Wales.  The idea is, buying rights of way on or under land is expensive, and that’s the kind of right-of-way required for light rail, dedicated bus lanes, and pretty much all conventional public transit that you or I are familiar with.  But the space above the streets are cheap to buy, and that is where the gondolas come into play.

When my friend emailed me the article, I told him that gondolas weren’t a new thing; London opened a gondola across the Thames earlier this year, and Rio opened one last month as part of the run up to the Olympics.  The Portland Aerial Tram is a high-profile example in the US.  I googled “urban gondolas as public trasport” and came up with a surprising number of hits, including a blog called “The Gondola Project” – can you guess what its about?

The innovation with the Wired article is that gondolas wouldn’t be a supplement to conventional transit, or a method for when roads aren’t practical.  Instead, the gondolas would float through the city above regular traffic; I picture something kind of like the Chicago loop, except instead of big noisy trains and tracks that darken the sky, you’d have floaty little cars.

It would be awesome.

Obviously there are many, many drawbacks (the Wired article gives some background into a particular system proposed by two dudes in Texas; it doesn’t mention precedents or pros or cons in any systematic way).  My first question is how gondolas will be wheelchair accessible.  If you’re using the Loop as a model, that’s a start – but the Loop is infrastructure-heavy, which is exactly what these things are purporting to combat.  Also, trains stop.  These apparently just slow down enough to allow people to step on. That’s great if you have full use of your legs, but not so great if you don’t.  Also, how fast do these things go the rest of the time? The T in Boston goes 14 miles an hour, on average, and is the slowest mass-transit system I’m aware of (my source is a Good magazine infographic from last year; unfortunately Good’s search function blows so you’re on your own there).

I can picture stairs or towers that would be relatively light-touch, and the idea of using space above traffic is really appealing and innovative, especially since gondolas wouldn’t dramatically affect light or air, the things that usually bugaboo plans to build above streets. I appreciate the extent to which they create public space where currently none exists, but I wish there was more engagement about how people would actually engage with gondolas. How big would they be? The Thames gondolas can only carry 2000 people per hour.  It’s a lot of people, but count the people in the Oxford Circus tube station from 5 to 6 and it no longer looks so impressive – the Tube carries 3 million people a day (admittedly its a huge system – the 11th largest in the world; I looked it up recently. I didn’t even have to wiki that, I just know it. Nerd alert!) A whole Tube system isn’t a fair comparison with one gondola line, but you take my point. There’s a reason that cable cars have been niche in the past.

One of the things I like about them, though, is how retro they are.  Lots of things that planners and engineers have “discovered” are actually pretty simple technologically (bikes anyone?), and I think that, while there’s certainly a place for super-high-tech crap in cities, people tend to get a little enthusiastic and miss the point sometimes.  I just listened to a great podcast on pneumatic tubes, and I think that touches on the same idea – things that hold the promise of the future and the past at the same time have huge potential for urban planners, because things that have retro appeal are more likely to be popular with the public.

So fingers crossed for gondolas. I know that I would totally ride them, if they were faster than driving, not too expensive or crowded, and going where I wanted to go.

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Point – Point: The End of the Series

This is the last in a series of three posts about Swindon, a small city where My Friend Lauren grew up. The other two entries stemmed from the disagreements Lauren and I had as we explored Swindon together (she as a native, and me as a pedantic polymath interloper). While the other two entries have been point-counterpoint, this one is more just…reflections on the Railway Village, a historic and troubled neighbourhood downtown.

Swindon experienced a populations explosion in the 19th century (specifically 1841-1842), when it became a hub for the Great Western Railway.  This was accompanied by a colossal railway works and an associated worker’s village, both of which stand today in substantially altered form. Railway yards are not necessarily organised in a way that lends itself to adaptive reuse; the scale is enormous; the buildings are not organised at right angles and they tend to be extremely long (you know, like trains).  There’s too much space in between the buildings for traditional streets but not always enough for more buildings – and how much plaza space can you have? Plus, the Swindon Works – seminal as it is to British rail history – is a protected monument.

The Swindon Works can be divided into two parts, one of which is the historic railway yard, the other of which is the village built simultaneously to house all the workers.  Lauren’s mother works for the Swindon housing authority, and reported that the railway village has a reputation for being dangerous and especially low-income – today, the entire village is social housing.  A long tunnel connects the village (and the rest of Swindon) to the old rail works, which now also houses an event space, an English Heritage office, and a giant shopping centre, plus some new construction. This is really two separate posts – first, its about the railway worker’s village, a perfectly picturesque urban scene if ever there was one.  Second, there’s an assessment of the old Railway Works, the place where the trains were manufactured.

The worker’s cottages are just the cutest damn things you’ve ever seen.  Stone cottages arrayed along narrow streets with generous setbacks (by English standards) and wide sidewalks, the houses look like something out of a movie.  Small pedestrian pathways intersect the terrace houses and the corners have little three-story towers to add visual interest. Mature trees in the back create a domestic scene that delineates private space without closing the neighbors off from each other. The cottages are small – it was housing for poor people, after all – and the ceilings look low, but the experience of the railway village reminded me of some very successful social housing projects I’d visited in the US.  Furthermore, it didn’t seem like it should be social housing at all.  It was historic housing an easy walk to the train station, shopping, and a park…I mean, these things are just adorable.  And while they may be the product of another era, there are literally hundreds of thousands of Victorian terrace houses that have been modernized and appeal to the middle class – I live in one.

 

The only thing this place didn’t seem to have was any people. We were there on August Bank Holiday Monday – not typically a busy time – but I don’t think we saw a single person walking through the community. I’m hoping Lauren will contextualize Swindon for me a bit – why isn’t this place full of yuppies? Shouldn’t it be a prosperous place?  The workers’ village is the little grid to the right of The Park – you can see how close it is to the station (the red hash mark)

The Swindon Designer Outlet is sandwiched into a corner of the railroad, and you can see how huge the scale is from the size of the streets around it.  Up close it looks like this:

The eastern (right-hand) side of the railworks is weirdly empty.  Although the scale of the buildings is low and reasonably human-scale, the space between them is enormous,  and the wayfinding through the site is awkward, especially when you approach as a pedestrian (as I did).  There is plenty of room for new construction – even on a busy shopping day, many of the car parking spaces were vacant – but those new buildings that are there are, um, ugly.  It was surprising to me that a country that is so meticulous about conserving its historic landmarks should be so lackadaisical about what gets built next to and within those same landmarks.  There was one piece of new construction – a brick condo building with a blank facade.  It was obviously brand-new (some of the windows still had stickers on, and there was a sales sign outside the door).  Density is a good first step, but the place just felt sort of windswept and empty.  Like there should be tumbleweeds blowing across the plazas.

All of which made a stark contrast to the actual shops, which were jam packed.  My expectations for the mall were pretty low, because the rest of it was so awkward, but the interior of the mall struck me as an incredibly sensitive and intelligent adaptive reuse.  And the entire place was bumping – you’d have thought it was December 23rd – so clearly its popular.

Basically its a pretty standard shopping mall – but a really nice one, made cooler by the fact that its a historic building.

Lauren has her say: 

The points that Franny made in this blog are difficult to address directly; I think the best way to give the reader a view of how the Railway Village is now is to give some context of what the Railway Village was.

Without going into too much detail of the works’ history, its rise and fall is a beautiful and direct parallel to the trajectory of industry in the rest of the UK. From ‘glorious’ industry in the Victorian era, to thrilling modern designs in the early 20th Century it reluctantly closed in the 80’s.

 File:GWR map.jpg

Figure 1 GWR c 1930 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GWR_map.jpg

When the works and village were built (in 1841 to provide the trains and track from Brunel’s Great Western Railway from London to Bristol), the worker’s facilities were world leading; the Mechanics’ Institute held classes and housed the UK’s first lending library, there were 3 pubs (including one of my favourites, the Glue Pot), the Medical Fund offered health care (attributed as being the inspiration for the NHS) and houses were of good size and quality (testified by the fact that they still stand today).From its origin the GWR expanded rapidly into an efficient and prosperous industry and in the early 20th century produced thrilling designs (City of Truro was the first locomotive in the world to travel at over 100mph on 9th May, 1904). Its peak of 14000 employers was in 1920 and from there it declined (in 1960 Swindon produced British Railways’ last steam locomotive (Evening Star, number 92220)) and then reluctantly closed on the 27th March, 1986.

I have to mention the Mechanics’ Institute, (1853-55) which is by far the most beautiful building in Swindon. Today it is in ruins: it was nominated as in the top 10 most endangered Victorian Buildings, according to the Victorian Society. http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/news/mechanics-institute-swindon/

Working in the railway works was a given for lots of men. My grampy (see Point Counterpoint #2) was fortunate enough to have an alternative. When he was leaving school his father posed him the question:

‘Now boy, you can either work in GWR for pittance a week, or come flog fish down the market with me for £30 a morning.’

And even stinking of fish with frozen hands and chasing live crabs around he was glad not to have the fat controller as a boss.

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Figure 3 The Fat Controller, Thomas the Tank Engine http://christmas-specials.wikia.com/wiki/The_Fat_Controller

There was always social unrest in the village: Daniel Gooch, Superintendent for GWR said in 1859 “It having come to my knowledge that many of the boys of New Swindon are very unruly and mischievous in their conduct, especially during the evening when property is frequently damaged and (as on a recent occasion) life endangered, I hereby give notice that any person in the service of the company reported to me as being disorderly, firing cannons, or making an improper use of firearms in the Village be discharged (…) ”

Figure 2 Workers leaving c 1910 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GWR_map.jpg

I recently went to a gig by the Unthanks and their melancholic song Black Trade really captured the concept of underappreciated workers: ‘all you welders and riveters… you’re just black trade…’ These men put all their energies into producing the magnificent engines, tracks, carriages, but individually they are not given much recognition.

Today, ironically, the village has a low employment rate and is 95% owned by the local housing authority. The social problems that plagued the village in the 19th century still do today. I’ll illuminate this with a couple more anecdotes from a local housing officer: The electricity meters are in large cabinets; it’s usually fine and easy enough to read the meters, but on this occasion the door opened to a waft of smoke: among the drug paraphernalia and sleeping bag poked the head of a homeless man smoking a fag! Another time the officer was taking photographs of a pile of dumped rubbish when another homeless man started shouting abuse and vitriol, thinking his drug stash was disturbed he started throwing objects, when the officer turned around she saw he’d thrown chocolate bars at her!

Swindon has always been an innovative town: more recently we were the first to have a cable TV channel in the UK, and I think it is the history of the Railway Village that puts the ‘yuppies’ off the Railway Village.  I can imagine an aspiring professional thinking ‘No matter that these houses are cute, there’s still poky ex-council houses in a dodgy area.’ For those that can afford them, there are plenty of modernized Victorian terraced houses in Old Town, or as we saw in an earlier blog, fashionable new-builds in the suburbs.

The Railway Village, while being cute, it is not the calm, quaint village it appears. It is a place fraught with social problems, and either despite or perhaps because of this, it still has one of the best pubs in Swindon.

Figure 4 The Glue Pot http://www.flickr.com/photos/majorclanger/2260255446/

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Making use of Highway Dead Space

In  many cities, highways cut the city up, acting as barriers between neighbourhoods.  They block off parkland and waterfront from easy pedestrian access.  Urban highways aren’t going away any time soon, but cities are making strides to work around overpasses (or below, in this case).

Toronto just opened Underpass Park as part of an overall revitalization of Toronto’s Waterfront, and in preparation for Toronto’s hosting of the 2015 PanAm games.  It includes a playground for children, basketball courts, and (I think best of all) a skate park.  Development has yet to be completed around the park, leaving it sort of isolated for now.  But it’s great to see the city taking innovative steps forward, and thinking about what will get people into this park – what will get people using this park.  And I think the skate park is a great way to do that – and it’s a great sign we’ve stopped be so scared of skateboards in the city.

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Accordia

Since moving to Cambridge, I’ve heard and read about the award-winning Accordia development in Cambridge, 300-some units of housing built in 2004 and designed by architecture heavyweights Feilden Clegg Bradley (plus some others).  I was lucky enough to tag along on a tour led by Peter Carter, who worked for the Cambridge planning office as one of the point people when the development was given planning permission.

I was really blown away by some of the development (which is large enough to constitute its own neighborhood), and really disappointed by other parts.  There are three green corridors running through the neighbourhood, which pre-date the development; the houses are snuggled in between the trees and on a beautiful sunny day are dappled with sunlight and shot through with green open space and greenery.  Toward the back of the development, the trees peter out, and there are some big open spaces mixed in with higher-rise development, but the relationship of building and open space is vastly different.  At one end of Accordia, the scale is perfect – three-story buildings along narrow streets with greenery and balconies at all three levels (on the ground, first-floor terraces and second-story balconies, all of which have dense planting).

At the other end, the buildings are larger, and the design quality is equally high, but there’s a serious drop-off in the quality of the landscape architecture.  The space opens up – but too much; the slight step-up in density doesn’t correspond to the large increase in circulation space, and the lack of green space means that the space just looks unfinished.

I have some quibbles with the layout but the architecture is, for the most part, amazing.  The UK requires that 30% of all new developments be affordable units, and a good chunk of them are seamlessly incorporated into the fabric.  Another chunk of them are included in larger apartment buildings, the tallest of which is 8 stories.  There is a row of houses at the back that look a little worse for the wear, and many have wood doors that have weathered differently and shabbily. On the other hand, the houses at the front are amazing and there are two taller buildings that I would love to live in, if they didn’t front onto an awkwardly-scaled public square.

A couple of caveats: the Accordia development is still in development; the last few houses are just being complete now.  There was evidence of construction in some corners of the space that will be removed in the next couple of months.  The atmosphere in one corner was seriously affected by a “historic” bunker that still stands, disused and surrounded by seriously ugly fencing – obviously through no fault of the developers. And finally, we were there on a Wednesday afternoon in August, which is not historically the busiest time of year in a residential development in the UK, when everyone and their mother is on vacation.

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So what’s your job, exactly?

A future development site and the site of a Shape East design review

I have a master’s in urban planning from an American university, but relocated to the UK a few months after graduating. The planning system is very different here, so it was a challenge trying to find a niche. Ultimately, I ended up at Shape East, the centre for the built environment in the east of England.  I started working for Shape East as their Design Support Manager in February, a job with a description that continues to evolve as I learn to think more and more expansively about what Design Support can entail.

“Design support” is broken down into two broad categories – design support and design review.  Design review is a particular process of peer review, wherein we provide a panel of built environment professionals (architects, planners, engineers, landscape architects) to offer their commentary on a scheme that is about to be submitted for planning permission.  Usually, the planners at the relevant office will suggest to the architects or developer that some peer review would be beneficial, or a controversial project will undertake it voluntarily with the understanding that it will help quell opposition. Design review is a formal meeting with a particular protocol, and Shape East is part of a national network of design review providers, each with their own discrete reservoir of panel members.  Many of the architects on the panel are Kind of a Big Deal; others have a particular specialty.  The idea of design review is that a higher level of scrutiny will result in a higher degree of design quality, a premise I believe in.  My role is to organise all the design review meetings, take notes, and then summarise the recommendations for the local authority and the design team – the finished product is a letter, usually about 1000 words long, that is an official record of the 2-ish hour meeting (including a site visit) and the suggestions made by the panel of architects Shape East provides.

Design support is less specific.  It can happen at any time during a project’s development, up to the point where it receives planning permission.  Recently, we held a meeting with some important people in a small seaside town to help them develop a brief for a new public square.  We also helped a design firm work with a local town council to redesign the facade of an economic regeneration project.

The best part of my job is that I’m a believer in the value of our product.  Design review isn’t always helpful, but in many cases it makes a huge difference in the finished product and almost always results in positive changes to the design.  And design support is even more important, because it typically involves getting people outside the design and planning community involved in the process.

Design support, which typically focuses on a single development, is one half of what Shape does. The other half is more general education – we offer walking tours, public lectures, and other resources (many of them web-based) to help people learn about architecture and design.  Historically, Shape had done lots of outreach in schools and with young people, and at present we’re collaborating with Kettle’s Yard, a local art gallery, on outreach related to the construction of a new gallery space.

To my mind, the opportunity to get constructive criticism is one of the few pros of a planning system that is painfully vague and subject to personal opinion.  The UK is fairly unique, I think, in having providing so many opportunities for designers to get input from a “critical friend,” often from big-name design professionals and, at the very least, from designers that have been vetted and selected for their suitability for the project.  At Shape, about one in four applicants to the panel were ultimately chosen, and the competition for the position of chair and vice chair was stiffer.  My job is to try to convince people to avail themselves of this expertise.

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