James Howard Kuntsler: How Bad Architecture Wrecked Cities

James Howard Kuntsler is an outspoken, foul-mouthed critic of modern American suburbia, particularly our wasteful suburban design strategies and drab public space architecture that amounts to soulless communities and “places not worth caring about”. I’m not a huge fan of Kuntsler’s typical brashness, but he is right on in his damnation of bad public spaces.

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Red Line train to Shady Grove


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The Messy Practice of Defining Neighborhoods

What neighborhood you live in can often be point of contention among city-dwellers. In some cases, the geography of city neighborhoods can leave little doubt about neighborhood boundaries, as when bold features like major avenues, highways, railroads, and waterways make for obvious boundaries. Other cities have neighborhoods that are explicitly defined by city governments, often for political representation purposes. In a similar case, Chicago’s 77 “community areas”, which often include multiple neighborhoods within them, provide concrete boundaries at a hyper-local level, primarily for urban planning purposes.

Source: Wikimedia

But for many other cities, neighborhood boundaries, and even names, are vague, ambiguous, and inconsistent. Where I am in D.C., I’m all too familiar with this phenomenon. From blogs covering the “in-between” neighborhood areas to the repeated attempts at redefining parts of the city “already assigned” to certain names, the practice of place-making through neighborhood naming and boundary negotiation is fairly common. I’m more of a traditionalist, and I want current notions of neighborhood that have a historic significance and track record to stay put. Besides, just because a neighborhood undergoing gentrification is changing rapidly, and that change is not uniform across the neighborhood, it doesn’t mean a splintering of area identities is needed. But stepping back from my persuasion, I would also argue that this attempt to hyper-define the urban landscape is a perfectly natural practice. Whether we reside in dense cities or rural countryside, most people want to connect with their “place” and be able to define part of themselves in relation to their named surroundings. When some people deem geographic naming conventions for their place to be weak or outdated, the inclination is to redefine and recharacterize the place, which is just what these D.C. neighborhood re-namers are going for.

CH_hoodsI remember attending a Trivia Night in Columbia Heights where one question was “Name the 4 neighborhoods surrounding Columbia Heights.” “Only four?” I thought. “Oh boy”. The quizmasters later revealed the answers: “U Street Corridor (Shaw), Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and Petworth”. And with that, trivia anarchy erupted. “What about Pleasant Plains!” “What about Park View!” “Ummm Sixteenth Street Heights?!” The quizmasters stood in humble silence, realizing their question wasn’t as cut and dry as they had predicted. For those familiar with D.C. geography, my guess was that the quizmasters took Columbia Heights as extending east all the way to the US Soldiers and Airmens Home and Washington Hospital Center, thereby eliminating Pleasant Plains and Park View, while considering everything north of Spring Road and Rock Creek Church Road to be Petworth, thereby eliminating Sixteenth Street Heights. While certain neighborhoods certainly have more cultural and social supremacy than others, it’s not a surprise that people who live in the less popularly named areas will want to stick up for their hood. It becomes a part of identity, after all.

What D.C. could use is a project like the one conducted by Bostonography, a fantastic site that creates beautiful maps and infographics all about Boston. The site conducted an online survey asking users to outline city neighborhoods on a map as they saw them, then mapping the certainty of results. While the problem of neighborhood name supremacy and “sub-neighborhoods” still lingers, the overarching design of the experiment yielded interesting results that work towards a more uniform understanding of popular notions of neighborhood borders. This is really a must read for Bostonians, with its hood-by-hood analysis, and the maps themselves are very well done.

Source: Bostonography (Full Version)

While I’ve been caught up in the geographic shapes and boundaries of neighborhoods in this post, Bostonography’s Andy Woodruff reminds us about what’s truly important:

Although we talk a lot about boundaries, this post included, the maps here should also remind us that neighborhoods are not defined by their edges—essentially, what is outside the neighborhood—but rather by their contents. And it’s not just a collection of roads and things you see on a map; it’s about some shared history, activities, architecture, and culture. So while the neighborhood summaries above rely on edges to describe the maps, let’s also think about the areas represented by the shapes and what’s inside them. What are the characteristics of these areas? Why are they the shapes that they are? Why is consensus easy or difficult in different areas? What is the significance of the differences in opinion between residents of a neighborhood and people outside the neighborhood?

(DC map from City-Data.com)

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Brian Williams on the Violence in Camden, New Jersey

Last month, Rock Center with Brian Williams had an excellent piece on the plight of Camden, New Jersey, America’s poorest and most dangerous city. The words of Father Michael Doyle most resonate with me, saying we should be ashamed as Americans that we could let one of our cities reach this level of despair and dysfunction. And while Camden is certainly among the worst of the worst, there are many other cities and neighborhoods across the US facing similarly crippling conditions of crime and extreme poverty. The fact that the most powerful nation on earth still has neighborhoods where residents can’t even feel safe on their own front steps is indeed a disgrace.

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Harnessing Open Data for Transforming Cities

A few days ago The Atlantic Cities published a great collection of open government data applications that are enhancing our understanding of and interactions with urban life. As you can see from the list, most applications rely heavily upon the spatial, which is not surprising, but still a powerful testament to the tremendous value of GIS applications in cities. Among the most fascinating to me are Floodprint, which maps flood footprints determined from a variety of data sources (something of particular use for New Orleans redevelopment), and Possible City, which encourages organic neighborhood growth through identifying and mapping vacant properties in Philadelphia.

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The Dream of High Speed Rail, on a Map

I love mass transit, from its efficiencies to its environmental merits to it being an alternative to gridlock traffic on I-495. So I’m a huge fan of any fantasy map envisioning a burgeoning transit system, and all the possibilities for car-free travel. So Alfred Twu’s map of a idealistic, nation-crossing high-speed rail system, which has received a ton of internet buzz since its creation last month, naturally makes my mouth water.


Source: Alfred Twu

While the realization of the plan like this is highly doubtful, at least in the foreseeable future, Slate’s Jeremy Stahl offers an interesting assessment of the map’s effect on the political dialogue over actual plans for high-speed rail corridors. Stahl comes to a logical conclusion: build where there’s already a demand. The first priority location for a high-speed rail line should undoubtedly be the Washington to Boston corridor, where rail travel in the dense mega-region has long been a mainstay. In California, plans are actually underway for a line spanning the state’s major cities from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento. I myself would love to see high-speed rail connecting Chicago to the east coast. But for all of these routes that seem to be no-brainers, there are others that one can see struggling for ridership. A high-speed train travel from Chicago to LA may have a ton of novelty value, but at that point, isn’t flying by far the most pleasant and sensible option for such a long trip?

There are a ton of real-world issues to realizing Twu’s plan, and I’m sure even he understands that. Besides the economic stresses of building the system and the low-demand on remote segments of the network, the daunting challenges of running track across vast deserts and rugged mountains would surely complicate matters. But for all of the map’s quirks, it’s fun to dream. Even if I’m pretty sure high-speed rail will never reach Cheyenne.

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The Pitfalls of “Celebrity Architecture” in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Photo by JanetandPhil

For all of its great intentions, the Make It Right foundation doesn’t seem to live up to its name. The New Republic details the problems with the strategy of the organization, which was founded by Brad Pitt in 2007 to build homes in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Providing homes for returning residents is a noble mission, but evidently, the effectiveness of the program in revitalizing the neighborhood is clearly in doubt.

The home designs are modern and extravagant, but unsurprisingly very expensive to build, costing upwards of a whopping $400,000 each. Part of the bloated expense is due to each house being designed to be LEED certified. Since 2007, 90 out of the originally promised 150 new homes have been built, and at a cost of  nearly $45 million. As a result, the organization is struggling to finance the endeavor and has gone so far as to offer up new homes for sale to people who didn’t live in the neighborhood before the storm. Even if the full extent of the program could be implemented today, 150 homes pales in comparison to the estimated 4 to 5,000 homes lost in the neighborhood in Katrina.

The MIR homes are concentrated in the western portion of the neighborhood, particularly along Tennessee Street and Deslonde Street. Below is the Streetview for Tennessee Street where you can explore a number of the MIR homes, whose sleek and modern design make them unmistakeable and in sharp contrast to the rest of the neighborhood.

On top of the questionable strategy of Make It Right, the economic and physical geographies of the area make the project seem all the more misguided. While residents have been trickling back into the neighborhood, local businesses and essential services, which were scarce even before the storm, have not yet returned, forcing current residents to travel far for basic errands like grocery shopping.

Additionally, the environmental characteristics of the neighborhood have not changed since the storm: it is still below sea-level, surrounded by canals, and in an area especially vulnerable to levee breaching. In a comprehensive rebuke of the program, TheArchitectsTake.com offers the view of Dr. Richard Campanella from Tulane University, who eloquently describes the physical and cultural geography at work in the site selection:

What I, as a geographer, can opine on is the decision to build MIR at that site, precisely in front of the high-velocity breach flooding, on land that is mostly below sea level and adjacent to two risk-inducing manmade navigation canals. This was a bold, high-minded, and morally majestic decision, but a foolish one. It reflects a romanticized notion of the relationship between place and people (culture). It indulges in the tempting (and popular) but problematic presumption that “place makes people,” whereas in fact the opposite is more commonly the case. It attempts to “save” the culture of that neighborhood by rebuilding in that exact spot, as if culture emerges from soil. The truth is that human beings adjust their place all the time. They move to different houses, neighborhoods, cities, states, nations, and continents incessantly. Most of the pre-Katrina housing stock near the MIR project only dates to the 1920s-1960s; residents moved there from other neighborhoods only a couple of generations ago, at most.

More troublingly, MIR’s site selection decision reveals a breezy arrogance (note the name “Make It Right”) and a misguided sense of defiance. At whom are they shaking their fists by insisting on making their statement at that unsustainable site? Global warming? Under-engineered levees and floodwalls? Centuries of delta urbanism and their deleterious impact on the landscape? The whole Katrina tragedy?

Looking at maps of the area confirm the misgivings Campanella lays out. As you can see in Google Maps and from this 2007 Army Corps of Engineers map, the Lower Ninth Ward (including the Holy Cross sub-neighborhood south of St. Claude Avenue) is surrounded on three sides by water: the Mississippi River to the south, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to the west, and the Main Outfall Canal to the north. In the ACE map, the Lower Ninth Ward is situated just to the left of the “Alternative 2” label.

Source: ACE via the Times-Picayune

The Make It Right foundation’s questionable tactics raise a number of difficult questions for New Orleans, with the ultimate one being a politically volatile idea: should the Lower Ninth Ward be saved at all? In a battle of geographic determinism versus the emotional push to rebuild, it appears the latter is winning.

Photo by John Donaghy

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The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

For anyone interested in urban planning, public housing, and the lessons we can draw from the past in those fields, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is essential viewing. It chronicles the rise and fall of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex that “graced” the St. Louis skyline from 1954 til 1972. If you don’t know of Pruitt-Igoe, perhaps you’ve at least seen this iconic photograph, showing its demolition:

Source: Pruitt-Igoe.com

In the decades since Pruitt-Igoe’s demise, much has been speculated regarding what exactly caused the project to fail so dramatically. Mismanaged social welfare? Modern architecture? Poor economic conditions? In interviewing past residents as well as experts on urban policy and St. Louis, the film makes clear the Pruitt-Igoe complex had all the above factors and others working against it. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth aims to bypass the generalities and get at the heart of why Pruitt-Igoe failed from a decidedly personal perspective of the tragedy.

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