Inspiration on cities, congestion, and highways
Okay, I will admit it: On May 23, I was heading up to Albany with the mind-set that I was coming from the big city with all of the best ideas, ready to help the people in Albany learn how to do things better. I was reasonably rested from West Palm, but still energized from the phenomenal things that I had heard and seen, conversations that I was part of, and people that I had met. It was easy for me to think that I would be bringing that energy to Albany to join John Norquist in furthering the message.
When I got to Albany and started talking to people, I quickly realized that I was the one with provincial preconceptions.
The event was the Albany Roundtable and John Norquist was the keynote speaker. I had not heard of the Albany Roundtable before and my main reason for attending was our feeling in the New York Chapter of CNU that, if John Norquist was going to be speaking in our area, we were going to be there in support.
The Vice President of the Roundtable’s Board of Directors is Colleen Ryan, who is anything but provincial. Her day job is Director of Communications for the Preservation League of New York State. I had a couple of phone conversations with Colleen leading up to the event and was already impressed by her conviction to build better bridges with CNU. While she was very familiar with CNU national, she was not aware that we had a state chapter. I took that as reflecting badly on us, not her. One of the things that CNU New York has struggled with is getting out from New York City to the rest of the state.
If you take a look at the state, the opportunity to redevelop the string of cities from Troy to Buffalo is clear as one of the solutions to how we are going to add 40 million households in the United States between now and 2040 without devastating green fields with sprawl development. One of my hopes was that this event with the Albany Roundtable could bring the message, “Now is the chance.”
I had the opportunity to speak with a number of Albanians (I am sure there is a better label) who made it clear to me that, not only are they committed to opposing sprawl development, they have a strong commitment to sustainable urbanism. There were architects and planners, as well as people from the medical, political, and many other fields. While I was concerned that only one other person in the room, besides John and myself, was a card carrying CNU member, I again realized that this was our fault, not theirs. They were already engaged in local and regional efforts to promote changes that will revitalize their city and put an end to the expansion of surrounding sprawl. Even before John spoke, there was talk about getting rid of the raised roadways that currently cut the city off from its waterfront along the Hudson.
Before John was even introduced, the recipient of an award from the Roundtable gave a shout out to John, complementing him for CNU’s commitment to promoting local agriculture as the theme of CNU 19 in Madison.
John was introduced by Jason Helgerson, who is currently serving in Governor Cuomo’s administration to oversee New York State’s Medicaid program, with an annual budget approaching $60 billion. His charge is to find ways to cut costs, while improving the quality of care through increased efficiency. He explained that his previous job of doing the same for Wisconsin followed serving Milwaukee as part of Mayor John Norquist’s administration.
After a warm welcome, John delivered his poignant message. And he was riveting. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I hear John speak: it is always invigorating. For personal reasons, I always enjoy the image that he shows of the view towards the Loop down Milwaukee Avenue across Wicker Park in Chicago.
John adjusted his presentation so that he could show Albany in its glory days. One of his first points was to decree the damage that has been done to the urban environment by inappropriate highway standards. Roads and highways designed for rural environments are simply not appropriate for urban environments. That seems so obvious that it is mind numbing that it was the practice of planners and traffic engineers for decades.
The way that cities suffered “renewal” and “improved” high speed highways was the triumph of technology and engineers getting the wrong instructions and solving the wrong problem. The expectation was that, by segmenting uses, everything could be organized to be more efficient. The complexity of multi-use was lost and, with it, the fabric of the city.
Designing roads in the cities to match rural standards resulted in a loss of value. John made the case that one of the most beneficial things that cities can do at this point is to remove those highways and, in the process, create value-added. Acres of developable property can be invented simply by changing elevated, restricted access highways into boulevards connected to the street grid. And an extra benefit is that the traffic actually moves better.
John then proceeded to explain the history of the fascination with broad, limited access highways in cities, tracing from Le Corbusier’s 1922 Ville Contemporaines to Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia, with its separated streets resulting in a truly dreadful place to be. He pointed out that Corb’s illustrations show the motor car on multi-laned highways flanked by steel and glass towers, set in a park: the solution was to simply get all of the people out of the way. John then connected that design philosophy with today’s Landscape Urbanism, as explained by Charles Waldheim at Harvard’s GSD. The tower in the park mentality just doesn’t work.
John clarified that the fixation on congestion is just simply misplaced. He likened congestion to cholesterol: in the same way that the body needs some cholesterol to be alive, congestion is a similar indication of a vibrant downtown. He noted how one city has really found the cure for congestion: by girdling itself with highways through its downtown, Detroit eliminated all of that pesky commerce that crowded its downtown and now has roads with no congestion. Congestion means that there are people there.
In explaining how our fixation with highways evolved in part out of civil defense concepts in the 1950s, to provide the mechanism to get everyone out of the city as the missiles were inbound, John showed pictures of the traffic jam that resulted on the highways in Houston when people were told to exit the city as Rita was approaching.
The theory simply does not work. The result was people trapped on the expressways. Connectivity is key to being able to move people and limited-access highways just aren’t right for cities.
Perhaps fearing that he could be inciting the room to look for traffic engineers to tar and feather, John urged everyone to hate the sin not the sinner. He then reported how CNU has worked effectively with traffic engineers to come up with revised ITE standards. John pointed out that simply trying to make the pipe bigger just doesn’t work. He repeated the popular comparison that it is the equivalent of trying to solve obesity by buying a bigger belt. Networked streets work more efficiently and can handle more cars with less congestion.
Returning to the comparison of Detroit and Berlin, John showed Detroit in 1946 with its streetcars on Woodward Avenue. Back then, Detroit was considered the most productive city in the world, while Berlin lay in bombed out ashes. Having helped win the war, Detroit then set out to defeat congestion, and they succeeded. Looking at pictures of the two cities today, the images have switched. Berlin is vibrant and vital and Detroit is suffering devastation, with block after block of deserted properties and deteriorating buildings. To drive the point home, John also showed pictures of other bombed out European cities like Warsaw and Rotterdam, which have been completely rebuilt with good, solid urbanism.
John demonstrated how various cities around the United States are trying to fix those “solutions” which have interfered with their ability to be good urbanism. He showed Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans and how the Treme area was damaged in 1966 by the construction of the Claiborne Expressway. The good news is that John is working with the Mayor of New Orleans to remove the expressway and restore the texture of Claiborne Avenue.
He then showed the West Side Highway in Manhattan, the Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Park East in Milwaukee, all of which have come down, all of which learned to rely upon the street network, and all of which have enjoyed the value that has been added as a result. While John didn’t mention it, only the removal of the Park East in Milwaukee was a completely intentional effort. The other two had to rely upon their collapse, either as the result of an earthquake or deterioration.
When John suggested that someday someone will take down the highways along the Hudson in Albany, there was applause in the room and Colleen Ryan shouted out, “From your lips to God’s ears.”
John then showed one of the most impressive examples of highway removal there is: how the 4-lane elevated Cheonggyecheon expressway was removed from downtown Seoul, South Korea, daylighting the stream and undoing bad karma that had plagued Seoul mayors since its completion in 1976. In 2001, the decision to take down the expressway was made by the newly elected Mayor Lee Myung-bak, who had run successfully on the platform of removing the expressway, against the objection of traffic engineers who claimed that doing so would subject Seoul to endless gridlock.
The result has added tremendous value to the surrounding area. Perhaps surprising to traffic engineers of old, but consistent with the beliefs of CNU: its removal has actually improved travel times in downtown Seoul, a city of more than 10 million.
A 3.6-mile linear, green river park that beautified downtown Seoul and gives its residents a spectacular setting in which to walk, splash, linger and truly enjoy the city has been created. John showed a picture of the then Mayor sitting in the stream with a big smile, celebrating what he had created. He also noted that the destiny of that Mayor is that he is now the President of South Korea.
Returning to the historical origin of the thinking that produced urban elevated highways and sprawl, John cited Herbert Hoover’s efforts in 1926 to promote the model planning code that led to the separation of uses that became the standard after WWII. He explained the damage that the 1926 model code caused, including limitations imposed on multi-family housing and restrictions on the mixed use of commercial and residential. That model code reinforced a lot of the thinking that led to a lack of diversity within communities and the eventual problems that stimulated numerous programs beginning in 1949 intended to deal with the collapse of the inner cities. That model code eventually evolved into commercial uses being located in shopping centers, office centers, and industrial centers, instead of in the communities where people live.
John encouraged the audience to pay special attention to form based codes as a way of reintroducing complete, walk-able communities where people can live, work, shop, and play without having to get into an automobile. He also explained that the municipal processes have to be changed to encourage appropriate development. John explained the power of having a code that can expedite the approval process and provide predictability for investing developers. Too often, cities are complaining that they are not attracting investment, while their codes shout, “Don’t even think of building here.”
After John had finished his presentation, he took questions from the audience. I guess I was still not ready to accept that the people in the room were 100% on board, despite the energetic applause. My doubts evaporated with the Q&A. I could just have easily been sitting back in West Palm. There was a great discussion with enthusiasm for tearing down the highway that parallels the Hudson River to the extent that, if there were shovels and picks in the room, I could have imagined everyone marching out of the meeting to get it started.
I was also impressed with the level of discussion about eliminating minimum parking requirements. My experience is that, while this is something that gets support at CNU, it is usually a difficult idea to promote to civic leaders and local planners. The audience at the Albany Roundtable was discussing how to affect that change both in codes and the expectations of developers.
In response to a question about what he had done in Milwaukee, John gave a good summary for the spirit in the room. He suggested that, had he not succeeded in killing three pending freeways and taking down the Park East, Milwaukee could be suffering worse than Detroit is right now, instead of enjoying a renaissance with projects such as the Schlitz rail yard, which started in 2003 and has multiple developers who have continued through the recession.
I think he is right.