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A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

Archive for August 2012

Book review: American Urban Form

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American Urban Form: A Representative History
Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore
Drawings by Andrew H. Whittemore

180 pages, MIT Press. 2012.

The history of any American city is going to be marked by representative events: the Great Fire, the consolidation of the five boroughs, the earthquake of 1906 have all had indelible effects on their cities. Nevertheless, American cities as a whole have all been shaped by similar forces, as I mentioned in my post on the classic forms of American downtowns. Postwar federal urban policy and the role of the automobile have been particularly strong influences, but the US.

That post, in fact, was inspired by American Urban Form, a slim volume out earlier this year from the MIT press that aims to present a streamlined, genericized history of the American city from colonial to modern times. Warner and Whittemore present the history of “the City,” an amalgamated form of New York, Boston and Philadelphia, depicting it at several key junctures in US history, ranging from a colonial village in the 1600s to the global city of 2000.

They describe how a small colonial town on an isthmus develops into a flourishing mercantile trading village, which in turn explodes into a glittering late nineteenth-century industrial metropolis, which after surviving postwar urban renewal and suburbanization emerges as the burnished, slick global city we know today.

The key strength of the book lies in its presentation of this vague city, and its clear focus on design. There is certainly not a paucity of history of American cities and suburbs. But American Urban Form focuses on exactly that: explaining how the commercial buildings, houses, government institutions, roads and rails were organized. While the contributing factors — such as prejudice against African-Americans, tenement laws or the rise of the automobile — behind the spatial organization of the cities are of course discussed, they are brought up insofar as they explain these physical changes.

The book is definitely focused on the United States, and isn’t a comparative, but I think when coupled with some other volumes — Downtown by Robert Fogelson and City Life by Witold Rybczynski — it goes toward answering that “why do American cities look like this and European cities look like this?” question that often pops up.

Whittemore’s drawings are particularly beautiful and useful, especially the ones that compare the “State Street” from its colonial roots to its twentieth-century majesty and the comparisons of superblock and public housing. Each chapter opens with a two-page spread showing the City’s  Subjectively, I’m a big fan of pen-and-ink line drawings, which the book features.

The only minor quibble I have is that the book reads very much as a history of the Northeast metropolis, and to a lesser degree the Midwest industrial metropolis. While my current town of Chicago is pretty aptly described by the book starting with the 1895 chapter, my hometown of Los Angeles doesn’t really fit the narrative here at all. Depending on their age, other Sunbelt cities may only loosely correspond to the book.

But it’s just a small quibble. Overall, it’s a lovely concise volume, a useful read for anyone who wants a history of “the American city” without the history of any particular one, especially for someone into design.

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Written by Andrew ACG

August 30, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Chicago buses in the news: new bus lanes, cut bus lines

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Chicago bus lines have made an appearance in the news twice the week, with new bus lanes on the South Side and a whole host of potential route changes, including both increased frequency and service cuts.

Premature branding
Construction on the Jeffery Ave “bus rapid transit” lane — which the Tribune termed as BRT that “won’t be so rapid” — on the South Side began Monday. The Jeffery Express 14 bus will include limited stops and part-time bus-only lanes from 67th to 83rd. The bus line currently runs nonstop from downtown to 67th, at which point it stops every quarter-mile until 99th.

Jeffery & 71st: the site of a BRT “superstation” to be

Presumably, with limited stops, the stop frequency would increase to every half-mile. Combined with the nonstop portion, the 14 bus would essentially see express or nonstop service for nearly eight miles from downtown. Other improvements will include a “showcase” station at 71st and Jeffery — pictured at right — which is where the Metra Electric’s Bryn Mawr (not to be confused with the North Side’s Bryn Mawr on the Red Line) station currently is; signal priority from 73rd to 84th; and new, flashier buses with potentially Bus and Train Tracker information.

Notably not included are full-time exclusive bus lanes, prepayment or level boarding, all of which require a fairly large capital investment and significant repurposing of road space.

I’ve attended meetings on the Central Loop BRT and BRT on Western and Ashland. I understand the desire to call it “BRT,” as it can be a flashy trademark and communicates the fact that these aren’t just new bus routes slapped on. At the same time, it’s seemed to me that the CTA and CDOT have jumped the gun a little bit. To draw a little bit of an extended analogy, manufacturers and companies are often concerned about the genericization of their trademarks, in which the descriptive power of the trademark is diluted gradually over time: People come to call any tissue a “Kleenex” or any photocopy a “Xerox.”

What I’m afraid of happening in this case is “BRT” coming to mean just a flashy new bus, or incremental improvements, or at worst a marketing method that CTA is using to try to gussy up improved bus service. Indeed, as the “Citizens Taking Action” strongly-worded — and inaccurate — description of BRT as just vehicles that look like “rocket ship[s] piloted by Flash Gordon,” make clear, there’s a little bit of this setting in already. The Trib‘s story mentions that Forrest Claypool has already stopped referring to the bus lanes as even “BRT lite.” This is good. I just don’t want people to see that there are incremental changes being made to the bus service, see it being called “BRT” and then conclude that there isn’t anything real there.

CTA service changes
Aside from the BRT changes, the CTA announced yesterday significant planned changes to rail and bus service: this includes increased frequency on six of eight rail lines as well as bus frequencies on some of the most popular lines, such as the Western, Chicago and Ashland avenue buses! The Red Eye has a fairly good summary of the changes, which includes additions in bus frequency, route discontinuations, segment cuts and combinations.

There’s a meeting Tuesday, Sept. 4 at the CTA headquarters at 6 pm to discuss the planned service changes. Given the demographics of some  areas that will be affected by the bus cuts — including the 11 bus’ passing through Roscoe Village and Lincoln Square — I anticipate some very high attendance!

Written by Andrew ACG

August 23, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

How to identify your downtown

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Downtown: in or to the business or central part of a city

Having traveled recently around the Midwest this summer to towns and cities of varying sizes, it’s struck me how “downtown,” a seemingly basic concept — that dictionary entry seems pretty simple — and lexical item coined in America, actually encompasses such a variety of built areas in this country.

It seems to me that there are three basic built forms when we talk about “downtown.” To use my completely unscientific sobriquets, there’s the Big City, a mixed-use vibrant quarter in large metropolises; the Government Center, an area made-up largely of public-sector buildings that empties out after hours, often in midsize cities; and Ye Olde Townes, a boutique-y and often self-consciously quaint district found in suburbs and small towns.

These are all explicitly American cities. Public-private transportation subsidies, federal highway funding, Americans’ tendency to spread, cultural valuations of small towns and intense nineteenth-century commercial centralization have all contributed to form these downtowns we see today.

Downtown Chicago

The Big City

A tall set of skyscrapers, the Big City boasts healthy commercial activity in both the private and public sectors; aside from white-collar office jobs, retail presence continues to flourish, perhaps in the form of an outdoor mall but often in the form of middle- to high-end shopping streets. The share of metropolitan office space is relatively high by American standards. Civic buildings and museums tend to cluster here, although they may be in a “museum” or “civic quarter” separate from the rest of the city. Pedestrians can be seen on the street, although numbers are markedly down on nights and weekends.

These are the most likely kinds of downtowns to be the hubs or to be well-served by transit systems. If intercity rail services the city, a somewhat prominent rail station exists, although relocations and closures may mean that the rail station is on the edge of the commercial district. In places with minimum parking requirements — essentially, all cities in the US — if there is a relaxation or smaller amount of required parking, it will be here.

These types of downtowns also tend to have some pretty bad traffic congestion, as the density and size inherent in large-scale retail and office buildings tend to lend themselves to crowded conditions.

Government Center

I know this is the name given to the collection of civic buildings in Boston, which in most other respects boasts a Big City-type downtown, but to my mind the awful Government Center is a good example of this kind of “downtown.” Usually ringed by a set of highways, Government Center will be populated nearly exclusively by civic and governmental buildings. There may be some private-sector headquarters, but most corporate offices will have moved out to the suburbs a long time ago. Retail is limited to convenience stores and lunch joints, nearly none of which will be open after hours or on weekends. Government Centers also tend to play host to large conference centers that don’t interface well at all with the surrounding streetscape. There is relatively little residential life here.

Transportation-wise, this is typically marked by an oversupply of parking garages and parking lots. Cities with stark Government Centers to  If the city has a transit system, which is probably an underfunded, underscheduled system of buses, nearly all the routes probably serve the downtown. If the system is relatively well-designed, there may be a hub where buses – pulsed if you’re lucky – come in.

Downtown Traverse City

Ye Olde Towne

I was inspired to put this post together when I went on a visit to downtown Naperville sponsored by the Chaddick Institute — by nearly all measures, downtown Naperville is one of the more successful downtowns out there. The thing that struck me, that really prompted this post, was the description of downtown Naperville as a “scoop” — it is made up almost entirely of buildings no taller than three stories. If you want real height, and corporate headquarters in Naperville, you’ll have to drive by the Interstate 88 corridor, where a slew of generic-looking corporate buildings cluster by the highway.

Ye Olde Townes tend to boast boutique- and independent-type retailers almost exclusively, such as antique stores, art galleries, boutique clothing shops, stationery stores, ice cream and dessert parlors and high-end restaurants. These stores are generally closely clustered together, fronting onto the sidewalk. There is often angled parking, but if not there is almost certainly on-street curb parking on the main commercial streets.

The biggest difference between Ye Olde Townes and the other two kinds of downtowns is the marked absence of large-scale office buildings. Some small real-estate offices and boutique law firms may be found downtown, but any real large-scale offices will be found in corporate office parks, often on the outskirts of town. In a way, Ye Olde Townes are the diametric opposites of Government Centers in that they often contain nothing but retail, whereas Government Centers often contain no retail at all.

Summing up

These are of course just archetypes. No one single downtown district adheres completely to these descriptions — Los Angeles and Washington, to take two cities on either coast, don’t really fit into any of these — and the multiplicity of cities and towns across the States means that there is wide variation in urban form. It’s a small trend, but I think we’re also starting to see some downtown areas of large cities become Ye Olde Towne-type downtowns, with residential condo living and high-end stores and shops, but a small share of corporate office space overall.

Still, I think it’s valuable to think about the really different forms we associate with “downtown.” Of course, “cities” themselves vary greatly in form — Mumbai, Dallas and London are pretty different — but I think we’re a little more cognizant of the differences between cities as a whole. “Downtown” is a seemingly cohesive idea on the surface, but not so much underneath.

Written by Andrew ACG

August 14, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized