urbanite take

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

Archive for the ‘Los Angeles’ Category

D&L 7: How cities (and suburbs) foster diversity

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Chapter 7. The generators of diversity

This is a fairly short chapter, and I am about to embark on a week-long trip, so I’ll keep this relatively brief. While the last several pages of the chapter reference the four generators of diversity, the bulk of the chapter discusses how “big cities are natural generators of diversity and prolific incubators of new enterprises and ideas of all kinds.”

This fundamental message — from an economic perspective, big cities are more than the sums of their parts — is strikingly on point; I’ve have seen it echoed in more recent publications. Ryan Avent’s Gated City, which I read several months ago, cites Vietnamese restaurants as an example of the kind of diversity that only big cities can support: small towns and cities can only support businesses with relatively mass-market appeal (and, unless you are in southeast Asia, this is probably not a Vietnamese restaurant); on the other hand, a large city can support multiple Vietnamese restaurant because of the collection of people together. Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City makes a similar, broader point that the value of cities in civilization is in the sheer concentration of human capital.

Other parts of this chapter are unfortunately less perceptive in hindsight, in particular Jacobs’ dismissal of “the much-heralded postwar exodus of big offices from cities” as “mostly talk.”. She touts how Connecticut General Life Insurance Company’s move to a headquarters “in the countryside beyond Hartford” — aka the CIGNA campus in Bloomfield, Conn. — required them to build “inherently inefficient” facilities, contrasting this negatively to the shared facilities available in the big city that companies therefore don’t have to build.

As we all well know, decentralization of office space into the suburbs has proceeded rapidly since Death & Life‘s publication year of 1961. Suburban office space* forms about 40 percent of total office space in metropolitan New York and about half in Chicagoland and greater Boston; about 70 percent in greater Atlanta and 85 percent in South Florida. As I mentioned earlier this week, I’ve been reading Rybczynski: one of his critiques of Jacobs is that she essentially ignores the postwar migration to the suburbs. Here, she may not have ignored it, but she was perhaps a little bit blind to upcoming trends.

Overall, though, this chapter’s role is as an opening salvo to the four arguably most important chapters of the book. In that respect, it sets the stage well. We’re convinced of cities’ roles in fostering diversity — even if, perhaps, their monopoly on generating this diversity has been ceded to the suburbs quite considerably since Jacobs’ time — and we eagerly anticipate the explanation of the factors that create this diversity.

*These exclude downtowns, secondary downtowns and “urban envelopes” in the report linked to. While some of the office spaces is located in edge cities such as Naperville, Ill., most of these Naperville-like edge cities would almost certainly not be perceived as a city by Jacobs, and much of the employment is located outside of walkable areas of these municipalities, if they have one. Most of Naperville’s office development, for example, rings I-88 and is not found in the central, pedestrian-friendly core of the city.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 23, 2012 at 8:00 am

The Grove, Disney parks and faux urbanism

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I just returned from a week in the greater Los Angeles area visiting family and friends. As usual, Los Angeles is an endlessly fascinating place, simultaneously the derided poster child of American sprawl and yet home to some of the biggest changes in urban life today.

I hadn’t planned to go, but when I finished the Rethink/LA exhibit at the Architecture & Design museum more quickly than I had anticipated, I drove over to the Grove, an outdoor shopping and entertainment complex at Fairfax and 3rd. Although my original goal of finding a Macy’s was thwarted, I was amused, as always, by how closely places and “lifestyle centers” of the Grove hew to urbanist tenets of city life:

A façade of an inviting streetscape

– Street-level retail
There’s a feeling of vitality all along the “city streets” of the Grove. The stores all open out onto the street, and there is a lot to see while strolling at street level. This being an August day in southern California, the weather was of course conducive to store doors flung open and people weaving in and out.

Pedestrian-friendly "streets"

– Small blocks
There isn’t any grid or blocks, so to speak of, at the Grove, as it’s far too small (even though its host city of Los Angeles actually has a fairly strong, if oft-interrupted, street grid). But there are frequent corners and intersections onto other streets. While I have no idea if “corner lots” at the Grove attract higher rent than the street lots, it still encourages a sense of vitality and exploration.

One wonders what the ridership per mile figure is.

– Pedestrian-friendliness
I suppose, strictly speaking, that the Grove is a pedestrian mall, as there aren’t any cars along the road. There is, in fact, even a trolley that runs along tracks laid into the ground. But all in all, there are few impediments to pedestrians, sidewalks are wide and there’s a parklike feeling in the middle.

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The overriding thing to keep in mind, of course, is that the Grove is completely sheltered from the city block around it. I drove there, as I imagine the vast majority of shoppers did as well, and the “Welcome to the Grove” sign is at the bottom of the bank of escalators as you exit the parking structure.

Places like the Grove, and Los Angeles in general, are often derided for being ersatz and “Disneyfied” versions of so-called “real” places. There’s no doubt that the architecture at the Grove, for instance, is a mishmash of traditional European architectural styles; the developer claims to have incorporated Los Angeles vernacular architecture into the design, but there seems to precious little red tile on the roofs.

But ironically, places like Disney parks and the Grove offer more of a feel of traditional urbanism, even if it’s only the surface level. Faux architecture and artificial weathering aside, the Main Street at Disneyland and the outdoor dining next to the fountain at the Grove offer an urbanist sheen, even if it’s through a painstakingly corporate-crafted lens. While there are certainly no actual apartments above any of the stores of Main Street, it is certainly more walkable than Wilshire Blvd! And I’d venture to say that at least in look and feel, if not substance, it certainly brushes up close to violating much of the Euclidean zoning present in American cities today.

I wonder, in the end, what kind of effect these places have on the urbanite and suburbanite psyche. Part of me thinks that there’s a positive effect in showing (versus telling), and that there’s something to this whole urbanist mumbo-jumbo. On the other hand, I think it also has the effect of ghettoizing this sort of development into carefully scripted and constrained locations. It seems bad to set up a sense that this type of development is limited to playground-type locations and separate it from “real life”: counterproductive in the log run.

Written by Andrew ACG

September 11, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Fly around the city (literally)

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If you have anything at all to do with Los Angeles, then you know about Carmageddon, the closure of the 405 — 10 miles northbound, 4 miles southbound — between the Los Angeles Basin and the San Fernando Valley this coming weekend. One of my favorite airlines, JetBlue, ran today a ‘Carmageddon Fly-Over’ deal that has since sold out, offering four $4 flights between Long Beach and Burbank this Saturday. The two airports are about 33 miles apart as the crow (plane?) flies: roughly twice as far as O’Hare is from Midway, or one-and-a-half times as far as JFK is from Newark or Dulles from National.

Novelty aside — if I happened to be in the Los Angeles area, I probably wouldn’t have been able to resist the chance to take a 30-mile flight — JetBlue’s clever Carmageddon publicity stunt serves to point out the essentially two-pronged nature of the United States’ transportation system: auto and air. Americans are generally heavily to solely reliant on private cars for short-distance and planes for medium-haul and long-haul travel. It’s odd that in a transportation situation where cars are out — such as the 405 closure this weekend — we jump straight to air, a medium more suited to Long Beach, N.Y. to Burbank than Long Beach, Calif. to Burbank.

Of course, JetBlue’s 30-mile flight isn’t a practical form of intracity transportation and isn’t really meant to be anything more than a stunt (and a good one, too). The scheduled flight times are 30-40 minutes, but when you consider time spent getting to and from the airport and security, the time spent is probably about 60-70 minutes overall. The FAA and local authorities have had to specially coordinate the flights because they’re flying well below normal cruising altitude, and these flights would have to priced well above $4 to be profitable.

But while most of the Facebook comments on the Los Angeles Times’ article on the Fly-Over address their un-green nature or PR value, there are a couple who wish these flights were actually regular. Hopefully, some of these commenters — among the vast number of Angelenos not hopping on the next flight to Burbank this weekend — will instead take advantage of the improved LA metro transit service this weekend and realize that your transport choices don’t have to be just auto or air; that indeed there can be, and there are, other choices besides a gimmicky PR flight and an apocalypse-inducing closed freeway.

Written by Andrew ACG

July 13, 2011 at 10:32 pm

By way of introduction

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I’m a city guy: I live in a city, and I care deeply about them.

I believe that cities are grounds for social interaction, laboratories for economic growth, collections of unparalled cultural institutions and repositories of amazing food, haut cuisine and hole-in-the-wall ethnic delicacies alike. The walkable, dense neighborhoods with buzzing street traffic that they possess are some of the most pleasant and popular places to spend time in the entire country. The aesthetic appeal of skyscrapers straining toward the clouds is unmatched, and the lively city boulevards teeming with people virtually pulse with energy.

Cities also offer terrible congestion, pollution and heat islands; staggering levels of segregation and dysfunctional school systems; rampant political corruption; woefully maintained transit systems and overburdened highways and roads. We like to think that we’ve long since moved past tenements, but the condition of some American inner-city housing is nothing short of shocking. And most center cities in America and indeed in the Western world are profusely bleeding people and have been doing so for the last fifty years.

Nevertheless, despite all of these flaws, I still love them.

A bit of introduction on my behalf, to give some context of where all this comes from: I’m from the suburbs of Los Angeles. Growing up, I didn’t really have a conception of what city life was like. I had no idea that there were really places where people walked more than to and from their car, or that rail was still a viable form of transportation, or even that culs-de-sac were not the overriding residential organizational principle everywhere. Then I went away, to the Northeast where I first saw New York, “the city” par excellence, and then to Chicago, where I am know. I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere along that journey the city began to exert a hold on me; I can’t pinpoint an exact moment, but it just happened.

So I’m hoping to use this space to ruminate on the city and subjects that are close to my heart: urbanism and walkability; density and sprawl; transportation, both public and private; land use; cities I visit; and to point out interesting pieces, projects and anything else city-related that comes to mind. I’m partisan when it comes to what I think cities can look like — I believe in walkable urbanism — but at the same I’m also cognizant of choice and that fundamentally cities are composed of individuals, couples and families who choose to be there. Out of necessity, I’ll probably write a lot about Chicago, since it’s where I am now. My goal, though, is not for this to be a blog about Chicago, but a blog about cities in general. I’m a city guy, after all.

Written by Andrew ACG

June 23, 2011 at 9:48 pm