Alex Krieger

Alex Krieger

Principal, NBBJ
Alex has dedicated himself to improving the quality of place and life in metropolitan areas worldwide, in a career that combines teaching and practice in urban design. He is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he has taught since 1977, and a frequent advisor to mayors domestic and international. In September 2012 he was appointed by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

All Together: Summoning Ideals During a Period of Crisis

November 23, 2020

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published by Alex Krieger for the Harvard Graduate School of Design here

 

Optimism in America can be in short supply. A fearsome pandemic has taken an intolerable number of lives, with many more people succumbing daily. Livelihoods are at stake as millions remain out of work, and the economy is suffering. The particularly shocking murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of white police officers—and shootings since—have awakened wide-ranging cognizance of persistent racism, a much longer national crisis than the pandemic. And some political leaders shamelessly stoke divisiveness rather than speak out for tolerance and unity.

In truth, national unease was present prior to the arrival of COVID-19. Among a gathering of worries was climate change inaction, growing environmental harm, housing unaffordability, health care insecurities, and accelerating economic and social inequalities. Unlike prior generations—who trusted in a better future for their kids — today’s parents believe that the prospects for their children’s lives seem not as promising as were their own.

Along with optimism, expressions of ideals are in remission. Yet even amidst individual anxieties and the anger of the multitudes, one can sense a desire to reassert certain ideals. Let’s look again to the ones embodied in the opening sentence of the Constitution, “to form a more perfect Union,” and in our oldest motto, e pluribus unum. Would not the desire for equality, well-being, respect and acceptance of others, shared prosperity, valuing those who serve, caring for the environment, and access to health care be embodied in such aspirations? Add happiness, too, as in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Ah, but you are thinking that such hallowed statements — voiced by the privileged — were not actually intended for all, despite the phrase “All men are created equal.” No, we have never fully met the challenge of America’s lofty aspirations. But should we not continue to try, especially now? That oft-repeated phrase — We are all in this together — heard both in relationship to fighting the pandemic and among the marchers for justice, is not unrelated to an intention to form a more perfect union.

Can we all together transition from marching in protest to overcoming racism and other inequalities? And while we’re at it, can we all insist that fresher air remains over our cities once the pandemic is conquered? Can we collectively distribute less carbon into the atmosphere? Continue to enjoy congestion-free, pedestrian-friendly streets throughout urban America? Keep a healthier balance of work and life? Prolong that respite from incessant travel demands? Continue spending more time with family? Maintain daily walks with a loved one when social distancing mandates abate? Why not commit to keeping those Himalayan peaks visible from broader regions of India? Such shifts have been, pardon the expression, breaths of fresh air, illuminated by a crisis.

Throughout American history, a reconfiguring of society following a crisis often catapulted the nation forward. Shouldn’t today’s interrelated crises do so as well? For inspiration, recall the earliest colonists, finding not the Eden they imagined while sailing to a new world, but confronting a harsh wilderness instead. They persisted to fashion a version of Eden in which to prosper. Against odds, their descendants defeated a mighty empire standing in the way of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Now remember the establishment of a Homestead Act in 1863, enabling any citizen to acquire a quarter-section of America—160 acres—at minimal cost, simply by occupying it and providing minimal improvements. Talk about affordable housing! Or, recall the Morrill Act, also passed in the midst of the Civil War. It required states to establish a public university with the proceeds from the sale of land granted by the federal government. Sixty-nine such land-grant institutions were founded, greatly expanding access to education and the “useful” skills necessary for a modernizing society. Among these were Texas A&M, the University of California, Cornell University, and MIT.

Now consider the determination to overcome distance: Construction of a transcontinental rail system was completed within a couple of decades during the second half of the 19th century. Concurrently, thousands of acres of parks and greenswards were “planted” in rapidly industrializing and increasingly harsh cities, in order to make them more humane for all those arriving from subsistence farms and across oceans. Remarkable environments such as New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace were the result.

And we haven’t yet gotten to the 20th century, during which America prevailed in two world wars; invented a social security system and Medicare for the elderly; reconnected the country with roads, telephones, and the internet; increased the percentage of families attaining their measure of the American dream; and finally established civil rights in law (if not always in reality). We even landed a person on the moon, and even more remarkably returned him safely to Earth—a catalyst for major public commitment to scientific research in multiple fields.

To summon either aspirations or accomplishments of American culture is not to ignore, much less excuse, the many dystopic aspects of American history: the near total destruction of Indigenous cultures; the horrors of slavery and systemic racism; the conceits of Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism; the continued corporate and political restraints on economic parity; the despoiling of the environment in the name of progress. Mere voicing of ideals have not led to their attainment. But to live and flourish in company with others — in more perfect union — requires shared ideals.

Summoning ideals during a period of crisis is hardly naive. Re-read John Lewis’s letter written right before his passing, imploring us to pursue “the next chapter of the great American story.” A lifetime of struggle against racism and for civil rights did not lead Lewis to abandon America’s ideals. And back in 1859, at an event in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, scene of revolutionary foment a century earlier, Carl Schurz — senator from Missouri, 13th secretary of the interior, and an immigrant appreciative of his adopted country — spoke to the value of following national ideals. “Ideals are like stars,” he said. “You will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but… you choose them as guides, and following them will enable you to reach your destiny.” Sound advice.

The pandemic will be conquered, vaccines are on the horizon and the economy will gradually rebound. An incoming administration promises to address partisanship and social discord. Many are hopeful for that effort’s success. Still, rather than pining for a return to a prior normal, lets commit, all together, to a destiny that enjoys the necessities of clean air, justice and equality for all.

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In Defense of Cities

Despite the pandemic, history shows that urban growth is likely to continue because cities provide benefits that cannot be replicated elsewhere.

October 6, 2020

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This essay was adapted from a recent presentation Alex Krieger gave to the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Watch the presentation here.

 

The pandemic (somewhat understandably) and the protests for justice (sadly) are leading to a partial withdrawal from our cities. Of course, such departures have occurred a number of times over the course of American history. Americans have not needed much encouragement to seek a bit of space between themselves and the “rasping frictions” of big city life.

Prior to the pandemic, American cities were on a roll. Since the turn of the millennium at least, America was actually witnessing an urban revival. Suburbia had lost much of its appeal for the generations that grew up in it, and memories of mid-century urban decay had largely faded. Editorials in urban newspapers announced “the cachet of a city zip code.” Pundits welcomed the arrival of the creative class, and promised an extended era of urban fortune assured by the commitment to city life by the millennial generation. Even some empty nesters were happy to part with lawn mowers in exchange for more convivial urban contexts.

Now in 2020, many people are again falling prey to anxieties about cascading urban problems: spreading of disease, street protests — even on behalf of just causes — urban crime rates and cost of living.

Then comes a new possibility: the untethering of work from the places designated for work. Some companies forced to vacate offices due to the pandemic are beginning to question the necessity of ever fully returning to downtown office towers, but especially between now and the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. Employees are assessing the personal and financial benefits of cutting out commutes, having greater daily flexibility, and enjoying more family time while working from home.

Should we succumb to urban anxieties? Or, will cities recover their appeal (unaffordability aside) when the pandemic is conquered? History makes those of us who love cities maintain some optimism. Neither devastating fires when cities were made of wood, nor the cholera of Dickens’s London, nor the urban bombardments of World War II, nor the postwar fears of nuclear holocaust, nor even the shock of 9/11 fundamentally altered the pull to urbanize. Neither will COVID-19 over the long term (barring arrivals of COVID-20, 21, etc.). Cities have been, and will remain, in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s memorable phrase, “the human invention par excellence.”

There are advantages to living in a city that are not replicable with digital software. Days filled with Zoom calls and on-line shopping are not an adequate replacement. Today’s global institutions and economies advance with a metropolitan bias — powered by the concentration of innovation-minded talent and entrepreneurial zeal. Some 60 million people have been annually migrating to the world’s cities. They do so, as people have done for centuries, in search of opportunity, economic security, and the promise of a better life. Today’s anxieties will not lead to half of the seven billion inhabitants of earth who currently live in urban regions to all flee to exurbia, or Montana, or the steppes of Russia. (But some rebalancing between immense urban concentrations and smaller and mid-sized cities may be a good thing.)

Will there be adjustments as a result of our current crises? Absolutely. Since the Industrial Revolution—and the accompanying prodigious migrations to urban areas from subsistence farms and across oceans—Americans have viewed cities as sources of congestion, pollution, crime, undue class competition, the spread of infectious diseases, and too harried a daily life. The idea of the garden suburb emerged in reaction to the squalor unleashed by industrial urbanization. And at least since the Transcendentalists, a bucolic setting has been considered ideal for family life.

Now that the possibility of enjoying a hospitable setting while remaining connected to jobs and centers of enterprise has finally become a reality (after having been predicted since the earliest days of the digital revolution), decisions about where to live and commercial investment in city centers will surely be affected. But even as we’re discovering that we can live and work “anywhere,” the inadequacies of life tethered only to home and computer monitors are being revealed. A rebalancing of the domains of work and life will continue, and will affect the planning of cities, especially with regard to density, but to what extent remains uncertain. Predictions about the future rarely come to fruition.

Oscillation between the allure of the city and the allure of living free of city stress has recurred throughout American history. The pandemic will certainly cause some people to seek a haven away from the hustle and bustle, or over anxiety about future pandemics. Still, since global institutions and economies will continue to advance with that metropolitan bias, many more people will continue to partake of all of the cultural riches found in great city centers than will flee for the promise of a safer, if less full, life.

 

Alex Krieger, Principal, NBBJ. Professor of Urban Design, Harvard University. Author of City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America From the Puritans to the Present.

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What’s the Value of City Master Planning?

A Conversation about the Imagine Boston 2030 Master Plan — and the Top Issues Facing Cities Today

November 7, 2017

Principal, NBBJ

Amidst a thriving economy and growing population, the City of Boston released its much-anticipated “Imagine Boston 2030” plan. Now that a broad range of perspectives and recommendations have emerged from the plan’s extensive public engagement, a discussion about the specific priorities identified, and how to marshal these to action, has begun — a discussion that mirrors those taking place in cities across the country.

On October 25, 2017, NBBJ hosted an informative debate about Imagine Boston 2030, along with:

Following are excerpts from that discussion. From healthcare and academia to commercial development and government, these experts highlighted the merits of the master plan — as well as the work that remains for us all.

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0041What is the value of Imagine Boston 2030 — or any master plan?

Dante Ramos:
“When we think of a master plan for a city, we sometimes think of zoning maps that say ‘this area will be 100 feet tall, and these uses will be allowed in this area.’ That’s not really what Imagine Boston 2030 is. This plan expresses more of an attitude toward growth, rather than decreeing precisely where it’s going to go. It describes a certain urban core and gradual improvements in quality of life, as well as enhancements in density and a move towards mixed uses.”

Joel Sklar:
“From our perspective, the master planning priorities outlined in documents like the 2030 plan are about what kind of neighborhood, what kind of vision do we collectively want to build together. Then we focus on the nuts and bolts of master planning: what should the streets look like, what should the sidewalks look like, what’s the mix of uses and what’s the density? From our perspective, those master plans have to take place at the local, community level. I think a broader visioning document like the 2030 plan is an appropriate context within which to really dig in at the neighborhood level to envision what happens.”

Valerie Roberson:
“To me, the value of a plan is the opportunity for people to discuss the data and what the data means. For Roxbury, it was a way to tap into industries outside of education. It allows us to respond in a way that’s appropriate for the students and the community that surrounds us — it certainly helps us to organize our plan within the larger plan for the city.”

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0023How has technology changed the way cities work?

Valerie Roberson:
“At Roxbury, partly because of the solar canopies we built, people started talking to us about smart building technology. We did the research, and there are not a lot of programs across the United States that talk about who’s going to run these smart buildings. We’ve made them high-energy-efficiency, but we are not training people to run them and not realizing the savings. So we’re building this program for the people who are going to run our smart buildings, to give them an opportunity to really contribute to the economy.”

Joel Sklar:
“One of the most impactful technology-related trends, not just in Boston but around the world, is Uber. It’s filling gaps in urban transit systems like Boston’s. We’ve gone from having to provide about 70 percent of our residential units with parking spaces to now somewhere around 30 percent. We were building large shopping destinations like Target woven into the fabric of the city, and we had to provide significant amounts of parking that are just not being used.”

Alex Krieger:
“I agree, although in the interim period there will be more congestion rather than less. Our cars, Uber cars and driverless vehicles will all be competing for space. Every transportation enhancement in history has made people want to move more and take more trips. The other half that will become important over time is ‘stuff coming to us,’ rather than ‘us going after stuff’ — whether jobs or meals or so forth. Hopefully that will lead to an ultimate reduction in the need to travel.”

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0075If technology is transforming mobility, what role will transit play in the future?

Tom Glynn:
“More people access Logan Airport via high-occupancy vehicles than at any other airport in the country, about 40 percent, mainly because of the Blue Line and the Silver Line. So we are very dependent on a successful transit system, both for our employees and our passengers. 17,000 people work at the airport, and most are probably coming in on the Blue Line or the Silver Line. And when I worked at Partners Healthcare, 40 percent of Massachusetts General Hospital employees took the Red Line to work. I think we sometimes underestimate how important transit is for the functioning of our major institutions — the airport and MGH being two good examples.”

Valerie Roberson:
“I’m from Chicago, and this is just my opinion, but a lot of the problems in Chicago are directly because of the lack of economic mobility caused by people not having equal access to transportation. Without that access, they have to create their own economies, and that erupts into all kinds of social ills. So I don’t think there’s too much emphasis you can put on a plan to make sure that cities ensure access to all populations. That’s an integral part of what we have to do as a city, to keep each other safe and to keep opportunity there for all citizens.”

Tom Glynn:
“When I was at the T, from 1989 to 1991, I had half the number of passengers and a thousand more employees. I think they’re doing a good job with the situation in which they find themselves, because we keep expanding the system, but the revenue base hasn’t kept pace with the expansion. I’m optimistic, but I think they have a lot of catching up to do.”

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0070What are the challenges to building affordable housing?

Joel Sklar:
“There’s been a pronounced and steady decline in resources available for the creation of affordable housing. An incredible amount of funding comes from the federal government, whether in the form of community block grants, low-income housing tax credits, Section 8, or HUD programs. They all trickle through the states and down to nonprofits and public housing authorities. Today there’s a goal of creating 53,000 housing units to keep up with demand in this market, but resources aren’t coming from the federal government. So there’s been a focus on harnessing the internal subsidy of a for-profit, market-rate apartment building, to build 13 or 15 percent of the units as affordable, but all the juice has been wrung out of those private deals throughout the last 10 or 15 years.”

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0097How can cities finance what they need?

Alex Krieger:
“If there’s no funding available from the feds, some other model has to emerge. There must be some way to gather resources from prominent institutions and developers for a broader goal, beyond the immediate benefit they provide on their own property.”

Joel Sklar:
“I would say, why are you asking developers and local institutions to finance it? Over the last ten years, the cost to build a high-rise apartment building has increased 60 to 70 percent, and the returns correspondingly have decreased dramatically. Already, projects are not going forward. We’re at such an inflection point that I don’t see that being a viable way to finance infrastructure. We won’t even say the word anymore, but why not think about taxation? Everybody benefits from overall infrastructure, beyond real estate developers and property owners.”

Alex Krieger:
“As a taxpayer, if I don’t see the major investors, developers, institutions — public and private — doing what they can towards a larger goal, then I’m going to resist my taxes going up. Maybe, just for image reasons, a coalition could make an initial contribution in hope to change the tax laws, or inspire venture capital, or whatever. There’s a sense from the population at large that we have to bear the cost, but others, that seem able to bear more, never rise to the level of the broad public good.”

 

NBBJ_Boston Salon-0948Is the future regional?

Alex Krieger:
“Some form of regional planning needs to emerge, because many of the issues that we complain about are not going to be solved within the municipal boundaries. Boston led the way to regional planning, when a bunch of Brahmins in the 1890s bought a bunch of land and became the Trustees’ Reservation, which eventually became the MDC, which controlled the parkways and waterways. So there are moments in American history when regionalism seemed to rise, but not enough of it is happening. More of it should. How? I don’t know.”

Joel Sklar:
“The notion that housing needs to be resolved in core neighborhoods is difficult. The cost to build a high-rise in Boston is $650 to $700 or more per square foot. A little further out, but still in Boston, a low-rise podium with stick-built housing is maybe $450 to $500 per square foot. Take that same project and move it to Somerville, or further along the rail corridors, and it’s $350 dollars per square foot. So there are inherent options in regionalization that we can’t, no matter how well we plan, address just within the core of Boston. Transit is obviously another issue that can’t be solved without a regional approach. Regional planning is critical.”

 

Banner image courtesy of PixabayAll other images courtesy of NBBJ.

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Will Driverless Cars Increase Congestion?

Awaiting the Driverless Car Revolution, with Tongue Slightly in Cheek

May 19, 2016

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This is the final post in a four-part series about the impact of driverless cars on design and planning. On Monday, Alan Mountjoy reported how BMW is planning for a disruptive future; on Tuesday, Donald Bellefeuille wrote about the health opportunities afforded by autonomous vehicles; on Wednesday, architects and planners from NBBJ shared some surprising impacts on a wide variety of topics. Thanks for reading!

 

Before we get to driverless cars, our newest hope for beating back urban auto congestion, we have to survive the Uber revolution. At the moment in Boston, for example, there are apparently more cars on the road than ever. Some of us may have left our cars at home for the convenience of Uber, while the growing number of Uber and Lyft drivers perusing the streets, along with remaining taxis, has worsened daily traffic.

The lesson being that, at least so far, advances in the technologies of personal mobility have tended to increase rather than alleviate urban congestion, just because more convenient personal mobility tends to increase the temptation to move about more often and to more places. So driverless cars no doubt (eventually) will diminish fender benders along with serious accidents; enable vehicles to move in closer proximity to each other, thus increasing flow; and lower the need for owning personal vehicles, given the ability to call one when needed , and then park it out of sight and mind. But they will not ultimately reduce congestion unless there is a corresponding reduction in the number of trips we may desire to take on a daily basis.

However, if we become accustomed to such conveniences to realize that we can get to more places more easily, safely and more often, then the expectation of a substantial reduction in vehicular miles may remain some time away. Perhaps Amazon’s fantasy of delivering to us all of its goods (and thus all we may ever need) via drones may indeed prove more of a limiter to personal travel.

Meanwhile, Tesla Motors, Terrafugia, a Slovakian company called AeroMobil and the founder of South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, are in a fierce race to introduce flying cars (unclear as yet whether piloted or not), with predictions of this being only a year-or-two away.

I’m personally holding out for the perfection of hydrogen-powered vehicles, driverless or not: at least that would finally take care of our little carbon problem.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

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What will Boston — and Other Cities — Look Like in 2030?

A Conversation with John Alschuler

January 4, 2016

Principal, NBBJ

I recently moderated a panel discussion about Imagine Boston 2030, the city’s first comprehensive planning effort in more than 50 years. One of our participants was John Alschuler, chairman of HR&A Advisors and the lead consultant for Imagine Boston. I’ve known John for a long time, and he agreed to introduce us to the challenges Boston faces as it embarks on this major initiative — challenges that are shared by many other cities across the country.

The following remarks have been edited and condensed from our discussion.

 


Can you recap how Boston got where it is today?

Boston began a decline in the 1950s along with many American cities. But it lost 30 percent of its population base; Philadelphia and Baltimore only lost 20 percent, and New York only 10. It’s not complicated to figure out what happened: Boston was more heavily dependent on manufacturing in an era in which manufacturing imploded, and the effect of race on Boston was more damaging than in many other cities.

In 1990, things began to change. Boston gradually recovered at a pace similar to other older, industrial northeastern cities. And then about five years ago, bam! The rate of growth became remarkable. Boston’s peers were no longer Baltimore or Philadelphia but San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, New York City — the places in which the economy of innovation, knowledge and lifestyle creates exponential gain.

And the rate of growth over the last five or six years has been extraordinary. Boston’s population grew by six percent, its economy by seven. And it’s a highly productive economy: the productivity of a worker in Boston today, compared to the productivity of the average American, adds $24 billion to the regional economy. Now the challenge is managing velocity.

 

What is the biggest challenge Boston will face over the next few decades? How does that challenge differ from other, similar cities?

The first thing is fundamentally creating an inclusionary city. This expansion creates benefits that are not widely or evenly shared — it benefits those who are capable of participating in a highly sophisticated economy.

I think a lot about Boston in the context of San Francisco, a series of fiercely territorial, very proud neighborhoods that are committed to their built form and that have made it difficult to expand housing supply. They’ve preserved their building stock, but it’s being occupied by a very different group of people than occupied those buildings 20 years ago. You don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to figure out what happens when a rapidly growing, high-income population meets a relatively static housing supply — housing price goes up dramatically, as much as 30, 40, 50 percent.

So Boston will have to grapple with two of its great historic strengths: the beautiful character and quality of life of its neighborhoods, and its pride of place. Those things can’t stand in the way of accommodating a growing city. It has to be an inclusionary pride of place, or we’ll preserve the physical city for a different group of people, which is what’s happening in San Francisco. The interesting question is, what are we trying to preserve, and how do we balance quality of life and neighborhood character with the city’s role as a place of inclusion and community?

 

Why does Boston face such difficulties with transportation and connectivity?

Boston’s transit system, the T, is designed for a very different economy than what is developing over the next 20 to 30 years. The new employment nodes — the Seaport, Kendall Square, Longwood — are not what this transit system was designed to serve. For a variety of reasons, the jobs aren’t where they used to be. That’s an enormously healthy thing, but the transportation system has to be modified to get people where they want to go, without taking three buses and two trains to do so.

One painful index that I think will develop is the relationship between income and travel time to work. Unfortunately, I have a feeling it will be the inverse of what you want — that the poorer you are, the harder it is and the longer it takes to get to work.

 

How can cities like Boston best utilize their waterfront?

There are many aspects of dealing with a city’s relationship to water. In New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC, a new generation of waterfront parks and open spaces have created new neighborhoods, new jobs and new sources of civic life that Boston has yet to accomplish.

But Boston’s challenge of living with water is different than other cities in two respects. First, Boston has a greater percentage of its economic assets at risk with climate change and sea-level rise than nearly any other American city. It’s a port town, so its historic assets, including some of its great universities, are awfully near water, placing a higher percentage of the city’s productive capacity at risk. Second, around three percent of Boston’s population lives in communities that are highly threatened by sea-level rise, and half of them are low-income, without the means to provide adequate protection for themselves.

The waterfront can be a greater, more widely shared stimulant to development, so that new houses and office buildings can be built with open spaces that people love and share, and that add value to the buildings. Right now, individual developers rush to get ahold of key waterfront sites to add value to their own property, as opposed to an organized planning framework in which many more people can get access to the water and share the resource more broadly, creating in the aggregate much greater real estate value and much greater economic stimulus to the community.

 

What is the role of civic government in this process?

Any plan, to have the benefits a city seeks, has to do two things. One, it has to be connected to the capital budget, to how the city allocates dollars for streets, schools, firehouses, parks — it has to be connected to a broader development agenda. Two, the city has to look very carefully at how it regulates and manages development. Zoning regimes in most cities have been in place for a very long time, but ultimately there must be a revision of the underlying process of entitlement and regulation so there is a set of rules and regimes that are connected to the plan. Boston’s mayor has committed himself to an open and transparent development process. He takes that commitment very seriously, and I think we’ve seen significant strides in that direction.

 

Are you optimistic about Boston’s future?

The great joy of Imagine Boston 2030 is that things we don’t believe are feasible today will be feasible in 2030. If you were doing a plan in 1980 or 1990, even in 2000, that would be a statement of faith. Today it’s not a statement of faith. It’s a statement of economics and a statement of a trend line. We have the gift of an imagination that wasn’t possible ten years ago. And that gives us an enormous opportunity.

 

Image courtesy of Rene Schwietzki/Flickr.

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A Mobility Reappraisal Early in the 21st Century

We Need to Distinguish Between the Desire and the Necessity for Travel

November 12, 2014

Principal, NBBJ

Last week I authored a post for the New Cities Foundation blog. I’ve been thinking recently that, while no one wishes mobility to be restricted, we have arrived at a point where a considerable percentage of our travel is caused by the very means by which we get around. As I wrote:

As a result of our faith in the conveniences associated with car ownership, we have created a scenario (certainly in the US and more recently elsewhere) where we must travel often and far, whether we wish to or not. The means to go further most anytime have expanded the geography of cities enormously, inadvertently compelling us to travel more. The proverbial seven-mile suburban auto trip for a carton of milk is an oft-used example. It is terrific that we can do so, but is this efficient, good for the planet, and must such a time consuming and air polluting journey be repeated endlessly? This is the “catch-22” for 21st century transportation planning: How do we continue to optimize mobility while not creating more and more — and redundant — need to travel distances?

… The re-imagining of mobility early in the 21st century, at least for urban areas, might hinge around three factors:

  • Promoting the conveniences of proximity, rather than the illusory convenience of being able to cover ever-longer distances to take care of our affairs.
  • Making peace with urban density, and renewing an appreciation for the pleasures and conveniences of a pedestrian life-style, where the car becomes a weekend’s amenity rather than a daily necessity.
  • Preparing for the era of “stuff coming to us,” rather than having to always travel for sustenance, jobs, products, or pleasure.

For the complete post, visit the New Cities Foundation.

Image courtesy of Mark Fischer/Flickr.

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There’s No Formula for Designing City Streets

How Boston’s Back Bay Succeeded Without a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

September 23, 2014

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This was adapted from a book review originally published in Landscape Architecture.

Designing good streets is of increasing importance, as our rediscovered interest in city life makes us recall that city streets were once places to be, not merely conveyers of motorized traffic. Indeed, it is hard to evoke a great urban scene without evoking special streets and public spaces. Yet today’s discussions, and even reassuring sound bites such as “complete streets,” tend to focus on technocratic solutions — painted bicycle lanes, curb bump-outs, boldly identified crosswalks and designated bus lanes. While an improvement over undifferentiated tarmac, such tactics stop short of the full intent of complete streets, which is not simply to enhance movement, even if now for a variety of mobility choices, but to create urban places.

There is no universal form for a great street (short of our touristic seductions for the meandering, walled-by-old-architecture, narrow, cobbled, car-free lanes of the preindustrial European city). Take Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, and draw a cross section though each of its six parallel streets.

I would start with Storrow Drive, too highway-like for some given its four restricted-access, speed-encouraging lanes absent any pedestrian accommodation, but providing an amazing urban experience, as one remains “trapped” between the Charles River and its green esplanade on one side, and the continuous five-story 19th-century urban wall on the other. It is always a visual pleasure to drive along, even when congested.

The next two — Beacon and Marlborough — are exclusively residential. Plenty of cars move along them, but they have a special domestic grace given the mature continuous street canopy; generous brick sidewalks; well manicured, narrow front gardens; and graceful stoops leading up to the bay-fronted, red brick townhouses, now subdivided into apartments by floor. No boutiques or Starbucks in sight, but a pleasure to walk or cycle along.

USA-Boston-Commonwealth_Avenue_Mall2-web

Commonwealth Avenue
(courtesy Ingfbruno/Wikipedia)

Next is Commonwealth Avenue — stately, elegant, calming, with its grand center greensward — holding its own spatially against any Parisian boulevard. Then comes Newbury Street, its opposite, with the lower floors of its masonry townhouses “bastardized” by all forms of modern shop fronts, front gardens converted to café seating. The coolest locals and most cosmopolitan tourists populate the somewhat narrow sidewalks by the thousands, and cars are in gridlock more often than not. For people-watching and -bumping-into (and expensive shopping), this is as Ramblas-like as you will find on this side of the Atlantic, offering an amazing counterpoint to sylvan Commonwealth Avenue a short block away.

Then there is Boylston Street, a lovely mess: lots of through traffic, remnants of traditional architecture on one side, mid-20th-century superblocks on the other, but full of life, enjoying shops, restaurants, businesses and ecclesiastic, cultural and civic institutions, all forming a rich mixed-use stew along one’s way. Oh, and there is a subway line running underneath.

Six memorable parallel streets, five completely different characters, even with a more-or-less similar continuous historic architecture as background. Throw away the cookbook. Sometimes, it is the throngs of people who matter most and the stuff that attracts them. In other places it is a special landscape, an architectural aura, spatial intimacy or generosity of scale, all better experienced with few people about. Still others convey a domestic tranquility, absent modern consumerist appendages like stores. Ingenuity in the design of special objects such as paving, seating, lighting and kiosks can add charm but are rarely what make the difference, and quality is not always measured by how many or how few cars abound. There is no single design formula. Among the constants: well-defined and suited to local functions, offering a spatial or human vitality, and providing a measure of pleasure.

USA-Boston-Newbury_Street0-web

Newbury Street
(courtesy Ingfbruno/Wikipedia)

The 20th century was not, for the most part, very good for the creation of humane streetscapes. We were too mesmerized by the possibilities of speed, personal mobility, mass production and similar promises of progress for the Modern Age. The idea of streets emphasizing pedestrian amenities seemed quaint, characteristic more of old small towns than of a contemporary metropolis. Sigfried Giedion, among the most powerful polemicists of the Modern Movement, even called for their elimination. Writing in Space Time, and Architecture during the 1950s, he proclaimed, “The first thing to do is to abolish the rue corridor.” Traditional streets for Giedion no longer served much purpose. He insisted that the design of the modern city required “bold saber strokes.”

American cities have suffered variously from the bold saber strokes administered over the past half-century and more. The challenge is to have us remember that streets serve as public places, not arteries alone. To compel the design professions and regulatory agencies to get more into the fray. To reserve “bold saber strokes” for the reintroduction of, say, bicycles. To employ design tactics that adapt our streets to the multiple needs of urban life rather than only to movement.

In a car or on foot along a dull street, we are concerned only with getting to a destination. But the seductions along an interesting path are what make pedestrian urbanism and city living so enjoyable. Our streets must certainly enable efficient, universal movement, but also move us by virtue of their humanitarian purpose.

Banner image courtesy of Rick Berk/Wikipedia.

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Put a Ring on It

It's Time to Connect the Spokes of Boston with Public Transit

November 13, 2013

Principal, NBBJ

On their respective banks of the Charles River, Boston and Harvard universities are separated by just a few hundred yards, but on the MBTA they are miles apart. To get from BU to Harvard Square requires heading downtown on the Green Line, then transferring to the Red Line, virtually reversing direction. Set out from Fields Corner in Dorchester to Brookline Village, less than four miles away, and you again face lengthy trips on two T lines.

As Bostonians know all too well, getting from point A to point B by public transportation often requires traversing two long sides of a triangle. Efficient commuting is not the only casualty. Our system disorients residents and visitors, and divides our community along social and economic lines.

This setup may have made sense when downtown was the only place one wished to go, but today there are multiple “hubs” beyond Park Street and Downtown Crossing. Savvy highway planners connected our radial roads decades ago with Route 128—“America’s Technology Highway”—then followed up with 495 for good measure.

When it comes to public transit, however, we’re still waiting for a circumferential line first envisioned a century ago. Arthur A. Shurtleff, son of a mayor of Boston and a prominent planner and landscape architect, warned about the missing rims for the radiating “spokes of the hub.” He drew a visionary plan for a light rail “Outer Boulevard” that aimed directly from Dorchester’s Fields Corner through Roxbury, the then barely present Longwood Medical Area, Brookline Village, and Allston Landing, and into Harvard Square. A more effective way to achieve social, economic, and transportation connectivity is hard to imagine.

In recent decades, advocates calling for a transit “Urban Ring” have championed versions that include northward arcs to intercept the Orange and Blue lines in Medford and Revere. The MBTA itself has identified an Urban Ring as one of its long-term objectives since the 1970s, but it remains just a plan.

For 100 years, we have been aware of an essential missing link in the city’s transit system. At this moment of new leadership in our city, let’s take a very old, smart, persistent idea and make it a reality.

This post originally appeared in The Boston Globe.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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