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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Recalibrating Our Streets

What Types of Mobility Do We Want to Prioritize?

February 5, 2020

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in ArchitectureBoston.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to return from a trip to Europe with a fresh perspective on urban life. But having recently traversed Copenhagen, Denmark, I’ve begun rethinking the role of Boston’s streets. The city’s fabulous organic street grid is similar to those in Europe that were built around walking, horse carriages, and the proverbial conversion of “cow paths” into modern streets. Boston’s crooked streets, like those of many medieval town centers, have served to make it one of the nation’s most walkable cities, but compared to Copenhagen, it remains remarkably focused on automobile traffic.

Copenhagen was not always a mecca for cyclists. After a long history leading up to and including the Second World War, when cycling was the dominant form of transportation, cycling in Denmark declined after increased prosperity saw an uptick in automobile usage. Danish urban planners — like other planners around the world — built urban expressways through poor neighborhoods and expanded lanes for cars to improve traffic flow. The result was a precipitous decline in cycling to less than 20 percent of travel in the late 1950s and 1960s.

The energy crisis of the early 1970s saw a reversal of this decline, and the introduction of Car Free Sundays in Copenhagen — to save fuel — was so popular that it sparked a movement to restore cycling as a serious mode of travel. Since the 1960s, Copenhagen has constructed about 250 miles of cycle paths separated from car lanes and sidewalks. Bicycles outnumber cars 7-to-1; a 2016 survey counted 267,700 daily bike trips compared with 252,600 for cars.

Despite modest progress, Boston is still many years behind Copenhagen in adapting its streets to uses other than for private vehicles: Washington Street and Summer Street as pedestrian promenades that largely exclude traffic; bus-lane experiments to improve flow during rush hours; bike lanes and Commonwealth Avenue’s newly completed off-road bikeway.

One illustration of Boston’s evolutionary thinking in roadway design can be found on Causeway Street. In 2007, Boston was beginning its Crossroads program, intended to reknit the city across the newly built Rose F. Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway with pedestrian-friendly corridors. The staff at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (now called the Boston Planning & Development Agency) and a consultant team I was leading envisioned Causeway Street at North Station looking much like Dewey Square at South Station — where nearly 100,000 daily transit riders swarm the plaza every morning and evening.

Even though North Station has fewer riders than South Station, the station puts no less of a strain on Causeway Street during rush hours. We pictured Causeway Street as a gateway to welcome commuters entering and leaving the station, and improve the retail experience along the narrow sidewalks. But halfway through the design phase, the City received federal funding for the Connect Historic Boston Trail, which envisioned an off-street bike loop circling downtown and running the length of Causeway Street to connect the North End with Beacon Hill. The utilitarian result, built in 2014, is a two-way bike lane oddly running down the middle of the road without access to the stores or amenities along the street edges. Nor is there much in the way of aesthetic improvements or areas for landscape treatments.

At the time, the design community I spoke to was disappointed that the implementation of the Connect Historic Boston Trail had precluded the chance for Causeway Street to be a more beautiful gateway to the city. Today, The Hub on Causeway, a mixed-used development, is finally nearing completion, with the recent opening of a Star Market in September. Could the street yet again be up for rethinking as a gateway as well as a bike corridor? Ten years later, what would we build, and would it be different this time?

Causeway Street came to mind on my recent trip to Denmark. Much like Causeway, the generous bike lanes in Copenhagen, while providing some of the safest streets for cyclists, come at great cost to other amenities within the public realm. For example, few of the roads in this famously bike-friendly city have any street trees, and pedestrian sidewalk widths are narrow, some might say minimal, often forcing pedestrians to travel single-file past parked bicycles and outdoor seating. On-street parking is likewise absent on main thoroughfares. So, while Copenhagen is graced with fine and colorful architecture — which goes a long way to ameliorate the loss of trees — the dominant gray of asphalt, the relative space allocated to the various forms of mobility, and the lack of aesthetics speak to a rather single-minded optimization for ways to get around, with cyclists generally the largest users of street space.

Would Bostonians agree to such a bargain if it meant narrower sidewalks and the loss of landscaped areas throughout the city? Given the emerging green agenda — the desire to reduce heat islands and treat stormwater flows — a new range of priorities is emerging in Boston for the limited amounts of public rights of way. Another contender is the seemingly endless space needed for Uber and Lyft vehicles that perpetually clog travel lanes while they drop off or pick up passengers. Parcel deliveries from online shopping are also increasing: New York City, for example, recently reported that more than 1.5 million packages are delivered each day, clogging roadways with double-parked trucks.

Copenhagen has doubled down on the bike, and the results are spectacular in terms of reducing vehicle use within the city and therefore its carbon footprint — it is on target to be carbon neutral by 2025. Although Boston has made modest progress toward improving alternative forms of mobility, the facts are not encouraging: Between 2012 and 2017, the population in Boston grew by 7 percent, but household vehicle ownership in Boston rose by 15 percent. While some of this increase may be a result of off-street parking lots constructed as part of new housing developments, on-street parking remains a nearly sacred right in some of our most crowded and historic neighborhoods. In many of these neighborhoods without access to reliable transit — Dorchester, for example — it is painstakingly difficult to remove parking from streets in order to make room for bike lanes, bus lanes, or green spaces.

In Boston’s diverse neighborhoods, notions of a “complete street” may vary. Boston has complete-streets guidelines that attempt to balance the needs of drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. But our narrow streets often demand prioritizing between an even wider set of goals. Advocates have competing priorities not only for street space but also for public funds that are needed to rebuild streets. Right now Boston and the Commonwealth have a host of challenges to address; how important is carbon reduction relative to an affordable-housing crisis or a failing transit system or sea-level rise?

Ultimately, recalibrating our streets is dependent on discussions far beyond a complete-streets manual. For example, a functioning transit system is essential to provide an adequate alternative to the private car. Despite the claims made by transit-network companies — Lyft, Uber — car ownership and traffic volumes continue to rise, at least in Boston. In the absence of an efficient rapid-transit backbone, can we downsize vehicle lanes without a serious backlash? Adequate transit can bring down car ownership rates and free up street space for other uses (and also lower the cost of housing). Only once an efficient transit system is in place can our streets be reconsidered for these other priorities: bikeways, sidewalk cafés, rain gardens, shade trees, or curb drop-off spaces for ride-share and delivery vehicles.

Sharing the road means first understanding what types of mobility we want to prioritize. Then we need to fund our infrastructure in order to achieve a Boston street that may look different from one in Copenhagen, but one that will reflect our values as Bostonians.

Banner image courtesy Febiyan/Unsplash.

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To Get to Net Zero, Cities Need to Think Wider Than Buildings

Cities Have to Embrace District-Wide Net Zero Solutions to Create Change at a Scale That Will Make a Difference

January 15, 2020

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Smart Cities Dive.

The city of Boston has recently made headlines for an ambitious new plan that mandates all new city-owned buildings to be carbon neutral, part of a wider plan for the city to achieve net zero status by 2050. The attention on this announcement and the framing of net zero makes sense — finally, there is a sustainability goal for the city that people could fully grasp and get behind, a readily understandable and appealing arithmetic proposition that the city’s buildings will eventually produce as much energy as they use.

The challenge, of course, isn’t in getting people excited about the prospect of going net zero — fervor around the term has grown with the number of buildings that meet the standard. The challenge is preparing cities for what it’s going to take to actually make net zero a realistic possibility.

An ambitious goal like Boston’s requires a total overhaul in how we think about sustainability, at every level of impact. The changes must go beyond recycling, using LED light bulbs, and even constructing net zero buildings, since individual buildings or projects can only go so far. Cities will have to embrace bigger, district-wide or neighborhood-scaled solutions that create change at a scale that will make a difference.

The city already has a good model for district energy looks like in practice with the Kendall Station power plant in Cambridge [PDF]. For years waste heat was dumped from the cooling processes of the plant’s generating turbines into the Charles River basin. The resultant overheated river water produced large algae blooms, making the river waters toxic to not only wildlife but also humans who came in contact with the algae. By virtue of a mutual agreement, today waste steam heat from the power plant is piped across the Charles River to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where it is used for heating the campus in the winter and to sterilize equipment year-round. The proximity of a large hospital physical plant, which had the unusual need for steam 12 months of the year, to the power plant was a fortuitous urban condition and demonstrated the beauty of thinking about district-wide solutions for achieving net zero.

Examples like this demonstrate how we need to change the way we think and talk about sustainability. As an architect and city planner, I’ve seen time and time again how the way we communicate an idea is a powerful tool for helping people feel like they can tackle daunting problems. It’s also true that rhetoric can have the opposite effect. Solutions at the scale of the city tend to be complex. They don’t carry the catchy recognition of a well-marketed phrase like “net zero,” but they do make it possible for net zero to be a feasible goal.

I learned this firsthand during my time on the Getting to Net Zero Task Force in Cambridge. In 2015, the Cambridge City Council approved the Net Zero Action Plan, a 25-year proposal that will get Cambridge to net zero by 2040 — the result isn’t just talk but real policy, embodied in the city‘s net zero zoning. To make this work, we understood that the definition of net zero needed to be expanded. Solutions come in myriad form, including accessing green energy from out of state. After all, creating a market for non-CO2-producing energy sources outside the boundaries of one’s own city helps the planet at large. In Cambridge these offsets absolutely count towards netting out a building’s carbon footprint. So daisy-chaining energy production in neighborhoods, and yes, designing homes and buildings with an eye to energy savings so it is ultimately easier to net out the energy use with clean production need to be strategies too.

Approaching sustainability as a set of steps and achievable benchmarks can take away some of the daunting magnitude of the task at hand. In Cambridge, for instance, the city started by putting its money where its mouth was. The city is requiring all government buildings — firehouses, police stations and schools, for example — to be net zero by 2025. Next, we’ll tackle the biggest, most energy-sucking buildings — laboratories — with the goal of getting them to net zero by 2030.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. In Seattle, for example, Amazon’s new downtown headquarters captures waste heat from a non-Amazon-owned data center on an adjacent block to reduce their own energy consumption. It’s just one company, and an area of only a few blocks, but it’s an important proof-of-concept that points the way forward. On an even larger scale, the United States Department of Energy has launched a Zero Energy Districts Accelerator program that is currently piloting projects in Denver, St. Paul, Buffalo, Huntington Beach and Fresno.

Designers and architects are well positioned to push net zero forward. The job is to imagine futures that don’t exist today, to generate creative solutions that speak to all of the above-mentioned scales. District-wide solutions to energy prove that, if we work together, even more powerful and kaleidoscopic solutions are possible for our mind-boggling and seemingly impossible environmental challenges. The solutions to climate change can be remarkably beautiful and may even lie in some pretty old-fashioned values, like building strong communities, relying on our neighbors and believing that design matters.

Banner image courtesy Nelson48/Wikipedia.

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