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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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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