I ride the bus. I don’t own a car. My family walks everywhere, from the grocery store to our baby’s day care center. I have a subscription to Citibike and use it widely. We are grateful for the free trolley service and do take the occasional Uber. Mostly, I do all those critically, thinking about the experience, comfort, location, design, accessibility and usage. I sat on a crowded bus a few days ago, and I made a point to look at the distribution of stops, the convenience of the service, the demographics of the users, and the design of cars and stops. While an overly aggressive and loud political shouting match went on aboard the bus, I thought about the arguments in the winner-take-all war between mass transit and the private car.

A few years back, I was involved in a discussion about car ads. A well-meaning friend, international leader of urbanism, complained that in her country the text for a car ad read “don’t smell like transit”. Don’t smell like transit. That’s harsh. The group concluded that it was a racist, classist, excluding text that did more harm than good. I disagreed. That text was merely exposing a pain -a very real, albeit a racist and classist one- and using it as a sales pitch. And it obviously worked.

Blaming the ad writers for exposing pains won’t make those pains go away. Advertisers conduct focus groups and surveys to define their sales strategies. And anyone who rides the bus would agree.

Comfort is severely compromised while riding the bus. The idea of efficiency of transit systems revolves around the location of stops and the continuity and reliability of service. Not on comfort. That is something we must work on. When was the last time that design contests were held for the redesign of the transit car? Do we ever talk about innovation in transit cars? Has any transit operator shifted to think of riding as an experience and designed it around the user?

Cleanliness is part of the experience and it is detrimental of overall comfort. Most transit advocates will point to the squeaky clean systems in Korea or Taiwan and the (almost) clean systems in Europe as a sign that local transit systems are doing it wrong by not investing enough. The world recently watched the 2018 World Cup. Japan was one of the 32 teams. Japanese fans cleaned the stalls after using the stadiums and the team cleaned the lockers after being eliminated from the tournament. No wonder their subway cars are impeccable. Europe? Not so much, but close enough for rock’n’roll, as they say. Perhaps that is not just a matter of investing more in cleaning.

Good Public health is in the interest of the whole community and one individual’s poor habits might end up endangering the community as a whole. Think anti-vaccine activists. Good habits are manifested in a person’s behavior in public places. Societies that have conquered inequality in terms other than just monetary have successfully motivated their entire population to crusade for good habits and good public health, thus creating a good shared experience in the public realm. That is manifested in the state of public facilities that are open to all and used by all.

All this brings us to the state of activism. We are fighting hard against huge money that moves the road-building and automotive industry. Big Motordom as some call it. But to take them on as equals is futile, as is to try to convince -or coerce- more people to deliberately walk into a bad experience by using an unattractive, uncomfortable and unreliable system and do it out of conviction.

We ought to design transit solutions as experiences. Design the service. Design the routes. Integrate the stops and the cars and the streets and the buildings. Put maps, apps and shenanigans to the service of the system. Turn drivers into ambassadors. Make each ride an amusement park ride. Put some color into boring, everyday commutes. Create experiences.

Naïve? Perhaps. But we have seen costs rise and ridership stall. Maintenance, cleanliness and service have declined. Budgets do not come near what is needed to revamp old systems with underpaid operators, fragile infrastructure and unreliable cars. There is the key. Budgets have gone up. $10.3 billion has been budgeted for transit agencies all over the country. We can either keep directing investments to the same -rather unsuccessful- strategies and use the formula-allocated, likely insufficient resources to underfund system overhauls or we could use them to redesign a substandard service into an experience. Would it hurt to try something new?

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In my work I have found three different ways in which experts read cities. First is through a struggle for power. Every aspect of urban life, be it public or private, ordinary or extraordinary, can be looked through a filter of domination, oppresion or colonization. Academics and intellectuals hold a virtual monopoly in this approach and the solution, more repeated by echo and redundancy than reached by creativity, curiosity and careful listening, is almost unequivocally said to be to increase the bulk of public policy and its accompanying institutions. Think of Barcelona or Quito.

The second is through the evolution of urban form and regulatory frameworks. The responsibility of shaping urban history, according to this view, belongs to politicians and those who have ended up doing their deeds: planners, developers, sports teams and other individuals or groups that configure the built environment and build community networks. Madrid or Buenos Aires might be good examples of that.

Finally, the city can be read it by looking at how it has improved humanity’s quality of life. Each discovery, invention or innovation tells the story of a brilliant mind and the surrounding ecosystem that helped their idea flourish. Florence, Bruges, Detroit or the Bay Area were not just random areas where a computer or a car were built and thrown into the market but bustling metropolises that had already reached boiling temperature and were growing incessantly when the first banker though it a good idea to fund a project, when the first business owner sold shares of his company, when Henry Ford started his assembly line or when Hewlett, Packard, Jobs, Musk et al made their first mistakes.

Those three ways of reading the city are not exclusive. They merely place the factors that define a city’s soul in different places. Depending on particular cases, each perspective can be interchangeable, overlappable and its (non existent) boundaries blurred at will. The first is an abstract view that can be endlessly discussed. To reach a final say, however, further data will always be needed. The second one charges the past and the dead with any present grievances. The problem is as long as there are dead people to shift the blame into, we are relieved of present responsibilities. The third, on the other hand, sees the story of achievements and real world progress as inspiration for the future. No intellectuals or politicians without skin in the game, just a celebration of mankind’s ingenuity and potential.

The first two have an external locus of control, which allows placing blames in external factors. The third one has an internal locus of control, which means that it gives people agency and recognizes their role in improving their own quality of life and with them the lives of their cities. How do you want to read your city?

“… to think of a persistent urban artifact as something tied to a single period of history constitutes one of the greatest fallacies of urban science.”

Aldo Rossi

 

Monuments do not define the character of a city or its people. They are, however, deeply ingrained in their history and attest to its growth, glory and gore. It is a society, at a particular point in time, that charges them with meaning and leans on them to move forward. By purging those monuments that are no longer cherished, societies aim to start anew. Most of us will remember the toppling of Lenins and Saddams after their regimes were overthrown and civil liberties were restored in their countries. The trouble is that bronze, marble and granite do not have a voice of their own, nor do they carry an immovable significance with them through the historical continuum. They merely echo the imaginary. Taking stones down without realizing (and effectively fixing) the complexities of their profound interaction with urban and social life does not prevent the resurgence of hate, dangerously symbolized by cleaned up, homogeneized, normalized figures from an horrific past.

Monuments tend to signify different things at different points in time and they may endure or disappear but their locus remains. The footprint of monuments in history is not tied to their physical existence but to the amalgam of volitions, decisions and stories that had them built in the first place and those that keep them relevant through time. That is what we know as Permanence. As Rossi argues, we – and the cities that we shape and shape us in return – tend to seek evolution rather than preservation, and in that process, “monuments are not only preserved but continuously presented as propelling elements of development.”

Permanence is closely tied to Place. Landmarks persist and become part of the collective image of the city because they have both grown with it and watched it grow. In that sense, they play a role quite similar to the ties that the people have to Place when it is collectively thought, collectively built and collectively taken care of.

The meaning of an artifact is what we make of it when we own it and lean on it to look towards the future. The inspiration to walk in the virtuous direction of what a monument reminds us of, or the lessons to be learned from its history so we do not repeat it are what give them a relevant place in our time.

As a society we are faced with the decision of whether to do away with uncomfortable symbols or lean upon the scars they left in our history to move forward, united. History does not change if we choose to ignore it, and the future is not guaranteed if we silence the past, grueling and offensive though it may be. Cities and societies can only get stronger if we strengthen our ties to Place and its landmarks.

For some it is a given, specially in the wake of Charlottesville, that monuments will come down. But the ghost of hate will still loom after taking down what symbolizes it. Reminders of a violent past are necessary, not least because they are part of a process that now affords us the liberty to reclaim that past and remove those edifices. But memory is the stuff cities are made from. Let’s not crush it, lest we forget how to build the places that house it.

For further reading on the matter, I’ve taken the liberty of excerpting from Aldo Rossi’s The Architecture Of The City his reflection on monuments and permanence. I respectfully recommend reading more than this excerpt for a great overlook on the significance of urban artifacts through time and the importance of monuments for the evolution of the city and its dwellers.

How we interact with food defines how we interact with Place. From the night markets in Southeast Asia to coffee at a stall in the Egyptian Bazaar in Istanbul to Hot dogs at a street vendor’s cart in New York City, Place is built around the culture of street food. The last time I looked at the powerful Placemaking capacities of place names and how folklore adds identity to Place. Food is, perhaps, as powerful if not more at the time of forging identities and making places recognizable, enjoyable and memorable.

Below are three stories that link food and Place that caught my attention today. First is chef Michael Solomonov, who places the value of belonging at a high priority. Then comes Foodlink, a food bank that has close ties, invests in and gives back to the local economy, and last but certainly not least, a story about markets, from the primitive civic places where producers would sell their goods to supermarkets and the resurgence of the farmers market.

How we buy and sell food is a reflection of the values we have as a society and an activity that informs our Placemaking efforts.

Folklore plays a critical role in how people see their places and how they project themselves in it. Place names are lockets full of stories that explain history and processes of apropriation. Dr. Sharon Blackie weaves two beautiful stories of how the Apache and the Irish relate to Place. She argues that “The myths and stories of place can help the establishment of enduring bonds between individuals and the natural world.” By naming their surroundings, communities channel the collective wisdom that allows their members to find their identities and make the world better with their unique contribution. So, could it be that finding one’s purpose and identity is directly related to belonging, engaging and contributing to community and Place?

To paraphrase Fred Kent, it takes a community to find an individual’s identity and many individuals to create a community.

I have just read Prof. Richard Florida’s article, based on a recent University of Chicago/UC Berkeley study of land use regulations stifling productivity on a whooping 9% of GDP per year. Prof. Florida argues that where not for that decrease in productivity, the Rust Belt and other hard hit areas would be far worse off. I have a few comments, for which I do not presume to have a final say, so I will leave them as questions.

  1. Wouldn’t New York’s or San Francisco’s potential triple digit growth rates be good for the environment, since everyone would choose those metropolitan areas and most of the country’s greenfields would be left alone?
  2. If we agree to the premise that land use regulations have reduced productivity and that metros like NYC or SFO would otherwise be even more attractive, does that necessarily mean that every company in the country would flock there, leaving the rest of the country deprived of any productivity and ravaged with poverty?
  3. Are we saying that the only reason recovery is underway in the Rust Belt is because large cities have been reined in by regulation? Isn’t that view contemptuous of the efforts of smaller cities and towns by assuming that every victory they get on the econ dev department is due to land use regulations in cities far away?
  4. Does the boost for Sun Belt cities that makes them more attractive regardless of their wasteful land use patterns and unsustainable dependence on air conditioning worsen negative environmental effects?

 

Tim Cook is no titan of industry. Judging by its new introverted headquarters, Apple doesn’t look like a very urbane company, either. But to the chagrin of many, including City Lab editors, they might feel at home at their new store’s proposed location at the Carnegie Library building in Mount Vernon Square in Wahington, D.C. Apple’s contribution to urban life could be greater than expected, if they put their minds into trascending retail in favor of community building.

The Carnegie Library is part of a group of beautifully crafted buildings that came to serve as cultural hubs between the last half of the 19th century and the first decades of the 1900s. The Boston Public Library and its New York counterpart in Bryant Park are great examples of publicly funded cultural amenities. But this cohort also has other members that were funded privately, with over 2,500 libraries around the world underwritten by Andrew Carnegie alone.

Apple’s recently announced plans are to transform the Mount Vernon square library into a new typology of global flagship store. Times change and gadget buyers use stores to try devices on for size for later purchase at online stores. The retail value of storefronts, especially technological ones is diminishing. It’s the brand value creation that companies are after. The global flagship store that Apple envisions promises, in the words of Angela Ahrendts, their senior VP for Retail, to be a cultural and educational facility as much as a showroom framed in the experience economy. They are even dropping the “store” from the name, to focus on creating a destination.

From great libraries in Amsterdam and Aarhus we have learned that in the age of cheap books and cheaper internet, their mission has to evolve in order to survive. And some have done it by becoming a destination for diverse publics and making the city around them safer and more inclusive. They have turned into community hubs where people meet in tea shops, coffee houses or just the foyer; where children and adults can learn in worskshops, where maker spaces welcome new economies and where culture is alive in the form of theater, concerts or poetry readings. The typology of the library is in constant evolution as it acquires the characteristics of a Place.

If we look at both by function alone, we would find many similarities between what a library is in 2017 and Apple’s proposed new outlets. Save for ownership, we might be headed for a new iteration of urban gathering places where public and private dissolve into Place. That in itself would be an entirely new mission for Apple and its retail department.

Users and usage notwithstanding, there is a difference between ownership and property. And the private property of public spaces is a very sensitive issue. Mount Vernon Square must remain public property and continue to be open to the public, by all means. That is not part of this discussion. The proposed use of the building is. And whether Apple is a worthy steward of the Nation’s Heritage, Washington, D.C’s first desegregated building, the cultural baggage of the space, and an architectural gem from the Gilded Age.

I believe it will be. The New York Landmarks Conservancy seems to think so as well, given that in 2016 it presented Apple with its Chairman’s Award for conservation of the built heritage in Manhattan. Apple has a clean record of respect for history and the public realm, not only in the US but in very sensitive historic contexts like Paris, where the store sits across from the Palais Garnier, Paris’ famous Opera House.

But this is hardly a defense of Apple. The case in point might involve the tech giant and the particular D.C. store but it is a matter of how we reach the solutions that our cities so desperately need. Population grows and housing becomes increasingly unaffordable. Large swathes of city dwellers are pushed out of the more dynamic urban cores into sprawling suburbs where the overall cost of each library, concert hall or cultural center is larger per capita than close to the center, and companies pay much less taxes per acre than in central cities. Local governments are cash-strapped and the quality of their service declines.

As we prepare for dwindling public endowments for culture and arts, it’s worth to look at the structure of funding of these activities across the country. A recent report by the World Cities Culture Forum finds that in US cities, private sponsorship makes up an overwhelmingly large percentage of culture financing, which includes libraries. Much like in the age of Andrew Carnegie, business owners otherwise known as “robber barons” were actually dedicated patrons of the arts. There are several museums, parks, concert halls and libraries to attest to their generosity. 

There wouldn’t be a lot of arguments in favor should a building of such significance be turned into a regular retail outlet. Some private space dedicated to profit making within a building that will remain open to the public with active, community-building content seems like fair price in exchange for additional tax revenues and new exciting public uses. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that private money goes to add civic value. Philantropists have done it since “The Gospel of Wealth” and modern-day billionaires like Bill Gates continue the trend.

Since the closing of the short-lived City Museum of the D.C. Historical Society, City Lab reports, the recurring question has been what to do with the Carnegie Library. Public funds to update its original use to 2017 standards might be hard to come by.

A solid first step towards social inclusion, cultural development and prosperity in cities and towns is to acknowledge that things happen when there is a partnership of mutual respect between public and private initiative. The people benefit from shade and fresh air from a public park whether its funding came from a bank, a nonprofit or a local government. Gems like Paley Park and the Morgan Library were given to New York City by private support from corporate chums. Inclusive places that restore dignity can happen anywhere, funded by anyone, and neither the public nor the private sector should have a monopoly over caring for others. 

So this is my challenge to Apple. Prove to the world that your new retail concept goes further than just adding amenities to your showrooms. Be the gentle corporate giant and show how a real Placemaking process from the private sector can be as beneficial as a public one. Give back to the city whose heritage you benefit from. Let us believe that for Tim Cook & Co., Historic Preservation is more than just a marketing gimmick. Create a Place and not just another store.

I believe in the power of Place to contribute to inclusive, prosperous cities and to create wealth, opportunity, and governance. Firms like Apple have at their disposal tools with tremendous possibilities to make better cities for all. These types of partnerships where a big corporation engages in placemaking practices that benefit the general public will add value to society as a whole. They show us that diversity is good also when it’s part of a conversation between public and private initiatives. They can confirm that Placemaking is not the exclusive responsibility of government but rather an ethical obligation of both sectors to work together and improve our quality of life.