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On Not Living The American Dream

Dante's 10th Layer.

This Washington Post article and this piece got me thinking about the “American Dream” again.  I no longer own a car. I do not own a house.  Since I sold my car in June, trips take a bit more planning, but I feel a strange peace without the prospect of gas/insurance/repair expenses looming on the horizon. As far as a home, I rent a rowhouse the size of which would make most people who live in a detached single family house laugh.

The fact that I can bike or take a bus to work and not sit in 40 minutes of traffic makes me more content than a bigger home ever could.  But this wasn’t a concept I was brought up with. It came from actually living in places where the only means of getting anywhere was to drive. When the car was in the shop, a massive rescheduling of my life occurred which involved friends, family and neighbors taking me where I needed to go – not to mention the hassles of getting to and from the repair shop and the hostage situation where the mechanic tells you some bullshit about your flux capacitor needing a new solenoid hyperdrive.

My point is that our traditional metrics of success are outdated. They frame ideas about contentment around material goods.  Lifetime employment at a single employer is a thing of the past. New opportunities or a sudden layoff may require you to relocate across the globe with a few months notice. Your car, once thought of as a beacon of freedom and possibilities, is now recognized as riddled with negative health, safety and environmental externalities. Other things, like having a park around the corner, a tight-knit, social neighborhood, a shorter commute, or a grocery store within walking distance have more power to improve my life than a 4th bedroom ever could. The average 100 hours a year spent commuting (Baltimore has one of the highest rates of “extreme commuting” of more than 90 minutes each way) could be better spent even if you just tied your shoe laces over and over again during the time it took you to drive.

Baltimore lost 400,000 people in half a century.  Some of these people left for the American Dream. I’m willing to bet a subset of this population found the dream somewhat empty.  Selling Baltimore as a place where one could be free of car ownership would offset our huge property tax burden for owners. Renters, on the other hand, would find the city way more affordable than the suburbs. Being free from the steel chains of cars, both renters and owners wouldn’t have to deal with nightmare parking situations in places like Federal Hill and Canton.

This all depends on employment location, though. As I’ve said before, keeping and attracting new jobs downtown and in our neighborhoods makes transit systems way more efficient.  Dense employment centers have huge transportation benefits as they are more accessible by rail, buses, and are walkable/bikeable from adjacent neighborhoods. Not to mention the creative benefits that come with having complimentary and/or diverse skill sets in one place (see “Clustering“). The diffusion of employment out to the counties was another hit the city took as it hemorrhaged people through the decades.

As Bob Dylan said, the old road is rapidly agin’.  And the American Dream is shifting to something less definable and material than a 4 bedroom house and an Oldsmobile.

Update: Author James Kunstler, though his acidic style grows tiresome, has a presentation on TED. I think the viewer comments below the video are more interesting than the presentation itself.

**Thanks for the Mobbie nomination in the Baltimore Sun!**

Cities! Stop trying to be like the suburbs.

Baltimore - early 20th century

The recent article in the Baltimore Sun about the failed Madison Park North apartment complex got me thinking about suburbs. Yes, the suburbs, and how all the cities wanted to be like them during a good chunk of the 20th century. Like the suburbs were the popular high school football stars and all the cities were the nerdy kids who bought the football jerseys which didn’t really fit them, but wore them anyway.  And then they got beaten up for it. My point is this; cities should be cities. Embrace it. Don’t be ashamed of it. Don’t be something you’re not. And sometimes, suburban design backfires in a big way in urban environments.  A few local examples:

Garden Apartments – low density, multi-family dwellings surrounded by landscaping and parking lots. In Baltimore, a lot of great Victorian rowhomes were replaced with garden apartment complexes, and in some instances they work, but like in the case of Madison Park North, they often act as secluded, anonymous beehives of criminal activity in transitional neighborhoods – bringing nearby blocks down with them. Part of the crime problem comes from building set backs which make entrances and common areas less visible from the street, and also limited street connections which isolate these apartments.  The ugly, barracks style modernist architecture which flies in the face of nearby historic buildings doesn’t help, either.  In less-than-great neighborhoods, look up some crime maps and you’ll often see these garden apartment locations lit up like Chevy Chase’s house in National Lampoons Christmas Vacation with all sorts of offenses.  Mixed income projects, like Albermarle Square, which maintain the street grid pattern and provide individual, highly visible building entrances are better alternatives.

Seton Hill. This cul-de-sac became dangerous partially due to its secludedness.

Cul-de-sacs and street barriers – urban streets want to be connected. People want options, and streets need activity to be safe. Dead-ending streets may make for a pretty photograph for a post card, but they also limit circulation, create dead space and dark places, and frustrate police and emergency responders. The former cul-de-sac at Orchard St. and Pennsylvania Ave. in Seton Hill is an excellent example of a planner 30 years ago trying to bring some Oscar Newman style Defensible Space concepts to the city. But dealers in the city don’t need cars to do business (at least they’re traveling sustainably), so trying to block drug traffic by putting auto barriers up is useless.  In certain situations, you want to encourage through traffic, not eliminate it.

Office Parks – When originally built, State Center created a gaping hole between 6 or 7 neighborhoods with monolithic office buildings which were completely functionless at street level, excessively wide streets and huge blocks, and a single use function (work) which made the place empty after 5pm. As Lewis Mumford said, superblocks are the soulless invention of commercial capitalism.  Charles Center, though it included a theatre and some retail, oriented its uses away from the street and toward the inner courtyard.  In cities, people want to do a lot of different things all in one place. Designs should be open and outward, encouraging activity around the perimeters of blocks and facing the street.  In suburbs, streets are less important than the center. In cities, the street is everything. Luckily, redevelopment plans for both of these projects get this.

Taking up what could be a prime development parcel, this landscaped corner doesn't even qualify as a park.

Landscaping - Walking down Pratt St. is a great example of suburban landscape architecture imposed on what should be an active, urban street.  Yes, we all know trees and plants are good, but that doesn’t mean they should compensate for blank walls, block views of the harbor, and fill up prime downtown corners which could be developed and put on the tax rolls. More isn’t necessarily better, and an inactive, poorly designed alley of trees can do more harm than good. The Pratt Street Redevelopment Plan shows some potential for correcting some of these things and making Pratt into a more active, urban street.

Lighting - Light this baby up. There are enough dark-sky friendly lighting designs out there to make even the most glassy eyed star watcher satisfied. Baltimore is too dark at night. Our neighborhoods, and our iconic monuments and buildings.  Lights improve safety, identify buildings of importance, bring tourists and residents out at night, and create a sense of excitement. The countryside should be dark. Cities should be ignited.

Links: Download “Creating Defensible Space” – Oscar Newman

State DOTs: Why don’t you try walking on your own roads sometime?

PBS has a great segment on suburban transportation problems. I spent a few years living in places like the one featured in the video, and while Baltimore can do a much better job in accommodating alternate modes, the suburbs of Atlanta give new meaning to the phrase, “made for cars”.  As described in the video, a growing percentage of car-less households are living in the suburbs. Most of these places are ill-suited and down right dangerous to live in without being protected by a few thousand pounds of steel.

The bureaucracy of state DOTs is part of the problem.  There are three issues with the current system:

  • AASHTO has way too much power in directing federal transportation policy. Although they pay lip service to alternate modes, they mostly lobby for the status quo which heavily favors auto capacity expansion.
  • Rural interests are over-represented when state politicians divide up transportation money.
  • Suburban politicians, engineers and planners have to jump through hoops with state DOTs to convert their roads into more walkable, bikeable, transit friendly places. Unlike Baltimore, most suburban communities don’t have design authority over their most dangerous roads because the state, rather than municipalities, has control of these roads. Depending on the relationship between the city and the state DOT, this can either make for a good partnership, or a bitter battle which ultimately ends in the municipality caving in to a state mandated status quo.

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.

Ellen Dunham-Jones Video: Converting Suburbia

Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of “Retrofitting Suburbia” and professor of Architecture at Georgia Institute of Technology, talks about converting dying suburban malls and strip centers into vibrant, accessible places. There are quite a few struggling suburban-style shopping centers in Baltimore which could use this sort of treatment (Port Covington is one example).