Urban Design After Oil

On the 50th anniversary of the historic and influential Rockefeller funded conference on urban design criticism at the University of Pennsylvania, attending by such current and future urban stars as Ian McHarg,  Lewis Mumford, William L.C. Wheaton, Catherine Bauer Wurster, Jane Jacobs, IM Pei, and Kevin Lynch, the university and foundation paired up again to present this weekend’s conference, “Re-imagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil.”  

The main underlying theme was planning for climate change (which also happens to be the special theme of a future special issue of JAPA, to be coedited by Penn’s John Landis and yours truly.  The call should be out before long).

You may find this strange but I was asked to attend not as a scholar and leader among women and men but as a “blogger,” along with several others, and so I did.  I mean, it’s a formal acknowledgement of my elevated coolness among my so-called peers.  In the spirit of the assignment, we posted almost real time reports on the sessions on the site of Next American City.  My posts are also below, but they don’t really make much sense separate from a close reading of the program, if they make any sense at all, and they likely work best in conjunction with the other blog coverage.  At some point, the recorded sessions will be available for your review.  I’ll update this page then.

Since this is a research blog rather than, say, a running commentary on my dog or cat (who ran away, so that would be mostly speculative anyway), and I was free to type whatever came into my pretty little head, I tended away from pure summaries of what I heard — though there is some of that — and toward the questions that came to mind.  There was an emphasis on getting something out and about ASAP, faster than I think for example, so the reports are brief, selective, rough, and so on.  Any comments you might have would fit best on the Next American City site, since that is where this virtual community visits and interacts.

p.s. Since I was asked at the end of the conference to take a minute to reflect on this experience, and had nothing to add beyond what I’d written, let me try again:  I tried to be attentive to both the substance and gaps of what I heard, and to keep my reactions critical, intuitive and conversational — but not overly judgmental.  Given the need to be quick about it, this was harder than I’d expected.

From first to last…


Post #1

Is admitting you have a problem the first step toward recovery?

Or just a confession?

Nov 7th at 12:37pm

Full disclosure: I’m here under false pretenses.  I’m no journalist.  I am a teacher and ivory tower kind of guy, with an amateur, unsupervised blog on the side for venting excess research steam.  That blog is about what we don’t know about how cities work, succeed and fail, followed by unprocessed (and un-reviewed) brainstorming about how we might know more.  It is about clarifying the questions, first, and the credibility of our attacks on those questions, second. 

For that purpose, big questions with weak literatures work best.  Climate change and urban design will do nicely.

This is an interesting set of issues not least because in many minds the solutions are already fairly clear, so the issue then becomes how to get there.  I am deeply curious how far beyond this conventionally primitive assessment this conference will take us.


The opening session included a brief presentations from Gary Hack, the immediate past dean of Penn Design, and Judith Roden, president of the sponsoring Rockefeller Foundation and past president of Penn, who set the stage by reference both to the 1958 Penn/RF conference—given credit for various influential late 20th century urban design initiatives—and the oil and urban crises of the 70s, and so on.  Both linked these continuing challenges and debates to the challenges of the new century, not least climate change.

The first panel aimed to clarify the extent and nature of climate challenges. 

Kolbert reminded us of many of the central trends, and some implied policy directives.  Najam further emphasized the distributional consequences of these issues, along several dimensions.  There are lots and lots of constituencies with competing goals.  There are winners and losers, and transition issues.  That is, there are economic, political, and social tradeoffs.  While Orr challenged politicians to do the right thing, and assessed the problem as the consequences of our behaviors partly explained by priorities and distorted incentives, Najam implicitly clarified the difficulty of this and what that suggests about the prospects for real change.  (His slide presentation was distractingly animation-heavy though.)


What I am not hearing are serious proposals for institutional and political reform, or even discussions of the feasibility of such efforts.  I suppose the function of this opening panel is to put the key concerns and questions on the table for discussion in the breakout sections. 

But in the very brief audience Q&A, a question from William Rees nailed a similar point in saying something along the lines of: “I’m concerned that there seems to be a great gulf between the urgency of the problem and the solutions we appear to be willing to make.” The panel response hesitantly emphasized the sensitive psychology of this tradeoff, and the value of making small, significant progress/victories.  And the lack of political will.  Caution was expressed about “large solutions,” that seem to accomplish much with relatively little effort and broad-base buy-in. 

In other words, good question.

As more context, a key problem with this literature is not that it reasonably paints a grim picture of the consequences of an oil-dependent world economy, but that it tends to oversimplify how then to proceed in practice or theory—with respect to either mitigation or adaptation.  Stop sprawl.  Get people out of the cars (especially the Chinese and Indians, and Los Angelenos).  Move us into compact, mixed use communities.  ASAP.  But each of these represents huge, extremely problematic tradeoffs that must be productively negotiated with full attention to the competing constituencies at each step of the way.  It would be great if that wasn’t so but as H.L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem, there is a simple solution.  And it’s wrong.”

Let’s see how the breakout sessions draw this out, or cut it different ways.


Post #2

Lunch Speaker:  Can an Ideal World be a Real World?

Nov 7th at 2:34pm


The distinguished UK Engineer Peter Head gave a fluid, elegant, wide-ranging talk on what the post-oil city might look like.  Following a review of how we got here, he promoted higher densities and “eco” city strategies, and argued that China is among the most active in this regard, with pronouncements from its president and its support of such demonstration city-scale projects as Dongtan, near Shanghai.  Brazil’s Curitiba and Colombia’s Bogota were also used as examples (mainly, I suppose, for their visionary mayors Lerner and Penalosa and their BRTs). 

Detailed and attractively rendered guidelines for urban design were flashed on the screen (probably available from www.arup.com), with particular emphasis on literally greening cities and suburbs with more vegetation on roofs and sides and roads (professional gardening is a growth industry in these scenarios).  Transport alternatives fell into 3 categories: high speed rail, zero emission mass transit, and consolidated centers for freight delivery.  His presentation included animated films showing how this might look and feel in downtowns and suburbs.

One central theme was that this can be somewhat if not entirely self-financed, in that cheap-oil behaviors are now clearly economically inefficient.  Accessing that surplus by reducing waste is at least possible, if it won’t happen as a matter of course. 

The presentation was beautiful and the speaker articulate and extremely well informed.  As a result, I am inclined to gloss over the many, many loose ends.  Let’s just call it aspirational and leave it at that for the moment.  Time to go to the next talk.



Post #3

Form, Function or What?

Nov 7th at 4:13pm

The plenary afternoon session, titled “Post-carbon thinking,” had themes of action, information and using data, in that order.  AID. 

Steffens’ talk was one of the clearest use of ppt slides in recent memory, each slide composed of a handwritten drawing in its center and some handwritten bullet points on a white page.  Mostly white space.  Your eye was drawn to the drawing and the one or two sentence fragments.  Simple, clean, unambiguous, unconfusing.  Each was on the screen for a couple of minutes, long enough to read and mostly absorb the point.  Then on to the next.  The presentation was mainly the associated verbage, with this trim, focused illustration to maintain one’s attention.  Content?  Something about living post-carbon. Radical transparency.  The political economy didn’t fit the presentation style quite as well as the initial action proposals.  I am stealing the slide style though, next time I only want one idea per slide.

“Time and distance change.  It was insane!” This was a 50+ year old complaint recalled for us by the “information architect” Richard Saul Wurman about a road atlas he wanted to use when driving across the country.  Not only were the states in alphabetical order, geography be damned, fitting each page on a single page or two meant the scales were different.  He subsequently turned his take on the conventional way information is too often organized into a useful (and hence lucrative) series of products over the decades that organized data “less stupidly.” His current project is 19.20.21 (he claims the starting number 19 is simply a marketing device.  Marketing is emerging as a keen angle on the topic of information, no less for urban design & climate change), referring to 19 cities of over 20 million in the 21st century, is a compilation of mapped info at the same scale for this cities.

In these slides, form mostly trumped function.  The flash animation was sharp and the type small but certainly quite pretty.  The project’s 2 minute promotional video (with its emo/nu jazz soundtrack) would be a great way to introduce world cities to my freshman lecture class, but it is Wurman’s argument for how to see things that was the most distinctive part of the conference so far.  Another quote: “We can’t be smug about our facts.” Meaning we think we know but in many cases the “facts” are just place holders until we know better, which will almost certainly happen before we know it.  The other side of this observation is that the most obvious is often overlooked, a perspective behind many of his projects.

But it will be the sophisticated, slick, Apple-quality graphics (an Apple ad man is a project partner) that will catch the eye.  We’ll have to wait to see how the content compares with the branding.  I suppose a valid question is how the difference between brand and content might matter, and how the former strengthens (or weakens) the latter. 

p.s. I ran into Wurman later and spontaneously gave him my card and volunteered to work pro-bono on his project.  Was that wise?



Post #4

Greening Los Angeles and Shanghai: 

How and Would it Matter?

Nov 7th at 4:37pm

LA’s own distinguished Tridib Banerjee (I forget where he works) is speaking in the afternoon “Regional Urban Design” break out group about alternative futures for his city.  Starting with a early 20th century plan by FL Olmsted, which was park-heavy and livability-friendly but never implemented, he’s going through other scenarios.  For example, what if each city had to provide for its own “fair share” of the region’s growth and, critically, the new development was limited to only 2% of its land?  That is the premise of the region’s metropolitan planning organization’s (SCAG) current “2%” plan.  One version of a solution to this puzzle is much higher densities along the major transportation corridors.  Is this post-oil?  He’s not sure; but maybe.

On to India and Tata motors.  India is motorizing rapidly, if not at Chinese rates, still at a pace that is crowding roads and parking spaces.  Tata expects to sell 250k Nanos annually in India.  Opposition to this trend is reminiscent of objections to working class families suburbanizing in the US in the post-WWII period.  Another tradeoff that seems easy on an abstract level, less so at a human scale.

Another speaker is Lin Wang, a Harvard Loeb fellow this year but normally the head of Urban Design and Historic Preservation in Shanghai (a quite challenging job I’m sure, as they are bulldozing seemingly with abandon).  She starts with a great photo of the Shanghai skyline revealing maybe a couple of hundred skyscrapers in a few square miles, with the smaller ones probably hidden.  She is emphasizing how populations and densities have risen.  8,000 skyscrapers currently.  A shift from a 40% urbanization rate to 90% now.  Roughly 20 million population now.  Photos of Pudong in 1996, 2003, 2005 and now, all quite different.  (The highest building, “the bottle opener,” is just completed.) No photo from 20 years ago because there was nothing much there. What, she asks, when they all have cars?  Can you imagine?  Then, she says, to some groans from the audience, it’s not realistic to think we can stop it, so what to do?

Ms. Wang presents the “urban strategy,” starting with the 1966 urban plan.  Which I though meant in the year 1966 but it turns out “1” refers to the central city, “9” to the 9 new cities, or subcenters—such as Pudong—where the district administration centers are (some of these new cities have a population of 1 million), “60” to new towns, and “6” to the number of central villages (population around 2 thousand, organized around farming villages in the county), an effort to modernize rural villages.

The strategy is thus a hierarchy of places, and then roadways.  15 minutes to the expressway system, 30 minutes from new towns to the expressways, and so on.  The subway system is being rapidly expanded from 19 lines of 1000 kilometers to 32 and 1500 by 2010, with 120 stations under construction. 

Finally, 2318 buildings are considered historic, in 41 historic districts of 44 square kilometers.  Roads will not be widened in these areas, and parking will not be added.  Additional landscaping is also in store for some areas of the Bund, now under construction.

The discussant is William Rees, a population ecologist—perhaps best known for his promotion of the ecological footprint framework—from U.British Columbia.  He says he’s scared of what’s happening in Shanghai, etc.  In comparing these places, he focuses on two numerical indicators: material/resource flows, and relative rates of consumption.

Rees rejects Banerjee’s distinction between LA as a single big city or a network of cities, as being immaterial to the broader ecological impact issue.  His presentation is “getting serious about urban sustainability.” The framing premise if that cities face any number of grim threats, quoting Martin Oppenheimer “Today’s city is the most vulnerable social structure ever conceived by man.” Second, “the anomalous, unsustainable oil-based expansion of the human enterprise.” Text of next slide: “Result: A World of Overshoot”.  Followed by, “As presently conceived and designed, cities are not complete (human) ecosystems” with subtitle “Enclosed in a bell-jar, any city would simultaneously starve and suffocate.” His point, cities should be defined to include the necessary ecosystem.  Next slide, “In biophysical terms, cities are parasitic …” The next slides clarify that what he means is that cities acquire resources, then dissipate them.  So the big problem is waste management.  Thankfully, his first concrete examples are not US cities. 

His answer: We must give up on material wealth.  Question: Can we do this?  Second question, if not, what does that mean?  Here’s the US example—US cities must reduce their ecological footprint by 80%.  But note: this is not anti-city, only a critique of “how we do them.” Such as think of them as bio-productive regions.  A number of more political recommendations follow.  More independent and self-contained, in a manner that makes them more accountable for the consequences of their resource use.

My quick take: There is a muddled mix here of positive and normative; of the facts and what to do with them.  The factual part is the strongest by a long shot.  These are, in many respects, straightforward accounting models of resource, energy and waste flows (admittedly, with lots of uncertainty as we project into the future).  The normative is the weaker, without a doubt, which is almost always the case—but worth hearing through to be sure. Still, might be clearer if we labeled assertions about facts differently than assertions about right and wrong.



Post #5

Green Cities at Work: Sustainability plans in NYC and Philadelphia

Nov 7th at 6:46pm


New York City was represented in a conference panel on “City Urban Design” by Rohit Aggarwal, discussing the preparation and implementation of that city’s PlanYC, its sustainability plan containing some 127 initiatives.  That was certainly interesting and I would get him for a longer period of time to discuss all this for hours if possible.  But rather than list these in boring detail, he also made two other very interesting and somewhat unique points for this conference.

One, the average carbon footprint of a NYC resident is 29% that of the national average.  This is similar to (and perhaps drawn from) the recent work of Ed Glaeser and UCLA’s Matt Kahn concluding that denser and warmer environments generate less CO2—that is, two key drivers were gasoline and heating oil.  This rightly implies, according to Aggarwal and me, that one approach to climate change is simply to move more people to NYC.  And by extension, other big cities.  That is, urbanization has eco-friendly implications.

Relatedly, he then pointed out that in addition to the many explicit environmental strategies mentioned in this conference, anything that gets people into NYC-like places has positive climate change consequences.  Such as, reducing crime rates, improving schools, and generally increasing the quality of city life.  He advised thinking of these as environmental strategies, among their other merits, and particularly feasible ones at that. 

Mark Alan Hughes, a former Princeton professor, is Philadelphia’s director of sustainability.  He wisely put aside what that his title means in theory to emphasize his function and evolving roles within the civic bureaucracy in practice, including his efforts to make sense of environmentally progressive steps for the rank and file civil servants.  For example, he had a breakthrough one day when an audience member realized—on his own—that he could bolster a budget proposal for new windows at the firehouses by including estimates of their energy savings.  Word got around to the other department heads immediately, in a way that Hughes could not have done on purpose.

One of his more interesting themes, among many, was the recognition that change among civil servants is not exactly chicken soup, not least since effective environmental strategies tend to span such departments and sectors.  Functions, especially environmental functions, are not integrated at the municipal level—or state or federal, it stands to reason.  Plus, business as usual is based on the cheap oil model.  So monitoring lighting or heating or fuel use tends to be piecemeal, and changing that goes way beyond sending memos around.  It requires, perhaps, fundamental governance and organizational reform.  If you think that’s easy, go try it.  Or just try to draft the memo.

Something that is easy—too easy—is for policy analysts to announce “solutions” to a given sustainability problem, and then leave it for an underfunded, politically vulnerable civic servant to implement.  Sensitive to that, Hughes saw his job as “maturing” policy questions to the stage where people such as the mayor can make informed, credible decisions.  Put another way, Hughes sees his job as making his advice both helpful in theory and in practice.



Post #6

The Sustainability of Green Journalism

Nov 7th at 10:13pm


The closing plenary session for day 1 of this conference had a full roster of interesting, articulate people, mostly writers focused on communication about urban design and/or climate change.  It was soothing to imagine that many such newspapers, magazines, and other outlets had the budget and sensibility to have folks like these on their staffs.

Which I gather that is not the case, which raises the issue not only of how journalists can communicate with their readers and their editors, but whether they even have the time to pay any real attention at all to substantive issues of urban development.  Most particularly when the issue is nuanced in its explanation, and murky in its implications for policy and implementation.  Like, say, oh I don’t know, this one.

My favorite personal example is when I got a call from the LATimes last November, which I picked up running late to a meeting because I thought it concerned that meeting.  I explained I would have to call back.  “That’s ok, I really just have a quick question.” Ok, shoot.  “What should we do about the nightmare that we call traffic in Los Angeles?” Um, that’s going to take more time than I have right now.  “Ok, I’ll make it really quick.  The mayor and governor announced a $100 million dollar program today to synchronize traffic signals in Los Angeles.  Do you think that will solve the nightmare we call traffic in Los Angeles?” Um, no.  (And that was my quote in the next day’s paper.)

I am quite glad to see print and electronic media with seasoned, informed “urban policy” reporters and analysts, but I worry this is far from representative.  And I don’t know who to blame.  Certainly the LATimes reporter was a real pro.  It’s not his attention span, I would venture to guess, so much as his deadline schedule.

And we expect the press to educate us—and our constituents in elected office, the professions and the neighborhood—about how to design cities to mitigate and adapt to climate change? 

One argument is that we need to make this issue more pressing for editors, publishers and readers alike.  Without crying wolf or losing credibility some other way.


Post #7

Necessity Makes a Frog Jump

Nov 8th at 11:02am

The Saturday morning session concerned “City Management,” and featured planners and architects with extensive experience working in the municipal governments of Shanghai, Ottawa, and Curitiba.  The Ottawa discussion emphasized nostalgia.  Mr. Doucet’s neighborhood used to have streetcars, powered by the city’s river, and the neighborhoods were designed around this system—since replace by buses and of course cars.  He wishes we could go back, and his political efforts are aimed that way.

The Shanghai discussion, by the deputy director general of its planning bureau, again talked about its 1966 plan, with particular detail on the 3 new cities now in place or under construction of the planned 9.  One is a port, one a university city, and one a residential area that will be generating a new economic base.  In each case, the idea is to decentralize some administrative and economic functions.  In Shanghai, another refreshing argument, which we only hope can be true, was that that planning process is more thoughtful and reflective, and less rushed, than the pace of construction and plan-making might make appear.  The Curitiba discussion reviewed its familiar BRT, organized around desired growth corridors, as well as waste management issues.

These are pretty different places administratively, and we unfortunately did not hear much in the way of war stories about the “management” part of these planning processes, which might have clarified the nature of both management failures and achievements.  Still, it was quite refreshing and reassuring to hear that Curitiba’s planners made many mistakes and experienced much trial and error (though without the details).  One can imagine this might mean that Curitiba’s results, widely admired and emulated across the world, may well include as much of the process negotiations than the resulting infrastructure and urban design products.  That is, Curitiba was partly an incremental process of discovery in a rather unique governance and administrative setting (the country was under military rule at the time, so the political accountability of these decisions was not exactly a democratic one), a point on which I’ve written briefly before (by way of comparison with Bogota).

At the same time, those efforts were “ground truthed” to a great extent.  Plans and their built counterparts work best when responding to underlying fundamentals, rather than mere fancy.  Mr. Rabinovitch illustrated this with the Brazilian expression, “Necessity makes the frog jump.” This was useful as for some reason I had been thinking they did it just for fun.


Post #8

Apocalypse Now!

(and what that means for urban design students)

Nov 8th at 11:46am

The 2nd Saturday morning session is “An Agenda for Urban Design Education,” with speakers who had to have one to get their jobs.  Luminary deans and chairs, with diverse backgrounds and constituencies, crowded the speakers’ table and delivered dense, compact, mixed topic talks of 10 minutes or so each.  You could do far worse that to find the recorded versions of these, once they are available, and listen in.

Sudeshna Chatterjee discussed the great challenges of rethinking how to build cities in a dramatically changing north-south world, where her students want more examples in the literature from the global south.  Doug Kelbaugh wants the design professions to study together in an interdisciplinary studio setting before settling on whether they want an MUD, MArch, MUP, etc.  And those studios should depart from the traditional practice of an isolated building in a greenfield to study infill in mixed-profession settings.  He concluding with the bold statement that the new urbanism is often bad architecture while the starchitecture culture is often terrible urbanism, so his dream is that education should combine the best of the two.  Unclear was whether he pursued this agenda in his many years as dean of the architecture and planning school at Michigan, or if he plans to do so in his new capacity as the director of urban design in the Dubai-based firm Limitless. 

The other speakers revisited these and related aspects of curriculum and professional evolution.  As architects, the language tended toward literary and image-laden, and a bit light on either the details or prospects for actual change.

My take?  Parsing the substance and consequences of these quick-take big-picture agendas is tricky, and probably unfair.  Several mentioned how traditional urban design education doesn’t fit modern times so well as the world it was designed for, and by, not least with the impending prospects—if not doom—of a warming planet.  There was wide agreement that urban designers would benefit from greater attention to sustainability considerations, working and learning with other disciplines, and keeping their eye on the ball.  Where the ball is getting hot.  Getting from here to there is the obvious question.

In that spirit, the rest of the day is devoted to getting more concrete about all this.  Let’s hope those steps address the literal as well as the figurative. 

Sunday, November 9th, 2008
randall Crane