Sometimes it’s nice to sit back and let someone else do the thinking. TED videos are about “ideas worth spreading”, and you can see them all for free at this link. If anyone has some downtime and wants some food for thought, I recommend the following TED talks that are all relevant to urbanism:
Jaime Lerner: A discussion of the promise of cities from the former Mayor of Curitibia, most famous for his BRT system.
Emily Pilloton: she discusses her design/build classes in rural NC, and how to leverage community assets into rebuilding a city.
James Howard Kunstler: he is famous for dismissing suburbs as “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world”, and he has some interesting observations to share.
Majora Carter: A discussion of Environmental Justice as it impacts an urban NYC neighborhood.
Ellen Dunham-Jones: A discussion of some ways to convert existing suburban developments into more more urban patterns.
Norman Foster: The world famous architect discusses his understanding of sustainability.
Stewart Brand: An environmentalist focuses on the most important issues facing the world, with some really interesting stories about cities, slums, and the future of society.
David Macaulay: A celebration of the Rome, the eternal city, as told by a famous artist/author through the eyes of his creations.
Robert Neuwirth: Another discussion of slums and their impact on the future of our cities.
Finally, I wanted to include a link from Squint Opera. This viz studio does some of the best work in modern architectural communications. See some of it at this link.
The people who run our cities … think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit, which makes their opinion worthless. The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. -Banksy, Wall and Piece, 2005
It is a common idea these days for politicians to speak of running a city like a company. What a stupid idea. Just when we abandon the failed idea of living in a machine, we unfortunately embrace the dystopian vision of a for-profit public realm.
Indianapolis has been privatizing public space for a long time now. The parking issue is just the latest signal that our city leaders are willing to sell out the future of our city for a few coin now. The civic leaders justify this by preaching the gospel of market efficiency, but conveniently forget that what we gain in efficiency we lose in equity, community, and harmony.
While some believe it is a foregone conclusion that government fails at every task, the real story is hardly that simple. We all know that 90% of small businesses in the US fail within 5 years, but this doesn’t mean we should abolish private ventures, it only means that success is hard to achieve. The same is true in the public world.
Our government is merely a reflection of our own abilities and values. When a public effort fails it does not prove anything other than the people in that community did not have the skills, resources, or fortune to get it done. Indianapolis has always been a community of visionaries and hard workers, and they built a great city for us. There is no greater shame for a politician than to turn their back on this heritage and champion the sale of our public assets.
Public investment in transportation infrastructure is what Indianapolis is all about, and is still known as the “Crossroads of America” because of it. The investment in transportation infrastructure started early with the canals, picked up speed with rail (including the first ever Union Station), and continued when Indy became a key part of the National Road, our first federal highway. More recently the best new airport terminal in the US was opened.
We have our intercity transportation and freight pretty well figured out, but now it’s time to get our local transit in order. Multi-modal solutions give people options about where and how to live, and make cities more resilient to the challenges of the future. But we seem to have prioritized low density auto-oriented growth for so long that we have lost our urban identity. We’re not seen as the crossroads of America anymore, we’re just another decaying donut.
For those of us who were expecting big things from IndyConnect, the unveiled plan has been met with strong debate. A program that was sold to the community as a vision for the future is really just a mirror showing us as we already exist – a capital city afraid of its collaborative, urban origins and rapidly trying to reinvent itself as the sprawling, low-cost leader of the midwest.
Where will Indy rank on this list in 30 years?
IndyConnect is a chance to come together as a regional community and decide our destiny. Unfortunately, the plan currently up for review is not very inspiring. The controversial decision to switch out LRT for buses appears to be political rather than economic, as previous studies and case studies have shown the regional benefits would easily justify the costs. I question the decision to use BRT, because the sponsors threw away the support of the biggest pool of users to get… well let’s just say I don’t see any Tea Partiers jumping on board with this plan because of its lower cost.
But even if the LRT option had survived, would that have been enough to call this plan a “vision”? Not at all. When you look at the mass transit portion, the plan only recommends purchase of some new vehicles, polishing up some old train hardware, and striping some roads. It’s a superficial marketing brochure that won’t significantly address livability in Indianapolis. We can’t solve this problem by throwing money at it, we’re gonna have to dig deeper. Policy reform has to be front and center, and that debate is much more important than whether or not we use light rail, commuter rail, or bus rapid transit.
It's not the bus or LRT that appeals to people, its the urban attitude
If IndyConnect really wants to lay the groundwork for a city that can use transit, then we need to decide to stop exclusively designing our cities for cars. Buses are not the building block of a transit system, the pedestrian is. A transformative vision of Indianapolis is needed now, so here is a twelve step plan to make Indianapolis a haven for transit before a single track is ever laid:
- Pedestrianize – Begin and end ALL planning from the perspective of a pedestrian (ALL planning! – transportation, land use, urban design, civic assets)
- Don’t fool yourself – buses will never capture mode share from cars, and rail doesn’t help much either unless there is an incentive to use it
- Induced demand is real – accept vehicular congestion, because you can’t build your way out of it
- Laser, not shotgun – don’t try to accommodate the entire region with transit, because transit is expensive and should only serve areas designed for it like streetcar suburbs, old rail stops, and centralized corridors
- No Robert Moses needed – accept that communities are more important than the transportation solutions running through them
- Be unselfish – design the transportation system for the next generation and the problems they will face
- Create value – don’t be afraid to use rail based transit to create special areas in the city, but beware of doing the same in suburbs because that will empty the city (population follows public investment) into areas that don’t want and can’t accommodate the extra load on their limited services
- Be inclusive – integrate pedestrians and bicyclists into the traffic system rather than forcing them onto recreational pathways
- Respect the car – well behaved cars and drivers deserve a place in the city, car-free zones are a bad idea and represent a failure of integration
- Reward density - land use and transit should support “density done right” because a walkable urban environment produces happy, socially wealthy individuals
- Slow it down – convert urban highways to slower streets, because if the traffic is too fast for sidewalk cafes, merging bicycle traffic, and people crossing the street then you are doing it wrong
- Restore the Cityscape – accept that our city was better before the interstates arrived, and it will be better when they are removed
Indianapolis as a city was never perfect, but it was never more imperfect than the day we decided that cars could solve all of our problems. We purposefully excluded anyone who can’t drive or afford a car from participating in civic life, killed off small businesses, and enslaved future generations to volatile energy costs.
Now we are about to sell off our ability to control parking supply and pricing, our most important urban development tool, and yet our leaders still fail to realize how that is related to transportation in the city. There are a hundred other issues that we hammer all the time on this website but haven’t been addressed yet, including: curb radii, tree canopies, excess lane widths, unnecessary one-way streets, missing sidewalks, urban design regulatory problems, and privatization of the public realm.
How will BRT, LRT, or Commuter Rail solve these issues? They can’t. In reality, a lot of people have problems walking to the bus stop because the city is so impermeable to pedestrians. The number of new pedestrian bridges going in downtown is a great indicator that we still haven’t solved the walkability issue in our most important places.
The debate over IndyConnect should be a debate over walkability and the role of the pedestrian. Policy reform must be at the top of the agenda. Think education and consensus building rather than bus routes and transit maps. I support IndyConnect. This is what progress looks like. But IndyConnect must explicitly address walkability or it will fail.
Here at Urban Indy we wanted to give our reactions to the big IndyConnect unveiling and let our readers do the same. An in-depth review of the plan from Urban Indy will be coming later, but here is a collection of our responses after the initial press release. The plan is online at IndyConnect.org and represents the 25 year vision of the Indy MPO responsible for regional transportation planning.
The latest plan from Indy Connect
I will be the first person to say that the latest unveiling represents a letdown when we were all looking forward to a light rail system to address economic development, regional vitality and increased mobility. Fresh off a trip to Portland I have seen the top of the mountain and it is awesome. However, here in Indy we have such a small share of transit ridership, that building support for a long term rail system is key. Implementing the latest unveiling while not shiny and sexy, will improve the system for existing users, pull in potential riders who are on the fence, and offer some incentives to those who would never use in the form of some congestion mitigation. This step up could build a great platform for the next generation long term transit plan. If Indianapolis can continue recent success in the business arena as it has for years now, this transit plan could compliment that success and in 20 years, when a successful transit share has been built, a much more robust rail growth plan could be hatched. The next step will be difficult in helping to educate people just why this plan has a silver lining that isn’t initially obvious.
Neither the original nor this updated Indy Connect plan is a perfect implementation of mass transit for Indianapolis. Instead, they represent a balance of the needs of the region with what is favorable to the low tax, low service culture of the Central Indiana Region. This disappoints mass transit and rail advocates because they know how good things could be, and how our region needs to have an eye on the economic, societal and environmental need for a proper mass transit system. This is not the proposal I would have put forth, but given the constraints on the Indy Connect team, I think this is a plan that brings our transportation system to an acceptable service level at a price point that has a chance for approval from the electorate. It’s far from inspiring, but it works.
While improving our bus system is a good idea, more bike and pedestrian pathways are great, and having some investment in rail and light rail is better than none, this plan doesn’t have enough “Indy” in it to truly reform one of our city’s greatest transit problems – a lack of “choice” riders, especially within our urban core. The proposed plan’s focus on serving suburban areas with the “coolest” forms of transit incentivizes suburban and exurban housing choices. Meanwhile, the people most likely to make the choice of utilizing transit options, those who are choosing to live and work in our actual city, are provided with an upgrade on a system that is not winning over new riders in its current iteration. The proposed IndyConnect plan is definitely an improvement, but it’s not bold, it’s not visionary, and – without a major branding overhaul of our bus system – it’s unlikely to spur significant improvement in the area of choice ridership. And, a quick query: why is this transit plan up for so much debate, while the much more expensive plans to upgrade bridges and roads, as well as expand roads, are not topics for public debate or analysis? Why do we evaluate “new” so much more stringently than we evaluate “old”?
I’m encouraged by the prospect of more frequent bus service in the areas which need it the most . The first release of Indy Connect had few specifics with regards to inner city connectivity, which this version serves to correct. I’m discouraged that the city is pulling back from the Washington Street light rail proposal, when most of us at Urban Indy were hoping that the city would add a College Avenue streetcar to the fledgling system. Eighty percent of the money goes to expanding roads and fixing bridges in the suburban areas, which (outside of needed repairs) is throwing good money after bad. Regardless, I hope that this plan will give the city the framework it needs to make future changes and improvements.
I’m definitely not anti-bus. From a pure transit perspective, we can do so much in Indy with the additional of express buses, circulators, and BRT’s. An expanded bus system can reach more people than rail.
I’m definitely not anti-rail either. There are situations that a street car, light rail, or commuter rail would be beneficial. Washington Street is a great example of a prime light rail/street car corridor.
The biggest issues with buses: how well the system is executed and operated; getting past the local stigma of buses; maximizing the use of technology; getting around the traffic congestion problems that plague our streets and highways; and encouraging development along bus corridors and around bus system hubs.
While transit oriented development will not be as great with a improved bus system, the potential is there if investment is made into stops and hubs where multiple routes converge.
As a multi-modal mass transit adovcate, I am particularly dissapointed with the updated IndyConnect plan. While a strong bus service is essential in any regional transit system, the BRT model that the IndyConnect team is championing has not been proven effective in significantly increasing transit ridership in North America. On the other hand, urban rail transit (light rail, streetcars) has. Ultimately, that is what we were hoping to see more of from the revised IndyConnect plan – real urban transit that encourages urban development and creates those great ‘places’ that can come it. Instead, any remnant of the word ‘urban’ was stripped away, leaving us with a mass transit system ‘vision’ that only sees Indianapolis as it is instead of what it could be. And in the end, this is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the new plan. With a strong urban-oriented mass transit plan, Indianapolis would position itself as a region of transit oriented development, of urban places, and of sustainable transportation, something that would differentiate itself from the car-dominated culture of the Midwest. Instead, the current IndyConnect plan will set the city up for continued Midwest mediocrity, thus crippling its ability of becoming a bigger and better version of its current self.
For as much as transit has been discussed in the press releases and official statements, there is surprisingly little of it in the plans. No, this is a plan to fund highway construction. Other than some minor reuse of rail lines, Indy will still be missing a useful mass transit system and encouraging sprawl development. This is also a missed opportunity to change the outdated policies, lack of vision, and livability aspects that must be dealt with in the transportation realm. Instead of real city development, Indianapolis citizens will be sponsoring repair and extensions of highways that never should have been built to begin with. The MPO should plan for what Indianapolis will need in 25 years from now, and this won’t get us anywhere fast. With the majority of the population and the business community asking for a real solution, I say put the best plan on the table and don’t stop short.
The city of Indianapolis uses a comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances as their main tool of city planning (see current zoning codes; or see Indy’s zoning synopsis). The purpose of our zoning code is to resolve conflicts between land uses by separating them (Euclidean style). Obviously, there are some land uses that don’t fit well together. A quick example would be an adult entertainment venue next to an elementary school. Nobody thinks that these activities belong next to each other, so the natural solution is to just keep them separated by a healthy distance.
The West Washington Street corridor from Eagle Creek to I-465 is typical of Indianapolis zoning patterns
The problem is that conflict resolution solely by separating land uses is a bad way to run a city. When land is abundant and cheap, such as in suburban or rural areas, developers can just move a little further down the line. But in dense cities, and cities trying to become more dense, land is no longer a commodity. It is a precious resource.
Type D-3 zoning does not encourage urban development, even though it is recommended for many neighborhoods in the city in the city
In this case, conflict resolution by separation is not the best choice. Cities have begun to realize what every schoolteacher already knows – teaching people to share is a better solution. Critics of zoning have found the following problems with conventional zoning ordinances:
- it is a favorite tool of NIMBY-ism; high density projects are often thrown out in the rezoning process
- it can be used to block lower-income residents from finding jobs and affordable housing in good neighborhoods
- it turns the traditional, compact American neighborhood into an illegal form of development
- it forces sprawl by preventing co-location of compatible uses, by forcing unpopular uses to the outer fringe of cities, by spreading buildings apart, and by mandating minimum parking requirements
- it prevents the evolution of dense neighborhoods because the initial low density land uses mandated by the code cannot be reconfigured without a huge investment or legal challenge
The worst failure of zoning, and all of our city planning in fact, may be that it does not prevent our worst nightmares: an ugly building next door with lots of new auto traffic. I believe a major reform is necessary.
The New Urbanists have a solution to this zoning problem, and it’s called Form Based Codes. In fact, Duany/Plater-Zyberk have cooked up a freely available template that any city can use as an alternative process, it is called SMARTCODE. Based on Smart Growth neighborhood principles, it’s an easy way for cities to get what they want from the zoning process without spending a decade rewriting their own codes.
Form Based Codes encourages urban development that creates places
Several US cities such as Miama, FL, Petaluma, CA, and Montgomery, AL, have enacted Smartcodes, and there are add-on modules for issues such as sustainability, light pollution, and other problems that can be addressed by zoning. Form based codes may be Indy’s best shot at getting good urban design in areas surrounding the central canal or Lucas Oil Stadium. Form based codes would be a great way for Indianapolis to regulate zoning in way that makes city planning possible and maximizes the benefit from public investment in our urban spaces.
The concept of an alternate compliance method is not new for Indianapolis. In fact, the Sustainable Infrastructure Initiative is working great for Indy’s Office of Sustainability. Because of this alternate compliance method, projects can now meet stormwater requirements with rain gardens, green roofs, and several other “non-conventional” practices. Incorporating an alternate form-based code with expedited permitting process similar to the sustainability code is a great way to make our city more walkable, interesting, and beautiful.
Recently the question has been raised how to fix an ugly building, mostly in regards to the Di Rimini (and here and here and especially here). It is a hard question to answer without first discussing what “ugly” means. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there are obvious problems with treating a building purely as sculpture and ignoring its contribution to the urban environment beyond aesthetics.
Buildings can be ugly in many ways. Some turn their back on the street, showing a blank concrete or sheetmetal wall. Some use such cheap materials that their facades disintegrate within a decade. Some are unconscionable mixtures of architectural styles that blend into an incoherent bloody mess. Some are multiple offenders.
Fortunately, designers have many ways to improve a building’s appearance and functionality without wiping the slate clean. An industrial building in my neighborhood serves a good first example. The structure was built right in the heart of the historic district and presented a brutal precast concrete face to the neighborhood.
Adaptive reuse by a local firm in 2008-2009 resulted in a new appearance and some good activity within the space. By using a modern scheme of awnings and accentuating the windows, the designers drew out the positive aspects of the building. It’s not a perfect fix, but it shows that the space is cared for and that the owners care about its place in the neighborhood.
The renovated building now hosts a design factory, an architecture firm, and technology firms
The updates were simple but effective
Another example of an ugly building is the site at the corner of Virginia and Washington. One of the most important street corners of Ralston’s original plan for Indianapolis, it has been host to some of the best and the worst buildings in Indy history. The fun part about this one is that the votes for best and worst flip around depending on who you ask.
The original building was a ornate flatiron style building called the Indiana Trust building. (See Vance-Block building history). This was demolished in 1959 to make way for a modern building for Merchants Bank. It lost the urban density, street-level retail, and historic urban texture of the previous building. The new structure also introduced a drive-thru and a facade meant to be appreciated at 40mph.
The "Zipper Building" was a famous Modernist landmark
The quest for modernism claimed another victim in 1959, but the result was a structure that some hoped would be even more timeless in its beauty. The debate over the new building was a reflection over a more universal debate: what is the role of historic preservation in our cities?
The new owners changed the facade of the zipper building in 2007. I will recuse myself for professional reasons and not offer an opinion on this one, but I am interested in what people think. Was the loss of a modernist building just another missed opportunity to preserve our heritage, or does the new facade and street level commercial space fix an ugly building that was never meant to be there?
The new Broadbent building recalls the historic buildings once on site
The newer design allows for a more active streetscape
Most importantly, do these examples give us any ideas on how to deal with our current stock of ugly buildings? Should we enthusiastically preserve ugly buildings as part of our urban history or should we focus on converting them into buildings that fit downtown?
I’m not always happy with Cost/Benefit Analyses to justify infrastructure investments. Induced economic activity has especially frustrated me because I don’t believe that an extra highway exchange can be justified just because it spawns a Wal-Mart. Too often we see these studies that proclaim a net benefit when in reality the private sector gains a new source of profit while shifting cost and risk to the public (similar to the privatization of Parking Programs).
An interesting case study comes to us from the nation of Iraq. After losing much of their infrastructure in the war and aftermath the people are now struggling to restore basic services. One key issue is electrical power reliability. Here in Indianapolis it is major news when we lose the power grid for any length of time, so I hope nobody ignores the suffering of Iraqis who spend the majority of each day with none or intermittent power.
A side effect of this has been a huge market for small-scale electrical power generators. Communities are chipping in together to purchase their own power infrastructure. So, the destruction of Iraqi power infrastructure has induced demand for generators, but is this a good thing?
Energy security in its most basic form
Well, diesel generators don’t come cheap, and neither does their fuel. It seems fairly obvious the people aren’t investing in generators because they want to become more independent of public infrastructure. No, they are purchasing them because they want a reliable electrical supply and their government can’t provide it.
This is a similar condition to 20th century US transportation system. As cities and towns began dismantling their public transit systems, Americans began purchasing cars in like nowhere else in the world. In this case, a lot of people were forced to invest in transportation because the government failed to provide it. And auto sales thrived on the uncertain future of public transit.
Very few people benefit when public infrastructure is allowed to fail. After all, you can only add so many cars to the system before the high costs of maintaining all those vehicles, roads, and bridges begins to outweigh any benefits we once got from them.
Simply stated, collectively owned public transit is a great solution to our transportation needs. In fact, the service cuts in Chicago and NYC transit have shown how declining investment in transit can be a disaster. If we want to see the right kind of economic growth taking place in our cities, then its time to fight for heavy investment in public transit.
Cars can never provide the right density to make cities livable or infrastructure affordable
A good framework for this problem is the Parable of the Broken Window. Basically, you don’t create value by destroying something, even if new economic activity is generated. In this case, Americans did gain a highway system and millions upon millions of new cars and new jobs (manufacturing and road repair), but losing our public transit systems means we lost our urban way of life. A proper accounting of the situation should include all costs, especially the hidden and social ones.
For more information on Indianapolis’ proposed transit system, see Indy Connect. If you want to know what transit can do for our cities, Human Transit has a great discussion. If we want economic growth in our cities without endless sprawl, transit is the best answer.
Many urban neighborhoods have a need for infill construction, where homes that were lost to deterioration or other reasons must be replaced. Here in Irvington we have a unique case where a gas explosion in 2004 eliminated three houses instantly and blew out windows in a one-block radius. (images from kipar-one here)
One house disappeared and the two adjacent were condemned
In an explosion this bad, we are lucky that nobody died. It’s actually a fun conversation topic to ask people in the neighborhood, I’ve heard several variants from “slept right through it” to “the coldest nights of my life, took a week to replace the windows.”
Just this summer, the last destroyed house was replaced. The first one, at the corner plot, did not leave anyone thrilled. The second one was a solid infill project. And happily, fate saved the best for last – a two story traditional American home that is perfect for the neighborhood.
The new corner duplex uses traditional materials but does not address the street as well
A new home that matches the original in massing and style
The new blue house is a great addition to the street
All homes featured were built after the approval of the historic district status, but I think the quality is improving because developers are now aware that poor designs are much less likely to be approved. I believe that historic development requirements can have a good impact on neighborhood development, and I’m glad that it remains an option here in Indiana.
Sunday, August 22 is World Kitchen Garden Day! It’s a perfect time to haul in some produce from a backyard garden and cook up something worthy of this great holiday.
My wife and I installed a garden in the backyard this year, I have come to love it wholeheartedly. Our garden has been one of the best experiences of my adult life. Nothing is more satisfying than grabbing a fresh cucumber off the vine when I come home from work, then immediately chopping it up and making a salad for dinner. I have been eating healthier, having more fun, spending more time with my wife and less time in front of the TV, and paying less for groceries.
Seriously, growing your own food is something that everyone who eats should try out at least once. Gardening is a simple and easy thing to do (so easy a caveman could do it!). Actually, agriculture began almost 10,000 years ago and made human civilization possible. Small plots are a fun way to pay tribute to our ancestors, while creating a more sustainable future for our descendants.
And the quality of the food is unbelievable. The fresh ingredients easily surpass anything you might find in a restaurant. Try it out, and you too will know the pleasures of small-scale gardening. It may be too late in the season to start a garden this year, but make a resolution to grow some of your own food next year! Here are some photos from my garden construction to give you some ideas:
NOTE: if anyone is interested in using rainwater for potable uses (such as gardening), please consult the Texas Rainwater Harvesting manual to ensure the water is clean and safe.