Monday, August 18, 2014

What is urbanism?

Yesterday I found myself wondering if I should have called this blog "Hudson Urbanist" instead of "Hudson Urbanism." The former might have granted me the freedom to occasionally write about things not directly concerned with the urban condition—baseball, politics, life minutia, and whatever interests me on a given day. I might take such license anyway; in any event, my internal dialogue got me thinking about the word "urban" and the extent to which America's urban problem—or is it our suburban problem?—is exacerbated by misuse of the term.

Consider the U.S. Census Bureau's report that 81 percent of Americans now live in urban areas. This important example of who-America-is data places the cul-de-sac-dwelling, automobile-dependent suburbanite in the same category as the sidewalk pounding Brooklynite. I can't help but think this makes the fight against the environmental and social ravages of suburban sprawl ever more difficult and diffuse. Similar conflations are found among geographers, sociologists, historians, and others concerned with broad trends in human development. In their comparisons of modern societies to ancient or tribal societies, they typically place the "urban" label on those with water and sewer infrastructures, formal governments, advanced methods of goods production and distribution, and so on. Again, they lump the suburb with the "urb."

Further poking prompts more questions than answers: is "urban" a proper adjective for "city" even though many city districts are as suburban in their physical makeup as those outside the city boundary? Is it appropriate for a mayor to proclaim his city's "urban renaissance" as he cuts a ribbon for a new strip mall? Is it fair to blame the excessive consumption of land and resources on "urban sprawl" when by definition it is suburbs, not urbs, that sprawl? How should we categorize Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston that is politically a city, that is physically predominated by single-family houses and strip malls, but that also has within it thirteen quasi-urban villages? And what can we conclude of a person living in Boston's Back Bay—an urban neighborhood by probably everyone's definition—who drives thirty miles every day to a job in suburban Westborough? Is she an urbanite or a suburbanite? If she took a new job in downtown Worcester, would that change anything? Wouldn't she, despite structuring her life around two urban places, be living a life that is dynamically suburban?

Such questions point to two things we need to do if we are to attain more sustainable, and necessarily more urban, ways of building and living. One, we need to define urban and suburban in a way that clearly and concisely identifies and differentiates their physical characters. To this end I offer this: Urbanism is high-density mixed uses, and suburbanism is low-density segregated uses. While there remains a finer grain to explore, this distinction covers more ground more effectively than anything I have come across in more than twenty years of study.

Two, we need to go beyond physical definitions and begin working to reinstill the dynamic realities that underlie the physical form of urban places. As our Back Bay friend demonstrates, one can "live suburban" in an urban place, which negates the point of urbanism. And not to push this point too far or paint too broadly, but I often think that the primary, unrecognized goal of the urban planning establishment over the past several decades has been to accommodate large numbers of such individuals—to support a suburban social order within a physical facsimile of urbanism, rather than to promote urbanism as a way of living.

This will not do. It is not enough for citizens to establish residence in an urban place while continuing to chase around the region to fill their life needs. It is not acceptable for residents of an urban neighborhood to oppose their neighbors opening new businesses if those businesses would make that place more urban. It is not enough to fight for the preservation of existing urban environments in their current state; one must support those policies and practices that will lead to greater density and more mixed uses, and thereby more local living.

Because this is what urbanism is.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Love triangle

Gossips of Rivertown reports today that the Town of Wolcott, New York has a Venus statue very similar, if not identical, to Hudson's long-stored and currently debated Venus. It sits in the center of town on a triangular traffic island, visible at the center of the photo below.
Wolcott, New York
Coincidentally, on Monday John Isaacs suggested that Hudson's Venus be re-sited on a similar (and slightly larger) triangular traffic island in Hudson. His suggestion was panned by Gossips' commenters, who were unwilling to consider anything other than its original placement in the center of the Seventh Street Park. While I don't think the Hudson statue belongs in the traffic island, neither do I think it has to reside at the center of the park simply because it once did.

In any event, I am curious: if Gossips' commenters were residents of Wolcott rather than Hudson, would they be willing to re-site the Wolcott Venus to a more dignified and less vulnerable place? Or would they insist it always remain where it is now simply because it was (presumably) placed there long ago?
Wolcott, New York

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Some new homes for Venus

In a post on his blog on Monday, and to the consternation of many local residents, John Isaacs argued against a literal restoration of Hudson's Seventh Street Park. He suggested that the beloved Venus statue, which used to live at the park's center, be sited on an existing triangular traffic island at the nearby intersection of State, Greene, and Columbia Streets. I'm not sure he was entirely serious in making this suggestion, as the traffic island is meager, to be kind. But as I recently suggested a larger plaza at this very location, I thought I would take another look at this area as well as another possibility that has been on my mind for some time.

First of all, here's my recent idea for the enlarged plaza. It resulted from closing off a portion Columbia Street currently used for eastbound traffic and extending the small triangular island southward (more details here). At the time, I wasn't thinking of the plaza as a location for Venus, but perhaps enlarged it has a chance of working. (The island is currently the home of an Olympic monument; I don't know where this would go.) 
Independently of this, I've been wanting to look into expanding the St. Charles Hotel as a way of improving the approach into the city from Green Street. Hotels can work well with front doors on more than one side, so the St. Charles could could present fronts to both the 7th Street Park and Green Street. The scheme below suggests a new hotel wing (perhaps containing function rooms) and atrium fronting on the park. (Horror of horrors: I've removed three existing undistinguished buildings to accommodate the hotel expansion.) The atrium also gathers in the view corridor from Green Street. I trust that one can look past the simplicity of the drawings to imagine what could be:
With the hotel having a stronger presence on the 7th Street Park, another potential location for Venus is suggested: on the park, but shifted to lie on axis with the hotel entrance. This would get the park plan away from its historical symmetry, which does not work well given the train line that slices through it, as well as some other factors:
You can click on the images for a closer look, but don't take my park design too literally as it calls for a more nuanced analysis than I can provide here. I'll try to take a closer look at it soon.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I'd like an 11.4% refund, please.

Last night, I counted thirteen missing channels between Channels 2 and 76. That means we're getting sixty-two of the seventy-plus channels we're paying for.

EDIT, 12:40PM: Hmmm, I apparently ignored a notice from MHC that I was to request they send me a digital converter box. Given that I have a reasonably new television, I thought I didn't need one. So my bad. Then again, if MHC knows its customers need a converter box to use get full use of the service they are paying for, why doesn't MHC simply deliver them without our having to make an official request?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Four books for the Hudson Urbanist

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built by Stewart Brand. A completed building is really just a best guess by its designer as to what it needs to be. It is afterward, as a building is altered by its users, that it achieves its more significant reality. By the author of The Whole Earth Catalog.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Anyone interested in understanding how cities work in everyday life should start here. Written by a Greenwich Village mother who used tools no more sophisticated than her eye and ear, the book turned the urban planning establishment upside down when it appeared in 1961. Widely regarded as the twentieth century's most important book on urbanism, it has never been out of print. 

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander et al. The authors explicate 253 "patterns" that can make our designed world work better, from the daylighting of rooms to the dimensions of porches to the arrangement of city blocks.

City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village by David Sucher. An unpretentious, extensively illustrated book with a kitchen sink of small ideas on improving urban places. Some of the ideas could have used an editor (the book is self-published), but it's nonetheless worth looking into, especially for novices and nonprofessionals.

I've linked the titles above to Amazon so you can learn more about the books, but please buy them locally if at all possible.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The New NIMBYism

There is much that could be written about last week's denial by the Hudson Historic Preservation Commission of a petition to add a modest retail storefront to 134-136 Warren Street. I'm sure I will have more to say about it, or about the next mind-boggling decision by the HPC, as I continue to get my blogging feet under me. For now, I will wonder aloud about three things:
  1. Does the HPC not recognize that the success and enjoyability of Warren Street today is a direct result of this very sort of alteration to countless other buildings on it? Its decision is tantamount to a declaration that Warren Street would be a better street if all the open storefronts were removed and replaced by double hung residential windows.
  2. Does the HPC realize how selective its view of history is? Very few, if any, people in 1790 or 1842 or 1911 would have objected to the owner of this or a similar building replacing two ground floor residential windows with a retail storefront. Such alteration was understood as an improvement to the building, street, and city: a local businessperson or family would get to make a living in the building and neighbors would get to shop locally for needed goods or services. So what gives, HPC? If you so revere our heritage, why do you honor only the physical artifacts of that heritage? Why do you not honor historical processes?
  3. Does the HPC grasp that anything it does to make retail more difficult in Hudson makes it incrementally more necessary for Hudson residents to traipse out to the Fairview Avenue strip for goods and services? Does it not recognize that anti-retail policies, far from safeguarding the urban condition, promote suburban sprawl? 
Historic preservationists did much in the past to save our urban centers. Sadly, they are now one of the primary obstacles to successful urbanism.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Union Street Guest House: oops

According to the Huffington Post, the Union Street Guest House in Hudson recently took down a policy that charged newlyweds $500 if they posted a negative review of the hotel. According to the hotel, the "policy" was meant as a joke. Read more