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Klaus Philipsen, FAIA is an architect, urban designer and architectural writer specializing in urban architecture, adaptive reuse, preservation and transportation work. He is President ArchPlan Inc. past chairman of the Baltimore Design Center, member of the AIA National Regional and Urban Design Committee and president of NeighborSpace Baltimore County. He is a co-founder of the 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide smart growth group. Klaus has been a presenter, speaker or moderator at international, national and regional conventions and events about cities, design, smart growth, economic development, livability, sustainability and transportation. He writes an architectural column in a local paper and is a urban design contributor on a statewide radio talk show. For inquiries about presentations, participation in discussion panels or articles write to info@archplan.com

Friday, September 12, 2014

Observations about Transportation, Placemaking and City Rivalry

"We learned how to survive, now we have to learn to live". (G. Penelosa about the progress in life expectancy). 
The rivalry between the Steelers and the Ravens is legendary, complicated by a geographically overlapping fan base within an easy day trip of each other. Then there is the history of both cities as industrial steel-towns, their subsequent rebirth as places of knowledge and learning with philanthropy and flagship universities as drivers. Both cities have a "Downtown Partnership", early Light Rail systems, and waterfront promenades, each a topic of epic competition. 
I am talking about my hometown Bawlmore and Pennsylvania's Picksburgh (local pronunciations).

Pittsburgh has Andy Warhol, Baltimore John Waters, pirogies versus crab cakes, Duquesne Pils versus Heavy Seas Lager, Heinz Ketchup versus Old Bay, Fort Duquesne and Fort McHenry, the list could go on and on. This week Baltimore celebrates the battles of the Second Revolutionary War, Baltimore has tall ships and all that Pittsburgh got was a rubber ducky. 
The globe trotting rubber duck in Pittsburgh
Photo: Pittsburgh Gazette
But I wanted to write about transportation and placemaking, the reason why Pittsburgh is on my mind.

When it comes to landing high profile conferences, Pittsburgh beats Baltimore any day, thanks to a first-class Vinoly-designed convention center but maybe also through a more focused effort in what to attract. Not only did a full-fledged G7 world summit took place here but now also Pro Walk, Pro Bike and Pro Place, originally a bicycle advocacy conference that is now expanded by the Project for Public Spaces in New York to also advocate "places." I came to Pittsburgh as a member of PPS’s very large Placemakers Leadership Council and as a presenter.
Sailebration, tall ships in Baltimore's Harbor as part of
the Star Spangled Banner 200 year celebrations
Photo: ArchPlan Inc.

Since biking from Baltimore to Pittsburgh didn't fit into my schedule, I opted for the next best thing, a road trip with the bike in the trunk. Setting off on a sunny Monday afternoon, what could be better? The landscape west near the foothills of the Appalachians before Frederick is beautiful and remains so all the way to Pittsburgh. Living in Maryland I sometimes forget how scenic this state's freeways and highways are, a benefit that one takes for granted until one crosses the border into Pennsylvania. A typical case of you don't know what you have until you don't have it. The first item that catches your eyes in Pennsylvania are roadside billboards about fireworks and a company that sits right near the border and makes them. There in the middle of all kinds of stuff that shouldn't be in the verdant landscape is also the PA Welcome Center, not much more than a regular pit stop and quite a contrast from the one in Maryland which sits perched on a mountain near Hagerstown,
Pittsburgh the home of Heinz Ketchup (ArchPlan)
presiding over a pristine landscape while making architectural references to locally found materials.

I-70 is known as the great east-west Interstate that extends from Baltimore all the way to the Rockies and beyond. To the unsuspecting traveler it comes as a great surprise, then when after a bit of travel in Pennsylvania signs begin to request to "be prepared to stop" and finally big signs indicate "freeway ends". Yes, I am talking about Breezewood, a place that because of its disruptiveness one cannot breeze through, no matter how much one would wish to never have seen it. It is truly a one of a kind experience in premeditated traffic delays, the opposite of what traffic planners usually design for. In a perverse kind of "place" making is also the opposite of what planners strive for. In Breezewood the Interstate ends at a traffic signal, to be followed by about 300' of strip highway lined with hotels, diners and gas stations, then, after several sharp turns the freeway resumes a life as the historic Pennsylvania Turnpike. Breezewood is officially
Baltimore, the home of McCormicks Old Bay seasoning
sanctioned highway robbery.  I have passed through this oddity several times before, it still strikes me as very strange, indeed, that to this day nobody has done anything about it. 
Breezewood, an oddity of the US Interstate system and
a a symbol for how to not make a place
Photo: ArchPlan Inc.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike is the granddaddy of all interstates, completed in 1940.At the time it was celebrated as America's "dream highway." Today, not so much. It has billboards, and instead of a beautifully-landscaped, wide median there is just a concrete barrier, sometimes high enough to cut the view off to the left for all but truckers and Humvee drivers. The zone adjacent to the right shoulder is barren because Penn-DOT apparently sprays "Weed be Gone" so vegetation cannot encroach on the road or the reflecting posts. I don't want to be overly picky with Maryland's northern neighbor, but how exactly do they welcome visitors to their State? By gas prices that jump by at least 30 cents per gallon (not necessarily a bad thing), no rest-stops and only a few travel plazas,("no food for 85 miles" a sign warns menacingly as if one is about to enter the Australian Outback)? Did I mention the barren roadway and the billboards?

No, I am not resentful. I mention this only because I am on my way to a conference where "place making" is the topic, and the idea that roadways are not simply for transport but also for experience is promoted.

In my hotel room overlooking downtown Pittsburgh I will readily admit that the view is fantastic once I lift my eyes above the parking lots  for at least 10,000 cars right in front of me that seem to serve the adjacent Consol Energy Center and all of downtown. The lots get shuttle service like airport satellite lots, but are entirely empty this evening. I had briefly feared Energy Center indicated a nuclear power plant or maybe a trash-to-energy incinerator, but it turns out to be a spanking new arena. The sea of asphalt, though, is the vestige of a truly nuclear 1956 urban renewal strategy that demolished 1,300 homes and 400 businesses in the Hill District, a failed attempt to expand downtown which displaced 8,000 residents, mostly African Americans. 
Downtown Pittsburgh with Harvest Moon
as seen from Grandview Blvd.
photo: ArchPlan Inc.

Take the "Duquesne Incline," a wonderful historic cable car ascending the steep edge of the Ohio/Monongahela River valley, to Grandview Ave at sunset and take in the gorgeous view of Pittsburgh's compact downtown,  discover the cluster of eateries on Shiloh Street, drink a Dusquesne Pils, eat lunch in the Strip District (not a red light district!) and you will easily fall in love with this very idiosyncratic city.

There are many bicyclists attending the conference and they brought their bikes.  The city administration foresaw this and wisely placed riot fences near the entrances which bicycle activists immediately recognize as additional bike racks. Knowing that he would appear on the lunch panel of a plenary session, Mayor William Peduto had also ordered a "cycle track" on Penn Street, i.e. two-way protected bike lanes taking up what used to be a travel lane for cars. The paint was barely dry on the new markings when the conference opened. The installation is a bit incomplete, and the abrupt end of it needed to be blocked off by police so counterflow bicyclists would not run accidentally head on into oncoming traffic. Peduto got a few rounds of applause for his efforts at getting Pittsburgh in line with other cities in bike
Pittsburgh's newest bike facility: Cycle track on
Penn Street (photo: ArchPlan)
accommodation. He was a bit overshadowed by talkative Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter who made it clear how much superior his town feels to Pittsburgh. Nutter and his DOT planner Rina Cutler are willing to go the distance : "if you are the Mayor and if you want to be loved everyday you are in the wrong job. Go work in a pet shop. Go make a plan stick with it, communicate what you are doing". 
Both cities will introduce bike sharing next spring, but as Philly's Mayor instantly pointed out, only he will install a system that won't require the possession of a credit card to rent the bike from a sharing station.

Over one thousand conference attendees filled the gigantic ballroom for the keynote speeches to get pumped up about bicycling and walking, two activities that most anybody else in the world would consider as normal as breathing, not particularly in need of activism or inspirational keynote speeches. Fish swim, birds fly and humans walk, keynote speaker and former Commissioner of Bogota would remind us.
Pop up bike lanes on Seventh Street Bridge, Pittsburgh
(photo: ArchPlan)

But the US is just beginning to catch up, "playing" as Penelosa says "but not yet scoring."  Fred Kent, the founder of PPS, explained "when you focus on place, you will do everything differently". Peter Smith, a city councilmember of Adelaide, Australia likened cities  to tapas barsand at this bar there is a dish for everyone." Having a speaker from as far as Australia surely highlights the global nature of biking and walking, and Australia may well be that other place in the world that could beat the US in car dependency. 

That this was a somewhat quirky boutique conference wasn't only obvious from the decidedly casual outfit of many participants who had biked here after all (I biked sweat free just from my hotel, but some had biked here all the way from New York and Washington) but also from diversions during the plenary sessions that included shouting out "good morning” in any of the languages that participants spoke, singing happy birthday to a friend of one of the speakers who sat unsuspecting in the audience, or folding your arms left over right and then in reverse (reversing from what you usually do is unexpectedly difficult).
Pro Walk, Pro Bike tour of downtown bike
facilities in Pittsburgh
(photo: ArchPlan)

Boutique conference or not, the Pro Bikers and Pro Walkers caught the attention of officials. Not only the mayor of the host city had gone all out to make bicyclists feel welcome, even the US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx had made the pilgrimage and used the event to announce "the most forward leaning bike-ped initiative that any USDOT has ever done." Of course, he also conceded that without a new transportation bill from Congress he can only "operate with the breaks on." Fred Kent asked that this conference would support him and be "his army." However, this movement has changed its tactics from the earlier more "militant" tactics like "Critical Mass," to a tune of collaboration, synergy and an ever broader message that expanded from bicyclists rights to health, equity, sustainability, added value, complete streets and communities. There is an all new vocabulary as well, namely "active transportation" meaning especially walking and bicycling, once called "alternative transportation." Suggested improvements for those "modes" of mobility now target also the occasional and inexperienced bicyclist and minorities by requesting "protected cycle tracks", i.e. lanes for bicyclists that are separated from the road by some type of divider. Unfortunately, the most common separation is also the cheapest:,  reflecting plastic sticks in a rubber boot that soon
Incomplete bike box. Convention Center
Pittsburgh (photo: ArchPlan)
after installation look battered. So far, bike accommodation usually means more clutter in the streetscape, an unsatisfactory outcome for the conference’s third component- placemaking. 

This conference supports the sense that even in the US, the Titanic of traffic engineering is finally turning, replacing bit-by-bit the gods of traditional engineering: Traffic flow, design speed, level of service, capacity, parking ratio, signal warrant, and whatever all the other terms of efficient car movement were that for decades suffocated any meaningful discussion about any proposal that challenged any of these parameters which were prescribed by tomes like the 

The new vocabulary of complete streets, active transportation, healthy communities, collaboration, walk score, road diet, bike box, bike boulevard, and universal accesssignals a shift towards caring about how people really "operate" or live instead of depriving them of their sensory and physical needs in the name of efficiency. If gritty and tough Chicago gets in on Complete Streets and gets soft on pedestrians, you know something is afoot.

There is no one who can better express the new paradigm than 
Gil Penalosa now Executive Director of 8-80 Cities, . I will close my observations with quotes from his closing keynote at the conference:
"One of the beauties of Placemaking is that it works everywhere."  

"8-80 is about vibrant cities. Everything has to be fantastic for someone who is 8 or 80 years old.”  

"40 years ago they wanted to be efficient, now they want to attract the best people." (about the Danish city of Arhus).  

"Citizens pay us to get things done not to find 20 reasons why something can't be done." (about city bureaucrats) 

"We need to dignify the pedestrians and cyclists."  

"Physical activity is not just an event like the 4th of July. We need to do it every week." 

"Every city is unique. Just like every other city."  

"When the Danes did their first pedestrian streets in the seventies they said that is for Italians, they are always out in the streets. Today the Danes are more Italian than the Italians." 

"Shared streets are not where everybody is equal but where the pedestrian rules. The other modes are allowed but on the terms of the pedestrian." 

"The biggest economic impact we can have [in the US] is to downsize the two car household to one car." " Get away from the 'nice to have' to the 'must have." (for biking and walking). 

“On bikeways you need the minimum grid. Compare to a power grid. You cannot supply power with one line." 

"Walking and cycling is not a frivolity."  

“270,000 people a year are killed when walking [globally].” (About the urgency to do something)
Sailebration at night (Photo: Bill Reuter)

After Penalosa finished his fiery speech, the conference attendees leaped to their feet, all fired up. And in that moment the fire alarm went off and the convention center had to be evacuated and I am not making this up.

When I drove back home the Ravens and the Steelers were getting ready for their first real game. Just as in the preseason game, the Ravens won on their own turf. The Blue Angels had done their practice run over the Inner Harbor, the tall ships had their sails lit, and Baltimore hosted hundreds of thousands of visitors for the war of 1812/14 commemorations. Urbanity at its best. Rivalry? Penalosa is right, we are just beginning to learn how to live and these two American cities and many others are getting better at it every day.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff

Friday, September 5, 2014

Comfort Architecture or Innovation?

For me architecture is not a business, it is an engagement with the world. David Adjaye,  RIBA (architect of the new African American History Museum in DC)
The Atlantic Cities observed on the occasion of the new Norman Foster designed Apple headquarters that America "hasn't seen much large-scale, ambitious, futuristic architecture in recent years, even Zaha Hadid's upcoming condo project on the Highline in New York looks pretty tame."  Here in the US we see none of those mold breaking shapes we have seen in Dubai or Asia. What may be the reason? Jennie Xie, the Atlantic City author answers it this way: The reality is, U.S. urban areas already have well-developed contexts, and the numerous approvals developers and architects need to secure tend to demand that any new large project fit well into its surroundings.

Libeskind museum in Denver (during construction)
photo: ArchPlan Inc.

Fair enough. But let's knock the question itself a bit. Isn't it revealing that the author thinks immediately of Zaha Hadid in his lament about the lack of "futuristic" and ambitious architecture? Clearly the author is looking for iconic stuff like one gets not only from Hadid but also from Libeskind, Gehry and Calatrava or Herzog de Meuron, architects on the pedestal of global stardom who first successfully branded themselves and then the cities in which they dropped their icons.
There even is a term for this, "the Bilbao Effect." Should we really mourn the rarity of this type architecture in the US? Would US cities be better off with more museums like the one Libeskind designed for Denver or Calatrava for Milwaukee, or are we ready on a new page of architecture altogether? 

I am not suggesting that there should be a categorical answer, even though the populist response would probably be to reject that type of star architecture. People like to juxtapose those iconic projects with the basic needs that most cities have and then proceed to condemn iconic landmark architecture as frivolous, in the same vein as the congressmen from Texas and elsewhere that concluded that we didn't need to know more about elementary physics and scuttled the US large Hadron Collider then under construction in Texas.    
Gehry concert hall in LA
photo: ArchPlan Inc.

I certainly don't sympathize with this line of myopic provincialism. Still, as I outlined in an earlier article about our state of architecture, I believe that cities today need more than star architects dropping their personal brand objects on them. And not because those objects would be too jarring or wild but because they aren't innovative enough. And it is at this point where I would take the Atlantic City lament to the next level. 

Instead of innovation US cities mostly get the twins of convenience and comfort architecture. The former is convenient and cheap to build (for example the ubiquitous concrete deck with retail or parking below and 4-5 stories of wood sticks above that rows of apartments). The latter is the equally ubiquitous and predictable collage of brick, plaster and cement board with some regionally preferred vernacular touches such as pilasters, cornices or turrets thrown in for the expected local flavor, altogether a mockery of historic styles.

Convenience and comfort architecture occurs in the middle of an urban building boom described by many as a renaissance of the city. Like comfort food, comfort architecture conjures up presumably better times, feels pleasingly familiar, and distracts us from the issues at hand. 

Take Washington DC, for example, a city that because or in spite of being the nation's capital has never been known for daring architecture.  It’s height restriction is naturally predisposed for "background" architecture, and this timid capital has recently filled almost every leftover surface with comfort and convenience architecture. It happened in such breathtaking expediency that it is now easier than ever to get lost in the sameness of it all. But Washington is not alone; the twins of comfort and convenience can be found in any growing city in America.
podium and stick mid-rise "mixed use"architecture
donned up in the local vernacular. here San Diego
photo: ArchPlan Inc.

This type of infill conforms neatly with the major maxims of New Urbanists: mixed use, following the grid, forming edges, accenting corners etc. So they, at least should be pleased. In fact, their nationwide urban and suburban success seems to have left them momentarily rudderless. As for the rest of us: While it is nice to see DC and other cities gaining residents and filling their vacant lots, one can easily predict that a few years down the road somebody will question this new sameness, wondering, "What were they thinking?"

The New Urbanists believe that in the past three thousand or whatever many years mankind figured out how "good" architecture and cities have to be done, and the results need to simply be codified in a pattern book like grandmas best cake recipes.  This should be met with outrage for its utter lack of imagination and it's negligent failure to address cities biggest challenges:

The global urbanization with hundreds of new cities on the scale of ten million residents and beyond being created from the ground up; climate change and in its wake heretofore unknown resilience requirements; the need for sustainable urban food production for the 7 billion people inhabiting mostly metro areas; water shortages and the need for stable and robust communication infrastructure to name but a few. Those global issues require a slightly bigger response than some additional Poundburys, Prince Charles' fake medieval British small town
Collage historicist new urbanism near DC (Kings Farm)
photo: ArchPlan Inc.

There probably isn't a simple, direct reason for our almost universally backwards looking architecture, especially the one for the everyday. Instead, there is a whole hornets nest of causes. Excessive commercialization and commodization of buildings as speculative investments instead of expressions of society may be key. Drawn out approval procedures, lack of education and interest in the power of design may be others. Finally, the psychology of fear and caution emanating from a declining empire doesn't help either. 

Just like comfort food can be a band-aid for the soul in times of stress, architecture can provide a sense of belonging, orientation, and consolation to people in times of trouble. This may explain the preference of the American People for retro architecture. Or maybe the constant transformation of our lives which pushes us to the edge of our ability to cope. Unlike India, China, or Dubai we have been riding the wave of change for decades. Like Moshe Safdie said about current American attitudes about the automobile, "We had it for so long we are getting tired of it," we may be tired of modernity and especially modern architecture. Mobility, technology, knowledge require ever faster adaptation; is it surprising when we start to look for permanence in the buildings in which we live and work? Maybe only people that live in countries where cities are hundreds or even a thousand years old can aspire to homes that look like an I-Mac. Maybe US residents who live in characterless "instant suburbs" instead look for houses that remind them of of their own childhood on Maple Street: bricks, window mutins, gables and porches, the whole thing.

As understandable as it may be to settle for gazing at our bellies, withdraw from the world and hunker down in the fake nostalgia of convenience and comfort, it misses a great opportunity.  While questions of comfort, human scale and happiness may, indeed have some simple eternal strands, transport, energy, water and communication needs demand innovation in architecture and urbanism that reach far beyond the scale of the individual building or the small town. India, China, Brazil or Nigeria cannot build their new mega cities with the blueprint of a village or the "transect." Even Haussmann's plans for Paris, Nolli's Rome, or Burnham’s famously big plans for Chicago would be too small, the implied imperial undercurrent of such suggestions being the least of the worries. This gets me back to innovation.

The US who gave the world Daniel Burnham, the Otis elevator, the Empire State Building, Philip Johnson and, yes, Frank Gehry, should not be content with the current state of affairs. Even most of the drop-down-icon architecture so cherished by glossy architectural magazines has to be imported from foreigners such as Foster, Calatrava, Hadid, Koolhaas or Ingels, and big systemic urban innovation that could be a model for emerging countries is even rarer in the US.
Podium and sticks in Seattle: Convenient, yes, but is
it resilient, energy efficient and sustainable?
photo: ArchPlan Inc.

In a country that has led the world to new frontiers in communication and information exchange with global innovation leaders such as Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Uber, one would expect that if nothing else these companies themselves would stimulate innovative architecture which, of course, the attentive reader will notice loops right back to the beginning of this article and the Atlantic's reference to Foster's new Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California. It must be said that this marriage between architecture and innovation industry is not the kind of example I would have in mind. It is way too introverted, solitary, and non-contextual in a way that ignores the bigger systems into which it is embedded.

Google's Mountain View office campus may be more inspiring in that it breaks up the monolithic office building in favor of a village-like setting, stimulating interaction. It too, however, remains isolated and un-urban with Google's employees shuttled in on luxury buses not available to the citizens of nearby San Francisco. 
The New Orleans region became the playground for
regional ecology and water oriented resilience plans on
the scale needed to address real issues

The US gave the world the suburb, the Big-Mac, sprawl, and an automotive culture. Now it is our turn to develop ideas for the future city, and one that is more than a warm-up of Mayberry. If we want our cities to remain beacons for the next hundred years, we have to be doing much better than comfort and convenience. I am currently reviewing dozens of national and international urban design plans as a juror for the AIA annual design awards. There are a few submissions that make me very hopeful that there are designers, architects, planners, and engineers out there that fully comprehend the scope of the challenge, and address the issues confronting us in the broad and comprehensive manner that is needed for actual solutions, and that is so much more than iconic vanity architecture and the dull twins of comfort and convenience.

The search continues. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff

Related articles on this blog
Small Footprints - Big Ideas. Architecture Outside the Box

Sources and Links:
2014 Progressive Architecture Awards (3 of 10 located in the US)
The Rise of the Mid Rise (Builder Online)
One Planet Communities

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Dirt About Trash in the City

The degree to which people associate the city with dirt became clear to me the other day while I sat in Baltimore's WYPR studio during our talk show call-in session about development. The topic was design and development proposals for Baltimore's Inner Harbor, maybe the city's most famous showpiece. We were discussing if beach volleyball along the south shore was the best use, and if a seventies design "brutalist" concrete fountain should stay or be removed, when a caller started talking about dirt. Apparently residing somewhere in the suburbs north of the city, she reported having recently visited Baltimore's Inner Harbor.  Recalling her visit, she immediately began talking about trash. "Too much trash!" she said and with an angry tone in her voice.  She finished her observation with, "Baltimore is just a dirty, filthy town!" then hung up before she could hear my stunned "Wow."
The Baltimore Inner Harbor promenade usually presents
itself "spic and span" thanks to a special benefits

The harbor area is one of the special benefits districts where an army of people ("Clean and Green Ambassadors,” is what the Downtown Partnership calls their uniformed sweepers in the adjacent benefits district) work all day long doing not much else than picking up trash. By my standards the harbor is clean as a bean if one ignores some flotsam in the water which is also aggressively attacked by sweeper boats and a solar powered trash wheel at the point where the Jones Falls river typically dumps lots of trash into the harbor waters. So what was really going on here?

The callers ability to go from a detail (some discarded items she observed) to the condemnation of an entire city as a filthy place must have deeper roots than what the caller had let on.  Did the caller mean that the city is a place where people don't care, a place of sin, crime, and lewdness?  Perhaps standing in contrast to the suburbs where only like-minded people with similar income live on the same street, and yards, streets, and houses are immaculate?
Areas deeper in downtown are also meticulously cleaned
by the Safe and Clean teams of the Downtown Partnership
which also provides the tables and chairs for the chess
players seen here

Hard to know what was on the caller's mind.  Still, the fervor with which some people hate cities must have its roots somewhere. Where? The intensity of their hate seems inversely proportional to actual experience and knowledge of the place that is in question. That would make ignorance a contributing factor but an unsatisfactory explanation.

A little exploration of dirt and trash may be in order. Mundane as the topic is, it is the field of much science, especially psychology. Freudians liken orderliness and cleanliness to a desire for control and say compulsive orderliness is "anally retentive", not exactly a commendation. While Freud may not be the top regarded psychoanalyst these days, he stands in a not so very long line of folks who inspected how homo sapiens evolved into a being that likes his place of residence and surrounding community clean. As a look into history books will show, this desire for neatness is one of rather modern advent. By today's standards cities, towns and villages were cesspools through most of the history of mankind. 

One could even argue that our evolving sense of disgust directly informed the spatial order of cities, as the gentleman does who wrote the introduction of the remarkably titled book "la histoire de la merde" which was dutifully and without scruples translated into English by MIT Press (I spare you the English title).

The same olfactory/excremental factors that transformed body, bed, and tomb into distinct spatial units were operative at the level of the building and the city. Their influence is clearly demonstrated in the evolution of the hospital during the second half of the eighteenth century, a process in which many recent studies have recognized the emerging physiognomy of modern space
Another and more delicate literary exploration of dirt comes from the late German professor and writer Christian Enzensberger in a quite intriguing  treatise titled "Serious Attempt About Dirt" (direct translation) and rather prosaically translated into "Smut -the Anatomy of Dirt" in the English edition. The author observes astutely how the human may be quite fond of his private dirt and that disgust comes when it is somebody else's dirt.  
outside the special benefits districts
Baltimore's streets are often rather
filthy as here on Franklin Street
They [excretions] appear as part of the individual, he [the human] welcomes them as his own. But this love is short-lived. Is it still me (their creator is soon asking himself) or is it not, is it still mine, or already an object like anything else? I am not sure, I don’t like it, I want to disown it, it was never mine, away with all this horrid confusion! The fact is, man enjoys excreting.
Without delving too far into this very European exploration of the psychology of dirt and the trajectory between excrement, waste and urban planning, this excursion may help us to remind ourselves that ideas about cleanliness, let's say, evolved over time. 

This would also suggest that standards even today are far from uniform. US travelers to Europe famously complain that they encounter "BO" there and western tourists are united in reporting from India about the onslaught of olfactory assaults in the country's more traditional quarters. In an increasingly diverse urban setting, disagreement about trash and requisite standards of acceptable cleanliness appear inevitable, then, though locating ones disgust in crowded quarters may be a common strand.

The suburb, from which the lady had fielded her call, let's be reminded, is the response such disgust about the crowded dirty city and its home is the USA. The suburb could be defined as the culmination of the privatization of everything, notably by creating distance. The resulting isolation of the individual is possibly a necessary disposition of capitalism which needs consumers. The suburb as the locus for accumulation of material possession rather than one for social experience. 
The suburb removes the other one's stuff from sight.  Everything is safely tucked away from the public roam, one drives into the garage and steps safely from the car directly into the kitchen. No laundry flaps in the breeze, no sewage flows out back. 
The Roman and urban act of shared excretion side by side and over an extended gossipy chat: entirely beyond imagination! This once sometimes pretty public act had been relegated first to the privy (a derivation of private) and then to something that Americans call euphemistically "rest" or "bath" room. In the suburb nothing is revealed, the curtains remain tightly shut, whatever happens goes on inside or behind the house, hidden by hedges and fences.
The "Green Team" in Sharp Leadenhall, youth

This extreme seclusion inevitably brings about a backlash. The recent renaissance of cities may be an expression of that as well as selfies and the new culture of online exposure. Nevertheless, we bring suburban expectations back to the city and now expect the city to be pristine and uncrowded, neither buses nor smokestacks may be belching anything, alleys have to be rat free and smoothly paved and trash shall be out of sight at all times everywhere. By the way, the aim of this suburbanized world view is not only the city, the drive to clean up also turns against rural lands and its stalwart, the farm. Its stench and defecating animals must be sanitized away.   Industrial farming obliges and conceals whatever nastiness that is going on behind shut compounds. Only a few feuds remain at the fringes of suburbia where the cultures clash and the full book of regulations is thrown at the remaining hapless peasant who foolishly tries to have some pigs (cows, ducks, chicken, sheep) outdoors.

Andres Duany, the architect, town-planner and guru of New Urbanism is in search of new topics which landed him recently in Detroit. There he addressed the suburban obsession with cleanliness in a  speech to students of architecture that held in an informal setting. He had just spent a day touring the bankrupt city. Unlike what one would expect od Duany  or Detroit, for that matter, he wasn't depressed or upset about the city's decline but full of enthusiasm about the creative vibe and new energy  that he had discovered to be converging on mo-town. So there he talked about trash and told the students the story of how he had toured a gated suburban community with some big-wig development CEO in a shiny SUV and how this guy in suit and tie had stopped to step out and pick up a piece of lone piece of trash that his eagle eyes had deteced on the neat lawn. This, Duany said, are the new standards. Perfection, he said, with which cities simply can't compete.

There in the studio at WYPR I thought of this little story from Duany when the lady caller had her short outburst against filth. Maybe she lived in one of those immaculate gated communities?

I have had my own indignations about trash. Coming back from Canada or Germany, I have had moments when I considered the US to be comparably dirty. I  felt this way when viewing, for example, all the empty Coors Light beer cans discarded along rural highways that are quite striking when one bikes along those roads.  A kind of debris which I have found to be much less frequent north of the border or overseas. Many times I have cursed the trash blowing along the sidewalks just outside the benefits district when I walk towards my office. Or the people that don't mind dropping their styrofoam containers with fries and ketchup right in front of your eyes. There is a certain irony in the fact that Americans are not only global leaders in their sanitation and hygiene habits but they are at the same time global leaders in producing garbage.
Baltimore spending. Public works has the lion share

Aside from its philosophical and psychological aspects, this makes trash in American cities a real and gigantic problem. Mayors have lost their jobs over bungled trash pick-up; this is by no means a trifling matter. To solve it, it is useful to distinguish the two sides of trash. The side of those that make the trash, and the side of the agencies that have to clean it up. Supply and absorption one could say. The public usually points the finger at both. 

So why are there "citizens" that find it quite OK to dump a truckload of garbage into some alley, why pedestrians who drop their food wrappers and stating upon being questioned "That is what we pay taxes for?"

One can muse about the citizenry and social cohesion and say that the penetration of standards of community pride and cleanliness relate directly to the level of which an individual is privileged enough to participate in the process of regulations, governance, and the establishment of rules in general. In other words: the disenfranchised clearly and understandably don't care as much about recycling when their actual life may be put at risk by those around them who are even further on the fringe and for whom even human life is just a disposable commodity. It may be not too much of a stretch to further speculate that the more menial a person's job, the bigger maybe the temptation to expect service from people that have even more menial jobs. (The trash sweepers). But in the process of blaming imperfect humans it is important to realize that the biggest source of "making trash" is not the careless citizen.  The real trash producer is an economy based on consumption, packaging, and convenience. The styrofoam containers, the flimsy shopping bags in the trees and the rubbish floating down the stormlines into the Chesapeake Bay are not made by citizens and they often didn't get even into their hands by choice.

Effectiveness of dealing with the origins of trash, then, is not only related to the success a city has in creating prosperity and a civic sense of pride by incorporating and including as many of its citizens as possible, (a feat in which the suburbs have an unfair advantage since most residents are there by choice while disadvantaged residents in cities often live there for lack of other choices). Effectiveness also has to get to the source of trash. Ordinances banning styrofoam food containers or plastic shopping bags or subjecting them to fees are examples what cities can do even on the lowest level of government. Requiring that each manufacturer takes their products back one day would require federal or international action. 
Municipal sanitation workers in Baltimore's alleys

In spite of these somewhat daunting mechanics, cities also became creative when it comes to "absorption", the task of collection and disposal of all the current waste. The city of Baltimore cites 2.7 million tons of waste in 2011 alone, including demolition debris, soil, dead animals and all. The household and commercial garbage constitutes about less than 10%  of that or 230,000 tons. The municipal budget for "sanitation and solid waste" was $66 million for operations alone with another $52 million in capital expenses planned for five years. 

Mayors, councils and non-profits unleashed a slew of creative and imaginative initiatives and ideas to combat filth, dirt, and trash. The wealthier get their special benefits districts with armies of additional sweepers and cleaners, mechanized or manual, day and night, out to spot something to be picked up. The poorer neighborhoods organize community clean up days, mobilize their youth in "Green Teams" (Me to We) or pay them modest stipends to be useful on Saturday mornings. Even the basic services of trash pick-up, street sweeping and recycling are not your tired "government as usual" type operations anymore, they are subject to modern management practices and strategies that yield results like single-stream recycling, dispense of rat safe garbage containers and purchase of high tech trash trucks and sweepers that can deal with the never shrinking volumes. In spite of years of experience, the jury seems to be still out whether private operators are more efficient in trash removal than the much maligned government. 

Another issue is environmental friendliness of trash disposal. Cities try to up recycling participation so the remaining amount of garbage that needs to be land-filled or incinerated is reduced. The City of Baltimore has increased its recycling volume to just over 20%, about half of what Baltimore County (44%) or Howard County (48%) achieve.  But Baltimore burns most of its trash and uses the energy for steam district heating, a technique that sounds green. 
(BRESCO incinerates Baltimore’s waste 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and produces 510,000 pounds of steam per hour that is sold to Trigen and distributed through the City’s steam heating loop or sent through power turbines that can produce 60 megawatts; enough to power 68,000 homes.16 From Baltimore City alone, BRESCO processed 416,347 tons of waste in 2011) 
Even with co-generation, incineration leaves the issue of toxic emissions that are emitted through the flue-stack in spite of scrubbers and filters. Landfills are finite and pose an even bigger set of environmental challenges. 
Baltimore Bresco incinerator plant

We see that neither community organizing and the stimulation of civic pride nor the considerable efforts of city sanitation departments can really eradicate the problem of trash without further consideration why we have so much of it in the first place.  

I noted already that our sense of what we consider “clean” changed over time. Still, we shouldn’t  imagine the time when many US cities didn't have sewer lines or regular trash collection (a mere 120 years ago) as a time of nothing but filth. We shouldn't think that garbage was piling high in the streets. The biggest difference between then and now is not sanitation technology but our abundant production of waste. Back then residents hardly produced anything that was called "trash." People were resourceful in using and reusing materials. Things were bought bulk and not packaged. Organic matter was composted. Wood and combustibles were used for heating and cooking. There was no plastic. "Stuff" was expensive, food often scarce. People didn't wash their laundry every time it had touched the body once and they didn't shower every day either. In old Colonial towns whatever “trash” they had was buried in trenches along alleys. But that wasn’t particularly unhealthy because we are talking about broken pottery, glass or maybe some construction debris, hardly pollutants.  In short, up to the industrial revolution, industrial production and the run on cities lifestyles had many components that we might call sustainable today.

Hard to say how glad we should be that we have left those "dark ages behind. One thing becomes abundantly clear: Trash, filth, waste, and garbage are the result of our lifestyle .  The gleaming suburb isn’t as much a solution as simply a counterpoint to the urb (the city) that is symbiotic and can hardly be thought of on its own. The suburb possibly represents the culmination of a consumption and waste oriented society. Trash doesn’t lend itself to silver bullet solutions, except maybe this: The best trash is that never produced in the first place. 

Considering all that the little rant by a lady on the radio can make one really philosophical.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff

Topically related articles on this blog:
The Growing Divide Between Rural and Urban America

External Links:

Dirt: New Geographies of Cleanliness and Contamination

Does Disgust Influence Moral Judgment?, Joshua May, Australasian Journal of Philosophy vol. 92, no. 1 (2014), pp.125-141

Christian Enzensberger: Smut -the anatomy of dirt (Größerer Versuch ueber den Schmutz). Review
The History of Trash in the US
America's Never Ending War against Garbage
10 Year Solid Waste Management Plan Baltimore
Maryland County Recycling Fact Sheets

Friday, August 22, 2014

Schools as Place Makers

The nation spent over thirteen billion dollars on school construction in 2013. In my area,  Baltimore City and Baltimore County combined have earmarked over 2.1 billion dollars for their ten-year school construction programs. It would probably be no exaggeration to say that those types of investments will make a difference in the built environment. To understand how much school systems are players in our metros, consider this: Baltimore County schools alone transport 75,000 kids every day in their own buses, a ridership that
Transportation instead of place
represents 1/3 of the public transit passengers of the entire MTA, buses and rail combined. With almost 30,000 employees, the two Baltimore school systems (City and County) are by far the largest employer in Maryland. Combined, they operate over 350 buildings, as many as the entire downtown of a mid-size city. Shouldn't these mega organizations be considered highly important not only for education but also economic development, urban renewal, and urban space?

Unfortunately, for all the public attention that public schools get, economic development, urban renewal, and place-making aren't typically the topics of discussion. As a consequence, schools frequently undo places instead of making them, especially when they need more room and move out of their established spots.

We don't have to search too hard to find the reasons why schools are rarely considered as an integral component of urban development.
Booker T. Washington School in Baltimore, built to
last and instill pride and place

One reason is that schools and school systems are safely siloed and walled off from agencies concerned with urban development. In a desire to insulate education from politics, Mayor and Council typically have little influence on how schools are run beyond some control over the buildings themselves. Take the capital budgets of schools: In many cases it is actually quite unclear where the money comes from. School systems lead a life of their own and how exactly the governance works differs from state to state and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Elected school boards, appointed school boards, schools where local government owns the buildings but the school board runs the operations, does education fundingdoes come from property taxes, state budgets or both? All of these conditions and questions make forthe general public a system that is usually pretty obtuse and poorly understood. Urban design, then, is the least of worries for concerned parents or even the school boards themselves.

Instead, debates rage about how US education performs in international comparisons, to what extent schools should equip their students with computer tablets, whether “Common Core" or some other curriculum is better, how the deficiencies in science and math can be overcome, how arts can help students’ self-confidence, or how physical education and better cafeteria food can combat obesity. These issues seem all so much more relevant than the school as a place maker in the community. As a parent who shepherded five children to public schools I appreciate all those preoccupations. The obesity question, however, illustrates well that several seemingly unrelated issues eventually lead to place making. Why is it, for example, that kids can't walk to school anymore?

The departure of schools from their communities in which they were proud anchors in favor of the never-spaces between communities is the story of sprawl,  the dominant development pattern of the many decades after the war, not only in the US but also overseas. I experienced it first hand: My grandfather was a small town mayor and according to common lore his biggest achievement was to abolish one room schools in the three tiny villages of his district in favor of a brand new joint school shared between them, and located in green fields equidistant from each village, reachable only by bus. On my grandpa's seventieth, eightieth and even his ninetieth birthday the village elders never tired to tell the story how this forward looking man had brought progress to his communities in the shape of a school kitchen, a cafeteria, and even a library, and how my grandfather had gone into battle to get this done over the objections of those stuck in the past. Of course, a school which opened in the late sixties doesn't look so bright anymore. In fact, they come from a period when school design clearly had a low.
The school my grandfather initiated: Too unsafe to walk to

Similar stories played out all across the United States as well and they still occur to this day The tiny spot of Prices Fork outside Blacksburg, VA, for example, just last year rolled one of big sprawling single story educational villages into the fields that once constituted a considerable distance between Blacksburg and Prices Fork while the town of Blackburg itself gobbled much of the green buffer up with not just one but two sprawling compounds, a Middle and a High school side by side on an area larger than the entire town center. By now Blacksburg and Prices Fork have almost grown together, each having lost a good part of their previous identity in the process.Similar stories played out all across the United States as well and they still occur to this day. The tiny spot of Prices Fork outside Blacksburg, VA, for example, just last year rolled out a big sprawling single-story educational village in the fields that once constituted a considerable rural expanse between Blacksburg and Prices Fork.  The town of Blacksburg itself gobbled much of the green buffer up with not just one but two sprawling compounds, a middle and a hHigh school side-by-side on an area larger than the entire town center. By now, Blacksburg and Prices Fork have almost grown together, each having lost a good part of their previous identity in the process.
Prices Fork ES, hardly a place maker, certainly not
a walk to school

In addition to sprawl other forces are at play which don't help community development-based place making: Frequent attacks on schools foster a bunker mentality in which security concerns squash any desire for openness and community mingling. Immigration and demographics having to do with the baby boomer "echo" and their offspring made many centrally located schools too small or obsolete. Baltimore County, especially hit by overcrowded elementary schools, resorted to complicated new deals in which several historic school buildings and community centers are supposed to be gutted in favor of efficient and cost-effective new construction often in a new location. In one case a much beloved tree studded open space was selected as the site fora new school, pitting parents against dog-walkers, seniors, and runners. In Catonsville, the recently awakened main street is being threatened with the loss and demolition of its 1912 Elementary School, by far the largest historic structure on the street and an important character-shaping element of the village core.
Catonsville Elementary. In the community and of the
community but threatened by demolition

The relationship of school and community is increasingly recognized not necessarily for urban design but for its value to education itself. Needless to say, when schools moved away from their communities those relationships suffered in many ways. The Enterprise paper "Reconnecting Schools and Neighborhoods" summarizes the mutual dependencies:
Families,schools, and neighborhoods also influence each other. Families can reinforce or detract from school activities, and schools can influence family behavior by encouraging certain educational practices within the home. Neighborhoods can influence families by providing access to jobs, a sense of physical safety, and social networks.In addition, advantaged families tend to select prosperous neighborhoods where other affluent families send their children to school.The influence of families,schools, and neighborhoods are interconnected, making it exceptionally difficult to quantify the independent effect of each on children’s academic performance. Nevertheless, all three forces clearly play a role in shaping children’s outcomes.

Big cities, often landlocked inside the surrounding county, not only have a hard time  finding space for sprawling expansions, therefore spawning more urban solutions, but their long history also allows a nice comparison of school architecture over time and a comparison of facilities and how they performed in their communities. Let's just say, the schools from the seventies aren't the top performers. The windowless, low-flung imitations of the suburbs are absent of any architectural ambition and guided only by what was then considered functionality. As a result they are often the least loved and most in need of a drastic overhaul, while stately multi-story buildings that were designed to be proud civic landmarks in their community are still that, even if their interiors are outdated and in need of upgrades. A 2013 exhibit titled "the Edgeless School" showed many good urban schools that opened up to their surrounding communities in tight urban settings. (East Harlem Center for Living and Learning). Washington DC has a School Without Walls that "uses the city as a classroom".
Layout of the Henderson community
school, mimicking city blocks

Baltimore City, then, presents an instructive example for what community-based schools can be, especially with the promise of an even more community-based approach for the upcoming capital investment program, a concept that fellow Baltimore architect Davin Hong dubbed Community Investment Zones. The idea of school investment zones around the billion dollar city construction program is still mostly an idea supported by AIA. Baltimore City has yet to translate it into action in the form of focused improvement action in the communities surrounding the schools. David states this in his newspaper editorial:
True transformation will require a larger, more comprehensive vision for community development that addresses both the problem of failing neighborhoods and the problem of failing schools.
Two recently completed new schools in Baltimore City could be especially instructive: one, the public "magnet" Design School (graphic design, fashion and architecture), is a renovation of a three-story former garment factory funded by a private developer and leased back by the school system. The Design School is an important anchor of the Station North Arts and Entertainment district.

The other is the Henderson Hopkins School, a brand new,  state-of-the-rt K-8 "community school," located in what used to be the poorest area of Baltimore, "Middle East," Henderson Hopkins was funded for the most part by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Johns Hopkins School of Education, and is run as a "Contract School."
Rehabbed and partially re-built rowhouses for
Hopkins-Henderson library: In and of the
Both schools are interesting as buildings, as models for funding, as examples of wide ranging partnerships and as trendsetters for new pedagogy. But for the purpose of this article I bring them up as models of economic development, as urban design contributors and as anchors of their respective communities, each deeply disinvested and disenfranchised until recently. Both schools aim for interaction with the community down to special entrances that allow the public to use parts of the school even while other parts are full of students. Unlike their suburban counterparts they don't stand withdrawn in the middle of parking and greenery but form a street-edge on a regular city block just like city buildings normally do. The Henderson school design by Rogers Architects in New York was the design competition winner for the very reason that it rebuilt the urban patterns that were germane to the East Baltimore Community. As the architect explains:
 The Library is not only place for knowledge from outside the community but also a place for knowledge of the community from  inside the community.
Another interesting Baltimore example of the community building power of schools is far less direct, Seawall's recent strategy of providing affordable housing specifically for teachers. The purpose is  to attract quality teachers to urban communities which have often difficulties attracting them. Seawall has expanded its teacher communities from rental housing to starter homes for teachers and small businesses that serve the teachers and surrounding communities.

Pedagogy, the renaissance of cities, the interest in walkable mixed-use urban communities and the desire to create healthy communities all point in the same direction: Into a future where schools once again are engines, centers, and proud landmarks in their communities.

The concept of school/ community investment zones (Davin Hong, AIA)

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

edited Ben Groff
updated for link to Smart Growth Schools 8/24/14. Corrected misspelled name David Hong 9/2/14

Links related to this story:
Enterprise Report (2007): Reconnecting School and Neighborhood
Building a School with a Future (NPR)
Smart Growth Schools Report Card (A toolkit for assessing how much school investments are smart growth)
Baltimore City Schools, Baltimore City ten year construction plan
Baltimore County Schools, Baltimore County ten year plan
Baltimore School Community Investment Zones (suggested strategy, see also here)

Related stories on this blog:
Cities in Search of the 21st Century School
My Walkable Childhood Habitat
Why dealing with the Past through Demolition may not Work
Art as Neighborhood Regenerator
Baltimore Design School

Comments to this piece submitted on other websites:

  • Stuart Pertz
    Civic Design Advocate
    Thank you for a very thoughtful and thought provoking piece.
    Schools are one of the few public facilities that are able to create by their use and proximity, all the programmatic possibilities of a perfect community "place". The playground, the gym, the auditorium, the entrance hall, class rooms and the even modest surrounding green space often represents not only an essential resource, but an important sense of community pride.
    And as you note, often not.
    Poor design may well be a part of the problem, but were schools able to organize themselves as central places for their neighborhoods and communities without the overwhelming sense that they have so much else to do, the idea might be met with more internal support. Perhaps if school facilities were seen as a professional responsibility, not merely a janitorial one, or perhaps even independent of the school bureaucracy, it might help free up some leadership for placemaking goals.
    It is certainly not an easy idea or investment to promote to financially strapped towns and cities, but your article nudged the broader conversation along very well.
    Thanks again.
  • I enjoyed your “Schools as Place Makers” article.  I wanted to bring to your attention the “Smart Growth Schools Report Card” in the event that you have not seen it.  While it could benefit from being updated, it has helped frame a lot of the issues for some folks. Here is the link:
     http://smartgrowthschools.org/SGSReportCard.pdf Cheers,
     Nathan R. Norris
    CEO, Downtown Development Authority
    Lafayette, LA  70501

  • Anita McKeown
    Thinking Wilderness at LEAP
    Enjoyed reading your piece Klaus and exciting to hear a sort of a ripple regarding this in other parts of the world.

    There is currently a move in Ireland given the recession and public sector monies to reconsider Schools as central community assets. On average once holidays, weekends and weekday timetables are factored in schools are used approx 46% of the year. This is a huge potential asset to a community that is currently not being utilised.

    The move towards schools being re-conisdered as part of an ecology of a location with multi-use at the core of their activities rather than just education requires a conceptual shift across many disciplines and govt departments which is almost bigger than any practical enactment.

    Health and safety of young people is a concern ( silod / walled places) and of course the administrational systems are very different between the US and here in Ireland so would have very different obstacles to confront. However the similarities involve the need to move towards shared ownership, shared management and for that to really work as you say takes transparency, trust and a willingness to do things differently through a devolution of power.

    Yet despite the steep climb - I am optimistic and look forward to hearing more of the progression of this conversation within the US.