Category Archives: Urbanism

Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses

As a follow-up to the last post, I’ve been enjoying ‘Twenty Minutes in Manhattan’ by Michael Sorkin.  Unsurprisingly, he mentions Jane Jacobs a number of times – she’s the author of the 1961 classic ‘Death and Life of Great American Cities’ which was a brand new look at the diversity and density and in some ways inefficiency that makes cities vibrant and livable.

There’s a new book out on Jacobs and her nemesis, Robert Moses, city development planner of New York City in those days.  Moses was a proponent of so-called urban renewal, and a big believer in highways.  The book is ‘Wrestling with Moses’ by Anthony Flint – subtitled ‘How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City’. Flint comes to Portland on Oct. 15 at Powell’s on Burnside, and I look forward to it.  Here’s a link to a short review at Metropolis magazine.

As a side note, the Portland Mercury recently ran a story on some of the urban development plans that had been drawn up back in the 1960s and before.  And in fact Robert Moses was involved with a 1943 plan for Portland which has been made available electronically; the link is here on the Mercury’s blog.

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David Byrne's 'Bicycle Diaries'

A couple nights back I went to a book event for David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries, which is a kind of travelogue of what he’s seen around the world on tour – he brings a bike along and gets a closer look at many cities where he plays.  The event at the Bagdad Theater in Portland featured four speakers, David starting, and then bike planner Mia Birk, bike culture pioneer Timo Forsberg, and bike activist/journalist Jonathan Maus (of bikeportland.org – where you can read about the event here).

David spoke with accompanying photos, of urban utopian dreams of Le Corbusier and others, and he recommended a few other books along the way.  I picked up one of them that I had considered previously, Michael Sorkin’s Twenty Minutes in Manhattan.  Sorkin’s a professor of architecture, and his book is a collection of musings triggered from his walk to work – the initial chapter orients around stairs!

Pedalpalooza 2009!

Here’s the lovely poster for this year’s Pedalpalooza, which starts today!  Bicycling events daily all around Portland for the next two weeks!

You can find all the info here at:  http://www.shift2bikes.org/

More on 'Pedaling Revolution'

image by James Victore in NYT

(image by James Victore in NYT)

As a follow-up to my earlier post on the new book ‘Pedaling Revolution’ by Jeff Mapes, I note a couple items:

– a nice overview on the success of the book and Mapes’s reaction to it over here at BikePortland.org which notes that the book has gone into a third printing

David Byrne reviewed the book in the NYT Sunday Book Review last weekend.  He had this to say:

As Mapes points out, when more women begin riding, that will signal a big change in attitude, which will prompt further changes in the direction of safety and elegance. I can ride till my legs are sore and it won’t make riding any cooler, but when attractive women are seen sitting upright going about their city business on bikes day and night, the crowds will surely follow. A recent article in a British newspaper showed the pop singer Duffy on a pink bike. The model Agyness Deyn claims never to be without hers, and Courteney Cox reportedly presented Jennifer Aniston with a Chanel bike last year. Tabloid fodder does not a revolution make, but it’s a start.

I’ll just say that I see plenty of women on bicycles here in town (but have yet to witness a celebrity on two wheels)!

Portland bashing

I note that George Will’s latest Newsweek column on Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood manages to get in some fine Portland-bashing:

And then, predictably, comes the P word: Look, he says, at Portland, Ore.

Riding the aforementioned wave to Portland, which liberals hope is a harbinger of America’s future, has long been their aerobic activity of choice. But LaHood is a Republican, for Pete’s sake, the party (before it lost its bearings) of “No, we can’t” and “Actually, we shouldn’t” and “Not so fast” and “Let’s think this through.” Now he is in full “Yes we can!” mode. Et tu, Ray?

Where to start? Does LaHood really think Americans were not avid drivers before a government highway program “promoted” driving? Does he think 0.01 percent of Americans will ever regularly bike to work? Intercity high-speed rail probably always will be the wave of the future, for cities more than 300 miles apart. And as for Portland …

Its government has been, intermittently, as progressive as all get-out, trying to use zoning, light-rail projects and high-density housing to cool the planet by curbing automobile use.

Unsurprisingly, this has generated a bit of kerfuffle.  Local congressman Blumenauer has offered Will a free trip out to Portland to see for himself.  And Matt Yglesias challenges some of Will’s figures.

Bike Parking

I saw this item today over on bikeportland.org: “City unveils three more on-street bike parking corrals”.  These are special areas on the street to lock up your bicycle.  This bit was most interesting:

According to PBOT bike program specialist Sarah Figliozzi, the smaller corral on Thurman signals a slightly different approach to the City’s business district bike parking plans. “In the future, what I see is a greater number of smaller corrals, about six staples each,” Figliozzi said. This approach would be more suited to Portland’s larger commercial districts, by spreading the commercial advantages of on-street bike parking around different blocks and businesses.

“Generally, we get very strong support for the bike corrals from the business community, due to the increased customer ratio they make available — up to 10 people for each parking spot — as well as the increased street and curb visibility the corrals provide,” says Figliozzi.

Hadn’t thought about it before, but it makes sense that if you can convert one car parking space into room for 10 bicycles, you just might get more shopping traffic.  (On the other hand, most people on bicycles won’t be riding off with big boxloads of stuff!).

What does your city 'say'?

I ran across this short 2008 essay ‘Cities and Ambition’ by Paul Graham, and found it pretty spot on.  Here’s the opening:

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to.

When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful.

The whole thing is worth reading.  As Graham notes, you really need to live in a place for awhile to get a true sense of what it’s all about.

In thinking about Portland, I’d say the city sends the following message: “Jam Econo!”  (credit to the Minutemen, of course).  Or in other words, “do more with less”.  It’s not the grand ambition of the big cities, but a realistic ambition everyone can have some success with if they try.  And that’s OK – not every place needs to be driven by money and power trips.

Pedaling Revolution

‘Pedaling Revolution’ is the title of a new book on bicycling in the U.S. by Portland journalist Jeff Mapes.  It’s a pretty comprehensive look at the state of everyday cycling (not bike racing), whether it be urban commuting or riding bikes to school.  Mapes takes a look at what’s going on in Portland, NYC, Chicago and Davis, CA among other places, in terms of the different approaches to making cities more bike-friendly. He also has a chapter on the evolution of cycling in Europe, particularly the Netherlands and Copenhagen.  One thing that seems true is that in Europe bicycling is not nearly as politicized as it has become in the U.S.; people there are happy to drive cars when it makes sense and they can afford it, but also respect cyclists on the road because they’ve been there in the past, and their kids are probably on bikes today.

I hadn’t realized that there is a major debate that’s been going on for years, about whether the best approach is to create separated bike lanes (as they do in the Netherlands, for example) or not.  Those against argue that there is increased danger at intersections when bikes come out of these lanes and surprise cars (especially right turners).  On the other hand, many people say that they would ride more if they had access to safer bike lanes.  One point that does seem pretty well proven by now is that the more riders there are on the streets, the more generally safe it gets to ride, presumably because drivers become much more aware of the possibility of cyclers.

Here in Portland, there are some devoted bike lanes, but also a set of so-called bike boulevards, that don’t have painted lanes, but are low-traffic streets that are set up with stop signs on cross streets to allow pretty quick cross-town bike rides.

Well worth a read for anyone interested in the topic.  I didn’t think much about the title when I bought the book, but it’s actually quite clever.  Here’s a blog entry from the designer of the cover.

While on the topic of bicycling, I must note that the NYT’s love-affair with Portland continues, with a story on Friday titled “Portland, Portland Style: Touring by Bicycle” by Matt Furber.  Here’s a taste:

For visitors, it’s possible to land at Portland International Airport and hop the MAX Light Rail to start a city tour.

“You can just load your bike on the train and head into town,” said Don Shepler, a Portland-trained chef who, together with his wife, Erin Zell, runs Galena Lodge, a Nordic skiing retreat and summer hiking stop in southern Idaho. The couple enjoy returning to Portland for biking-and- food tours.

“The last time we were there we rode to a bunch of different restaurants on Alberta Street,” Ms. Zell said. “We’d enjoy a drink and appetizers and ride somewhere else.”

Days of clear weather come and go this time of year, but it never really rains that hard, Mr. Shepler said, adding that he liked the flow of bicycle traffic in Portland. “On the side streets with bike lanes you’re on the grid, and you can just go,” he said.

Update:  One other thing on this topic:  a new magazine on this topic just got started, and it’s called Bicycle Times – ‘your everyday cycling adventure.’

Surreal Gangs of New York

I recently caught up with two films from 1979, both very distinctive views of the youth gangs of New York City.  First I saw “The Wanderers” again, first time in many years, after reading the original novel by Richard Price (it was his first book).  The movie is set in the early sixties in the Bronx, when the changes of the sixties were just starting to stir, and the old ways were still going pretty strong.  The main gang we follow are the Wanderers, shown above.  Some of the other gangs are far more strange, such as the Fordham Baldies, below:

The Wanderers occasionally venture outside their home turf, and it’s invariably a mysterious and threatening trip, particularly when they run into the Ducky Boys, a murderous lot.

Then I saw “The Warriors” which I had never seen.  This film was set in contemporary times, and it’s got views of the subways as I remember them from the 1970s, full of graffiti.  In the film, the Warriors hail from Coney Island at the far reaches of Brooklyn, and they venture up to the Bronx for a gathering of the gangs.  After the gathering dissolves into chaos, the Warriors have to make their way back through NYC over the course of a long night, fighting off cops and other gangs.  It’s a comic book vision deriving from classical stories of vastly outnumbered forces stuck deep in enemy territory.  One of the more surreal gangs they battle with are the Baseball Furies, below:

These views of the gangs seem to derive from the nightmares of young teens, finding the world full of menacing older kids who make everyday life a kind of dangerous jungle that must be negotiated with care.  Both films are imaginative looks at a past that seems both far away and innocent in many ways.

Utrecht landmark

Rietveld Schröder House

This weekend I finally made it to an architectural landmark in Utrecht, the Rietveld Schröder House, built in 1924 on what was then the outskirts of town.  Quite obviously a very modern and striking departure from the buildings of the time, it was commissioned by a woman named Truus Schröder, whose husband had died leaving her with three children.  The architect was Gerrit Rietveld, who got his start designing furniture.  Rietveld’s design was inspired by the art movement De Stijl, most well known nowadays from the paintings of Piet Mondriaan (example below from 1921).

Mondriaan - Tableau - 1921

Remarkably Schröder lived in the house the rest of her life, until 1985, at which time the house was given to the Centraal Museum of Utrecht.  She had changed very little in the interior, so the house today is virtually as it was over 80 years ago, with furniture designed by Rietveld and many interior design features by Schröder.  She wanted an open living space upstairs, and this was achieved with a set of sliding walls that could be pulled out to divide the space or pushed back to open it up.  The innovative use of windows and steel beam structural components made for a light-filled interior quite different from most Dutch housing of the time.