Keepin’ it Wheel

Mr. Trash Wheel teaches lesson about the power of ‘loveability’

There’s a viral video that started appearing in my feed about Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel. The wheel itself is a clever piece of engineering, but perhaps the even better story is how a city came to love this device and anthropomorphize it as one of their own adorable citizens.

Mr Trash Wheel removes garbage from the river

Posted by Viral Thread on Tuesday, February 28, 2017

In 2009, a Baltimore non-profit with buy-in from the city announced a goal of making the harbor swimmable by 2020. They quickly realized that no big federal, state or city infrastructure projects would be approved and built in time to get the job done so quickly. So they started looking for the next smallest step. They planted wetlands, then oyster beds, then John Kellett, a concerned local citizen invented what would become Mr. Trash Wheel.

Mr. Trash Wheel was installed in May 2014 and as public interest increased the non-profit started working with a local ad agency called What Works Studio to capitalize on the good PR. Initially the googley eyes were only added digitally. Then as a Halloween stunt towards the end of October 2015 they gave the structure real, but temporary, eyes. They were such a hit that the people petitioned the Healthy Harbor Initiative to keep them. They’ve now become permanent and Mr. Trash Wheel’s transformation from boring public infrastructure to beloved city icon seems complete.

Mr. Trash Wheel’s public persona is so powerful now that he is being used as a voice to help fund-raise for additional water cleaning wheels and harbor improvements.

The lessons are ones I love to repeat:

  1. No one is coming to save you or your community. Federal, State and Locally financed programs are too big and slow to create meaningful change until after you’re already well under way solving the problem yourself.
  2. Incrementalism is the only financially sustainable way to improve a place.
  3. We keep (and do more of) what we love. Loveable places and things get preserved and enhanced. The un-loveable is destined to be wasted no matter how well intentioned.

Coming Apart… and how to come back together

Why mandatory national service is not the way to jamb the tribes back together.

I was just reviewing this blog and realized it’s been quite a long time since I’ve provided any new post. A lot has happened since July ’09.  Back then, I was working for the high-end fit-out contractor Conelle Construction in NYC, but by January 2010 I had finally found the position in the middle east I thought I was looking for.  The last two years have been quite a ride, and now that things have stabilized, I think I’ll start writing new posts about my experiences here.  But not just yet.  Before I get into work and life in the GCC I wanted to share an op-ed my aunt sent me recently published in the NY Times that ties in directly with my last topic on Richard Florida’s book, the Big Sort
The Great Divorce by David Brooks (1/30/12), is basically a book review for Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart (also reviewed in the WSJ).  There’s no need for me to review a review, but the argument is that American society is “bifurcating into a different social tribes, with a tenuous common cultural link linking them.”  A nice summary of the situation can be found in the article in the times:
“Today, Murray demonstrates, there is an archipelago of affluent enclaves clustered around the coastal cities, Chicago, Dallas and so on. If you’re born into one of them, you will probably go to college with people from one of the enclaves; you’ll marry someone from one of the enclaves; you’ll go off and live in one of the enclaves.
Worse, there are vast behavioral gaps between the educated upper tribe (20 percent of the country) and the lower tribe (30 percent of the country). This is where Murray is at his best, and he’s mostly using data on white Americans, so the effects of race and other complicating factors don’t come into play.
Roughly 7 percent of the white kids in the upper tribe are born out of wedlock, compared with roughly 45 percent of the kids in the lower tribe. In the upper tribe, nearly every man aged 30 to 49 is in the labor force. In the lower tribe, men in their prime working ages have been steadily dropping out of the labor force, in good times and bad.
People in the lower tribe are much less likely to get married, less likely to go to church, less likely to be active in their communities, more likely to watch TV excessively, more likely to be obese.
Murray’s story contradicts the ideologies of both parties. Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.
Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.
It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites.
The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.
Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.”
Brooks then proceeds to advocate mandatory national service as a way to “jam the tribes together”.
As most of you might guess, I find this solution abhorrent for a lot of reasons.  First, all service provided by humans should be voluntary in nature, not coerced at the point of a federal or state held gun.  Second, making two culturally disparate groups work together doesn’t work.  Allowing them to live next to each other and trade as free individuals on the other hand does.  The solution to this problem is in the way we build our cities, not in the way we force people into slave labor.
From my research, the physical environment has a serious impact on how people interact with each other and how they separate themselves from others.  One of the boons of traditional cities is that within a framework of property rights law, they allow all sorts of people to live next to each other, to experience different cultures and to fluidly exchange ideas.  Suburbs make that pretty difficult.  Ironically, the widespread use of suburbs as we know them come from the central planning (top down) mentality of the 1950’s.  Most cities had some form of zoning law by the late 1920’s but used them mostly for their stated intent, controlling noxious/polluting uses, rather than demographic control.  Post civil rights act, we decided it was time to step up socio-economic segregation too.  When we build suburbs constructed only of homes all in the same price range, and limited exclusively to home-owners (renting your house is usually illegal in most HOAs) we intentionally segregate ourselves from other socio economic groups.  The policy of suburban planning has created an increasingly segregated society.  Before the 1940/50’s, you could build a house on a block in a city and could do whatever you wanted with it, now those old cities, with lively streets and spontaneous interaction are becoming so expensive that they are being accused of being the enclave of the elites. Imagine saying all of Manhattan is for the wealthy in the 1980’s when you could find hookers in Times Square and crack cocaine in Tompkins Square Park.  It’s amazing to me to think how much things have changed in only 30 years.
Rather than promote national service, we should reign in outdated zoning policy that prevents people from building what they want and living where they want.

“The Big Sort” – concepts by Richard Florida

The world isn’t flat. It’s spikey!

I just finished reading “Who’s Your City” (2008) – by Richard Florida

The important concepts are:
1) The world isn’t flat, it’s spikey
2) “The big sort” is happening now
3) The decision of where to live will increasingly impact your chances to connect to others at the top of these global spikes

This is Richard Florida’s idea, supported by several maps, that there is a scene for nearly every type of economic activity. As creatives increasingly rely on innovation with other like minded or similarly interested people, cities are serving to collect and aggregate specific types of thinkers and do-ers. Some of the more obvious examples are Nashville for Music, New York City for Fashion and Finance, Los Angeles for Entertainment, San Francisco Bay Area for Technology, etc. Interestingly, each of these scenes is becoming increasing concentrated and if you show the concentrations on a map the resulting visualization is spikes of varying intensity dotting the globe. Florida refutes Thomas Friedman’s famous thesis that information and communications technology is allowing us to work from anywhere and that the world has become more egalitarian or “flatter” thus opening up opportunities to people and areas that never had access before. Florida argues that the true professionals work at the top of their spikes and are connected in ways never before imaginable to the other large spikes across the globe. These connections serve to further consolidate spikey places making participation almost impossible for those located in alternative markets.

The Big Sort
This leads to the “big sort”, as peaks and valleys develop in the economic world there will be distinct winners and losers. Those willing and able to relocate are doing so now. People without the means or THE PERSONALITY to relocate are being left behind to increasingly marginal social positions. Florida spends a great deal of time discussing the personality characteristics of various urban areas based on the concentration of specific personality types. The idea that a city has its own personality based on the types of people it draws in is a compelling theory that I think many people will anecdotally agree with. The important point here is that as relocation get’s cheaper and easier, people are clustering in like minded groups. Diversity as we know it is being undone. When people are no longer tied to place, place becomes all the more important. Living in NYC gives me an interesting perspective here. In New York, there’s a neighborhood for virtually anyone. In a way, NYC is a small replica of Richard Florida’s world. Certain neighborhoods experience the extreme clustering he describes and it is easy to see how people have begun to self select neighborhood based on personality.

Where to Live?
The premise of the book is this; Where you decide to live will impact every moment of your life in ways that it never did before. Economic and social opportunities that used to be more diffuse are clustering and altering the geo-political landscape and it will be easy to be left behind if you aren’t paying attention.

My Thoughts
I spend a lot of time thinking about place. A friend of mine is currently working for a real estate development company that intends to begin revitalizing small to medium sized downtowns. Richard Florida’s book underscores my advice to him, which is: Find a scene to locate there and push for its growth. I’m not sure it’s entirely possible to construct a scene, but it may be possible to identify a burgeoning one and help it along. Rather than try to resist “the big sort” I would try to use economic jujitsu to redirect it towards a given place or try to tie nearby places into those pre-existing spikes.

Soul of a Courtyard

On the value of reviving lost knowledge.

In March, before I left Los Angeles, my good friend Jim Kumon gave a presentation and took me on a tour of courtyard housing in the Pasadena, CA area. Courtyard housing is a type of multi-family dwelling centered around a courtyard and is a popular historic style in the Los Angeles area. As a typology it was effectively made illegal with the advent of Euclidian zoning in the 1970’s. It has only been in the last decade or so that sophisticated developers have been able to begin building these types of housing complexes again, and as with all art forms that die, reviving them can be a bit of a trick. Things that were once taken for granted have to be laboriously rediscovered and institutional knowledge is often lost for long periods of time.

One of the best modern architecture and planning firms capable of this work is Jim’s former employer Moule & Polyzoides. In fact, the principal, Stephanos Ployzoides wrote a book on the subject well worth reading if you’re interested in understanding more about the design concepts he’s rediscovered. The most recent courtyard housing project we know of is Mission Meridian Village, located at Mission station on the Gold Line. From what Jim describes there are several critical factors to consider when designing these buildings. There are some strict rules regarding proportions based on human scale, and several compelling things to consider concerning architectural details and style. However once you get past these ideas, the final product should create a shared public space for the residents that can act as an urban oasis in the middle of a busy city.

The courtyard should be defined as unsuccessful if it is not used and enjoyed by the residents. This is the prevailing problem behind Mission Meridian, pictured above on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. It is all but impossible to find someone using the outdoor space for reading, talking, grilling or any other form of play. How can this be! How can we be so successful at creating the form of the historic courtyard complexes without the soul? I believe it has to do with creating a sense of belonging or ownership and the ability to participate in the space while still expressing your right to be there. If you’ll notice from the photos, the planters nearly fill the entire courtyard. While attractive, they essentially render the space useless. Also, and perhaps more importantly, at many of the units there is no way to sit with your back to your apartment. That simple tweak would allow a resident to effectively claim his unit as his own making his presence in the space acceptable to his neighbors. Notice the benches in front of each ground floor unit in the below example, located at 410 N Euclid in Pasadena, CA.
In the example below, located at 611-17 E California Ave (Pasadena, CA), notice the inviting, shaded space. It’s easy to imagine children playing on this surface under the watchful eye of their parents and neighbors. Values for these units are well into the $600/sf range while the surrounding neighborhood is valued closer to $380/sf.
In summary, without fully considering how residents can comfortably use a space (both socially and physically) even the most beautiful spaces will fall short.

Car-less in California

LA isn’t a city, it’s a collection of small towns.

What an interesting two weeks it’s been. I returned from my trip to Dubai to land in Los Angeles. Considering my love for urbanism, it’s definitely not the first place I would have expected to end up. But I landed here and I’m out of money, I have family and friends here, the weather is lovely and there are more employment options in this region than most others in the country. So I might as well stay put until I come up with a plan. What I didn’t count on is the new appreciation I have for Los Angeles as a polycentric city. That is, a city with many beautiful and individually vibrant urban cores. Some of the towns here have fantastic centers!

Yes, I studied LA at the 2006 CNU, but I’ve never had the opportunity to experience it as a resident. And certainly never as a car-less resident! That’s right folks… LA, no car. Give it a shot sometime, it’s not what you’d expect. In a strange way it reminds me of living in Bogen, Germany (Bavaria) [which I did for nearly a month at the tender young age of 15]. At the moment, I’m splitting time between the two respectably urban neighborhoods of Pasadena and West Hollywood. My daily needs can be met by foot or bicycle but what’s remarkable is that the transit system here (while slow) actually can get you to most places you’d want to go. The problem is that it stops running long before the bars close, making it completely impractical to leave your neighborhood to work late or socialize unless you plan on driving. In Bogen, I had a similar experience. Despite my age and inability to drive at the time, I was able to take day trips by train to Straubing or Munich, but at night was limited to the social scene exclusively within walking or bicycling distance.

As a corollary concept, and I may be wrong about this, my impression is that people here are more isolated than they are in NYC, or on the east coast in general. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I say that, but there seem to be several imperceptible social differences that scream “I’M ISOLATED!” My theory for at least one cause is this; people are trapped inside a relatively small neighborhood social scene, and their only means of escape, aside from becoming friends with the locals, is to sit alone in a car for 30-45 minutes each direction. It’s sort of like living in Lincoln, NE but instead of being surrounded by cornfields you’re surrounded by similarly sized cities. Each one has everything necessary for life, but individually they lack the depth of larger cities.

But the symptoms are what I can’t quite figure out. Is the built environment affecting people’s behavior? If so how? My buddy Demetre suggested that the Hollywood culture has something to do with it too. I can feel a certain distance in interactions here compared with the Northeast, but I haven’t figured out how to identify or name the elements yet. Any helpful comments or suggestions?

Dubai: Final Thoughts

The ghosts of LA, Las Vegas & NYC mix and mingle in the UAE.

It’s been a week since I returned to the US from the United Arab Emirates. The best way for me to describe Dubai to Americans is to say that it’s a strange combination of the three well known US cities; New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It is a city, like Los Angeles, where every destination is linked by a freeway. There are virtually no functional avenues or boulevards. A city, like Vegas, where most large buildings are iconic in nature and intended to shock and amaze the average person with engineering feats and architectural marvels. And thirdly a city, a bit like New York, where everywhere you look, you see skyscrapers. Some of them are truly magnificent and capture everything I love about the form; but unlike NYC, Dubai lacks the urban fabric. The places in between. There are so few hole-in-the-wall places worth exploring, because there is no wall.

To be fair, there are two older neighborhoods (Bur Dubai and Deira) where urban fabric is the norm, but they are both eyed with some level of contempt by city planners and are marked for destruction. These neighborhoods are where the action is and they are actually quite remarkable. As other neighborhoods like the Dubai Marina, The Greens, and Jumeriah struggle to maintain value, Bur Dubai and Deira will be affected the least.

This leads to my second key observation: Dubai seems to have the very real and common problem of value retention with age, much like most of the American suburbs. It would seem that most buildings over ten years old are slated for the wrecking ball if they haven’t been demolished already. Fortunately this is a problem that will eventually go away as some buildings are spared and the age of the city diversifies. My biggest question is how will they patina. The Empire State building has become increasingly valuable over time, will these? At present, the design of most of these buildings and their neighborhoods makes them difficult to maintain and challenging to repurpose for adaptive re-use. It will be interesting to re-visit the city over time, to see how condo buildings have been converted to offices, or dead malls into living neighborhoods. Fortunately for the Emiratis the Americans will have to tackle this problem first.

My final thought is on velocity and market segment. In our new market reality of limited credit and less flexible lending, there are many buildings sitting vacant in what should be desirable neighborhoods. This leaves the neighborhood relatively lifeless and exposes it to the possibility of urban blight. Dubai has never seen a neighborhood devalue or become dangerous. What will happen if the target demographic never moves to a half built neighborhood? There are still newer ones on the books, waiting to be built as soon as the economy turns around. How will the built environment absorb an unexpected population of differing means and culture? I believe the best way to handle such a scenario is simply to accept it and open the door for the neighborhood to reinvent itself at the smaller scale. Poor neighborhoods need smaller, cheaper spaces in order to nurture new growth. Cheaper will happen with time, but the zoning code must also allow for storefronts to be modified, apartments to be split in two and offices to be resized. This is what NYC has done so well for so long, what Los Angeles is still learning and what Vegas will soon experience. I hope that Sheikh Mohammed recognizes the opportunity for appropriate infill when the time is right and allows it to happen naturally.

Dubai: First Impressions

The value of the neighborhood easily eclipses the value of the building.

On Wednesday 1/8/09 I took the London underground back to the airport and boarded a plane for Dubai at 9pm. I landed in Dubai 1/9/09 at 7:40am and spent the day touring the southern side of the city, went to the gym, napped and went to a handful of hotel bars/nightclubs.

Two of my most interesting observations are that the city is far more dense than I expected, but only about half occupied in places (at least near the Dubai Marina). Secondly, many very nice buildings/hotels have been “out-luxuried” in five years or less. In other words, what was a luxury product five years ago is now just an average to below average hotel due to the constant architectural one-ups-manship here. This begs the question, “what do you do to differentiate your luxury product in an environment like this?” Apparenly the answer here has been to just build taller, more fancy buildings with increasingly nicer finishes, but that only creates an exciting game of real estate hot potato. People keep trading properties back and forth until there’s a collapse in perceived value, the last man holding title gets sunk.

When I asked my friends on twitter and facebook I got several responses. One idea to “create the illusion of higher quality by being the most expensive.” sounds to me like the above solution. Someone else suggested that the investor “start targeting middle class and sell the product in a way that influences and supports them in feeling productive.” in an effort to capture both the mid and high end markets.

In the Dubai market the one exception to this policy of participation in the iconic building arms race is a company called Limitless, which is focused on creating the next destination neighborhood instead of iconic buildings.

The problem of course with iconic buildings is that they can be eclipsed, but if you create an iconic district, it retains it’s charm despite the lavishness of the buildings. Think of your favorite urban neighborhoods, SoHo, Wicker Park, Rittenhouse Square, the French Quarter, the Pearl District, etc. If someone builds an iconic building in a different part of town does it affect the quality of the life or the property values in your favorite area? Not usually… because a neighborhood is about people. People who live and die, but en mass have the ability to be timeless.

The Human Scale is Better than Green Power

Here’s a short video on the environmentalist movement’s dirty secret. Green power and fancy buildings can only help save energy, but they can’t shorten the distance we all need to travel. The scale of our built environment is inherently inefficient and must be addressed!

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