A sad farewell to John Chase

John Chase, one of the few urbanists who actually understood Los Angeles, has died. No more wonderful books. But I will miss even more those moments when you would first see him in public, just as you caught a flash of purple or orange or red, and know that Chase was going to surprise you with his intricate facial hair or his unapologetically flamboyant suit because he knew that people needed to feed their eyes as much as their tummies.

I think the best remembrance is here, in LA Curbed:

We heard John speak many more times after that, and were always impressed by John’s passion for the prosaic. He was able to find beauty in the everyday. And he truly, unapologetically loved Los Angeles. His passion was infectious. He helped us appreciate LA’s vernacular–its stucco, its dingbats, its bungalows. To say that John loved camp is misleading. It implies a winking nod towards the vulgar and a certain distant irony. John’s love for the “vulgar” was far more sincere.

link: Remembering the Big, Wonderful Life of Urbanist John Chase : Obits : Curbed LA

Two others:

The announcement from LA Observed.

The write-up in LA Weekly.

Perhaps the best thing to remember him by is my favorite of his books, Everyday Urbanism, written with the wonderful Margaret Crawford.

If there is a heaven, I strongly suspect Mr. Chase is in it, pestering God about sidewalk finishes, and winning the debate.

Columbia’s David King on Chinese Cities in a Box

Getting from here to there: City in a box? More adventures in Chinese urbanization

David’s entertaining take is spot on. What I don’t understand is how any of these developers get the projects up and going, or why they do so, given that property rights are nonexistent. Where does the money come from? Somebody has to explain this to me; I know little about China.

Le Smart Growth, Les Infill, Les Do-Gooders, and Les Locavores in the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture

C’est la nécessité d’un développement auto-centré, afin de favoriser localement une architecture plus économe, plus intelligente. Le besoin est ressenti dans nos pays développés: l’architecte Patrick Bouchain ouvre des chantiers d’insertion à Tourcoing, travaille avec des entreprises locales… Les coûts baissent, la qualité est mieux assurée, et le chantier contribue au re-développement de son bassin. En Afrique, il s’agit de sortir d’une économie coloniale d’importation des produits, pour aller vers l’ouverture de filière économiques et remettre en place un cercle vertueux de développement endogène.

link: Au Sud, il faut construire une ville d’un million d’habitants chaque semaine – Le Monde.fr : Supplément partenaire

Take a look at the full article to see the discussion of those honored, including an American, Steve Baer.

Alejandro Araveno is one honoree, whose work is exciting and not as well-known outside of Chile as it should be, is a nice blend of social policy, planning and design. His work focuses on helping impoverished families pool and maximize the very limited housing aid they receive to assemble parcels or established property rights. He then helps them design a skeleton structure which they then build. The structures are intended to be modifiable as families change. Very interesting work. You can see some of his work here.

Street vendors and safe streets

EPGNews has a story on a street vending study conducted in Boyle Heights by our SPPD students who were doing their academic capstone. The students, Josefina Campos, Jasmine Kim, and Lauren Yokomizo, did the work for the Los Angeles Urban Renewal Network. They did a great job.

The students conducted a street survey and a survey of brick-and-mortar vendors and street vendors. There are several illuminating parts of the story:

Yes, it reminds me of Mexico but it also reminds me of Europe where it is possible to buy falafel, crepes and other snack foods easily from street carts in plazas and on city streets,” wrote Chimatli Tellez, who identified herself as a fourth generation Angeleno and resident of Lincoln Heights. “It’s a global thing, not a third world thing.”

So the notion here is that multiple types of businesses build up a diversity of possibilities within an area–the center of mixed uses. But, the part that kills me here: the suggest that the Third World is somehow not attractive, but associating activities such as this with Europe makes them seem somewhat higher class. Third World=ghetto urban design, Europe=classy urban design. Even though Third World design is predominately European urban design, via colonialism.

.….Other stakeholders complained that obstructed sidewalks forced people onto the street, and that open flames are hazardous to the community. Besides unfair competition, other disadvantages identified in the study include: increased traffic and pedestrian congestion, reduced property values and reduced quality of life through pollution of public spaces.

Pollution of public spaces? From the smoke from open fires?

Here we have the trifecta, however, of why we often can’t change anything in cities and why the political economy of space within neighborhoods becomes exclusionary: congestion, property values, pollution. All that from street vendors?


Among the advantages of street vending identified by researchers, were: affordable products and services for low-income residents, income opportunities for immigrants and lower-income residents seeking employment, and increased foot traffic that contributes to “the revitalization of the community’s street life.”

“The revitalization of the community’s street life”, aka “congestion.”

Me on why I’m still grouchy about the haters language and the New Urbanism

Dear Mr. Speck:

a) Nope, I’m not giving you that one. We have small houses all over LA, little bitty cute ones, and the New Urbanists still treat this place like it’s one of the cities of the plain, the anti-city, a big, yucky suburb devoid of life and meaning, where we all live lives of desperation and misery. I don’t think the urban/suburban distinction holds much water when you get down to looking at functions. Single-use districts are single-use districts, but suburbs have a lot of jobs and a lot of activities. The suburb has its cultural meaning along the lines of Wisteria Lane, however, and the function and culture of the suburb do get conflated in the debate. But not by me.

Houses are nice, aren’t they?

b) I’d say the conflation of novelty with originality is the problem, not a demand for original thinking. Originality can take any number of forms; every project is happening for the first time, every context has its own vagaries; I’d argue that everything that happens when you make something–a building, a rail line–happens for the only time as it happens–if that makes any sense. Every project presents its challenges in its own way, even if you have seen various aspects of the problem before. You can reference whatever you need to so long as what you do works for that project and that place, and if it does work, I’d call that an original and strong piece of work. I’m watching cookie-cutter New Urbanism go up all over LA. You ride the train, you get off, you see the same type of apartment complexes built the same way–with different paint!–save for a few exceptional stations, like Hollywood. If people are going to critique suburban sprawl for its sameness, they had better be showing us better concepts, even if it’s not novel.

e) d annoyed me some time ago, and now I am holding a grudge.

f) Everything in urban development, except for the most minor of things, is a fight. Everything. And perhaps it should be; changes in the built environment of cities are social changes, and social changes are hard.

I would be interested in seeing the data on what is getting built right now–my suspicion is not very much due to the recession–and my other suspicion is that it varies substantially by region, but that you have been more successful than you think. Chris Nelson, for example, exulted in a recent statistic he cited that for the first time, condo building eclipsed the new construction of single-family houses. I can try to dig that up if we need it.

There may be places doing what they have always done, but I am betting that that the war of words has resulted in far more change than you believe it has, at least in particular markets. But nothing gets built easy: I spent my practitioner career working on transport projects, and people will fight you over even getting a sidewalk put in.

We make a lot of noise about the coding and approval restrictions on multi-family housing, but in my experience, whenever we came forward with multi-family housing and mixed use proposals, institutions never stood in the way. Ever. The neighbors screamed bloody murder and used institutional processes and rationales to stop it if they possibly could. It’s one thing to portray the fight as one where you’re taking on hidebound institutions, and that’s fine, institutions have their own problems here–and another to be very clear-eyed about why density is so hard to build: institutions make it hard to build because they are responding to the political economy that surrounds them, where people want to control density near them. And people want to control densities for some very rational reasons, sometimes. While many urban services are more efficiently delivered with density–mine (transit) being one–others, like schools, are not after a certain scale. I don’t blame people with children in LA Unified School districts for not welcoming the news that more families are coming because the schools are already terrible and their kids are already getting short-shrift. (Some schools are pretty good, nonetheless, but still. The graduation numbers speak for themselves.) These problems are thornier than changing codes.

People scream and shake their hands and create opposition because they care about where they live. It’s a big circle of development politics, but getting mashed up in it is the price you pay if you want a voice and influence.

Your book has been in print since you published it, it’s an older book now, and people consider it a classic. The name on everybody’s lips when New Orleans needed rebuilding was Duany’s firm. That’s a fight won. Yeah, every single day you might have go through the same slog, but we’re all going through that slog if we’re in this business. From where I sit, the New Urbanism has created perverse ideological barriers to climate change regulation. How so? The New Urbanists are greenies, right? Well, yes, they are. But I think that the emphasis placed on “green development” perversely (and unintentionally) undermined movement towards stricter controls on cars. Just as some people say “Oh, we don’t need to build better cities because our cars are going to be green 10 years from now” I also encounter, with frustrating regularity, people who say “Oh, changing vehicle technology is a waste of time, you technophile! People shouldn’t be driving anyway! We should be rebuilding our cities for walking and transit!” Yeah, except for the fact rebuilding cities takes time, and if the numbers are to be believed, we need BOTH clean cars and clean cities, and we need them with some alacrity. My field, planning, has largely abandoned its interest in advocating policy and regulation: we’re not writing how cap and trade might function spatially; nobody is throwing our collective weight behind a carbon tax. Instead, it’s study after study about how VMT reduction is a good idea. Well, um yeah; but dampening VMT growth still suggests VMT growth and shouldn’t we be trying to influence the nature of the V in the VMT nexus? Am I unfairly generalizing? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to deal with people who treat the New Urbanism like a cult and the answer to every question that comes up.

So what am I saying? I’m saying: buck up, cupcake! You are a high-profile, influential voice. You may not think so, but if you do, I will call that disingenuous or at least clueless because you’ve certainly held leadership positions. You know what that entails. You can either use that voice and position to make caricatures of the people who don’t buy in–which might be a joke in your mind but which reads (to me) like think you are entitled to followers, which makes you sound more like cult leader than a thought leader–or you can use your voice to add value to the discussion and show us why the ideas are still relevant and what new challenges the movement has to take on. What will HSR mean for New Urbanism and compact development? LA used streetcars to spread and then really spread when we got cars because of all that nice profitable real estate all over the place. Will we use HSR merely to sprawl into the spaces in between our existing metros? Would that be different in California than in the Northeast (which is what I suspect). What innovations in design and practice will it take it make that into a vision that works? Or is HSR a terrible idea for urban form? There are 40 other questions I can think of that would be productive to put out there from the New Urbanist perspective if you need them.

All of my students are New Urbanists. All of them. And that’s ok with me, so long as they develop the critical capacity to evaluate as well as advocate.

As to my missing your subtle references to 9/11 in your portrayal of the barriers facing the New Urbanism, I have to say that I did catch it but I didn’t like it. I don’t find 9/11 amusing in any way, and I assume you don’t either, not really. Moreover, if that’s the analogy you wanted to draw, you have made my point for me. The clash ensconced within 9/11 can be interpreted as a clash between progressives and reactionaries (one read; the one I assume you mean) or it can also be interpreted as a clash between a bullying superpower and those who have been structurally excluded. You can read New Urbanism as progressives under fire from reactionaries; I can read it as the bullying superpower in my field, where anybody who raises doubts or criticisms gets treated like an enemy of the people. In reality, the complexities of these contexts mean that all these reads probably contain a grain of truth.

Again, thanks for stopping by. We don’t get celebrities around these parts often.


Jeff Speck on why people hate the New Urbanism

The Evolving Debate Over Smart Growth – Urban Development, Planning, Design – Architect Magazine

And here I was thinking people hate New Urbanists because they write stuff like this, and I don’t know, maybe some of us get tired of having smugness dripped all over us.

No, Mr. Speck, nobody actually hates you or the New Urbanism. People hate Hitler and Jar Jar Binks. But we can talk about why people might find all this really annoying:

a) the fact the Speck lives in a modernist house but prescribes a way of living in cities that suggests you’re a vacuous, planet-killing consumer drone if you live in a house. Slaps forehead!

b) the New Urbanism hasn’t created “better-looking sprawl”; it’s created “different-looking, yet still remarkably unattractive sprawl.” I read here that it’s the fault of those stylistically conservative markets, not the architects who are too craven or talentless to supply something original when confronted with easy fees.

c) the way that he implies, in the very best practice of civil society, that people who don’t slavishly believe what he does are merely “haters” with an “utterly unproductive” agenda* instead of people with questions, different priorities, doubts, and concerns; and

e) the vainglorious framing of the New Urbanists as warriors engaged in some sort of “fight” when in actuality it’s the dominant paradigm in planning and environmentalism, they own the White House and just about every urban appointee in it, every mayor of every major metro in the US no matter whether Republican or Democrat, have the developers in love with the ideas (density! Woo! And I get a bonus?!), command sizable fees to write reality-defying plans which promise stuff like “putting the theater next to florist shop and cafe will stop global warming and resurrect your dead grandma.” Now, maybe all this dominance is because their ideas are so swell, or maybe it’s because they’re brilliant marketers, but does that sound like the last fight you were in? I’m clearly not doing this “fighting” thing right.

*Of course I could be one of those stealth auto lovers who aren’t for him, so in the very best reasoning that involves the incapacity to hold two ideas in one’s head at the same time, I must be an enemy in the colossal fight. Maybe Spike TV will feature us on “Deadliest Warrior: New Urbanist vs. Social Scientist: who’s the deadliest warrior?! One has regressions and data; the other has colored pencils and crowds of adoring fans. Who will win this epic battle?” I know whom my students prefer.

I would feel better about the sustainable city of the future if the supposedly evolving debate around it didn’t strike me as being about a largely symbolic dustup between oligarchs over economic rents: car companies versus the professional development army of the Smart Growth machine–all of whom want your money and cover their prodo with greenwash in order to get it. What’s Good for the New Urbanism is Good for America!

In which I forbid pulsating and ask: “Shouldn’t houses be cheap in a dying city?”

Because there just aren’t enough cliche-sodden essays about Los Angeles, here is a nice one about why Los Angeles is a bad place from the Atlantic back from 2005.

First off, LA has no *heart*. A city needs a heart, and it needs to be pulsating. A pulsating heart.

Honesty, pulsating? Shouldn’t writing in the Atlantic, I dunno, have fresh prose and ideas? Pulsating. Go out and Google Pulsating Heart City. This is what your pages look like:

Ok. I’m just saying: if your theory about the city has ever been used in the cheap hotel equivalent of the J. Peterman catalog-writing style, it’s not a particularly deep bit of thinking.

Here’s the other major problem that defines LA as the anti-city. You have to be able to see all of a city from one vantage point for it to be a city, and you can’t do that in LA. Like you can see all of Paris. Well, um, no, you can’t.

Nor can you see all of New York from one spot. I’m not just talking the ritzy parts that make their way into Sex and the City pan-views. I mean the whole shebang–the part where we admit that the entire east coast of the US is pavement from Boston to northern Virginia?

One of my favorite books about Los Angeles is called The Prismatic Metropolis. They didn’t get the memo about how one gaze and perspective, not unlike the One Ring, rules them all–at least in real cities.

The Atlantic essay captures why a lot of writing on urbanism is just so useless, and why my social scientist colleagues roll their eyes when we get started on urbanism as a topic. In this dude’s case, he’s rehashing and reducing Kevin Lynch and deciding that he doesn’t like Kevin Starr or Los Angeles, and he has to dress up his personal dislike in abstractions and metaphors–so they seem like a generalizable theory–but which don’t actually make any sense when you think about them rather than just go with whatever tired cultural symbolism about LA we pull out of the box.

You can probably see all of Lamont, IA, population 503, if you stand about 2 miles down the road from it.

Lamont, IA, is a dying city in all likelihood. Here is the one house for sale on Zillow. How cute is that place, by the way? 2,000 square feet. For $85,000. *Dude.* I can write a check for that.

When I do a Zillow search for $85,000 homes in Los Angeles city and in Los Angeles county, I find nothing but trailers, vacant land, and rentals that the realtors have input incorrectly into Zillow. I repeat: trailers, vacant land, and rentals. Oh, btw, since it’s looking like most of the small-ish bits of vacant land run at least $60K to 70K, you can’t afford to put your mobile home that costs you less than $85,000 anywhere in LA county for $85K total, as you need at least $60K for the land.

Shouldn’t a dying place be cheaper than this? If we are dying, could more people sell off their houses in a panic and move to Manhattan, with it’s pulsating heartiness–so I could afford a house in LA?