Unraveling Urban Life and Space
Seeing a lot of talk about whether temporary bike and pedestrian lanes like this will last. Is it a new day for bikes on the American street?
No. People want desperately to go back to pre-pandemic normal, and “normal” is not having half your street blocked off for bikes. But-
Yes. We are getting a new day for bikes from the pandemic. Just not that particular new day.
Cars look expendable, more than they have in decades. All these (temporarily) closed lanes say that, but so does the reduced overall traffic volume and all of us staying home and not driving to the closed restaurants and shops. Suddenly we can do without cars, at least some of the cars, at least some of the time. What we can’t do without is all the essential supermarket clerks and warehouse workers and hospital staff who’ve been on the job since March. How many of these essential folks drive a private car to work versus taking a bus, riding a bike, or sharing a ride? Isn’t “essential” transportation what gets essential workers to work and back? The stockbroker’s car sitting in the garage looks irrelevant by comparison.
A monster recession (or maybe a depression) is looming or already here, depending on whether you’re still employed or not. Hard times mean expendable expenses tend to get expended, budget-wise. Cars are expensive to own, to maintain, to drive, and to insure. Suddenly that fixed cost in the household budget doesn’t look so fixed. Cash-strapped local governments might see it that way, too, if reduced traffic can mean less road maintenance and repair. Bikes and pedestrians put far, far, far less wear on pavement and other infrastructure, so maintenance costs are much less, a drop in the bucket compared to maintaining roads for cars.
Chaos always brings with it opportunities, and we surely are living in chaotic times. When everything is turned upside down, the status quo can lose its momentum and new ideas can look surprisingly plausible. Maybe the expendable car is here to stay.
Empty Pedestals (8/18/2017)
The statues are coming down. Some are surprised how easy it is to physically remove a statue, or just pull it down. It’s true: removing a bronze statue can be as simple as cutting through a handful of bolts, far less effort than it takes to reach consensus about whether the statues should stay or go. Statues of this kind, that commemorate famous men (and sometimes women) in public places outdoors generally sit upon a plinth or platform of some kind. That pedestal is by far the more difficult piece to remove, being a large block of solid stone or other masonry extending well below the soil’s surface.
The pedestal is essential to the statue - it keeps Stonewall or whoever from sinking into the ground or tipping over - but people don’t have strong feelings about plinths. It’s just the stage for the main event. A grand pedestal makes its statue higher, but also elevates it figuratively, saying that whatever stands atop it is worthy of attention, if not veneration. When the statue goes, that stage becomes empty. The way things are going, we may soon have quite a few of them.
What hen happens to the empty pedestals? The obvious choice is removal. Removing a pedestal is not so emotionally fraught, just a surprisingly expensive bit of demolition. Demolish the plinth, excavate its substantial footing, fill in the hole, and cover the spot with grass or pavement. You can make it look like no statue was ever there. That’s erasure, and some will say that is exactly what should happen. That park or avenue can look as though this entire argument we are living through never happened at all.
From an urban design standpoint, statues are more than who or what they honor. They are often the focal point of a space. The kind of traditional statues of soldiers and statesmen in question here typically form part of a symmetrical, classical layout, as the center of a circle or endpoint of an axis, for example. As focal points, they do not simply say “look at this person,” but also “look at this spot,” highlighting a location where lines cross or an important space is entered. If that focal point is totally erased, it will be odd, like a missing tooth. In other places, Confederate statues are one memorial among many, grouped on a courthouse lawn or in a park. In those situations, one memorial more or less won’t matter so much.
What else can you do with an empty pedestal? You can put something else atop it, a new player on the stage. This could be another permanent (sort of) memorial to a less controversial hero. Or you could sidestep permanence and use that spot as a rotating gallery of sorts, like the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. Replacement is erasure, too, in a different, more dynamic form.
The empty pedestal itself calls to mind cathedral niches deprived of their saints during the Reformation. Those niches speak eloquently of the history of their churches and abbeys, before the Reformation and after. The empty pedestal and the void above it are themselves history. They are questions rendered in stone: what was here? why is it gone? why was it here in the first place?
Over 150 years have passed since the end of the Civil War, and we are arguing, bitterly, over these statues and what they mean and to whom. One hundred fifty years far surpasses the duration of the war itself, from 1861 to 1865. Our divisions over race, which are inextricable from the Civil War and its memory, are of course far older, essentially beginning with European settlement of North America. As a shaping force, these centuries-long divisions may be more influential than any war, even one as bitter as our civil war. If our public space should highlight important elements of our history, perhaps these divisions deserve a mention. But how do you memorialize a rift?
The empty pedestal makes a statement of its own. Here something was venerated, for some reason, and then it was not, for some reason. Perhaps these questions and the rifts they highlight deserve a spot among our war heroes and founders. A few of our soon-to-be empty pedestals could remain vacant, filled with questions about who we’ve been, and who we are.
(Also posted on Medium here.)
What's the cost to wildness of updating infrastructure?
“Urban wild” immediately brings to mind corridors, the linear routes of infrastructure like interstates and power lines. Paul Gobster lists such corridors as one type in his typology of wildscapes, so I’m not alone in this observation.
Let’s think about these corridors as spaces. These are perfect examples of forgotten spaces that we train ourselves not to see, yet they are large swathes of the city. Utility corridors and freight rail corridors tend to run along the backs of properties - or better said, the properties around them align along the corridors - so it’s easy to miss them in everyday life. These corridors are negative space framing the positive space of the lots around them. The more overgrown (wild) they are, the more they disappear. Interstate corridors are really a contradiction, because we drive through them constantly. Yet what forgotten invisible spaces they are. Here in Syracuse and back in Ann Arbor, and surely a host of other places, interstate corridors are popular spots for homeless camps, which is the best proof you could have that most residents don’t see these spaces. They also collect trash - lots of trash- and are frequent sites for graffiti, both suggesting that these are seen as spaces no one owns. Invisible, yet right in front of you.
Why are these spaces wild? Sometimes they aren’t. In Indiana my husband and I own a rental property in a subdivision that’s bisected by high voltage lines. The space under these lines is kept mowed, if not manicured, and includes some businesses, restaurants and offices. Within the subdivision, the space under the lines contains a retention pond that the houses look out on. Elsewhere in my home state, the interstate right-of-way used to be (maybe still is) kept mowed. You probably know other stretches of highway that were mowed like this. Although interstates are federal, of course, the mow/don’t mow decision varies by state: Indiana mows; Michigan doesn’t. The interstate right-of-way is suddenly wilder as you go north.
It’s more popular now to not mow. We know why that is. It might be habitat or carbon reduction or some other ecological rationale, but primary or secondary rationale is always money. Mowing cost seems negligible, but…it’s all the time, over and over, year in, year out. Someone pays for it, and why is that, again? Why mow all of it, or any of it? Over the past few decades it’s become more popular to plant wildflower mixes (sometimes natives, sometimes not) in interstate margins like this and stop mowing. The same belt-tightening reflected in the maintenance (or not) of transportation ROWs is surely in play with utility ROWs as well; even less reason to mow land no one sees. Possibly there is advantage in having utility corridors and substations and other assorted bits and pieces of the equipment that keeps the lights on be unnoticed by the general public. You don’t vandalize what you don’t see, and neither do you pay too much attention to what’s going on there or fuss over trees topped to stay clear of lines or whatever. It’s the power company’s business what happens in their little wilderness, and maybe they’d prefer that no one else go there.
Except…people do go there - see above re: homeless camps and graffiti. See all previous discussion about transgressive spaces and cues to care and loose space. Wild spaces are loose spaces, the international waters of urban life, where anything can happen. And if a utility corridor is a wild space, well, it’s loose, too.
So infrastructure corridors are wild spaces, socially and naturally, but why “vanishing?” At the risk of mixing a metaphor between “invisible” spaces and “vanishing” spaces, follow this logic:
Energy and transportation are on the cusp of a sea change (to add another metaphor into the mix). Use of fossil fuels faces questions about supply and peak oil, political instability, and the increasingly serious need to address climate change. There are great gains to be made in efficiency, including the landscape-scale issue of where we live in relationship to where we work, and how we get around. Much of our transportation infrastructure in the US dates from the years following World War II, when the interstate highway system was constructed, giving rise to a million suburbs on the public dime. We know this story: the suburbs boom, the cities bust, and we all drive - a lot, alone, in Detroit steel, then massive SUVs. Denser development is more sustainable development. Denser development requires less transportation, is better suited to mass transportation, and at the very least, is more feasibly served by a diffuse grid of surface roads than by limited access highways. This isn’t the end of interstates, but they’ll be less emphasized in the future, and probably share the space of their roomy corridors with other uses and transportation modes. And yes, perhaps some will be dismantled or converted to other uses or downsized. Exit one type of infrastructural wild.
What could make a much bigger difference is a switch to more distributed energy production. Distributed production means energy produced near its point of use, at many locations, in contrast to one large generator, like a power plant. Distributed production is inherently more resilient, because it’s many instead of one, and in many locations instead of one - the eggs are separately arrayed over a large space instead of being all in one coal-fired basket. Distributed production dovetails nicely with clean energy generation, and with smaller-scale energy systems (microgrids) that can remain functional with or without the larger grid in operation. So distributed energy production seems to be the way of the future for several reasons.
If you think about it, and most of us don’t, the current electrical system requires a lot of moving power from place to place, to speak in a decidedly non-technical way. Electricity is generated at large power plants, then travels along a series of increasing smaller lines until it reaches the outlet in your wall. It’s a lot of ground to cover, to say nothing of transporting the fuel to the power plant to begin with. As electricity travels, some of it dissipates, so distributed production means less of that loss; a benefit maximized by placing generation next to use. It seems inevitable that this will mean vacating some of the existing system of lines and structures that currently move electricity from power plant to use.
High voltage corridors are large. Look at an aerial photo, and they stand out, x-ing across miles. That they are corridors is in itself valuable, because corridors are difficult, impossible, really, to assemble through land that’s already owned by many different entities and developed into different uses and buildings. A vacated corridor is an intact corridor, and it could be intact for something else, even if it’s merely a right-of-way or easement and not owned outright by the electric company. Corridors preserve protected routes for wildlife movement, helping counteract habitat fragmentation. This aspect of utility corridors is even more important in urban areas, where the surroundings may be entirely built out and thus inhospitable to most wildlife.
It’s worth thinking about and assessing what they do for us in their current state, these infrastructural urban wilds. They do all the things vegetation and permeable surfaces and wildlife do for you anywhere - all those ecosystem services, cognitive and health benefits, views out your back door. We take them for granted, because we don’t see them, remember? But should they vanish, we’d notice the effects. We’d feel the loss. Better to notice and value what they do for us before that time comes.
Assorted drafts, previews, and outtakes from the book I'm currently writing about the impact of vegetation and neglect on urban life. I also take other thoughts for a test drive here, including nascent design and research ideas.