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.
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.
A new guest column out today in Microgrid Knowledge, featuring the big story from the microgrid-revitalization-replicability study I did last year at Syracuse University. Read the whole thing here.
Lots of talk these days about a wall on our southern border, but walls aren’t built with words. They’re built with concrete, masonry, reinforcing materials, excavation, drainage…the everyday palette of landscape architecture practice. It’s not often that the national conversation overlaps with site construction expertise, so… let’s talk about walls.
Walls are major construction. They are big and heavy and not flexible, so they need foundations - footings. An ordinary wall that screens a dumpster or encloses a garden is about six feet high above ground, and a few more feet below ground, depending on frost depth. Larger walls require larger footings.
Footings require excavation, and some idea about the stability of the soil or rock below and around that excavation. It’s especially important to have material down there that won’t shift or expand and contract, such as with water absorption. Some soils do this during ordinary seasonal rains or storms. Since properly constructed walls last a long time - see Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall - they must be designed not just for ordinary storms, but once-in-a-lifetime or once-in-several-lifetime storms. Stronger walls use more materials for each linear foot of wall, so greater storm resistance = more money.
For a structure this size, especially if soils are less than ideal, an engineer likely would recommend tying the footing to the underlying bedrock. So how far down is the bedrock? How do you do find out? You do it the same way you determine what the elevation and slope of the soil surface is along the path of the wall and what pre-existing obstacles require demolition or adjustment of the wall’s path: you hire someone to do a survey and soil borings. This preliminary work is not minor; it takes time and expertise. You can’t skimp on it, because if it’s done poorly, it will ruin the project. My only comment about an unstable 1000 mile long 25’ high wall: liability nightmare.
These surveys must happen before any realistic, buildable final design can be done. It’s common for design work to be delayed while waiting for the survey, even on small projects. How long does it take to do a survey for a 1000 mile long corridor? A while. A long while. It’s a whole lot of work.
All of this footing and survey and money and time stuff is a big part of the reason why much of our border has fences, not walls. Fences only attach to the earth at their posts, making them more of a connect-the-dots kind of exercise than a continuous, inflexible structure that will crack (fall, collapse) if the ground beneath it shifts. Fences are cheaper and faster to build because of this, and they allow some adjustment of construction details in field, meaning you can figure some of it out as you are putting it up. It’s like fencing in a garden plot or field at your house, just bigger, obviously. Over rough terrain like arroyos or rock outcroppings, it’s not easy to build a fence, either, which is part of the reason why some of our southern border has no fence, either.
Once you’ve got a survey and design, you still have to build the wall itself. The simplest possible structure would be a massive project, since it stretches over 1000 miles. If it has, for example, a walkway on top, that adds time and expense. If it has occasional lookout towers or guardhouses or gates, like, again, the Great Wall or Hadrian’s Wall or that iconic fictional wall of our time, The Wall in Game of Thrones, all of those additional features must be designed and constructed and supported structurally. A guardhouse is essentially a building attached to the top of the wall or sitting within the wall itself, and buildings take time to design and build, and they, um, aren’t free. I’ve heard little detail about how the border wall should look or what features it should include, but any structure this large will take a long, long, long time to build. The astonishing cost estimate of the border wall reflects this - bigger structures cost more to build because they use more materials, but also because they take more design time, more survey time, more engineering time, and a whole lot more construction time on site. All that time is someone’s time, and all of it costs money.
How long will it all take? Given the time it takes to put out a call for bids, go through the bidding process for public projects, allow the selected companies to gear up and assign people to work on this, how long until the border becomes more difficult to cross than it is today? I’d bet longer than four years, longer than eight years, in fact. China’s Great Wall is 13,170 miles long (really! although it's more ambiguous than you'd think) and took about 2000 years (!!) to build. Hadrian’s Wall is only 73 miles long and took at least six years to build. (The Game of Thrones Wall was built by magic, and (spoiler alert!) doesn’t exist. Plus it’s made of ice, which is not the material of choice on the Mexican border.) These were built without modern technology, so we’d do it faster. How much faster? Ten years seems like a safe bet, although if anything is certain in life, it is that large construction projects always encounter delays. So bet on delays.
If you want to keep people out of the country with a wall, would you give them ten years’ notice about it? People - in this case, that’s professional smugglers, criminals who do this for a living and charge potential immigrants crippling sums of money - have all kinds of ways of getting around, over, under, and through the existing barriers on the border. How will this be different? In ten years, couldn’t you figure out how to get around (over, under, through) a wall?
Maybe we take another look at building it with magic - somebody call George R.R. Martin! While you’re at it, check with Merriam-Webster, too: you’re gonna need this term.
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.