Unraveling Urban Life and Space
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.
Written version of my August 10 talk to the English for Graduate Studies Programs for Fulbright Scholars, through the English Language Institute at Syracuse University.
What does climate change have to do with the shape of the city? Climate change is one of the defining challenges of this era - perhaps the defining challenge - and as such, it’s a good bet that it will touch or is touching every aspect of life. That includes how we live in cities, and what kinds of environments cities create for people. Since that’s my area of focus as a researcher, this post examines that aspect of climate change. Climate change is so mammoth in its impact that from a single parcel of land, that occupied by the Syracuse Center of Excellence, we can see a number of landscape elements that are important to consider.
How people use land, including transportation, density, adn what happens to “used” land, is fundamental to understanding the drivers of climate change in the US, and why they are resistant to change. So if you're interested in in climate change and why it's happening and what to do about it, you should be interested in cities. Even if you live elsewhere, you should be interested in US cities with regard to climate change. We’re a disproportionate producer of greenhouse gases (GHG, but we're also a leader in how cities are shaped and run. For good or ill, other people who are involved in the shaping and running of cities in other parts of the world look at American cities as models, much in the way that American cities were largely modeled upon European cities.
Most of the world's population lives in urban areas. Some of you may have heard about this: fairly recently we hit this milestone of global urbanization, where more than half of the world population lives in urban areas. This percentage is predicted to continue to rise to two-thirds of the world's population by 2050. So in that way you could say cities are our future - all of our futures. Nearly 90% of that predicted increase of urbanized people is predicted to be in Asia and Africa, most especially India, China, and Nigeria. In the US we urbanized a long time ago, back in the 1920s. Currently US cities are home to just under 63% of the US population, but our cities comprise only 3.5% of our land area. Thus a key part of dealing with climate change is to handle how people live in cities.
Photo: Looking west from the Center of Excellence
If we look westward from the Center of Excellence, we see a massive elevated highway. This is Interstate 81, which bisects Syracuse from north to south. Since 81 was built after the city was already established, it was built over a number of neighborhoods, displacing people, their homes, and their businesses. Syracuse right now is in the midst of a debate about the future of this highway, since it has reached the end of its designed life span.
Interstate 81 exemplifies two key characteristics of American cities: the organization of the city around the private car, and sprawl. “Sprawl” here means that American cities tend not to have a defined clearly visible boundary between the city and the countryside or rural areas outside the city. Instead it's a diffused boundary, as lower density development spills into the countryside and takes up a lot of land. These characteristics are intertwined with transportation. Transportation, it turns out, is also incredibly important to climate change. Transportation accounts for about one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions both in the US and globally. This is a lot, but it’s even more when you consider that in the US it's the number two source of greenhouse gas emissions after electricity generation, so it's not just that it's a huge chunk - it's the second largest one. Here in Syracuse it's actually even more of our total energy consumption, about 36%, so it's more than one-third of Syracuse's total energy consumption. Globally, there there there is predicted growth in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions due to transportation, mostly due to rapid growth in car use, especially in developing urbanizing countries like China. So transportation is key to climate change strategies. Here in the US, we lead the world in urban passenger transportation carbon dioxide emissions. Our carbon dioxide emissions due to transportation are actually projected to fall by 2050 in part due to redensification, or the trend of people moving back into city cores.
In 2013, President Obama put forward a climate action plan, with the basic proposal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 26 - 28% below 2005 Levels by 2020. Compare those numbers: 26-28% to 25%, and you’ll see that transportation could account for almost the entire reduction on its own. So if we all stay right where we are, and no goods or products move from place to place - that is, if all transportation ceases - we’ve got the necessary reduction solved! Since we obviously can’t do that, we need to do transportation better. How do we do this? It’s simple: we drive less. Or we drive using clean fuels that don’t create GHG emissions.
So what's the problem? Let's look again at Interstate 81. This is part of the American interstate highway system, which was constructed after World War II. It is a national system, including all 50 states (even Hawaii!) and all major cities. The situation Syracuse has of the elevated freeway going right through the center of the city, displacing neighborhoods and bisecting the city, is common. The original rationale for the interstate highway system was to aid national defense, modeled on Germany’s Autobahn (but with speed limits). However the impact that it has really was to promote suburbanization, which is building at the outside of of cities. The flip side of that is disinvestment in urban areas, like what you see around you in Syracuse. So the interstate highways moved people and money out of the cities and into the surrounding area. These consequences were in part unintentional and in part intentional consequences, because there were also a number of federal and state policies that favored suburban development for decades. These policies, with the interstate highways, set up a common dynamic where people with the economic power to choose live in the suburbs but work in city centers. Transportation between those two areas is therefore key to that way of life. The same dynamic has also created a number of challenges for urban areas in terms of being pleasant and attractive places to live.
Interstate highways like 81 also work against more sustainable transportation directly. Elevated highways form a physical and psychological barrier to ground-level transportation in all forms. Imagine yourself walking down the street. From here, you can walk straight to downtown Syracuse. It’s about a mile, or 1.6 kilometers, an easy walk, flat, with a sidewalk the whole way. It’s easy to find your way to downtown, but people do not walk and do not ride bicycles because they don't want to ride or walk under 81. You can see it's forbidding. There’s no physical barrier here where we are looking, but it's inhospitable. That has to do with the way that we as humans perceive environments around us, with what we prefer and what we don't prefer. These perceptions make this feel dangerous to us, even if it's not. Interstates like 81 also work against sustainable transportation by lowering property values around them. Simply put, people would rather live, work, recreate, and invest in properties that are not right next to the structure. It’s ugly. The traffic is really loud. There's also issues with air pollution from all those cars, which leads to health problems like asthma and environmental lead (from the bad old days when gasoline included lead).
As you can see, there’s quite a list of problems with this interstate and creating sustainable transportation. We know the sustainable transportation is very important to fighting climate change, so why not just get rid of the interstate? We don’t, because we already have the ring of suburbs around Syracuse, and all those people living in the suburbs and working in the city. If you eliminate the interstate, how do you get from the suburbs to the city core? This highlights an important point about land development and land use patterns: they have a lot of inertia once established, because it costs so much to change the physical landscape and it's a lot of work. Our next stop looks at that process of changing the landscape and how some kinds of construction are better than others with regard to climate change.
Photo: Looking south from the Center of Excellence
This construction site is what’s referred to as infill construction or brownfield redevelopment. “Infill” simply means that you are filling in an empty space within existing development. “Brownfield” means that there was a building on this site before. It’s often assumed to mean that the site is contaminated, although that’s not necessarily the case. Brownfields also include sites that are indeed contaminated, including with frightening things like dioxin.
In any case, brownfield redevelopment like this is more sustainable than the alternative, which is building outside city areas. Why is it more sustainable? There's less need for transportation, and remember, transportation is about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. If you live and work in buildings that are adjacent to each other, you just walk next door and there's no greenhouse gas emissions. There’s also less need for new infrastructure, which is not as obvious. Infrastructure includes things like utilities and roads. When you build outside a city, you need to extend utilities - natural gas, electricity, water, sewerage - to the new development. You have to have a road to get there. In contrast, if you build on a site like this one, all those utilities are already here. Clearly the road is already here. You save all that concrete, all that pipe, all that wire and cable and conduit. All of that has an ecological footprint - it's all manufactured somewhere, so using less of it is more sustainable. Infill or brownfield redevelopment also preserves more land outside cities for natural areas, which can sequester carbon or mitigate some impacts of climate change like urban heat island. Brownfield redevelopment may also be more sustainable because it frequently involves buildings and site work that are more compact, using fewer resources.
Despite all this, much construction in the US is the opposite of infill/brownfield redevelopment: greenfield development. Greenfield development means building on new land, kind of a ridiculous idea, because of course there is no “new” land. All land was used for something else before. In this case, it’s usually agricultural land or natural vegetation like forests. Greenfield development is seen as far easier, cheaper, and often more desirable than building on lots within the city. It tends to be more predictable, and unpredictable delays in construction are costly. Urban sites tend to have surprise environmental issues, when you dig into the soil and discover it is contaminated with something. There can also be delays when historical artifacts are uncovered, since construction has to halt while the artifacts are evaluated for historic significance. There's also the more basic requirement of the need to work around and preserve existing structures, in contrast to building in an open field. On this site, there’s several valuable elements immediately adjacent to the construction: the wall of the Center of Excellence, the pavement around it, the trees along the street, even the street itself.
Because greenfield development is more popular, there are a number of federal and state grants and various incentives to redevelop brownfields. However they tend to focus on very large brownfield sites like old factories, landfills, or shipyards, and omit small sites like gas stations and dry cleaners. This site adjacent to CoE actually included an old gas station. Finally there is a consumer preference in the US for suburban or exurban housing. People in the business of developing land are aware of those preferences and they cater to them. We tend to think that new is always better, perhaps due to some bias in American culture toward seeing ourselves as breaking new ground and taming the wilderness. Our final stop on our walk around the CoE site looks at what happens to sites like this when they're not redeveloped.
Photo: Looking north from the Center of Excellence
Looking at this view is somewhat tricky, because the element I want to discuss here is actually what’s not there: the land just across the street. People who study cities refer to this as vacant or underused land. This is one of the outcomes of what we talked about previously, including transportation, lack of investment in urban areas, and the difficulty of infill or brownfield redevelopment. Sites like the one across the street are not really used for anything. They tend to sit like this for a long time. These same dynamics also produce abandoned buildings, and abandoned buildings tend to become sites like this in our litigious society. It’s far easier for people to hurt themselves in an abandoned building then it is on a vacant site. People also tend to tear down buildings because they see it as as being cleared for a new use or to be more attractive to new investors. It makes “used” urban land a little bit more like that greenfield. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the vacant parcel across the street has a bit of asphalt on it, and that asphalt has some yellow stripes. If you look at an aerial photo of the site, you can see that those stripes are parking spaces. Underused urban parcels often are nominally used as parking lots, even if no one parks there. There's some possibility of income from parking in urban areas. More than anything, however, this parking lot is merely a placeholder. It’s what this land will be until it becomes something else.
Vacant and underused land like this site indicate that infill development isn’t happening. They also increase the perception of urban neighborhoods as undesirable, dangerous places, full of contaminated land and other health hazards. If this was a valuable parcel, wouldn’t someone be living on it, or build a business on it, or turn it into a park? Regardless of the facts, the perception of parcels like this one can be quite negative, and in turn they influence the perception of the entire urban neighborhood. People on foot or on a bike may be reluctant to pass vacant lots like this one, especially at night, so they also act to suppress more sustainable modes of transportation.
In these three views from one parcel of land, we’ve seen a number of major factors in why land use in the US is a driver of climate change. We’ve also seen some reasons why our use of land resists change to more sustainable practices. Climate change is such a gigantic challenge that it’s sometimes difficult to grasp - it is, after all, *global* warming. It helps to realize that some important aspects of it are not exotic or huge in scale - that they are actually just across the street.
Facts and sources:
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.