Unraveling Urban Life and Space
I'm pleased to announce I have a new study out this week, co-authored with former student Meghan Hazer and two Upstate Medical University faculty, Margaret Formica and Chris Morley. "The relationship between self-reported exposure to greenspace and human stress in Baltimore, MD," presents an investigation of the reduction of stress associated with spending time in or looking at green spaces. The article is available now online and will be out in print in an upcoming issue of Landscape and Urban Planning. As a journal article, it will be behind a paywall soon - but until October 13, it is available open access (that's free full text!) at this link: https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1Vbv0cUG56y~D
In celebration of the new softcover edition of my first book Immigrant Pastoral: Midwestern Landscapes and Mexican-American Neighborhoods, I've written a short essay setting the book within the context of the current (acrimonious) conversation about immigration and immigrants. It's strange how immigration, particularly immigration from Mexico, is simultaneously such old news and yet so very current.
You can read "Immigrants, Cities, and Why You Should Care" in its entirety here. The essay is posted on my new Routledge Featured Authors page, still under construction.
If you want more information about the softcover edition of Immigrant Pastoral, you can find that here.
Over the years I've had many people tell me they'd like to see an edition of this book at a price point more friendly to the student or young professional wallet - this is that edition! Have a look.
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.)
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.
It’s that time of year again - time for crows to congregate in the most unfortunate of city parks, streets, and yards. Sinister seems invented to describe the atmosphere of hundreds of crows roosting in the darkness above you, rustling and softly calling to each other, unseen yet…sinister, a scene out of Poe appropriate to this season. And, as an author in the Michigan Daily noted during my time in grad school, “the crow sh*t falls like rain.”
Places like the University of Michigan’s campus and Forman Park and Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse struggle with how to pull the crow welcome mat back in. Screeching recorded bird calls seem to be a favorite tactic of campuses. Other places try fireworks or gunshots. Really, not much seems to work reliably. Of interest here is that crows are recognized as being remarkably intelligent birds, with recently published research even reporting their use of tools. A memorable 2010 episode of PBS' Nature showed how crows remember the appearance of people who hassle them, and react when the same person returns. This same intelligence and responsiveness to their environment must be the key to persuading crows to roost in places we deem acceptable.
In the winter months I often see flocks of crows flying overhead, high enough and dispersed enough that you don’t notice them at first glance. As you watch, though, you realize that crows continue to pass overhead, on and on, because there are a very large number in the flock. They are all going somewhere, and I speculate that when I see these flocks in the late afternoon, they are heading for roosting spots in town (an attempted murder! Sorry. There had to be at least one “murder” pun). If they are flying from out here, 15 miles away, to spots in town, the choice of those roosting spots must be intentional, because it’s obviously not proximity or convenience at play. What makes a good spot for a murder? What dictates the landscape preference of crows?
I don’t know. Crows aren’t my thing. But revealing the physical environment as a key factor in life in cities is, and so I say: there are environmental characteristics that must matter here, and if we identify them, we can manipulate them, and make the crows decide to sleep somewhere else. There’s got to be somewhere else, though - like every “undesirable” in the city, crows have to be somewhere, so banishing them from one place means their arrival somewhere else. The task of research-based urban crow management might then be to eliminate those characteristics from places where we don’t want crows, and add those characteristics to places where we do want them. For a bonus point, we could draw crows to places where their abundant droppings (falling like rain!) could add needed fertility to the soil. You probably don’t want that to be any place you’re growing food for human consumption, but a degraded brownfield could be the ideal site.
So what do crows like? If I list sites where I’ve personally witnessed mass roosting of crows, I list the north edge of Syracuse’s Oakwood Cemetery, Syracuse’s Forman Park, and the University of Michigan’s Diag (a central campus quad). Far from an exhaustive list, but even with just these three sites, we can compile a short list of possible crow-attracting environmental characteristics. First, most obviously: mature deciduous canopy trees. In these three sites, those canopy trees have open understory beneath them, with either lawn or low-growing perennials and shrubs. Perhaps the crows feel more secure with open space beneath the canopy and less cover for predators. All three sites also have substantial masonry buildings adjacent to them, and at least some paving - perhaps the thermal mass raises the nighttime temperature? It’s interesting that all three sites have a fair amount of human activity, including both cars and pedestrians. These aren’t isolated natural areas. The cemetery edge abuts the edge of campus, specifically a back drive serving faculty parking, a busy place at dusk in the fall and winter. Given the demonstrated attention of crows not just to human activity, but to specific humans, it seems implausible that this is a coincidence. Perhaps the crows want to be near us because we scare off more dangerous wildlife. Perhaps they know we generate tasty trash and roadkill. Perhaps they like the heat from our buildings and cars. Maybe we’re just entertaining.
To you and me, a tree might just be a tree (well, really, to me a tree hasn’t just been a tree since 1992, when I took my first plant identification class), but to a crow, I very much doubt trees are all the same. Might the species matter? Is an elm better than a maple, but not as good as an oak?
Crows don’t mind noise, artificial light, and urban air quality. Do these environmental characteristics actually attract roosting crows? The question here is whether crows really prefer urban sites to rural ones for winter roosting, or whether we humans only notice them in urban sites. If a murder roosts in a forest and no one is there to complain, would we know about it? Urban heat islands would seem to be a likely explanation, but surely these intelligent birds have their reasons for selecting between the many possible roosting areas available in the warm city. We have to look at the wild city through crow’s eyes to see those reasons.
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.