Monday, December 13, 2010

Thinking notes parallel to main Centered Bay Area paper

                I am not posting here the sixty page draft of the Centered Bay Area (CBA) paper that I'm working on, intending to inject it into the Bay Area regional policy process as a self-published book in the Winter or Spring of 2011.   However, here are some notes of background thinking that is going along parallel to work on the CBA paper.   Some of this could go into the CBA paper.
                 I'm writing these notes out so that a reader does not see the CBA draft and the walkable transit oriented community it proposes as piece of aggressive hyper-modern barbarism.   That could happen, particularly through focusing on the density and the high-rise buildings.   There are actually four sizes of residential buildings in the plan, of which only two are tall, but the tall buildings will be visually prominent, and could become too big a part of the overall impression, particularly for someone coming from from more traditional, single-family house, even suburban, expectations.   (Californians pretty well universally are like this; "manhattanization" is an expletive, and the thought that follows it immediately is "Pruitt-Igoe," meaning the high-rise towers that failed as social housing in St. Louis in the 1970s and were demolished.)
                I.    First off, everything proposed in the CBA paper is for the yet-to-be-built future historical layer of construction in this region.   The Center is not is not thought of as substitute, replacing parts of the region existing now, which would be torn down.   It's rather a matter of changing how we'll build what we  build in the future.   If one thing is certain in the Bay Area, it is that there will be building in the future, so it's not changing that it will be built, but rather changing how it will be built.  There is no destructive side here.
                II.   Hyper-modern, hyper-urban and barbarian describe an approach that in the mind of many people is the antithesis of humane values we have for living spaces.   High-rise buildings are often seen that way.
                But the high-rises that I've called for are not that, in my mind, and they can and should be quite different.  Using high-rises actually is generated by quite distinct logics.  The first is to get green open space.  If you simply have individual houses side-by-side covering the space that is available (in this case about 285 acres created by the 2000 foot walking distance radius around the station), the dwellings very quickly cover all of the space.  But we want green, open space, seen as an essential for a humane setting.   We actively want green space in large quantities, generous quantities, elbow- room, soccer-playing, picnicking, expansive quantities as well as smaller tennis court and community garden quantities.   To get that open space, within the limitations of the total space, the housing spaces that you want must be stacked one on top of each other, and that stack is what a  high-rise really consists of.   So here the high-rise form is a price that we pay for green space.  It is proposed as a way of getting green open space, and not from an eagerness to have high-rises as such.   It's a trade-off, a justifiable one, I think.
                Secondly, the high-rises within their own footprint achieve great density.  On a 80'x80' footprint, which is quite small, there can be 300 people, if they are stacked up.   This is an intense and efficient use of land, and land, in square feet or meters, is one of the major "expenses,"  or constraints, of the project.   We are actively managing land, or space, which is one of the key things that architecture is about.
                The purpose of the Center is to accommodate people, and the target of putting 10,000 people in the 285 acres around the station is not accidental, arbitrary or capricious, but functional and necessary.  We want a large population of people and activities within a circumscribed space, and that is the simple formula for density -- or for urbanity.   We want that density not for itself, but for quite specific reasons: we have a lot of incoming people to the Bay Area to be housed, and the alternative is to house them on the margins in sprawl on heretofore agricultural land.  We could solve the high-rise problem simply by saying, well, we'll cut out a certain number of people, we'll go to a Center of fewer people.  But we don't want to do that.   Again, the price we pay for keeping our target numbers up is putting in high-rises.  
                But why does the Center have to have a lot of people?   Apart from the general one of its being its function to take a significant share of the large incoming regional population, there are several particular reasons that the Center must have a substantial size:
                -- The walkable Center has got to have enough space, enough capacity, not only to house a lot of new people, butalso  to absorb all the people who lived on its 285 acre territory before the Center was built.   There are to be no expulsions from that living space through the building of the center.   From the beginning, conceptual proposal stage we can approach the people who already live in the Center's locale and say, "you may have to suffer through two years of disruption during construction, but this new space will be here for you, actually better space than you are living in now, when it's all over and it's finished.  You are guaranteed not to have to move out, and you will continue to get your (improved) housing at essentially the same cost that you are paying now."   Being able to say that to existing residents is critical.  It is a very important part of the proposition in every location, and its costs have to be part of the budget.   Going to the Center form is not meant to mean gentrification and ruthless expulsion of existing populations.   Somewhat as a consequence of eschewing expulsions, since it gives us additional people to house in the Center, we will be building high-rises.    
                -- We want the Center to be hospitable to many niche communities, but we don't want the Center itself to be a niche community.   That "generality " itself drives up the numbers of people it must receive, and rules out the Center's being a small solution.   To take a realistic example, the Center, and even specifically the high-rise buildings, will have a particular suitablility for seniors.   The apartments represent an appropriate way of downsizing from houses that have grown too big for empty nesters or widows or widowers to manage, and within a Center there can easily be available for seniors the support of progressively increasing medical facilities that are now becoming widespread.   But we don't want, and the more vital seniors don't want, the Center to be for seniors only.   For every senior there should be three or four non-senior people or more.   That means it cannot be a small place, and thus your numbers for the Center rise into the thousands, and the scale that requires high-rises.
                -- If tall buildings are seen as invasive, impersonal and exclusive by people who have a familial,  child-raising orientation, they are not seen that way by many others,  who are not in the classic mother- father-children family unit.   The  classic nuclear family unit which was ubiquitous and dominant in our image of our society, is now more like a quarter (I recollect a statistic of 23%) of households.    High rises can serve well the other 75% , usually one person and pair households, including seniors,  who are adaptable to apartment living or even seek it.    The overall Center, specifically and very importantly, is designed to include and cater to children-raising families, who are the root stock of our society no matter how small their numbers, but not particularly  to house them in the high rise structures.   There will be a large amount of non-high rise space for families, and there are enough non-family households to make it reasonable to build high-rise structures to provide for some of them.
                III.    The high-rise buildings, indeed the whole urban settlement, are internally sociable, like a neighborhood or small town, not anonymizing and anti-social as in the negative stereotype of apartment buildings.  (On the sociability of large cities, see  Manhattan Diary, column on Mondays inthe NYT.)    This is a reason that the long double-loaded corridor has been avoided within the building, and the small number of apartments on each floor in a slender building are instead grouped around their own small foyer at the elevator well, which is thought of as a social space.  These are condominium or cooperative apartments, not rentals, which should mean that, without the rapid turnover of rental property, the occupants of a floor will have stable, neighborly relationships.   I could see people having dutch doors (with the upper half openable separately) which some people would choose to leave open onto the small foyer when they were at home in the daytime. 
                IV.   I want to draw attention to an observation which I make in a cursory way in the text but which is important.  That is that Americans (no differentiation intended between the U.S. and Canada, so read North Americans)  never paid much attention to spatial considerations in the design of cities, which actually were not so much designed as accumulated, or designed by markets, even just land speculation, as Mike Davis holds for LA.   Space at the regional scale was, as Peter Rogers' says of the traditional popular conception of water, always abundant and thought of as never being in scarcity, never in need of allocation, simply always available in plentiful supply, something which nature gives us, requiring no management by us.
                Such carefree expansiveness with regard to space was originally I suppose part of the outlook of Europeans coming to the New World, where space was in fact incredibly abundant relative to home, effectively unlimited.  (It was striking to see this spatial horizon transformation in Belgians when they came to the Congo, which had 80 times the area of the home country.)
                As we move along in the North American history in the buildup of populations, of urbanization, and urbanizing economies, the sense that space, land, was abundant, limitless and it didn't matter where things are located in relation to each other, was supported, and allowed to be perpetuated in a huge way, by the automobile.   This is  because it does not matter much where something is, because an automobile can always get to it.    Whether you have to go to a place once, or commute to a place every day, nothing  is unreachable or no space is unusable, because it can always be reached by car.  Distances, very large distances, for somebody who thinks in terms of foot or horse movements, can be reached easily and comfortably, or at least, so we told ourselves, by the car, which permits the geographic expansion of the city to be virtually without limit in America.   
                But what was missed was the fact that car travel has costs, and in a city with a spreading  circumference, more and more places were remotely located from one another.   Expenditures on travel between them,  in energy, money, and especially in time, even when done by car, grew and built up.   
                In the absence of collective transportation, which required density, in order to have normal mobility around a large diffused metropolitan region it was necessary,  effectively obligatory, for each individual to have a car, rather than a matter of choice.  Growing affluence made cars more and more easily available not to an elite but to the great masses of the population, and the culture endorsed the pouring of that rising affluence specifically into cars and automobile culture.   And then came congestion, and while as alluring as ever, cars became in reality, more costly and less useful.
                That North Americans pay no attention to space and location is not literally true, and specifically not in an urban context within the reach of one city government, but at the metropolitan regional level you still don't get a design intention, a planning attention, to place things in spatial geographic relationship to each other that reflects their functional relationship to each other and minimized travel costs between places that are functionally related.   For example, where you work is one function, where you live is a second function, and if you locate them in different places from each other, then there is automatically a third function, that of moving between them, which is not free, but will have a cost.   
                In North America that cost has always been considered very very low or negligible.  Somewhat rightly so because the car was always at hand, at least it was to hand for members of the propertied middle class, and city designing, city building was always thought of basically in terms of the needs and capacities of the middle class.     
                Now, however, with the growth of cities, linked to the primordial fact of the worldwide growth of population, this abundance of  of good locations for functions is no longer true, because many many more people need to use, and are contesting for, a fixed amount of space.  (High rises are actually one of the relief valves.)   So land and space now have to be consciously managed, in parallel to the way Peter Rogers looks at water.    This is a sea change, that requires a huge adaptation by the public.  A whole new politics is created, with a million human dramas at every point on the spectrum between cooperation and friction.   But such management of space, and adaptation to it, is unavoidable.
                V.  Now we are going to manage space and learn to manage it in relation to movement and access among different uses of space.   With regard to movement among spaces, the basic unit is the trip,  just a matter of nomenclature,  conventional usage.    Let's look at two kinds of trips.   A word I want to stick into the vocabulary here is trunk, despite its slightly antique or British flavor.  A trunk trip is a frequent, mainline trip made by very substantial numbers of people with some steadiness and reliability.   Because of its volume and regularity, facililties for a trunk trip can receive  substantial investment, for example, you put in a big road, a trunk road, between two destinations with a lot of traffic between them. 
                 For the other kind of trip, a non-trunk trip, I think I'll use the word occasional, to describe a trip which is statistically relatively rare, most often connecting destinations at least one of which is quite small.   I have given illustrations elsewhere of the occasional, or low frequency trip, such as the cross-trip in a radial layout, or the trip on a trunk route which takes place at a time when traffic on the trunk is very low, such as a trip in the middle of the night.  
                 There's another division of trips, between collective ones and individual ones .   It is an assumption that there are economies of scale, that the per person costs of a given trip are lower if the trip is made collectively.   Collective transportation goes with trunk trips; occasional trips are more likely to be individual.   The car is an instrument above all of the occasional trip.   This is an important part of what the car is all about, both its "go anywhere" advantages, and also its high costs, since car trips have single or few passengers compared with a collective vehicle like a bus or train, and cars offer no economy of scale, rather the opposite.
                Therefore, if we want to minimize the cost of travel within a given region we will try to make as many trips as possible collective and as few as possible individual.   Although these categories obviously have gray zones between them, the transportation dynamics of a car-oriented region, say the proverbial Los Angeles, are that a very large proportion of trips are individual and a very small number are collective.   In  the design of a new region seeking efficiency and low cost of movement, basically we want to maximize the number of trips that can be made collectively at lower cost.