Archive for the ‘Density’ Category

The density of Silicon Valley

Monday, August 20th, 2012

The density of Silicon Valley

I was born and raised in the close-in suburbs of San Jose and family ties bring me back often to the city. Furthermore, my interest in community development and in high tech gizmos keeps me on the lookout for articles on creativity and city form. Of great interest are articles on why the high tech industry is so highly clustered in a triangle that roughly stretches from Redwood City to Cupertino to the south side of San Jose. Lately, the spread of high tech has widened slightly and there are exceptions, Zynga, for example, but in this triangle are the headquarters of Facebook, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Intel, Cisco, Netflix, Google, Yahoo and Adobe and major facilities of Microsoft, Dell,  Hitachi and Sony. It’s all there.

But why?  Partly it’s an accident.  Stanford University helped spark this concentration of high technology companies fifty years ago and has nurtured new companies to this day.  Eventually, Silicon Valley has bested Boston and other rivals.  Note that New York City and Mayor Bloomburg compare themselves to Silicon Valley, not the other way around.

I think the role of luck in fostering economic growth is something to keep in mind. A lot of things happen by chance. But it takes a lot more than just luck. AnnaLee Saxenian wrote a great book comparing Silicon Valley to Boston’s Route 128 which describes why one area prospered through high tech and why the other lost out. The role of culture and law are very important. As an aside, Boston is ahead of the Bay Area in medical research. In a fairly parallel field, Boston won.

Many theorists say that San Jose is a suburban exception to the Jane Jacobs idea that density prompts interactions between strangers. Jacobs theory suggests that interaction and innovation needs urban density to thrive and some suggest that San Jose and its northern suburbs are too sparsely populated to meet this theory.   But these observers have never really lived in the region because it is no exception. While San Jose may lack a dense core, overall it is very dense. The US Census recently said it was the third densest urbanized area in the country. And as Jacobs theorized, this density results in constant interactions in collaborations. The creativity of the region needs no special explanation.

Lewis Mumford and Modern housing

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Today I’m going to live on the edge and critique Lewis Mumford, one the giants of American urban planning and sociology.  According to Wikipedia, Mumford was born in 1895 in New York City and died in 1990. As part of my research for my forthcoming book, Building American Public Health, I read his essays from the New Yorker (he was the magazine’s architecture critic for over 30 years) as well as his very influential book, The City in History.  I read many other of his writings as well.  Mumford was a founding member of New York City’s Regional Plan Association and he strongly promoted mid 20th century orthodox urban planning:  strict separation of land uses, superblocks, and rationalization of the unruly chaos of city living.  He was very concerned with crime, most of his criticism of Jane Jacobs in his review of her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, focused on what he saw as her misguided approach to crime control – the eyes on the street and 24 hour uses as ways of keeping evil doers at bay.  The essay is not easy to find and it is at times sexist, but it is worth reading.

Mumford has an interesting relationship with Modern architecture.  He was one of its early promoters and he saw the cruciform and Y-shaped building of early Modernist housing as very health promoting, mostly because they separated people from cars and provided access to sunlight and ventilation.  In contrast, he called Park Avenue a high cost slum and predicted that the apartment buildings sprouting up on the Upper East Side would never hold their value once people realized how little light and air they allowed in.

I was in New York City recently and had a chance to compare Park Avenue in the east 70s, an area with apartment buildings tight to the street, to the Chelsea Homes in the west 20s, a mid-century Modernist superblock development. It’s sad to say that Mumford had it wrong.  Fortunately, New York City public housing has held its quality over the years, even the high rise housing.  But no one who could afford it would prefer the Modernist inspired superblocks/skyscraper in the park of the Chelsea Homes to the conventional buildings of Park Avenue.  Even Mumford, to his credit, turned eventually turned against the Modernist superblock ideal of housing.

Is walkability a civil right?

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

The blog is back!

Due to a recent eye problem (I’m getting better – thanks for your concern), I have gone six months without being able to drive or ride a bike.  Walking is the main way I get around these days and Boston, despite its reputation as a walking city, is not always that easy to navigate by foot and public transportation.  But my world is rich enough in destinations: work, shopping, etc., that not being able to drive is a disadvantage, but not life stopping.  I can take the MBTA, Boston’s public transportation system, to many places that are too far to walk.  For a person with limited vision, Boston is not a city of limits.

But what percentage of the United States is accessible to those who cannot drive?  A very tiny percentage.  Sure there are rural areas that it would be nearly impossible to make accessible, I don’t know how public policy beyond providing transportation services could be of assistance here. But how many urban areas, big cities, in this country are off limits to those of us who cannot drive?  What about those who can’t afford cars? This seems to me to be a civil rights issue.  Shouldn’t our dense cities be accessible to those with limited eyesight?

The radical part of me wants to sue someone to make the Unite States more accessible (actually, what is more mainstream American than taking someone to court).  I am not a lawyer, so I can’t speak to the specific legal and constitutional issues involved.  But shouldn’t there be something about the equal protection clause or the Americans With Disabilities Act to take care of this?  Should there be a constitutional right to access?  I’m not a dreamer, I realize there is not a great chance of anyone ever taking this on and winning a case before the Supreme Court.  But wouldn’t it be a better country if we made walkability a civil right issue?

Density is not the same as walkability

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

I was in Los Angeles recently and stayed in a hotel in what is known as et condo corridor, a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard east of Westwood that is lined with high rise housing.  The blocks behind the street feature single family homes on fairly small blocks,  about as dense as single family homes can be.  Wilshire is served by a major bus route, the street is the site of a proposed new subway linking downtown to the west side, and the busy, if unremarkable, Westwood business district and UCLA are about a ten to fifteen minute walk away.  Sounds walkable?

It’s not.  Wilshire is three lanes in each direction with traffic that races by well above the 35 mph speed limit. There are some trees and a planting strip between the sidewalk and the street, it doesn’t feel like a big enough buffer against the traffic.  The blocks on Wilshire itself are long and crossing the street, even at signals, seems unsafe.

This is evidence that walkablity is more than density, or even proximity to a commercial district.  It really reflects the totality of the pedestrian experience.   Perhaps it is not surprising that the street if pretty empty of pedestrians.

Urban Sprawl 1970 – 2000

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

In preparation for the 2010 Census data release next month, I have recalculated urban  sprawl values for every US metropolitan area using 2010 definitions of metropolitan areas.  The 1970 – 2000 data is available here:

1970 – 2000 Urban sprawl data

The data provided here have a high correlation with the Smart Growth America data.  Basically, the value here represents the percent of a metropolitan area’s population living in low density (< 3,500 persons per square mile) census tracts.  Rural areas of metro areas (population density < 200 persons per square mile) are excluded.

2010 values once the 2010 data become available.

Technology and the city

Friday, July 9th, 2010

The internet was supposed to make cities irrelevant.  Creative and high income people would live on mountain tops, connect to others via the internet and urban areas would wither.  Seriously, why live in a city when you can network on Facebook?

Didn’t happen.  Sure, Detroit and Buffalo other similar cities continued to lose population since 2000, but most large US cities are growing.  Even the most dense cities added population including New York, San Francisco and Boston.  This continued urban growth is not confined to technophobes.  It is said that if you want venture capital funding for an internet startup or a social networking company, you need to be within a 20 mile radius of Palo Alto California.  If you know the area, this is a crowded part of urban America.

Why hasn’t technology made cities obsolete?  It could be that we simply need more time.  Perhaps it may take decades for the locational effects of the internet to result in changes in residential choice.  But I am skeptical.  For one thing, the same threat to urban concentration that have been attached to the internet were  used for the telephone.  The rise in the telephone was supposed to  make cities obsolete.  More important, people simply like living in cities.  They like having other people around them and interacting with them.  Living on a mountain top is bad for your health because social isolation harms health.

The field of urban economics tells  us that there are advantages to be had from agglomeration and economies of scale.  Companies and people are more productive when they are near others.  So any preference for isolated rural living, is more than outweighed by the advantages of urban living.  Not that I am convinced this preference really exists.  While cities have been growing, rural areas continue to lose population.  Give it another 30 years, and let’s see if I am right.

High rise living: Bad for health?

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Accompanying the general US dislike of density is an almost automatic rejection of high rises by many communities. Though thousands (millions) live in high rise apartments, many (most) Americans think they are at best undesirable, at worst, unhealthy.  Part of this assumption most likely is a result of one of the supposed lessons resulting from the US public housing program.  High rise housing failed as housing for families appears to be one of the legacies of that experience. A reassessment of that program will be the subject of another post.  But many planners and urban advocates also dislike high rises because they believe they leave residents disconnected from the street.  Is this true?  Does it matter?

Like so much else about current planning thinking, at least part of this idea is derived from the theories of Jane Jacobs.  For those of you unfamiliar with Jacobs, Her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities is treated with almost biblical reference by many planners and people who love cities.  And rightly so, for Jacobs is responsible for dramatically changing how people view cities and the urban revival we have seen in the US since the 1970s is at least partly her doing.  In the book Jacobs severely criticized Le Corbusier and the then dominant modernist idea of placing skyscrapers in parks.  The modernist goal had been to maximize access to fresh air and sunlight. The result was that streets were rendered empty, neighborhoods were unwalkable and cities devoid of life.  Jacobs main priority was promoting connections between residents and streets.  She loved the daily flow of shopkeepers, mothers, children, families, public servants, and visitors on the streets of Greenwich Village.  She thought these close connections made streets safer (when her book was released, Lewis Mumford criticized Jacobs for being obsessed with crime) and the constant surveillance would help make children behave and enforce social norms.  In Jacobs’ ideal streetscape, the buildings were multistory walkups with shops on the first floor.

Jacobs, at least in her earlier canonical works, did not advocate against all high rises, just those that were not located along streets.  But as her ideas were interpreted and implemented in the decades after they were introduced, it has become a mantra that high rises are bad because they disconnect residents from streets.  It is said no one should live more than five stories above the ground.

These ideas are hard  to assess because they are difficult to quantify.  What exactly is a disconnect from the street?  Does it mean that one cannot look out one’s windows and see someone doing something bad on the street?  A variant of this disconnect idea is that mothers can’t watch their children from their apartments if the unit is located above the fifth floor.  This raises some interesting questions.  Do mothers routinely let their children play outside and sit by the window watching them?  Would the ability to do so encourage parents to let their children play on busy sidewalks?  Could the disconnect be quantified by measuring time spent looking out the windows at the street?  Could it be knowing one’s neighbors or the number of neighbors one knows?

The bigger problem is figuring out what exactly this disconnect causes.  Hypertension? Stress? Depression?  Whatever may be the consequences of a disconnect from the street, it does not appear to be health related.  There is the idea of “nature deficit disorder”  the idea that too great a disconnect