Archive for the ‘Infrastructure’ Category

Chelsea, Massachusetts Water Front Park

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

This is great news!  Ill post pictures when the park opens later this year.

Boston Globe Article


The lack of benefits of large projects

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Cities spend millions of dollars on sports arenas and cultural institutions in part because they are thought to help spur development around them. Well, not always.

The Staples Center and the next door convention center (and the Nokia Theater – rumored to be the next home of the Oscar presentations), despite being the home of two basketball teams and a hockey team, sits in a wasteland. The gruesome LA Live is next door – a mediocre attempt at a walkable area that is second rate compared to the Grove over on the Westside. It has an ESPNzone and a Flemings Steakhouse among other chain restaurants. And the Grammys Museum. Yet collectively these institutions have one nothing for the surrounding area. The largest adjacent business is a freestanding Hooters. There are many vacant lots used for parking.

There is a similar problem on the other side if downtown with the Disney Concert Hall. It’s a great building.  But you can’t eat nearby because there are no restaurants. And not much of anything else except some fortress like office buildings and apartments. It doesn’t look like Broad’s Museum of Contemporary Art is going to add to the area either.  Sorry LA.

My guess is that the lack if spinoff effects stems from LA’s automobile problem. First, since downtown is so remote from the rest of the city, no one can arrive early for an event in time to eat. Second, because LA refuses to slow down traffic on downtown streets (memo to the City of LA – ever heard of traffic calming or complete streets?). The area is scary for pedestrians.

The lesson is that building big ticket items is not enough. You need to pay attention to context.

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?

Landscape urbanism and health

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Probably one of the most important emerging ideas in urban planning and the design of cities is landscape urbanism.  Arising from the landscape architecture profession, it traces its roots to a number of key thinkers including Ian McHarg.  As yet, there are too few constructed projects to evaluate how landscape urbanism projects might impact health.  As you may know, public health has pretty much adopted new urbanism principles as its own, promoting many of its features because they are associated with increased walkability, physical activity and social capital.  But new urbanism predates the reconnection of public health with urban planning and new urbanist themes were developed without health input.

Some of the underlying ideas of landscape architecture might be powerful for understanding how the built environment affects health.  For example, landscape urbanism looks at an area’s landscape as a substrate and organizing foundation upon which an urban area arises from.  It maintains that the horizontal reference is as important as the vertical dimension and that only a landscape lens of analysis can connect all the features of  modern society.  Its concern for drainage and storm water control and its respect for groundwater recharge is commendable.

One of its important texts is The Landscape Urbanism Reader, edited by Charles Waldheim.  While interesting, some of its shortcomings are a concern.  A discussion of re-imagining  Detroit, for example, does not mention its residents.  An  essay on urban highways does not include what building these highways meant for the people displaced.  Nowhere in the book is there  a discussion of health.  With little regard to history, health, or social justice, the developing movement has the potential for perpetuating current inequalities in health and the social environment. The concern is that landscape urbanism might only end up reproducing suburban Atlanta with better storm water management.

So at this moment, there can only be questions about landscape urbanism and health.  These include:

What are common idioms produced by landscape urbanism?  Once these emerge, they can be evaluated and assessed by health researchers.

What might be the best pattern of landscape and built up form for health?

How  might landscape urbanism be used to reshape already developed communities?

Can landscape urbanism be used to address inequalities and reduce racial disparities in health?

Stay tuned.

San Francisco wants a congestion charge

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

San Francisco announced that it wants to implement a toll on cars entering and leaving the city from the south.  The plan calls for charging $3 for cars entering in the morning rush hours and $3 for cars leaving during the afternoon rush.  Taxis and buses would be exempt.  There are already bridge tolls on cars coming from the north and east.  Revenue would be used to improve transit.

As to be expected, there is opposition.  Commuters do not want to pay more.  Others say they have no alternative to drive and they cannot afford higher costs to come into the city.  The plan will need state approval.

I am not sure there are a lot of places that could support a toll or congestion charge.  My back of et envelope scan would include Manhattan, the West Side of Los Angeles, and Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley).  Perhaps any area that has  local parking garage rates greater than $15 or $20 might sustain a charge as well.  But the plethora of free parking means that most Americans are not willing to pay a premium to enter certain areas.  A problem could emerge if a toll or congestion charge results in pushing development out of an area into the outskirts of a city, that would increase sprawl and automobile dependence.

Congestion charges have been implemented in  a number of places, most famously in London.  The experience in that city seems to indicate they can be successful, raising revenues and reducing congestion without hurting local businesses.  New York City tried to put in a charge but it failed to win approval in the New York State legislature.

This is going to be interesting to follow

City Building Isn’t Easy

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

The American Public Health Association’s annual gathering was in Denver this week.  The weather started out quite warm, in the 70’s and I had some time to walk around the downtown portion of the city.  The urban core is prosperous and is an interesting mix of good and poor design.  Here is an assessment of some of its good, bad and debatable points.

16th Street mall. The city has successfully fostered the development of an outdoor pedestrian mall that stretches for a mile along the western side of downtown.  Lined with restaurants, a few chain stores and other stores aimed at tourists, the mall is full of pedestrians and has only a few vacancies.  A free shuttle with very frequent service attracts lots of people.  On a warm Saturday evening, there was good multiracial and mixed group of ages in the area.  Perhaps the only thing it might benefit from would be a few more trees.

One way streets.  It seems as if almost every one of Denver’s streets is one way.  Most of the city core (if not the entire city) is a grid.  That’s good.  But the one way streets, most of which are of generous width, invite speeding.  For such a laid back city, its motorists are in a great hurry.  The high speeds vastly reduced the quality of the pedestrian experience.

Vacant lots and parking lots.  Once one gets off the 16th Street mall and goes west towards the convention center, there are far too many parking lots and vacant lots.  These are dead zones.  While 16th Street may be among the best urban experiences in the United States, 15th Street, 14th Street, etc, are wastelands, deserted of pedestrians and street life.

The cultural district.  Just south of the Capital is the Denver Art Museum, Denver Public Library and other buildings.  The Public Library was designed by Michael Graves and the addition to the Art Museum is a spectacular building by Daniel Libeskind (more on the library in another post).  Many friends and colleagues expressed a great satisfaction with the area.  This might reflect the great way the buildings play off each other.  But a problem is that the complex of buildings is isolated, and seems to have little positive impact on the neighborhood around it. Broadway, which runs alongside the complex, is creepily devoid of people.

Public transportation to the airport.  The new Denver airport is miles from the city center.  A cab ride will set you back $50 or $60.  The public bus costs $10.  But the ride takes an hour and only leaves once an hour.  Denver should be ashamed of itself.

Changes in cities

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Forecasting change is very difficult.  Who really knows what is lurking in our future?  I was at a meeting earlier this week where one participant who is working on global climate change made a powerful argument that cities should be planning now for the coming changes in climate as well as peak oil.  This prompted me to jot down some of the greatest changes that are going to affect US cities in the coming decades.  The potential health effects of many of these changes are unknown.  Here is my list.

Global climate change.  As temperatures rise, there is the potential for new disease outbreaks, more extreme weather events, and rising seas that can eventually leave many parts, if not entire cities, under water.  Though some of these effects may take decades to be noticed, given the long lead time for planning infrastructure, the planning for this must start now.

Peak oil.  Eventually we are going to run out of oil to meet our needs.  Either sooner or later, cheap gasoline will e no  more.  If this happens gradually, then alternatives can be developed.  But if we run out of oil quickly, the effects could be devastating.

More elderly.  The US is rapidly aging and the number of elderly is going to grow significantly.  What does this mean in terms of demand for housing and services?  What can be done to accommodate all the seniors who no longer are able to drive?  How can we make aging in place a possibility?  What will we have to do to accommodate this change?

More Latinos.  Hispanics are already the country’s largest ethnic group.  Over the next 40 – 50 years, their absolute numbers and percentage of the total population will increase even more.  But our institutions remain closed off to them, for the most part.  I can go to academic meeting after meeting and be the only Hispanic person present.  How can we open up universities and leadership positions to this new group?

The cost of health care and the built environment

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Health care expenditures now represents over 16% of the entire US economy.  Ever increasing health care costs are putting strains on all levels of government and now represent one of the largest expenditures of the federal government.  It should come as no surprise that the United States spends more money on health care than any other country.  Who else could afford to pay as much as we do? Putting aside the problem of what we get for this money, a real problem is that when governments spend these kinds of sums on health care, they have less money for everything else.  What will be the point of a hospital if the roads to it are impassible because of decayed infrastructure?

A couple of years ago, some of the medical students at Boston University formed a group called the Ad hoc Committee to Defend Health Care.  Its goal was to lobby the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to increase its subsidies to Boston City Hospital, the largest provider of free care to the poor in the state.  BCH should be proud of this and it is important that they continue to in this role.  A poster for the rally is proudly framed in the student lounge adjacent to where I teach my built environment course.

But what the students, as well as other advocates for increased government money for health care never say is what items should not be funded in order to increase our health care funding.  Just as many of those on the right say we should cut taxes without ever clearly stating what government functions we should give up, these activists (on the left) keep pushing for more money without regard to the consequences for everything else.  My concern is with infrastructure, mass transit, renovation of inner cities, etc.  But when the government is spending this much money on health care, everything else is going to suffer.

Of course I want the poor to have access to health care and I want public hospitals to be able to fulfill their mission.  But the poor also need food subsidies, parks, transit, libraries, education, and if we don’t figure out a way to control health care costs, there won’t be any money left for any of these vital services.