Monday, June 27, 2011

A problem of plenty: Parks without people

Central Hall, a public market building, restored 11 years ago
Sofia, Bulgaria – Can a city have too many parks and green spaces? Most people would say, of course not. But after a Saturday afternoon walk through central Sofia, I began to wonder. I saw numerous parks, many with almost no people in them, a few of them well-maintained but others with knee-high weeds and in trashy ill-repair.

To be sure, it was a chilly day for June, with a few spittings of rain. Yet tour buses were parked at the  gold-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and I walked past at least a half-dozen weddings at churches around the center of town.  After a bit of wandering I found a great shopping street, Vitosha, jammed with people. So people were in central Sofia. They just weren't in many of the parks.

I'm here for a conference of the International Urban Fellows Association of Johns Hopkins University, a yearly gathering of architects, urban planners and scholars from around the world. This year's topic is public spaces, and how the city of Sofia should design and manage them, a concern for cities around the world. (Disclosure: the university has paid my travel expenses.)

Lack of maintenance and calf-high grass are problems in U.S. cities, too, as they've whacked park maintenance budgets more efficiently than they've been whacking their weeds in recent years.

But more is going on than money problems. Poorly designed public spaces are a problem plaguing many cities, Sofia and Charlotte among them. (And here's a clever online tour of some Seattle-area places that aren't as welcoming as you'd want.)  Though Charlotte and Sofia's histories have almost nothing in common, they seem to have arrived at some common problems: Lack of money to maintain existing public spaces. Open spaces surrounded by monumental-style and unwelcoming urban redevelopment – problems that arose in the U.S. from misguided urban "renewal" and bad private development, and in Sofia from Communist governments apparently reading the same bad-design manuals as U.S. planners and architects, and then similar bad private development. And a shortage of public will when government funds run short.

Central Sofia has multiple parks and squares in the center of town. But reread Jane Jacobs on what parks need to succeed: A diversity of uses around them, so that people walk through them at all hours of the day and evening, going to work, to stores, to school, walking the dog, taking kids to playgrounds, and so on. Sofia's mammoth institutional buildings in the center seem, to my eyes, to make that important diversity of uses harder to achieve at some of the parks. Not to mention that traffic patterns aren't welcoming to pedestrians.

You'll find similar problems throughout suburban-style American, as well as in center cities that were too aggressively "renewed" (one of those terms that describes the opposite of what it really did, like subdivisions named Quail Ridge or Meadowood, which memorialize natural features they destroyed).

Some quick background: Bulgaria is a country of 7.3 million – fewer than North Carolina's 9.5 million, and shrinking into the bargain. It's north of Greece, south of Romania and east of Albania. Sofia, the capital, is in the western part of the country, in a plain surrounded by mountains, with a beautiful Vitosha mountain looming in the south, offering skiing in winter and hiking in summer. Sofia's population is about 1.2 million. It is expanding its subway system and has, at least in the center of town, a large network of streetcars, as well as bus service.

Under communism (1945-1989/1990), people had little need to take any private interest in "public" domains, such as parks. The government did all that, and public spaces were well-maintained, if somewhat forbidding (you didn't walk on the grass, noted one speaker, who described his amazement the first time he saw people picnicking on the grass at New York's Central Park). And the government certainly had no interest in providing public spaces where the public was going to interact with one another and possibly decide to do something like rally for democracy, a la Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Today the municipal government simply can't keep up with the maintenance and restoration needed. Sidewalks are cracked and treacherous. I'm reasonably sure-footed and I can't count how many times I've stumbled. Cars park on sidewalks, apparently with impunity, causing the pavement to crumble and sending pedestrians into the streets to dodge traffic. Yet the concept of nongovernmental agencies and citizen activism is in its infancy. After all, under Communism one didn't want to take that kind of risk. Things are changing, but slowly.

We've heard from a number of Sofians who are working to improve their city, through private nonprofit groups, with art and cultural programs, and through new city plans. Some of what we're hearing can apply to many U.S cities, not just in Bulgaria or Eastern Europe. More to come. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

All together now: "An attractive place for investment"

SOFIA, Bulgaria – I'm sitting in a conference room in an ancient Balkan city, and other than the fact that the remarks are in Bulgarian (and being translated), you'd think I was listening to any Chamber of Commerce official in Charlotte, or Raleigh, or Atlanta.

Petar Dikov, the city architect for this Bulgarian capital, is showing slides labeled, “Sofia – an attractive place for investment,” and later, one that lists the No. 1 strategic goal as “maintaining a high level of economic growth through development of a knowledge-based economy.”

Sounds like home to me.

Dikov, who was named to his post five years ago, notes that he said, "The first priority is infrastructure. The second priority is infrastructure. The third priority is infrastructure.” Also sounds familiar, especially after a series of slides showing plans for streets and roads, including what looks like a ring highway with a northern chunk missing. (Of course, I don't know at this point whether it's missing because it hasn't been built, or because there's a mountain or something in the way.)

He goes through a list of all the attractions Sofia has – dozens of theaters, universities and cultural attractions. It's within 10 kilometers of skiing, within 20 of a large artificial lake.  Sofia is a “modern European metropolis with dynamic economy and rich cultural life.” Check. Substitute the word "Atlanta" or "Nashville" or "Houston" and the speech would be the same.

But then, he notes that corruption here is a problem. You wouldn't hear THAT in the good old generic Chamber of Commerce talks in the U.S.

I'm here attending a conference of the International Urban Fellows Association of Johns Hopkins University – a yearly gathering of urban planners, architects and scholars from around the world, all of whom have spent a semester or a year at some point in the past, studying at Hopkins.

I'll write more, later, on the conference's key theme: the management of public spaces (parks, streets, greenways) in Sofia, a city where for decades people depended on the communist government to do all that.  (To be continued.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Ponzi scheme in suburbia?

First blog of the New Era.

First up - Is suburban development a Ponzi scheme? In "The growth Ponzi scheme, part 1" from New Urban Network, writer Charles Mahron makes this claim: The typical American pattern of development doesn't support itself. He writes: "The great experiment of suburbanization that America embarked on following World War II has no precedent in human history. As it enters its third generation, the flawed assumptions that were overlooked are now coming back to bite us in a cruel way."

I think Mahron is onto something, and I know he's not alone in questioning whether the country and its governments – federal, state and local – can afford to support the immense and spread-out infrastructure we've created in the pat 50 years. I know that Charlotte's Department of Transportation and its Fire Department looked at the cost-savings to be had in fire and emergency services when streets are in a connected network versus cul-de-sac-collector-type patterns.

But has anyone seen any academically rigorous studies that look seriously at this question? It's easy to hypothesize. Which is why we all do it.

Is LEED truly leading? This article in Miller-McCune, "Is LEED the Gold Standard in Green?" tells of a lawsuit against the well-known  Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system by a New York engineer named Henry Gifford.  He contends the energy savings for LEED-certified buildings can be drastically overrated.
Why is this important? As the article notes, the building sector consumes 49 percent of all energy produced in the United States, and 77 percent of all the electricity produced in the nation is used to operate buildings." Building more energy-efficient buildings is a huge need. And if the only real rating system available doesn't, after all, save as much energy as it claims, well, that's a problem.

LEED, for its part, has been addressing some of the criticisms since before the lawsuit. It has begun requiring certified buildings to track predicted energy savings versus actual savings, and it's re-inventing its rating program.

For those of you who enjoy reading academic and professional journals, here's an article in the, "Barriers to Municipal Planning for Pedestrians and Bicyclists in North Carolina."  The Cliff's Notes version: There isn't enough money, and priorities are elsewhere, and it's worse in rural areas than urban ones.

As always, a link to an article doesn't necessarily mean I agree with all of it – only that I think you'll find it interesting and provocative reading.