In Praise of Sixes

Ok, this post has nothing to do with urban design. It is, however, concerned with Chattanooga and with a secondary focus of C.Rushing, civic discourse.  Apologies for the puerile tone. I tried desperately not to rise to the bait, but in the end could not resist.

As I mentioned last week, I recently made a trip back to the Land of Enchantment, home of my undergraduate alma mater, New Mexico. Upon arriving, my first stop was at Frontier Restaurant for a bowl of green chile and a carne adovado burrito. My second stop was to be 1700 Mesa Vista Drive- The Phi Delta Theta house and my home for 4 years. I was shocked, amazed and horrified to find that the house had been razed and replaced with a surface parking lot. I knew that the chapter had been kicked off campus (again), but the loss of the building hit me pretty hard. I am still inconsolable.

In the early ‘90’s, the brothers of the New Mexico Alpha chapter of Phi Delt were a fine crew. To this day it's the most diverse group of individuals I’ve been intimately involved with. It was an eclectic group of Caucasians, African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews and Native Americans from Cali, Maryland, Wisconsin, Texas, Montana, Alabama, Colorado, Tennessee, Connecticut, Illinois and England. There are dozens of things I could write about concerning my time with them- most notably our steadfast adherence to our founding principals of friendship, sound learning and moral rectitude. For the purposes of this post, however, I'll focus upon the fine art of talking shit.

Caption A: 1700 Mesa Vista: Best. Rooftop. Ever.
Caption B: Nothing like high-altitude sunburn.

I’m not a sociologist and I haven’t spent a great deal of time researching the way that 18-24 year old males communicate with one another, I have only my experience. I found that more often than not, affection and appreciation were delivered in ball-busting form. This was true from everyday salutation to conversation to moniker. At the fraternity, each man received a derisory nickname from his brothers as a term of endearment: “Pinky the Lab Rat” was a guy with a fair complexion; “Spock” was a guy with pointy ears (R.I.P. Little Brother); “Peaches” was the tough guy; and, “The Uni-Baller” was a guy who beat cancer at the expense of a testicle. For the record, I was “Colonel Sanders” in reference to my accent and penchant for wearing bow ties. The amount and quality of trash-talk on a daily basis would have done any And1 baller proud. There are some unwritten rules that accompany that kind of communication. It has to be personal, but not too personal. The goal is to gig your buddy, but not hurt them. One is also required to have thick skin as sometimes a quip can inadvertently cut too deep. The guys that were the most respected tended to take trash talk in the spirit in which it was intended, dish it back out in a funny, witty way and move along.

A group of sixes, and barely enough of those.

This was not what I was originally going to write about this week. I was actually planning on ripping some dude a new one. A comedian journalist from Outdoor Magazine penned an article about Chattanooga as that publication proclaimed us the Reader’s Choice for Best Town Ever. I heard about his article from friends and on talk radio, read about it at the TFP and saw a blog or two in response. In defense of our fair city, I was ready to discredit him, his momma, everything they stood for and finish with a Lynard Skynard lyric. Then, I decided to actually read his article. Friends, what are we so fired up about? What that guy wrote is just trash talk. Perhaps it is odd that he chose that tack in an article of that type, but the gigs don’t cut too deep. A selection of his barbs:

“a place with a history of monstrous industrial abuse”. True, but it’s also squarely in our past.

Concerning single people: “a town of sixes, and barely enough of those”. As a solid six that was actively involved in the “hook-up scene” for two weeks before I met my eventual wife, I can vouch for the veracity of that claim.

“ubiquitous evangelical dogma, and a reputation for red-state conservatism”. True as well, although, I’m not sure everyone sees that as the insult it was intended it to be.

That’s as bad as it gets. The guy is just talking trash. The vast majority of his article is a positive one about the fantastic outdoor opportunities we have in the area. The reason I know it’s just trash talking is because he doesn’t point out any of the serious faults and issues that we’re grappling with. How easy would it have been for him to mention the (seemingly) daily murders, home invasions, and “flash mobs”?  How low-hanging the fruit of the state of our public education system (and the sitcom board of education)? He could have picked on our issues with poverty, homelessness and indigent care. Don't you think that any comedian worth his salt would make hay with our local governments and elected officials?

The guy gave us a good ribbing, but he stopped well short on criticizing our real problems. I think it's silly that we will get up in arms over a writer pointing out mostly true but insignificant points, yet remain largely silent when dealing with real issues. Instead of worrying about what people from Portland are saying about us, we should be rolling up our sleeves and taking care of business.


The Mile High Club

The last week passed in a blur of public interest architecture presentations and a haze of green chile and New Mexican sparkling wine. As I have been steadfast in ensuring that I make my weekly Monday deadline, we are celebrating a first for the ole blog, a draft from a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet somewhere over Texas. I was hoping that I would be able to process my latest experiences in Albuquerque, find a link to Chattanooga and produce a clear and concise post. Unfortunately, that clear path has not presented itself, so I submit the following loosely associated thoughts:

Green Chile- breakfast, lunch, dinner, hydrate, repeat.

The conference I attended was about social equity and focused on how design can serve the 98% of the people on the planet that can’t afford to engage an architect. There were a number of case studies on projects ranging from providing housing for migrant farm workers to post-Katrina projects in Mississippi to the building of Tanzanian hospitals. We were also presented with the SEED evaluator.

SEED stands for Social Economic Environmental Design. It is a project evaluation tool in many ways similar to LEED. Where LEED deals with issues of green building, SEED evaluates projects on their social and economic performance. Whether or not this will catch on in the same way that LEED has remains to be seen. SEED evaluation is virtually free and provides a series of very useful metrics for evaluating hard to quantify aspects of projects success. Considering the added benefit of reasonable documentation requirements, I will be having as many of my projects submitted for SEED evaluation as possible. If you have any interest in the subject you should check this out, as well as the Public Interest Design Institute that administers the program.

Oops…I was just informed by the flight attendant that my earphones were not fully plugged in. Apparently, not everyone in the cabin appreciated the dose of Pitbull and T. Pain at 6:30 in the morning…. my bad…

As the case studies were presented during the conference, a common theme emerged. That theme happens to be one we understand well in Chattanooga- partnership and collaboration. All of the projects and programs we saw there were developed by creatively leveraging support from foundations, universities, governmental entities, and non-profits. For public interest work, these partnerships of public and semi-public make sense. Most of those funds come with some type of string attached, however, and the projects almost invariably fall outside of the traditional development model. The principals of these projects are most adept at directing specific grants and donated funds to their variety of needs and personnel to accomplish their particular goals while satisfying the requirements of their funders. In our city, the Design Studio best exemplified that model. Our studio was supported by foundations, River City Company, The University of Tennessee, the Regional Planning Agency and the City of Chattanooga.

During a question and answer session I asked if there is a private model for public interest work. A room of 50 people looked at me like I was crazy as a betsy-bug (or perhaps my accent, coupled with the underlying theme of the question led them to believe I was a Tea Partier). It seems that the prevailing opinion was that if foundations and the government were making funds available, there is no need to look elsewhere. Additionally, if the work of the project in providing for our fellow man is the important thing, how one arrives there from a funding standpoint is somewhat less critical.

Hey, check it out…Cowboy Stadium and Ranger's Ballpark at Arlington…

It seems to me however, that there should exist some model for the private sector to address the needs of the 98%. Clearly, its not easy or it would be done already. There is probably not much money in it, or it would be done already. I refuse, however, to accept that governmental subsidy is the only way our society can equitably and democratically address the needs of all of our citizens. I may be wrong…I’m probably wrong. I’m not ready to give up on that one just yet though. 

Chattanooga is in ideal position to push concepts of public interest design and development. Our city is blessed with an architectural community that has a strong philanthropic contingent. We are also blessed with a number of engaged and active foundations whose support for our community can’t be overstated. We also have developers and local government. The asset side of the equation is stacked, unfortunately, so is the need side. Roughly 25% of our fellow Chattanoogans live below the poverty line. Admittedly, some of the issues our city faces can’t be directly solved by design. However, the power of design to fix real problems and ameliorate symptoms of larger more systemic challenges shouldn’t be undersold.


(Side)Walk This Way

The sidewalk is the backbone of the public realm. It is solely devoted to people* whether they are in pedestrian mode, having a rest, or engaging in some other activity. At its most basic, the sidewalk provides a safe environment for people to move from one place to another. It is also a shared social space. As people encounter one another they have the opportunity to interact with those they know and to meet others they don’t. It is the essence of democratic space, as all people are equal as pedestrians in these places. The sidewalk is a place to sit and rest, to eat and drink, to see and be seen, to meet friends old and new, to experience and create art. The most important characteristic of the sidewalk is its public nature.

One of the key factors in our urban renaissance is a generous and well-designed public realm. The broadest element in that realm is the sidewalk. Tremendous amounts of thought and effort were put into the design of the sidewalk. It would have been simple to slop down some fresh concrete, hang a few lights on some power poles and call it a sidewalk. Thankfully, decision makers at the time realized the importance of this piece of infrastructure. Toward the ultimate comfort of people in pedestrian mode, a broad range of elements were conscientiously selected and integrated with one another.

Varying the surface of a sidewalk makes for a more comfortable pedestrian experience. Standards were established to use brick pavers of various colors and textures in the sidewalks. The bands of colored brick were designed to coordinate with pedestrian lights, street trees, and curb cuts. These subtle hints help orient people and the consistent order subconsciously makes the person feel more comfortable and safe. Crosswalks at streets were also banded with paving blocks to cue motorists that this was a pedestrian realm. All of these design maneuvers act to break the monotony of what can be very large facilities into smaller, more human scaled elements.

I think that I shall never see...

As witnessed this summer, Chattanooga gets warm (but not as warm as the hottest place in the South- C Zone parking at Auburn). Heat is a deterrent to pedestrianism in the South. The easiest and most practical way to mitigate heat is shade. The best way to provide shade is a tree. Not only do trees provide shade, they're beautiful to look at, help with stormwater issues, clean the air, and decrease the ambient temperature. The sidewalk is the largest and best opportunity for local governments to plant trees in an urban environment. That was recognized early on, and all of our sidewalks were designed with street trees (and in some cases double rows of trees).

When designing a safe pedestrian environment, the first thing that people think of is lighting. Once upon a time, then Councilman Littlefield requested that the Design Studio draft a lighting ordinance for the city. The effort did not result in adoption, but it did afford me the opportunity to study the issues and see what other communities around the country are doing. The most surprising thing I found was that there is not a single scientific study that proves the correlation between lighting and safety (the only relation is between lighting and the fear of crime). Another counterintuitive gem has to do with lighting technique. It is a myth that brighter light equal better visibility. Security lighting is typically design to err on the side of sun-like brightness. This does two things: 1) it creates harsh glare, making vision difficult and painful, and 2) it casts harsh shadows that are perfect hiding places for bad guys. The human eye is good at adjusting to a wide range of light levels (how we can see at night to walk through a dark room) and very poor in high-contrast situations (if someone shines a flashlight in your eyes in the dark). Ideal lighting can be achieved at relatively low levels, as long as is done evenly and uniformly. With pedestrian comfort and safety as primary goals, our lighting was carefully designed and spaced to provide even illumination, reduce light pollution, and further articulate the pedestrian realm.

This bench is an example of a questionable intervention. It is
in the middle of the sidewalk, displacing pedestrian flow. It is
set in raw concrete with disregard for the surrounding surfaces.
Placing it directly behind the tree provides no shade due to
the angle of the sun.

What we have found in the past few years is that the institutional memory of why and how we designed and built the public realm has been lost. The sidewalk is the place where this lost knowledge is most readily apparent. A once clear and legible pattern of paving has now been applied haphazardly and without order. The quality of materials has declined. While tree planting in general seems to be taking off, the planting of more street trees in particular seems lacking. In response to serious concerns over safety, the wattage on our pedestrian lighting has been cranked up (having the dual benefit of exacerbating that particular problem, and making the city look unattractive at night). Details of material, shade and lighting are very important factors in the quality of the sidewalk. However, the most important is size and scale. A sidewalk needs to be wide enough for friends to comfortably walk abreast and pass oncoming pedestrians without conflict. Unfortunately, a number of factors conspire to ever narrow the sidewalk: the developer’s desire for more buildable space, the traffic engineers lust for wider travel lanes, and the administrator’s need to “value engineer” cost savings.

Are these places worse for lack of cheap metal fencing?

The most serious threat our public realm now faces is the loss of the sidewalk. This loss has come in the form of “temporary” use permits for fencing off (privatizing) portions of the public realm. This typically comes from restaurants that make the case that sidewalk seating is necessary for them to be viable. I love outdoor dining, and I love the idea of sidewalks that are for more than walking. Examine cities with a sidewalk culture and you find that seating is arranged in areas during appropriate hours and is mobile. In that way, the sidewalk remains flexible in accommodating uses and remains public. When these silly fences are put up, the public realm is no longer public- that portion of the sidewalk is now, in effect, private. There are several areas where the public portion of the sidewalk has been whittled down to be as narrow as code will allow in order to provide seating (note that the seating serves a purpose for 2-3 hours a day 3-4 days of the week for half of the year, but the sidewalk has been compromised 24/7/365). This practice erodes the function of the sidewalk and destroys any sense of pedestrian comfort. What’s more, this makes the statement that downtown is not a democratic place and is not for all citizens.

But a few examples of the privatization of our public space.
It is possible to provide seating without fences. These
examples are found within the same block.

Carving up the public realm and redistributing it for private gain is a questionable way to program a city. The great news is that the cheap fences will be easy to remove if sanity returns.

*Peeve: Bicycles do no belong on the sidewalk- they belong on the road. This may be law. I know that “‘round here” safety for cyclists in the streets is a concern, but that doesn’t change the fact that bicycles do not belong on the sidewalk.


Making the Possible Impossible

Update: Yesterday, I wrote this concerning the food fight between Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen. This morning I awoke to an email from my mom chastising me for daring to speak ill of Ms. Deen. Poor Tony, I can only imagine what he’s been going through. Moving swiftly on…

"Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." - Patton

As most of you know, the first of six Urban Design Challenge projects was unveiled this past week as the Dynamic Density team tackled the 700 Block of Market Street. This project was the first of two that will address the City Center. In November we will see the Frank & Taylor team set forth a vision for the Civic Forum Block. The Sky Farm project proposed by Dynamic Density was inspirational (and impressive considering their time constraint). Similarly, I anticipate that Frank & Taylor will acquit themselves well on their site. These exercises invite the community to take a hard look at our current state while challenging us to dream about what we could be.
Dynamic Density's Sky Farm

Since I have been in Chattanooga, there has been a lingering question concerning how the Center City can be enlivened. If you run down the checklist of health points, the district seems to be great shape: it is the densest part of downtown, there are a wide range of uses, it has open space, it has a residential component and it has arguably the best designed public realm in the city. None of those facts seem to dispel the notion that the Center City is simply the space between the Riverfront district and the Southside.

Part of the problem is scale. If you were to take the residences, restaurants and bars of the Center City and put them anywhere else in the city, it would be the hottest place around. I would wager that the sheer numbers of restaurants, bars and residences of Main Street is less than what can be found in the Center City. Yet the Center City is seen as boring and Main Street as the happening place in town. The district is so dense and the buildings are so large it just feels like there should be more there there.

The solution to the problem of how to enliven the Center City is deceptively simple. The solution is more. Existing buildings and storefronts need to do more. We need more residential units in upper floors of existing buildings, we need more bars, we need more restaurants, and we need more retail. More, more, more. To be sure, that “more” needs to comprise healthy ingredients, but need not be anything exotic. The first step in the journey is to increase the residential base of the area. The easiest way to do that is to encourage the adaptive reuse of existing buildings. The sure way to make real and lasting progress toward the goal of enlivening the Center City is to take a broad-based, incremental approach to infill. Although there are a few developable sites, the true opportunity lies in the myriad vacant, upper floors of our historic building stock.
The Center City is agressively programmed and
has a well-designed public realm.

Miller Plaza was completed in 1984. Almost 30 years later, why is there not more? A big problem is that the market is not being allowed to function properly. (Of course, The current malaise of the economy is definitely a factor, but if we were to wake up tomorrow and find that all the banks were fixed, credit markets were functioning and the national debt was gone, portions of our downtown development market would still be dysfunctional.) The problem is policy: our local, one-size-fits-all policy holds downtown and the ‘burbs to the same standard. That sounds fair, but those standards were the ones that created sub-urbs. In effect, downtown is being held to a foreign and more onerous standard than other portions of the city. The reason that downtown housing has been so pricy is a direct result of that fact. Developers have to charge more for their units to cover the additional costs of development caused by capricious parking, stormwater and sewer, and code policies. Please note, we’re not necessarily talking about laws or codes, we’re talking policies and interpretations that are currently being enforced.

I believe there are scores of current Chattanoogans that would love to live downtown if they could afford it. My belief is anecdotally supported by the incredibly strong rental market downtown. The notion is also supported by a consideration of the Southside and North Shore. These neighborhoods don’t get hammered the same way downtown does from a regulation standpoint- they’re primarily detached, single-family units that more closely fit the suburban model that the city favors. As a result, the houses cost less to build, have a more accessible price point, and have a lower vacancy rate than pricier downtown digs. I think you would find that many who live in these neighborhoods would actually prefer to live in the City Center if the money was right.

Again, the solution is simple (and it doesn’t involve grants, incentives or government spending). Governmental action, however, is needed. The community has to persuade our elected officials that the health of our urban areas is of utmost importance. Those officials then have to embrace that concept and adopt a development-friendly attitude. City staff then has to be empowered and encouraged to allow common-sense solutions to issues of urban development.

Unfortunately, there's not much building going on right now. The primary reason for this is to do with the cascading effects of poor global credit markets. Good news is that there are a number of local factors that we can put us in a position for growth when the possibility returns. Those solutions aren't difficult to implement, but require the full force of our civic will to overcome the inertia of the status quo.


Tangent: Food Fight

Please be advised that the main focus of this post has nothing to do with urban design, it’s just a quick Labor Day food-related rant. Please note that I’m going to work blue and some of the links are distasteful (sorry Mom). If you choose to read no further, you won’t be missing much. Don’t worry, I have a more focused urban design post coming tomorrow…

I find the overwhelming majority of TV food personalities insufferable. Despite the fact they are talking food, I find “I’m going to eat the grossest thing I can find” guy, douchebag 1, 2, 3*, and 4*, and  “Check Out My D├ęcolletage” lady utterly unappetizing. There are some notable exceptions: I like Gordon Ramsay (but only his British shows, the American ones are crap), I have Mario’s autograph, and I like Anthony Bourdain. I’m somewhat tired of it by now, but once upon a time “No Reservations” was my favorite TV show.

In a recent TV guide article Bourdain was quoted as saying "The worst, most dangerous person to America is clearly Paula Deen. She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she's proud of the fact that her food is f---ing bad for you. If I were on at seven at night and loved by millions of people at every age, I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it's OK to eat food that is killing us. Plus, her food sucks." To which Ms. Dean replied “You know, not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine. My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills… In the last two years, my partners and I have fed more than 10 million hungry people by bringing meat to food banks.” FOOD FIGHT!!!  BTW, poor Tony has been raked over the F'ing coals over this one..incomprehensible.

Be Strong Tony!

I’ve got Tony’s back on this one. Read closely and you will find that Ms. Deen actually has no argument with the substance of what Bourdain said. Her response is to call him an elitist and then brag about her good deeds. If she is seriously concerned about the well-being of the needy, Ms. Deen should consider bringing vegetables and fruits to the food bank instead of meat. Is she arguing that using Krispy Kreme donuts as the bun for a lady’s brunch sandwich (and to drink, might I suggest the ’97 vintage Cheez Wiz) and deep frying mac and cheese and cheescake  are cost-effective ways for struggling American families to eat? I’m sure she does plenty of charity work, which is admirable. Helping poor people eat meat, however, does not make up for the awful example she is providing her millions of viewers.

"cause F--- your arteries, that's why!"

Food is a serious issue- globally, nationally, locally, any way you slice it. The industrialization of our nation’s food supply is well documented, as are the myriad problems it has spawned with a variety of human health concerns, environmental degradation, scarcity, etc. etc. etc. Clearly, the TV food people are self-aware and understand that they have a pulpit. How can one address the real food issues of “regular families” (nutrition, food deserts, obesity, scarcity, cost, long-term health) while instructing them how to fry lasagna?

Rant over. I’ll see yall tomorrow, back on topic and in a much better mood.

*Despite their Douchyness, Jamie and Tyler actually work on issues of nutrition and health, so hats off to them.