4. The Great Gig in the Sky

This is the fourth installment of my urban design blog tribute to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. I feel compelled to more boldly highlight this after a recent episode. Last week I did Time, an interpretation of a brilliant song that contains some of the best rock and roll lyrics ever written. The day after the blog came out, my stepdad informed me that my mom was very concerned about my mental state after reading the “poem” that prefaced my post (the “poem” being the lyrics to the aforementioned song). I assured them that my mental state is pretty much the same as it always is, and that I’m fine. I will note, that it’s always great to be reminded that your mom cares (and that she thinks you are capable of writing the lyrics to one of the great songs of all time).  In an effort to avoid any further confusion: Linda, the next song deals with time and death. I am not overly fixated on either, just following the structure of the album. (…and I’m sorry I don’t call more often).

Obviously “The Great (Fill in the blank) in the Sky” is a reference to death or passing of what the blank was filled in with. In the context of the album, I’ve always thought of this as the song with the screamy chick in between the two most poplar songs on the album.  Either way, there is a reference to transition. 'Round here, the most auspicious example of transition is the upcoming change in city leadership. I considered writing about that and what the implications might be for urban design, but I have decided to write about something a bit more concrete.

Urban design, as I practice it, focuses on the urban public realm- the streets, parks, plazas, and views that comprise our communally owned spaces. This public realm belongs to all of us and expresses the values and aspirations of the community. The other side of that coin is private property. (This is especially true in our country where we have developed a very black and white view of property- it is either public or private, there is no gradient). Our private places belong to their individual owner(s) and express that values and aspirations of that person. (Yes, your house/office/lot expresses your values and your aspirations to God and everybody). Public and private places serve different masters and are attended to different stewards. A healthy city, however, will leverage each to make the other better.

One of the most important and nuanced maneuvers in urban design is treating the transitions between pure public space and pure private space.  One of the hallmarks of a poorly designed place is a lack of attention to transition- these are places where one moves directly from pure public space to pure private space. This type of situation makes both of the spaces feel less comfortable because they retain the mental residue of the other- the private doesn’t feel totally private and the public doesn’t feel totally public. This lack of definition and legibility results in places that we perceive as being uncomfortable. We thrive on clues that inform us about the space that we are in and that indicate what types of activity are accommodated or appropriate.

The most successfully designed places create gradients or transition zones between pure public and pure private. The classic American example is the stoop of a downtown residential unit. Consider the examples of homes in our downtown. To enter, a person makes a gradual transition from pure public space to private space- sidewalk (pure public), steps (semi-public), porch (semi-private), indoors (pure private). It only takes 10 feet to make the transition, but the perception of space is far greater that the actual difference traveled. This makes the city, and its part more legible and defined, and therefore more comfortable. Beyond the public realm gradient, a well designed home will have its own privacy gradient that provides transition from “public” to “private” spaces within the home- the same principles apply.

(The gradient applies to all places - offices and retail spaces as well. However, the interiors of those types of private property are semi-public/public anyway, so the transition phase can be somewhat lessened.)

The challenge is to find the literal common ground between the public and private sectors to be able to create these transitional gradients. It is important to do so since this is where the rubber meets the road: we can create a healthy, legible, beautiful city that expresses our value of community and generosity, and our aspirations of being the best city in the country; or we can build a city that tells the world that we do not value place, and the we aspire only to do what it takes to get by.

This is indeed a tricky wicket. The baseline of the argument is “you can’t tell me what to do with my property”. This is true (to a certain extent) and I do not propose making anyone do anything. The challenge is to nurture the spirit of community that elevates us above the baseline argument. It would be great if we could create a culture where people do things like creating these transitions because: a) they understand the underlying principles, b) they understand that these techniques have practical and economic benefits for the property as well as the community, c) they trust that if they do something their neighbors will as well, d) they want to express their own values and aspirations, and e) they have pride in their community. If we can find a way to create that culture, we will be one of the great cities in the country. If we can’t overcome the baseline argument then the community can’t transition and we are left in purgatory.


3. Time

Track three in the C.Rushing blog interpretation of Dark Side of the Moon...

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day 

You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way. 

Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town 

Waiting for someone or something to show you the way. 


Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain. 

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today. 

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you. 

No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun. 


So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking 

Racing around to come up behind you again. 

The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older, 

Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time. 

Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines 

Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way 

The time is gone, the song is over, 
Thought I'd something more to say.

I am, of late, obsessed with time. Perhaps because I’m getting older (this year’s Christian-mas is a milestone), perhaps because my schedule is tight, perhaps because the boys are growing too fast, perhaps because selling my time is how I make a living. In addition to being my latest obsession and aside from being one of the greatest songs ever, Time is also an integral element of urban design.

The great cities of the world have grown incrementally over time. Since our country is relatively young, American cities have only had a few centuries to evolve as opposed to the millennia of some European and Asian cities. In and of itself, this is neither good nor bad, but couple that with unprecedented technological and population growth over the past century and the American city has become a different animal from cities across the globe.

Because our cities are so young, we don’t have the types of authentic, evolved city spaces that can be found on other continents.*  We do, however, love to put on a show. So it’s quite common to find “themed” development over here. Rather than embrace, nurture and grow a visual language of our own, we try to import things we like from around the world. This is part of the reason why the en vogue theme districts and a lot of new urbanist projects feel so thin and shallow. Developers understand that they like a certain place and try to recreate it. The problem is that authentic places have evolved over time and part of why they are so lovely is the patina that can only be acquired with the passage of time. Trying to copy that characteristic only results in places that are inauthentic and plastic- these are characteristics that designers and lay-people alike pick up on.

One of recent trends in urbanism is the recent surge in “DIY” urban design initiatives. This has been a topic of debate for planners and architects; you can read a couple of opinions about it here and here. I’m still in the process of forming an opinion about the phenomena – it certainly has pros and cons. The biggest con for me is time. If we’re talking about just a building, the process can take years. If we’re talking about a city, a single project can take a decade. Forget about issues of money, regulation and expertise, the question becomes who is going to stick with the vision over time to ensure that it is nurtured, protected and moved forward.

Chattanooga is effectively 196 years old. Our relatively recent civic renaissance has lasted about 30 years- only 15% of the overall life of the city. So, in the broad since, our recent work has been but a bump on the timeline. That work, however, has taken about half of a human lifetime. If you consider the various projects and initiatives that have happened within that period, you will find that time plays a major role in each.

In 1982 a state aquarium was proposed in the student work of Images of the City. Ten years later in 1992 the Tennessee aquarium was opened. Eight years passed from the time an intervention in the city’s center was proposed until Miller Plaza was completed. It took about ten years from the Southside planning initiatives of the mid-90s until Main Street hit full stride.  Twenty-five years passed from the time we decided to return to the river until the 21st Century Waterfront completed the connection. All of our major maneuvers have taken time, and each has outlasted yearly budgets and elections at every level.

During our impressive thirty-year run we had an entity that served as the steward for our civic visions. This place was open, transparent and served as common ground for every person and institution in the community. This place also put forth ideas, concepts and visions for the community to digest, debate and react to. The keeper of our collector conversation on urbanism and design kept these visions alive for as long it took to get them implemented. Who now is charged with stewarding the visions for the community over time and across budgets and elections?

*In our country, buildings that are 50 years old are eligible to be designated historic. That's funny. In older cities (where modern architecture also happens to be embraced) there are 200-year-old buildings that are still considered new.


2. On the Run

This week I continue with the C.Rushing blog cover of Dark Side of the Moon- ten blogs corresponding to the playlist of that famous album. The second song (or third depending on which version of the album you have) is called On the Run. This is an instrumental piece that is sometimes referred to as The Travel Sequence…

Whether you call it On the Run or The Travel Sequence, the second song on DSOTM is about movement. If you take a dispassionate view of our built environment, you might conclude that American life is about the same. A cursory glance at any aerial photo (or a look outside the door) proves that most of our built environment is dedicated to moving things: people, cars, freight, waste. This is a common theme in human history. We have always needed to move things. We move good resources, things like food and water closer and bad things like waste and pollution farther away. Of course, if the things don’t move, we move people to them.

Movement, movement everywhere

Over the last 60 years, our American society has developed unprecedented mobility for people and things. We can do marvelous, wondrous and fantastic things. Unfortunately, nobody rides for free and we are dealing with the myriad unintended consequences on the other side of the coin. If you’re interested enough in urban design to be reading this, you’re likely part of the choir and I don’t have to run through the litany of unintended consequences that our automobile dependency has created.

Cars aren’t inherently evil. In and of themselves, roads aren’t bad things. Surface parking lots are not of the devil. The problem is that cities have abdicated their responsibility to create healthy places to traffic engineers who only care about moving cars as quick as possible. Yes, people are in those cars, but what do they arrive to when they get out of the car? What’s the point in getting somewhere marginally quicker if the destination sucks? If we can create better place to move through and to, a reasonable response to a traffic engineer warning of longer travel times or more congestion is “So what”. 

Beyond their threat, there are serious and significant studies that show that traffic engineers are full of it. Closer to home we have specific examples: remember when all the traffic engineers came out and told us that switching McCallie and MLKing would result in gridlock, mayhem and loss of life? Yeah, they were full of it. Remember when the traffic engineers told us that reducing the capacity of Riverfront Parkway would result in gridlock, mayhem and loss of life? Yeah, they were full of it.

Currently we have a situation where engineers hold sway- communities mindlessly follow their recommendations, then try to do their best to clean up after the roads are built. A more healthy model would put the design of places for people, commerce, life and activity on equal footing with the need for access to those places, or (perish the thought) given higher priority.

Movement is important and necessary, but we have lost all perspective. The city should be designed as a beautiful, generous, healthy place that accommodates our lives- movement systems should support that, not drive it.


1. Speak to Me / Breathe (Breathe In the Air)

Earlier this year, I promised that the C.Rushing blog would be done bigger and better than last year. Of course, whether or not I’m delivering on that is debatable. Not wanting to let you down, I’ve been thinking about what I could do. Like a bolt of lightning, it stuck. What do rock bands do when they get full of themselves and want to put on a show? That’s right, they play the White Album in concert in its entirety. Capital idea! Create a series of blog entries that follow the structure of a classic album. Unfortunately, the White Album has thirty tracks and it would be tough for me to develop an urban design analog for "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey". That leaves only one serious contender doesn’t it? Ladies and gentleman, it is with great joy that I offer you the first installment of the C.Rushing urban design interpretation of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon…

Breathe, breathe in the air.

Don't be afraid to care.

Leave but don't leave me.

Look around and choose your own ground.

Long you live and high you fly

And smiles you'll give and tears you'll cry

And all you touch and all you see

Is all your life will ever be.

Run, rabbit run.

Dig that hole, forget the sun,

And when at last the work is done

Don't sit down it's time to dig another one.

For long you live and high you fly

But only if you ride the tide

And balanced on the biggest wave

You race towards an early grave.

Greatest. Cover. Ever.
For some reason I always fixate on the subtle
white reflected ray produced by incident ray.

Of course, Speak to Me has no true lyrics, only snippets of interviews and vocals that occur later in the album. The title, however, suggests communication- one of the major themes of the renaissance of our city. In my mind, there were a couple of incredibly important types of speaking that enabled use to achieve what we have. Note that I’m writing about what we did in the past, but hopefully we have not forgotten these skills and will put them to use in the not to distant future.

The level of public input during the rebirth of the city is a famous theme.  Speak to me- the call of civic leaders seeking public input on how we could go about fixing things. As we embarked upon our journey, every effort was made to work in a collaborative way that sought, valued, and incorporated public input. Public input is important for a variety of reasons: more people with more perspective have greater potential to develop broad and innovative ideas; participation in an input process gives the participants a sense of ownership and pride in the overall process, making implementation more likely; strong consensus in a public input process can provide a mandate for leaders and elected officials to take bold action. This side of the equation seems to be well understood, and something we rightly point to with great pride.

The other example of communication is the story less told. Speak to me- the call of the public to understand what the issues are, what alternatives exist, and an appeal for leadership. We all understand the tremendous value of public input- it's impossible to build a healthy city without it. What is sometimes overlooked is the vital importance of structuring the framework for input. To be frank, the value of citizen input in a vacuum is somewhat limited. While there is value in the act of participating and in the sense of ownership that can be conveyed, public input is most valuable when it can be focused on something tangible. Meaningful public input has a companion component – education.  The establishment of a framework or set of conditions for the citizenry to react to results in a far more informed and useful consensus than can be achieved otherwise. Setting forth ideas about what good urban design is, about what our community could potentially become, and about our options for the future is of vital importance. This process of dialogue and education creates a capacity in the community to be able to understand and achieve greater things. Laying this groundwork creates a strong foundation, whereas operating from a less informed base results in random input and less informative solutions. Which is not to say that it lacks value- as mentioned earlier, the process of coming together in and of itself is a positive thing.

Communication is a two-way activity– so it has to be with the dialogue concerning how we build the city. When it comes to city building, effective communication is undertaken from a place of open dialogue, not by dictation or unilateralism. It is a process of proposal and comment, opinion and response, action and reaction.

Despite the fact that Breathe (in the Air) has lyrics and is longer that Speak to Me, it is getting short shrift here (I’m running long, and this is a blog not a book). Anyway, the connection is clear and I don’t need to run it into the ground. Breathe in the Air– isn’t it nice to be able do so? Just a few short years ago that wasn’t such an appetizing prospect in our city. Through the hard work of many hands we turned the dirtiest city in the country into the clean(er) jewel that we are. Think about that this week and breathe, breathe in the air, don't be afraid to care…