Chris Steins is co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Planetizen.

Top 8 Planning Technologies, 2006

Online Impact AnalysisThanks to a kind invitation from Wally Siembab to present at the well-attendedSouth Bay Cities Council of Governments' Seventh Annual General Assembly, I had the opportunity to unveil my annual list of the top technologies for planning.

I briefly presented each of the top eight technology tools, and then provide one or more examples of each.

Shouting out to a New City Site

Mexican burbsMy link-fu is strong. Please welcome to the Web Burb, a site dedicated to suburbs and New Suburbanism. From the manifesto:

The suburbs, in short, are the American mainstream. Our major writers, dating back to Updike and Cheever, have focused on decoding suburban life, and today Richard Ford, Chang Rae Lee, Rick Moody and others continue that work. Suburban megachurches are the engine of American Protestantism. Eminem is a suburban boy, and a suburban phenomenon, as are the "soccer moms” and "soccer dads” fought over in the last few elections.

Yet for those who live there, the suburbs can be a bewildering place. Urbanites who have moved out for more space and better schools gaze out the kitchen window into their new garden paradise and ask, "Now what?” Children of the suburbs return to find their sleepy burbs utterly transformed by commercialization. Those on rural routes watch in dismay as farms and tiny towns are supplanted by mass developments and strip malls. All of these people have common problems and solutions, from commuting to child care to what to put on the side of a house. Burb is for all of them.

We talk about "the suburbs” as a state of mind, but only now have real connections begun to be made among the suburbs of even a single city, never mind nationally. Burb is proposed as a place where mutual recognition and the single purpose that comes from it might be achieved.

Back to School

A few hours ago I got home from my first stint as a reviewer of student urban design proposals. That's right, kids: I went from consumer to teacher without ever having to be a producer. This afternoon I ducked out of work and went to the architecture and planning school at UC Berkeley to have a look, with some real professionals, at 18 class projects for a graduate-level landscape architecture class.

Here's what happened: a few months ago I got a survey asking me how I felt about open space and parks in my neighborhood - West Berkeley, also known as Oceanview - and specifically how I felt about an alley that bisects my block and a couple blocks northward and southward.

Urban Design and Conflict

After Adam's last two thoughtful posts, I thought I should weigh in here being the resident urban design on Tech Talk. In general, I sometimes share others concerns with marquee architecture but usually when its seen as a way of boosting economic development or the status of a city. I think in those cases, there are far better ways to boost the livability and physical appearance of a place. Thinking of what an "icon" for say, Fort Wayne, would be is an uninteresting question as that city faces other underlying issues that a marquee project simply can't address.

The Deep Internal Conflict of Urban Planning

No, seriously. As I keep getting into arguments with urban planners about community involvement (they're in favor of it) and bitching about marquee architetecture (and marquee architects) someone else voiced my inner conflict before I got to a keyboard. Here's Robert McDonald on the Urban Cartography blog:

MIT's new Stata Center lurches impressively over Vassar Street, a mélange of surfaces and cylinders intersecting at odd angles. Designed by Frank Gehry, it's seen as the pinnacle of hip, postmodern architecture in Boston (which ain't saying much), and supposedly is surprisingly functional inside despite its odd form. I therefore feel decidedly square saying it but I must: I think it's rather ugly. More than anything, its ornamentation seems ostentatious to me, arbitrary, like a sculpture pretending to be a building. Part of me still believes in that mantra of modernist architecture, form follows function. Politically and spiritually, this at least seems like an honest goal, far more than mere irony and whimsy.

Yet as I've been reviewing the works of Mumford and Kunstler, I've been realizing how much of modern architecture and modern town planning has been a disaster. Often the scale of the projects has been all wrong, and the projects have not really been focused on human needs at all. There's typically no respect for public space, no creation of places for human interactions. And they are often just plain ugly, all gray concrete and blacktop, which on our New England winters gets pockmarked with salt stains.

And so I've been struggling between these two parts of myself. I want architecture and urban planning to reflect some of the honesty of modernism, and yet I want beauty and even a bit of whimsy and ornamentation. It strikes me that both post-modernism and modernism have same fault, at least as they are often practiced: An utter lack of interest in what the users of the space want, and what will seem beautiful in the context of its surroundings. Form does not follow the true, human function of the building but instead a perverted function set by someone other than the users. For modern architecture, it became cheapness of construction; for post-modern architecture, it has become hip irony; for urban planners, it became moving cars efficiently. The solution, in my humble opinion (as an ecologist who is admittedly not trained in architecture), is not to abandon "form follows function” but to make sure society gets the function it wants.

Why Cities Work: Surprise

A few months ago, when I was still taking the bus to work - and walking from San Francisco's Transbay Terminal to my office - my favorite shortcut got strange. And I'm glad it did, because it helped me crystallize one of the necessary qualities for a great city: surprise.

I'd taken to shaving a few minutes off the march by cutting down a narrow walkway between two skyscrapers. Tall brick on one side, tall concrete on the other. And at the end: pop. The backend of a simple plaza, bits of crummy retail and a Starbucks guarding the front.

Global Subways Compared

Do I love this? I love this. Fake Is the New Real compares two dozen subway systems from around the world, at the same scale. All these fractal diagrams show, incidentally, a city's rough sprawl-to-core ratio, density, and size -- at a glance. Below, London versus Los Angeles (winner: London).

nullLos Angeles subway

via Curbed LA

More On RFP Sins...

City of East Providence, Rhode IslandI got a slew of responses (some positive, some not) on my post, "Top 8 Sins For RFPs". The best response came from Chelsea Pierce, an Associate Planner with the City of East Providence, Rhode Island , who offers a few of her proposal pet peeves. Chelsea writes:

Great list of RFP sins! I'll keep those things in mind when I write my next one. I have a few proposal submittal pet peeves I'd like to share - small things, really, but also things that drive me bananas.

Sticky Shadows

Cool application underway by Socialight. Sticky Shadows are digital post-it notes for urban areas. I like the idea of neighborhood narratives.

From their website:
"How's it Used?
-- I leave a note for all my friends at the mall to let them know where I'm hanging out. All my friends in the area see it.
-- A woman shows all her close friends the tree under which she had her first kiss.
-- An entire neighborhood gets together and documents all the unwanted litter they find in an effort to share ownership of a community problem.

Top 8 Sins For RFPs

Working at Urban Insight, I see about 10-20 RFPs for various projects each month. We have to evaluate the cost/benefit of deciding to respond to any one of these RFPs, and so the RFPs are evaluated by us much the way that our proposal would be evaluated by an organization or agency.

While some RFPs are outstanding, and clearly describe the project, evaluation, and process, others are, well, downright embarrassing, or contain clauses and provisions that leave you scratching your head.