Why is nobody nationwide paying any attention to the new disaster in New Orleans? Katrina was an act of nature. The oil spill was an act of stupidity. This third great disaster, however, is an intentional act by the old-boy network, and they’re winning. What’s at stake?
Ever heard about about when Robert Moses tried to ram an expressway through the middle of Greenwich Village in the 1960’s? This is every bit as egregious. The basement and first level of Charity hospital was flooded during Hurricane Katrina. “Three weeks after Katrina, then-Governor Kathleen Blanco said that Charity Hospital would not reopen, even though the military had scrubbed the building to medical-ready standards.” (see full story here)
Now, the power brokers (including the Veteran’s Administration) are trying to demolish 27 square blocks of the historic mid-city neighborhood around Charity. They’re proposing to replace it with a suburban-style medical complex that has nothing to do with the character of New Orleans or its urban setting.
Let that sink in a minute... 27 square blocks! That’s comparable to the portion of the Lower Ninth Ward that was smashed when the levee burst.* But unlike the Lower Ninth, where most of the houses were postwar ranchers, scores of houses within the path of destruction of the hospital abomination are actually listed on the National Register, and many others are excellent as well. And yet there’s no outcry. Matter of fact, outside of the city of New Orleans, other than Roberta Gratz’s excellent article on citiwire, there has hardly been a whimper.
How can this be happening? How is it that we are proposing to throw away excellent buildings... again... and replace them with something less? When will we ever learn that sustainability is just meaningless marketing fluff so long as we continue to throw things away so easily?
To understand how it’s happening, just follow the money. Billions of dollars will be spent on the projects, which include both a VA hospital and an LSU hospital on the same mega-site. How can a city that has been so battered in recent years turn its back on an influx of cash like that?
Most cities tend to focus on big silver-bullet projects they hope will save them. Everyone wants the “Bilbao Effect.” More often, they get the “Renaissance Center Effect” instead: a big project on which lots of money has been spent, but which doesn’t revitalize the surrounding neighborhoods. Detroit got the Center, but not the Renaissance. In short, it was false advertising... as it almost always is. Here’s why:
The cash influx lasts as long as construction is ongoing, but even that is deceiving. Roughly half of typical construction cost is materials. If your town doesn’t produce those building materials, then that money immediately leaves town. The other half is for labor and administration. Projects of this size ordinarily draw a lot of attention from companies all over the country, so it’s highly unlikely that most of the buildings will be built by New Orleans contractors. That means that a substantial portion of the labor and administration costs is leaving town, too. So only a small fraction of those big budget numbers will actually get plowed into the New Orleans economy. And it’s temporary... lasting only until the completion of construction.
After that, the city is left with the repercussions of the design that was built. Far too often, the design is corrosive, as it is here. There are several problems:
* Trading historic buildings that look like they belong in New Orleans for buildings that look like they could be anywhere seems more like an esoteric architectural discussion than an economic development debate. But consider the fact that New Orleans takes in over $5 billion from tourism. Now ask yourself this: do tourists come to a city full of buildings that look like they could be anywhere, or do they instead go to places with a strong identity? The answer is clear.
* The hospital projects create a completely unwalkable environment around them. We know the physical characteristics of walkable streets, and also of unwalkable ones. It’s no mystery anymore where people will walk and where they won’t walk. And this hospital district fails every test of walkability. Why should walkability matter? Several reasons. Ever seen a tourist destination where people travel from far away just to drive around? Of course not. The billions of tourist dollars New Orleans rakes in each year are a direct result of the high walkability it has created.
* It’s not just tourism, either. It’s true that hospital patients come from all around, so they’re highly likely to arrive in a car (or ambulance.) But as fuel costs continue to rise, walkable workplaces are going to become more and more important to both employees and employers. With the pace of urbanization in China and India, it’s likely that between them, there may be a billion cars on the road in those two countries in a few years that don’t even exist today. Imagine those billion cars competing with America’s 300 million cars for gas, all at a time that we’re having to go to more hostile places to find oil. Not much doubt where the price of gas is going, is there? It’s not so hard to imagine a near future when corporate recruiters include the caveat that “you can walk to work from a cool nearby neighborhood. Too bad for these hospitals that it’ll never happen there due to their physical design.
* Even if you don’t work in the hospitals, the “walkability shadow” their suburban design casts can still impact you if you live or work nearby. The coolest and most valuable places in New Orleans are almost always the most walkable, as they are everywhere. Unwalkable places, on the other hand, are almost never the coolest in town. It’s quite apparent that walkability is a significant threshold for coolness in cities all over, including New Orleans. It’s equally obvious that coolness is a huge driver of increasing values: cool places increase in value, while uncool places are much more stagnant, or even decline. So the walkability shadow cast by this design is also a coolness shadow and a potential value shadow as well. If the walkability shadow only extends 3 blocks all around the hospitals, that means over 100 square blocks of real estate values could be impacted. Add up all the real estate value on those blocks. Even if it’s only $5 million per block, that’s a half a billion dollars worth of real estate value on 100 blocks. So even if the walkability shadow only makes difference of a few percentage points in value, we’re still talking about a huge potential impact.
* The hospitals sever the grid repeatedly by cutting off a number of streets. This is a bad idea on several counts. Going from destinations on one side to destinations on the other require more time, gas, and therefore money. This may not seem like a big item, but consider this: If each of the 9 streets cut off currently carry only 10,000 cars per day (probably a low number) and if the average detour is only 2 blocks each way (also a somewhat low number,) then that’s 9 x 10,000 x (2+2) = 360,000 extra blocks that citizens of New Orleans will have to drive every day. At 350’ per block, that’s nearly 24,000 miles per day that New Orleans residents will have to drive out of their way because of cutting these streets... roughly the distance to go all the way around the world... every day! And at an average speed of 15 miles per hour (counting stopping,) that’s a waste of 1,600 hours per day by residents having to drive around this thing. New Orleans’ Living Wage is nearly $10/hour, which means that the impact of clipping the streets in terms of time wasted is $16,000 per day. That’s on top of the costs of driving.
I could go on, as there are many other detrimental aspects of these designs, but let’s listen to some of the locals who have been bravely fighting this monstrosity with very little outside support until now. Michael Rouchell is a local architect and preservationist who has been prolific in his writing, including this post on Roberta Gratz, this cost comparison of renovating Charity versus building new, and this overview of the whole sordid affair, which includes excellent illustrations.
Gate Pratt, another local architect who’s also fighting, suggested these resources as well: PreserveNation has weighed in on the issue, as has the Louisiana Landmarks Society. Save Mid-City Houses is a blog devoted to the fight.
Michael and Gate are two of a small but committed band of preservationists in New Orleans who have been doing the street-fighting, but they’re exhausted, and just about out of time. The Mayor just established a 45-day final review period, but if nothing changes, then the rumbling noise you’ll hear will be the bulldozers cranking up to level block after block of historic structures.**
The bottom line is this: the detrimental aspects of this design will cost the city more in the long run than the billions of dollars spent on its construction. Please help by lending your voice to the effort to save New Orleans from this mammoth act of disastrous short-sightedness. Say something! In 45 days, it will be too late.
Note: If any of the images above are useful to you, they’re available at high resolution for printing or download on my Zenfolio site. Just click on the image and it’ll take you there.
* “... comparable to the portion of the Lower Ninth Ward that was smashed...” refers to the portion that was physically smashed by the force of the water, not just flooded. This was roughly the first 3 blocks from the levee. At 10 blocks wide, that was essentially 30 square blocks.
** Michael told me this evening that only the LSU portion of the project got the 45-day review period. The bulldozers are already demolishing the historic houses of the VA portion, so timing is critical.
Monday, June 28, 2010 - 05:01 PM
Steve... Great post. I hope your's, Ann Daigle's, Michael's, Gate's, and everyones' efforts to battle this issue are successful. How does the individual not involved in this effort chip in? Is there a particular agency, or business to contact to lodge conplaints... or another action/outlet more beneficial?
Monday, June 28, 2010 - 06:10 PM
I'm with Chad -- anything I can do from New England? To whom do we send a howler? I didn't have any idea this was happening. So frustrating -- do we really need to keep making the same mistakes?
Monday, June 28, 2010 - 06:33 PM
There are two important things to do, IMO, to get this on the national agenda immediately:
1. Tell what's happening to everyone in your network, with your take on it, so that it comes across with passion and authenticity. You're likely only one or two degrees of separation (whether you realize it or not) from someone who has the means to elevate the story to the national level.
2. Take the story to influential media people you follow regularly, but who don't know you. Your batting average is likely lower with those that don't know you, but since 100% of these people have the means to go national (as opposed to a smaller percentage of those who do know you) then it's equalized a bit.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - 07:00 PM
Save for the heroics of technology in saving lives, there's a good case to be made here for the traveling doctor again. The problem is, we've designed our entire "sickness care system" around 5% of our actual needs: emergency/acute medicine. It's a design problem that starts with a word far more relevant than sustainability: responsibility.
Who’s the biggest culprit in the Gulf disaster? Everyone’s talking tough about BP and their culpability. The President, in my opinion, said exactly what he had to say about the catastrophe 36 hours ago. Late last night, I saw where one lawmaker, referring to BP CEO Tony Hayward’s testimony before congress later today, said “They’re going to take his hide off, as they should.” All reports point to a corporate culture of risk-taking at the expense of safety, the story says. There’s talk of extracting massive reparations from BP for damages to the region.
This is reasonable. Livelihoods are being lost. In all likelihood, thousands of jobs will be lost as a result of the fact that you can’t fish there anymore. And it isn’t just commercial fishermen, either. The sport fishers support local hotels, restaurants, retail, and the like.
And that’s only the human side of it. Most of the victims in this disaster can’t hire attorneys for a class-action lawsuit. Countless creatures are dying, and precious wilderness is being spoiled for decades, or even generations. We likely have very little idea what the long-term toll to the environment will be. So clearly, BP should pay.
But the BP blood-lust, and the countless newspeople who are fanning those flames, are completely missing the real point. Because the ultimate fault lies not so much with some foreign corporation, as with us. We are to blame, and we’re going to cause even more of these disasters. How can that be?
We’ve created a suburban nation, where the only way to get around is to drive. The easy oil to support that lifestyle has been pumped years ago, so oil companies are having to go to greater and greater lengths to find new reserves. Much has been made over the fact that the gusher is buried a mile deep in the Gulf. Drilling so deep was unthinkable just a few years ago, but expect it to become much more common in the near future. Here’s why:
Two really big things are happening at once: We are arguably reaching worldwide Peak Oil right about now, a condition that was predicted in 1956 by Shell Oil geoscientist M. King Hubbert. We reached Peak Oil in the lower 48 states of the US in 1970. Since then, we have pumped less and less oil as reserves have dwindled. The same thing has happened or will happen in other countries, of course. No finite resource lasts forever.
The other really big thing happening right now is the fact that in China and India alone, there are roughly 2-1/2 billion people who have until recently lived in very low-impact agrarian settings who are now moving to the city... and that’s not counting other populous nations like Brazil that are going through similar changes.
In the US, we have roughly 300 million cars for 300 million people. If China and India do 2-1/2 times as our ratio of cars to people, then there will still be a billion cars on the road in those countries in a few years that don’t even exist today. Combine that with the fact that oil supplies are going to decline, and any student of Economics 101 knows we have a major problem.
So whether or not we put BP out of business, we’ll be clamoring for whatever oil companies remain to keep drilling, and they’ll have to keep going to more treacherous lengths to extract the stuff. And as all humans do, they will occasionally have accidents. The problem is that these increasingly inhospitable sites raise the stakes. The harder it is to get to, the bigger the risk and the worse the accident. It is going to happen again! More frequently. And the damage will be worse.
So who’s really to blame? In the words of the long-ago cartoon character Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It’s us, and our suburban lifestyle, that have created the massive demands for oil, because it simply isn’t possible to live in sprawling suburbs without driving everywhere. We drive to work, to shop, to school, to worship, and to play. We have no choice because of the design of our cities... if you live in the suburbs, try walking to work. It’s likely so far that you just might get there by quitting time. But the walk would be so dangerous that you just might not make it in one piece.
What’s the solution? There are several, actually, and it’s high time to get to work on them. First, we really must quit building our world in its currently highly segregated fashion, with subdivisions, shopping malls, office parks, and pods of other uses connected only by massive roads. The New Urbanism movement has been working on solutions to this for years, and they’re really quite good at what they do. Next, we can’t just discard the suburbs... far too many people have their life’s savings tied up in their homes there, and most of them are unlikely to be able to walk away, even as the price of gas skyrockets as the reality of Peak Oil hits home. So we’ve got to find ways of repairing the suburbs to transform them into real hamlets, villages, and towns, where you can live, work, shop, learn, worship, and play, all within walking distance. Fortunately, the New Urbanists have been working on that, too. Look for the Sprawl Repair Manual, to be released shortly. If we get to work now, we just might be able to turn the tide before another disaster occurs.
Note: If any of the images above are useful to you, they’re available at high resolution for printing or download on my Zenfolio site. Just click on the image and it’ll take you there.
Friday, June 18, 2010 - 06:17 PM
Agree, but let's have a little fun at the expense of BP.
Sunday, June 20, 2010 - 06:58 PM
No problem, me... Let's just not forget that sprawl started the whole sorry mess.
As promised, here’s the first Original Green post by another voice... this one is by Ann Daigle. If you don't know Ann, you should. And if you have noteworthy insights on issues either surrounding or central to the Original Green, please write them up and send them in. This blog should be our voices, not just my voice.
Note from Steve: I’m illustrating Ann’s post with images from the French Quarter of New Orleans because it’s Ann’s adopted hometown.
For over 5,000 years, people have built settlements. They gathered together for safety and economy, and formed societies to share resources and responsibilities. While the earth and its civilizations are vast, people and the settlements they built are remarkably similar. Very early on, humans recognized that the impermanence of life could be overcome through a society’s built legacy – and that what they built formed lasting impressions about their civilization.
No matter what country or culture, what geography or climate, permanent villages, towns and cities shared (and still share) particular design characteristics thanks to the similar aspirations and physical makeup of their inhabitants. The way they grew was organic and naturally sustainable.
Building followed eight simple rules that ensured people’s and community’s needs were met:
• Settlements were close to food and water sources to nourish inhabitants,
• They were easily accessible to better foster society, governance and commerce,
• People were able to meet their daily needs within easily walkable distances,
• Buildings and public spaces were safe and secure,
• Land use and buildings were frugal to conserve resources,
• Buildings and public spaces were durable and enduring so they lasted for generations,
• Buildings were flexible so that interiors could be accommodated for changing times, and
• Places were built to be beautiful so they were lovable, comfortable and made people happy.
Lasting settlements grew at choice locations near abundant natural resources. These locations and the settlement layout maximized environmental and geographic conditions to offer protection from wild animals and human enemies. They were strategically accessible for trade by land or water, and shared paths for exploration.
When people settled, they built communities in compact configurations that leveraged available resources and provided internal safety for the people and their possessions. The design they chose expressed the favored customs and aspirations of their society. They set aside key sites – the highest and best land – for important buildings and shared spaces, and the most fertile land for grazing and farming.
Early builders developed geometries for stable buildings with locally available materials. Their designs maximized assets of light and air, while minimizing impacts of rain, harsh sun and wind. More valuable permanent materials, difficult techniques and ornamentation were saved for buildings that housed important community functions so that the cultural, social, spiritual and economic longevity of the society could be furthered for posterity. Shared housing was substantial. Individual houses were less permanent, a characteristic that paralleled the mortality of individual residents.
As settlements grew and prospered, people organized their buildings in more formal and sophisticated configurations that favored efficiency, accessibility and ambiance, and that brought comfort and delight to inhabitants. Street widths and spaces between buildings were appropriate to the climate and topography, as were building heights and details. Street size and connectivity facilitated mobility and way-finding by pedestrians, and paired with strategically placed buildings, generated a comforting sense of enclosure. As early as 2,000 BC, dimensions were codified into regulations to ensure all building was compatible and to promote “equal ability to enjoy property.”
Public space was balanced with private to support social mores and customs and reinforce the importance of common goals. Special public gathering places were carefully selected at central intersections so that all paths lead to them. Bounded with the most important buildings, these spaces were beautifully framed and ornamented like grand outdoor rooms. Physically and symbolically they were the centers of community, and provided a stage for gatherings.
Comfortable arrangements of houses, shops and religious, government and institutional buildings reflected important economic relationships. Shops were situated at intersections and congregated together for easy access and visibility. The majority were at the centers near key gathering spots and public buildings. Housing surrounded this urban core of activity. Most were raised above the streets in upper stories above modest shops and offices where residents made their living.
Buildings closest to the center shared permanent materials, and accommodated as many people as comfortable in close proximity to the center where they could enjoy the vast array of services and civic life. Houses further away were less permanent, and less defensible. Street intersections were punctuated with shops to provide daily necessities. The urban fabric eventually feathered into less-formal arrangements of sheds, farms and fields at the settlement’s edge, beyond which wilderness reigned.
The organic growth of settlements followed geography and topography. As growing populations and the need for services increased, compact neighborhoods were replicated, growing next to one another so that new and more precious resources could be shared at their edges. The overall pattern that formed towns and cities resembled a constellation, with satellites of smaller commercial nodes encircling the major center. All were connected and easily accessible, generally equidistant from the center and one another, with numerous pathways to get from one place to another.
The natural inclination of early settlers and builders to build sustainably is what architect and town designer, Steve Mouzon, calls, “the Original Green.” Every decision about how, why and where the community and buildings were formed was guided by rational environmental, economic and cultural reasons. The organization of spaces and the building techniques that worked best were replicated, modified and enhanced, then replicated again by successive generations. Successful solutions eventually became what we call, traditions.
One of the most obvious historic patterns inherent in all communities throughout civilization and across all cultures is what planners today have named the “rural to urban Transect of human settlement.” It reflects the Original Green principles, and has been researched and analyzed internationally. It now forms the framework for policy and codes for community building that are healthy and sustainable.
The Transect is observable in all walkable pre-automobile and pre-zoning code communities, and in most places built before the era of Modernist urban and building design. It (or its remnants) is often recognized as the locations in today’s cities and towns that feel authentic and have a greater sense of place and local character. The Transect can be viewed in ancient Chinese scrolls, maps of 1700 London, illustrations of 1850 New Orleans and in photographs of 1900 San Francisco.
At its most simple, the Transect is a gradual change and undulation in character as one moves from the city center to the rural edge. More complexly, the Transect borrows from environmental study. It describes the city as a series of “human habitats” that like natural ecosystems are at their healthiest when they co-exist, are integrated, mutually beneficial and self-sustaining.
For planning and coding purposes, the Transect can be expressed as a hierarchy of “Transect Zones” that exist within a sustainable city from its center to its edge. Planners have identified six “T-Zones” that are evident in healthy, walkable places in varied mixes and patterns: (T6) Urban Core, (T5) Urban Center, (T4) Urban General, (T3) Suburban, (T2) Rural and (T1) Natural.
Transect zones do not exist alone, as monocultures, but rather work in concert with other T-Zones to form complete neighborhoods. The most delightful places are those in which transition from T-zone to T-zone is fine-grained and complex. Real neighborhoods are not subdivisions, but rather walkable places with a mix of uses, housing types and public spaces, such that people can meet their basic daily needs within a five to ten minute walk. Historically neighborhoods cover a ¼ mile radius “pedestrian shed,” which is an approximate five-minute walk from center to edge.
All T-Zones share similar elements - they all have buildings, landscape, infrastructure, public and private spaces. However, the elements of each zone also have distinct characteristics that make each habitat or zone unique. For instance, while barns are common buildings in T2 Rural, they are inappropriate buildings for the Urban Center. Likewise townhouses belong in Urban areas, but are inappropriate in Suburban or Rural zones.
In general, as one travels from Urban to Rural areas, density, building height, the mix of uses and public amenities are reduced, and the natural landscape becomes more dominant. Important civic buildings, commercial and mixed-use buildings give way to sparsely sited houses, then to farms and agriculture, and there are fewer opportunities for entertainment, culture and socialization. Streets and sidewalks move from formal hardscaped boulevards and avenues to unpaved roads with swales and nature paths.
The characteristics of T-Zones, while sharing common elements and similarities, also vary in regions based on local geography, climate, social culture and building traditions. Their evidence can be observed, analyzed, measured and documented, and the most desirable characteristics entered into form-based codes and polices for new and infill development.
Planning, coding and (re)building a neighborhood with a mix of Transect Zones ensures that what came naturally at one point in city development - the places that people love and admire - can once again become the DNA of growth. Transect Planning is based on the premise that for people to be happy and healthy throughout their lives they must have access to the full diversity of rural to urban habitats within their community – ideally within walking distance. This mirrors the basic principles of the Original Green, and emphasizes the idea that sustainability and human happiness go hand in hand – naturally.
The goal for a city seeking sustainability is to nurture authentic places that accommodate the Original Green via a full set of Transect habitats. This gives residents the option to “age in place” by offering opportunities for children, young singles, families and those in their prime to safely live, work, shop and play within their neighborhood.
Just as the gulls on the seashore could not exist without the wetlands or upland forests, so man cannot exist without access to urban civilization or the rural landscape. Suburban places, no matter how seemingly pastoral, cannot exist as monocultures without farmland and wilderness or the greatest achievements of urbanity.
The Original Green and the Transect provide for places – and life - that is enriched with quality. This is the DNA of “Community Building.”
Note: If any of the images above are useful to you, they’re available at high resolution for printing or download on Steve’s Zenfolio site. Just click on the image and it’ll take you there.