Saturday, October 22, 2011

What's Wrong with Article 13?

Article 13 began life as a resolution calling for the installation of a pedestrian-actuated traffic control signal at the Green St. crosswalk in Coolidge Corner.  That's the crosswalk going from Friendly's to Upper Crust and the Coolidge Corner Theater at the corner of Green St. and Harvard St. in the heart of our beloved CC shopping district.  The Article has since been amended to call for a study of said light.

The petitioner claims that all will be right with the universe if we do this.  In this alternate universe, pedestrians will line up and press the button, then patiently wait a minute and a half, happy to cross when the whooshing vehicles are finally forced to stop by the red light, the pedestrians will scurry quickly across, then once again the vehicles will resume whooshing.  All this will occur because the traffic lights at the nearby intersections at Beacon and Babcock will be coordinated and perfectly synced to move the traffic in seamless flow.  Too bad none of this alternate reality scenario resembles reality.

I can appreciate the appeal and simple logic of this idea.  Unfortunately, the traffic and pedestrian flows along this stretch of Harvard are anything but simple and the addition of a traffic control signal at Green St. will wreak havoc to traffic flows along this stretch of Harvard.  Consider the following:  1) Traffic flows are two-way and these two-way flows are not equally balanced.  2) There are turning vehicles that enter the traffic stream on Harvard St., even when Harvard St. is red at Beacon.  Vehicles turn right, going north from westbound Beacon, vehicles turn left from westbound Babcock.  3) These folks, along with those at the tail end of the previous green light and other, non-synced flows (contrary to popular belief the lights cannot be perfectly synched due to reasons #1 and #2)  will be stopped for 20 seconds or more at the new light at the Green St. cross walk.  Hardly a recipe for whooshing.  4)  If you think slowing and occasionally stopping for pedestrians at the crosswalk is annoying for drivers now, imagine a light stopping all traffic for one-half of the available time (Beacon green), whenever anyone may have pushed the button, whether they are there now or not.  and 5) The travel lanes widen to two just before and through the Beacon St. intersection, then suddenly tapering down to one again, right before the cross walk.  This bulge and squeeze is the real reason there is a flow issue at Beacon and Harvard, not the cross walk.

The petitioner has told us that the pedestrian light is not a new idea, that its been studied and recommended before.  This is absolutely not true.  The 2005 study he cites had it wrong, (there existing conditions report stated that there was already a light there), and simply recommended the signals be coordinated.  Clearly, these folks had a keen power of observation.  The other 2009 study concluded that the Green St. crosswalk did not seem to be a dominant issue creating backups.  This was based on field observation and not a study of potential impacts.  The petitioner also stated that all other options for improvement had been tried.  Again, not true.  Professor Peter Furth, former Transportation Board member, professor of civil engineering at Northeastern University, PhD from MIT in Transportation Systems and recipient of the 2004, Best Paper award from the Transportation Research Board Committee on Traffic Signal Systems, strongly warns against signalizing the crosswalk.  Peter's advanced traffic signal control class looked at this stretch of Harvard St. as a case study.  They concluded that the core problem was that too many vehicles were passing through the Beacon St. intersection and that this problem could be corrected by shortening the length of the traffic signal cycle.  Professor Furth strongly warns against putting such a light here, and as a resident of Brookline he strongly objects, noting how well the crosswalk works now and understanding the benefits to maintaining a safe, pedestrian friendly shopping district.  Professor Furth's study, complete with traffic flow simulations is the most indepth study done to date, and yet the petitioner did not even bother to read it.   Brookline's Director of Engineering, Peter Ditto testified at the Selectmen's hearing on this Article that his Department did not feel a pedestrian-actuated light should be studied.

There is Town wide desire to improve travel conditions in Coolidge Corner, which is why the petitioner has succeeded in gathering some support for the article, but there is also a clear sense, expressed by many, that we should be looking more holistically at travel conditions near Beacon and Harvard and that we should not be entering into a study already having concluded what the source and solution to the problem is.   The petitioner has assured us that other ideas will be looked at.  Yet, this is not what the resolution says, and the resolution cannot be modified because it would become a fundamentally different Article.  I don't know about you but I am not comfortable giving my support to something based on the assurance that really, its not what it says it is.

The fact is the petitioner has decided what improvement is desirable and concluded that it would have a positive result, all without the benefit of professional knowledge, without supporting facts or analysis, without consultation with the Town staff or boards responsible for these decisions, who have been, by the way, working diligently observing, testing and working with consultants to solve the problem.  Doesn't their opinion matter? 

So, what’s wrong with passing the Article and studying the traffic signal?  Surely, the study will come to the same conclusions as Professor Furth and the idea of the traffic signal will be dropped.  For starters, such a study looks at the wrong thing, making it a waste of Town resources, we already have the advantage of a high-caliber free study showing us the way towards a promising alternative improvement.  Second,  directing the scope, focus and policy direction of a consultant’s work away from the fundamental problem and towards a single, ill conceived and predetermined result is bad science and bad policy and will prevent us from identifying better, more cost effective solutions that work for everyone, whether on foot, bike or in a car.  And third, let's pass a resolution that lets the professionals do their job, instead of telling them what the conclusion is before they start.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Reading Olmsted's Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England

The recent broadcast of the documentary "Olmsted and America's Urban Parks on PBS, inspired me to revisit this article describing Olmsted's early book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, which was first published in Our Town Brookline June, 2006.  I highly recommend this early book of Olmsted's to anyone with a sincere desire to understand the man, his vision and his talents.
Frederick Law Olmsted is best known as the designer of New York’s Central Park and Boston’s own Emerald Necklace. What is less well known is that he practiced a number of different professions before finding his life’s work. Long before he began designing landscapes, F.L. Olmsted authored his first book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England. It’s a chatty recounting of his month long walking tour through the English countryside. Reading it today, we get a glimpse of the formative experiences of a great talent. Originally published in two volumes in 1852, the book was reissued in 2002 with annotated text and an excellent introduction by noted Olmsted scholar Charles C. McLaughlin. Written from copious journals and letters home, Olmsted’s narrative is intimate, descriptive and often very funny. We are in the company of a young, energetic and inquiring mind.
At the age of 28, F.L. Olmsted, his younger brother John and John’s Yale roommate, Charles Loring Brace set sail for Liverpool, England, a journey that took 26 days. To secure a place on the trip, Frederick convinced his father that he needed to study scientific farming in England to benefit his current agricultural endeavor on Staten Island. To call the trip an adventure is an understatement by today’s standards, as the sea voyage alone was fraught with hardships, potential peril and a great deal of discomfort. Funds were tight and the young men traveled in the hardscrabble mode of students the world over.  At this point, Olmsted’s future was anything but determined. Prior to farming, he had been a surveyor, a clerk in a retail store, a merchant seaman, (a job that took him on a perilous journey to China), and a journalist. Unlike most of his peers, he did not go to college, but was nonetheless widely read and inquisitive.
Knowing what we do about F. L. Olmsted’s later achievements and remarkable career, reading this, his first book is a chance to witness the gestation of the many skills, attitudes, beliefs, and aesthetic preferences that, when blended together, would result in Olmsted’s wholly unique set of abilities. Open, amiable, adventurous, inquisitive, and exacting in his observations and critiques, Olmsted approaches England, “the mother land” with an affectionate regard, yet also with an eye for the distinctions and improvements his newly free America has wrought. He pursues a wide variety of subjects, including social class structure, land economics, scientific farming, religious beliefs, treatment of prisoners, status of the poor, landscape and its effect on psychology, health and social cohesion, architecture, and city form. Yet none of these were abstract concepts to Olmsted, his genius was his ability to connect his observations with the wider forces that were in fact shaping those experiences he was witnessing. He had a reformers heart, but a realist’s view of the world.
His many analytical skills are put to good use as he systematically gathers first hand knowledge through penetrating observation and conversations with people from all walks of life. He acquires vast technical knowledge about soil, climate, engineering techniques and the conditions necessary for healthy plant life. While the resulting long, detailed passages may prove tedious for some readers, the knowledge Olmsted gains will undoubtedly prove invaluable when it comes time to transform the barren and swampy lands he was often given to work with into pastoral paradises.
We also meet Olmsted the social critic and reformer. His traveling companion, Charles Loring Brace would later found the Children’s Aid Society in New York City and it was probably at his urging that the trio visited prisons, alms houses, jails and village schools. In this context Olmsted is pragmatic, practical and open minded, displaying an eagerness to embrace divergent points of view, and yet he still forms his own definite opinions. Despite the trip’s focus on learning and research, Olmsted was above all else acutely open to the experience of his immediate surroundings and as a skilled writer he is able to capture and share those sensations.
Olmsted’s month long walking tour through the English countryside would have a profound and lasting effect on the rest of his life. Many of the scenes and events that captivate and enlighten him mark the genesis of some of the core passions that would later propel him towards his ultimate profession. On the Isle of Wight Olmsted considers the profoundly soothing effect of nature when he writes, “ Dame Nature is a gentle woman…Gradually and silently the charm comes over us; the beauty has entered our souls; we know not exactly when or how, but going away we remember it with a tender, subdued, filial-like joy”. A pleasant walk on a public promenade in Chester gives rise to his belief in the social benefits of shared public spaces. He experiences the extreme contrast between the dismal slums of industrial Liverpool and the beauty of the surrounding countryside and would go on to devise new metropolitan forms that better blend the advantages of both urban and rural life.
We are witness to Olmsted’s epiphany at Birkenhead Park, a public park outside of Liverpool. It was by happy accident that he visited the park at all and yet it was an experience that changed the course of history. Created by landscape gardeners Joseph Paxton and Edward Kemp, the entire park was under-drained, with wide carriage roads and paths, rock gardens, pavilions, trees and shrubs and ponds stocked with fish and swans. Olmsted observes that “…large valleys were made verdant, extensive drives arranged - plantations, clumps, and avenues of trees formed, and a large park laid out. And all this magnificent pleasure-ground is entirely, unreservedly, and forever the people’s own. The poorest British peasant is as free to enjoy it in all its parts as the British queen. More than that, the baker of Birkenhead has the pride of an OWNER in it. Is it not a grand good thing?”  This was a revelation to Olmsted, for at this time there were no such public parks in America.
It sometimes took private wealth to create great art, as in the case of Eaton Hall in Chester. Eaton was one of over 1,000 private estates in England at the time, many of which were known the world over for the beauty of their lavish grounds. The private ownership of so many great parks in England fueled Olmsted’s conviction that public ownership and access to such natural beauty was a vital necessity in a democratic America. The artistic lessons to be learned here would not be lost on Olmsted, either. Immediately upon seeing Capability Brown’s landscape, Olmsted finds himself identifying with the creator and exclaims, “What artist, so noble, has often been my thought, as he, who with far-reaching conception of beauty and designing power, sketches the outline, writes the colors, and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations, before the work he has arranged for her shall realize his intentions” These sentiments describe the far reaching vision that necessarily define the yet to be born profession of landscape architecture.
Landscape viewing had become an intellectual as well as recreational pursuit in America by the mid 19th century. Olmsted’s father, John had read Sir Uvedale Price, William Gilpin, Richard Knight, and John C. Loudon, writers who waxed poetically about landscapes that were picturesque, beautiful and sublime. A definition of these terms evolved as a common lexicon and fostered the popular pastime of extended outings seeking vistas and views of scenic value. Picturesque scenery made a good, sketchable picture and fell somewhere between the soft, rounded tranquil aesthetic of beautiful landscapes and the awe and grandeur one finds in sublime settings such as Niagara Falls. As a young boy Frederick’s father had taken him on many such outings. In this way he was already tuned into “analyzing” a landscape, a skill he developed to a remarkable degree.
In the English landscape he found that form of the picturesque he most admired, a domesticated land that has been cultivated for centuries, one that fell somewhere between natural and civilized. He would later strive to recreate his idealized versions of the Victorian English landscape back home on American soil. Upon first seeing it he exclaimed, “The country-and such a country!-green, dripping, glistening, gorgeous! We stood dumb-stricken by its loveliness…-in an English lane; with hedges, English hedges, hawthorn hedges, all in blossom; homely old farm houses, quaint stables, and haystacks; the old church spire over the distant trees; the mild sun beaming through the watery atmosphere...” Through observation he was able to identify the precise combinations and relationships of scenic elements that made up this landscape, as when he observed, “The great beauty and peculiarity of the English landscape is to be found in the frequent long, graceful lines of deep green hedges and hedge-row timber, crossing hill, valley, and plain, in every direction; and in the occasional large trees, dotting the broad fields, either singly or in small groups…here is everywhere a great deal of quiet, peaceful, graceful beauty, which the works of man have generally added to.”
It seems a special privilege to accompany a young Olmsted on his trip. Reading Walks and Talks is meaningful for those interested in learning about Olmsted’s early experiences, but the book can also stand on it’s own as an enjoyable travel book, giving a descriptive narrative of the English countryside of the mid 19th century.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Landscape Urbanism vs. The New Urbanists

Let me get this straight.  A group of landscape architects are claiming that the road to urban sustainability can only be found if we place primary importance on protection of the natural environment (i.e. leaving the land as undisturbed as possible).  They claim that suburbia (sprawl) has a greater potential to achieve their vision because of it's dispersed settlement patterns.  In their minds they are in opposition to the New Urbanists' led by architect Andres Duany, who say that the built environment's form should mirror walkable town center's to enable a denser, more compact and social development pattern. The relevant point here is that we have landscape architects and architects each devising "systems" that are anything but systematic or holistic in their scope.  Is it any surprise that the landscape architects are yelling "it's all about the landscape stupid" or the architect's screaming, "it's all about the buildings stupid!"  Of course it is about both, and there are plenty of enlightened planner's who have grasped this reality for a long time.

To me, the one truly valuable contribution brought by the landscape urbanists' is their fundamental questioning of the long-term ecological viability of our over-engineered, mechanistic storm water infrastructure.  They wish to see a more cohesive melding of human settlements and the natural functioning of land.  This is not a new idea, and it is one that can be brought into urban settings, bringing the life enhancing benefits of living in close proximity to naturally functioning landscapes to urban dwellers.  But to think that this implies that suburban development patterns are superior ecologically is to live in denial of the fact that human populations have already swelled beyond the capacity of our land resources to support a completely dispersed population,  it also denies the devastating waste and environmental toll wrought by sprawl in terms of the very land resources they wish to protect, not to mention,  the vast about of infrastructure and fuel needed to support the exclusively private automobile transportation system.  I cannot agree with their assertion that suburbia is "what Americans' want".  As we all know, cheap land, and federal subsidies to the oil industry and mortgage business have fueled this so-called "choice".  Young people today do not seem to be making the same choice, whether it is because of shifting economics or lifestyle choice, the demand for walkable urban housing is growing drastically.  The landscape urbanists'  "anti-urban" urban vision also denies the fundamental fact that humans are social creatures who thrive on live exchange of ideas and shared experiences.

There are familiar "holes" in the New Urbanists' theories too.  From the very beginning it has been pointed out that just building the "bones" does not a living, thriving community make.  In other words, just because a newly planned community contains office space or retail space there are no guarantees that there will be a "match" between these jobs and goods and the nearby residents.  Expensive, "faux" neighborhoods do not make a real neighborhood, where people care about the place and look after one another's interests without the modern planned communities' regulatory deed restrictions and covenants.  Yet, the New Urbanists' insights were a leap forward; they helped us understand the role of walkability, street grid patterns, pedestrian scale and mixed use in creating livable places.  These lessons are still just as valuable today.  Are these lessons all that we need to create sustainable communities?  Of course not.  But then, neither is the Landscape Urbanists' theory of land protection.  There are still the fundamental questions of life support systems, such as fuel for heat, electricity, water, food, transportation, the economy, family life, community and all the other basic necessities. 

The fact that these two "camps" consider themselves in opposition is laughable.  Both make interesting and valuable points.  Both have huge blind spots and holes in their theories.  Neither one of them is good in isolation and neither one of them is an appropriate blue print for future action in the real world.  Since we can't wipe the slate clean and apply either one of these theories on a large scale in a pristine setting, I suggest that both camps get busy working on real world applications.  Better yet, how about talking directly to each other and to others who have been thinking systemically for a long time?  I have a great deal of tolerance and even delight in research and theorizing when it comes to urban planning.  After all, how would we ever get new ideas if we focused only on the here and now.  But in this debate, we see the ivory tower run amok. 

It's amusing that their testosterone fueled debate has vaulted this spitting match to the pages of the Sunday Boston Globe. I can't remember when I last saw an article in a major newspaper covering an academic debate between two "competing" theories of urban planning.  Perhaps this is due to a growing awareness that the tools and techniques of urban planning are useful mechanisms for helping us navigate the challenges of climate change and fossil fuel depletion.  More of the general public has an interest in urban planning than ever before it seems.  It would be nice if that attention didn't get dissipated by watching a school yard wrestling match.  Rather, the time has come to collaborate and apply all the good ideas we can find to the massive problems we face.