Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Winding down.

My apologies for how quiet it has gotten around here.  Truth be told, I've been very busy writing...as well as transferring American Dirt to a new domain.  Within the next few days, I will provide a link to my permanent site, which will host all prior posts as well as the future ones.  This URL eventually will not post any new active updates the blog.

At this point, I am still working out some final kinks to my domain, which I was hoping to complete before 2014, but, alas, it was not meant to be.  Stay tuned, thanks for your patience, and have a happy New Year.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A signal to retreat to the suburbs? Too late.

Scattered throughout various locations throughout the City of Detroit, one is likely to run into this sign.
It may be unusual in almost any other urban area, but not the Motor City.  In due time, the city could end up removing this traffic light at the intersection of Peterboro Street and Second Avenue altogether.  It stands just a little over a mile from Campus Martius Park, this absolute center of downtown.  But why would the City’s Department of Public Works consider removing a traffic light in an area so close to highest concentration of jobs and workers?

It’s not rocket science.  This intersection no longer endures the volume of traffic to justify a stoplight.  Or, at least, the City is pretty sure it doesn’t.  Curbed Detroit featured an article on this assessment much earlier in the year.  In many regards, it’s not too surprising, given the hierarchical importance of these two streets.  Second Avenue would most likely qualify as a collector, an intermediate street that does not provide the length or support the volume of vehicles that a more prominent arterial would (such as Woodward Avenue).  Meanwhile, Peterboro Street is little more than a local road, just four blocks in length and not intended to handle any major traffic beyond access to residential quarters.  The Google Map below better demonstrates this relationship.

Detroiters know that Second Avenue is hardly a street on par with Woodward, just three blocks to the east; it terminates just a few blocks to the south, at Temple Street and Cass Park.  And Peterboro, the cross street, is only four blocks long.  Considering the built environment in the area today, its hard to conceive of a time when the density of commerce and vehicles was ever enough to warrant a stoplight here.  But, in many regards, that is the marvel of Detroit.  Here’s a clearer view of the intersection looking northward down Second.

One could make excuses for the general feeling of emptiness, considering that I took these pictures in the late afternoon on a Saturday.  But judging from the absence of major buildings flanking either side of Second Avenue, is there any reason to believe these lanes (all one-way northbound) are ever congested?

Historically, one of Americans’ favorite gripes about their respective cities is the snarling traffic problem, indicative of streets that no longer have the capacity to handle the vehicles that pass through.  However, even the pro-car stalwarts (and the Motor City has more than its share) would have to argue that Detroit’s roads suffer the opposite capacity issue.  Simply put, these streets don’t handle nearly the magnitude of traffic for which their designers originally anticipated and intended.

Both Michigan DOT and Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) offer reports on Annual Average Daily Traffic (AADT) counts.  SEMCOG, with a smaller geographic focus, also seems to offer much greater detail in its AADT research.  For example, this table provides the AADT for Peterboro Street west of Second Avenue, part of the intersection featured in the above photographs.  At 380, the number doesn’t seem that high even without a comparative context.  After all, this is only a mile from the absolute center of Detroit, and much less from what would generally pass at Detroit’s downtown.  Compare it with the AADT of other street segments of this very minor street and its clear that only two intersections involving Peterboro can even expect 1,000 cars to pass by in a 24-hour period.

But it gets worse.  Compare this with an intersection between a collector and an arterial a quarter-mile closer to downtown, for example:

This photo looks eastward on Temple Street at the point where Second Avenue terminates, visible on the left, with the mammoth Masonic Temple immediately behind it.  Just in the distance are two more intersections with stoplights.  The purple circles in the map below indicate the locations of stoplights on Temple.

It amounts to one of the most excessive traffic light schemes I’ve seen in any major city center.  Because the two segments of Second Avenue are non-contiguous, they cannot share a stoplight.  However, in this instance, not only is the traffic volume insufficiently heavy to demand stoplights, but the flow of the traffic further weakens the need.  In the photo below, I’m standing between the two intersections (represented by the purple circles to the left and center on the map), looking eastward.

This stoplight regulates traffic on a segment of Second Avenue that is just one block long and only one-way northbound.  Thus, the light exists only for vehicles leaving Second Avenue onto Temple Street; cars along Temple can't do anything.  Why isn’t a stop sign sufficient?

The other intersection (the farthest purple circle on the left) is even more unnecessary.  

The stoplight directs traffic between Temple and Second, but yet again, Second is a one-way northbound street.  Thus, a stoplight exists only for vehicles leaving Temple to turn onto Second; no cars can legally travel the other direction.  Since westbound cars on Temple only need to turn right to enter onto Second, they would not need traffic regulation under any circumstances.  The stoplight only regulates cars turning left—no other purpose.  If these were high-traffic streets, some other form of management might be useful.  But remember what Second Avenue looks like:

Not just a yawning chasm of unused pavement, but a one-way yawning chasm.

I will concede that the Masonic Temple, as a performing arts venue and meeting space, can bring reasonable crowds when a show or indoor festival is in town.

But in a city with numerous magnificent theaters, the Masonic Temple doesn’t really dominate the scene.  It rarely hosts an event more than three nights a week, and while these can get crowded, does a street really need stoplights for just a few hours here and there?  After all, whether urban, suburban, or rural, one typically expects at least a little bit of traffic bottlenecking when a major show lets out.

I’m hardly an advocate for high-speed traffic flow as an easy remedy, especially in urban settings where numerous pedestrians could be present.  But the conditions for motorists along this stretch of Temple Street are almost comparable to waiting in line for a ride at Disneyworld.  Cars along Temple Street lurch only 100 feet from one stop light to the next, while waiting for absolutely nothing.  The lights aren’t timed to expedite flow, so it is common for a car to stop at all three intersections represented by the purple circles.  Worst of all: these lights are not under any study for removal…yet.

This predicament may seem minor in a city that has lost over two-thirds of its population since its peak (and is continuing to hemorrhage in most neighborhoods), but it is an inevitable consequence.  The lower east side of Detroit, home to some neighborhoods that have lost over 90% of the population from the 1950 peak, has none of these “removal” signs.  No decommissioned stoplights planned, although the condition of stopping at lights for no reason is ubiquitous on that side of town.

As a result, the fact that the Department of Public Works’ Traffic Engineering Division is assessing the possibility of removing traffic lights seems like lemonade out of lemons.  Not only is it good for people getting around by car in the Motor City, who won’t suffer the inefficiency of stopping at lights that no longer need to exist (a Pareto optimality under just about any argument that comes to mind).  The win-win resolution prescribed here may seem out-of-touch with the broader concerns of job loss and concentrated poverty, but any bankrupt city that needs to divest of some of its most fulsome assets (and their associated operational costs) will inevitably have to confront the phenomenon of traffic management in an environment that no longer handles much traffic.  Even if the City sells its tri-color portfolio to fast-growing metros that need them, it will probably only amount to a drop in the bucket when it comes to reducing some of the catastrophic debt.  But this strategy is both relatively easy to implement and unlikely to generate the sort of controversy that one might expect from, say, stripping the Detroit Institute of Art of its collection.  One final aspiration: that the Department devises a tactic so that a single “study for removal” doesn’t cost more than the value of the intersection’s stoplights themselves.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

And on the seventh day...He created a market.

With this article I venture into what may prove one of my most overtly political topics ever, possibly against better judgment.  Yet I wade into these waters as a deliberate challenge to myself, since I strive to separate the intensive political controversy that this tourist attraction elicits from what I think is more interesting and ultimately more cogent: the sustainability of its business model.  Despite being relatively new, this attraction has already lured millions of visitors.  Although tens of millions more have not visited (and have no intention of doing so), the heated debate generated from its opening in the summer of 2007 has inevitably foisted it further in the limelight than its conceivers had ever expected.

I’m referring to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, in the outer reaches of suburban Cincinnati, just ten miles west of the Greater Cincinnati Airport (CVG) and also a two-minute drive from the I-275 bridge over the Ohio River that leads to Indiana.  The museum is (at this point in time) the highest-profile project of Answers in Genesis (AiG), a non-profit Christian apologetics ministry that principally advocates for a literal interpretation of Genesis.  Both the museum and its parent organization, now housed at the same address at the museum’s campus, owe a great deal of their size and influence to the tireless efforts of Ken Ham, who first founded a creationist organization in his native Australia in the late 1970s.  After several acquisitions and reorganizations that eventually whisked Ham across the Pacific to an American agency, Answers in Genesis was born, bringing together a smattering of creationist enterprises from the US, Australia, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand under one umbrella, all under Ham’s directorship.  In the intervening years, Ham has achieved national recognition for his tireless fundraising, which culminated in the $27 million of private funds to build the 70,000 square-foot Creation Museum—a goal of AiG since its inception.

Even among other Biblical creationists, the Creation Museum has aroused controversy.  It largely serves as the visitor-friendly, public relations arm of Answers in Genesis, which in turn concords with Ken Ham’s theological views.  Ham is a Young Earth Creationist (YEC), meaning that he believes that God created the earth according to the account in Genesis, approximately 6,000 years ago.  Not only does this defy fundamentals to Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, it also boldly contradicts most geological or cosmogonal studies of the age of the earth and the origin of the universe.  Thus, when compared with competing perspectives such as Old Earth or progressive creationism, whose proponents have also publicly debated Ham and AiG, the Creation Museum is probably the most at odds with contemporary scientific inquiry.

AiG’s creative team could have tried to accommodate other creationist views to expand its audience base, but they wisely decided it wouldn’t be necessary: Young Earth Creationism aligns with the views of a sizable portion of American Evangelical and conservative Christians.  According to a 2012 Gallup Poll, 46% of Americans surveyed believe that God created humans within the last 10,000 years—a percentage essentially unchanged since the polls began 30 years prior.  Thus, the Creation Museum did not need to cast a wide net in order to find its demographic base.  Initial speculation was that the Museum would see 250,000 visitors in its first year, but it ended up achieving that number within five months.  Almost immediately, AiG began planning to double the size of the parking lot, along with a retention pond to capture stormwater runoff, preventing it from flooding or polluting a nearby creek.  By the end of that first year, the Creation Museum welcomed over 400,000 visitors.

The photos featured throughout this article are no longer all that current; they’re from the summer of 2009, when the museum was about two years old.  The Creation Museum seems to be operating on a trajectory that involves steadily expanding its programming and amenities, though it already seemed extensive during my visit.  A few paragraphs back, I consciously used the word “campus” to describe the site, and while the word may be an overstatement, the museum is more than an isolated building.  The park-like grounds are extensive.
Aside from the outdoor seating, the museum’s property features an huge garden, a rope bridge, and a petting zoo.
Though I’m hardly well-versed in landscape architecture, it was obvious that AiG had invested considerably in both the design and the regular maintenance of these grounds.  The results were, at the very least, pleasing to my own two peepers, but I have no idea if Ken Ham and his team intended for these grounds to feature plant species indigenous to northern Kentucky, or an approximate recreation of prelapsarian Eden, or something else.  There was no way I could know.  The entire garden lacked any signage referring to plant species, Biblical relevance, or anything that would explain context or rationale.  It ostensibly existed simply as a treat for the senses, adding to the attraction for a museum that, thanks to the combination of the exhibits and the outdoor amenities, could easily consume an entire day for visitors.  Since the museum sits in the middle of former farmland, with no other commercial presence nearby, it needed something for its patrons to eat during their visit.  And, characteristic of the largest children’s museums, it offers an entire food court.

Since my 2009 visit, Answers in Genesis has added 20 zip lines and a network of 10 sky bridges to the museum, making it the biggest course in the Midwest. http://www.wcpo.com/news/zip-lining-among-new-attractions-at-the-creation-museum
Inside the museum, the curators have added a new section on dragons, based on the supposition that the Bible’s reference to “behemoths” might not just be describing the museum’s much-celebrated dinosaurs but also other mythical creatures that could have existed before the flood.  But these newest features only further beg the question: what do dragons and dinosaurs (not to mention zip lines) have to do with the story of creation, or anything explicitly referenced in the Bible, for that matter?  These inclusion are entirely within AiG’s right, but its hard to see them as corresponding with the organization’s ultimate ministry.  If visitors pay for the museum’s outdoor element and spend all day on zip lines, how are they having anything but a secular experience?  Instead, the attractions outside of the museum’s walls are ostensibly new goodies to enhance the museum’s ambition as a day-long (or even multi-day) destination in an of itself, rather than a museum that amuses the kiddos for 2 or 3 hours.  Ken Ham smartly located the Creation Museum sufficiently close to several important metros: besides Cincinnati, we have Lexington, Louisville, Dayton, Columbus, and Indianapolis within a two-hour drive.  But when I visited, the license plates often came from much greater distances than the tri-state region.

It would seem that the Creation Museum has succeeded overwhelmingly in its aspirations; after all, by April 2010 it was celebrating its millionth visitor.  But a closer scrutiny at those numbers suggests that all is not well.  After all, if it attracted over 400,000 after one year in operation, which equates to May of 2008, shouldn’t it have reached the one million point at some point in late 2009 if those numbers continued to surge?  The fact is, after a booming year one, the attendance has dropped in each subsequent year. http://citybeat.com/cincinnati/article-26546-creation_museum_atte.html The year ending June 2012 reported attendance at 254,000—barely over the original expectations.  The museum blames the persistently weak economy, which surely does have something to do with it—except that the museum opened just months before the Great Recession, and its most successful first year transpired while we were watching Lehman Brothers and Countrywide Financial collapse.  And AiG’s response to sagging sales was to raise the ticket price in July of 2012: from an already steep $24.95 per person up to $29.95.  It seems like some of those new attractions may reflect AiG’s realization that the Creation Museum is in serious trouble if it keeps moving along this path.  It’s declining faster than a Mainline church.

The response?  Answers in Genesis boldly announced its latest project: a $73-million replica of Noah’s greatest achievement, in the Ark Encounter, under construction about 40 miles away from the Creation Museum in Grant County, Kentucky.  In addition to the ark, it will apparently feature a replica of the Tower of Babel, the life of Abraham, the plagues of Egypt, and the birth of the nation of Israel—all as part of a seven to eleven-minute ride.  But it’s facing a few snags: the project is years behind schedule and has only raised about one-fifth of its budget, and the delays are pushing the estimated total budget up to $150 million—almost six times the cost of the Creation Museum.  The situation is so dire that the neighboring City of Williamstown has issued $62 million in bonds in an attempt to salvage the initiative.  Fortunately the city won’t have to repay these bonds back, since anticipated revenues for Ark Encounter will do the trick.  But these bonds aren’t rated, making them little more than junk.  Among the risks to investors: sicknesses transmitted among the ark’s many animal pairs; lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of a religious project receiving tax breaks; those persistently declining attendance figures at the Creation Museum.

None of the aforementioned news featurettes fully underline why the Creation Museum and perhaps Answers in Genesis are possibly in such serious trouble.  The ministry’s current struggles ultimately foreshadow a cultural misalignment.  When news of the Ark Encounter made its way to some of the Evangelical Christian newsmedia outlets, it understandably elicited reaction, both favorable as well as a fair share of atheist catcalls.  One quote caught my attention: an anonymous commenter who I have no way of finding or reaching; otherwise I would give credit.  I simply copied and pasted the comment.  Here it is:
“What I find so amusing about this whole project is that... Christians don't seem to realize that by giving their Bible stories a Disney like experience... they are essentially highlighting the very mythological basis of their faith. In my opinion for most Christians the [Old Testament] is an out of sight out of mind type thing (because Christians don't actually read the bible) so by bringing focus to these stories in a modern scientific context... only the extremely delusional are going to find the encounter "spiritual" everyone else will gauge the experience by the entertainment value for the dollar...the same as visiting any other cartoon based amusement park.”

Obviously this quote isn’t lacking in condescension toward Christians in general and creationism in particular.  I don’t condone it one bit, nor does it reflect my own sentiments.  I would experience no Schadenfreude if Answers in Genesis were to go bankrupt; it’s obvious the Creation Museum had quite an impact on the tourist economy of northern Kentucky, and it has generated hundreds of jobs for the region.  It would be callous to wish all of this to fail, no matter how dubious the museum’s attempt to reconcile contemporary scientific inquiry with the first book of the Old Testament.  For all the criticism lobbed at the Creation Museum for branding itself as science/history, it suffers no shortcomings as a religious museum, and my philosophy is overwhelmingly laissez-faire when it comes to addressing what matters of faith parents wish to impart on their children—in contrast with what our tax-supported public schools teach.

That said, the comment above nails it in the in the final sentence or two.  Answers in Genesis may have sealed its own demise by embarking on this basic undertaking.  The more goodies it crams into the overall experience and the more it blurs sacred and profane, the more obvious it become that the business model echoes that of Disneyland, regardless of the original intentions.  And if it becomes just another amusement park, even in the eyes of its most ardent Evangelical Christian supporters, it’s not going to be able to sustain itself, because the museum really will end up competing with places like Disneyland (or King’s Island in the Cincinnati area).  Meanwhile, since it does give “their Bible stories a Disney-like experience”, it will make new believers out of exactly nobody.

The other major aspect of the Creation Museum that I think hints at its questionable long-term viability is a simple display sign that, at the time of my visit, was poised strategically near the exit.
Okay, so the kids love those dinosaurs, and you can never go wrong with letting people pet the animals on display.  But is that enough for people to come back—let alone multiple times in a single year?  It would be interesting to know how many annual passes the museum sold even in its wildly successful first year, and, for that matter, how many families actually used those passes.  Color me cynical, but my suspicion is that low sales on the annual pass should have offered the early warning sign.

Over its six years in operation, the Creation Museum has expanded its programming.  But it has never reported any change to its exhibits—a huge contrast with most children’s museums (which are typically heavily science-themed) or most amusement parks.  These attractions recognize that exhibits must come and go all the time in order to keep the overall experience fresh.  Sometimes children’s museums will simply update their exhibits to reflect breakthroughs in scientific discovery.  But the Creation Museum is based on the unchanging Word of God.  It cannot evolve; pardon the pun.  Thus, what incentive do parents have to go back and see it all over again, especially when the museum is trying so hard to serve as a destination for families coming from hundreds of miles away?

When Answers in Genesis opens its Ark Encounter (if it opens), the whole enterprise very likely will benefit from a surge in attendance.  But how long before the Ark Encounter replaces the Creation Museum as the premier Biblical attraction of Northern Kentucky?  Can AiG sustain both, especially with those prices?  And what adult or child is seriously going to want to return within the year, just to experience the exact same spectacle all over again?  All of this ministry’s herculean efforts—and colossal spending—may just become the next incarnation of Heritage USA, the largely forgotten South Carolina Christian theme park that exploded in popularity in the early 1980s, then crashed almost as quickly after America learned of the peccadilloes of its founder, Jim Bakker.  I would never want to analogize Ken Ham to a convicted felon.  But barring a tremendous shift in American culture that has little to do with growing percentage claiming “religion: none”, the quixotic Australian’s empire may prove even more short-lived.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Time to shake hands…now that you’re on your way out the door.

While traveling one of the main thoroughfares in metro Detroit, I came along this modest little billboard.
I call it modest because the one behind it and above it—of Detroit’s omnipresent powerhouse litigator Joumana Kayrouz—is a little bit bigger.
In fact, from a moderate distance, Ms. Kayrouz not only dwarfs the Target Corporation, but the tree’s branches almost completely obscure the minor billboard.
Still, for the purposes of this meditation, this Target ad is more compelling, if a lot less assertive.  Sure, it’s nothing much to look at, but, as is often the case, the context is what really matters.  The billboard says “Hello Detroit” while featuring a bunch of fruits and vegetables.  Okay—no big deal.  To some extent, it makes perfect sense; the sign stands at Eight Mile Road and Woodward Avenue, the widely-known, almost mythologized boundary between the big city and its affluent northern suburbs.

What’s so special about this billboard?  Well, it sits at the north side of Eight Mile Road, in the suburb of Ferndale.  Not the city of Detroit at all.  Here’s what you’d see if you pivot 180 degrees.
On the opposite (south) side of Eight Mile Road sits the one and only Detroit location of a Meijer, Michigan’s highly successful alternative to Walmart.  This Meijer, which only opened earlier this previous summer, represented a coup for the Motor City, since it anchors a large shopping plaza that appears so far to be successful, thereby figuratively (and possibly literally) representing a much-needed infusion of taxable commercial real estate for a city that is revenue-starved, to put it delicately.

It still baffles the senses to see a “Hello Detroit” sign precisely targeting motorists as they leave the Motor City.  More likely than not, it is implicitly greeting Detroiters arriving in this suburb, welcoming them to the bounty of shopping available in wealthy Oakland County (including many Target stores).  But a huge proportion—perhaps a majority—of the people seeing this billboard are returning to their suburban homes after a commute from the big city’s downtown.  Otherwise, it is essentially bidding salutations to true-blue Detroiters—that same population that the suburbanites have been steadfastly fleeing for sixty years.

So is it fair of me to draw blanket conclusions about the prevailing sentiment fueling America’s 14th largest metro from a single billboard?  Of course it isn’t.  Still, it easily hints at something the Target Corporation seems to speculate about its regional consumer base: that Detroiters’ identification with their beleaguered city has grown increasingly untethered from the clearly defined political boundaries.  Hundreds of thousands of commuters pass this billboard daily, returning home from work, and most probably think nothing of it.  They are figurative Detroiters, even if they’ve never hung their hats in the city limits.  Even if they live in Auburn Hills or Brighton (25 and 30 miles from the outer Detroit border, respectively), Detroit is most likely where they’d claim they’re from if they encounter someone from Boise or Bradenton.

This ostensibly split personality doesn’t distinguish Detroit.  Virtually every large metropolitan area operates under similar conditions. As an economic engine, the core city of Michigan’s largest metro may sputter as it runs on seriously diluted oil, but the psychological centrality of Detroit (or Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Salt Lake City) remains the primary point of reference for the majority of Americans who have never heard of Auburn Hills or Brighton.  And Detroit might not even be an oddity for the share of its metro that lives outside of the city limits: the change in US Census parameters for metro areas between 2000 and 2010 makes it difficult to cross-reference, but rough 2010 estimates indicate that about 16.5% of those living in the MSA call the city home, a rate higher than similar former industrial strongholds such as Pittsburgh and St. Louis, where 12.9% and 11.4% of the metro residents live within the core city limits.

But the world hears much, much more about Detroit’s woes these days.  And even if dozens of Rust Belt cities continue to endure declining populations and tax bases, the only ones that can claim something on par with Detroit’s staggering 25% drop from 950,000 to 710,000 between 2000 and 2010 are places like Gary, IN (21.9%), East St. Louis, IL (14.4%), Cleveland (17.1%) and Youngstown, OH (18.3%) and Detroit’s neighbor Flint (18.0%).  Nonetheless, a first-grader could still point out that all of these numbers are lower than 25.  And, to Detroit’s detriment, the percentage of 25 has its own semantic equivalent that, denotatively, sinks like a stone: “Detroit lost one quarter of its population in the last decade!” 

Truth be told, the marketing team at Target probably thought nothing of leasing this advertising space, nor did CBS, who owns the billboard.  For me to infer both an underlying motive or some broader sociopolitical implications is more an indication of my own hyperanalytical zeal than any true issues at hand.  But it’s hard to fathom that no one considered the irony of a Detroit greeting standing just a stone’s throw from the actual municipal boundary—especially considering that this city of 700,000 people does not contain a single Target, nor is there evidence that it can expect one any time soon.  I can only guess if Target’s generally very savvy marketing campaign would plop a similar billboard ad right outside the boundary of any other American city.  Or whether Meijer would dream of doing the same in Detroit.  At least Meijer voluntarily opened a new store branch—in the Motor City limits, no less.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Sharpening the Cut.

My latest appeared at Huffington Post a few days ago, but thanks to persistent wifi problems, only today have I been able to link it.  Sorry about that.

It focuses on the Dequindre Cut, a high-profile rail-trail conversion in Detroit, whose Phase I (extending about 1.2 miles, from Gratiot Avenue to the Riverfront) has been quite popular for cyclists and pedestrians.  A conversion of the Grand Trunk Western Railroad  that, until the early 1980s, could take commuters from the suburb of Royal Oak southward within a few blocks of the Renaissance Center, the line sat vacant and derelict for many years.  Now, this southern spur offers a generous linear park that is almost completely grade separated.

For the vast majority of the cut's northward trajectory, it looks like this--lots of room for different modes, regularly spaced lighting (and emergency phones), along with an expansive grassy buffer to the trail's west.  But at the southern terminus near Atwater Street (yes, when you are at the water), the right-of-way for the Cut broadens even more.  At this point, the Cut meets with street grade, and the whole thing transforms to something different.

Essentially, the designers of the Dequindre Cut decided to sculpt this section into a plaza with benches and landscaping, but, as the second photo indicates, the bike lanes in particular get goofy, meandering in an S-shape, then splitting.  What's going on?  Anyone not expecting this change--which is pretty much anyone coming along the Cut from the north for the very first time and headed southward--is going to be confused by this.  And it shows.  Pedestrians have to stop short; bicyclists have to veer out of the way.  It's an accident waiting to happen.

Approaching the trailhead from the river and looking northward, the image also poses a problem.

Quite simply, it doesn't look much like a trail; it just looks like a plaza.   The first time I went running along the Detroit Riverwalk, I ran right past the Dequindre Cut and had to ask someone where it was.  And I know I'm not the only one.  My hope is that, as Phase II begins (extending the conversation northward to Warren Avenue) the designers focus on clean simplicity and don't try to gussy things up with fulsome programming.  In my estimation, they over-programmed Campus Martius Park as well (which I blogged about several weeks ago).  But I'm confident they'll redeem themselves through the remaining segments of what someday will--inshallah--be a fantastic way to connect the burbs to the River.

As always, comments are welcomed, either here or on HuffPost, where I've included the full article along with lots more pics.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Not a fork in the road as much as a spoon.

While it’s easy to derisively brand American suburbia as homogenous and essentially unchanging since it emerged as the preferred settlement pattern for the majority of Americans fifty years ago, we hardly need an intense study to see how much they’ve evolved since the postwar housing boom that began in the late 1940s.  In fact, this “study” glosses over it about as superficially as you can.  But it gets the point across, and it provides the backdrop for an interesting glimpse at what innovations (if that’s the right word) we typically see today.

Go back in history and take a look at the street pattern from subdivisions that sprouted across the purlieus of major metros in the 1950s and early 1960s—about the same time that the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 galvanized construction of limited-access expressways through the hearts of medium and large American cities.  By the time President Eisenhower authorized the Federal Interstate Highway System, this segment of Levittown, PA (outside Philadelphia) had already enjoyed several consecutive years of astronomical growth:
By today’s standards, Levittown’s homes are modestly sized, the lots small enough to force the homes close together, and the garages/driveways barely accommodate two cars.

But they still represent a remarkable achievement in enabling homeownership to an emergent middle-class that had never enjoyed such a luxury in the past, particularly when the crippling Great Depression brought virtually all housing construction (and ensuing growth in independent households) to a screeching halt.  Average people could afford these homes.

Now let’s do the time warp again thirty years more, by veering about 10 miles closer to central Philly.  Witness the change in the layout of the streets:

While everything contained in this Google Map rests within the municipal boundaries of Philadelphia (unlike anything from the previous Levittown map), the most appropriate description of the neighborhoods outlined here is “transitional”.  The street configurations to the west of the large, bisecting Pennypack Creek Park still mostly abide by the conventional street grid that Philadelphia and most American cities used as the basis for neighborhood design until around World War II.  However, the east side of Pennypack begins to display a mix of conventional grids along with the same carefully ordered curvilinear streets that dominate Levittown further to the north.  Housing developers after World War II, at the onset of the baby boom, began experimenting with street designs that boldly defied the four-way stop and quadrilateral.  These new subdivisions meandered and undulated, continuing uninterrupted without any intersections for much longer intervals than any grid would allow.  The William Levitts of the era gambled by speculating that Middle America would buy into sinuous streets that, though potentially more confusing and less suitable for navigation, helped break the visual monotony of a street that stretched to the horizon line.  Curvilinear streets seemed to work well in the prestigious pioneering streetcar suburbs designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, such as Riverside, Illinois (outside Chicago) or Shaker Heights, Ohio (outside Cleveland).  Why not export this typology to the middle classes?

The gamble paid off in spades, and first-time homeowners embraced the street design that all three of the major Levittowns employed.  Before long, virtually every major metro witnessed the development of communities that followed the Levittown model, with most proliferating at about the same time that the central cities endured the cataclysm of interstate highway construction right through the central neighborhoods.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that these 1950s suburbs nearly always stretch in close proximity to either their city’s major interstate highway, the circular beltways (with three-digit numbers instead of two) or both.

But this elegantly winding braid of streets still generally lacks something we associate with today’s suburbia: complete automobile dependency.  It might not be easy or particularly desirable, but usually Levittowns are still tightly organized enough that it is possible to walk to a few destinations.  Purely hierarchical street patterns—in which one “trunk” road provides access to “branches” and then still smaller sprouts—did not catch on until later, meaning we have to go back to the future (and much, much further out from the city center) to see the sort of development patterns that emerged in the late 1960s and 70s.  The map of upper Bucks County (north of Levittown) proves this.

By the time the overwhelming majority of households had at least one car, it became de rigueur for developers to build according to these expansive street configurations, resulting in subdivisions that emphasized homeowners’ privacy at the expense of any real walkability.  With homes spaced much further apart, yards were larger, and no amenities stood conveniently within walking distance, even back on the collector or arterial that provided access to the subdivisions.  Nobody who bought into these developments gave any consideration that they would get anywhere except by car. Quite a few developments built during the 60s and 70s didn’t have sidewalks.

Housing from this time period isn’t as abundant as are the examples from the 1950s, because fewer households were organizing into families.  A moderate baby bust followed the boom.  Interestingly, home sizes grew even as the birth rate plunged; thus, individual households had more space to their own than any time in history—both inside and outside the house. Demand for shared green space reached a nadir.  Public parks in these regions are particularly scarce, since private yards typically sufficed.  The few parks in Upper Bucks County must devote a significant amount of space to parking lots, because they are inevitably unreachable by foot.

It was this time period that the cul-de-sac evolved from a suburban novelty to a sine qua non in subdivision development; families soon specifically sought them out.  The early 1960s developments often didn’t even bother with the circular patch of pavement that allowed vehicles to turn around; the roads just terminated in dead ends, particularly when these new suburbs were pushing into unincorporated areas well beyond the inner-ring suburbs.  Most municipalities eventually required roads to end in cul-de-sacs.  While the curvilinear configuration of the 1950s remained popular, by this point many of the streets in a subdivision terminated in a court.  The lack of a thruway discouraged all cars except for those belonging to people who lived on that cul-de-sac, dramatically lowering traffic volume, increasing privacy and giving the suburban subdivision a quiet, low-density settlement pattern that almost resembled rural living. 

I’m not sure when the next subtle generation in subdivision design truly emerged, but it would probably correlate to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the now-adult Baby Boomers began starting their own families—the echo boom.  Household formation picked up pace, and these young families generally sought new construction just as their parents had.  While some of the new developments took on an expansive form—particularly the luxury ones or those where land was cheap and abundant—quite a few homebuilders tightened the design.  In many cases, average lot sizes retreated slightly, even while square footage to the homes continued a steady growth.  Perhaps recognizing that they had renounced too many neighborhood essentials (or perhaps because more municipalities began mandating them), the developers of suburbs from the 1980s and onward regularly featured amenities such as storm sewers, curbs, and sidewalks (at least on one side of the street).  As a compensation for the slightly smaller yards, these subdivisions (particularly the larger ones) would often include some shared open space in the form of greenery around a decorative retention pond, a community clubhouse, or a soccer field.

Why did this happen? Why did subdivisions return to a slightly higher, more urban density than the decades prior?  My own suspicion is that some of it was prescriptive: through ordinances, municipalities started requiring culs-de-sac instead of dead ends, or storm sewers instead of drainage ditches, which drove up development costs.  Also, formerly unincorporated lands began incorporating and immediately raising the minimum standards for subdivision design.  Developers, in turn, couldn’t necessarily pass these imposed costs directly to the consumer, so instead they found a trade-off with smaller lot sizes, squeezing more homes into a newly platted piece of land.  The result looks something like the quintessential 1980s/90s suburb below:

If this photo looks unusually flat for something in Pennsylvania, that’s because it isn’t Pennsylvania.  The subdivision pictured above is in the outskirts of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  While such a shift in location may seem eccentric or even unexplainable, Baton Rouge offers much more abundant examples of the 1980s subdivisions, having grown considerably at a time when the more mature metro of Philadelphia was fairly stagnant.

This subdivision also demonstrates another, subtler evolution in street design: the 90-degree cul-de-sac.  Notice the shift in the street from the photo below, as well as the parallel sidewalk.

The buffer strip between the sidewalk and the street seems a bit larger than normal, but other than that, nothing is likely to catch the eye as out of the ordinary.  But then, upon entering the bend in the road, the sidewalk takes a more generous cut into people’s front yards, veering strangely close to their front porches. 

Why would they have done this?  It almost appears to me that authorities approved the site plan without thoroughly vetting it.  While there’s nothing wrong per say about having a sidewalk so close to a house, it’s also hard to see why the average buyer would prefer it to a parcel where the sidewalk is much closer to the street.

Elsewhere, in a similar neighborhood down the road, one can witness another insertion of the cul-de-sac into a 90-degree-turn.  Though the homes are more modest, the design of the sidewalk seems a bit more conventional, and, as a result, more effective.

But look at the grassy island in the middle.  The lawn is poorly maintained, and the absence of any other landscaping makes it seem like an afterthought—like some sort of padding.

In neither of the two above examples is the execution as effective as it should be, which makes me suspect that the developers really didn’t know what they were doing.  Or they didn’t care.  It’s not a tough concept, though if these worm’s-eye photographs don’t convey it, this bird’s-eye Google Map should, taken from a subdivision of similar design in the same part of town.

Notice how the 90-degree bends stretch into curvy culs-de-sac?  This road design is a shrewd method to make a little more money by cramming an additional parcel or two into the same space.  If the road were to employ a conventional l-shaped bend, the lots that directly front the bend would be even more strictly wedge shaped, to the point that the street frontage wouldn’t be wide enough to allow individual driveways.  Or, one house would claim an enormous side yard from the land that is completely unreachable by a driveway.  With a gentle arc in its place, each house gets more or less the same linear footage as access to the street, and the surveyors who put together the original plat could fit in another parcel or two.  And a more conscientious developer could transform grassy patch in the center of the cul-de-sac into an attractive, verdant amenity.

There’s nothing subversive or unethical about this design; it simply demonstrates that, particularly for moderate or middle-income households, developers have learned they can slice away at some of the yard size.  The homes featured in the photos and map above all come from Gardere, a lower and moderate-income area on the otherwise affluent south side of Baton Rouge.  My suspicion is that these subdivisions exist through some form of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits: they’re newer, in better condition, and bear some of the “neo-traditional” design features that federal housing programs love to employ.  Because the average buyer for these properties doesn’t have the money to be choosy, developers can take huge liberties, and they don’t necessarily worry about details like attractively landscaped common area or well-designed sidewalks.  And, in the grand evolutionary arc (pun fully intended) of American settlements, this represents one more design strategy pushing us further from the look and feel of the original Levittown.  Suburban developments are neither uniform nor unchanging.  I’m not confident that the conventional grid will ever become the standard again, even though New Urbanist advocates have successfully implemented it in specialized niche developments throughout the country.  (After all, does anyone openly claim to be a New Urbanist anymore?)  But I absolutely trust that culs-de-sac and street curves have a long way to grow before the design calcifies.  And it probably never will.  The evolution continues.