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Archive for the ‘Civic architecture’ Category

This post continues “San Francisco reflections (part one)“.


San Francisco from Telegraph Hill, 26 Dec. 2008

San Francisco from Telegraph Hill, 26 Dec. 2008

I’d like to show a few of my photos of San Francisco, and to discuss some relevant points about city planning and public spaces.

Perhaps the first thing is a peculiar attitude among many Fairbanksans: that living in close proximity to others is somehow undignified.  I say: Oh, nonsense.  It is only undignified if your neighbors are brutish and rude, or if your self-image includes a large portion of misanthropy.

The population density of San Francisco (city only) is about 17,000 per square mile — about 17 times the density in the city of Fairbanks and 1,400 times the density of the Fairbanks North Star Borough.  You can tell me that San Francisco has a tremendous homelessness problem, or that the cost of living is prohibitive for the middle class, or that its public schools stink.  But you can’t tell me that the people who can live there are are suffering some indignity by simple virtue of having a lot of neighbors — not when they enjoy so much culture and civic beauty.

Grocery stores don't have to be in imposing boxes

Grocery stores don't have to be in imposing boxes

Do you see the grocery store in this picture?  No?  There is a Safeway on the far corner (center of the photograph), surrounded by arcades and topped by apartments.  It’s hard to see from a distance or when passing in a car, since it’s built on a human scale, for pedestrians to notice.

A grocery store — even a large, national chain — need not be an ugly, industrial box.  I suspect that San Franciscans wouldn’t stand for such a structure in their city.  It doesn’t even have to provide a parking lot, as long as it’s located within walking distance of enough residences to support it.

I have to admit, the arcades are not as nice as I wanted to imagine them: everything in there looks dark and hidden.  This troubles me, since arcades are part of the Vision Fairbanks plan.

San Francisco alley near the Embarcadero

Alleys can be beautiful...

I saw a number of surprisingly attractive alleys in the city.  They weren’t wide enough to park a car in, nor did they house dumpsters or garbage cans.  But they were made functional and beautiful by a people for whom space was at a premium.

...and functional

...and functional

(This is not to say that every place I saw in San Francisco was either functional or beautiful.  Not surprisingly, the only empty lots I saw — all ugly — were in an economically depressed area of town, as we approached the Tenderloin.  What was the chain of cause and effect?  Is it that the less privileged care less about the blight of ugly empty lots and parking lots?  Surely that’s part of it: if you can barely pay the rent, you may not have the leisure to keep up with the affairs of your local planning board.  Property owners and land speculators know this, which is why they won’t try to fob something ugly off on a well-to-do neighborhood.  At the same time, putting too many empty lots or parking lots on a block is the pedestrian kiss of death: with no attractions at street level, people stop their meanders and turn around.  Businesses have a hard time thriving with reduced pedestrian traffic, so they fail or downgrade.  Any extra safety that was gained by having many eyes on the street is lost.  As the area becomes less attractive, property values go down, and the only people who can afford to live there are the poor.)

Colorful houses on Telegraph Hill

Colorful houses on Telegraph Hill

One aspect of beautiful cities is their frequent use of vibrant color.  While we enjoyed more daylight hours than we’d have seen in Alaska, San Francisco still has a reputation for foggy, gray weather.  In that kind of environment, why in heaven’s name would you want your buildings to blend right in?

Fairbanks spends a great deal of the year in twilight or in darkness.  To make our buildings gray — as dignified or as re-sellably neutral as owners may consider it — only makes our built environment bleaker.  I remember being excited when the old Mary Lee Davis house (at 5th and Cowles) was being restored — then being heartbroken when the owners decided to cover up the former lively green with a burgundy-tinted gray.

San Francisco City Hall

San Francisco City Hall

San Francisco Public Library

San Francisco Public Library

San Francisco did sport too much gray in one important place: the civic center.  As majestic and beautiful as City Hall is, it’s another gray building in a sea of gray buildings — the Supreme Court building, the Civic Auditorium, the Asian Art Museum, and others too dignified to rise above their native fog.

Fire station on Stockton at Greenwich

Fire station on Stockton at Greenwich

A couple of things are noteworthy about the fire truck and fire station shown here (SFPD Engine Co. 28).  The first is the size and placement of the station.  The building is not large, and it fits in pretty nicely with its surroundings.  I take from this that fire stations do not have to be large, free-standing buildings.  They do not need their own parking lots.  They can be integrated parts of their neighborhoods.  Contrast this with the new fire station in downtown Fairbanks (which, admittedly, is the headquarters).

The other thing I notice is the size of the truck.  That thing is small.  One of the arguments you’ll sometimes hear against narrow streets (which are advocated for both safety and aesthetics) is that fire trucks need room to turn around.  Well, if the trucks are made shorter, that argument vaporizes.

One explanation I’ve heard for long fire trucks is that they need to be long to accommodate their crews — and that the crew size is dictated by the fire fighters’ union.  There are probably less-sinister considerations I’m not aware of that inform our local fire truck length.  If you know what they are, please tell.

Union Square

Union Square

Last, here is Union Square, one of San Francisco’s many public gathering spaces.  By Fairbanks standards, this place is crowded — and it’s lively.  I think this is what we want to shoot for in the new park square designated in Vision Fairbanks.

One catch may be the weather.  It was about 50 degrees outside that day.  Fairbanks enjoys an average high temperature of at least 50 from about April 20 to September 20 — five months.  However, our low temperature is at freezing for a little less than that: May 10 to September 20.  Those are absolutely mild temperatures for us — but what to do with the space the other seven months?  I’m confident that it could be seasonally re-purposed — you may notice people ice skating in the background — but we’d have to have something like a hot dog stand or a hot chocolate vendor to keep people happy in the colder months.

San Francisco has plenty of imperfections, a few of which I’ve hinted at here.  But it shows me — I hope it shows you — that cities don’t have to be ugly or undignified.  They can be beautiful, rich, fulfilling places.  Those of us who who earn our living from the city shouldn’t flee it, but embrace it.  San Francisco points the way.

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Why do we hate teenagers so much? What made them an acceptable target for disenfranchisement?

On one of my professional e-mail lists, somebody brought up a problem with teenage skateboarders: they love to use the covered walkway in front of a facility frequented by senior citizens with visual and mobility challenges. Too often (I presume) they’re not paying close attention their surroundings, so they create a safety hazard to others who would walk there.

Somebody in the discussion mentioned the “Classic 7-11 or mini-mart approach”: pipe classical music or adult “easy listening” music along the walkway. Apparently it drives young people batty, so they leave. The writer called it “worth a try.”

CNN recently reported on a device called “The Mosquito” (sold in North America under the name “Kids Be Gone”) that is “designed to drive away loiterers with a shrill, piercing noise audible only to teens and young adults”. Some municipalities have banned them, but others seem to have embraced them outside of stores or movie theaters as a way to drive away crowds of skateboarders and other loiterers.

The blog Architectures of Control (via Boing Boing) reports that Councillors in Sutton, Surrey (England) are preparing to redesign a public stairway specifically to make it difficult for young people to sit there. The original article reports:

Not only will the steps be made longer and more shallow to make them uncomfortable to sit on, but no handrail will be installed just in case teens decide to lean against it….

Explaining the need for the changes, St Helier Councillor David Callaghan said: “At the moment the steps are like ready-made seats so changes will be made to make the area less attractive to young people.

One thing these places — the ones we would forbid to teenagers — have in common is that they are places where lots of people, and not just young people, spend time. It seems that young people actually want to spend time in places full of adults! I’ve previously quoted sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who wrote about the time a relative

complained that the youth of the community were a “bunch of ingrates.” They did not appreciate the special hangout that had recently been constructed for them.

After listing to his lament, I asked him two questions: Was the place right smack in the center of town – right in the middle of things? And, “Do the adults go there, too?” The answer in both instances was no. The place was “especially” for the youngsters and nobody wanted such a place right in the middle of town. As in so many cases nowadays involving both the very old and the young, the desire is to sent them aside.

Time and again, we read that what teenagers really need and want — often by their own admission — is for adults to pay attention to them and to set limits on their behavior. Do you hear this, adults? Teenagers, even if they seem like mouthy, disrespectful little monsters to you, actually seek your company and want you to guide them into acceptable behavior!

Indeed, we have to wonder: if young people are constantly barred (either through subtle, psychological means or more overtly) from adult places, how can we expect them ever to learn adult behavioral norms?

If their behavior in public seems horrid (and, as a former public librarian, I’ll say it sometimes does), then it seems to me that they need, not fewer places to bother adults, but more. Not actually to bother adults, of course, but they need more adult-filled places offering worthwhile activity — or just quality loitering. Such places should be cheap, since young people may not have the money for fine dining. They should be not only safe, but comfortable. And they should be ubiquitous, or at least easily accessible.

Young people need ways to be meaningfully incorporated into our lives. What do we, as a society, have to offer them?

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My travels sometimes take me to Anchorage — often enough, by car. It was on one of those trips, in the past year or two, that I devised a simple measure of a place’s pedestrian-friendliness: the bench test.

I drove in on the George Parks Highway, entered the city at Muldoon Road, and turned west on Northern Lights Boulevard. To the north and the south of that part of Northern Lights, but concealed from the road, are a number of residential subdivisions. The street itself is bordered by a lot of tasteful wooden fences and tall trees — enough trees that the area looks lush, and in spots you might get the impression you were driving through an urban garden. I liked it.

Then I thought, “What is a garden with no place to sit?” and I put some nice iron-and-wood benches along the sidewalks for people to sit on. But that made me wonder: What brought these hypothetical people here? What business do they have along this street? And what kind of experience do they have as they sit on their benches? The answers I came up with changed my appraisal of this garden boulevard.

The view from the bench is pretty monotonous, including only planted trees, tasteful wooden fences, asphalt, and speeding cars. No one spot has much visual variety; even from block to block the view is similar. Since this stretch of Northern Lights is nearly bereft of pedestrians, there is almost no human activity to follow — and nothing interests people so much as other people. My recollection is that the sidewalk either is not separated at all from the road, or is separated by only a foot or two of grass and occasional trees, so anyone sitting (or walking) along the sidewalk feels no protection from the cars that go by at 35 to 50 miles per hour. Perhaps for somebody doing a traffic study, this would be an enjoyable place to be, but not for many others. The attractive trees and fences are made for the benefit of drivers, not walkers.

So what brought these hypothetical bench-sitters here, if they didn’t come for the view? They’re probably not waiting for somebody to pick them up, since there’s no meaningful shoulder for a car to pull into. Nor did they come to watch people or run into friends: as I said, there’s little human activity here. Could they be there shopping, getting their hair done, stopping for a cup of coffee, buying a book, or cashing a paycheck? Not likely: as I said, the street, with few exceptions, is lined with fences and trees, not businesses. There is really nothing for a person to do here.

In short, this stretch of road is designed to be boring, uncomfortable, and useless to the pedestrian. It offers no reasons to be there, only reasons to leave there. With nary a word, it screams, GET OUT! KEEP DRIVING UNTIL YOU’RE SOMEWHERE ELSE! It is not a real place, but an automotive sewer.

Of course, we have plenty such non-places in Fairbanks: Airport Way, Geist Road, Farmers Loop Road, and much of College Road have a lot in common with Anchorage’s East Northern Lights Boulevard. And those are just from the big-name roads. Try the bench test everywhere you go. Ask, “What would it be like to sit here? And what would bring me here, anyway, besides the desire to get somewhere else?”

We have a handful of real, bench-worthy places in Fairbanks. Downtown and Pioneer Park are places where a reasonable person might have business and enjoy sitting awhile to watch or meet people — although both are far more lively in the summer. Perhaps some areas of College Road, Minnie Street, or Graehl.

Help me out, friends. Where would you put a bench? How would it feel to sit there? What would bring you there in the first place? Where are the places that invite you stay?

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