Sunday, September 30, 2007
9/30: Urban Exploration + ecocities
Last week I read Chapter 10 in Ecocities because I was eager for some practical tools. This week I decided to back up a bit to Chapter 7 and actually read about Register’s vision for an ecocity. It’s not exactly what I expected. The chapter has been summarized several times since last week, and I had similar comments and criticisms as other bloggers. While I appreciate the fullness of his vision and can see how the EZ map, the Ecological Plan and other tools introduced in Chapter 10 could pave the way for making his vision into reality, it’s a long way from the creation of an EZ map to his futuristic bike ride through an ecocity.
As I felt myself getting more and more cynical, I turned back to page 184 and reread the sentence, “Let’s say we land on Earth about 100 year (sic) from now.” Well, maybe we’re aliens, whatever. The key to my buying into this vision is the time horizon: In 100 years, I think some very dramatic events (peak oil, climate change, perhaps more war) will have wrought profound change, and we cannot begin to predict what shape the urban form will take. In that respect, I believe that Register’s ecocity vision is not just compelling, but feasible. Also, keep in mind that the modes of transportation and the organization of space may not come about by popular choice, but by necessity. If that’s the case, then I hope the new urban form is as vibrant as he describes it.
Still, how do we get there from here? I think it’s possible—and desirable—to create an urban palimpsest wherein buildings and patterns are not discarded but modified, emergent forms and functions superimposed, old materials juxtaposed against new ones. I considered this as I observed the Commons, thinking about how it might look in 10, 50, or 100 years. Below are my flaneuristic observations, in discrete thoughts so that this doesn’t turn into a five-page narrative:
The Commons is already mixed use, and could be more so: In the corridor along State St., build multi-story apartment, retail, and office buildings, give the first two or three floors to commercial use. Maybe the south side of the street has a height limit of six stories to allow southern exposure to the street, while the north side can be taller.
Build more Seneca Places (but deep-six the Starbucks—this is Gimme! Coffee territory).
Build a hydroponic greenhouse that can be the home of FingerLakes Fresh. Put a multistory grocery store and greenmarket next door (or where Center Ithaca is—someone tear down that eyesore—please!).
Speaking of urban infill, build into the pedestrian space of the Commons. Build buildings that connect one side with the other, leaving the bottom two stories permeable to people and a streetcar. Create an arcade like the ones they have in Paris—a big glass dome spanning a city block or two. It could have operable louvers to take advantage of convection and natural heating and cooling. All the buildings' roofs could be year-round gardens. (Picture at top is a famous arcade in Paris. For more info, google Walter Benjamin Arcades Project)
Speaking of streetcars: I don’t love the idea of the overhead rail—it’s way too expensive and not necessary. But Ithaca’s downtown is perfectly configured for a streetcar. The main branch could run up and down State St. and auxiliary lines could cut across Aurora, Cayuga, and Plain. We don’t have to wait for a car-free world to do this; just eliminate one side of street parking, or have all one-way streets downtown (already a near-reality in Ithaca).
And last, about the car-free street or streets. I would strongly caution against this effort. Fall Creek, Northside, and now Southside are enjoying a renaissance. There was a time when this wasn’t always the case. We are lucky to have strong downtown neighborhoods like these and should view them as the building blocks of Ecocity Ithaca. If one of the streets were made car-free anytime soon, I fear that those blocks would suffer from declining population and property values in a dramatic and severe way. Until we have a speedy, convenient, well-connected system of public transit (and TCAT does not exactly fit the bill), it is unwise to deprive residents of a primary mode of transportation. You really expect someone living on Cayuga St. to bike up to the office park at the airport? To take a bus that only runs every 45 minutes and takes 45 minutes to get there? No. People would just park their cars on Tioga or Geneva, which would increase traffic and car presence on those streets. It’s patently unfair and rash, in my opinion. Get the streetcar, get the network. Do it in order. Do it right.