On a type walk we will go

What advice would you give to a designer who’s looking to embark on her or his first type walk?

Look up! But also look down! Take your camera with you, and always, always, take a picture if you see something worthy—it might be gone tomorrow. If it is still there the next day, you can go back with your good camera and lens.

Perambulate. There is no need to go to a particular place. Repeat places—you might see something new each time. Just open your eyes and start reading the city. Books on basic architecture and local history could be good starting points. Most importantly, enjoy it.

On a Type Walk We Will Go | Communication Arts

Designer Elena Veguillas discusses the decline of ‘vernacular lettering’: “lettering on manholes, pipes, posts, etc. They are particular to and enrich each city or area, even if we don’t notice them at first.”

Rebranding cities

I just came across The Londonist’s London Rebranded: The Capital’s Changing Names, Mapped:

80 years ago, the word Fitzrovia was yet to be coined. 70 years ago, nobody talked about the ‘South Bank’. 50 years ago, Chinatown would conjure images of Limehouse. 40 years ago, Canary Wharf was little-known outside the docks. 10 years ago, nobody said ‘Midtown’. Today, nobody says Midtown.

Nothing is eternal in a city like London, and that includes the place names. New Cross was once known as Hatcham. The village of Garratt, famous for its mock mayoral elections, long ago vanished into the sprawl of Wandsworth.

In recent years, the pace of change, or proposed change, has accelerated. Neighbourhoods right across the capital are looking for pseudonyms, as property developers, business improvement districts (BIDs) and the occasional cultural or residents’ group seek swankier names to attract attention. The most egregious example is Midtown, coined a half decade ago by the local BID to encapsulate the traditional areas of Holborn, Bloomsbury and St Giles. Many more examples are competing for recognition, from Tyburnia to London’s Luxury Quarter. Some areas are pluripotent with possibilities. Londonist’s office, for example, might be located in Tech City, the Silicon Roundabout, SoSho or Hoxditch. Or maybe just plain Old Street.

A March 2016 episode of the podcast 99% Invisible covered similar ground:

In San Francisco, the area South of Market Street is called SoMa. The part of town North of the Panhandle is known as NoPa. Around the intersection of North Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville, real estate brokers are pitching properties as part of NOBE. An area of downtown Oakland is being branded as KoNo, short for Koreatown Northgate. But no one actually calls it that, or at least, not yet.

There is not really a name for this naming convention. They are not quite acronyms, not quite portmanteaus, and not just abbreviations. We at 99% Invisible have been calling them acronames, or if you want to get in the spirit of the thing: AcNa’s for short.

These sorts of rebranding and renaming activities are signs of gentrification, plain and simple. In 2011, New York politician Hakeem Jeffries proposed the ‘Neighborhood Integrity Act’ to restrict developers from concocting new names without community involvement:

The bill wasn’t successful.

Looking back over history, different places are more or less open to this sort of change, but it always happens incredibly slowly. In the case of London, place names only tend to change (or at least catch on) with the arrival of a new Underground station.

I wondered about the cartographers’ role. How do they label areas? Where are the boundaries when talking about places commonly referred to only by compass direction (e.g. SoHo in Manhattan is short for South of Houston Street)?

In the UK, the neighbourhood/city/county boundaries are of differing levels of importance. I live in Milton Keynes, and the neighbourhoods here are very clearly defined by the grid system of roads. There is no confusion where, say, Heelands ends and Bradwell Common begins. As made clear in the links above, other cities don’t have this clear definition.

The boundaries of neighbourhoods have have partial influence in terms of some public services, like waste collection and school catchment areas. But most key services (police, fire, ambulance) go on county lines which tend to be more established and agreed.

If we were to engage our neighbourhood residents on boundaries and names, a participatory and democratic approach might be to:

  • Consider historical information. Who were the settlers or early established populations living in the area, and what terms did they use? (In fact: what languages did they speak?)
  • Take into account plurality of voices. Some locals will side with property developers and want a new place name if it means their properties increase in value. Others may focus on status and/or self-identity and will disagree. What other groups exist? Which are the largest?
  • Consult user-generated content and ‘consensus’ sites. Asking 100 people to define their neighbourhood is likely to result in 100 different answers. How has Wikipedia been updated over the years? Who has been doing it? What maps have been created using Google Map Maker? (Not that this approach is immune to error.)

In any case, things in cities do not change quickly, and anyone who hopes they will (like overzealous property developers) are kidding themselves. Designer Mitchell Joachim, in this conversation with writer Darren Anderson, is talking about the slow progress of cities through changes in their architecture, but I think the same thinking is applicable to these sorts of name and boundary changes:

When we think about cities, it’s the same level of thinking. It’s not as difficult to think about cities as it is to create the Apollo mission, because we don’t have to invent a lot of the engineering from scratch. When you talk about changing cities, the actual city morphology doesn’t shift overnight. Take, for example, my iPhone. From a napkin sketch to an actual device you can purchase, it’s a five year process. So if I said, “holographic smart phone,” which by the way I just pulled out of my ass, someone in Apple will have an okay version of the technology required, but it’s five years before you have a pretty shitty but working model. That’s the scale to change a telecommunications device.

Architecture is forty years before you see a paradigm shift. You can see all these experimental buildings with unbelievable forms, but that’s not the everyday act in architecture. Doors and windows and roofs and boiler heaters take a long time to change. I’m not going to buy a super-sustainable boiler until the current one I have utterly fails or simply costs me too much money. So that’s when you see replacements in architecture. And with cities it takes a hundred to 150 years before all of this discussion and all of those different scales rationalise themselves and become everyday practice in city design. To be a really good city designer, you need multiple hats, bridging multiple disciplines, looking at all facets of technology and how society evolves at their timescales before you find a new city.

Joachim goes on to consider the last time this sort of city branding worked—the creation of garden cities:

Thinking of historical cases that have worked. One is Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. That worked because it was a meme. It had a great title. Who didn’t want to live in a garden city? How do you argue against that?

But that’s one too many threads pulled upon for now.

Eliminating free parking

Pablo Valerio for Cities of the Future on how we might eliminate free parking:

  1. Eliminate non-regulated parking spaces in the city. Any “free” curbside parking is lost revenue, more pollution and an “invitation” to bring more cars into the city.
  2. Gradually expand parking for motorcycles to a third of the curbside space available, and eventually ban sidewalk parking for all motor vehicles.
  3. Have a “zero-tolerance” policy toward violations such as parking on pedestrian crossings, idling the engine while waiting, and any illegal parking on sidewalks.
  4. Don’t issue any new parking garage licenses and eliminate minimum parking requirements for new buildings.
  5. Adjust pricing to demand. If there is no curbside or public garage parking available it means the price is too low. Consider, as several cities have done, on-demand price adjustment.
  6. Enforce parking time limits. People should not be allowed to keep their cars parked in the same zone for more that the maximum time, even if they continue to pay. This will deter commuters from bringing their cars in each day.
  7. Eliminate “free” periods such as at lunch time, in the summer or on weekends. This would generate enough revenue to justify hiring additional meter maids.
  8. Gradually upgrade all the parking meters and ticketing machines to cashless units, requiring people to use electronic payment systems such as credit cards or smartphone apps. This way there is less maintenance, faster transactions and no cash collection costs.
  9. Finally, over time, automate the entire curbside parking system, installing sensors and electronic monitoring, and only bringing meter maids when necessary to issue a penalty. This way fewer meter maids could effectively handle bigger areas.

He accepts these measures would “likely ignite protests by residents and visitors alike”, but would reduce traffic and pollution and promote healthier, more sustainable modes of transport.

I took a rare trip into the centre of Milton Keynes recently—the central business and retail district of the town. Traffic was unbelievable, with cars backing up around roundabouts and along the town’s grid roads, mostly due to the number of vehicles circling for parking spots. MK has relatively few free spaces but it is evidently too cheap and too convenient for motorists to park. I hope that measures like those listed above could be introduced and extra funding given to the town’s substandard public transport network. The downside of living in a town designed for motorists (and shoppers) means this is unlikely.

I am less sure about measure 8 or, rather, the pressing need for it. Due to a current work project I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the future of cash. I don’t see any compelling reason why we should force large groups of people (particularly those who are older or poor) to suddenly adopt wireless payment systems—not yet, anyway. These will naturally replace cash-based machines and processes as the technology is more widely used and accepted across all other aspects of life. Not everyone uses contactless card payments yet, nor are they comfortable using SMS to pay for things, let alone using Apple Pay or similar services.

Barcelona’s first ‘superblock’

Pablo Valerio, for Cities of the Future:

Two weeks ago, after nearly three decades of waiting, Barcelona urban designer Salvador Rueda finally saw the first “Superilla” (Superblock) installed in his city. The superblock faced some fierce opposition from unhappy residents and local businesses complaining about loss of curbside parking, and changes of bus stops and street direction. It was also criticized from within the city council as some council members from the opposition parties asked for it to be dismantled.

Superblocks are a straightforward concept. Take 9 square city blocks in a 3×3 grid. Currently, traffic flows all around and through these blocks. A superblock restricts all through traffic by implementing a one-way system within the superblock that’s used by local vehicles only. All other through traffic, freight and buses travel between superblocks, not between blocks:

Graphic explaining superblocks

(This is how I used to build cities in the original Sim City, by the way, although I’m not holding out any hope for greater recognition.)

One of the main aims is to help Barcelona meet the EU directive on air quality, but it also has the effect of reclaiming roads, parking bays and other space previously given over solely to cars: in short, non-places.

Rueda has faced opposition (some reasonable, some less so) from politicians and residents. If these hurdles can be overcome, more superblocks can be rolled out:

The superblocks offer similar and much broader benefits for a surprisingly cheap price tag. Implementing the first superblock took one weekend and €55,000 ($61,000). The city government has allocated €10 million to expand them to other areas of Barcelona over the next three years.

101 small ways you can improve your city

Patrick Sisson and Alissa Walker with a great list for Curbed. A few I think are particularly interesting (and/or I might do):

13. Begin a guerrilla garden uprising. Green thumbs often have private plots and backyards to grow, but they can also get on the front lines. Surreptitiously filling in unkempt lots or small patches of untendered land with plants and flowers, or tossing a “seedbomb” at a hard to reach patch of land, turns lost space into lush greenery. Richard Reynolds, one of the leaders of the movement, maintains a blog with invaluable tips on how to reclaim “unloved public spaces.”

30. Open a gallery in your living room. If you think your apartment is cramped, maybe all it needs is a few paintings on the wall: Paul Soto turned his 300 square-foot apartment in Los Angeles into a functioning gallery.

90. Start a mobile produce market. Running a new route through the city’s food deserts, a decommissioned Chicago Transit Authority bus now moves market-fresh produce, not riders. The Fresh Moves project helps underserved neighborhoods get access to the same farmer’s market finds sold in other parts of the city.

98. Map your public produce. After noticing how many figs hanging over property lines remained unplucked, Fallen Fruit started making maps to help neighbors discover unharvested edibles growing on sidewalks and alleys. For bumper crops, Food Forward will show up and pick unwanted fruit, distributing it to those in need.

Rethinking the Olympic host city

Uri Friedman for The Atlantic:

These troubles are not unique to Brazil. Despite exceptions such as the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, “in most cases the Olympics are a money-losing proposition for host cities,” the economists Robert Baade and Victor Matheson conclude in a 2016 paper. In recent years, many Olympic host cities have had to reckon with corruption, ballooning costs, underinvestment in public services in the run-up to the Games, and projects that don’t help—and sometimes harm—much of the population. Once the festivities end, cities are frequently left with a load of debt and a bunch of useless megastructures. It’s no wonder then that, according to one recent poll, 63 percent of Brazilians believe hosting the Olympics will hurt their country.

Given these realities, many of the governments jockeying to host the Olympics these days are autocratic. Since the leaders of Russia and China aren’t accountable to voters, they are free to spend as much as $50 billion on the competition. Meanwhile, in many democracies, support for hosting the Olympics is waning—especially amid concerns about economic stagnation and income inequality.

Baade and Matheson propose several solutions to today’s predicament, including a pretty profound change: Why not designate a permanent home for the Olympic Games?

I like one of the other suggestions: run all the events in the most suitable cities across the globe at the same time.