Saturday, January 19, 2008

Urban Resources - Vol. 1

The weekend is off to a less than stellar start as I was fined $90 today for essentially minding my own business (seatbelt violation, yet another reason to avoid driving as soon as possible!). On a day that seems to be bringing the start of winter in earnest (most of the country is seeing teens and 20's, even Georgia), the only thing I am in a mood to comment on is books.

We stopped off at the Rundel Memorial Library today, also known as the central library of the Monroe County Library System. Ashamedly, I'd never been to central. I've taken books out at the Brighton, Webster, Penfield, Maplewood, and Monroe branches, but never the main library. This great American building is an early 30's monument to the sharing of knowledge with profound statements such as "The shadows will be behind you if you walk into the light" etched into the thick stone. There are more meaningful ones that I simply can't remember. Across the street and linked underground is the contemporary Basuch & Lomb Library Building. I added the Library System to the Rochester Resources sidebar earlier in the week. In fact, though often taken for granted, the library may be any American's most valuable resource.

While there, I acquired two works that my wife alerted me to on Friday. Both of these could be considered Urban Resources and will be added to the appropriate link list. The book that I'd like to comment on today is:


Kunstler is a renowned social critic whose literary works center around predictions of an entire nation in major trouble on the eve of peak oil production. Kunstler was a theatre major at SUNY-Brockport not far from Rochester and does not work in urban planning as a vocation, but this is probably for the better as neither did Jane Jacobs. He maintains his own blog with some seemingly contradictory artwork at Click on the book cover image for a licensed excerpt.

The following is the editorial review: Through magazine articles and through his previous book, The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler has become one of the foremost decriers of the blighted urban landscape of the United States. Now, in this new sequel to the earlier book, Kunstler moves from description to prescription. The villains, Kunstler says, are zoning laws, real estate taxes, modernist architecture, and, particularly, the automobile. The solutions include multi-use zoning districts, car-free urban cores, revised tax laws, Beaux-Arts design principles, and, in particular, the neo-traditionalist school of architecture and city planning known as "new urbanism." It's possible to disagree with some of Kunstler's conclusions--the hope that large numbers of commuters will give up their single-passenger vehicles for public transit downtown has been discredited in city after city--without abandoning his larger goal: a return to a saner urban geography and, with it, to a saner way of life.

I am not sure of the legality of printing large excerpts of books, so I will stick to quotes and short interpretations. On our way back from the library we did some looking around at Peebles in Midtown Plaza before stopping in Payless Shoes where my wife picked up a pair at a great value. While she tried them on, I cracked open the book to a random page in the middle and came across an urban critique of Cleveland, Ohio entitled Suburbia Invades the Central City (pp 160-163). Kunstler starts out with a story of the famous Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 before lightening things up with a zinger, "Cleveland is a city of many virtues, the main one being that it's not Detroit." He proceeds to describe the East side of the city and in doing so, reminds me of the 'Urban Wilderness' I described in my Urban New Vol. 1 post. "Rubble fields punctuated by rows of slums occupy block after block of the old grid. Here and there a once-grand Victorian house totters darkly..."

He then encounters a modern surburban style home on a small lot and characterizes it as "the little cabin in the woods inserted into a new kind of wilderness" before proceeding to crush Cleveland urban planners for introducing elements of sprawl into the inner city in the form of a city block converted into a suburban supermarket center complete with parking lot (for whose cars exactly? The people in the old neighborhood?). This section resonates with me as one of my pet peeves in the state of U.S. cities. Nothing looks worse in a supposedly vibrant downtown core than surface parking lots. Not only are we catering to those with no vested interest in city well-being (Eg. Surbanites), and encouraging polluting practices, but also wasting prime real estate. The message it sends is defeatist to city dwellers. 'We feel this land is worth more to the people as a place to put their toys for 9 hours than as housing, dining, or other offices.'

Days like today make me want to eat home improvement dollars in exchange for a non-nepotistic real estate process (I'm getting the feeling that no offer I put in is going to make a difference with this particular listing agent), but my wife reminds me I just have to live this lifestyle for a couple more months. So I guess I'll pay the stupid tax (citations, locksmiths, etc) and take solace in the fact that my surcharge money is going to the city on this one. Tomorrow I will take a quick glance at the other urban resource I snared from the public knowledge bin and possibly one I received as a Christmas gift.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Agree about surface parking in the urban cores.

A transitory step toward redensification might be the construction of parking structures or underground lots. Stacking up parking like this would help reclaim at least some of the surface spaces.

However, the big problem with this approach is the looming energy/commodities crunch. I'm not seeing enough cheap energy or commodities to make this feasible in the next couple decades.

Hope I'm wrong.