You are currently browsing the monthly archive for February 2010.

I saw this post today on Lynn Becker‘s blog, about building the Nagakin Capsule Tower out of Legos:

via Lynn Becker

Compare with the original building

It’s strikingly similar; and it got me thinking – what influence has Lego had on modern architecture?  Old, ornate buildings like the Taj Mahal require special pieces and a lot of them, but a lot of more contemporary buildings are recognizable even with only basic bricks:

Sears Tower, via Lego.com

Famous skyscrapers, via BrickStructures

Then there’s some buildings that look pretty Lego-inspired.  I searched for an hour today to re-locate a photo I saw of a new art center (or school?) in Chicago, that is basically a short box striped in Lego colors.  (Anyone have any idea what it is?)

[will post photo when I finally track it down]

THEN there’s an actual fusion of Lego and architecture, in which building design is all at Lego scale, and/or Lego bricks are physically integrated into the building.

Exhibit A:  Flickr pool of Lego Architecture and Design

Exhibit B:  Artist Jan Vormann, who “repairs” cracked and damaged buildings with Lego bricks

Lego brick building repairs, via Urban Prankster

Exhibit C:   The (now demolished) Lego House

Lego House exterior, via Daily Mail

How could one go about studying the influence of Lego on architecture – not just its color scheme and blockiness, but its modularity and flexibility?  After all, it’s been around for 50 years now… by now there are multiple generations of architects who have no doubt played with them at one time or another…  Would interviews or surveys work?  Study of Lego sales to architecture studios and offices?  Attendance at Lego conventions?

Hmm… I bet there’s a story there for someone who wants to pursue it.


UPDATE:  I still haven’t found that building I had in mind, but maybe this was it – Blair Kamin just posted about a youth center on Chicago’s South Side.  I think it’s safe to say you could Lego that up pretty handily!

Christ the King School, Chicago

Gary Comer Youth Center, Chicago

Advertisements

Geometric Showdown
or,
How to Make Your Brand-New 3D Printer Cry

Stereolithography
v.

Klein Bottle

GO!!!

I had to write a short memo summing of this week’s readings in my Transportation Planning (really Economics) class … and I thought the result was a couple of pretty good points and questions about how to look at driving in the U.S.  So I decided to recycle it here.

The readings are only casually cited (though I added footnotes), but they aren’t the main focus anyway.  I also added live links for the freely-available online content.

Memo:  Does the Car Pay Its Way?
February 19, 2010

Driving is too cheap, and the current system externalizes many of its costs.  New technology and pricing policies may help quantify these costs, making drivers more aware of their decisions’ economic impacts.  New strategies are being tested in London and other cities, but it remains to be seen whether they make feasible or effective transportation improvements.

Overview

Car ownership is ultimately a consumer choice, not a right.  This fact remains, despite growing indications that our land use choices have made the car a necessity for most American households.  Because it is a choice, we may think of it as a commodity, purchased and consumed at certain costs [1].  It is difficult, however, for either a transportation expert or the average driver to accurately calculate those costs.  Cars require an extensive infrastructure network to function:  roads, parking, gas stations, and repair shops.  Some costs, such as fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, are directly related to per-mile usage.  Others, most notably congestion, are generated by intensity of use in certain places at certain times.  Time lost sitting in traffic is a problem to which every driver on the road contributes.

These costs are generally externalized, not paid upfront for each trip.  This encourages over-usage of the commodity and leaves many social, environmental, and other costs unpaid.  Transportation policymakers therefore face the difficult task of quantifying external costs, then allocating the burden accurately and fairly on those responsible.  As Kenneth Small suggests, pricing would make drivers more aware of and accountable for their behavior, which may in turn reduce driving and perhaps channel some people toward other modes of transportation [2].  Having fewer cars on the road, it is argued, has environmental benefits (less pollution), economic benefits (less congestion and lost time), and social benefits (more leisure time, less car traffic on city streets, and more trips made by walking or public transit).  All of these factors may improve quality of life in a community, as noted in the PlaNYC Transportation section, by lessening the car’s dominance in the everyday lives of drivers and non-drivers alike [3].

Proposed Strategies

Solutions to the problem of underpriced automobile usage may be grouped into two general categories:  (1) better pricing of individual drivers’ trips, and (2) new technologies which make vehicles more fuel-efficient, more accurately tracks car usage, and creates intelligent road infrastructure to manage traffic demand and performance [4].  These strategies notably intersect in getting accurate micro-level data about each driver in order to quantify the cost of individual trips.  While neither can be pursued in isolation, we may briefly consider the demonstrated and proposed effects of each strategy, and whether it furthers the goal of improving our collective quality of life.

Strategy 1:  Better Pricing

As technology (see below) makes driving behavior easier to measure and road access easier to control, it is increasingly possible to implement sophisticated pricing policies.  These may include:  automatic tolling, peak-demand fees in city centers, insurance fees based on VMT, or fee structures based on vehicle type and efficiency [1].  London is a prominent example of congestion pricing, using cameras and an easy payment system to enforce charging a daily fee for most vehicles that enter the city’s central zone [5].  Based on the success of this program, New York City proposed a similar policy for vehicle commuters into central Manhattan, arguing that this fee would help fund public transit improvements and provide a disincentive to drive, reducing congestion for those who still choose to do so [3].  Political opposition defeated the proposal, and the program was not implemented.

Pros:

  • Per-car or per-trip pricing internalizes the cost of driving for individual drivers.
  • If the price of driving increases to approach its real cost, people will re-calculate the cost of their behavior and, in theory, may choose other modes or forgo discretionary trips.
  • Reducing congestion through pricing will improve the experience for drivers who remain on the road, accruing further benefits of re-gained time and fuel efficiency.

Cons:

  • The technology investment required to enforce this system offsets some of its revenue.
  • Depending on the price structure, the new fees may unfairly burden some drivers—those who must drive from home to work, and those whose income barely meets cost of living.
  • If not implemented properly, people may shift to non-priced routes and create new congestion problems elsewhere.

Strategy 2:  Better Technology

Time and again, we repeat the mantra that “technology will save the world,” with optimism evident in two articles entitled “Highway of the Future,” published in 1938 [6] and 2006 [7]. Self-driving cars, for example, would increase road capacity by allowing cars to travel closer together, and would have quicker reaction times in avoiding accidents.  The repetition of ideas in both articles, however, clearly indicates that the availability of these technologies, if and when they are ever available, is not enough to induce real change.  Widespread investment, adoption, and collaboration with transportation policy are required for these technologies to be useful.

Pros:

  • Innovative uses of GPS tracking systems and “smart” highway and street grids will help policymakers better quantify drivers’ behavior and fine-tune pricing structures.
  • More efficient engines and cleaner fuel can reduce vehicles’ environmental impact.
  • Improving technology that reinforces consumer preferences may produce more immediate, politically feasible, and effective results than attempts to change behavior.

Cons:

  • Relying on technological improvements to vehicles reinforces the existing separation in drivers’ consciousness between the price and actual cost of their choices.
  • New technology requires significant investment, both in innovation and adoption, by private firms and individuals.  It cannot simply be mandated by policymakers.
  • Technology alone has never been sufficient to make large-scale improvements; it is only successful in the context of cultural adoption and change.

Further Questions

1) Can we pay and/or innovate our way toward more a sustainable transportation system?

2) Automobile usage is an underpriced commodity, but many of its costs are difficult to determine per driver.  How can we ensure that drivers pay the true price of their choice to drive?

References

[1] Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt, “Not So Free Ride,” Freakonomics blog.  New York Times, April 20, 2008.

[2] Kenneth A. Small, “The Real Costs of Transportation and Influence of Pricing Policies.”  UCTC Working Paper, No. 187.

[3] PlaNYC, “Transportation.”  City of New York Planning Department, April 2007.

[4] Susan Hanson and Genevieve Giuliano, eds., The Geography of Urban Transportation, 3rd ed.  Guildford Press, 2004.

[5] Todd Litman, “London Congestion Pricing:  Implications for Other Cities.”  Victoria Transport Policy Institute, January 2006.

[6] E.W. Murtfeldt, “Highways of the Future.”  Popular Science, May 1938.  Reprinted on Modern Mechanix Blog.

[7] Jonathan Gromer and Logan Ward, “Highway of the Future:  Interstate Intelligence.”  Popular Mechanics, July 2006.

This post will actually be considerably less topical (read:  about Haiti) than its title implies.  It concerns two types of planning:  planning “before,” actions taken in preparation for or the prevention of a crisis; and planning “after,” the coordinated action we take to clean up the mess and build better than before.

The introduction to Nolon and Salkin’s Land Use in a Nutshell set me thinking about this:

The great fire of 1666 in London led to the adoption of municipal building construction laws that required brick exteriors, wider streets, and open space along the Thames River for access to water for firefighting. . . .  These early land use rules were . . . formalized by the Act for the Rebuilding of London adopted by Parliament in 1667.  The Act gave the municipality the power to regulate the construction of buildings:  their size, height, and placement on the lot, and the materials used (2).

Other examples of dramatic renewal and growth came to my mind:  Chicago, following the 1871 fire; San Francisco, following the 1906 earthquake; the many destroyed villages of northern France and Belgium, reconstructed after the First World War; the bombed cities of Japan and Germany after the Second World War; (a plan f0r) the town of Greensburg, Kansas, after being levelled by a tornado in 2007.

This is not to say that renewal will inevitably follow a crisis, but in each case listed, the devastating losses caused by natural or man-made disasters became an opportunity to reinvent the form of the city.  London, already one of the most important cities in Europe by the 17th century, was rebuilt to become the economic and political center for much of the world, its grand new architecture the manifestation of its wealth and power.   Chicago, its urban core cleared of its old wooden buildings and boarded walkways, had valuable land available to build its new downtown of skyscrapers, paved streets, and rail lines.  Albert, a small city in France, was completely levelled by 1918 and rebuilt by the late 1920s, not a replica of its original form, but with modern infrastructure, wider streets, and a reorientation of the city’s main axes to better locate its new industrial sites in appropriate areas.  Tokyo, with most of its wooden structures burned away in Allied firebombing by 1945, had by the end of the twentieth century become perhaps the most modern city in the world.

The idea that “an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure” is central to urban planning:  we can make choices today with tomorrow in mind, guiding our next steps, procedures in hand for when something goes wrong.  But even with all our precedent cases, forecast models, and good intentions, can we ever really do anything but react to the events we can’t control?

I’m not suggesting we should despair because we can’t prevent the unpredictable.  Much of our knowledge of good city design is thanks to the lessons we’ve wisely learned from past mistakes, or at least from close observation of what went wrong.  My question is whether we can do anything more forward-looking than error correction, and I’m not sure that the answer is “yes.”

There always exist a handful of brilliantly insightful people who can foresee possibilities far into our future, and many more who can make reasonable guesses about where we might be headed.   However, the complicated tangle of culture, politics, and logistical constraints we call modern life often makes it inordinately difficult to take more than a single step forward.  The one redeeming value of catastrophes seems to be their ability to force us into drastic action.  In their most extreme form, disasters can “wipe the slate clean” and challenge us to make new choices:  in the example of city form, to use physical loss as an opportunity to build new and better.  We can return to the status quo ante, but it is no longer a given that we should do so.

So how should we move forward?  I think we need to spend more time looking thoughtfully backward:  more careful assessment of successes and failures in disaster recovery, particularly where planners (or private developers) chose to rethink and redesign their city.  Evaluate what worked and which actors and circumstances allowed those changes to take place.  Identify which examples have the best analogues to current cities, and where those successful strategies might be employed in the wake of future crises.

To go a step further:  what if cities wrote into their comprehensive plans a “disaster renewal” section, in which they would identify locations which are most vulnerable, locations (or networks) which are most in need of change, and steps to take in order to foster successful redevelopment following a crisis?  No doubt this suggestion would be met by many, most notably city councils, as a morbid hypothetical exercise.  Consider, however:

  • More and more of our global population is living in cities.
  • In the United States, our infrastructure is aging; in many other parts of the world, city infrastructure is inadequate or non-existent.
  • Cities tend to locate on flat land near water.
  • The incidence of major weather-related disasters has been increasing in recent years, and there is little reason to believe this trend will reverse.
  • Even where disaster recovery plans have been written, they are notoriously difficult to execute.
  • Even where short-term disaster relief and recovery are administered, the monumental task of long-term recovery suffers from lack of organization, collaboration, and vision.

We can’t stop disasters in our cities, much as we try to mitigate, but time and again we’ve found opportunity in our losses well outside the scope of everyday planning processes.  If we can only really organize ourselves to make big changes in the wake of crisis, shouldn’t we be better students of our own past disasters?