A Semi In A Strange Land

I: A Semi In A Strange Land

These days, Charlotte and I hardly need alarm clocks to wake up in time for our morning walks. Around 7:30 in the morning, three things come to life in the neighborhood which rouse us: first, the robins and mockingbirds ramp up their chatter which flows in through our bedroom windows; second, our upstairs neighbor’s daughter commences her own morning exercises of sprinting back and forth along the apartment’s 40 feet of hallway, thumping along the aging floor planks; and third, the trucks arrive at Key Food Supermarket across the street and begin their mechanized chorus, idling baritones, car horn tenors, and back-up beeper sopranos. Drowsy but optimistic, we exit onto Montague Street. Morning walks fulfill multiple objectives: upholding triscuit-thin but vital relations with the local shopkeepers (Ali at the Corner Deli and Sam at the Pet Emporium); reminding our eyes of the awesome skyline across the East River; kick-starting the flow of blood to our extremities; coaxing the kind of morning hunger which makes the stomach feel like a stretched rubber band; and giving us the lay of the land, the state of the streets, like barons atop a hill surveying faraway vales.

These walks carry a consistent mood: the sense that things are under control, that the untamed darkness is giving way to the rhythms of daylight. It is like the giddy feeling when the house lights dim before a concert, only here the lights are coming on. Every object in the neighborhood is in harmony and on schedule.

But, once in a rare while, we happen upon scenes whose parts do not quite belong together, where the rhythm is syncopated or totally irrational. Even in a city as up-for-anything as New York, these scenes stand out. Some of them are amusing (a homeless person giving directions to a drag queen at a Gray’s Papaya), some are saddening (an entire set of discarded bedroom furniture, made-up bed and all, on the sidewalk), some are disgusting (a pigeon eating a chicken wing outside KFC), and some of them are infuriating because they obviously stem from poor planning. This latter is exactly what we experienced one morning.

At the intersection of Montague Street and Henry Street, a 50-odd-foot-long semi-trailer truck with a Western Express logo was idling at a 45-degree angle. It was obviously in the middle of a turn from Henry onto Montague. Traffic stretched one block back along both streets. Part of the trailer was overlapping the sidewalk corner. Pedestrians were congregating at the intersection to watch the driver make his maneuvers. We stopped to watch too. The turn required about 10 points, each back-and-forth requiring an adjacent parked car to move out of the way. Miraculously, the only property that it damaged was a knocked-over plastic Gay City newspaper box. Once the truck cleared the last car and straightened out onto Montague, everyone sighed in relief. Someone applauded. Charlotte and I walked on, muttering in awe.

We the living respond intuitively to mismatches of scale, like when such high-capacity machines borne of warehouses and highways enter low-capacity residential spaces borne of flowerbeds and baby strollers. The tension is palpable. The inquiries of passers-by, even those muttered to oneself out of curiosity, take on the legal tone of a concerned citizen, or the existential hopelessness of a war refugee.

How did that semi end up there?

Presumably, it was there to make a delivery. But aren’t local logistics usually restricted to much smaller trucks, like the ones that normally wake us up in the morning? Semis, such as this one from Western Express, deliver large volumes of goods from storage point to storage point, inhabiting almost exclusively the exurban landscape of warehouses, parking lots, and major arterial roadways (there’s a reason those places don’t have sidewalks). If it were in front of the Trader Joe’s on Atlantic Avenue and Court Street, then I’d understand. Something was amiss in the complex grocery supply chain.

Top image search results of “Western Express.” The semi in its natural environment.
Western Express’ locations in the Northeast USA.

One force which may be behind this unusual incident is demand-side pressure on the market. Since Amazon Prime, we consumers have gotten accustomed to near-instant, on-demand delivery of goods, no matter what the cost. Those costs are often borne by the delivery and logistics companies such as Amazon itself and Western Express, who use up extra cardboard and bubble wrap and gasoline in order to fulfill our orders as soon as possible. One common side effect of this, which has snuck up on us, is piles of cardboard boxes cluttering apartment building lobbies. It’s possible that the Key Food on Montague was missing a critical item after the morning delivery, and demanded to be made whole. It’s possible that the Bossert Hotel (undergoing condo renovation) or the new Cat Cafe (further down the block) is being managed by a novice who placed a separate order for a few pieces of furniture. It’s easy for city dwellers to scoff at truck drivers. But they are just messengers. It may be that city dwellers themselves are asking for too much too quickly.

Image via Boing Boing.

II: A Zero-Sum Game

Vehicles and pedestrians have been at odds since the first civilizations. Cities, from Sumer to New York, are places of congregation, where many people and many resources come together to increase wealth and prosperity. Those people and resources are brought in from outside in large volumes. Once they arrive, though, the idea is to disperse them as quickly as possible to make room for the aforementioned prosperity. This makes sense: a city needs space for office buildings, parks, sidewalks, housing, and all of the other stuff that transform the steel, produce, water, and tourists that it receives into economic activity, leisure, consumption, et cetera.

As cities continue to densify, and available territory becomes squeezed, this conflict between vehicles and pedestrians has become a zero-sum game: one side’s gain is the other side’s loss. This is illustrated with geometric clarity in the distinctive chamfered corners of Barcelona’s city blocks. Ildefons Cerdà, the engineer behind the 1850s master plan, foresaw a city in which even small neighborhood streets are boulevard-like, with grandiose intersections and freely-flowing traffic. Cutting off the corners of sidewalks and buildings as Cerdà did makes it easier for traffic to turn, a critical detail given how the mobility landscape was about to change. Horse-drawn carriages were still the prime method of medium-distance traveling in cities in the mid-19th century, but a working adult at the time would have lived long enough to witness the advent of the motor vehicle. Ironically, those corners are nowadays mostly occupied by parked cars and scooters, so the sensation of freely-flowing traffic has been dampened. Nevertheless, those 125-square foot triangles are real estate that was taken from pedestrians and given to automobiles. 

Arc de Triomf & Palau de Justicia, Barcelona. Circa 1890s. The late 19th century was a transformative time for the mobility landscape of cities. Here, you can see pedestrians, horses, and streetcars sharing the public space. Although there are sidewalks, clearly-marked territories for each mobility mode have not yet been drawn. Image via monovisions.com.
Ildefons Cerda’s plan of a typical block in the Eixample, Barcelona. 1859. Image via Wikimedia.
A typical intersection in the Eixample today. Taken from Google Earth.

The next great automobile expansion after World War II, spearheaded by Robert Moses and the public works projects of the post-Great Depression years, was fueled by the same vision as was Cerdà 80 years before: that boulevard-like streets, grandiose intersections, and freely-flowing traffic are indicators of a healthy city. Of course, we have learned quickly that being in cars all day is not the end-all be-all of desirable lifestyles, and that all of the space that highways occupy is space that is taken away from pedestrians and smaller-scale neighborhoods. This problem is especially acute along waterfronts, where people are streaming to nowadays, but which in many cities are blockaded by motorways. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade was created specifically to combat that inaccessibility.

The BQE / Brooklyn Heights Promenade / Furman Street stack, looking south. Image via patch.com.

The Brooklyn Heights Promenade is a pedestrian path overhanging a two-tiered Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and a service road at grade, all cantilevered out of the rock underpinning Brooklyn Heights itself, and overlooking Lower Manhattan and New York Harbor. This stack is like the Big Mac of mobility infrastructure, and it continues to be a fan favorite for both cars and for pedestrians. However, that piece of infrastructure is now nearing the end of its life, and serious steps need to be taken to fix the motorway, preserve the promenade, or rethink the entire setup. Whatever the outcome, the spaces and flows currently enjoyed by both pedestrians and cars will be disrupted. The debate rages, the tug-of-war is on.

Section of the BQE / Brooklyn Heights Promenade / Furman Street stack, looking north.

One of the points frequently made by enemies of the BQE in general is that any long-term construction on the highway would forcibly divert traffic onto local streets. And while traffic engineers have yet to confirm that this will actually happen (for similar but inverse reasons why building wider roads does NOT relieve congestion), it follows the zero-sum-game narrative, and residents respond strongly to it. The thought of a semi huffing and puffing through the 50-foot-wide streets of Brooklyn Heights gives many people nightmares. Interestingly, the Western Express incident was most likely caused by entirely different forces. But its coincidence with the BQE debate may, entirely by accident, give people a sneak peek of a false future.

Truck turn diagrams for an architectural project.

Coda

Charlotte and I returned from our walk 20 minutes later, and we saw the same truck heading east on Pierrepont & Henry. So it had made three right turns on three consecutive intersections! What was it doing? I emailed Western Express to find out. No response yet. This investigation will have to be revisited.

OK Google: Urbanism is a word

I wrote someone an email recently, and in it I used the word “urbanism.” To my surprise, Gmail spellcheck underlined that word in red.

I tried other varieties. “Urban” does not get underlined. “Urbanization” is also OK. Even “urbanity” is in Google’s dictionary! So why is “urbanism” left out? “Urban” has been a Latin root word for anything related to cities for centuries. Tufts has a greatly detailed Latin dictionary.

The Odeon of Domitian, Ancient Rome.

What forces are at work here? I have a feeling that the answer is prosaic and disappointing. The answer may lie with how online spellcheckers work. My understanding is this: large online databases store lists of every known English word on their servers. Here’s Oracle’s (and an excerpt below):

urb
urban
urbane
urbanely
urbaner
urbanest
urbanise
urbanism
urbanist
urbanite
urbanity
urbanize
urbia
urbias
urbs

Companies like Google can tap into that text, and use Java or Javascript to check a user’s input text against that list at the speed of the internet.  Google had its own attempt at a dictionary database called Google Dictionary, but it was discontinued in 2011. It was preserved in its unfinished state at this website. I typed in “urbanization” and got a hit. But then I typed in “urbanism” and got nothing!

WordPress also doesn’t recognize “urbanism” as a word, perhaps because it piggybacks its spellcheckers onto Google’s. Could Google have left some words behind when it migrated its database of English words in 2011?

One final note. The great irony is that Google’s parent company Alphabet has an urban planning subsidiary called Sidewalk Labs. Their well-publicized foray into using data to plan better cities already has a pilot project underway in Toronto, partnering with Thomas Heatherwick, Snøhetta, and other huge names in architecture & planning. Maybe it’s time for the leading innovators in urbanism to expand their vocabulary. I mean that in the least sarcastic way possible.

A Recipe In Three Chapters

I: Data, Cities

When we analyze cities through the lens of data and maps, how and when do people enter the picture?

Data City, our data analysis and mapping seminar in the Master in City & Technology, was meant to explore the production, transport, consumption, and disposal of food at an urban scale, through the lens of data analytics. Our professors, Pablo Martinez and Mar Santamaria of 300,000km/s, believe very strongly in this method of analysis, and to drive their philosophy they felt it necessary to steer us away from a natural tendency for architects: to design things, to manifest things physically. Several times, including on day one and during the final review, they said that the course strives to remain in a formless state because there is no single way to physically describe a city. Any attempt to do so is inevitably oversimplified. This fact has haunted architecture and urbanism for at least the last century and a half. As Jane Jacobs says: “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.” This statement reminds architects that their influence is far smaller than they imagine; that cities are highly complex ecosystems manifesting the lives of millions of individuals. The Situationists of the 60s also helped to de-formalize the image of the city. Matteo Casaburi, discusses their impact in Architecture + Urbanism: “The Naked City [map]… expresses the incompatibility of Cartesian logic with the real experience of the city.” Even in the important postwar fields of traffic & mobility, the standard method of measuring vehicular flow at intersections with a simple sensor or counter is too minuscule to have a strong impact alone. Researchers at MIT have found real-life applications for traffic flow analysis, but those applications have to remain specific and event-based (responding to citywide emergencies such as natural disasters). Even into the 80s, when big data started playing an influential role, analysts found it necessary to simplify and distill numbers into something digestible. The “Big Mac Index”, for example, uses the cost of a fast food staple as an economic benchmark.

The Big Mac Index. Bar chart by Statista.

Mapping, on the other hand, can comfortably overlap both the physical and the invisible realms. A strong map can bring together processes, vectors, statistics, territories, buildings, and traffic patterns in one image. It comes closer to painting the full picture because it is more densely packed with information. The Data City seminar took this philosophy to heart. Coming, for the most part, from architecture, we took on the challenge of representing phenomena whose language we didn’t speak. We became willing to admit what we didn’t know.

Geographies of Innovation. Mapping centers of innovative activity in Barcelona. Map by 300.000 Km/s. Image via urbannext.
Photo credit Luciana Teodozio. Via her Instagram page.

During the final review, however, the guest jurors inevitably became confused by the multitude of maps and charts on the wall and said, “This is a class about food, but I don’t even see any images of food!” But, as I just mentioned, trying to hopscotch from urban patterns to food items will inevitably frustrate. However, this critique slowly sharpened over the course of the discussion, as naturally happens when people have some time to think about the present work, and by the third time it was brought up, it had matured.

One of the few images of food that were included in the presentation.

II: Codes, Recipes

Troy Innocent, visiting UI/UX resident at IAAC, spoke. “Why not focus on something specific in the human-scale food experience, like a hamburger or a pork bun, take the recipe for that food, and see how you could affect the food experience by adjusting the variables of that recipe?

Troy had made a profound connection without realizing it. When most people learn about coding, the first analogy that teachers use to demystify coding is cooking. Imagine a code as a recipe, they say, it’s just a set of instructions, and anyone who can read the recipe can reproduce more or less the same food.

The other point in the analogy is that of ingredients. One can adjust individual ingredients and customize the food as they desire. Add salt to taste. Substitute coconut oil for vegetable oil. Don’t have tomatoes? Use mushrooms instead…. Slowly, by adjusting enough ingredients, one can arrive at a different food entirely. That is the approach that Pablo and Mar use in their practice. They use a collection of indicators (like median income, cost of a loaf of bread, distance to transport, average age…) to identify unique regions in a city. One region is distinct from another because at least one of the indicators changes significantly. Then, by the same logic, one can see how changing that same indicator in one region could transform its identity. An “innovation district” could become a “cultural magnet,” or a “cultural magnet” could become an “academic enclave” with subtle changes.

The Matrix code was inspired by sushi recipes? Read the story at foodandwine.

There’s our in. To take this class to the next level, we should look at something like a hamburger or a pork bun, break it down into its ingredients, then see how we could adjust the the recipe by adjusting one of the ingredients. For example: if Shanghai really wants to promote food sustainability, then it needs to reduce the carbon output of its agriculture, and if one were to reduce the carbon output of its rice fields, then the taste or cost of a bowl of rice might change. This would connect the city-scale mapping-scale analysis that we did with the personal, cultural dimension that was missing in the final presentation. It would also force us to acknowledge that like in most closed systems, there is always a loss to balance every gain, and we must be conscious of those impacts.

Our group’s proposal for turning Shanghai’s metro system into a food logistics infrastructure. ProMetro.

III: Low Heat, Long Time

I went home that day a little under the cava and made it to Lidl just in time to buy groceries, including more cava. As I entered the apartment, with its crusty walls and bathroom tiles aglow in leftover sunset beams, I remembered Ashraf.

He is tall and lanky– his limbs are in constant motion, from his oscillating head down to his goosestep. When he speaks his hands unfurl like kelp stalks, or clumps of earthworms, or as if he’s about to pull an ace out of his sleeve. I had never seen anyone so clumsy move so smoothly. Even when he first walked into my apartment two hours after being scammed by an Airbnb host, and six hours after setting foot outside India for the first time, he was smiling. As he told me his story, as he asked me if he could pray in the living room until he found a mosque, he was smiling. It began as a nervous, uncertain smile. We bonded over football, our admiration for both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (something I found easier than expected given that we were in Barcelona), the transfer gossip, the managerial drama, and the coming World Cup. He was doing his best at pulling off the magic trick of adulthood– it was almost as if he were mocking it, mocking the care with which we all handle our bodies, the gravity with which we carry ourselves, and the burdensome mortaring, like cooking and cleaning, that we toil over every day.

For the first week of our cohabitation, he kept surprising me. One day he asked “So, Ivan, can you teach me how to cook?”

I stared at him. “But what about all that masala your mother brought you? I thought you knew.”

“No, she just packed that. I don’t know how to use it.”

So I showed him. From the beginning. I filled a pot with water, and set it on the stove. High heat, short time. When it started to boil I threw in some soft grains and turned the power down to minimum. Low heat, long time. Those are the basic variables of cooking. Heat and time. And they are usually in balance, like any closed system. More of one means less of the other. We fried eggs– heat the oil, which gets really hot, then throw the egg on. Short time. We made rice– throw everything in and heat, cover, and let sit. Long time.

I had never taught cooking before. Normally one starts with ingredients, tools, techniques, and recipes. But for Ashraf– for us– even that was too much to begin with. We broke the process down even further. I hope my newfound affinity for coding helped.

In the end Ashraf never quite “took up” cooking like one would expect, accepting its indispensability like one does when one moves out to go to college. It’d be more accurate to say he tried it, like skydiving. But his beard grew out, he started wearing contacts, his smile became knowing and mischievous, he started teasing and messing with people. One time he pretended to be hypnotized by Francois at a party, and everyone believed it, because they saw Ashraf as gullible. Only I knew he was mocking his former self. After the party, Ashraf sent me a text message: “You were the only one who was totally unconvinced. I should get more professional I guess. But don’t tell anyone Francois wants to fool everyone longer.” If I could describe his sense of humor now, I would say low heat, long time.

The Aspiration Index

Image source: https://newyorkyimby.com/2014/12/future-view-manhattan-skyline-2023.html

Skylines are a speculator’s dream. Strictly speaking, they are not real things. In the same way that edges are not really there, but merely the points at which an object leaves a beholder’s eye, a city’s skyline is an imagined contour. If I ask you to imagine New York City’s skyline, you will most likely picture a silhouette with the few telltale icons bristling among generic rectangles. Whenever Related Companies’ CEO Jeff Blau promotes Hudson Yards on the news, he is sure to mention is the development’s contribution to the skyline. The image can also change depending on where you live—whether you look east from Hoboken, north from Ellis Island, or west from the Long Island Expressway.

This imagined state is also what makes it a useful measuring tool. Since it is capable of accommodating many different viewpoints, and since it changes constantly in response to citymakers’ speculations, a skyline is what I like to call the Aspiration Index of a city. It is a summation of all of the city’s past and future ambitions, an agglomeration of jostling voices into a coherent whole.

So the question arises: who controls the fluxes of this Aspiration Index? Who are the big influencers in that market? In the case of New York City, the answer has been clear for over a century: wealthy players in real estate. Since the skyscraper boom at the end of the 19th century, it has always been up to the oil tycoons and media magnates to determine the shape and color of the city canopy. Ironically, those players rarely leave the city themselves, and the skyline they mold is viewed predominantly by the working classes who live on the outskirts. This contrast is especially striking at night, when the city’s tallest buildings illuminate the dark with an array of colors.

NYC skyline , 1904s. Image via http://www.oldstratforduponavon.com/nyc4.html

The Empire State Building, a mainstay of the New York City skyline for almost 90 years now, has been outfitted with colorful lights on its crown since the 1960s; and since a lighting upgrade in 1976 has started the tradition of being lit up in different colors every night in reference to holidays or other city-wide events. It has become a pastime for some to look up at the lights after dark and guess what the day’s reference is. Over the years, it has expanded into a reservation system, in which various non-profits can apply to choose a commemorative lighting display for a single night. The spire on One Bryant Park even has its own Twitter feed which advertises the commemorations. However, these commemorations only occur once every several days, meaning that for most days the city lights remain firmly in the hands of the property owners, The Durst Organization.

Perhaps it was this detail of the empty, uncommemorated days which gave Mark Domino, son-in-law of The Durst Organization’s Chairman, an idea. He developed an app called Spireworks which allows users to log in and, for a few minutes, control the lights of One Bryant Park in real time. The app was distributed to several thousand users as a test, and it quickly exploded in popularity as users jostled for their chance to send secret messages, impress friends, and seduce dates. For the first time, a landowner had to give up control, and the inhabitants of New York seized the chance to make the skyline theirs. Mark Domino told Metro News in 2017 about his own aspiration to “transform Spireworks into something that has a greater social benefit.”

Admirable as it is, however, it is difficult to imagine what Mark Domino means exactly by “greater social benefit,” beyond reverting One Bryant Park’s spire to an organized, regulated reservation system like the Empire State Building. Meanwhile, since new technology evolves at a pace all its own, Spireworks has taken on a reputation of white-collar exclusivity quite contrary to its original intent. This is partially determined by design: digital queues have maximum wait times so as not to eat up bandwidth, and in order to gain access to the app, you have to be invited by an existing user. Spireworks now gives access to the lights of Four Times Square (also a Durst Organization property) and Domino has stated plans to expand, but that front has quieted.

Less than two years ago I visited my friend in Brooklyn Heights. She took me out on her balcony which faces the Brooklyn Bridge and Lower Manhattan, and said, “Watch this.” She pulled out her phone and began pressing buttons, and in the distance, I watched open-mouthed as the crystal spire changed color within seconds. She sent me the invitation the next morning, but I never touched it. Like the hijacked innocence of the app itself, I never thought of it as more than an exclusive toy. I remembered that day on the balcony when I began putting this piece together, and I called my friend to get a live image. I logged into Spireworks in Barcelona and we opened a Skype call. For five minutes we fidgeted with camera angles and headphones and session timeouts, never quite getting the results we wanted. Maybe there was a concurrent user showing off in Midtown. Maybe the app just doesn’t work from Europe. But there I sat anyway, 3,800 miles away from my hometown, fighting for my momentary lease on the New York City skyline.

The 9-Square Grid returns

To all my Cooper Union vets: what do you think of when you think of “9-square grid?”

http://cooper.edu/projects/evolution-form

Well, what about this? This is a promotional sign for the Superilla, in Barcelona’s Poblenou neighborhood.

Superilla notice in Poblenou.

Though I had seen propaganda about it for many months since arriving last September, the Superilla remained rather isolated in my head. Which is only natural, since a) The Cooper Union is now in my past, and b) everything that happens in Barcelona nowadays is contested to the last political penny and the last bit of data– in other words, not aesthetically or pedagogically. But when I passed that sign in Poblenou, the parallels finally struck me. This was the 9-square grid reborn. This time, wearing the clothing of smart cities.

http://ajuntament.barcelona.cat/superilles/ca/presentacio

The Superilla is an urban planning concept which takes a chunk of city blocks, bans vehicular traffic from them, and opens the roads into pedestrian-only zones, creating a new mini-neighborhood. There are numerous examples of this popping up around the world, from Hong Kong to New York City, but Barcelona’s efforts have gone further.

Times Square, NYC, with updated pedestrian plaza, as designed by snøhetta. image via designboom.

Barcelona’s Eixample district. via Google Earth.

The Eixample district, a sprawling grid of 100-meter square blocks, was conceived in the mid 19th century, when cars were being born. Their design took these fledgling new modes of transport into account. 150 years later, however, the Ajuntament de Barcelona took the advice of several BFD urban planners and started scaling back the presence of cars.

https://www.plataformaarquitectura.cl/cl/794868/barcelona-abre-la-primera-supermanzana-para-devolverle-las-calles-a-los-peatones-y-ciclistas

It made a lot of practical sense. One of the main benefits of the Superilla is its comfortable scale: at 300 meters a side, walking around it might feel like a medium-sized park. 12 corners per cross-street, and that yields enough opportunity to loaf, bump into strangers, or pass a small business. Mobility experts also tout the 3-street module for its minimal impact on vehicular traffic: since opposite streets on the Superilla perimeter will still go in opposite directions, as few cars as possible will need to take detours. Heavier vehicles like buses or trucks must be rerouted, but at least only one bus stop would supposedly be needed for the entire Superilla.

http://ajuntament.barcelona.cat/superilles/es/superilla/sant-marti

https://www.elperiodico.cat/ca/opinio/20170919/una-superilla-amb-clarobscurs-per-olgaguday-6296488

The diagram of the 9-square grid could take on yet another symbol (as the Superilla promotional Twitter handle demonstrates):

Was this versatility what excited the Cooper Union denizens about the 9-square grid as a teaching tool? Once you set it up, it becomes like a scaffold that could contain a satisfactory number of possible operations (not too many, like chess, nor too few, like tic-tac-toe). You get 4 and you get 3 at the same time. You get enclosure. You get the suggestion of expansion. In the end, the 9-square grid is a resilient and fertile space.