Urban Planning

The Future Is Now

by Don Friedman on April 10, 2018

Broadway and Houston Street in 1884. Note the high-tech infrastructure: telegraph poles above the street, streetcars, and cast-iron facades.


Bruce Sterling, a science-fiction writer of some deserved fame, has a good piece up at The Atlantic on the craze for conflating digital technology for basic changes in urban infrastructure. Interestingly, the magazine’s headline is ‘Stop Saying ‘Smart Cities’ while the URL slug is “stupid cities.” I suspect that the latter was Sterling’s working title and the published title came from an editor with more tact.

My interpretation of Sterling’s point is that there is no qualitative difference between digital technology and all the other technologies – and it is a very ling list – that have been absorbed into cities over thousands of years. Romans proved over 2000 years ago that a large city could be supplied with fresh water and have its sewage removed efficiently. Later technologies were adopted by many cities more or less simultaneously but with differing degrees of success. Intracity rail came along in the nineteenth century as did electric power and the beginning of the wired world in the form of telephones and telegraphs. Yes, the technologies that enable me to type this piece, link it to the NYC Building Code and the program of a conference last year, and send it out where to can be read by anyone (anyone with a computer and internet connection) are fantastic, but they are not inherently different from previous technologies, just faster, cheaper, and easier to use.

Like all new technologies, the latest crazes in online technology will be adopted at varying speeds and to varying degrees in different places. This, again, is nothing new. To quote another science fiction writer, William Gibson, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Technologies can also fade away, as the futuristic pneumatic tubes of the early twentieth century did.

Last year, at the Future of Design NYC symposium, a fellow from Google explained how his company was re-imagining the city. For all I know, maybe he was right on target and everything he mentioned will come to pass. But I doubt it. His illustrations showed a neighborhood of buildings that look futuristic (whatever that means at this date) but could not be constructed under any building code I know of. A lot of people, especially those who are not in the AEC fields, like to deride building codes as overly-complex regulation, but in reality they represent decades and in some cases centuries of hard-won knowledge about what is safe to build and what is not. The people who invented revolving doors did not realize that they were creating a hazard for fire egress, but the Cocoanut Grove fire among others proved that they had. Section 1008.1.4.1 of the New York City Building Code (section 1010.1.4.1 in the IBC) is the distilled message of how to be sure that revolving doors are safe. It seems obscure until you think of how many public bidding have revolving doors. It’s hard to believe that a clean-slate approach to building will save this code section and the thousand others like it that keep us safe. It is, therefore, hard to believe that a clean-slate approach makes sense.

The Local Option

April 4, 2018

That’s an overall view and a closeup view of a larger-than-usual tree pit facing Cooper Square. The curb between the pit and the roadbed of the street has two low points in it – see the close-up for a view of one of them – that greatly resemble curb cuts at a crosswalk. They’re not […]

Read the full article →

Filling In The Gaps

March 26, 2018

That’s a new building under construction on lower Sixth Avenue, in Tribeca. If you look closely, you’ll see that it consists of two wings, one running off the edge of the picture to the right, and the other from the mid-left to about where the taxi is. The wings will be barely connected, if at […]

Read the full article →

We May Have Snow Tomorrow

March 6, 2018

New York has a history of late-winter/early-spring snowstorms. Recent years have included storms on March 1, 2009, March 5, 2015, March 16, 2007, April 1, 1997, and April 7, 2003. Compared to the size of late-winter storms in the mountain west, upper midwest, and New England, the snow totals of our spring storms aren’t that big, […]

Read the full article →

Not Enough Water

March 2, 2018

That’s the Bronx River where it passes through the grounds of the New York Botanical Gardens. For people unfamiliar with the area, that picture is probably surprisingly bucolic. The lower reaches of the Bronx River, where it runs into the East River, are quite industrial. The river as a whole is not, and obviously was […]

Read the full article →

Building Nature

February 27, 2018

Yesterday’s post about the possibility of creating a park in the New Jersey Meadowlands didn’t touch on an interesting aspect of the proposed park: little of it would be built by people. Instead the park would be made by removing built structures and letting nature have its way. It’s easy to forget that most urban […]

Read the full article →

Adaptation as a Strategy

February 26, 2018

This article by Karrie Jacobs – What if New Jersey’s Meadowlands were a national park? – speaks for itself,  but I thought I might add a little context for people unfamiliar with the geography. People have heard of “the meadowlands” because of a football stadium located there but don’t necessarily understand what it is. Most of […]

Read the full article →

Urban Design Is More Than Roads

February 12, 2018

Via Curbed, comes notice of a report, Delivering Urban Resilience, on the intersection of urban design, resistance to extreme weather, and climate change. Three cities – El Paso, Philadelphia, and Washington – are used as examples, with Philadelphia’s circumstances being closest to New York’s. It is not really news to hear that technologies such as green […]

Read the full article →

Physical Reality Governs

January 30, 2018

Structural engineering is pretty much the reverse of the high-tech virtual world that is hyped in the press as “technology.” Whatever computerized tools we use in design, our work is grounded, literally, in the physical world and its constraints. This article and its linked source are fascinating in the way they reveal the lack of […]

Read the full article →

Wiping The Slate Clean

January 24, 2018

There’s a great article up on Curbed about a plan from the mid-1960s to replace most of the buildings and streets in Harlem with a series of 100-story circular-plan tower linked by diagonal boulevards: A ‘futuristic vision for Harlem’. This was a blue-sky plan that never got very far. It lacked backing from the government agencies […]

Read the full article →