How To Build a Better City -- notes for OLE Jan 15, 2010

How to build a better city.
Explore the role of architecture, planning and construction in the future well being of Anchorage as a sustainable human community. Learn how to read architecture and urban design - how to look at buildings and streets, and how they work. Discuss how to create ugly cities, so you can get grumpy when you see architects shaping them. Study the special conditions of building a sustainable and humane city in the cold and dark north.
Mike Mense has practiced in Anchorage as mmenseArchitects (this is not a typo) for over 30 years. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and a member of the Advisory Group of the AIA Committee on Design and former Chair of the Anchorage Urban Design Commission. He recently served as the Alaska Coordinator for the US Green Building Councils regionalization effort on LEED Neighborhood Development.

Write the books and the email addresses and the blog address on the board.

3:20 take it over from Ed
Today we are going to talk about “citiness”, what it might mean for a city to become better and what we can do through architecture, urban design and construction to accomplish that betterment. I have found a certain inescapable dissonance inside myself in the last few days as I contemplated what I hope will be this enjoyable look at citiness in the face of the absolutely essential role that citiness has and continues to play in the nightmare that Port au Prince has become. I hope you will all do what very little you can to help those people recover as soon and as thoroughly as possible. Silence. And for me, that has nothing at all to do with the other unavoidable presence, that we, living where we do, face inevitably, eventually, a large earthquake. We hope that our efforts will result in much less damage and injury, be we won’t really know until that day.

Next week we will talk about how to make Anchorage Ugly. Please note that ugly and its opposite are not necessarily the most important issues when we are talking about making our city better, but clearly many of us have thought it important over time to improve the appearance of the Anchorage. Though we seem able to agree on the goal of improving Anchorage’s appearance, we never seem able to agree on the specific strategies to accomplish that. I have come up with an alternative strategy. I think it will be much easier to agree on what we don’t want. So I have developed a slide show on how to make Anchorage ugly. Someday I hope someone pays me and Julie Decker to turn it into a small book that we can put on the desk of everyone involved in the construction of our city so that they might notice and back off when they find themselves headed towards one of the items illustrated and explained in the book.

The following and last week of this course will be devoted to the special opportunities and limitations of building a sustainable city in the relatively far north.

The three topics aren’t really mutually exclusive, but I will try to some extent to avoid the issues of next week and the following week today.

A few ground rules. Please feel free to interrupt me at any time with a question or a comment.
I hope you will not be offended if I cut you off if I think you are taking too much time or taking us too far off topic. Also, please feel free to email me, mike@mmense.com, if you have further questions or comments. Also, if anything that happens here, inspires to want you to send me pictures or drawings, please send those to my big mailbox, elcommunicodo@mmense.com.
And finally, I will post my notes for today’s class on my blog tonight, if you want to go back and see what I said, or at least what I thought I was going to say. www.housescience.blogspot.com

A couple of years ago, I heard Arlo Guthrie make some comments when he was being interviewed by Terry Gross. I found it to be very enabling. He said that he had come to believe that he didn’t necessarily need to know that everything he said was true or that he necessarily believed it. He wasn’t suggesting that he had the right to fib. What he was suggesting was that it is more important to get ideas out there so others can work on them rather waiting and only expressing them after you are sure you are right. I think there is actually quite a bit of respect built into that sentiment. Rather than presuming to know the truth, and I do believe that objective truth exists, somewhere, I am going to suggest things and then see what you think.

Having said that, here is one of my tentative ideas. I don’t believe that most Americans believe that anything is really much better or worse than anything else. In my 30 years of practice, I have mostly come to see that my clients have very little faith that I can make anything better for them. Its not something we me personally or professionally. It is something about our culture. I think it is a result of our consumer culture and the ads we encounter through so many different media. Everything is better, cars, toothpaste, shampoo, medicine, now even doctors and lawyers sometimes. And we know that the claims in those advertisements are almost always false. Toothpaste and shampoo are for all intents and purposes, that is, in terms of the stated goal of cleaning your mouth and your hair, one is no better than the other. So we have become jaded, and I think we tend to think everything is equal. It’s just not true. While all toothpastes may be essentially equal, all houses and all cities are not. Now, there is another caveat. What might be better for you may not be better for me, but there are systems and I very much believe that I can predict and produce a significantly better “fit” between you and your house. I believe we can work our way towards a better “fit” between ourselves and our city.

Let me give two examples. Most of us, that is most of the people I encounter in my life, upper middle class couples and families, most of the adults work five days a week during the day and their children go to school five days a week. Consequently, when any of them want to spend some time outdoors relaxing (something many of this group in fact do), it is most often late afternoon or evening. In Alaska, we know that it is almost always going to be desirable to be in the sun if we outdoors, in fact it is going to be best if we are in a place where can experience sun doubling, that is, where the sun strikes us directly but also bounces off a wall behind us and then strikes us again. It is also the case that very often in much of Anchorage experiences prevailing winds from the east. In Anchorage, the temperature is just barely high enough for us to be comfortable relaxing outside. We won’t be comfortable if we are sitting in the wind. So, all houses and their patios and decks are not equal. Those which only have a patio or deck on the east or north, or frankly, even south sides, are not nearly as likely to be able to enjoy being outside than those of us who have west and even preferably northwest facing patios or decks. Now, of course the best deal, again depending on your lifestyle, is to have a morning deck on the east for coffee and evening deck on the west for evening relaxation.

But it is also important to recognize that some things are taste or opinion based. For example, I believe Town Square Park is dumb. I don’t believe it is appropriate to try to make a fake forest when we are twenty minutes away from an almost endless expanse of the real thing. I think urban parks should generally reflect their man madeness. That is the, trees and topography should be very ordered, clearly reflecting the ideas of the designers and installers. In my opinion the “human constructedness”, ala John Ruskin, if you are familiar with his thoughts, this “human constructedness” is one of the important aspects of a city. But that is an opinion and I don’t think my opinion is any better than anybody else’s. In a big way, the French and English have been having this argument about gardens for about 300 years now. I think that pretty well establishes that neither is the right answer.

If you get nothing else out of your experience with me, I hope it is that you spend some time in the next few months seeing if you can spot things that could have been better or could be worse in your environment. And try, try, to distinguish between taste questions and practical, objective system questions. Let me ask you about this one. Last week I was driving through Iowa on a blue highway, you know, a two lane road that passes through all of these small towns. At some point I went by a long senior housing facility, not very old, all one story and all with living room windows looking at the highway. I suppose that might be bad enough, but for almost the exact length of the senior housing, across the street is the community cemetery, something that clearly has been there long before the housing was built. I don’t think that can possibly be understood as a right answer. Am I wrong? What were they thinking? Were they thinking?


Also, before we start, I would like to recommend a few books, for those of you who might want to delve more deeply into these subjects.
The Uses of Disorder by Richard Sennett
The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
The Hidden Dimension by Edward T. Hall
Life Between Buildings by Jan Gehl
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

And finally, before we really start. What are you expecting from this? I don’t know how well I will be able to adjust if you tell me things completely different from what I have planned, but maybe. It would be good for me to understand at least a little bit of what you are expecting.
Both in terms of experience and in terms of the subjects.


OK, well , we seem pretty much on track. I plan today to deal with four big questions in this order.
1. What is a city? What is citiness? It seems to me we have to know what a city is before we can decide how to improve it.
2. What are some great cities and why are they great? Mostly you are going to tell me about those, I hope.
3. What does it mean to build a city? What parts of the city do we have control over through design and construction and how can we use that control to further our agreed upon goals.
4. And finally, I have seven questions for you about improving Anchorage which I am hoping my thoughts will allow you to answer in enlightening ways.


What is a city? A concentration of human artifacts on the land and the people who create and inhabit those artifacts. Why do cities exist? I think they came into being when too many children survived to adulthood. When families managed to keep more children alive into adulthood than were necessary to work the farm, the extras had to leave. I think that is the beginning of cities. Cities, I believe are the essential incubator of what we call human progress. Cities are the place where people end up with free time that they can and do use to contemplate the possibility of change. Cities are also the place where humans live close to other humans who are different from them. At the beginning, it was the place where humans first started to live close to non-relatives, but, of course, today, cities are the place where we live close to pretty much every kind of “other” imaginable. So, you combine the time to think with the presence of the other, and you get new ideas, you get change, you get, again, what we call progress. I, for one, believe that progress is real. I do think humans, both individuals, and the species is in a better place than it was 200 years and 2000 years ago. But that is another debate, not for today. Living in some proximity to “other” people is the essential fact of citiness, I think. Places like the Hillside in Anchorage, are not really urban, in my opinion. They are instead an artificially hyperdense farmstead landscape, from which you can occasionally, go to town. Or, maybe they are a form of urbanity that is too new for me and most other humans to understand. This would be the automobile based form of urbanity. For that reason, I am not sure we need to spend that much time understanding it, because it seems likely to be a chapter of human history not much longer than that of the typewriter.

The residents of cities then are there for one of two reasons. They have chosen to live in a city because their life is about progress in some way. Some enjoy the experience of the other. Others are less excited about it, but recognize that this experience is necessary to whatever they are pursuing in life. Often this is as simple as a personal desire for economic advancement. Millions of people choose to live in poverty in great Chinese and Indian cities because they believe they have a better chance for economic advancement in those cities. But there are many others who live in cities because they are the current version of the rejected extras I mentioned earlier who started the cities in the first place. There is a somewhat nasty metaphor here about how the majority of certain races and cultures of people have come to be deemed unnecessary to the operation of the farm. I think it is important to realize that not everyone who lives in a city chose or chooses to live in a city. Many of them are there because they are not, or at least do not believe they are, welcome elsewhere.
I would also point out that I think the people who still live on the farm, in some deep way, understand that the rejects, in the end, got the better end of the deal. In all countries, as the standard of living rises, as vacation travel increase, cities also become more and more important as vacation destinations. People from the farm want a taste of what it is like to be free from the farm responsibilities.


Now, what might all of this mean about the design and building of cities? First of all, of course, we must build shelter from the elements. We must be able stay relatively warm in the winter and relatively cool in the summer. We use buildings to accomplish that goal. And we must have food and water. We are not on the farm, though there are those who think that has been a mistake, that we should have brought the farm with us, or that we now need to introduce the farm into the city. But that, too, is a discussion for another day.
It is an essential fact of citiness that we are dependent on others for our food and water. Many of us have encountered the term social contract. Cities cannot work without the understanding and execution of a social contract. Residents of cities are codependent. In 21st century America, we seem to be losing touch with that. The anti tax rhetoric ignores the essential interdependency of living in a city. It’s not just about police and firemen and roads. It is also about heat and food and water. We depend on each other, we depend on the city, for everything essential for our lives. We must all realize that infrastructure of every sort, power lines, waterlines, railroads, docks and so on are not essentially about making money, they are essentially about making it possible for us to live somewhere other than on the farm.

So, a city as a physical construct is a tool for creating shelter and delivering utilities, water and food. And there is one other essential piece. Cities must support our ability to live with the “other”. Practically that means we need two kinds of spaces. We need private space where we can reconstitute ourselves. Where we can sleep and eat and relax. It seems this space is necessarily isolated from the other. And we need social space, space where we can experience the other. As human beings, we necessarily want to control how this happens, the closeness and the temporal extent of this experience. Nonetheless, those of us who have chosen to live in the city, and those of us who understand the necessity of citiness in our goals, revel in the experience of the other. That I think is the essential point of cities. I say that is what we must improve when we improve our city. To the extent that we can also make the experience of other a positive one for those who are not here by choice, they may choose to stay when they are so empowered, and thus contribute to the vitality of the city. In the meantime, we cannot survive as a city if we do not make sure that those who are not here by choice, have adequate shelter, food and water. That means we must operate our city in an efficient enough way that we can afford to support those who need our help. Efficient government is not a conservative anti-government goal, it is an essential part of a sustainable, humane city. Efficient industry is not primarily about creating profits for the shareholders. In a city, we all have an interest in efficient industry so that that industry can afford to make the contributions necessary for a city to survive.

Any comments?
What are the seven best cities in the world? At least what are the seven best cities in the world with which you are familiar?
Write the seven on the board and establish the seven teams.
You chose
Boston, transit, harbor, neighborhoods
Sydney, harbor and ferries and crystal clear water, and neighborhoods, the Opera House
Paris, I am sad to say that I cannot remember your reasons
Kyoto, integration of nature and the community
Vancouver BC, living downtown, mountains and ocean
Venice, more water and wonderful old buildings
Stockholm, but nobody talked about this one

What is it about each of those cities that makes them great?
Report out
I bet we decided that the best cities are the ones that were built before automobiles. The ones that are scaled to pedestrians. As I have said before and will say again, I think the automobile is a small, soon to be forgotten, blip in human history. The cities that are most ready to return their streets and roads to human scale are going to be the winners in 20-40 years.

It seems to me that one of the most important things we can do to improve our cities is simply to slow down. In Amsterdam, the streets are this incredible agglomeration of transportation modes, trains, cars and trucks of every sort, bicycles and similar conveyances of every sort, and pedestrians of every sort all share the same right of way. It is amazing that more people don’t get injured or killed but they don’t.

The other thing is that city building is not an easy task. You don’t get much right the first time through. Rome was not built in a day and it wasn’t built right the first time. I believe Anchorage remains a teenaged city. We have gotten lots of things wrong, but if we continue to rebuild and rebuild, we will eventually get it right.

I would also point out that architecture is not generally an important piece of the puzzle. Mediocre buildings can make great streets. But a few great buildings helps. And we come to the issue of local architects and their relationship to their community.


What does it mean to build a city?
What can we control and how can we use that control to make our cities better in the ways we have discussed?

What do we build?
Streets, roads, airports, railway stations, bus stations, powerlines, waterlines, sewer lines, parking, parks,
Buildings, houses, places of work, places of worship, stores, restaurants, buildings for government, schools, warehouses, factories, hospitals and clinics

What must we be aware of as we build?
The sun, wind, views, topography.

How do we build?
Whether we build with an eye to the future or we build solely with concern for this year’s bottom line

Where do we build?

First of all, I think it is important that every city recognize and keep track of its wealth, its advantages, its inherent strengths. Most cities happen at a specific place for a specific reason. That reason is usually about the most important strength of the city. I trust you all know why Anchorage is where it is.

We need efficient connections to surrounding rivers, waterways, oceans so that it is relatively inexpensive to deliver things to us. We need to have efficient connections to transportation systems. That is important so that those systems choose to pass through our community on their way to other places. That means making sure that those systems do not conflict with other aspects of the community. (I am not sure I understand who is driving from south Anchorage to Wasilla that necessitates the big cut and cover project, but it certainly is unfortunate that 5th and 6th Avenues are also the main east west commercial highway through Anchorage.) Transportation systems passing through almost always create revenue for the community they are passing through.

If we have desirable views at the perimeter of our city, we need to make it possible for as many as possible to have access to those views (we could spend an hour on why that is important).

In this day and age, we need to make our city desirable to visitors, because visitors also create revenue.

We need amenities like universities and performing arts centers and parks and trails and good schools and a handsome downtown because those things attract desirable residents.

We must provide hope for those of us who are not here by choice, because only with that hope will they eventually move into the “here by choice” camp. It is simple efficiency for us to reduce the number of needy people in our community.

For the long term sustainability of our city we must create efficient utilities. To a great extent, that means density. Unfortunately, in the past density has been an excuse to make awful stuff. That needn’t be the case.

We also need to try to reduce our waste of resources. We need to save and reuse, not tear down and rebuild. Especially given Chipperfield’s decision to expressionally ignore the existing museum, and just put a different building next to it, why did we tear down Ed Crittenden’s charming little building that used to sit just west of the Museum on 7th Avenue. Chipperfield would have created an even richer collection of buildings if he had had to deal with that one too. And we would have saved perfectly good square footage and we would have saved all the various expenses of demolition. What were we thinking?

We need to build well so that we don’t find ourselves constantly repairing.

We need to build intelligently. Parking lots belong on the south sides of buildings, always!! Because they exposed the south side of the building to the sun and the sun reflecting off the south side of the building helps to melt the snow in the parking lot.

We need to create those pedestrian spaces where we can experience the other.
We need strong boundaries between vehicular space and pedestrian space so that pedestrian spaces feel safe and secure. Partly we do that by reducing the number and width of curb cuts.

We need more sidewalks.

We need to reduce the ground floor expanses of blank walls.

We need to think of our streets as rooms and that means we can’t leave out some of the walls. If we think of every street as a room, we will know that we cannot tolerate these expanses of parking lot. At the very least we must surround parking lots with dense landscaping.

We need to maximize everybody’s access to natural light and ventilation.

I think in Anchorage we need more intermediate space. These are outdoor spaces that are not quite public. Patios, porches, decks, that front on streets.

Talk about north south zoning.
(street furniture and the courthouse)
And finally let me talk about the Knik Arm Crossing.
And let me talk about a truly forward looking planning community. Fort Rich and so on.

Now remember, we are trying to build a better city. Let’s talk about things we can achieve through architecture, urban design and construction.
So 7 groups for five minutes.
1. What is the worst thing about Anchorage and how could we make it better?
2. What is the best thing about Anchorage and how could we make more of it? Our access to the wilderness.
3. What don’t we have enough of and how could we get more? Alleys, trees and sidewalks!
4. What do we have too much of and how can we make it go away? The appearance of parking lots. Just enforce the existing laws.
5. What’s the best block in Anchorage, what is good about it, could we replicate it?
4th Avenue between E and F.
6. What is our greatest underutilized resource and how could we make better use of it?
Our waterfront, move the airport to Fort Rich.
7. What is going to change the most in the next ten years and how can we make that a positive change? Our use of fossil fuel.
8. What is the single most important thing we could do to make Anchorage a better city?
4:30 to 4:40 they report
4:40 I sum up and read the story of Sophronia