Blog: August, 2010
Arcade Fire's new album tackles suburban sprawl, providing compelling city planning commentary
Sprawl, conformity, car culture, ennui, decay. These are a few of the themes Arcade Fire tackles in its third album, The Suburbs, released last week. At times nostalgic and at times cautionary, The Suburbs may be most notable (certainly in the realm of SPUR's blog) as an example of city planning commentary in pop culture.
As an NPR review put it, "the members of Arcade Fire have always been fascinated by the subtle ways geography informs our lives." Their newest album weaves a sense of suburban space and place throughout its 16 tracks. Band front man Win Butler sings of how "First they built the road, then they built the town. / That's why we're still driving round and round." Much of the inspiration for the album comes from Butler's youth spent in the suburbs of Houston in the 1980s. And as with Arcade Fire's other notable excursions into the memories of childhood on its first album Funeral, the tone is often wistful. Butler and wife RÃ©gine Chassagne sing longingly for the "wasted hours" of adolescence spent staring out the window of a car, riding bikes in the night to the nearest park, and waiting in parking lots under freeway overpasses. There are also more melancholic references to the impact of growing up in the built environment of suburbia — "all we see are kids in buses longing to be free."
But The Suburbs is not so much an extended story about suburbia in the "˜80s as it is about returning to those cookie-cutter communities today. Images of suburban decay ring throughout the album, as "all of the walls that they built in the "˜70s finally fall." The few redeeming qualities of growing up in the suburbs seem to be gone. As Butler sings in the song "City With No Children," all that remains is "a garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside of a private prison." Perhaps the most anthemic song on an album that on the whole is less filled with those big communal choruses for which Arcade Fire is known, comes near the very end with "Sprawl II (Mountains beyond mountains)." Sounding like ABBA or Blondie's "Heart of Glass," RÃ©gine Chassagne chants the chorus: "Living in the sprawl / Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains / And there's no end in sight / I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights."
Certainly, Arcade Fire is not the first band to sing a cautionary tale about suburban life. Rush condemned the stifling conformity of suburbia in the "˜80s with "Subdivisions," Modest Mouse has oft breached the subject on albums like The Lonesome Crowded West and Building Nothing Out of Something, and the Dirty Projectors' "Temecula Sunrise" is supposedly about a hypothetical future in which millionaires in mass move out of their suburban McMansions that then become colonized by bohemian artists. And these are just a few examples. It almost seems a rite of passage in rock music to vilify mainstream suburban culture. Arcade Fire's melancholic nostalgia probably goes easier on suburbia than most.
Nor is Arcade Fire the first notable band to breach urban planning issues and sing critically about our built environments. David Byrne, former front man of the Talking Heads, is a known bike enthusiast and advocate for more livable cities, having recently designed bike rack sculptures around New York City and written Bicycle Diaries about his observations biking in cities throughout the world. (You can also catch David Byrne's "Arboretum" series of drawings on exhibit at Electric Works through August 21st.) Perhaps my favorite Talking Heads song about urban space is "Nothing But Flowers" — a satirical inversion of Joni Mitchell's famous "Big Yellow Taxis." Rather than paving paradise to put up a parking lot, David Byrne sings in horror as our built environment — parking lots, factories, Pizza Huts, discount stores, and highways — gives way to "nothing but flowers."
Pop culture has a way of providing insight into our changing desires about the spaces in which we live. In The Option of Urbanism, Christopher Leinberger uses the example of television shows to portray society's shifting opinion on urbanism versus suburbanism. He suggests that while TV sitcoms in the baby boomer era (The Brady Bunch, The Dick Van Dyke Show) are set in idyllic suburbia, shows beginning in the 1990's take place in cities (Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City).
A recent Slate article from Tom Vanderbilt would suggest that Hollywood itself drives popular opinion associated with car (and car-less) culture. In the article, Vanderbilt gives example after example of movies in which characters without cars are portrayed as "losers." An exception (and a possible sign of progress) is last year's 500 Days of Summer — a movie that romanticizes car-less life spent strolling the streets of downtown LA and admiring the prewar architecture. In a memorable scene on a bench in Angel's Knoll Park, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character Tom "Manhattanizes" the view in front of him, using the arm of Zooey Deschanel's character Summer to draw an image of handsome old buildings in the place of existing parking lots. Though the film conveniently ignores downtown's post-1950's iconic architecture, it remains an example of shifting ideals in pop culture. Even beer commercials are starting to highlight other modes of transportation, as Matthew Roth from Streetsblog noted last week in an article about a new Miller High Life commercial in which a blue-collar worker rides his bike through a snowstorm with a six-pack in the front basket.
Arcade Fire's The Suburbs isn't as much about suburbanism versus urbanism, or cars versus bicycles, as it is a question of "What now?" The album's vision of suburbia may not exactly be an ideal place to live — not in the 1980's and certainly not upon returning to it today. But the narrator of the album does return, nostalgic for his wasted hours of youth and fearful of what may remain for his children. If suburbia is no longer necessarily the dream, what is to be made of those communities we built in the 70s?
Arcade Fire's The Suburbs can be listened to in its entirety on the NPR website. But true to its theme, it probably sounds best through car speakers while driving on an empty highway.
Wind Power Possibilities for San Francisco
[Photo Credit: flickr user notaboutwill]
The US Department of Energy released their 2009 Wind Technologies Market Report outlining the current state of wind technology in the United States. The report is an exhaustive study of what is generally seen as solar power's less glamorous and less popular cousin.
Some interesting facts from the report include:
- Wind power made up 39% of all new generating capacity in the United States last year
- In 2009 $21 billion were invested and cumulative wind power grew by 40% in the United States
- At the end of 2009 the United States led world cumulative installed wind capacity, however China surpassed us in new additions last year for the first time ever
- Wind turbines provide enough energy in an average year to meet about 2.5 percent of electricity consumption in the nation.
- It is expected that wind power development will be slower in 2010 than it was in 2009 because of the state of the economy, lower electricity prices and lower demand for renewable energy
- Current Federal policy is now more favorable to wind energy than any other time in the past decade
The 2009 SPUR policy paper, Critical Cooling, which outlines local policy solutions to climate change, explores the expansion of small scale wind power generation in the San Francisco as a potential solution. It concluded that while small scale wind power has the potential to increase our energy independence and contribute to San Francisco's renewable energy generation capacity, it is still more expensive than small scale solar as a climate change mitigation strategy. Small scale wind power can be cost-competitive in some places, but because of the micro-scale nature of the wind resource, it must be studied on a site by site basis. (A San Francisco Urban Wind Power Task Force Report from 2009 makes specific recommendations for the City of San Francisco and is also worth reading.)
While efforts have been made at the local level to encourage the installation of wind power generators (in 2008 the mayor made attempts to streamline the permitting process for residential installations), not everyone is crazy about the idea of harnessing the wind for electricity. The San Francisco Examiner recently released a news story about a Miraloma Park resident, Nathan Miller, who wants to install a small wind turbine in his front yard in order to move toward energy independence. Others in his neighborhood however, are rallying together to fight the installation of this turbine, claiming that its design is not appropriate for an urban setting.
We believe they're wrong. Small scale, privately-owned renewable installations are a cheap way for the city to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. We shouldn't let the aesthetic objections of a few compromise the ultimately essential project of energy independence and carbon neutrality. We should continue to work to make the installation of small scale wind turbines and other renewables easier by removing any policy barriers that exist, and by reaching out to those who may not understand the urgency of moving our energy portfolio more and more to renewable sources. The more widely adopted renewable energy technology becomes, the more hopeful we are that it will be cheaper and more accepted.
DIY Urbanism: Market Creates Sense of Community While Bringing Healthy Food Choices to the Mission
[Photo Credit: Colleen McHugh]
Through an interactive market system of live music, produce booths and youth art projects, the Mission Community Market (MCM) activates an underutilized block at the intersection of 22nd and Bartlett Streets. It also brings diverse walks of life together on one block every Thursday from 4 to 7p.m. Chance encounters with fellow pedestrians carrying sunflowers or succulent produce are the only signs of the Market on Thursdays, making it a delicious find.
San Francisco artist Chris Treggiari of Root Division led a mural project on the first Thursday market. Looking around the space, he commented that it had "a lot of potential." "Look at that empty wall over there - it could be a great place to have a mural for a youth arts class. I am excited for what this market can be." The mural Chris helped facilitate that first Thursday addressed urban themes and provided an opportunity for all community members to participate in a common art project.
Organizers of the Mission Community Market have transformed an underutilized block of Bartlett Street into a thriving weekly market, where vendors sell their goods while kids play in the street after school. Jeremy Shaw, chief organizer of the market, hoped that the first market would attract enough people for it to gain traction. "The point is to create choice for healthy foods," said Shaw, and "use it as an economic development engine where we create booths and stalls for Mission-based and local emerging businesses." This market will provide a community space and promote local buying by stationing itself on a central block in the Mission District.
In addition to partnering with the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), the MCM will work with La Cocina, a non-profit in the Mission that helps street food vendors by offering an industrial kitchen and classes for enrichment. Entrepreneurs from La Cocina sell their prepared foods at the events alongside non-food crafts from local businesses working with the Mission Small Business Association (MiSBA). "The food part is the anchor," said Shaw. "People come to buy food, and that's how we support these other community programs."
Potential was what this first farmers market was all about.
In preparation for our upcoming exhibit, DIY Urbanism: Testing grounds for social change, (opening Tuesday, September 7), the SPUR Blog will feature local and international urban projects that embody the "DIY" mentality. Check back for more DIY Urbanism features in the coming weeks.
Ruling Paves Way for San Francisco Bike Lanes: Bicyclists rejoice as San Francisco's four-year-old bike plan injunction is lifted, allowing the much anticipated implementation of 45 new bike lane projects city-wide.
Time to Return to L.A.'s Core: One symptom of the economic downturn is that it has slowed gentrification, putting some neighborhoods in developmental limbo. This, however, has produced surprisingly sweet results in areas like downtown LA, where there have been just enough changes to energize the area, but not too many as to feel overdeveloped.
London's Do-It-Yourself Approach to Safer Streets: In this video, a UK organization models a DIY community-based approach for reducing traffic and improving street life in London neighborhoods.
Brazillian Activists Paint Guerrilla Pedestrian Lines: A group of Brazilian activists in Sao Paulo, a city notorious for its transit chaos, took pedestrian-safety into their own hands by painting guerilla crosswalks in high speeding zones throughout the city.
The Scary Truth About America's Disappearing Middle Class: A new report suggests that technology, rather than politics, may be to blame for America's shrinking middle class, as computers more increasingly become the principal performer of middle-wage jobs.
Planning Communities for Aging
[Photo Credit: flickr user Troy Holden]
In 2011, America's estimated 78.2 million baby boomers will begin to reach retirement age, officially ushering in the "silver tsunami" - a term used to describe the impending onslaught of retirees into a society that is currently ill-prepared to handle the needs of an aging population.
Most boomers currently live in suburbs, having ridden the wave of suburban flight in the 1950's and 60s. As boomers begin to retire, many people will likely reevaluate where they live, with the understanding that needs will evolve as the years tick away. As boomers retire and age, where will they live?
There are two main theories about what this demographic shift will mean for our built environment, in general, and where people will choose to live, specifically. On the one hand, some planners, demographers, and urban thinkers believe many people will move to cities as part of a larger "back to the city" movement as seniors looking for smaller, more manageable homes with easy access to basic necessities. These new urban residents would join millions of seniors who already live in cities.
Another school of thought is that seniors will remain in suburbs as they age. Surveys show that most (about 90%) older adults wish to age-in-place, an approach to aging in which elders remain in their homes or communities as long as possible during the aging process. Aging-in-place is a popular option for seniors because it allows them to maintain social and physical connections that are vital to health and happiness. Seeing as how so many people already live in suburbs, it is likely, given people's preferences for aging in place, that most people will remain in the suburbs.
Regardless of where seniors will choose to live - in the suburbs or in cities - communities across the county will need to adapt to accommodate the needs of a rapidly growing segment of the population. Adaptation is necessary in order to meet the physical, economic, and social demands of older people. Meeting these needs requires rethinking how we approach many facets of our built environment: from transportation and mobility to social support service provision to affordability. Additionally, creating aging friendly communities requires both minor changes (i.e. increasing crosswalk signals to accommodate slower pedestrians) and major, fundamental interventions (i.e. changing land use policies to allow for denser, walkable neighborhoods not dependent upon the automobile). Although cities have some advantages over suburbs such as high-quality transit systems and walkable street grids, neither cities nor suburbs are fully prepared for the needs and demands of an aging population.
But preparing our communities for the elderly should not be seen as an onerous task or a sacrifice. In reality, planning for older adults is just good planning - something that people of all ages stand to benefit from. Take for example, the issue of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), often called "granny flats". This type of housing would allow homeowners to add a rental unit (usually in the basement, behind a house, or above a garage). This unit would provide added income to supplement older adults on fixed incomes. Additionally, granny flats would provide relatively inexpensive places to live for lower-income residents. The only problem is that ADUs are illegal in most places - cities and suburbs alike. Permitting ADUs is just one example of numerous changes that both cities and suburbs could implement to enhance quality of life residents of all ages.
Surely, the task of retrofitting suburbs and cities is a tall order. However, it is one that must be dealt with - we have the practical and moral charge to make sure we're ready . With the silver tsunami coming, communities across the country must act immediately.
Challenges (and High Hopes) for Electric Vehicles in San Francisco
Plug-in cars in San Francisco [Photo Credit: flickr user felixkramer]
PG&E's clean energy blog, Next 100, recently explored the idea of the rise of electric vehicles in the Bay Area. At the recent Plug-In 2010 conference, PG&E President Chris Johns predicted that the Bay Area will see around 500,000 electric vehicles (EVs) "plugging in" over the next decade.
From a sustainability perspective, electric vehicles are a big improvement over their traditional alternatives, to be sure. But all of these new vehicles "plugging in" will create a huge demand for energy from the grid. According to PG&E, one EV can draw as much power as three homes in San Francisco. Compounding this supply problem is the challenge of supplying this energy from clean, renewable sources, and determining whether new technologies to move energy around more efficiently — such as through a "smart grid" — could satisfy new demand without the need to build new generation.
One partial solution is shifting demand off-peak. Currently, PG&E offers special pricing for EV owners who charge their vehicles during off-peak hours in order to mitigate the demand on the grid. However, this may not be enough if EVs become as popular as Johns predicts.
In order to better understand the infrastructure needs of the future, PG&E and the Electric Power Research Institute recently began a pilot project to examine how different vehicles impact the electric grid throughout the day. Various groups around the Bay Area are helping cities figure out how to finance and build the necessary infrastructure to prepare for EVs to go commercial this fall, with the release of the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf.
Want to travel sustainably while EVs get figured out? SPUR recommends taking advantage of the old-fashioned clean transportation choices we have in the city: walking, biking and riding public transit.
Public Art Installations to Guide Passengers of Central Subway
Reflected Loop [Image via San Francisco Arts Commission]
We are visual creatures. As such, we derive our orientation of our relative location according to the landmarks and visual reminders around us. This is especially evident in how we navigate urban areas, by remembering a block near a notable statue or fountain in an otherwise crowded arrangement of buildings.
It's a common situation - getting disoriented in an underground or enclosed public transit station (even for those who are spatially inclined). Without any visual cues, it's easy to get turned around and then end up walking an extra block or two in hopes of reaching the final destination. The Central Subway Public Art Program hopes to remedy this common dilemma by installing "landmark" and "wayfinding" art pieces inside the future terminals, playing with our natural visual tendencies for orientation.
These installations will be tailored according to three stations: Chinatown, Union Square/Market Street, and Moscone. Through creative interpretations of the cultures of those three areas of San Francisco, these projects have the potential to be impressive art installations, questioning the standard of an unpleasant commute by bringing back the enjoyment of a grand public transit system.
In the Union Square station, Jim Campbell and Werner Klotz's Reflected Loop (above) strings a series of light and ambient reflections through the station. The band winds around the station and connects back with itself in a continuous loop that has no beginning or end. The polished stainless steel discs of various sizes will reflect light according to the spaces around them.
Passing Time [Image via San Francisco Arts Commission]
Inspired by the evolving development of Union Square from a rural environment to a residential area to retail business center, artist Keith Goddard's Passing Time (above) uses a series of intricate plaques to serve as visual reminders for areas of the station. He will use varied materials to make these mosaics.
The SFAC's Public Art Program brings the "public" back into public art through an innovative series of proposals for the station-specific installations. In preliminary stages, the plans were shown in three different museums for the three different stations, allowing for public feedback and for anyone to state preferences for particular pieces. "We are confident that the overwhelming participation of local and nationally known artists will result in artwork that displays the rich cultural diversity of our City and creates modern day art exhibits for the public to enjoy while awaiting their train in our new subway stations," stated SFMTA Executive Director/CEO Nat Ford. This intersection between arts and transportation exemplifies the new ways in which San Francisco is rethinking its public transportation and the importance of the visual mind in the process of traveling to and from places around the city.
Getting High Speed Rail Right-Enough
The California High Speed Rail Authority met yesterday in San Francisco. The agenda was packed with many interesting things including a new station area development policy. But the real controversy was about the section between San Jose and San Francisco. I joined hundreds of people during public comment to weigh in on this one small segment.
Over the past few years, a group of high speed rail opponents has been gathering strength in some of the Peninsula communities such as Atherton and Menlo Park, arguing that the train will impact their views, be too noisy, and otherwise ruin their quality of life.
There is certainly a lot of design work to do as the High Speed Rail Authority and Caltrain explore the peninsula segment and figure out how to make "joint operations" work.
But what some of the residents of the Peninsula seem to be asking for is an impossibly expensive project or no project at all. There cannot be a 60-mile subway up and down the Peninsula.
The Bay Area Council penned a strong letter pointing out the flaws with the "build it right or don't build it at all" approach. If "building it right" means addressing every local impact of the project to the satisfaction of every local resident, there will not be enough money in the world to build this project.
TransForm pointed out at the hearing that the issues with the Peninsula communities stem from the fact that the High Speed Rail Authority made the fundamentally correct decision in 2004 to choose an alignment that re-uses existing track where possible and goes through existing cities. (This was in contrast to a cheaper alternative that went through agricultural lands and skirted many existing cities, relying instead on "greenfield" stations.) Having made the big decision the right way, the Authority now faces the political and design problem of actually bringing the train through all of these already-developed communities. Even though the Peninsula creates design challenges it is absolutely critical that the project goes all the way to San Francisco, where the highest ridership stations in the entire state will be located.
I tried to put this project into some larger context in my remarks. California is already the most populous state in the nation (by far). It will grow from 38 million people today to 50 million people by 2030. The real reason we need high speed rail is to provide an armature or framework for organizing this massive growth. Where the interstate highway system was the infrastructure that enabled the suburbanization of America, high speed rail can enable a re-centering of growth. It is the necessary supporting infrastructure for walkable communities in California.
The real question we are facing is whether we are still capable as a society of actually getting something like this built. In the age of CEQA, in the age when we seem to believe that more public process is always better, in the age when we seem to believe that nothing should happen unless there is consensus, can we actually create a transformative infrastructure? As America tries to learn how to compete with "single vision" nations that do not share our democratic values, the question of how we learn how to actually get things done under our political system looms larger and larger as a central problem to overcome.
With every infrastructure project that SPUR supports we face the dilemma of how to be supportive against the tide of opponents while still working constructively to improve projects and make them as good as they can be. We could not be happier with the "big moves" that the High Speed Rail Authority has made thus far. They have picked the right alignment, one that will reinforce center-oriented growth. Now the task is to get the small moves right to find that elusive balance between more expensive designs that address community concerns and the need to keep the project affordable enough to actually build it.
This is the most important project in California. It is a naÃ¯ve and impossible wish to "get it right" if right means the ideal design in every community. We need to get it "right-enough" to attract lots of riders away from the automobile and enable a new pattern of growth in the state.
PlantSF [Photo Credit: Colleen McHugh]
Paris's popular bike rentals spark electric car plans: Influenced by the success of its bike-sharing program, Paris plans to add the electric car to its repertoire of shared transit.
Ground Zero mosque plans move forward after key vote: Despite proposals for symbolic land-use restrictions, NYC's controversial plans to build an Islamic mosque near ground zero are moving forward after a vote to demolish a building in the mosque's proposed site.
Food stamps go organic: Farmers markets in Healdsburg and Petaluma are now accepting food stamps in a trial run designed to encourage individuals receiving government aid to shop at their local markets. This arrangement benefits not only low-income shoppers, but local farmers as well.
The future of cities and transportation: One author suggests that if we want our cities to have a truly sustainable infrastructure, we need to look further into the future when making planning decisions today.
Changing clocks could cut carbon costs: What if shifting clocks forward an hour was the key to cutting carbon emissions and improving our general quality of life? According to the UK's Lighter Later Campaign, it is.
Line between cops, civilians blurs with new SFPD program: A new program through the SFPD, which would train civilians to respond to and investigate non-violent crimes, aims to reduce SF police officers' workload, allowing them more time to focus on violent or high-priority cases.