Atlantic Cities

A More Pressing Park(ing) Day: The Best #CityReads of the Week

A More Pressing Park(ing) Day: The Best #CityReads of the Week
Flickr/NCinDC

Our weekly roundup of the most intriguing articles about cities and urbanism we've come across in the past seven days. Share your favorites on Twitter with #cityreads.

"Front porches making a big comeback," Haya El Nasser and Paul Overberg, USA Today

Front porches are making a big comeback. It's not quite a return to Norman Rockwell's Americana, but the rise in the number of new homes with porches hints at a shift in the way Americans want to live: in smaller houses and dense neighborhoods that promote walking and social interaction.

Two-thirds of new homes built in 2011 had a porch, a trend that has been on a steady rise for almost 10 years, according to a Census survey of construction.

The pace of new homes with decks and patios that are more expensive and take up more space, usually behind homes has flattened. New homes with front or rear porches has grown from 42% in 1992 to 65% in 2011, Census data show.

The data also show that the percentage of homes built without a garage or carport is the highest since the late 1990s. At the housing boom peak in 2004, 8% of new homes had no car shelter. It hit 13% in 2010 and 2011.It's very positive " about public transportation if new construction is starting to be built closer to employment centers or transit," National Association of Home Builders' Stephen Melman says."That's what the market wants," says Christopher Leinberger, a developer outside Philadelphia.

"Don't Forget the Zoning," Yonah Freemark, The Transport Politic

In the United States, streetcars have assumed a dramatic new prominence, in part because of increasing federal support. In dozens of cities, new lines are under construction, funded, or in planning thanks to local political leadership that recognizes the benefits of such investments in relatively cheap new rail lines. While streetcars are typically not the most efficient mobility providers — compared to light rail lines and often even buses, they are slower and more likely to be caught in traffic — they are promoted as development tools. Streetcars, it is said, will bring new construction and the densification of districts that are served by the new rail lines.

But streetcars alone aren’t enough to spur construction of residential and commercial buildings in neighborhoods with transit service. Just as important are the municipal regulations guiding new development. If zoning prevents large buildings around streetcar corridors, how exactly will streetcars lead to new construction?

A comparison of two streetcar projects — one soon to enter construction in St. Louis and the other about to open for service in Portland — shows that there are very different rules guiding what can be built in the two cities. The result may be that one city sees significant new growth along its corridor and the other sees very little, despite both projects being new streetcar lines. Other cities looking to extract value from their transportation investments should consider how their land use regulations may affect new construction.

"Intangible Dividend of Antipoverty Effort: Happiness," Sabrina Tavernise, The New York Times

When thousands of poor families were given federal housing subsidies in the early 1990s to move out of impoverished neighborhoods, social scientists expected the experience of living in more prosperous communities would pay off in better jobs, higher incomes and more education.

That did not happen. But more than 10 years later, the families’ lives had improved in another way: They reported being much happier than a comparison group of poor families who were not offered subsidies to move, a finding that was published on Thursday in the journal Science.

And using the gold standard of social surveys — the General Social Survey, in which researchers have questioned thousands of Americans of all income levels going back to the 1970s — researchers even quantified how much happier the families were. The improvement was equal to the level of life satisfaction of someone whose annual income was $13,000 more a year, said Jens Ludwig, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago and the lead author of the study.

"How about Why Don't We Control Our Own Parks Day?", David Alpert, Greater Greater Washington

Park(ing) Day (which is today; go check out a pop-up parklet at 12th and G, 1350 Pennsylvania, or 1101 Wilson in Rosslyn) started out as a guerrilla performance art project to call attention to how little public space on streets goes to people. In DC, there's a different parks-related issue that needs attention: The obstacles to actually programming the parks we have.

In San Francisco, where Park(ing) Day started, there are whole neighborhoods with very few places to sit. In New York the situation was even more acute, at least until a recent push under Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan to convert a lot of short, underused bits of street into plazas in places like the Meatpacking District and Fort Greene.

In DC, that's not our biggest park problem. The District actually has a lot of public spaces, especially in the L'Enfant city. The biggest problem is that not much happens in those public spaces, and the people of DC don't control them.

"L.A.'s Transit Revolution," Matthew Yglesias, Slate

On a recent visit to Southern California, I began my day in Claremont, where I’d spoken the previous evening at a Pomona College event. I walked from a hotel near campus to the Claremont Metrolink station, where I grabbed a commuter rail train to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. From there I transferred to the L.A. Metro’s Red Line and rode up to the Vermont/Santa Monica station and checked into a new hotel. I had lunch in that neighborhood, and later walked east to meet a friend for dinner and drinks in Silver Lake.

My father, a lifelong New Yorker and confirmed L.A. hater whose screenwriting work has frequently taken him to the City of Angels, found the idea of a carless California day pretty amusing. But the city that’s defined in the public imagination as the great auto-centric counterpoint to the traditional cities of the Northeast has quietly emerged as a serious mass transit contender. It’s no New York and never will be—Los Angeles was constructed in the era of mass automobile ownership, and its landscape will always reflect that—but it’s turning into something more interesting, a 21st-century city that moves the idea of alternative transportation beyond nostalgia or Europhilia.

"Architects are the last people who should shape our cities," Jonathan Meades, The Guardian

Architecture, the most public of endeavours, is practised by people who inhabit a smugly hermetic milieu which is cultish. If this sounds far-fetched just consider the way initiates of this cult describe outsiders as the lay public, lay writers and so on: it's the language of the priesthood. And like all cults its primary interest is its own interests, that is to say its survival, and the triumph of its values – which means building. Architects, architectural critics, architectural theorists, the architectural press (which is little more than a deferential PR machine) – the entire quasi-cult is cosily conjoined by mutual dependence and by an ingrown, verruca-like jargon which derives from the more dubious end of American academe.

From early in its history, photography was adopted by architects as a means of idealising their buildings. As beautiful and heroic, as tokens of their ingenuity and mankind's progress, etc. This debased tradition continues to thrive. At its core lies the imperative to show the building out of context, as a monument, separate from streetscape, from awkward neighbours, from untidiness. A vast institutional lie is being told in architectural magazines the world over, in the pages of newspapers and in countless television films. It's also being told on the web – which is significant, and depressing, for it demonstrates how thoroughly the convention has seeped into the collective.

The mediation of buildings can never be neutral. As long ago as the 1930s, Harry Goodhart-Rendel observed: "The modern architectural drawing is interesting, the photograph is magnificent, the building is an unfortunate but necessary stage between the two." Goodhart-Rendel was an architect who belonged to no school, and is thus regarded as peripheral. He was also a writer: a rare combination of talents. John Vanbrugh was a good playwright who became a great – if not the greatest – of British architects. Sergei Eisenstein trained as an architect but gave it up. Thomas Hardy, to judge from Max Gate, the house he designed for himself in Dorchester, made the right choice when he elected to abandon architecture in favour of writing.

Top image: D.C.'s Logan Circle, by Flickr user NCinDC

Keywords: #CityReads

Sommer Mathis is editor of The Atlantic Cities. Previously she spent five years editing and reporting on the D.C. metro area at DCist.com and TBD.com. All posts »

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