Sunday, December 19, 2010

Urban Science – Maybe we can Start Getting it Right

There was a line at the beginning of the movie Pi:

“1. Mathematics is the language of nature. 2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. 3. If you graph these numbers, patterns emerge. Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature.”

The New York Times carried an article about the work of Theoretical Physicist Geoffrey West – who pointed out the mathematical patterns at work in cities. West turned those patterns into a set of equations – a study that he calls Urban Science.

Urban Science is not Urban Theory. Urban Theory is an agglomeration of social theories that relate to cities. Urban Science uses mathematics to find the underlying forces that shape cities. It could become a hugely important field of study. These are the forces that we work with (or against) when we’re trying to improve cities and neighborhoods. We may use the tools and lessons we’ve learned from Urban Theory , but if we don’t understand the underlying forces, we’re shooting in the dark.

If there’s any doubt that we’ve been shooting in the dark: one has only to look at utopias gone terribly wrong. Cabrini Green and the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. Pruitt-Igoe in Saint Louis. These projects were based on cutting edge social theories of their time. But they were built without an understanding of the forces behind the problems they were meant to fix. As a result they became urban nightmares. One can’t help but wonder – will the New Urbanism suffer the same fate? It, too, was based in Urban Theory rather than Urban Science.

As an architect I may be the last one you’d expect to follow Geoffrey West. According to the New York Times, he has “little patience for the unconstrained speculations of architects.” But I’ve worked with neighborhoods. People know when there’s something wrong in their neighborhood – but they usually can’t put their fingers on why. Urban Science can give us answers. More importantly, once we’ve analyzed the underlying forces that shape cities – we can fix urban problems and know that we’re getting it right.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Down With HOAs – Long Live Civic Associations

Homeowners Associations need to be taken down a notch in Texas. As a Civic Association officer, I might be the last one you’d expect to say it, but I am a homeowner, too. And I’m as angry as the next guy at some of the things HOAs do. A woman in Northwest Houston bought her home at auction, only to face eviction when it was found that the Stone Creek Homeowners Association had wrongly foreclosed on the house. And we all know the story of Weinonah Blevins: the 80 year old widow who lost her home because she missed $800 in HOA fees; and wound up fighting a two-year legal battle to get it back.

Texas Law § 204.004 lumps them together, but in practice Homeowners Associations and Civic Associations are two totally different things. HOAs are often in newer suburbs. Civic Associations tend to be in older developments. HOAs have mandatory fees and membership, and they can levy fines and foreclose on your house if you don’t pay. Civic Association fees and membership are often voluntary, and we usually do not have the power to levy fines or foreclose on your house. HOAs often govern with an iron-fist, dictating things like the color of your garage doors. Civic Associations typically take a much more laissez-faire approach. HOAs hire professional services to maintain streets or even pick up trash. Civic Associations rely on the City or County to do these things – which they’re supposed to do anyway.

The HOA Reform Coalition held a rally in Houston, Texas. You can read their platform here. The Texas Homeowners for HOA Reform also has a set of goals. If they got their wishes, HOAs would start to look and act a lot like Civic Associations. That would be to everyone’s benefit, and I support both of them.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Follow Up on Crime in the Urban Discourse

A few months ago, I wrote about how crime concerns have been lost in the urban discourse. Urbanists aren’t studying crime and neighborhood safety the way they’re studying things like transit, walkability, and sustainability. published a study that shows just how important neighborhood safety is. They surveyed about 1,500 people. Over half (55%) said that a neighborhood’s safety rating was extremely important in choosing where to live. A whopping 92% put neighborhood safety in the top two concerns; the next closest in this category was proximity to shopping, at 60%.

As I’ve said before, it’s not enough for a neighborhood to be safe; it has to feel safe. 75% of respondents said that they would use a neighborhood’s general appearance to judge how safe it is. 75% of respondents also said that they would use word of mouth to judge how safe a neighborhood is. In other words, actual crime rates aren’t as important as the perception of crime.

I should thank Chronicle writer Nancy Sarnoff for bringing up this study in her blog. But she, too, wrote about house sizes rather than neighborhood safety. Let me once again call on my fellow architects and urbanists to revisit “Defensible Space” and the writings of Jane Jacobs. Let’s give neighborhood safety and crime their fair place in our discussions about cities.