Category Archive • Town planning
July 22, 2004
Hating what we have – loving what we lose

Arts & Letters Daily links to an article which kicks off from a thought that has been close to my heart for some time now, especially the parking lot reference:

Many years ago, I was supposed to move to Los Angeles, but every time I went there, something about the light and space made me think that life was basically meaningless and you might as well surrender hope right away. I was still an art critic in those days, and I would drive from north-east of Los Angeles, where I was supposed to settle into my new suburban existence, over to the downtown museums, look at some art, and drive back. But when I got home I would find that the hours I'd spent negotiating freeway merge lanes and entrances and exits and parking garages was, in some mysterious way, more memorable than the museums. I was supposed to have a head full of paintings or installations, but instead, I was preoccupied with the anonymously ugly spaces that are not on the official register of what any place is supposed to be.

Every city has them. Thinking about Paris is more likely to bring to mind the Eiffel Tower, or graceful rows of mansard-roofed buildings on chestnut-lined boulevards, than the long cement passages of the Métro lit by bad fluorescence and smelling of piss, or the dank passageways descending from cafés into Turkish toilets. Even national parks steer their visitors into an asphalted world of public toilets, parking lots, and thou-shalt-not signage, stuff that almost everyone is good at fast-forwarding past to the waterfalls and forest glades and elk doing ungulate things in public. Certainly a waterfall is more striking than the parking lot near its foot, but I wonder how it is that visitors can be so sure they saw what they were supposed to and so oblivious of what they were not.

Human aesthetic response is very strange. Very strange. One day, a totally different way of getting around to the automobile will be devised. Something involving jet-packs or helicopters or gravity engines that enable vehicles to travel the way they do in The Fifth Element (an architecturally fascinating movie, I think you will agree). And at that exact moment, all the automobile crap we now complain about – the motorways, motorway intersections, signposts, petrol stations, and car parks – will suddenly acquire the charm of a village made of thatched cottages. Those big and complicated motorway intersections will remain as great big picturesque ruins and be clambered over by tourists armed with whatever has replaced digital cameras. I mean, Spaghetti Junction has all the makings of a future Stone Henge.

By the same token, when thatched cottages was all there was, I'm absolutely sure that people went around saying: bloody thatched cottages.

Or to put it another way, as I once heard it put, as soon as pylons stop being put up and start being taken down, the Society for the Preservation of Pylons will at once be formed, and people will go out and spot them, the way they now spot steam locomotives.


Pylons photoed by me from the train, in northern France, on my Brussels trip earlier this year.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:10 AM
February 27, 2004
The voluntary city in action

I want a copy of this book. (Thanks to this guy for the link.)

volcity.jpgBlurb quote:

The Voluntary City assembles a rich history and analysis of private, locally based provision of social services, urban infrastructure, and community governance. Such systems have offered superior education, transportation, housing, crime control, recreation, health care, and employment by being more effective, innovative, and responsive than those provided through special interest politics and bureaucracy.

However, although perfectly willing to pay for things, I have never mastered the art of purchasing things on the internet, one of the reasons being that a very good and dear friend of mine does this for me, so I've never needed to learn. Also, I've never been that brilliant at embedding urls (?) into emails. Plus, I want to share this email with the world.

You know who you are. Please get in touch, and tell me you are onto it. The paperback, please. Many thanks.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:11 PM
January 26, 2004
Does government arts and culture spending stimulate economic growth? – no says Steven Malanga

Steven Malanga of City Journal pours cold water on the idea that public arts and culture spending can revitalise the economy of a city. Boring things like anti-crime measures and lower taxes do this. Arts and culture spending does not, says Malanga. And if arts and culture spending spawns tax increases, then it does harm. And even if it were economically advantageous for a city to be hip, that doesn't mean that governments can contrive this, any more than they can run other industries successfully.

I'd add that although Malanga doesn't say it, his article reads like a prolonged spanking of the notion that because the wives of millionaires often sport diamond necklaces, the way to get rich is to buy your wife a diamond necklace. The man in Malanga's crosshairs, Richard Florida, developed his theories about creative cities just before the internet boom turned into the internet bust. Florida was describing, in other words, a culture not of wealth creation, but of wealth dissipation, not of getting but of spending.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:34 PM
December 11, 2003
The economics of hip

This is fascinating, from that always fascinating world newspaper, the New York Times:


ON a Tuesday night at a downtown lounge here, Ryan Flickinger, 30, was preaching the economics of hip. Specifically, he was talking about young professionals, the most mobile class in American history, who are choosing not to come to this river city despite what seem attractive amenities: cheap housing, good music, excellent barbecue and a major employer, FedEx, with 30,000 jobs in the area.

"I want to start stealing those people from the cities of Chicago, St. Louis, Birmingham," he said.

His audience was about six dozen members of Mpact Memphis, a group of 900 volunteers in their 20's and 30's who joined in 2001 to try to help Memphis lure people like them. In marketing terms, their mission is to build a brand.

This brand-building is part of a new wrinkle in urban development, said Anna McQuiston, 33, a volunteer at Mpact and the marketing director for a local real estate developer. "It's turning the formula around," she said. "You create an attractive place for people to live. Then the corporations will come after them."

Memphis, which has just over a million residents and is still scarred from the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is one of several cities that have come to see hip as a bottom line issue. In his 2002 book, "The Rise of the Creative Class," the economist Richard Florida wrote that the healthy cities of the 21st century will be those that can compete not for big companies but for educated, creative young people. This "creative class," he argued, will revitalize downtowns, start new companies, attract other entrepreneurs and build solid tax bases. Mr. Florida, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, says that Austin, Seattle and Portland are thriving in part because they became hip destinations for young talent – offering not just jobs, but cafes, clubs, tattoo parlors, tolerant gay neighborhoods and bike routes. "If places like Buffalo, Grand Rapids, Memphis and Louisville do not follow suit," he wrote, "they will be hard pressed to survive."

It's odd that Memphis, birthplace of rock and roll if I remember my Peter Hall correctly, should need to learn the importance of being hip. I guess all the chaos and insanity that went along with that (see Peter Hall) put them off hipness for about fifty years.

The good news is, as Hall says, they have plenty of hip history to work with.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:23 PM
November 25, 2003
Planned archaeology

Have a read of this posting on the Adam Smith Institute Blog, by Andrew Selkirk, all about how government impinges, and in a bad way, on archaelogy:

Not content with messing up future development, Britain's planning authorities are now wrecking ancient ones too.

Friends of mine – I am editor of Current Archaeology – persuaded the Discovery Channel to fund them in reconstructing a Roman villa in Hampshire. Whereupon the planning authorities stepped in. And now it has been reconstructed all wrong.

The classic Romano-British villa is what is known as a winged corridor Villa. There are wings projecting forward at either end, and a low veranda running along the front. In this case, the wings were abandoned on grounds of expense - well, OK, some of the smaller villas have no wings.

But it got a lot worse when the planners stepped in. First they said that only one-story buildings in the modern style are allowed in such an area of outstanding natural beauty. Then the veranda, instead of being left open at the front, had to be built in. Finally they insisted on having a continuous roof instead of a double roof (one over the main building, and one over the corridor, with clerestory windows above the corridor).

The result is a complete farce: looking more like a boring modern farm building than a Roman villa.
And now generations of schoolchildren will visit the site - to say nothing of the millions who will see the TV programme - and get a totally false impression of what a Roman villa looks like. All because of Hampshire County Council's planning officials.

Hasn't something gone wrong if planners can even insist that Roman villas should be built how they say, and not as the Romans actually built them?


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:16 PM
June 06, 2003
City Comforts

Here's a quick first response to a blog that came to my attention via comment number four on this posting at Samizdata. Here's the permanent spiel at the top of City Comforts Blog:

Cities, architecture, the 'new urbanism,' real estate, urban design, land use law, landscape, transport etc etc from a mildly libertarian stance. Our response to problems of human settlement is not "better planning" and a bigger budget for local government. But alas, conservative and libertarian (not the same, to be sure) response to land use issues is barren and in denial. Our goal is to help foster a new perspective.

I love it.

In the very first posting I look at, there's a link to what David of City Comforts says is an interesting discussion about car parks at something called Tinotopia. Mr Tinotopia credits Patrick Crozier with asking about why car parks car parks are so ugly at Transport Blog, but I actually think it may have been me at Samizdata, although I was commenting about something Patrick had linked to about how politicians like trains but people prefer cars.

Whoever, I find all this linkage extremely encouraging. David (the City Comforts man), thanks for getting in touch, albeit in a roundabout (get it – a car reference – a type of road junction – oh never mind) way.

I am going to do a lot more rootling around both in City Comforts and in Tinotopia.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:05 PM