The Skin of the City

Recently I came across Sergio Fajarda in an article in the alumni magazine of UW-Madison, which unfortunately I can't locate on line. From 2003-2007 Fajarda was the mayor of Medellin, Columbia, where he instituted a program of social transformation through city building. In the 1980s and 90s Medellin, the second largest city in Columbia, was known for drug trafficing and home to the eponymous cartel led by Pablo Escobar. At the height of the city's violence in 1991, there were 6,349 homicides, or 381 per 100k people.

In this excellent interview with Charlie Rose Fajarda describes his idea as an attempt to "change the skin of the city", a phrase which I love. His program was to decrease crime (largely through more policing) and immediately follow up with social interventions as a way of crystallizing (literally) the gains made in the reductions of violence. These interventions took the shape of increased transportation infrastructure and the building of "opportunity spaces" (park-libraries, schools, cultural centers) to better connect and bring additional services to the city's poor. In a 2007 feature in the New York Times Fajarda stated, "Our most beautiful buildings must be in our poorest areas."

And it worked. In 2006, the homicide rate was down to 29 per 100k residents, on par with Oakland today. Though obviously not all of these gains are attributable to Fajarda, what stikes me is how his program compares with that of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums. Both have similar worldviews, their overriding goal being to reduce social inequality and provide a better life for their city's poorest residents. But in sharp contrast to Dellums, who's tired tropes of bringing people together and making a model city have resulted in few actual policy proposals, Fajardo's plans have done exactly that.

Which leaves us with the words of Medellin mechanic Jamie Quizeno, speaking to NY Times reporter Simon Romero on the Biblioteca de Espana (image above) designed by Giancarlo Mazzanti, "It looks like an enormous cloud when it is illuminated at night. Such a beautiful thing, right here with us, who would have imagined that?"


SHPR: Neldam's Bakery

Neldam's Bakery will celebrate 80 years in business by hosting a party from 9 am to 1 pm on Friday. There will be free cake tastings (!) and a drawing for dontated prizes every half hour.

The bakery has been on the same block in Oakland since opening in 1929, the year the Great Depression began. Just a year ago it looked as if the bakery might close altogether, but selling the land and building has apparently allowed the company to continue its operations.

Neldam's is located at 34th and Telegraph Avenue at the bottom of Pill Hill. Stop by and get your kringle on.

Citywide Zoning Workshops

Via Chris Kidd at the open thread comments section of ABO, I learned that tonight and Saturday are two community workshops on the citywide zoning update focused on commercial corridors and residential areas in the City of Oakland. I second his encouragement of bike/ped/transit /urbanist people to attend and offset the likely strong showing by the NIMBY crowd.

I have a more personal reason for attending. Recently I found out the house I bought a couple years back in East Lorin is completely illegal. Thus, I am going to try to get my house legalized. That and arguing for a greener, more urban conception of what Oakland could be.


The Experimental City

In a great post on Monday, Crimson at Oakland Streets discussed the problems and opportunities with creating pedestrian zones in cities. In addition to some illuminating insight into the mechanics of Bay Street/Emeryville (which should give pause to those who think there is much there for Oakland to emulate), Crimson called for a more experimental approach to creating pedestrian zones, which I think is spot on.

As mentioned, some places like Telegraph Avenue (near the UC-Berkeley campus) just cry out for pedestrianization. Having spent over half a decade in Madison (image above), where the main commercial thoroughfare (State Street, connecting the campus to the Capitol) is restricted to buses and service vehicles, I can attest to how well this would work. In fact, everytime I go to Telegraph, I'm amazed it still carries traffic (one way, no less).

But with other places, a much more experimental attitude would be beneficial. Somehow, I don't feel as if permanently restricting vehicles in Chinatown would work. On a commercial basis, it absolutely could, but there is an appealing chaos there that might be lost. But to know, we'd have to try. For a place like 17th Street, I could see starting with a quarterly or monthly street closing on a weekend day, which might serve to highlight the street and create more energy upon it. After a while, you'd adjust the frequency (more or less often) and the days (Saturday, Sunday, or weekdays?), until you found a sweet spot, mindful that the sweet spot itself might be in flux, and would require continued experimentation.

Too often, cities seem locked into existing infrastructures, conventional wisdoms, and mindless habits: you can't build a 6-story building next to a bunch of 2-story buildings (or a modern one next to a traditional) because it would be "out of context", congestion is bad for a city, or prescribing traffic movement via signs and paint rather than through interaction ensures greater safety.

Something like closing a street to cars for a day is so easy and cheap, and the opportunities it provides for shaking citizens out of ingrained and cliched modes of living is so visceral. Oakland would do well to take Crimson's advice and walk it out.


Oakland City Green

On Monday Becks had a post listing several ways to become engaged in politics this week. Though some day I hope to get to a Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee meeting, it will have to wait for another month. Because also tonight is a public hearing for the discussion of proposed green building requirements for private development in Oakland.

According to the flyer, Oakland is "considering mandatory Green Building requirements for private development. Green Building refers to a whole systems approach to the design, construction, and operation of buildings."

Now that sounds suspiciously like architecture to me. I'm hoping to learn more at the meeting, but my first reaction is one of skepticism. Aside from the fact that this may not be the right time to be ladling additional requirements onto an already decimated building sector, the system on which the proposal is based is cause for concern.

This system, known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council in 2000 and employs a checklist to determine if a project is green, with points awarded for each criterion satisfied. The problem with LEED is two-fold. First, it seems to be developing into a bureaucratic, rigid system which rewards rote thinking at the expense of innovative design. Second, and more importantly for Oakland, is that it is essentially anti-urban, or at the very least fairly urban indifferent. And as anybody who has been following along knows, if you want to be green you can't be urban indifferent.

For example in the Sustainable Sites section of LEED NC (New Construction) there is a credit known as Development Density & Community Connectivity. This can be met by the "construction or renovation of a building on a previously developed site AND in a community with a minimum density of 60,000 sq. ft. per acre net. (Note: density calculations must include the area of the project being built and is based on a typical two-story downtown development.)"

Now 60,000 sq. ft. per acre is almost laughably suburban, amounting to a floor-area ratio (FAR) of less than 1.5, which probably isn't quite dense enough for a typical residential corner lot in Oakland, let alone one in a commercial district or downtown.

Another example is the recently built Margarido House which is slated to be the first LEED H (Homes) platinum-certified custom home in Northern California. Certainly it is well-located close to Rockridge BART station and the shops along College Avenue, and the architect and builder have obviously thought quite a bit about ways to make it greener. But it is over 4600 sq. ft. for a single family, which is a distinctly suburban conception of spatial needs.

All the low-VOC paint in the world is not going to save our planet unless we make incursions in to the mindset that we need that much space. I am certainly not one to believe that we all must live at NYC densities to be green, and there is something to this post from a while back over at Oakland Streets. There is plenty of room for detached single-family homes in a green lifestyle, they just need to have a small apartment building at the corner of the block and some mixed-use buildings within a few minutes walk. Though the Margarido House is nearly located within such a place (though its Walkscore is only 49, hmm?), most people living in houses that big will not have that kind of urban, green lifestlye available to them.

I don't want to disparage LEED too much here, it certainly has done some great things in raising awareness, codifying progress and processes, and certifying what had been becoming simply a marketing phrase. And it is getting better, with the LEED ND (Neighborhood Design) pilot program begining to incorporate more urban, green ideas. But it is unfortunate that Oakland is looking to LEED, because as currently conceived it is just too suburban a model for a place like Oakland. There is space in the green certification "marketplace" for a more urban conception of what green building could be, and one I think Oakland would do well to exploit. Certainly this would be more expensive, but one I think could also reap huge benefits.

The meeting is tonight from 5:30 - 7:30 in Hearing Room 1 of City Hall.



Postings will remain light as I head out of town for Presidents' Day weekend, so this one is simply a way to have another beautiful image at the top of the blog. Pictured above is the Netherlands Institute of Sound and Vision, again by Neutlings Riedijk Architects. In it they have created one of the most important new buildings of the decade.


Forage Oakland

The Monday edition of the SF Chronicle featured a piece on Oakland blogger Asiya Wadud, who writes Forage Oakland. Though I had discovered her blog shortly before, I really didn't start checking it out regularly until V Smoothe reminded me in a post a couple months back. If you happen to live in North Oakland or South Berkeley and have excess fruit, veggies, greens or herbs you can donate to Forage Oakland, and maybe even receive something in return.



On Monday night as part of the UC-Berkeley Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning 2008-09 Lecture Series, Julie Bargmann of DIRT Studio will give a lecture entitled No Sissy Landscapes. Over the last decade, Bargmann has been a leader in the research and development of regenerative landscapes in which natural processes are used to heal contaminated sites.

DIRT Studio's proposal for the Menomonee River Valley (image above) in Milwaukee was developed just a couple years after the studio I took with Aaron Betsky (more info in the previous post) focused on the same site. Unfortunately DIRT lost out to a far less innovative proposal. The lecture is on campus at 7:00 pm in 112 Wurster Hall.