Urban-personality differences and hacking urban development

The following articles illustrate different effects/reactions to two very contemporary, models of urban action: namely alternative transportation and hacking the city (aka re-development).

In Boris Bikes Roll in London, Tim Adams suggests velophilia is the urban philosophy of Boris Johnson’s, post-austerity, London.

A key quote: “If you asked any Londoner to describe the sum total of visible changes made to the city in the nearly three years of Johnson’s tenure, a single phrase would dominate: Boris Bikes.” The piece is more a critique of Johnson’s tenure than a real exploration of: a bicycle urbanism.

It will be interesting to see the long term sustainability of the London model though. I think as NYC fabled DOT head has shown, following in the footsteps of Jamie Lerner, a key factor must be the removal (if only partial) of the automobile from the top of the transportation hierarchy. However, Adams rightly points out that Londons velophilia is facilitated primarily by Barclays subsidization as a branding campaign. Although, one wonders whether the implementation of congestion pricing over the last few years has has any effect on bicycling adoption rates. To be a real transportation model though London will have to go further. Adams notes, “Sponsoring 5,000 bikes is one thing; building mythical “bike superhighways” on streets in which every square inch of asphalt is already fiercely competed for, moment by moment, is another.

I found the above an interesting contrast to this next article in NY Magazine about NYC being Not Quite Copenhagen. The article asks Is New York too New York for bike lanes? Despite the work of Sadik-Khan’s DOT or perhaps in spite of it, Matthew Shaer writes “And so it has come to this: Bike lanes, not so long ago a symbol of a boldly progressive New York City, have sparked a bitter row on the hushed and leafy streets of brownstone Brooklyn—just one part of a biking backlash rippling across the five boroughs.” It seems though that the real takeaway from the article may have more to do with a critique of the process behind DOT’s implementation and consultation rather than a innate NYer hatred towards a progressive pro-bicyclist agenda. Is the uproar perhaps similar to the current populist, anti-European Tea Party conservative current more visible in American politics today? This passage seems to summarize the situation best: ““Mayoral agencies could do a better job with speaking with community boards, earlier and at more depth,” says Community Board 2’s Robert Perris. “Community boards could be more open-minded and less prone to nimby responses. And bike riders need to understand that as the New York transportation paradigm gets changed, they need to find a graciousness about this, if only for their own self-interest.”

Finally, two separate essays in the Sunday Magazine explore the range of methodologies available to the urban actor who wants to hack or interface with/affect the urban fabric. In The Supersizing Architect of Brooklyn, Andrew Rice uncovers the means by which architect Robert Scarano was able to “interpret” or one could say “hack”, zoning codes in order to gain extra marketable square feet. His efforts resulted in hidden rooms and storage space that transformed into bedrooms. Scarano was able to turn code into an aesthetic. As the author explains, ““The population of factory buildings was unfortunately being used up,” Scarano said. “So what did we do? We created the factory aesthetic in new construction.” And he didn’t just take the aesthetic — he also adapted the zoning rules that applied to warehouse conversions. Under certain circumstances, the code classified loft mezzanines as storage space, not floor area, and Scarano assured developers their new building plans could slip through this loophole. Effectively, he said, he could fashion double-decker apartments, in buildings that were four stories for legal purposes and eight stories for marketing.” Although in many cases this creative, design thinking was not legal, Scarano was able to hack the code to create the desired spatial conditions, a turn of phrase that is especially applicable because of the ambiguous legality of what he did.

Finally, Scarano’s example can be favorably compared to a piece on retired N.Y.P.D. officer Greg O’Connell’s who is a fan of Jane Jacob’s and was influential in the recent rehabilitation of Brooklyn’s post-industrial Red Hook. In The Last Townie, Dwight Garner looks at how O’Connell has now focused his efforts on remaking Mount Morris, a small town in upstate NY. O’Connell it seems focuses on systemic and soft change. Ronald Shiffman, co-founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development, the nation’s largest public-interest architectural and community-planning organization is quoted as saying ““Greg builds relationships with low-income populations, and he doesn’t take quick profits,” As O’Connell himself notes “I invest in people not businesses.” His model is obviously successful, as today he is the largest landowner in RedHook. In comparing Scarano to O’Connell one also contrasts two differing modes of development. One is fundamentally about people, relationships and building communities (soft infrastructures) the other is about maximizing ROI and pushing the boundaries of legal and ethical practices… So hacking code vs hacking systems/relationships?

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