Sunday, September 25, 2011

Envisioning Richmond's Golden Age - Introduction

What would the urban fabric of Richmond look like if, over time, it grew in a way that people began to characterize it as a "great" city, in the context of not only the United States, but the world? What might it's "Golden Age" look like?

In his seminal book "Cities in Civilization"', Sir Peter Hall examined 21 great western cities that could be said to have experienced a "Golden Age" at some point in their history. These cities, beginning with the Athens of 2500 years ago, somehow marshaled creative, social, and technological forces to such a degree as to have unleashed a spirit of innovation or discovery so fantastic it left an indelible mark on western society and culture, or even changed its course. According to Sir Hall, the cities that have undergone a golden age were, like Athens, generally considered "great" in the context of the world at the time of their transformative era: Florence in the 15th century, Shakespearean London in the 16th century, Paris in the 19th, Berlin in the early 20th. Interestingly, he notes that the confluence of creativity and discovery necessary to foster these belles époques is a uniquely " urban phenomenon". He goes on to pose these questions, among others:

"How do these golden ages come about? Why should the creative flame burn so especially, so uniquely, in the cities and not in the countryside? What makes a particular city at a particular time suddenly become immensely creative, exceptionally innovative?"

Sir Hall offers some clues to the answers of at least some of his questions in the form of an excerpt of an autobiography written by Stefan Zweig, who, in the late nineteenth century, lived in one of the profiled cities, Vienna, during one of these brief golden ages:

"Growing slowly through the centuries, organically growing outward from inner circles, it was sufficiently populous, with its two million, to yield all the luxury and all the diversity of a metropolis, and yet it was not so oversized as to be cut off from nature, like London or New York... Within, the old palaces of the court and the nobility spoke history in stone... In the midst of all this, the new architecture reared itself proudly and grandly with glittering avenues and sparkling shops."

"Growing slowly, ...organically", having the "diversity of a metropolis", not "cut off from nature", "new architecture" that is "proud" and "grand". Keen observations of a lay person on some of the physical characteristics that may be important harbingers of a great city. While there are obviously myriad paths to making a great city, we will, over the course of subsequent posts, take some of these ideas as a starting point, as we envision what Richmond might look like were it poised to experience its own belle epoque. 

Of course, there is no hurry. Though there were many great cities in the world at the time of Athens, Sir Hall does not record another one undergoing a golden age era until the Renaissance took root in Florence a thousand years later. Richmond is a very young city and has a lot of growing up to do just to get to be "great", not to mention being in a position to experience a golden age.

But as we believe Richmond has some excellent foundations on which to build, we will consider opportunities to grow, evolve, or transform the urban fabric in a way that would not only enhance current residents' enjoyment of the city, but attract new residents with a desire to feed off and add to the creative energy of our city. Perhaps one day, decades or centuries in the future, people will dream of visiting the magical city of Richmond on the James, hoping to see first hand its mesmerizing architecture and to partake in its impossibly rich culture, breathe in the sweet smells of its blossoming restaurants and cafes, and lose themselves in its endless oases of garden-like urban spaces...

What could you envision?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hanging in the 804...Maybe

Once upon a time, telephone area codes meant something specific about a telephone number: a current place.

However, with the loosening of telecom regulations and the widespread use of mobile devices, area codes no longer automatically identify the location of the "other end of the line." 

The list of mobile numbers for the employees of Glave & Holmes, all of whom are currently based in Richmond (804), include area codes for central Indiana (317), Idaho (208), Nashville (615), Shenandoah Valley (540), suburban Detroit (248), Minneapolis (612), Boston (617), St. Louis (314), Chicago (630) and Washington D.C (202). Although a call to or from one of these numbers tells you something about the one-time location of the phone, a call from 617 is no longer necessarily "from Boston." Increasingly, mobile phone users are usually given a phone number from place of the phone's origin and keep that number despite subsequent moves.

Even prefixes (the three digits after the area code) used to mean more. The prefix 232 used to mean a location south of the James river and prompt questions like, "Which part of Southside are you from?" With the advent of greater number portability, my 232 number is now able to (uneasily) coexist with the typically West End prefixes of 282, 285 and 747.

In a related lament for endangered experiences, it has been said that increasingly, we no longer call places, we call people. It is not uncommon for households to cancel landline service in favor of mobile phones. An unintended casualty of this practice is the incidental conversation with the person who answers the "house phone."

Profound observations? Perhaps not. Yet, it seems worthwhile to consider our connections with one another and how our identity with places are linked to conscious and unconscious signs. When you have an incoming call and see an unfamiliar number on your screen, what clues do you have for identifying the caller? What does a 757 area code mean? Maybe less than you think.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Future Visions of Transportation

A long-time fan of science fiction novels, short stories and films, I grew up reading authors like Orson Scott Card, Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, the author of the short story I, Robot. 

Recently, I had the chance to see the 2004 film adaptation of the short story, starring Will Smith and Bridget Moynahan. Although the film simplified many of the intellectual subtleties of the story and added predictable amounts of Hollywood action, I still found the movie to be enjoyable. I am a fan, after all.

The film I, Robot is set in the Chicago of 2035 and although there is at least one scene with the familiar elevated railway, all of the characters seem to prefer travel on freeways in private vehicles that appear to clock speeds well over 200 mph, all controlled by computers for safety and efficiency. However, the main character, Del Spooner, played by Will Smith, has a tendency to override the computer control and take manual control of his uber-cool 2035 Audi (product placement, please).

One of the most memorable action sequences in the movie involves Del being attacked by homicidal robots while hurtling down the futuristic freeway.

To survive, Del takes manual control of the car from the traffic control system (a frequent, if discouraged, practice for the main character), ensuring that he can perform the necessary acrobatics. This idea of individual control versus centralized control is a key theme in the film. And, in the context of the movie-action heroics, we discover a particular viewpoint of the future of urban transportation, especially in the United States: 

[a] that technologically advanced private vehicles on technologically advanced superhighways are preferable to public transit and 

[b] that efficient, computer sequenced highways are ok for the masses, but sometimes you have to "take the wheel" for individual expression or basic survival. 

In other words, even the barest nod to public-spirited transportation found in computer-controlled traffic control is not to be trusted (just like those damn robots.)

If the science fiction genre allows the positing of trends, what is being said about the future of transportation in our cities? In the case of I, Robot, the message seems to be that the largely car-centric culture of the United States will continue to evolve into faster, more efficient private transportation that reinforces an identity of hyper-individual liberty. At what cost? If today's freeway cloverleaf takes more land area than medieval Florence, how much land will be required for 200 mph turns?

[Source: Google Earth]

As a contrast, what alternatives could a near-future science fiction propose for public transit in the United States? Is there an alternative that promotes public transit as an integrated way of life? What other near-future depictions of transportation do you remember from films? Leave a comment...

Friday, September 02, 2011

First Friday Sketches - September Edition

Today we sketched from Jefferson Park at the edge of Union Hill. Enjoy.

 John Spain

 Andrew Moore

Lori Garrett