Friday, November 2, 2012

Hurricane Sandy and Urbanism

My initial plan was to mention Hurricane Sandy in a paragraph in my last post.  But then the full extent of the damage became evident.   And the insightful analyses begin to arrive.  Suddenly, there were far more urbanist messages in the storm than I had expected when I first heard the coinage “Frankenstorm”.  So, Hurricane Sandy will have its own blog post.  Actually it’ll be three posts.  (I promise to return with a concluding post on bicycling after I’ve exhausted Sandy.)

If you’ve been following the devastation through national news services, you might find a different tone in this article from the New York Times.  The connection of the reporter to his town, and his dismay at its inundation, is palpable.

You may also appreciate this video by bicyclists who roamed Manhattan in the early evening hours of Sandy.  The video begins with a clip from a press conference by Mayor Bloomberg, which I assume was included to establish the credibility of the bicyclists as guerilla videographers.  The rest of the video is hand-held shots of the streets of Manhattan as the waters rose.  It gives a visceral sense of what it meant to be a New Yorker on that evening, a sense that is sometimes hard to find in the mainstream media.

On the subject of urbanism, I expect at least a few folks looked at the flooded subways, the water pouring into the Ground Zero Memorial, and the submerged taxicab parking lot, and thought that the damage represented a downside to urbanism.  That when people live in greater proximity, the risk of expensive infrastructure damage increases and the cost of restoring service on a per capita basis is higher.

To be honest, I don’t know if that assumption would be true.  But I suspect that it’s not.  It’s true that thousands and even millions of people can be affected by a single exploding transformer or a single flooded subway tunnel.  But it’s also true that service can be restored to those same thousands or millions of people by replacing the transformer or pumping out the subway tunnel.

I doubt it’s ever been done, but I’d love to see a study of the cost of maintaining infrastructure, on a per capita basis, for walkable urban versus drivable suburban development.  It’d be nearly impossible to normalize for all the factors that would be involved, but it would add greatly to the growing anecdotal evidence that urban settings are a more efficient way to live.

In any case, the resiliency of a big city was on full display in the days after Sandy.  Derek Thompson for Atlantic describes that the three Manhattans that he walked through.  The one that was still underwater, the one that was still dark as electrical repairs proceeded, and the one that was restored to nearly full vibrancy, with crowded sidewalks and typical New York behavior.  Healthy cities can be remarkable.

Nate Silver, writing on Twitter, also had an insightful comment about the gradual reopening of New York City.  “Almost all the national chains in my neighborhood are closed.  Almost all the local, independent businesses are open.”

It’s probably unfair to paint all chains with the same brush.  I know that Waffle House is renowned for their emergency action plan.   But I can believe that local entrepreneurs, whose income is closely tied to their own stores, who often live closer to their businesses, and who can develop a sense of loyalty to their customers, would make a greater effort to reach their businesses and to resume commerce.  It can be an additional benefit of small urban retail.

(If the name “Nate Silver” sounds familiar, it’s because he’s recently become a lightning rod in the presidential campaign.  As a columnist for the New York Times, he uses a proprietary computer model to analyze polling data.  As the election nears, his projections have increasing called one candidate the favorite.  Some journalists and the campaign of the other candidate have responded by questioning his methods and his objectivity.  And the criticisms haven’t been based in reasoned objections, but in mud-throwing.   I’ve followed Silver since he was a baseball writer and have never found him to be anything but objective and fair-minded.  The sneering of the last few days has been unfair and tawdry.)

In the next couple of posts, I’ll write about the causes that may be behind Sandy and their implications for urbanism and about the urbanism decisions to be made as the rebuilding begins.

Note on the photo: It was previously published by Atlantic Cities, who noted that it had been posted to Instagram by “andjelicaaa” and “bmorrissey

Nomenclature note: I like “Frankenstorm”, but think “Snoreastercane” was the best coinage of the storm.

Election Notes

Barely a week after Sandy’s landfall, the general election will be upon us.  Early in the election season, I encouraged readers to seek out candidates who espoused “effective urbanism”.  With the election only days away, I must admit that my own search has been largely unsuccessful.

At the federal level, not a single question in any of the four presidential and vice-presidential debates touched on urbanism, redevelopment, urban policy, or similar topics.  Although I wouldn’t wish Hurricane Sandy upon anyone, if it was going to punish the Atlantic seaboard, I wish it had done so a couple of weeks earlier.  It would have certainly affected the range of debate questions.

One might argue that the debate silence isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The last time urban policy had a place in the rhetoric of a presidential campaign, the debate was over how much money to spend for “urban renewal”, tearing down functioning neighborhoods for replacement with freeways, parking structures, and towers of low-income housing.   We should be pleased that phase is behind us.

But we’ve grown smarter about how to make cities work and about how cities are a crucial element of our national economic well-being.   As such, we should be talking about cities and about urbanism.  The debate silence was perhaps predictable, but still distressing.

At the state level, the quiet might be even more disturbing.  At least in the North Bay, the legislative candidates are ignoring the issue of how redevelopment should be restructured and returned to its role in improving cities.  Even if redevelopment isn’t at the top of the Legislature’s to-do list, it should be in the top five.  Based on the absence of election rhetoric, I’m not sure it’s in the top fifty.

At a local level, there are certainly candidates who say the correct things about urbanism.  But few who have convinced me that they’ll put it near the top of their post-election priorities.

Election Tuesday will be an interesting and eventful day.  And the Wednesday afterwards, this blog will continue in its effort to educate and to motivate the public and the decision-makers about urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. One of the things I've done some pondering about in looking at urbanism vs rural living is the sense of community that seems to exist in sparse populations that apparently disappears when population densities go up. When I've lived out in the woods people have made a strong effort to connect with neighbours, where here in town I'm finding that I'm introducing neighbours to each other.

    So with that pre-amble, this morning I was really happy to read Co.EXIST: What’s Really Happening In Blacked-Out Manhattan, an article on how people are banding together to help each other out outside of the official disaster recovery structures.

    1. Dan, I join you in enjoying the stories of neighborly support coming out of Manhattan.

      With regard to your question about daily neighborliness in the city versus the country, let me don my pop psychology hat, which probably looks much like a dunce's cap.

      We know that people have a physical comfort zone, into which an intrusion causes discomfort. And we know that the size of the comfort zone changes with both culture and situation. Subway cars in Tokyo are crammed far more than BART cars in San Francisco. And people will sit more closely together in a movie than they would in a park.

      I'll hypothesize that we also have emotional comfort zones, a minimum day-to-day separation that we like to keep from others. And for some, that minimum separation is bigger than physical separation that some urban settings provide. When I take out my garbage, I'm likely to offer greetings to others who are doing the same. Some return the greetings, other ignore me. I've encroached into the comfort zones of the latter.

      I think it's their loss. But I can live with it. And work on building neighborly relations with those who are more willing to chat.

      Bumping against the emotional comfort zone isn't a downside to urbanism. It just means that we sometimes share a fence with someone with whom we never share more than a nod, while becoming lifelong friends with the people who live on the other side of the neighbor.

      Meanwhile, in the country, people know they will shortly get in their car and reestablish a distance from you, so are more comfortable engaging in chit-chat.

      It's my working theory.

    2. Dan, just a small follow-up. As a simple way to think of my theory, I call it the "If you can hear your neighbor flush her toilet, she probably won't make eye contact in the elevator" theory. It's a reminder that soundproofing and better plumbing can be important components of successful urbanism.

    3. Oooh, I like that explanation. I finished reading through Pocket Neighborhoods, and one of the things that struck me is that many of the features of the developments that that book praises could be accomplished by tearing down the fences in my back yard. I mean, there are some other things, you'd have to rework the house a bit so that the bedroom and bathroom felt a little more isolated from that now shared space, but functionally it's almost that easy.

      As I thought about what it would mean to have that space shared in terms of keeping my projects picked up, worrying about neighbor and visiting children (pool next door, boat stored in our yard), that becomes a hell of a liability on my lifestyle. And the return on that liability is very non-tangible.

      Back to country living, I think something else that happens out in the country is that disasters are more frequent. What that means is that people are used to picking up after their own problems, and are willing to share that expertise. Here in town a neighbor had a sprinkler valve go bad, they were profusely thankful when I came over and diagnosed it. Out in the wilds when something happened we pulled together. In civilization, we hire someone.

      To tie those two thoughts together, part of the reason that shared back yard notion bothers me is that I'd be responsible for the work. It seems as though in the Pocket Neighborhoods world they usually have the HOA hire a gardener. I wonder if there's some insight in that incompatibility?