February 3, 2010, 6:45 pm
Space: Its Still a Frontier
By ALLISON ARIEFF
Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time.
Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time.
Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time.
It's time we gave this some thought.
R. Buckminstter Fuller
That quote is 40 years old, but I continue to be amazed by the extent to which we havenât begun to address the problem Fuller highlighted. Thereâs a staggering glut of empty space around the country right now, unused space thatâs not doing anyone much good. That in itself isnât new; what is unprecedented is our ability to visualize that data in an entirely new ways.
The ability to use G.I.S. (geographic information systems) to locate data spatially, for example, is one reason Barack Obama is president today. His campaign turned a database of voters and volunteers into a map and was able to strategize house by house about how to get those votes. More broadly, G.I.S. allows us to literally view our place both globally and in a hyperlocal context.
That level of specificity, both at the micro and macro level, is helping revolutionize the way we think about, plan for and design the space we inhabit (or abandon). A visual map can show us patterns of overbuilding, abandonment, mis- (or lack of) use; it can teach us something about our current tendency to overbuild.
How can this now-instantaneous access to data add clarity to ingrained patterns, and perhaps allow us to change those patterns according to evolving needs and requirements?
Nicholas de Monchaux, an assistant professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley, has been thinking about all this a lot. Last year, he and his students developed a project called Local Code, which takes as its focus unused pavement space in major urban areas. Though most of us barely notice or give any thought to this seemingly useless space, finding pragmatic ways to use it can have a beneficial impact on the social, economic and environmental health of a region.
Courtesy Nicholas de Monchaux An analysis by Local Code of vacant city-owned parcels in San Francisco, in which physical and ecological problems (storm-water remediation, heat-island effects) and social and medical problems (risk for respiratory ailments, incidence of crime) are highlighted. The mapping helps to visualize these sites as a resource, and shows that they are located exactly where there is most need of help. Click to enlarge.
Local Code took much inspiration from the artistic interventions of Gordon Matta-Clark, whose (literally) ground-breaking project âFake Estates: Reality Propertiesâ (1971-1974) uncovered what he called âspaces between places alleys, gutters, weedy no-manââs-lands. Where it took Matta-Clark months of methodical sifting through microfiche to locate the 15 âgutterspaceâ sites demapped and operationally isolaated fragments of New York real estate that form thhe work âFake Estates: Reality Properties,â de Monchaux and his students were able to map the more than 1,600 sites of Local Code in seconds.
Courtesy Nicholas de Monchaux Abandoned by traditional development, under-utilized areas identified by Local Code are precisely those in need of ecological and social attention. As de Monchaux explains, You couldnt pick a better archipelago of sites if you wanted to help the city out.
Local Code (video here) proposes a systemic re-greening of leftover pavement space on a large scale. Culled from a database maintained by the Department of Public Works, the many sites for Local Code have been deemed âunaccepted streets,â that is, sites in the San Francisco grid that occupy the position of streets but are not maintained by the municipality, or necessarily even passable to traffic. Seen separately and individually, these are litter-filled, residual spaces and there are 1,625 of them, mostly around hhighways and industrial sites. But seen as a whole, they have a combined surface area of more than half of San Franciscoâs Golden Gate Park, for example.
Courtesy Nicholas de Monchaux Local Code takes G.I.S. data on buildings, sewer location, topography, etc. and then recommends an optimum design for each site (instead of a general design strategy). Click to enlarge.
âWhen we examined all the leftover spaces in San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, Minneapolis we found the same thhing to be true in every city, de Monchaux says. You had a whole archipelago of city-owned lots lying fallow. In New York they add up to the size of Central Park and Prospect Park together. Itâs a massive untapped resource thatâs impossible to visualize without these contemporary tools.
Neglected at the local level because they neither provide nor generate revenue, these sites are markers of larger patterns of neglect (much as weâre seeing with homes abandoned to foreclosure). In San Francisco, they often outline the shape of entire, mostly lower income neighborhoods like Hunterâs Point, Bayview and the Outer Mission. Abandoned by traditional development, such areas are precisely those in need of ecological and social attention.
Courtesy Nicholas de Monchaux Visualization of Step 1 of the Local Code process: A case study for a site in San Francisco, its specific needs indicated by, for example, pink arrows for energy and thermodynamic inputs/outputs like carbon; blue arrows for storm water, rainwater; and green arrows for a transportation network. Image has been cropped. Click to enlarge.
Courtesy Nicholas de Monchaux Visualization of Step 2 shows a Web interface that could be used to transform the site(s) identified by Local Code. Designers, community member and other users would be able to select from a palette of options (from benches, say, to plants). The online/social media component moves toward building digital democracy in community design and activism. Click to enlarge.
Local Code isnât about making pleasant parks. âItâs the difference between Newtonian physics and quantum physics,â de Monchaux enthuses. âYou canât do something the same way once you discover the new way exists!â Using G.I.S. in conjunction with parametric design tools, Local Code suggests a set of individual landscapes for each site with the goal of mitigating larger urban performance variables like storm-water retention and heat-island effects referring to the 1.8 to 5.4 degrees Faahrenheit temperature increase that occurs within densely built environments. (De Monchaux suggests that his intervention would most likely render redundant San Franciscoâs current multi-billion dollar effort at increasing sewer storm-water capacity). Together, the aggregated sites project an alternative green infrastructure with potentially measurable benefits to safety and public health as well.
Looking through this lens also enables us to think about infrastructure in a new way. The era of massive, expensive, centralized projects like the Big Dig in Boston has passed. âNow, with the ability to model dynamic systems, we can show a much more decentralized collection of resources could provide greater benefit,â de Monchaux says. âIf, in the 19th century, it was a biological metaphor that fueled the creation of Central and Golden Gate parks, the idea that a city needs hearts and lungs to grow, thereâs now a networked metaphor. The city is a dense network of relationships. The best way to provide infrastructure is to not go in with a meat ax but to practice urban acupuncture, finding thousands of different spots to go into.â
Much as Google Maps has given us all a staggering new perception of the world we inhabit, this methodology can provide an avenue to a wider understanding of data-driven design, which can most certainly be applied to any number of spatial dilemmas. Other projects in the same vein as Local Code are proliferating: The Long Island Index, for one, uses interactive mapping to highlight opportunities for downtown redevelopment, aggregating a different class of sites than Local Code but following the same path of inquiry.
Consider the case of Silicon Valley, where, as of the third quarter of 2009, 43 million square feet of commercial space stood vacant. Four million of that was added in just the past three years. Thereâs a certain irony to the fact that the center of innovation is ill-equipped to accommodate the cyclical nature of business.
Then there are shopping centers, which are modeled more on the monolithic Mall of America rather than centralized, walkable European-style high streets. Mega-malls have proliferated so that a Web site exists solely to document their demise. (That site, by the way, has just celebrated its 10th anniversary, its founders more aware back then of the coming demise than the retail industry ever was.)
Changing space requirements plague our nationâs schools as enrollments ebb and flow. I spoke with a parent recently whose fifth-grade son had spent his entire school career in trailer classrooms: his school district, in anticipation of projected declining enrollment a decade out was forced to continually re-addresss the problem of operating within the confines of a school not appropriately designed for its population.
And in boomtowns like Phoenix and Tampa, developers with an eye more to profit than market realities far surpassed any realistic demand for housing. The result? Rampant foreclosures, thousands of abandoned homes and even streets, and acres of excavated land awaiting stalled-out projects that wonât get built.
How do we design and build to accommodate changing economics, family sizes, and employee and student populations? How can we merge online technologies with physical architecture to more directly serve our real-time needs? Data-visualization capabilities canât solve all the problems, but itâs hard to overestimate the extent to which this information can help us to think about larger systems and their interrelationships, so that we see a building as not just a building but an ecological infrastructure.
These challenges are massive; the attitudes responsible for them, deep-seated. Inquiries like de Monchauxâs illustrate that there is intelligent inquiry and actionable theorizing happening about how patterns might be broken, planning might be more flexible and dynamic, and our visions of space and its functions could expand and, perhaps,, contract.
Editors note: G.I.S. stands for geographic not graphic information systems, as we had it in an earlier version of this post.
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J.H. Crawford . Carfree Cities