Posts tagged “urbanism

a future for I-35 in atx


Austin’s major arterial highway is over 50 years old and ready for a makeover. Every rush hour, commuters get to look forward to driving on the second most congested highway in the state. People may envy Austin’s tacos, but no one envies our traffic. Congestion and ageing infrastructure necessitate reconstruction and as the Texas Department of Transportation reviews options for I-35’s downtown Austin stretch, Mayor Adler has asked Austinites to support one specific concept: lowering the highway between 15th Street and Cesar Chavez, adding 2 lanes in each direction, and creating the possibility of a cap over sections of the lowered lanes.

Mayor Adler is joined by multiple urbanist organizations and architects in the quest for a reconnected urban corridor. That is one goal of depressing I-35 through downtown: increasing community and connectivity between the east and west sides of our city. For many years, the highway has served as a barrier between East Austin and Downtown by impeding foot traffic and serving up a hearty helping of exhaust and noise for humans so unfortunate as to stray in its vicinity without a car.

As the mayor and the Downtown Austin Alliance write, the lowered highway option for I-35 will benefit our community by:

  • Adding capacity for vehicles on I-35, including toll-free express lanes for transit vehicles. Having protected lanes for buses to bypass traffic will encourage the use of public transit, which will help to remove vehicles from Austin’s busy roadways.
  • Improving safety and mobility for pedestrians and cyclists
  • Enhancing east/west connectivity for both vehicles and pedestrians
  • Reducing noise pollution from the highway for the area surrounding I-35
  • Creating the opportunity for “cap” infrastructure along the downtown corridor of I-35. This will provide residents and stakeholders the opportunity to create an iconic, privately-owned deck park above the state’s most congested highway, benefiting future generations of Texans.

Take a moment to watch this concept video of the proposed lowered highway:

This option gives Austin the ability to reconnect its east and west communities, forming a more complete and sustainable city. The “depressed” highway began to gain popularity years ago, but there are still many of us who have no experience with the idea. An example close to home is Dallas’s Klyde Warren Park, which is always a highlight of my trips to the DFW metroplex. The park is full of vitality: urban adventurers of all ages lounge on the grass, stroll the sidewalks, and squint at the many food truck menus. In the midst of the park’s greenery it’s hard to believe there’s an eight-lane freeway beneath you!


Depressing the highway has reconnected Dallas’s downtown core. Connection and community are about much more than financial prosperity, but Dallas has certainly benefited economically because of Klyde Warren Park. D Magazine’s Christine Perez wrote, “When the 4.5-acre deck park over Woodall Rodgers Freeway opened in the fall of 2012, no one could have predicted the profound impact it would have on the Dallas commercial real estate market.” An early impact study estimated that the park could catalyze $350 million in new development. But the real number has risen to over $1 billion as of January 2016.

Lowering I-35 prepares Austin for future development in a way that modifying the existing concept cannot. Below is a video of the Texas Department of Transportation’s other option: widening I-35 without lowering it. This proposal allows for no more traffic capacity than the first option, and leaves the east and west sides of the highway permanently divorced from one another.

With this model, the highway bisects a potential community, hindering connection and property value. Conversely, the lowered option gives Austin the opportunity to grow back together, allowing the highway to serve the city rather than blight it. Let’s make Austin more than a great place to eat tacos.

If you want the Texas Department of Transportation to lower I-35, use this form to send an email to James Bass, TxDOT Executive Director.


The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard

Gaston Bachelard was a man of science. He had written more than a dozen books on the philosophy of science and physics when, quite without warning, he suddenly published a book called The Psychoanalysis of Fire. That book was the first sign of his defection from the realm of scientific rationalism to the world of poetry. In December I knew none of this. I was simply scanning the architecture section at HPB when I came across this title: The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places. It seemed a little bit magical.


The book is, above all, a defense of poetry. Bachelard delves into many of the various aspects of House and its “oneiric form” as he calls it, and follows his study of houses with a few chapters on inhabited space more generally. But throughout the book, he philosophizes as a poet writing to scientists, justifying the nuance of poetry to his erstwhile colleagues. For him, poetry transcends knowledge. It reaches the depths of the mind before it disturbs the surface. And it does this through its use of the Image: simple, almost prehistoric concepts that somehow evoke feelings in every human soul. When they are spoken, they need no lengthy explanation, because an understanding of them predates our comprehension of logic or science. The house is such an image. In analyzing the organization of a house, Bachelard aims to plot the human mind.

He is quite the dreamer. (And he uses the word “oneiric” frequently, which was a new word for me. It means “of or relating to dreaming.”) I can’t sum the book up into a strict flow of ideas because… can you ever do that with dreams? I’ll just touch on the parts that most interested me.

He begins with discussing House as FORM, which throws back to Plato. Bachelard says the ideal house requires “verticality”- that is, attic and cellar- to allow its inhabitants to fully daydream. (I wondered about this, and my first question was “what about hobbit holes?”) I do not know what the inhabitants are meant to dream about. I don’t think Bachelard would prescribe that, but he thinks it’s very important that they be able to do it. The geometric structure of houses influences the mind, as do their settings in nature (or lack of). Bachelard isn’t entirely sure what to say about cities because he thinks city dwellings (for example, skyscrapers in Paris) lose magic and are less conducive to dreaming when inhabitants live in one-level “rooms”. Also this quote: “Elevators do away with the heroism of stair climbing so that there is no longer any virtue in living up near the sky.” Bachelard’s idealism is endearing. He believes houses need some element of the natural. “Where houses are no longer set in natural surroundings,” he says, “the relationship between house and space becomes an artificial one. Everything about it is mechanical and, on every side, intimate living flees.” However, he claims that the natural can be imagined with good effect, interestingly. He suggests turning traffic noises into a rumbling storm or the sounds of the ocean using one’s imagination.

In chapter 2, B talks chiefly of the image of the house, how it must be a lived-in image to communicate full feeling, and how its creation (or imagining) reveals much about the architect or dreamer. Envisioning a house makes us all poets? The fascinating thing to me is his concept of contrast: in a massive, undulating universe, the house lends boundaries to the imagination and gives it a Center. With frequent quotations from Baudelaire etc. to support him, Bachelard says, “Everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate.” For example, storms bestow more significance upon shelters. This quote also helps to elucidate: “Well-determined centers of reverie are means of communication between men who dream as surely as well-defined concepts are means of communication between men who think.” The form/image of House is (should be?) a well-determined center. That center exerts gravitational force. “The house remodels man,” B says starkly.

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He acknowledges the physical geometry of a house honestly, but really shies away from strict physical analysis. Once he said, “We are tempted to analyze this rationally,” which I thought was funny. But he’s just such a poet about it all– constantly harping on transcendence. “To give unreality to an image attached to a strong reality,” he says, “is in the spirit of poetry.” And look at this: “An immense cosmic house is a potential of every dream of houses. Wind radiates from its center and gulls fly from its windows. A house that is as dynamic as this allows the poet to inhabit the universe. Or, to put it differently, the universe comes to inhabit his house.” He never apologizes for passages like this. In a later chapter he says, “Exaggeration is always at the summit of any living image.”

B is always talking about the Image vs the Metaphor. I think by this he means that a metaphor is too objective to allow for the “feel” of a thing. In ch 5 on shells, he gets deep into shells as an image: what the thought of them evokes, etc. This section gave me serious throwbacks to my study of epistemology. Again, if an image communicates the “feel” of a thing through poetic sensitivity, images enlighten because in seeing we begin to see from and gain new perspective. And perspective leads to appreciation. Essentially, real sight breeds knowledge and real knowledge breeds love. One of my favorite novels is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and this concept of understanding turning into love reminds me of a quote from the protagonist when he’s having a bit of a crisis involving his purpose:

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”

In chapter 7, which is about the concept of Miniature, Bachelard gets deeper into images and nearly becomes philosopher Michael Polanyi. While reading the chapter I kept thinking of P’s theory of tacit knowing. Bachelard reverences the transcendence of imagination: “The imagination does not want to end in a diagram that summarizes acquired learning.” Imagination is what takes learning to the next level of loving. This connects to all the epistemic philosophy I’ve read in the last 3 years! He says as well, “Daydream is not geometrical. The dreamer commits himself absolutely.” Perhaps it is that commitment that makes Bachelard so value dreams. They require your whole soul, which B longs to give? Which we all do, or ought? I do wonder, though, why Bachelard is so loathe to diagram. Perhaps his imagination was squelched by the particular scientific community of his day. But I think of scientists like Einstein who clearly valued imagination, and it confuses me why Bachelard seems eager to distance himself from all data and definition. He says at one point, “To verify images kills them, and it is always more enriching to imagine than to experience.” That seems very extreme.

The chapter on miniature was a high point of the book for me. Especially the section where he says poets can use imagination to change the size of things, making large out of small and vice versa. If vastness is infinite and if smallness is infinite, the two infinities have much in common in their extremes. B quotes Paul Claudel on microscopes vs telescopes: “Just as we see little spiders or certain insect larvae hidden like precious stones in their cotton and satin pouches, in the same way, I was shown an entire nestful of still embarrassed suns in the cold folds of the nebula.” To close the paragraph after that beautiful quote, Bachelard simply asserts, “If a poet looks through a microscope or a telescope, he always sees the same thing.”


In the following chapter, B moves on to write about immensity, essentially claiming that immensity has its root, not in the exterior universe, but in our own souls and our capacity to think vast thoughts. I thought a lot about the power of surroundings and physical environment in this section, especially due to this quote: “The exterior spectacle helps intimate grandeur to unfold.” As has become more and more evident to me due to urban design/development, WHERE you are affects how you think and ultimately changes WHO you are. “The two kinds of space, intimate space and exterior space, keep encouraging each other, as it were, in their growth.” Yes, exactly.

Pause for this concept: “voluptuousness that pervades high places.” ……….thank you.

One of the most memorable parts of the chapter on immensity was the story of Philippe Diolé, a psychologist and deep-sea diver. After years of love for the ocean, Diolé chose to travel through the Sahara desert and found there a similar feeling of weightlessness as what he experienced in water. But what strikes me most is why Diolé exchanged water for sand. Bachelard asked the question and said Diolé answered, “as a poet would. He knows that each new contact with the cosmos renews our inner being, and that every new cosmos is open to us when we have freed ourselves from the ties of a former sensitivity… And by changing space, by leaving the space of one’s usual sensibilities, one enters into communication with a space that is psychically innovating.” Expanding your surroundings expands YOU. This seems oddly contradictory to Bachelard’s earlier tirade against experience. Perhaps earlier he meant to rebel against the graphing table and the drawing board rather than life experience. Because he ends this chapter so: “But poems are human realities; it is not enough to resort to “impressions” in order to explain them. They must be lived in their poetic immensity.”


Bachelard concludes his book with studies of outside/inside and the concept of “roundness”. I got a little lost in this part and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m not intelligent enough to get what he’s saying or if he’s actually going down confusing rabbit trails for no reason! There were several haunting ideas, however. At one point he poses this question, seemingly unconnected to the overarching point of his book: “And where is the root of silence? Is it a distinction of non-being, or a domination of being?” I think this did flow logically in Bachelard’s mind. Once started on the concept of contrasts begun with the discussion of Miniature vs Immensity and continued with Outside vs Inside, he couldn’t stick to physical examples or even to those spatial subjects. For him, everything is connected poetically. Immensity to Miniature, Outside to Inside, Fullness to Emptiness, Noise to Silence. Everything is connected, and everything finds significance when considered against its counterpart. When you look at it long enough, through the continually surprised eyes of poetic sensitivity, everything begins to look like different facets of the same crystal. Or, to bring us back around to the beginning, different rooms of the same house.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs


Every Monday night, I take a detour on my way home and drive through the heart of downtown Austin. It lures me like I imagine an anglerfish entices prey in the deep sea depths; a sinister analogy, but oddly applicable to how I feel when I’m drawn to those bright streets. I vary my route each week, watching business-suited pedestrians and party-goers share the night with cars and motorcycles and glittering buildings. It’s a vibrant nightlife that, come morning, will transform into a vibrant workday. It’s the sort of place you want to drive through slowly (or ideally walk)– becoming a participant.

janejacobsThis diverse and energetic city atmosphere is enthusiastically supported by Jane Jacobs in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Since its publication in 1961, it’s become a classic in urban planning and has exhibited impressive influence up to the present day; influencing city planners across the country and such movements as The New Urbanism. I read most of Jacobs’ book on vacation at the Frio River– about as far from city life as you can get, but even there I was struck by its pertinence. Not only is it searingly applicable to our problems as an increasingly urban nation, but Jacobs has masterfully woven personal experience, opinions and second-hand anecdotes together with hard statistics and history in a way that kept me turning pages and underlining passages even in sections dealing with amortization periods of mortgages, which is normally hard to do.

Jane Jacobs loved cities. She loved cities because she loved people and was endlessly captivated by the life of individuals, especially the ways those lives could be shaped and changed by the lives of other individuals or the places that framed them. I’ve thought a lot about the influence of Place recently, especially since traveling to England last year. What makes a place conducive to human flourishing? That question is a bigger one than Jacobs asks in Cities, since she deals primarily with urban centers rather than suburban or rural life. But in those urban centers, she calls first and foremost for diversity. “Without a strong and inclusive central heart,” she writes, “a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another. It falters at producing something greater, socially, culturally, and economically, than the sum of its separated parts.” Because people are always changing- whether by aging or because of fluctuations of income or interest, monotonous areas become permanent way stations. People want to live in places that reflect their own lives, so what multifaceted person would choose to spend his life in a one-dimensional neighborhood?

Diversity is key to lively cities, but cities do not automatically generate diversity. It forms because of various economic pools of use, which draw different sorts of people, who create smaller elements of diversity in an increasing cycle. That cycle of flourishing is a lofty and complex goal, but Jacobs proposes four necessary conditions for diversity that help break the issue into smaller, more attainable parts. (I highly support reading the book since this brief overview is really inadequate.)

First, districts must serve more than one primary function, to draw people into the area at different times of day. Primary uses are ordinarily places of work or residence, or anything that draws people for its own sake, such as a successful theatre.

Second, most blocks must be short to encourage commerce and “intricate pools of cross-use.” Long streets cut people off from other areas. If a city were a quilt, short streets would be like stitching instead of basting in the fabric of diversity.

Third, buildings must vary in age in order to accommodate businesses of varied means. Aesthetically, a street that mingles old and new buildings looks more diverse, and can attract real diversity by offering accommodation to established businesses and small start-ups simultaneously.

Fourth, the population must be sufficiently dense (density is determined by dwellings per acre, not to be confused with overcrowding which is determined by people per dwelling). In areas where people are spread thin, only businesses supported by the majority can turn a sustainable profit. Only dense areas can meet the demands of the minority. At a lecture on urban design last week, I met a developer who chose the following quote from Jane Jacobs as a motto for his real estate consultant firm: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Further in her book, Jacobs delves deep into the nature of cities and issues such as the self-destruction of diversity, border vacuums, the role of automobiles, and various tactics to improve the functioning of everything from subsidized housing to city government. Particularly because I’ve experienced European cities and older American ones that were built around the pedestrian or horse and carriage rather than the car, I was fascinated by Jacobs’ diagnosis and prescribed cures for the (in my opinion) inferior urban planning movements after World War II. The sentiment is shared by the authors of Suburban Nation, another book on urban planning I finished recently, as evidenced by the choice of quote here:


Since Jacobs published it in 1961, the logic and sentiments behind her work have taken root in many city development departments and produced improvements that I hope would encourage her today. They certainly encourage me. But there’s still a long way to go. When I drive through downtown Austin, I’m thrilled by all the diversity I see in action. But a few miles out, the suburban neighborhoods are populated with bleak business parks and wide highways that speak of an environment built for machines instead of bodies. As ever more Americans (especially millennials) flock to urban centers, it is ever more important that we build them well. At the beginning of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, there’s a note about illustrations that has stuck with me: “The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.”