In Search of Inzichten

Amst1 Over the last several years, readers of these periodic posts may have noticed I have had a longtime appetite for inzichten uit de Nederlandse stedebouwkunde – insights of Dutch city planning. I’m intrigued by the international nature of Dutch culture, its democratic roots, and the relationship of their planning to scarcity of land. The constant threat of flooding through their history has stimulated shifts in each of these areas.

This week, I leave for travel that will include time spent with family in Holland, and I’m looking forward to exploring another tradition’s approach to city building and public finance. A few examples I’ve touched in here at the Cents of Place include:

  • Understanding the value created both by access to transportation, and by a mixing of real estate asset types, remains a driver in Donjek projects. The Dutch connection is diluted in this piece, but I cited evidence from the Lowlands suggesting the premium for commercial real estate located near rail stations exceeds 10%.
  • Highlighting the historical connection of urban success stories and concerted public investment, I cited the model of Amsterdam as it emerged from the Middle Ages in reviewing Joel Kotkin’s 2006 book, “The City, a Global History.”
  • As a past adjunct instructor of economics, I could not be expected to forego some consideration of the fascinating period of Dutch history that centered on the mania of the tulip bulb. Similarly, I could not be expected to forego the comparison to the housing bubble, which I did in 2008.
  • Given the intensive construction underway outside the Donjek office, which will lead to easy access to nearby light rail transit, I’ve been reminded of the promising product of Dutch firm, the Ooms Avenhorn Group. Using street infrastructure for more than multimodal transportation, the geothermal systems collect and store warm and cool water beneath road surfaces for climate control in nearby buildings.

This is a small, unscientific sample of ideas. There are a great many who have both a more authoritative and more comprehensive perspective on Dutch planning and development. Call me a student. With luck, I will bring home more ideas for applying the most effective Dutch practices in American central cities.

Photo: Courtesy Flickr/Tashenka

@Strib: Building Productive Places in the Air


Note: An abridged version of the following post was also published online at the Star Tribune's Your Voices forum. Your comments are welcome in each forum.

The realities of climate change, rising gas prices and budget constraints compel us to use our developed area more intentionally and productively. Our assets will need to produce multiple benefits – parking lots become stormwater collection systems, roofs become collectors of energy, and road rights of way become tillable land area. All around us is space that we’ve underused over time.

Bridges are a good example. Inhabited bridges, or bridges that support a superstructure of residential and commercial buildings, are being reconsidered as an innovative way to add capacity, jobs, tax base, green space and character to urban centers. As in many cities located on major waterways, bridges can serve as iconic landmarks that structure the urban landscape and hold powerful symbolic connotations of community integration. And beyond symbolism, inhabited bridges capture space from the air, to house jobs or shared spaces. 

Vecchio_by_CGoulao Certainly not a 21st century innovation, bridges that contain residential and commercial uses have been an historic solution to limited available land for development in medieval European cities. From the 12th to the 18th centuries, at the apex of their popularity, mixed-use bridges were built throughout Europe. In economic terms, their construction shows that the value of proximity outweighed building and maintenance cost. Notable and popular examples include Old London Bridge, Ponte Vecchio, and Ponte di Rialto (here are the shops). The Old London Bridge was built in 1209 and housed nearly 200 shops as well as numerous residences that provided the revenue for the bridge’s construction and maintenance. 

Still standing in Italy, the Ponte Vecchio of Florence and the Ponte di Rialto of Venice (built respectively in 1345 and 1591) continue to be iconic structures and popular tourist attractions lined with flourishing shops. With little land available for expansion, medieval cities built inhabited bridges to maximize available space while minimizing government expenditure on maintenance through the taxation of residential and commercial entities inhabiting the bridge. The popularity of inhabited bridges, however, all but vanished following the 18th century as the demands of traffic and outward movement escalated, and the value of proximity fell in relation to construction and maintenance costs. 

Nonetheless, the inhabited bridge may not be a mere relic of the past but innovative solution to modern urban problems. The surviving Italian inhabited bridges testify to their modern applicability and the lasting import of their unique construction.  

Following their heyday, numerous plans for inhabited bridges have both been proposed and denied due to their perceived impracticality in a world dependent on motor vehicles. However, at the turn of the 21st century, the idea of inhabited bridges has gained greater attention. Construction of inhabited bridges appears to offer significant benefits and opportunities for the modern city. The “Living Bridges: The Inhabited Bridge: Past, Present & Future” exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1996 brought the concept of inhabited bridges to global attention and was met both with enthusiasm skepticism. A large component of the exhibit was an architectural competition to design an inhabited bridge. 

Again, in 2009, a similar competition was undertaken to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the construction of the Old London Bridge. While much of this interest has not begotten bridge construction, the inhabited Zaragoza Bridge crossing the Ebro River in Spain was constructed in 2008 to combine a pedestrian walkway with exhibition spaces focusing on water sustainability. Although new construction, the Zaragoza Bridge is an initial effort at redeploying the inhabited bridge for modern development. 

As global and economic factors converge to redirect our attention inwards, we are faced with cities that are compartmentalized by networks of major roadways. Communities and businesses within our cities are separated by natural barriers like rivers as well as man-made ones. Symbolically and physically, these communities are in need of being bridged. The inhabited bridge may serve to restore a disjointed urban social fabric, and release space for the creation of jobs, tax base, green space or others uses in places across the country.

Photo: Ponte Vecchio detail. Courtesy of Flickr/CGoulao

The Future, Coming Soon to a City Near You

In 1543, Copernicus published “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres,” which sketched out a vision that the Earth, as a round and floating form, circled the Sun along with neighboring planets. History will not rank innovations in mapping technology in recent years in the Copernicus league; these tools haven’t initiated fundamental challenges to political and religious orders required to justify that comparison.  However, I have been amazed to see changes in the geographic information systems (GIS) realm, and in related map technology.

Donjek projects have used GIS analytics and images in a range of ways, and I am currently developing new applications of these tools for clients in real estate development, investment, and urban planning (more to come on this topic).  The inspiration for this post, however, is to display how mapping tools can create meaningful observations from opaque bodies of data.
The maps included here represent cell phone usage in the small town of Graz, Austria, and illustrate a novel approach to understanding places.  By identifying roads or rivers or museums or transit stations or academic buildings, maps give us a visual sense of how features and places are connected. Urban maps also depict where centers are, marked by downtowns, plazas, intersections.  Mapping cell phone data is a real-time approach to understanding where centers are, when they are, and perhaps even why certain places function as they do.
About ten years ago, I enjoyed a very rich two weeks in Rome, Florence and the Liguria region in Italy. A particular highlight, among several, was beholding the imposing globe at the Medici palace in Florence. Built in the 1560s – only twenty years after Copernicus’ famous release, and seventy years after Columbus landed in the West Indies – the globe is over six feet in diameter and represents a period of great discovery and curiosity. As I’ve thought of it in recent years, the globe is a symbol of an evolving view – of the shape of the Earth, its place in the solar system, and its far-flung features and peoples.
Could the developing tools for mapping open our eyes to the space around us in some similar fashion? I will stay tuned.

Review: The City, A Global History

Imagedb The “tragedy of the commons” is a metaphor employed by economists to describe the difficulty of providing and pricing public goods.  Because grazing sheep in the commons is cheaper than owning private land, theoretical shepherds overuse the common thereby eliminating the available grass and value of the common generally. 

Joel Kotkin’s book, The City: A Global History, earns its broad title in its only 160 pages – and among other things, identifies for the reader how cities have over time managed the commons.  In particular, what has characterized cities that have thrived in their times?  In my view, these characteristics suggest a highly symbiotic relationship between public and private investments.  Successful cities of history are not defined by their size or their location as much as by the strategic thinking of their leadership, investment in infrastructure, and social openness. 

Pollution, high unemployment, rising residential foreclosure and commercial vacancy rates and strained education systems, these are costs that burden the public, private and civic sectors – not one or the other.  Whether costs are borne by a business or individual, or paid via the public sector using tax revenues from the same parties, is immaterial where regional vitality is concerned.  Either way, these costs reduce regional productivity and vitality and, to follow the metaphor, erode the commons.  Conversely, public investment can serve as a lever for the private sector, and vice versa.  Two points about how this played out in European history:

Two success stories are inseparable from their emphasis on public investment.  In the 1400s, the Venetians established urban zones devoted to key industries of shipbuilding, munitions, glassmaking and others, putting the authority of the Venetian Doge behind a physical urban organization that matched the market’s interest in locating vendors and financiers near their respective industries.  By 1500, Venice was the wealthiest city in Europe.  In Amsterdam, the investment in the canal system and city sanitation, as well as mandates to use brick to manage the risk of fire, provided a foundation for what Kotkin called “the first great modern commercial city,” and the capital of an unprecedented merchant and cultural engine.

Two success stories trace to recognition and control of “primary avenues to a widening world.”  Kotkin describes the approach of the Phoenicians, Mediterranean powerhouse of the 8th/9th century B.C., as focused not on rote acquisition of territory, but on controlling coastlines and trading with larger neighbors.  Consequently, Phoenicia developed what is widely considered the first influential merchant class in an urban society.  In the late 1500s, the Dutch (yes, again) adopted a similar strategy, rapidly coming to dominate the Spanish, who had continued to emphasize military power fueled by religiosity at the expense of economic strength.

Vital cities have been with us for our 10,000 years of urban life, and we can learn from successful models used to finance thriving places through history.  If nothing else, The City speaks to how fostering strong urban economies is the responsibility of public, private and civic sectors alike.

“Lots of Energy in the Street” – Dutch Firm Produces Solar and Geothermal System Underneath

Ever run your car over the heating system of an office
building? If you’ve been to Scharwoude
in the Netherlands, you may have – but you would not have known it. As reported in this week’s Economist magazine, Dutch company Ooms Avenhorn
Group has developed a heating and cooling system that relies on asphalt roadways
and underlying aquifers. The company’s
offices in Scharwoude are heated and cooled using this method. An excerpt of the article:

"The heat-collector itself is a circuit of connected water pipes. Most of
them run from one side of the street to the other, just under the asphalt
layer. Some, however, dive deep into the ground. In summer, when the surface of
the street gets hot, water pumped through the pipes picks up this heat and
takes it underground through one of the diving pipes. About 100 metres down
lies a natural aquifer into which a series of heat exchangers have been built.
The hot water from the street runs through them, warming the groundwater,
before returning to the surface via another pipe. The aquifer is thus used as a
heat store.

In winter, the circuit is changed slightly. Water is pumped through the heat
exchangers to pick up the heat that was stored during summer. This water goes
into the Ooms building and is used to warm it up. The water is then pumped
under the asphalt, and the residual heat it carries helps to keep the road free
of snow and ice. By now the water has been cooled to near freezing point, and
it is once again sent underground—this time through a different pipe, to a
second aquifer. Here, another set of heat exchangers is used to cool the
groundwater. This store of cold water is then used in summer to keep the Ooms
building cool.

The result is cheap heating in winter and cheap cooling in summer. And there
is a bonus. Summer heating softens asphalt, making it easier for heavy traffic
to damage the road surface. Dr de Bondt’s system not only saves electricity,
but also saves the road. Expect to see more examples of it, in other countries,

Janet Attarian (project manager of Chicago’s new
to use alleys more productively) asked in a recent New York Times
, “can you make alleys do more for you?” Converting streets into energy collection and
storage facilities may just qualify.

Why is this important? It could serve several significant ends:

 • Generating and storing energy through this combined
solar/geothermal method provides a financial hedge against significant price
fluctuations of conventional alternatives such as natural gas.

• Moving some infrastructure for heating and cooling under
the street may increase the square footage available for the primary building
purpose, be it housing, manufacturing, office or retail.

• Making streets and alleys “work for you” as energy
infrastructure increases the intensity of use of urban land and bolsters tax
base, providing support for the private
and public efforts required for regions to differentiate

Photo:  Courtesy of Flickr.