In the last couple of days I have heard or seen several people comment that due to the COVID-19 pandemic urban planners might rethink their approach to density. Cities are of course being hit the worst, and public transit and dense living conditions are ideal for viral spread. Will this cause them to rethink? History says no.
Ancient cities like Rome regularly fell prey to plaques whether viral or bacterial, and they just went right back to building insulae, stadia and other dense forms. The Justinian Plaque (bacterial) killed as much as 40% of Constantinople’s population in two years and recurred intermittently for two centuries, but the built form did not alter significantly. The Plague of Athens (possibly viral) hit in the middle of the Peloponnesian Wars and took out Pericles, causing political repercussions but not architectural ones.
Medieval and Renaissance Paris and London were beset by the Black Death, and still built dense cities. Milan was hit by plague as late as 1630 but they are still building up.
But now we have the internet, and telephones and email and Zoom so we don’t need the density we needed a few hundred years ago, right?
Wrong. Time for another history lesson.
In 1842 a painter named Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph, and all of the prognosticators saw a future of dispersed people, in touch with nature, able to communicate over long distances with no need to congregate together. The urban haters had their technological solution. Cities were OVER.
Except they weren’t. They were getting denser. We even added telephones but a decade after that there were skyscrapers and then more skyscrapers and electric streetcars and subways. The opportunity to work from anywhere did not translate into people working from anywhere. We are social creatures, after all. What are you craving right now, this minute? More Zoom meetings or more face-to-face contact?
That doesn’t mean the dream and the ideal of the sylvan suburban landscape went away. It started with the AJDs in the 1840s (Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing) and continued a century layer with Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright disliked cities and his planning ethos was decidedly suburban. His 1930s Broadacre City embodied the low-slung suburban dream, as did his Usonian automatic houses.
Even though he didn’t like skyscrapers he designed one just a few years after the Spanish flu pandemic. He also drew up a mile-high skyscraper in his final decade of life, just to show he was best.
Density is more efficient, uses less energy and also fulfills another ideal which goes back to before the crowded Roman insulae. People like to be around other people. They are more productive around other people. The Black Deaths which killed a quarter or a third of medieval urban populations eventually led to better sanitary systems, but they did not lead to a rethinking of density. Indeed, the Justinian and later plaques significantly affected the countryside as well. Here is a not-so-short list of epidemics through history.
Dense urban forms were also prone to fire for much of their existence, as Chicago and San Francisco can relate, along with London and Rome itself. Each rebuilt as dense as it was or more so – the 1871 Chicago Fire paved the way for the first skyscrapers just over a decade later. The Great Fire of London (1666) resulted not in a newly planned place but the same place except in brick and stone instead of wood. In the 19th century Paris famously cleared its slums and built boulevards, but that was more defense minded than sanitary.
People like cities, and they are economically efficient. You can do a lot of work on the email and by telephone, but you will be geometrically more productive face-to-face. Plus, take a look at the current pandemic beyond the United States to places that are REALLY dense, like Hong Kong.
Right at the doorstep to China and they didn’t even have to do a lockdown against the virus. Restaurants have remained open. Then again, they have been practicing for almost 20 years.
So, I don’t think COVID-19 is going to affect how we build our cities.
UPDATE: As I was writing this, Milan, in the wake of COVID-19, just announced a plan to make even more of the city car-free. Paris is saying the same. The planning trends pre-pandemic seem to be accelerating rather than turning.
UPDATE: More North American cities are planning to close streets to automobile traffic as well, even car-centric San Antonio!
AUGUST UPDATE: Yes, we are still in the thick of it five months later! And now some researchers at Johns Hopkins have added contemporary evidence to the historic evidence I presented above. It turns out that in a study of 913 counties across the USA, dense or sprawling developments had no effect on COVID-19 infection rate, although sprawl areas had a higher death rate.
Turns out we tend to confuse density with crowding. Crowding anywhere produces more infections. Crowding can happen in dense or rural areas. The counterintuitive fact of higher morbidity in rural areas was explained by researchers through a stronger use of antiviral protocols in urban areas, and poorer access to healthcare in rural areas.
SEPTEMBER UPDATE: Six months later. Hong Kong has had less than 100 COVID deaths. It’s not about the density.
SEPTEMBER 2021 UPDATE: COVID death rates in rural areas are higher than in urban areas in the U.S.
DECEMBER 2022 UPDATE: The Guardian recently (October) released a Bloomberg/WHO/Vital Strategies study showing how cities are changing for the better due to COVID. “…the pandemic actually unmasked what people want – and need – from their city: a walkable and cycle-friendly neighborhood; a more community focused approach to communications; access to nutritious food; and a responsive social safety net.” The study has four case studies covering each of these points: Guadalajara; Philadelphia; Bogotá and Kampala.
The article began with “When the COVID-19 crisis led to the shutdowns of early 2020, many observers penned obituaries for the modern metropolis,” but “these dire predictions haven’t panned out.”
Well, mine have. See above. Wish I was this prescient with the stock market.
Less than a week ago I was part of a group planning the next national preservation conference and we were brainstorming what programs and indeed what formats should be employed to reflect our world in the COVID-19 crisis. One of the big concerns was whether “historic preservation” would be considered a luxury that we no longer could afford.
Man that’s dumb. The only business happening on my street besides mail delivery and garbage pickup is “historic preservation.” They are repairing the lovely bungalow on the corner, restoring the clapboard siding after leveling. Work is also going on next door in another bungalow that just sold, and there is a ton of interest in the one just fixed up on the other side of our house. There are at least 5 rehab projects on this one block, two for sale and another for lease.
You could quibble about some of the choices the owner/contractors made, but the bottom line is that century-old buildings are being rehabilitated and reused. Conserving well-made older buildings is a wise reuse of resources, a more affordable approach to housing, and a benefit for the community.
I live in a conservation district, not an historic district, but every building on my block is old and ninety percent of the work being done would be consistent with a historic district. Preserving building is not only environmentally friendlier than new construction, it is also an economic engine. Right now it is providing more than its share of jobs in an otherwise stalled economy.
It’s July in San Antonio, which means it is probably hot and it is definitely time to demolish landmark buildings. In addition to the unexpected demolition of the G.J. Sutton Building which began last week without an alibi, this week we are also witnessing the needless removal of two homes on Evergreen near Tobin Hill that are going to be replaced by nine units. (Nine? You have two buildings PLUS a vacant lot and you can’t manage nine units by rehabbing? What development school did you go to?)
To add a heaping schlag of cruelty to this demolition sachertorte, they have little kids cheering the demolition of the 1915 Beacon Hill School. Sad. The School District promised to rehab the building three decades ago, let it rot that whole time, and then manipulated schoolchildren and their parents into calling for its demolition by putting up an unnecessary fence and pretending the building was a hazard to the nearby playground.
In another era, that would be called lying. Anyway, there were the kids in cute little hardhats, egging on the claws and dumptrucks and firehoses.
Who is responsible? The Sutton Building was a State decision that excluded the City. Evergreen and Beacon Hill were City Council decisions, and Almaguer was a Historic and Design Review decision. Meanwhile, check out this heat map showing demolitions near the Tobin Hill and Monte Vista historic districts.
So, come to San Antonio in the summer! Where else can you get so many different and delightful demolitions going on at the same time? The sun might feel hot but we got lots of fire hoses running round the clock!
I was quoted in the news several times this week, thanks to the sudden demolition of the 1912 G.J. Sutton Building on the East Side, as well as the unanimous vote to demolish the 1958 Almaguer Dance Studio at Woodlawn Lake. Both cases were exercises in Bad Excuses.
The Sutton Building demolition began suddenly and without warning. In fact, when a community member emailed us Tuesday afternoon saying it was being demolished, we prepared to forward a news article from the weekend that indicated it would be rehabilitated. But, by then, several news reporters had discovered that the opposite was true.
The building is owned by the State of Texas, specifically the Texas Facilities Commission. After rejecting several bids from developers who would have saved the solid brick structure, they decided to proceed with remediation and demolition. The state does not even have to get local demolition permits, so there was no warning. Not even the local officials elected to represent the interests of the East Side knew. There were, however, Bad Excuses.
The worst of the Bad Excuses was the kind of bureaucratic insanity that makes people want to get rid of government. Remember I said there were bids from developers who would have saved the property? Well, the Texas Facilities Commission can’t do residential, and the three bids (18 months ago) included developing residential uses.
That’s nuts. Transfer the property to another agency. Sell it to the city. Sell it to the developer without a plan. Change whatever regulation caused that. This building served as an industrial site before G.J. Sutton, the first black Texas legislator from San Antonio, championed its transformation into a state office building. Why can’t its next reuse include residential?
The Bad Excuses continued with the familiar environmental shibboleths of lead paint and asbestos and even mercury switches to make it a perfect trifecta. I wrote about these bad excuses nine years ago here. Simply put, the more you demolish, the more you have to remediate.
Not only that, but the state is paying millions to do the abatement and demolition rather than putting those expenses on the final buyer, an expensive decision County Commissioner Tommy Calvert questioned in an article Tuesday.
And then there is everyone’s favorite Bad Excuse: It’s too expensive. Huh? The private developers (more than one!) who bid on the site could have taken advantage of state and federal tax incentives totaling 45% of rehab costs. This Bad Excuse is usually accompanied by numbers that show how expensive it would be to rehabilitate. To be safe, you should always go with $300 a square foot. That’s what you tell the engineers when you hire them.
Heck, you don’t even need to get an official report. It is 2019 after all, so evidence is hardly necessary – just make the claim. That’s what happened with the 1958 Almaguer Dance Studio, which the Historic and Design Review Commission voted to demolish on Wednesday. We met with the Parks Department about their demolition plan months ago and they showed pictures of cracks and leaks.
Well, you can do that with any building. It is a Bad Excuse. We told them at the time we have seen many worse buildings brought back. We wanted to see actual evidence, but none was forthcoming. It obviously was a safe and sound building hosting dozens of classes where people dance about.
The decision ultimately turned on the desire for upgraded dance studios with sprung floors and a new community center. That was translated into “unreasonable economic hardship” during the hearing, which is another Bad Excuse. There is actually a standard for this – “reasonable rate of return” which doesn’t really apply to public entities.
So, this week, the tale of two governments who tore down landmarks while serving up nearly the full portfolio of Bad Excuses. Retain for future reference.
Here is a very intact Victorian home in San Antonio of the typical Queen Anne type: L-shaped plan with front facing gable, decorative balusters, posts and porch trim. It even has decorative brackets with drop pendants that survive on the corner.
Next door we have this house. It is boarded up and a temporary fence was added three weeks ago, but this Queen Anne retains a lot of integrity, from every one of its four Doric order porch columns to original wood siding and decorative shingles in the protruding gables. The house volume is unchanged since 1912.
Next door, also behind the fence, this Folk Victorian gem has a double-munched standing seam metal roof, original siding and original shingles in the gables. It is also boarded up, so we don’t know how many original doors and windows survive, but in my experience, there will be several if not all.
SOOOOOO……. the owner proposed to demolish these three.
I have seen buildings in WAY worse shape get saved.
In fact, one that was on the demolition list when I started at the San Antonio Conservation Society three years ago recently came up in our house hunting.
The owner of the three Commerce houses has a business a block away where he rents, so he bought these “just in case.”
Perfect! Move your offices in there and ditch the landlord!
Um, so then the owner’s representative said they tried renting them but they were having too much trouble. But then the druggies and thugs started hanging out and breaking in, so they need to be demolished.
Because when you demolish buildings, those problems go away?
Then the owner’s rep said he wants to build and apartment building here but has no plans and no timeline.
“There is plenty of room to put in his office AND add an apartment building,” I said. This is not an EITHER/OR.
And then there is money. You rehab these as houses, you can get the city tax incentives. You rehab them as National Register landmarks (that still needs to be done) and you can get a 20% investment tax credit. And a 25% state tax credit. They would totally qualify based on their history, architecture and condition. 45% of your rehab costs paid for.
Since the fence went up three weeks ago the squatters and scrabblers have stayed away. We can only hope the owner listens to reason. Or money. Or the neighbors. Or takes a look at Zillow and sees what has happened to other buildings that someone once thought should be demolished.
Because they couldn’t think of anything else.
Recently in San Francisco a house flipper illegally demolished a significant 1936 home by the famous Richard Neutra. Here is some coverage.
Perhaps he expected to be treated like the last lawbreaker, who had demolished a Willis Polk house in the same city and was fined a record $400,000. In that case the flipper paid the fine and quickly made 7 or 8 million on the flip. Price of doing business.
Except our Neutra Exterminator didn’t get a fine – he was told he had to rebuild the house in the same materials just as it was, and then put up a plaque explaining the history of the building and making sure everyone understands that they are looking at a replica.
I’m sure we can find a “property rights” type who would cry for this poor flipper,. but not me. The value of this harsh but entirely equitable judgement is that it discourages the unfortunate tendency of some to “ask forgiveness” rather than ask permission. This approach undercuts the law and rewards lawbreakers. Making someone FIX their lawbreaking actually discourages further lawbreaking.
(By the way, you can always tell a flipper because they SAY that they are going to live in the house with their family. Dead giveaway.)
We have some of this “backwards planning” here in San Antonio. First, we have a structural problem in Planning. Public hearings on planning issues are only held AFTER the applicant has dealt with the city planners and there is a big sign that clearly states that there can be no changes at that point. So public input is rendered worthless.
We have the “ask forgiveness” problem in epidemic proportions. Applicants come before a citizen board with limited experience, plead that they have already invested in their non-permitted scheme, and the board feels sorry for them and grants the permit retroactively. Awful precedent, and everyone is taking it up. It happens at Board of Adjustment all the time – “I didn’t know I needed a permit. Sorry. Can I keep it?”
This also happens with the Historic and Design Review Commission, which has several new members and it still getting used to its processes and purview.
I guess, technically, we are the Wild West, but planning anarchy is no way to welcome tens of thousands of new residents a year. With a series of political and administrative shifts in our city (and an increase in borrowing costs) it is high time we fixed our backwards planning.
Just back from San Francisco, currently sporting the worst air quality on the planet but also hosting PastForward, the National Preservation Conference.
For me it brought back fond memories of Beijing, 2004.
It was the final meeting for National Trust President Stephanie Meeks. I remember flying from Chicago to Washington DC and back the same day to vote her into her position back in 2010.
Her speech at the Plenary session hit five major points that well illustrate the status of heritage conservation in 2018 and its future direction. You can see her full speech here, but I hope she will allow me to reflect on her five points below.
Heritage conservation is about what people want and need, and not about museums and architectural obscurities. It is about Main Streets and housing and schools and jobs and how communities are built and thrive. It about more than tourism and curation – it is about how we feel about belonging to a place, investing ourselves in it.
Stephanie cited Abraham Maslow’s 1943 “Hierarchy of Needs” where PLACE and a sense of belonging were first identified as essential human needs. Current neuroscience has dramatically underscored this early intuition with the solid research into the brain chemistry of architecture and environment in the work of Colin Ellard (which I blogged about here in 2016.)
The latest developments go even further that Ellard’s quantification of how – chemically – interesting buildings make us feel good and parking lots make us anxious. I just read Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s Welcome To Your World, a study of the new concept of embodied cognition – that how we think about and understand our world is crafted by our built environment, largely in an unconscious way. She makes the case that good design is a basic human need, a key to brain health and a source of emotions. “Recognizing and identifying patterns produces in us a sensation of pleasure.”
We see ourselves in our surroundings.
It turns out architecture is neither a luxury nor an externality. It is the way we construct our thoughts and feelings. The heritage conservation field is only beginning to take advantage of these new frontiers in neuroscience which prove something we suspected for a long time. Look for a big expansion in the coming years.
The changes to heritage conservation in the last two decades are epic. In terms of diagnostics, we can now learn so much more about archaeology and buildings with minimally invasive techniques impossible in the 20th century. Ground-penetrating radar. LIDAR. We can snake cameras into the tiniest crawlspaces and cavity walls, and we can point cloud anything with a regular camera if need be.
Presidio 2007 – an actual point cloud station but they did show us how to do it with camera.
New tools are also available for rehabilitation. I learned Thursday that a company actually makes siding that matches 1940s asbestos siding! We can 3-D print components, or we can find the companies that still make the same sash cord they did 90 years ago.
The greatest innovations, of course, have been in interpretation of historic places.
Painting with light. “Restored By Light” at Mission San Jose, 2016
Innovation works at two levels here. First, we have to reach the next audience through the media they choose to use. Second, we can restore history without resorting to massive physical intervention, as seen above.
Interpretation at the recently reopened Cooper-Molera historic site, Monterey, CA.
Innovative interpretation is key not only to the massive tourism industry, but also the more basic and democratic project of sharing why we save and repurpose elements of the past. People love the stories in the simplest of buildings. They enrich our experiences, which people crave today more than things.
Stephanie referenced the virtual reality interpretations of historic sites, and I would simply add that augmented reality is already a staple of museums and public history today, in 2018. The next generation of tourists will expect AR at every heritage site. Full stop.
I blogged about this moment almost two years ago here.
Scale. We complained at Harvard Business School this summer that every case study was about scaling. But yes, scaling is growth and that is the pattern of political economy and indeed civilization. So too in preservation we need to scale beyond the regulated landmark by incorporating heritage – in some form – into every aspect of building and planning. We are doing it here in San Antonio, from our neighborhood workshops that invite ALL communities regardless of designation to the city’s recent efforts to improve infill zoning.
Stephanie specifically referenced the rehabilitation of Cooper-Molera Adobe, the National Trust site in Monterey which I was involved with and saw in all of its free-entry glory last Saturday. It is like the Gaylord Building now – a restaurant, bakery and event space pay for the lively restored and crisply interpreted historic house. Nice job!
The challenge of bringing the heritage conservation message to scale is implicit in the initiatives described above – including all older neighborhoods regardless of their architectural integrity or consistency; reaching out to include diverse voices from history; understanding heritage as a part and parcel of EVERY planning and zoning decision.
The challenge for groups like the National Trust or San Antonio Conservation Society is how do you transmit scale into your organization? Can you grow membership in an era of declining membership? Can you create micro-members who join for a singular moment and cause? Can you re-tool surveys to fully incorporate diverse and intangible histories?
This was not one of the categories in Stephanie’s speech, but it was a frequent topic of educational sessions, since San Francisco is leading the way in dealing with Living Heritage through its thematic context studies, Legacy Business Program, and cultural place initiatives.
Japantown, San Francisco
These initiatives explode the traditional bounds of architecturally-based heritage conservation by focusing on intangible heritage and community values that are embodied in PLACE but not ARCHITECTURE. Some of these sessions were TrustLive follow-ups to the TrustLive presentation at our September Living Heritage Symposium in San Antonio, featuring my friend Theresa Pasqual. I blogged about our 2017 symposium here.
Three and a half years ago I attended the Pocantico Conference on Climate change and heritage. With so many coastal cities threatened by rising sea levels, climate change remains a central concern in the field of heritage conservation.
Preservation is always triage – which are the most important places to save, and which must be let go due to limited resources or political capital? Climate change accelerates these hard choices. I am reminded of Valmeyer, Illinois, the little town that moved – in its entirety – up to the bluffs following the devastating Mississippi River flood of 1993, or the National Historic Landmarks on the east coast that have been moved inland as storms worsen.
Like Lucy the Margate elephant.
This was a nice touch on Stephanie’s part. Spread Joy. The joy of heritage, a work that supports the brain and enlivens the body through its haptic interaction with a nurturing environment, an environment rich in stories and social interaction.
We know about this in San Antonio, where 12,000 volunteers entertain 85,000 attendees each year in support of preservation. A Night In Old San Antonio® will be here April 23-26, 2019!
One of our many case studies during the coursework this week had to do with Design Thinking, and it got our group to thinking about how well designed this course – Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management – has been. In addition to the supercharged professors, they carefully make use of the most important learning resource in any institution – the other students.
We come from four countries and represent a dizzying diversity of organizations. As I mentioned in the last blog, one of our tasks this week was Peer Consultation, where we each present a strategic challenge in our organization to the other 7 in our living group and hear their advice. This is another brilliant design move on the part of HBS. If you want to get insight into your problems, ask someone who doesn’t know your organization. Plus, each of these 7 people are brilliant leaders themselves.
Here we are right before the first Peer Consultation. The basic idea: You have a one-page statement of your challenge, you present 5-7 minutes, then you turn around and listen while the group discusses what you should do. It was incredible – these people think so fast, so strategically and so forcefully. You can’t help but get incredible insights.
The view while you are turned around and they are talking about you
Then we added a twist as we completed our first review of Corinne – Sevaun started a list on the big sheet and asked everyone to say what Corinne was. We did it with all 8, and by the end we had these big sheets of affirmations. Not only did you get wonderful insights into a strategic challenge, you got affirmation, something that does not happen everyday to people in our positions.
We are called Team 67 since we are Living Group 67 and we are all fast friends at this point. It has been a great privilege to spend this week at Harvard, and I am very grateful to the Harvard Business School club of San Antonio for making it possible. I am also grateful to the incredible professors, the challenging and insightful case studies, and the analytical frameworks I have gained. But mostly I am grateful to be able to work with 7 brilliant, insightful, powerful and balanced executives in close quarters for a week. Cheers to Mark, Corinne, Dawn, Chienye, Greg, Jorge, and Sevaun!
Hard to keep up with this schedule! We have four case studies per day and today we also have our peer consultation, where the other 7 people in our living group provide feedback on a strategic challenge within our own organizations. That should be fun!
I will dutifully explain how this is my financial stability plan…
One of the great advantages of a course like this is taking the time to look at organizational issues analytically. This is extremely difficult within the everyday. Plus, the faculty here are giving us excellent frameworks that help us perform these analyses, as I explained in the previous blogs. One of my favorites from yesterday was a triangle that helped diagnose problems within a labor force. It involved intuitive categories like Capability (skills training, etc.) and Motivation (involvement in mission) but added the key category of License. License is what you are allowed to do. License gives the staffer agency and some autonomy, which provides positive feedback to Motivation and ultimately to Capability.
My other big takeaway from yesterday has to do with the purpose of an organization. Feature this:
The purpose of an organization is to reduce the friction that comes when people work together toward a shared goal.
More to come…