Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Relevant books I've been reading:

So, I'm working, going to school, and spending my time in between on transit. I just thought I'd mention a few of the books I've got going, and how they've related to Higher Frequency and my interest in urban planning and transportation infrastructure in general.

The first is "The Clock of the Long Now", by Stewart Brand. The original concept is simple: Build a clock and library to last at least through the next ice age, and contain knowledge in a format that will continue to be readable for tens of thousands of years. The clock would tick once a day, and go through full bells something like every millennium. Together, these would help humans consider thinking in longer terms - where we currently plan for weeks or years, we might realize it's more appropriate to plan in hundreds of years.
This gets really important for big projects, because if you take into account the ecological impact of your planning over decades or hundreds of years, you lean toward sustainable solutions. That's where using electric rail to connect communities becomes much more viable than cars or buses - when viewed in 100 year terms, for instance, a subway system can easily become the best bang for your buck.

I've been working on two books by Jane Jacobs, one started before and one after she passed away a few weeks ago. The first is her famous "The Death and Life of Great American Cities", describing how planning choices can make or break neighborhoods, and how to develop them to meet their own needs rather than to be subservient to, say, a large business. Renton is an example of a community reliant on a large employer (Boeing). Because the community relies on Boeing for much of their political power, if that employer were to leave, she argues that they would have to build much of that power again from scratch. My point here is that if Boeing left Renton, but Renton were well connected to other communities with permanent transit, the city would redevelop much more quickly. This would be due not only to accessibility of employment in neighboring communities, but also to newly available real estate near an existing transit hub.
The second, which I've just started, is "The Economy of Cities". So far, this has been about agriculture's development. The book was written in 1969, and suggests what I was taught in school - that cities developed before agriculture, and that most new technology is developed in dense areas and distributed to rural and suburban zones. I'm still quite early on in the book.

The newest addition to my reading list is Robert Cervero's "The Transit Metropolis", case studies of transit systems in several different types of city layouts and on several continents. I'm not sure I like his approach - he seems to address city development as linear, specifically avoiding discussing how a transit system can change that course, but only how a transit system can address the existing city layout. I'm not sure if that's just his starting point, or if it's going to be prevalent throughout.

I've got Kunstler's "The Geography of Nowhere" and a couple of other books on sprawl by Peter Calthorpe waiting in the wings for when I get through all of this. Hopefully I'm internalizing what I learn well enough to have better opinions of local developments.