Truth Matters / Diversity is Strength 
We learned a few things this week:
Truth Matters. Having an informed population who can decipher between facts and conspiracy theories is essential to a functioning democracy. It is clear that too many Americans can’t. I don’t know when our society shifted from respecting education, science, and progress, to what we have now - masses of ignorant people believing online conspiracies and attacking science during a deadly pandemic. More importantly, how can we recover and swing the pendulum back? It is imperative that we do.
News companies have done a terrible job covering politics over the past 6 years and learned this lesson too late. They should have blatantly called out lies for what they were, and should have been doing this from the beginning of the Trump political era. Additionally, social media didn’t have to give a loudspeaker to those who were spreading conspiracies and falsehoods. Just because a president tweets something doesn’t make it newsworthy. Just because someone is famous or in politics doesn’t mean Social Media should allow them to break their terms of service and behavior policies.
I believe both traditional and social media companies are complicit in what has happened in our country over the past 4-6 years. I believe this started with 24 hour cable news networks that had political agendas rather than a focus on telling the news, the truth. This has led to the travesty of January 6th, 2021. I hope newsrooms across America self reflect and implement standards and processes that prevent them repeating these mistakes. There are no such things as alternate facts. Lies aren’t news.
Those who argued over the past four years for the need to erect walls along our border with Mexico stupidly demonstrated how effective they are.
I apologize for getting political in this space. It was never my intention when starting this newsletter. But alas, here we are in the early days of 2021…
I was always skeptical that it would get this bad. I believed that our norms and institutions would prevail over the individuals who were trying to tear them down. Sadly I was mistaken. The events over the past few days have made it abundantly clear how low some politicians and their gullible followers are willing to go to keep power and destroy our country.
I believe it is now vital that there are consequences, both political and legal, for all those involved. These people must go to jail for a significant amount of time. Politicians involved must resign, be impeached, and held legally accountable as well. Individuals and Businesses have to look long and hard about who’s campaigns they donate to. Voters must put common decency and truth above party. Republicans have to come to terms with the fact they are the party of white supremacy and authoritarian populism. No tax cut or business friendly policy is worth the damage that the GOP has inflicted on our country. There is no excuse for their lies, deceit and contemptible world view. There is no excuse for those Americans who enable them.
In other news
It has been a beautiful sunny weekend here in New York. Yesterday we explored a new part of the city, getting groceries and to-go dinner from various places in Jackson Heights, Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city (country? world?). While our corner of Brooklyn is relatively mellow with only sparse crowds on the weekends, the sidewalks of Jackson Heights were bustling with activity. Street vendors, outdoor dining, and markets overflowing onto the sidewalks, and crowds of shoppers reminded us that we live in a city. That life goes on. That national politics are far removed from the vibrancy of day to day life.
It also reminded us of the value of diversity. Shopping at Indian specialty stores with floor to ceiling shelving filled with spices, beans, and bags of rice, corner shops offering samosas and other fried snacks to go, and sweet shops with huge varieties of colorful desserts is incredibly fun. Smelling the food being cooked in the various food carts is mouth watering. Buying things we haven’t tried before and finding recipes to use our new ingredients allows us to get some insight into other places and cultures. It allows us to begin to appreciate who they are, where they came from, and offers a glimpse into their lives, creating more space within ourselves for empathy and connection to those who differ from us. With international travel no longer an option for the time being, this trip to Queens gave us a chance to try new things, taste new flavors, and share in the diversity of the city.
These are the things we have missed the most during the pandemic and one of the best things about living in New York. Experiencing and celebrating diversity is what makes life worth living. It is how we become better people. It is what America should be all about. It is sad that so many people have a closed mindset when it comes to learning about different ways to live, to worship, to cook, rather than celebrating the differences that make us great.
Our new policy: every time we are in a store like Patel Brothers or Sunrise Mart, buy something we have never tried before - be it a small snack, a drink from a different country, or a strange new vegetable to cook at home. It might be great. It may taste terrible. It will certainly always be interesting and new. The goal is to constantly challenge ourselves to step out of comfort zone and have new experiences.
Although I used food and shopping in the example above, this is true for the built environment as well. The best part of traveling is seeing how cities and countries work. How do people get around? How are streets laid out and designed for various uses? How are neighborhoods or districts connected? How is indigenous architecture built - what local materials are used and how does it responds to the local climate? How are new technologies and international architecture woven into historic buildings and urban development? How do people socialize and gather? How do people buy their groceries? Where do they eat? What is the local street food? How does the form of the city and its buildings address geography and weather?
The things that make cities different are what make them great.
Weekly Design Inspiration
The more I focus my career on designing residential projects, the more inspired I am by examples of residential projects that compliment their environment.
Designed by HGA Architects, these cabins in Vermont are beautiful in their simplicity. The traditional form and natural materials allow the details to shine while floor to ceiling windows connect every space to the outdoors. I particularly love how they exposed the structure and created interiors that have no drywall. The warmth and texture of the wood makes the spaces feel calm and welcoming. Meanwhile the cabin sits serenely in the landscape - the architecture compliments the surrounding meadow and woods. It’s at once contemporary and classic, a timeless design that reflects my design values. Well done.
Things worth reading / watching
The Case For One Billion Americans
Can population growth solve many of America’s problems? This is an audacious idea and a compelling case for why tripling our population could be a benefit for us and for the world. Author Matthew Yglesias is using the shock value of the big number to instigate discussion on a range of political, economic, social, and environmental issues that we face today. He makes a lot of good points, particularly around the fact that we already have the infrastructure in place to absorb many more people. For instance, Rust Belt cities - from Buffalo to Detroit - have been declining in population for years. We can make use of this “wasted” infrastructure already in place while giving these communities a shot in the arm economically.
I personally feel that most of the issues that we face in America in relation to the built environment have to do with population density. We can’t afford to maintain the infrastructure we built because we don’t have the population to contribute to the costs. We can’t expand our infrastructure because we don’t have the tax base to fund it. We don’t have public transit to all of our communities because we don’t have the population density to demand it. Population growth can lead to a lot of great things. It is how we address the challenges that could make or break this idea.
And as Matthew mentions in the interview, if America had 1 billion people living in it, we would still have a population density lower than France, Germany or the UK.
Legalize Accessory Commercial Units (ACUs)
I have spent the past 7 years designing Accessory Dwelling Units in Portland, Seattle, and am currently working on projects in the Bay Area. What I love about ADUs is that they are small in scale, take advantage of existing property, and leverage this to make a big impact on both an individual and community wide scale. With the success of ADUs - they have spread to cities across the country and even whole states are adopting laws to allow them by right - the question is what is next? This article argues that ACUs, or accessory commercial units, would be a game changer, especially to address some of the economic hardships brought on by the pandemic. Unfortunately “ACUs are functionally illegal in most cities; they don’t fit well in our current land use, zoning, or lending paradigms.” writes Ashley Salvador. She continues, “Lowering the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs helps them build a good life for themselves and their families, helps grow the economic ecosystem of a place, and makes our towns and cities more resilient. Clearing the path for ACUs is a brilliant place to start.” I for one would like to see this changed and I personally would love to start designing ACUs in communities across the country.
How to Solve the Transit Budget Crunch: Price the Private Use of Public Streets
Hordes of headlines have shown the dire straights our public transit agencies are in across the country due to the pandemic. Few discuss a how at the same time we give away public land for free that could be monetized to cover the costs of transit.
We think there’s a solution right under our feet: Make private drivers pay market rates to use the public’s roads. Traditionally, transit customers have had to fork over hefty fares, while private drivers go for free. The result is congestion, endless circling for parking spaces, Ubers and Lyfts blocking bike lanes and bus stops, and, at this precarious fiscal moment, a huge pot of potential revenue waiting to be claimed.
This shouldn’t be so hard. We just need some political will to actually address the inequity of incentivizing driving and underfunding transit. Let’s do this!
Sharing the love.
a person/organization that deserves more attention
One of the leading forces that has caused our car focused urban environment and infrastructure spending is the powerful, well connected, and well funded Auto Lobby. And that is why I’d like to do my small part to fight this by highlighting the Bike Lobby: People For Bikes.
They are one of the few groups dedicated to advocating for bike infrastructure across America. They provide resources, post bike-related news, conduct research, organize events, and provide funding for bike projects across our country and to help inform and influence policy makers.
Want to get involved and help make biking better for everyone? Donate some money or volunteer your time to help with advocacy efforts in your city. Or simply attend one of the People For Bikes events or dust off your bike and join one of their organized rides. Best of all, the next time you think of taking your car (or an Uber/Lyft/Taxi) for a short trip, chose to ride a bike instead.
BUILDING CITIES FOR BIKING: How does your city rank?
Check out the City Ratings where you can find your city, sort by categories, and compare cities across the country.
Shameless Self Promotion:
A snapshot of a street seat I designed a few years ago for Bamboo Sushi on NE Alberta Street in Portland, Oregon. We were a bit ahead of the curve providing outdoor dining to a local restaurant. Since this one I have also designed outside seating for Bamboo Sushi’s downtown location, a street seat for Bonfire Lounge, and a temporary street seat outside a café in Eugene, Oregon. I love these project types as they take back a small piece of the city and dedicate it to people rather than cars.
Of course, with the pandemic devastating the restaurant industry over the past year, cities across the country have be adapting their rules to allow businesses to set up outdoor dining on sidewalks and curbside parking strips. What I hope is that this trend continues and we see the advantages of transforming our urban environment to be more people friendly long after the pandemic is behind us.
If you own a business that is interested in adding outdoor dining or a street seat, or you know of a local establishment that could benefit from one of these installations, please get in touch.
The deadline to apply for the Small Project Design Grant Program is quickly approaching - January 14th.
And the Small Project Design Awards Program is open for entries until January 15th. Get yours in this week.