Good small urban spaces

Brandon at mastersplanning posted this old New York City study by the Municipal Art Society of New York.  It has a whole bundle of clips illustrating what makes a good city public space.  I found it fascinating. 

Here’s the video: 

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

Some of the key lessons I learned from it:

  • Big empty spaces, by themselves, are very unpopular.
  • People want to be seen by people.  Social interaction happens at the centre of other people’s attention: the street corner, the subway entrance, the square’s main feature.
  • Basic durable geometric shapes are great for sitting, playing, and talking.
  • Places to sit are most important: at least a 1:30 ratio of space needs to be given to objects you can sit on.
  • Make everything people-friendly:  different sitting combinations, water you can touch and grass to play on, sculptures and windows to inside activities, and so on.  
  • Give people lots of choices.  Even something as simple as being able to move a chair makes people feel better.
  • Keep a close relationship to the street.  Don’t separate public spaces from movement and action. 
  • Water features are great, especially moving water.  Greenery is nice too, even token amounts.
  • Build spaces in proportion to buildings.  Don’t over-scale either of them.

The interesting thing for me, watching this video, was seeing how well Mexico towns and cities do all this instinctively.  Many public works in Mexico are dismal, but public spaces are not.  Whenever you go to a downtown, there will be fountains, plenty of places to sit, lots of activities for the kids, food stalls, exhibitions and shows, shops all facing the street, good public transport, pedestrian malls, underground or behind-wall parking, friendly security, historic buildings - and many more things that make Mexico plazas a joy to hang out in.  Rather than field trips to Old Europe, urban design students would do better to go to Mexico.

Five Ways for Mexico to Improve its Natural Environment

After living here for 6 months, it’s apparent that Mexico’s natural environment is not in the best of shapes.  Other Mexicans I talk to freely admit it as well.  The country is running out of water, smog and forest fires clog the cities and drift through the countryside, and I haven’t yet seen one natural body of water that isn’t polluted.

So here are five practical ways for Mexico to make substantial environmental improvements that would (in the long term): increase agricultural productivity, increase lifespans, and improve the quality of life for most Mexicans.

1.  Sustainable tree plantations

Mexico, like many less developed nations, has already cut down most of its forests over the past centuries.  However the remaining vegetation cover is still decreasing as trees are cut for firewood.  Vegetation is regularly burnt for short-term soil productivity with little thought for the long-term consequences that are evident today.

The removal of vegetation is now mostly done by subsistence farmers and villagers.  I don’t see an easy way to hinder this practice without offering some economic incentive.

Mexico should start wide-scale plantations of fast-growing, drought-resistant trees on land without existing forests.  Pines seem to do particularly well in the higher altitudes, and perhaps some broadleaf species in the tropical areas.

This would have many benefits.  It would create many higher-paid labouring jobs.  Mexico would have a local timber source, making wood cheaper than its prohibitive price at the moment.  People living nearby could use the waste material for firewood.  Soil would erode less, protecting waterways that are now silt-laden.  And over time, the micro-climates of these areas would become wetter and cooler, or at least help protect against the drying and heating effects of the changing climate. 

2.  Algae biomass energy

Northern Mexican states in particular have a lot of sun and open plains with not much wind.  These are ideal conditions to grow algae.  Specifically, algal strains that have a high oil content and can be harvested for ethanol and petroleum substitutes. 

If this know-how was distributed among locals, towns could set up their own small production areas and refining plants.  They would start small for local resale, and build up to large-scale production if there is investment potential.

This would generate new jobs, new skill sets, and would create a clean, renewable, and efficient fuel source.

3.  A limit on particulates from vehicles and factories

With not much wind, particulate pollution is a major problem in Mexico.  Mexico City has been famous for it for decades, and the blight has spread to other major cities and many inland farm areas. 

A regulatory solution needs to be put in place here.  A smog check every year for example as in California, and allowing police to pull cars and trucks off the road permanently if their exhaust particulate levels are above a certain level.  Of course this would need to be phased in over time so people get used to the idea and to limit economic impacts on the poor, but eventually the air would start to clear.

The industrial pollution is tougher to deal with, given the entrenchment of volatile unions and endemic corruption. I think a small, national agency of well-paid and educated officers could be commissioned to enforce pollution standards.  They would need wide-ranging powers, such as forcing factory closures and imposing (collectable) fines.  These fines should make the agency self-sufficient for income. 

This agency could be sent out to target the worst offenders that can’t be arsed to voluntarily clean up their emissions, while educating other industries about effective ways to meet the standards.  This technique is not “fair”, as some polluters will be ignored while others are targeted.  But this is the only way I see to make sure the agency doesn’t become bloated, inefficient and ultimately corrupt.

Hopefully the threat of prosecution would be enough to turn the tide of significant industrial air pollution.

4.  Secondary and tertiary treatment of point-source water pollution

This is a given in developed countries, and Mexico must follow their lead.  At the moment most sewage and industrial toxins are drained into the nearest waterway or harbour.  This renders almost all water sources polluted for drinking or swimming without extensive, expensive treatment. 

Yes it costs money to remove these pollutants, but I suspect the cost of the status quo is worse, both in economic and social (not to mention environmental) terms.

Point-source pollution is the easiest and most efficient to remove.  The major cities should lead the way, followed by the smaller cities and towns.  Heavy industry should also be comprehensively targeted to clean up their act. 

5.  Follow through on good ideas

Mexico is littered with great ideas by Mexican governments and organisations that start well, but aren’t given the necessary resources and monitoring to make them successful even in the medium-term.  And ok, maybe this isn’t a “practical” thing to improve the environment, but if the previous four things, and all the other well-intentioned large-scale programmes in Mexico, are to have any hope of making a real improvement in Mexican life, managers need to realise that starting the project is usually only 10% of the effort needed. 

I think Mexicans know what needs to be done.  Most likely these ideas and better ones have been thought through and trialled.  But the more insidious problems of poor project management, limited funding and corruption hamstring them.

Sometimes I bemoan the lack of common sense about many things in Mexico.  Simple things sometimes, like not planning for cyclists and pedestrians when building a road, or piling industrial trash in a residential area.  But perhaps the actual problem is a lack of big-picture thinking.  Long-term thinking.  Integration.  Sustainability.  And placing the public good above private gain (which for environmental issues leaves everyone better off). 

How to introduce this?  Well, that’s a much longer blog post for another time.

Vacation Destinations

I’m writing this on a rustic cabin patio overlooking a forest south of Mazamitla, Mexico.  Mazamitla is a mountain town about 2,200 metres high and 120 km south of Guadalajara.  Mazamitla is a favourite vacation place for middle-upper class Tapatios (residents of Guadalajara) during the summer and on weekends.  Second to white sandy beaches (which are popular world-over), Mexicans love to relax in cabins with wood trim and wood decks, surrounded by forests.
Mazamitla trees and cabins

Our view from the Mazamitla, Jalisco cabin

I wonder if the desire for a particular vacation destination reflects elements that are uncommon where people usually live.  Much of Mexico is hot and dry, the remaining forests are shrinking in size, and the cities are polluted and full of people.  So people seek out temperate pine forests in mountain areas.  Wood is expensive here and an uncommon building material, so wood cabins are a touch of the exotic.

Canadians flock to Mexico during the winter, leaving behind the bone-chilling cold for a warm, dry, sunny climate, with a touch of the exotic – Mexican culture and food.

Teotihuacan pyramids near Mexico City

Teotihuacan pyramids near Mexico City

Many Mexicans, if they can afford it, like to holiday in Canada and Europe.  The snow, cold, rocky mountains and clean cities are so different and exciting. 

Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada

A mountain beside frozen Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada

New Zealanders like to head to Australia or Southeast Asia for big-city excitement and shopping, or the Pacific Islands to escape the damp chill of winter.  For many kiwis, lying on a beach and snorkelling on a coral reef for a few days sounds very appealing. 

Sydney Australia

A cityside Australian beach

The grass is usually greener on the other side when vacationing, but probably only because it is different than the usual and slightly exotic.  The number of people who decide to move permanently to the “other side of the fence” is much lower.  “A change is as good as a holiday” is the saying – “a holiday is as good as the change it gives” also appears to be true.