Podcasts of the Week Ending June 1


Futility Closet :: The General Slocum

The grim history of the worst maritime disaster in New York City.

Best of the Left :: Our built environment shapes society and vice versa

The issues of increasing urban density, building social housing, and deprioritizing the automobile in cities are near and dear in my heart. And yet, even Leftists tend to fall into the pro-car/pro-sprawl trap, so it’s good to hear these arguments for a more livable urbanism.

Hub History  ::  Love is Love: John Adams and Marriage Equality 

It seems like yesterday, but 15 years have passed since Massachusetts became the first state to perform legal same-sex marriages.  Here’s the history of how that came to be.

Sound Opinions  ::  De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising

I have a lot of nostalgia for De La Soul’s debut album which came out when I was a nerdy high school student.  The Sound Opinions crew explore how the album was created and explain why it’s so hard to find the album today.

Hit Parade :: The Invisible Miracle Sledgehammer Edition

If you turned on the radio in the mid-1980s, you were likely to hear music by members of Genesis (Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, and Mike and the Mechanics) while the band Genesis continued to make hits.  Chris Molanphy explains this unusual situation in pop music history.

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Podcasts of the Week Ending October 20th


To the Best of Our Knowledge :: Pick Your Poison

The most stunning segment of this episode on poison regards “The Radium Girls” of Ottawa, Illinois, who were poisoned painting clock dials with radium.  It’s another example of cruelty of capitalist greed, misogyny, and indifference to human suffering.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Theremin

I’m fascinated by weird instruments like the theremin and the career of Bob Moog, and this podcast has a lot of both.

Fresh Air :: Don’t Be Fooled By The Talking Horse — ‘BoJack’ Is A Sadness ‘Sneak Attack’

I’ve written reviews of BoJack Horseman here stating it’s the “best show on television,” and Terry Gross’ interview with its creator is revelatory.

99% Invisible :: The Worst Way to Start a City

What if a city was born by just having 100,000 people show up at once and claim their spot?  That’s the weird story of Oklahoma City.  Listen to this just for the “Oh, Joe – here’s your mule!” part.

Book Review: Holy Spokes : The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels by Laura Everett


AuthorLaura Everett
TitleHoly Spokes : The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels
Publication Info: Grand Rapids : Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017.
Summary/Review:

Rev. Laura is someone I know, mostly from Twitter, but occasionally at church or out biking the streets of Boston.  This is a book about bicycling and as it’s set in Boston, it’s very familiar to me, especially the growing community of bike users that has become more active in the past decade, as well as the more somber remembrances of people who have been killed riding their bikes in recent years.  Everett writes about the spirituality of bicycling, beginning with her own conversion to commuting by bike.  Her ministry to the city grows as she travels the streets of the most vulnerable communities, seeing them up close without the windshield view.  And biking also gives an understanding of vulnerability to the rider as bicyclists are generally maligned community, their bodies always at risk, and any protections gained despite fighting tooth and nail are generally still insufficient.  It’s a beautiful book that touches on many things, cities and bikes, faith and justice.  I highly recommend it.

Recommended books:

Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist by Pete Jordan, and Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes
Rating: *****

Photopost: Jane Jacobs in Boston Tour


In honor of Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday yesterday, I took a tour of the North End lead by Max Grinnell, the Urbanologist, an urban studies expert who divides his time between Boston and Chicago.  While I’ve been leading tours in the North End for more than 15 years, I learned some new things and visited places I’d not been before.  We talked about what Jacobs found successful in the North End in 1960 and what has changed in the intervening years as the neighborhood has gone remarkably upscale.  The highlight of the tour was a stop at Polcari’s Coffee where the shop owner gave a personal history of the business and the neighborhood.

If only the weather had been better, but it was worth getting soaked to the bone to celebrate Jane Jacobs and urbanism.

Podcast of the Week: “There Goes the Neighborhood”


Gentrification is a serious issue for anyone who cares about the future of cities.  For every neighbor “revitalization” there’s pressure on long-term communities to be pushed out.

How can we make cities places that don’t have winners and losers?  Can we have housing that’s affordable in neighborhoods that aren’t derelict?  Can more prosperous people move to the city and live side-by-side with the working poor?

The Nation and WNYC collaborate to ask these questions in an 8-part podcast series “There Goes the Neighborhood.”

Subscribe and listen at your favorite podcast source.

Photopost: Casey Overpass Demolition


The Casey Overpass is over and past. The elevated highway structure that darkened the skies over Forest Hills and divided a neighborhood (literally and figuratively) for more than 60 years is gone. I wrote several times about the multi-year process that went into the plan to remove the highway and replace it with an at-grade city street, improvements for walking, biking, and transit, and public space, but had doubts that it would ever really happen.  So when the big machinery arrived this spring and began dismantling the overpass, it was a delight to watch them in action.  Even more so was the dramatic change that occurred in the Forest Hills area as the sunlight was able to shine on the area and views of the Boston skyline and nearby wooded parkscapes opened up.

There’s a lot more work to be done to complete the Casey Arborway Project, and I expect the construction period won’t always be fun, but I look forward to the continuing transformation of Forest Hills from a place where cars just drive through, to a place where people live, work, shop, dine, and play.

Here are some photos I took over the course of the year showing the demolition.

Book Review: Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston by Michael Rawson


Author: Michael Rawson
Title: Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston
Publication Info: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, c2010.
ISBN: 9780674048416
Summary/Review:

This wonderfully researched and well-written history, explores the making of Boston by focusing on the social and environmental factors that shaped the city, its human ecology.  There are five sections of the book:

1. Enclosing the Common – the effort of prosperous Bostonians to enclose Boston Common, changing it from a place of work (pasturing cows and digging up turf) to a place of recreation.

2. Constructing water – the contentious development of a public waterworks, a means by which reformers hoped to improve both the health and morality of the populace, but a process that also forever changed the role of municipal government.

3. Inventing the suburbs – people move from the city, seeking pastoral cities and escape taxation, but they also miss the public works that the city provides.  Some suburbs are annexed by Boston (willingly or otherwise) while some become cities in their own right.

4. Making the harbor – the modern Boston Harbor is human-made not natural, and the processes of landmaking, dredging, damming, et al that modified it so much were a contentious issue in the 19th century when many mariners thought the harbor would be lost with natural water movement.

5. Recreating the wilderness – suburban green spaces such as the Middlesex Fells and the Blue Hills are created as a connection to the colonial forbears and the lost wilderness.

This book is a terrific means of grasping the process of urbanism for modern cities and a unique approach to the history of Boston. It pairs well with Walter Muir Whitehill’s classic Boston: A Topographical History.
Favorite Passages:

“What made that agenda so contentious was that reformers wanted to expand the role of government to achieve it.  Since government had never played a serious role in structuring how Bostonians interacted with their water supply, transferring responsibility for finding adequate water from the individual to the city seemed to some like a radical and potentially dangerous move.  Instead, early experiments in municipal water like Boston’s would prove to be the leading edge of a wave of change in municipal government.  As the century progressed, cities would expand their power to fund larger public works, often through borrowing, and they would pay the cost through general taxes rather than special assessments.  Event the cost of smaller projects that did not require bond issues would increasingly be spread out among all residents of a city.  Public water would encourage urban residents, in Boston and elsewhere, to expand their vision of the public good.” – p. 104

“The Fells and Blue Hills were designed to store information about colonial people and events and prompt visitors to recall the collected stories.  The existence of such places implies a relationship of permanence, lest the memories disappear with the monument…” – p. 269

Recommended books: Boston: A Topographical History by Walter Muir Whitehill, A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900 by Stephen Puleo, Boston’s Back Bay by William Newman & Wilferd E. Holton and Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston by Nancy S. Seasholes
Rating: ****

Book Review: Fighting Traffic by Peter D. Norton


Author: Peter D. Norton
TitleFighting traffic : the dawn of the motor age in the American city
Publication Info: Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c2008.
ISBN: 9780262141000
Summary/Review:

Everyone knows that city streets are for cars and that anyone else seeking to access the street needs to follow the rules so as not to cause traffic congestion.  Except that it hasn’t always been this way.  Fighting Traffic documents a time when the automobile was an intruder on the shared public space of the city street, and one depicted as a menace due to speeding, reckless driving, and the killer of innocents.  During the 1920s, motorist clubs, automakers, safety councils, and the newly created field of traffic engineers changed the paradigm to make the street the through-way for motor vehicles with the emphasis on as few interruptions as possible.  The  book is academic in tone, and a bit repetitive in accumulating evidence for its thesis, but it is an interesting look at a moment in time when basic assumptions shifted as well as a means of questioning the basic assumptions we have about cities and cars today.

Favorite Passages:

“Beneath the grief and anger of many safety reformers lay an old assumption: city streets, like city parks, were public spaces.  Anyone could use them provided they did not unduly annoy or endanger others.  Under this construction of the city street, even children at play could be legitimate street users, and even careful motorists were under suspicion.  In the 1920s, however, the pressure of traffic casualties divided old allies.  Some renewed their resolve to compel motorists to conform to the customs of the street as it had been, especially by limiting their speed.  Others, more pragmatic, wanted to save lives by giving pedestrians more responsibility for their own safety.  Finally, some newcomers proposed a more radical social reconstruction of the street as a motor thoroughfare, confining pedestrians to crossings and sidewalks.”  – p. 64

“The dawn of the motor age has something to tell us about power.  Like money, power is a medium of exchange between social groups. Because it comes in many currencies, it is hard to measure by any one standard. Motordom had substantial and growing financial wealth.  By the mid 1920s it was organized enough to dispense this wealth to promote a social reconstruction of the street, through a well-funded rhetorical campaign and through gasoline taxes linked to road construction.  By then it was also exercising direct political power, especially through its influence in the Commerce Department.  But drivers themselves exercised power every time they traveled at speed in the streets, resorting to the horn instead of the brake to proceed.  This exercise of power drove pedestrians from the streets and sometimes barred them from access to streets, even at designated crossings.  Horsepower gave motorists a literal, physical form of momentum that collided with the social momentum of old constructions of the street, changing their trajectories.” – p. 259

Recommended books: Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back by Jane Holtz Kay, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt and Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes
Rating: ***1/2

Moving Forward in Forest Hills


Every so often, I like to write about my neighborhood of Forest Hills, a section of Jamaica Plain in the city of Boston, as the area is going through great changes with the removal of an antiquated elevated highway and development of previously underused parcels near the MBTA station. Progress on revitalizing the neighborhood continues this week as 25% Design Hearing will be held for the new Casey Arborway at-grade roadway at 5:30 on February 27th at English High School. You can read my earlier posts from Nov. 29, 2011 and April 4, 2012 for background information on the project. It should be an exciting time when the neighborhood can come together for input on a new system of roads and public spaces that will serve all users – walker, bicyclists, transit users and drivers alike. If you can’t attend the meeting, please write a letter of support for the at-grade project and your ideas for design to:

Thomas F. Broderick,
P.E., Chief Engineer,
MassDOT,
10 Park Plaza,
Boston, MA 02116,
Attention.: Paul King, Project File No. 605511

or

dot.feedback.highway@state.ma.us (include the above address information in the email)

Such submissions will also be accepted at the meeting. Mailed statements and exhibits intended for inclusion in the public meeting transcript must be postmarked within ten (10) business days of this Public Information Meeting. Project inquiries may be emailed to:

dot.feedback.highway@state.ma.us

(This information via the Boston Cyclists Union)

Unfortunately, there is a small but vocal group that will be using this meeting to agitate for building a new overpass cutting through the neighborhood, an automotive-centered model that offers little for other users or the neighborhood in general. Through nearly two years of a public process with dozens of meetings and hundreds of letters, at least 2/3’s of the people of Jamaica Plain have let it be known that they prefer not to have an elevated highway slicing the neighborhood in half. I hope if you’re reading this and feel that a new overpass would be a good idea that you can take a moment to step back from the hostility of the most extreme overpass advocates and work together with other neighbors in the 25% Design Process to find solutions that work for everyone.

Just for review, here are some reasons why an elevated highway is a bad idea for an urban area:

  • Doesn’t reduces automotive congestion – Most people think that by building more highways and wider highways, we can improve traffic flow and reduce congestion. It makes intuitive sense and for about six decades starting from the end of WWII it was the main way cities responded to traffic concerns (including constructing the original Casey Overpass in the 1950s). However, building more highways simply creates induced demand where the more road built, the more people drive cars, and with cars prioritized other users suffer. Cities across the world from San Francisco to New York to Seoul are learning the benefits of highway removal which actually reduces traffic congestion and makes for healthier, more economically vibrant neighborhoods.
  • Creates a highway mentality – The Casey Overpass does not just carry a large volume of cars rumbling overhead, but creates a full highway interchange with a system of access and exit ramps. These added roads complicate the intersections around Forest Hills greatly. Much of the congestion that occurs on Washington Street and South Street at peak periods is caused by cars trapped in-between the traffic lights on each side of the overpass that regulate access and exits to the highway. It also brings a lot more cars into the area than there will be with an at-grade neighborhood road system. With highway mentality encouraged by the car-first design of the overpass, most drivers exceed safe neighborhood speed limits and are looking more for a way to jockey themselves into a better position than looking out for walkers and bikers.
  • Highways cost more – Two options were presented last year, a new overpass and an at-grade plan. The new overpass plan cost significantly more and didn’t include many of the benefits such as new bike lanes, walking paths, and public space covered by the lest costly at-grade plan. The “iconic bridge” proposed by the most vocal overpass proponents would cost significantly more, and again would prioritize motorists over all other users. In these troubled economic times, there is a limited pool of money available from the government, and much of that should be spent on repairing actual bridges that cross rivers and railroad tracks in other parts of the commonwealth. Not to mention, these are just the construction costs. An elevated structure will require more money for maintenance. The current Casey Overpass built in the 1950s was significantly rebuilt in the late 1980s/early 1990s. A new overpass now would force the next generation to face the cost of repairing or demolishing the highway once again in 25-30 years.
  • An antiquated model for changing times – A lot of the pressure to rebuild the overpass comes from the idea that the current levels of traffic will continue to increase in the future. Current trends indicate that the future of Boston will see fewer than more cars. For one thing, the troubled economic times have forced many people out of their cars for more affordable transportation. Even when the economy fully recovers, peak oil has made cheap gas a thing of the past. Since the 1990s, more and more people have decided to take advantage of the social and business connections of living in the city. The Millennial generation are driving less frequently than their parents and grandparents. The growing danger of pollution and climate change will also force people to drive less. In short, a new overpass is a 1950s-era solution that could be a fossil shortly after it’s built. Instead of being saddled with a fixed structure, an at-grade road in Forest Hills would be able to adapt to changing uses and serve the needs of a developing, transit-oriented neighborhood.
  • Make Transit Alternatives Irresistible – Considering that urban highways create congestion, prioritize motorists while putting walker and bicyclists at risk, have enormous costs that just keep building, and are on the verge of being extraneous anyway, why not have Forest Hills be the center of a new, cutting edge Boston? Instead of putting cars first, why not make alternate transportation irresistible so that people once fearful of leaving their cars can enjoy walking, biking, and public transit instead? There are a number of parcels of land to be developed in Forest Hills. In the shadow of an overpass they are likely to end up oriented to serving automotive customers. Without the overpass, Forest Hill can begin to develop as the hub of a transit-oriented neighborhood of the future. Ultimately it comes down to a choice of maintaining the status quo based on fearful predictions of traffic nightmares or working together to create a vibrant neighborhood that fulfills our hopes and dreams.

Having said all this, there is one point upon which I agree with the opponents of the at-grade plan. The current design for the Casey Arborway road at 6 lanes is too wide, and like proposals for a new overpass, puts too great an emphasis on prioritizing motorists. As we work towards a final design for what is ultimately constructed at Forest Hills, now in its 25% design phase, I would like to propose a narrower road. In fact, last summer the Jamaica Plain Gazette noted that the opening year design would be reduced by two lanes. I believe that a four-lane road with additional right turn lanes at appropriate intersections would be the optimal final design for the Casey Arborway for the following reasons:

  • Induced demand – Like building a new overpass, building an oversized at-grade road will encourage more people to drive. The designs for both the new overpass and the at-grade model were based on projections of future traffic increases rather than current use. In a sense, building the wider road may just create the increased traffic congestion they were hoping to avoid, whereas a more modest roadway could help encourage the trends I noted for a future with reduced car use.
  • Consistency – The Casey Arborway connects the 4 lane road of Morton Street to the 4 lane road of the Arborway. There’s no good reason for the road to swell to six lanes for 3/10 of a mile as it will not increase the throughput of traffic. The wider road will just encourage drivers to shift lanes which traffic studies indicate is a cause of greater congestion. One only need to look further along the Arborway where the road inexplicably expands from 4 to 8 lanes and then back down to 4 lanes causing traffic backups as vehicles merge together.
  • Makes it bigger than it already is – Currently, due to the deterioration on the Casey Overpass there is only one lane in each direction. On the ground level on New Washington Street, there is one through lane in each direction with other lanes dedicated to turns and parking. So as it right now there are four through lanes crossing Forest Hills. The plans to remove the confusing system of access/exit ramps, clear away infrastructure that creates blindspots, take away left turn lanes at the intersections, and most importantly to vastly improve the signaling will help make the new four lane road less congested than the current four lane road/overpass.
  • Overbuilding for peak periods – Okay, so Forest Hill can see some nasty traffic backups, and that is what most people complain about. But I wonder if these drivers ever see Forest Hills outside of the peak morning and evening rush hours. Since I actually live in Forest Hills, I notice that at midday, nights, weekends and holidays that traffic runs smoothly around Forest Hills and in fact can get pretty sparse. Even in the mornings I’ve noticed that there can be snarled traffic at 7:30 or 8 am, but everything running smoothly at 7:45 or 8:15 am. I think it’s a mistake to overbuild the road to serve the levels of automotive traffic that Forest Hills gets for a small part of each business day. It is a recipe for:
  • High Speeds and Reckless Driving – Wide roads and wide lanes in residential/commercial areas are not a good idea, because no matter the posted speed limit, a wide road is an invitation to speed. As it is today, Washington St./Hyde Park Av./Ukraine Way/South St/New Washington Street often has the ambience of a NASCAR speedway. Speeding cars will kill any chances of building a walking/biking community and most likely kill some walkers and bicyclists. A narrower road will force drivers to operate their cars at safer speeds.
  • Make walking, biking, and transit irresistible – I said this before, but it’s worth reiterating that it is beneficial for everyone in the community to encourage as many people as possible to get out of their cars and use other means of getting around. Forest Hills sits in between the Southwest Corridor community path, Franklin Park, and the Arnold Arboretum. A narrower road means there is more space for cycletracks, comfortable places to walk, and connections to transit that can tie these places together as well as making new connections south to Roslindale.

So those are my thoughts on the design of the new Casey Arborway as we reach this latest milestone of the 25% design hearing. Again, if you live in Jamaica Plain or Boston, I encourage you to attend Wednesday’s meeting and/or write a letter with your thoughts. I’m looking forward to seeing what changes come forward as the design process continues.


The Casey Arborway is not the only thing happening in Forest Hills. I thank you for reading this far, but if you can bear to read more, here are a few tidbits:

  • New Harvest Co-op opens – the first major new development in the neighborhood is a very welcome grocery market. It is a bit pricy gourmet store but it’s still great to have a place to shop within walking distance.
  • A new cafe is on the way – the next development will also be welcome. It’s kind of across the tracks for me, so it will be a good excuse to walk over
  • Ideas for new park space –  The Casey Arborway plan will open new park space at the end of the Southwest Corridor Park.  Public space is great but I do worry that it may end up only being used during commuter hours and be an empty void on evenings and weekends.  One idea I have to keep the space active is to create a dog park.  Although I’m not a dog owner myself , there are a lot of dogs in our neighborhood.  I expect that dog owners would take their dogs out to exercise on evenings and weekends even in the winter time so it would make for an active and social space year round.  I’m sure there are other great ideas for the space as well (I’d love a Munich-style beer garden but I doubt that would happen in Boston).

Book Review: Walkable City by Jeff Speck


Author: Jeff Speck
TitleWalkable City
Publication Info: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c2012.
ISBN: 9780374285814
Summary/Review:

A city planner by trade, Speck is aware of what works and doesn’t work in creating and maintaining thriving metropolises.  He blames many of his fellow planners for the big mistakes of repeatedly designing cities for the swift movement of cars and then for places to park those cars, destroying the city in the process.  The obvious solution is to make the city more “walkable” but many efforts to design cities as a place to walk have failed as well, often due to their half-hearted nature or lack of understanding of what makes a city walkable.  To address this, Speck created a ten step list (cited in its entirety below) with each chapter describing the facets involved in creating truly walkable city.

The Useful Walk

Step 1. Put Cars in Their Place.
Step 2. Mix the Uses.
Step 3. Get the Parking Right.
Step 4. Let Transit Work.

The Safe Walk

Step 5. Protect the Pedestrian.
Step 6. Welcome Bikes.

The Comfortable Walk

Step 7. Shape the Spaces.
Step 8. Plant Trees.

The Interesting Walk

Step 9. Make Friendly and Unique Faces.
Step 10. Pick Your Winners.

I read a lot of books about urbanism, city planning, walking, and bicycling (and against the prioritizing of automobiles), so I’m the proverbial choir being preached too.  Speck’s book clearly states the advantages of his model to everyone, and enunciates the steps in getting to that point.  For these reasons, this is the book I’d hand to an automobile-focused doubter to read and think it would have a great chance of making an impression.

Favorite Passages:

“The General Theory of Walkability explains how, to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient. Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe, which is even tougher to satisfy. Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban streets into ‘outdoor living rooms,’ in contrast to wide-open spaces, which usually fail to attract pedestrians. Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound.”

“Since midcentury, whether intentionally or by accident, most American cities have effectively become no-walking zones. In the absence of any larger vision or mandate, city engineers—worshipping the twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking—have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at.”

“Engineers design streets for speeds well above the posted limit, so that speeding drivers will be safe—a practice that, of course, causes the very speeding it hopes to protect against.”

Recommended booksStraphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe, Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability by David Owen, Triumph of the City by Edward L. Glaeser, and Pedaling revolution : how cyclists are changing American cities by Jeff Mapes.
Rating: ****