Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
March Madness for urban design nerds.
NB: This round has already been decided -- check out the results here!
Welcome to the first annual Urbanist Toolkit Bracket Challenge, where the hottest trends in urbanism go head-to-head in a winner-take-nothing bonanza. As this is the first time the competition has taken place, we don't yet have any great statistics to offer -- no legends of tournament history, no Cinderella stories. But we will soon.
Before we get started, rest assured, we know your objections. How contrived! Urbanism isn't a zero-sum game! No city should have to choose between red light cameras and libraries with water slides!
But this is a game. One that pits your instincts, tastes, and urban design wisdom against those of your fellow readers. Here's how it works.
Thirty-two in-form tools of urbanism have been seeded, according to their popularity and utility, into four regional groups: the Ed Koch, the Sidewalk Ballet, the Le Corbusier, and the Dandyhorse. The four #1 seeds -- car share, bike lanes, farmers' markets, and the waterfront promenade -- are paired off against decidedly more obscure options.
You'll need to make tough choices. Bus rapid transit or streetcars? A convention center or a festival? Privately owned public space or highway decks? Think of it as a mid-20th century version of SimCity; or perhaps the Strat-O-Matic of city games.
Here's the full bracket (click through for a PDF, which you can download and fill in):
Fill out a bracket and send it into us -- theatlanticcities [at] gmail.com -- by Monday evening, with "Bracket" in the subject line. (Double-check that the bracket you attach has your entries saved!) If your prediction is the closest match to the actual results (with weighted points for predicting higher levels of the competition, of course), we'll give you your fifteen minutes of fame when we announce the winner here in a couple weeks.
But here's where our bracket challenge differs from the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament: you don't just predict the winners, you choose them, too. Below, we run through the four regions with polls for every first-round match-up.
If you were mayor, what would you choose for your city?
Sidewalk Ballet regional
It's been another strong year for farmers' markets, with more and more cities making it easier for residents to farm and purchase local produce. Only a fool would expect adventure playgrounds, though zany and interesting in their way, to come out of this first round with an upset.
Business Improvement Districts: smart, efficient public-private governance for 21st century cities or unconstitutional allocation of power? You decide. A toss-up 4-5 match-up sees BIDs go head-to-head with Wi-Fi in public parks -- the concept is a crowd-pleaser, but can it go far?
The Sidewalk Ballet regional is stacked full of great contenders. Food trucks are an awfully tough #3 seed, given their mass appeal, low cost, and tasty snacks. But even if they dispatch pop-up parks, can food trucks get past pedestrian streets? And are they environmentally friendly?
Pedestrian streets have found success in cities like Memphis, TN, and Ithaca, NY, and are hugely successful in European city centers. In New York, Times Square is about to receive a permanent pedestrian-only redesign. Re-purposed malls, meanwhile, are just emerging as a tactic for dealing with the changing retail economy. Providence is turning an old mall into micro-apartments. Elsewhere, they've become churches or office complexes.
Le Corbusier Regional
Innovative new intersection designs like the Diverging Diamond are all the rage, but city-sponsored car-share systems -- like the one rolled out in Paris last year -- could have a major impact on urban life. A tough draw for crazy intersections.
Automated parking garages, or car elevators, are incredibly efficient at storing vehicles. But they're also expensive. Uber, the on-demand taxi service, is efficient too -- but its costs are more political than economic, with taxi lobbies across the country doing whatever they can to keep the start-up away.
Nearly every U.S. city has parking minimums, requiring developers to construct a certain number of parking spots for every new building. But in Zurich, they have parking maximums, limiting center city parking construction to keep more space available for people. In London, meanwhile, they don't let the cars into the downtown in the first place -- unless they pay a heavy tax.
Red light cameras activate strange regions of people's brains. If you believe in traffic lights, they seem to be a sound follow-through step, and they're proven to make roads safer. And still, many people hate them. Why not spend that money on electric car charge stations? That's what San Diego's doing now, betting that electric car infrastructure will be a crucial facet of city life in the 21st century.
Where to begin with bike lanes? They seem to bring out the worst in people on both sides of the debate. But any planner worth her salt acknowledges that cities ought to provide safe spaces for bike commuters. Meanwhile, speaking of municipal investments that keep people safe, there are loud voices in New York calling for platform screens to stop people from falling into the subway tracks. Would this be a better use of city cash?
Cities like Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). It's cheaper to build than fixed-guideway routes, and faster than normal bus service. Is it too good to be true? Many U.S. cities are taking a page from Europe, and investing in rebuilding the streetcar systems they demolished a half-century ago. When does light rail work, and when doesn't it?
It's striking that so many cities don't yet have displays to tell commuters what time the next bus or train is coming. (In some cases, it's difficult to find that information even with a smartphone.) But as real-time arrival clocks become more common, Boston is trying to take the next step and turn riders' smart phones into rail passes. Is "mobile ticketing" the ride of the future, or a waste of money?
Bike share hardly needs explanation for readers of this site. It's a favorite to go far in the tournament, with an ambitious new program set (finally) to premier in New York City this spring. The cable car may be an underdog but it's having its fifteen minutes of fame. Medellin, where a cable car is part of the mass transit system, won an award as the "Most Innovative City" this year, and London built a big cable car this summer.
Ed Koch regional
Waterfront redevelopments have been hugely successful in Baltimore, New York, and San Francisco, and nearly every city seems to have such a plan somewhere in the works. But with climate change a rising threat, are they still the favored son in visions of the post-industrial future? Elsewhere, cities are considering investing their money in putting water slides in libraries.
For decades, New York City has traded zoning concessions in densely packed Midtown in exchange for POPS, or "privately owned public spaces." Whether those spaces have been worth it is now a hot debate. Other cities, like Dallas and Phoenix, are creating new public spaces by placing decks over highways, turning noisy trenches into tranquil parks.
It used to be conventional wisdom that a mid-sized city ought to have a convention center, which brought in periodic crowds of lawyers, dentists, comic book enthusiasts, and so on. But following the lead of Miami Beach's Art Basel and Austin's South by Southwest, some mid-sized cities -- like Charlottesville -- are trying to get in the festival game instead, eschewing expensive convention facilities in favor of a citywide approach to events.
Every big city wants a big stadium. Are they a tax-payer boondoggle or an economic engine? You decide. Meanwhile, last year Austin became the first U.S. city to host Formula 1 since Indianapolis in 2007 -- will more cities try to tap into the world's biggest sport?*
Check back next week when the first-round winners are revealed, and vote for which urban design concepts make it into the Elite Eight. Get your own bracket here, and send it in by Monday evening.
*Correction: Austin was not the first U.S. city to host F1 -- as Bob Hellrich-Dawson points out below, Indianapolis hosted the U.S. Grand Prix between 2000 and 2007. Phoenix, Detroit, Dallas and Long Beach all hosted races during the 1980s.