Life on a Line: Human Movement Through Urban Space and Time

In a fascinating article, Milton Friesen describes his research into how people actually move through urbanized areas, using real data acquired from study volunteers equipped with GPS devices. Friesen makes the obvious but seldom-stated observation that in order to understand urban design, we need to understand how people actually use cities (as opposed to how designers and planners imagine they are used). Link below:

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Farewell to Tal’s Hill

It lasted 17 seasons, which is perhaps longer than expected, but after the Houston Astros end their home season, the notorious hill in center field, known from Minute Maid Park’s opening day as Tal’s Hill, will be no more. The Astros are done with it.

Tal’s Hill was named after Tal Smith, the club president without whose endorsement it never would have been part of the ballpark design, but the idea came from Convergence Design’s David Greusel, then project designer for the new ballpark with HOK Sport. David gave the team a presentation about his thoughts on the new ballpark before even starting the design, which included a shout-out to Crosley Field in Cincinnati, which had an incline in the outfield. Tal Smith embraced the idea, the league didn’t say no, and Tal’s Hill was born.

Tal’s Hill is what’s great about ballparks: the freedom to innovate with the dimensions and angles of the outfield. Home plate to first base is always 90 feet, but that center field wall can be any distance away, within reason. That freedom allows baseball fields to have something no NFL field does: personality. And Tal’s Hill was definitely part of the personality of Minute Maid Park.

How will the ballpark be different with Tal’s Hill gone? We’ll have to wait and see. But different it will be. Like that relative who got the nose job: they no longer have that prominent snout, but perhaps also lost a bit of themselves in the process.

For the record, we’re sorry to see Tal’s Hill go.

view from the Arcade shows the slope

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AIA takes on Dimension M

More than a decade ago, David Greusel addressed the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects with a provocative session called “Dimension M,” referring to the moral dimension of architecture. The session made the point that architecture has moral and ethical implications that go far beyond our statutory duty to design safe buildings and not harm or cheat people in our work. Reaction was decidedly mixed, but at least the subject had been broached. And now it has been broached again, this time by the Institute itself.

It is gratifying to see this web post and in particular a very good video that takes up this same topic, expressing the views of three very eminent practitioners. We encourage you to read the article, and especially to watch the embedded video, here:

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Spontaneous urban planning

In a short but very insightful article in the Wall Street Journal, economics professor William Easterly starkly highlights how urban planners often get things completely wrong, and have for 400 years in one block in New York:

Four Centuries of Human Initiative on One City Block

This article and the research underlying it support a suspicion we have long held, namely, that large-scale urban planning is often a waste of time and sometimes a detriment to the cities it is trying to help.

This is not to say that we should never plan. Sometimes projects require the moving of streets, insertion of new park space, or some other fairly major intervention. Stadium projects especially, but not exclusively. But when the planners get out their Magic Markers and start labeling whole blocks–or whole neighborhoods–with tags like “retail,” “housing” or “industrial,” elected officials should take a step back and call time out.

As the article (and the estimable Jane Jacobs) points out, real life is smaller in scale, more granular and more organic. Uses change over time, real estate values rise and fall, areas become more (and less) popular. Should cities never intervene in this organic development and redevelopment process? Of course they should. We just advise proceeding cautiously, with a small ego and a large dose of humility. We like grand boulevards, and sometimes you have to knock down a few buildings to get them. But much of what passes for urban planning in our schools and in our actual cities is little more than wishful thinking at best, and crippling regulation at worst.


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Wasted space

The building where our offices are has corridors that are nearly nine feet wide. That is almost twice as wide as the corridors in a typical modern office, which tend to be five feet across no matter what.

LE corridor
Corridor at the Livestock Exchange, Kansas City, Missouri

As a young architect, I was encouraged to think of corridors as “wasted space,” that is, as space that couldn’t be rented to or used by tenants, and therefore waste to be avoided at all costs. And in my day I designed some very efficient office buildings.

The problem is, I really like these wide corridors. They provide a value that is hard to quantify. They provide a gracious path to our front door. They allow two (or three or four) people traveling in opposite directions to pass without awkward shoulder-skewing. They allow delivery carts to traverse the halls without crashing into the walls. The fact that they have decorative tile flooring only adds to their gracious hospitality.

These extra-wide corridors have me rethinking the idea of wasted space. If they contribute to the well-being of the building’s occupants and visitors, the space isn’t really wasted, is it? Sometimes we focus on efficiency at the expense of humanity. This should change.

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Strange action at a distance

It’s a physics term, but strange action at a distance applies to economic development, as well. A recent example: the Kansas City Royals’ recent run to the World Series title in October 2015.

A Convergence Design team was in Salina, Kansas, on October 27 for an open house at the Bicentennial Center, an arena/convention center our firm had recently designed a major renovation for. We were going to grab some dinner before the trip back to Kansas City, and wanted to watch a couple innings of Game 1 of the World Series before hitting the road. We went to Speakeasy, a sports bar on the south side of Salina.

We could hardly get in the door. The place was packed, and all their televisions (they must have more than 50) were tuned to the World Series. We finally managed to shove two tables together so we could sit together, and got to see Alcides Escobar’s thrilling inside-the-park home run to lead off the first inning.

But this packed sports bar got us to thinking about economics and sports. This was a bar in Salina, Kansas, on a Tuesday night, a night when there might have been a dozen people having dinner and watching ESPN. Instead, the place was packed, and the game went 14 innings (we left much earlier, as we had a long drive ahead). I doubt that any economists are measuring the economic impact of the World Series on small cities 180 miles from Kansas City, but we can tell you from firsthand experience, it is substantial.

Strange action at a distance.

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How to Rebuild Architecture

Please click on the link to this wonderful New York Times op-ed on architecture. The authors, Steven Bingler and Martin Pedersen, have succinctly stated a view that we have long held–that the architectural tastes and fashions popular among magazine editors, college faculty and superstar practitioners don’t connect with the average citizen, and that this disconnect is a problem that our profession needs to address. Highly recommended.


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Humor linked to creativity

photo by Shane Keyser

Right Between The Ears

All those years you’ve been wondering why in the world Convergence Design’s founder was wasting time being in a radio comedy group. Now it can be told: comedy makes David Greusel a better designer.

We knew there had to be a reason.

In this article, which originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal, researcher Scott Weems reveals the nonintuitive findings: engaging with humor makes people more creative. (It also helps us to endure stress, but that’s not the part we’re most excited about).

In case you weren’t aware, David Greusel has for many years been a writer and cast member of Right Between The Ears, a radio comedy program that has aired on NPR, Kansas Public Radio, and Sirius/XM Satellite Radio. The program routinely spoofs politics, TV, pop culture, and has a zany cast of regulars including stalwarts like Buck Naked, Frontier Scout and ace detective Mobile Holmes.

Rest assured David feels much better knowing all those years honing his comedic chops have been helping his design work, too.

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Just what we did not need

Rendering of the proposed London bikeway system

…A $12 billion (with a b) elevated superhighway for bicycles.

We’re big fans of human-powered transit, and apart from walking, biking is one of the best ways to get from point A to point B. But Lord Foster’s idea for a network of elevated bike lanes is the worst mashup of postwar hubris and postcrash sustainability we’ve ever seen.

There are so many things wrong with this idea, it’s hard to know where to start. OK, the price tag: for $12 billion, you could create ten times as many dedicated bike lanes as this constructed boondoggle. Yes, the cyclists would have to stop at red lights, but that was the same argument that brought us all the elevated urban expressways we’re trying to tear down now.

And there’s the elevated part.  Biking on hills is difficult if you don’t own one of those $20,000 featherweight racing bikes. Do you really want every trip to start with a grind up an access ramp? Once you’re up there, what do you look at? How often are there exit ramps? Every block? Or do you have to backtrack half a mile after you exit the bikespressway? And to get philosophical for a moment, one of the joys of cycling is close contact with the ground plane–you know, where the grass and trees are. This antiseptic bike sewer would be as much fun as riding in a concrete ditch like the Los Angeles river does.

Look closely at the rendering. What are you not seeing? You’re not seeing a shadow under the bikeway. Curiously, all the renderings from the 1950s of elevated interstate highways didn’t cast any shadows, either. Must be some special kind of concrete they use.

Let’s say it again: we’re in favor of bike transit. Bikes are great. We wish more Americans rode more bikes more often. But this idea is ready for the dustbin of history before the first kilometer is built. Not that we have any great expectation that it will be.


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Saving The Banks

As momentum builds for the Atlanta Braves to relocate from Turner Field to a new ballpark and mixed use development in nearby Cobb County, the Atlanta Journal Constitution published a somewhat scary story on a somewhat similar project in Cincinnati: the development of Great American Ballpark, Paul Brown Stadium, and a mixed-use development called The Banks that has continued to suck public money, ten years after the ballpark opened. Read their story here:,400

One can hardly fault the AJC for their concern. The Banks is a tale of middling success propped up by substantial public investment. But it’s not the only story out there. Here are two stories the AJC didn’t bother to report:

In the area around Minute Maid Park, which opened in Houston in 2000, development has been healthy and steady, despite the economic downturn of the past five years. The ballpark has seen the development of not just bars and restaurants, but housing, hotels and office buildings in the underdeveloped areas around Minute Maid Park, with minimal public investment. Houston’s secret: a lassiez-faire, hands-off approach to managing the development of the ballpark district. Growth has occurred organically in accordance with market demand. The result: no big drain on the city budget.

Spin off development near PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates

Another city that took a slightly more hands-on approach is Pittsburgh, which, much like Cincinnati, replaced an undistinguished concrete donut (Three Rivers Stadium) with a pair of new, purpose-built football and baseball stadiums that are both more popular than the donut ever was. Also like Cincy, Pittsburgh envisioned a mixed-use development between the stadiums, which has largely come to pass. Economic development incentives have been used to help some of the projects on the North Shore, but overall public investment (except for the stadiums) has been modest, and the buildings built have responded to market demand more than planner prescription.

From a distance, it appears that Cincinatti would have been better off leaving The Banks to the market to develop on its own timeline. It also appears that journalists in Atlanta looked to the worst example of adjacent development to hang their cautionary tale on.

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