architecture

Mike Alexander, Urban Planner and Rock Guitarist Extraordinaire

Upstab
Upstab

I'm interested in what people do for a living. Why? Because what we do for wage takes up most of our lives, and whether we hate it or love it, it has the biggest impact on our short time on this planet. I'm also pretty damn interested in people who's jobs have impact on loads of other people's lives. Mike Alexander is an urban planner, and so his job affects a lot of other people. I'll let him explain. 

My professional career began working for a midsized suburb in West Central Florida as an Urban Planner during the end of the boom period of commercial and residential real estate development from 2006 to 2008 (before moving to Sweden to continue my education). During this time I was responsible for ensuring that real estate site plans complied with city and state codes of development.

Upon returning to the United States in early 2011 I was fortunate enough to return to Cleveland, Ohio accepting an appointed position with the reformed Cuyahoga County government as a Board of Revision Hearing Officer. My duties include hearing complaints from taxpayers and other interested parties and determining fair market value of properties, which have experienced, for the most part, extreme devaluation in recent years due to the foreclosure crisis and lack of available credit for investment. The fair market value of properties is the value upon which the effective tax rate is applied to fund municipal and county services.

To start, just so you know I've written these questions largely drunk on a plane. Also this interview is largely motivated by a hatred for the industry of which I claim as my own, namely design. Any questions?

No.

Could you say that you are designing the city in a way?

As a Hearing Officer, The short answer is: No.

As a public sector Urban Planner, the short answer is: To some extent.

As a Hearing Officer, I assign value that is a mirror of the market. What properties would probably sell for on a given date in time? This value is, like I mentioned previously, the value, which the rate is applied to and the amount of tax the taxpayer is responsible for is based upon.

As a City Planner, I do feel that my role is to not only ensure compliance with regulations, but also to engage the community and utilize their input to make plans and design that the community supports while leading them through the process with my own skills and knowledge of the field.

The developers, architects and engineers are the real creators in the market, but they have to at least adhere to a minimum standard determined by the community that has to live next to the product (in theory).

Does design or any higher concepts of an urban plan have any real affect on real places like Cleveland?

Design can and does have an impact on communities all over the City and region but more on the micro level. Very simple design elements such as landscaping, building setbacks, parking requirements and placement, as well as walkability absolutely have an impact on people's desire to visit and explore (work, live, play) a given environment.

Even anti-skating guards on benches and near buildings can make a place more desirable...sorry Jim, this tends to keep the riff raff away.  [Editors note: He's completely wrong about this]

But the more long term overall picture is dictated by policy and ultimately demand for places. This is exampled by investment in infrastructure (which will need good design to be affective long term) and encouraging a diverse job creation and retention plan for the region. (I could elaborate forever on this issue…regionalism, tax incentive programs, catalytic institutions, etc.)

What do you think of loads of cities trying these grand schemes? I remember Cleveland trying to do this Design District where “young independent designers” would sell furniture. They neglected the bit about there not being any other reason for the rich people who would buy this furniture to go there. Why do they always do this sort of thing?

It's one thing to have a good idea, and another to try to implement it without the proper market analysis. To just create an arts district or design district, or any other type of district, with the "build it and they will come" approach could be disastrous. There has to be the right mix of location, consumer, and/or subsidy to make any project successful. A catalytic institution is also very helpful in a situation like this (i.e. capital theatre, beach land ballroom and tavern). The hope on the part of the City is to use this district as a catalyst that will lead to other spin off development. This is a bit of a gamble with taxpayer dollars, but with the right analysis the project can be successful.

The thing I think about urban planning is its generally quite loose in practice. When you give an architect or designer a brief to redesign a place it's usually to make massive changes and do stuff that the people there won't really give a shit about, like public art. Urban planners seem to be more realistic. Tell me how

Urban planning is more functional and practical mostly because its purpose is to control space and make it user friendly. Whether the user is young, old, pedestrian or motorist space firstly must functionally flow. Art and other design factors are second in most cases.

After traveling to both Sweden and China in recent years I have seen good (and bad) examples of plans implemented. The planner should be designing spaces for current and future users, but in many cases funding and/or demand can have a negative impact on the projects aesthetic outcome. Because of Sweden's climate newer developments focus less on exterior design elements and more on interior design. Therefore, some developments, such as those constructed during the million dwelling program of the 1960's and 1970's have some emphasis on landscaping and commonplace amenities, however they were minimal. This made the dwellings very undesirable and since conception these developments have added more art and color to make the spaces more attractive.

Chinese urban planning, in my opinion, is much different due to cultural and political differences. Many squares and other public places have very modern fountains and incorporate public art as well, but can be viewed as very cold places by some foreigners. Additionally, developments are popping up so rapidly in China that the plans can never really meet the demand. A current problem China faces is related transportation planning, in that, the buildings are becoming so densely developed that it is causing issues with cars parking on sidewalks and people walking in the streets. This is also caused, in large part, by the rising middle class and the affordability of automobiles in recent years. Plans try, but just can’t keep up with the future demand.

On the other hand, China is slowly realizing the need to preserve historical sites. This epiphany is mostly designed to retain tourist revenue, but nonetheless these older districts are some of the most attractive and functional spaces in the country, in my experiences.

Tell me, you lived and studied in Stockholm and are now working for the Man in the Rustbelt. Does Cleveland really have a chance in hell?

The short answer is: Maybe.

While things currently look bleak in Cleveland due to the foreclosure crisis this can also be viewed as a potential opportunity to breed creativity and investment. Because Cleveland is so affordable now it has become very attractive to many artists and designers and that could be a very positive thing for the City and region. With the right leadership to guide development and investments the area can once again be in demand. While I strongly believe this can happen, I must stress that the right leadership must be in place to achieve even the most modest of goals that the citizens demand before the disinvestment becomes too great to overcome.

What do you think about Detroit in the context of the Rustbelt? I mean it’s somehow become the darling of Wired and whoever else as this post-industrial wasteland that is now one massive electronic art love fest or something. What's the reality for places like Detroit, Milwaukee or Cleveland?

Detroit and Cleveland have very similar problems, obstacles to overcome as well as opportunities. Detroit just has these problems on a more grand scale. Like I mentioned previously, the fact that the market is so depressed in these cities it does have the potential for reinvestment and allow opportunities for young people. Some see Cleveland or other 'rustbelt' cities as places of affordability and opportunity because they are not as expensive as their East coast or West coast counterparts  (i.e. New York, Boston, SF, Portland). This is the hope that these cities can have. Along with a catalytic center and good leadership that understands this niche these cities can have, to start at least, thriving pockets of activity and investment.

I'm pretty sure this song was about tax abatement.
I'm pretty sure this song was about tax abatement.

Can good music come out of a good place to live. I say no. Thoughts?

This question can be viewed as subjective. What is 'good music'? However, in my opinion and my own taste in music, I find that there are creative people in urban, suburban, and rural as well as wealthy and poor areas that can produce music that will connect with people and rock pretty hard too.

I think socialist countries like Norway or Sweden are examples of places where they have a very sustainable and modest lifestyle and they have been producing popular groups for many years from a different, but relatable perspective to other parts of the western world. But I think that a city like Cleveland that has a kind of 'down and out' mentality is keeping many of its artists ‘in the shadows’, at least for now. If things begin to turn around in the future, we will see.

I think that in places like Cleveland musicians and artists may put all of their focus on ‘making it’, but in these cases the current economic constraints may stop them from achieving these goals, because they are working to keep food on the table and putting their art on the back burner. When the economic conditions improve enough to multitask these artists are able to really reach out and get their art out there.

Getting all Procedural on the City - Interview with CityEngine's Pascal Mueller

I had the good fortune (and Alpine connections probably) to get to talk to Pascal Mueller the founder and brains behind Procedural who make one of the crazier bits of design software I've gotten my hands on CityEngine which you can use to design cities from the street and block up.

J: So why cities?

P: I believe cities are very fascinating from an architectural point of view, from a geometric point of view, and also of course from a social point of view. I’m a big fan of architecture and computer graphics, and cities are one of the biggest challenges in computer graphics. And, in the meantime, we learned that urban planning also has its challenges, and we can sometimes solve the corresponding problems they have with our methods, which we actually developed for computer graphics.

J: So it just came from graphics, then? It didn’t come from architecture, or did you just feel you were somewhere in between?

P: Somewhere in between, yeah. When I started my studies, at the last time before the deadline, I had to decide between architecture and computer science. At the end I took computer science mainly, and as a specialty graphics. But then in my master’s thesis and PhD I could come back to these things at the end. So, it’s kind of a hybrid thing.

J: So, you couldn’t make the decision, basically?

P: Exactly.

J: What about the suburbs, though? It seems very city-centric, but you know a lot of people don’t actually live in cities. They live outside of cities. Have you thought about this at all, or does this effect city engineering or your work with procedural modeling at all?

P: From a production point of view, suburbs are very easy to reproduce.

J: Okay.

P: There’s also a bit of a definition we had in suburbs. Designing good suburbs is something which is all about green life, quality of life, etcetera, having good connections to the big streets and stuff like this. Generally, suburbs are very important, but unfortunately they are created in a very procedural way, which often leads to not so nice suburbs. But, yeah, these can be simulated very easily.

J: It’s interesting that you said that suburbs are very procedural. Can you talk about that for a second?

P: Sure. I’m going to go to London. You have this London kind of style in the outer areas, and every building looks a bit the same. It might be the outer ring of London. In every building, on the floor you have the living room, and then these very thin buildings, red bricks on the back-side of every long garden. There’s a small garden. So all the houses are very, very similar. Of course, they do differ in a very, very small amount, but you know they are the same. The same thing goes the more you go out of the city, and they’re often single-family houses similar to each other. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, in the Netherlands all the buildings are built in the same way, which is of course totally different than, for example, Italy. But there you have other climates and other conditions to fulfill the customer’s needs.

J: Sure. So it basically worked like a computer program, but they developed organically. Like you said, they’re procedural already.

P: But I think what’s also a big influence here is investment money. Investing into suburban areas is something which gives the most profit when you create one building and place it along the street and repeat it four thousand times. Then you can optimize your profits, construction costs, et cetera. In the USA you have lots of these kinds of suburbs where one company says, “Oh, let’s go build another quarter million here,” and they create it.

J: Do you think CityEngine is set up like this? That it does it in the most economical way by default?

P: You can of course use it for this, yeah. But on the other side, you can also do the planning differently yet with more quality of life. You can do the planning better with CityEngine. Of course we hope that old methods, which can be very easily used in CityEngine, apply; that with CityEngine, we can apply the methods and improve them significantly. Hopefully you can plan it, and then you can also reduce the costs.

J: In the setup for the new users- I used the demo of CityEngine, and one of my colleagues in University of Nottingham did as well- you’re presented with these city models. I went through Berlin, Barcelona, all different types of models. One is, I think, ring-based. I can’t think of the names of the others off the top of my head. But it seems that in CityEngine- and there’s one that’s futuristic, which I think is really interesting, a future space city or something- there’s already a kind of basis, meaning that real life influences CityEngine. Do you think that the opposite could be true? That, eventually with software such as yours, cities and suburbs will start being influenced by the way that software works? To give an example, graphic design was very influenced by basically being able to lay things out on a computer. And that really changed graphic design a lot. I’m just curious about your thoughts on whether maybe the same will start happening in architecture and city development.

P: Definitely. As I said, it’s the old story of graphic design. Often you hear that these kinds of tools make a slave out of the designer. But, in my opinion, having good tools that help your design manifestations is not something which should be prohibited. I really think it’s a problem of the designer at the end, if he’s slave to the tool, and it’s not the problem of the tool. There’s the old saying one guy said once: “Shit in, shit out.” So really the tool is just the tool and nothing else. But because it’s a tool, it also allows new applications. For example, in CityEngine they can encode their zoning laws, so I think it’s not such a thing as having space-age stuff. Of course, cities have future visions, but in the real world, city administrations are pretty happy if they can have correct three-dimensional building envelopes, building shells with a number of stories. And then, for example, let’s assume they say we can change our zoning laws and you can build nearer to the streets. What are the consequences of such a decision? Stuff like this can be simulated in CityEngine, because zoning laws are nothing other than modeling rules. This is one the things I want to go into. Of course, we currently have a very professional user interface for pros, and not for the everyday city administrator. I think that what we have right now is the basis. I really hope that we can create better, more sustainable cities using procedural methods, and we have a very good basis for this.

J: Yeah. Yet, you were talking about what’s called in CityEngine “the rules.” So that’s how a building is formed from the street or a lot or a subdivision, like you said “zones,” and then the user can build, or rather let these things grow kind of semi-organically, or procedurally. But have you thought about- or maybe this is already being implemented- non-architectural or structural rules? For instance, let’s say this neighborhood’s collective income drops twenty percent, or this part of town is taxed higher. Would building happen differently, or is this part of zoning, like you said? Kind of economic rules, basically.

P: You can include such things, because we have the functionality called “reporting,” and we can generate Excel tables. Actually, it’s a very powerful feature, but we haven’t pushed it yet very much. We haven’t done much talking about it yet. We have such possibilities. Cities can change, for example, their floor area ratios and then the whole thing can be regenerated and recomputed in a very short amount of time.

J: So you could say that this part of town lost a lot of income, and then maybe buildings would start falling apart, or maybe building would happen more in certain areas. Because it seems like it does it all over the place very evenly and nicely, but as you know- well in London at any rate- it doesn’t happen like that at all. It’s very messy. Things happen in clusters where jobs and money are basically.

P: Yeah, of course you can control this with image maps in CityEngine if you want to do it manually. What we do not have yet is the needed context sensitivity. We have prototypes for this, but you need to know if you are in an area where there are no schools, but lot of industry. Maybe it’s a wrecked down part of the city. Cities are highly complex networks. We don’t do facility management, we don’t do graphic simulation, and stuff like this. Our focus is really urban planning visualization. And, of course, for urban planning you need the inputs at least from traffic simulation and urban planning, and you also need data from the current infrastructure, how it works, etcetera. For example, I think it will take at least ten years until building information models (B models) are also available to cities. For example, a city administration who knows each screw of each building in the city. It’s kind of scary.

J: Yeah, almost.

P: But this is stuff which will be known. We don’t want to do this scary database shit. What we want to do is create software so that people can design better.

J: Better cities. There seems to be a lot of talk on the internet about innovating services in cities, like there’s sites like in Australia it’s called “Buggered Mate,” and I think it’s fixmystreet.com. So there’s this thing about reporting anything using location-based services, but for things in the city, like broken water mains. Do you ever see CityEngine fulfilling this type of role? Like you said, if you know everything about a building, you can fix parts of the city, or maybe help it run better over time. So not just planning it, but helping maintain it through the city services.

P: Or report your neighbor.

J: Or that, yeah.

P: I know these kinds of services. We have been in talks with one of these guys. For me, it’s a little bit dangerous to watch it.

J: Why is that?

P: I don’t know. It’s just a personal opinion. Rather than reporting the hole in the street, reporting the hole in wall of the house of the neighbor. They go in that direction a little bit. Or graffiti and that sort of thing. It sounds a little bit like Brave New World. But anyway, from a technology point of view, I like it very much. I think it’s a great application. Generally, I don’t see this stuff yet going three-d. I think two-d is enough at the moment for these applications. You need to map where your issue is, and you photograph, and that’s it. Of course, if you can visualize it in a three-d way it is interesting, but again you have to send someone there to fix the street. For that, you don’t need a three-d model.

J: And just one last question. CityEngine’s procedure started basically as a school project. How, or even why, did you make the transition to a full-blown software company?

P: It was in 2007. The economy was very good back then. I got offers from the industry, but I also could have continued my career. I had a pretty good offers for post doc positions at Stanford and New York, but what fascinated me most about creating a company of my own, is that you can realize your ideas in the most effective way. At academia, the more you go up there, the more you just do money-raising and stuff. Before I started my PhD I worked two years in industry. I was always fascinated by creating innovation near to the industry. That’s a little bit the goal of procedural: to create a place of innovation, design, and engineering, which pays off.

J: So you can see other people using that to create their own businesses on top of procedural, or rather on top of CityEngine. Is that what you mean?

P: Long term, yes. Short term, I think it’s more a place for people to realize their innovative skills.