Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

Richard Florida on New York’s Great Reset

In addition to my City Journal article on the new NYU report about New York City’s “great reset,” I also was able to grab a few minutes with Richard Florida to get his take on the report. Listen below, or if the audio embed doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

Comments Off on Richard Florida on New York’s Great Reset
Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Public Policy, Talent Attraction
Cities: New York

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Resetting New York’s Economy

New York University recently issued a study called “New York City: The Great Reset” that took a look at changes in New York’s economy since the 9/11 attacks. As the name implies, Richard Florida, who holds a professorship at NYU, was a contributor to the city.

I wrote up a piece about the study, which is now posted over at City Journal. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s easy to take the safety and prosperity of present-day New York City for granted, but over the last 15 years, any number of events could have derailed its success. The dot-com recession of the early 2000s hit the city’s tech industry hard. The 9/11 attacks could have sent people and businesses fleeing permanently. Rudolph Giuliani could have been succeeded by a mayor who rolled back the city’s remarkable progress. The 2007 financial crash could have dealt a body blow to the city or triggered the kinds of budget crises and service cuts that affected many other cities. Hurricane Sandy could have been even worse than it was. And so on.

Despite these setbacks, New York has continued to boom.

Click through to read the whole thing.

Comments Off on Resetting New York’s Economy
Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Globalization, Public Policy, Technology
Cities: New York

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

America’s Shrinking Cities Are Gaining Brains

If there’s one thing that’s a nearly universal anxiety among cities, it’s brain drain, or the loss of educated residents to other places. I’ve written about this many times over the years, critiquing the way it is normally conceived.

Since brain drain seems to be a major concern in shrinking cities, I decided to take a look at the facts around brains in those places. Looking at the 28 metro areas among the 100 largest that had objective measures of shrinkage – in population and/or jobs – between 2000 and 2013, I looked what what happened to their educational attainment levels.

My results were published today in my Manhattan Institute study “Brain Gain in America’s Shrinking Cities.” As the title implies, my key findings were:

  • Every major metro area in the country that has been losing population and/or jobs is actually gaining people with college degrees at double digit rates.
  • As a whole the shrinking city group is holding its own with the country in terms of educational attainment rates, and in many cases outperforming it.
  • Even among younger adults, most shrinking cities are adding more of them with degrees, increasing their educated population share, and even catching up with the rest of the country in their college degree attainment levels.

The following chart of metro area population change vs. degree change for select cities should drive the point home.

Click through to read the whole thing.

In short, for most places, it looks like the battle against brain drain has actually been won. As people there can attest, thanks to many improvements public and private over the years, they are now viable places to live for higher end talent in a way they weren’t say 20 years ago. This means the attention and resources that have been devoted to this issue can now be put to more present day tasks such as repairing civic finances, rebuilding core public services, and creating more economic opportunity for those without degrees.

More commentary later perhaps, but for now please check out the report and share widely.

Comments Off on America’s Shrinking Cities Are Gaining Brains
Topics: Demographic Analysis, Talent Attraction

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

Diehard Detroit

I haven’t posted any city videos in a while, but here’s a tilt shift out of Detroit for you to enjoy. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here to watch on YouTube. h/t Likecool

And from the “Not everything is so humane on the Upper West Side department,” here’s a story about a guy who rented a 100 square foot apartment there. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here to watch on Vimeo.

Comments Off on Diehard Detroit
Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Detroit

Friday, August 21st, 2015

When High Density Is Humane


So many of the complaints about density seem to revolve around all the supposed negative affects of congestion, as well a general sense of the inhumanity of high density living, which in the popular mind is associated with the proverbial “concrete jungle” and a forest of skycrapers.

I can understand why many people want a house on a big lot. On the other hand, high density living, done right, can be extremely livable, humane, and even uncongested.

When I lived in Chicago I frequently would have people tell me that they couldn’t imagine themselves living in such a big, dense city. They no doubt had impressions of living there shaped by their visit to the Loop and other tourist areas, which are indeed crowded and have attributes of the concrete jungle.

But other than a narrow strip less than half a mile wide along the lakefront, most of Chicago isn’t built like that. Chicago actually has some of the most beautiful, livable streets and neighborhoods in America. Except for a few small areas with so-called WPA streets, its neighborhood streets have full infrastructure with generous sidewalks and parkways full of mature trees. Homeowners often landscape this and their front yard such that it’s like walking through a lavish garden simply to walk down the street. Alleys mean no trash in front and the city has virtually no on-street power lines. It also has full and amazing street lighting on streets and alleys. The building stock is mostly single family homes, 2- and 3-flats, and lowrise apartment buildings. Much of it is like a city in a garden.

My old neighborhood was Lakeview, which has 94,000 people in about 3.2 square miles, or 30,000 people per square mile. Yet its residential streets are quiet, tree-lined, and delightful – a far cry from the concrete jungle. Frankly, they are better than the average street in most Midwest cities.

Today I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. This neighborhood is the second most dense in the entire city of New York, with 209,000 people in 1.9 square miles, or 110,000 per square mile – almost four times as dense as Lakeview and 25 times as dense as the city of Portland.

Given this density, you might think it would be a horrific urban nightmare to live in. Yet, it’s incredibly pleasant, bucolic even.

The picture at the top of this post is West 68th St., where I live. It’s a tree lined street of low to mid-rise buildings with mature trees and very little traffic. Contrary to the jackhammers all night long stereotype of New York, it’s very quiet.

Most of the streets in the UWS are similar: tree-lined, quiet, with beautiful low-rise brownstones and such. Here are a couple photos that I believe are both of West 69th.



I should mention that behind these buildings, while there aren’t alleys, there are often interior courtyards between blocks with open space and greenery.

The avenues feature taller buildings, but while there are some skycrapers, there aren’t really that many. Here’s a stretch of Columbus Ave, with typical commercial-residential mixed use buildings. (The average is probably a bit more intense than this shot).


Here’s the intersection of 72nd and Broadway, one of the major intersections in the neighborhood. There are some taller buildings and more intense retail, but a number of those buildings are just stunningly beautiful as well.


West End Ave., one of the major residential avenues, has more mid-rise towers, but mostly beautiful pre-War buildings at around ~12-14 stories, or not much different from Barcelona.


Central Park West is one of America’s premier streets, with similar sized buildings to WEA, many of them truly landmark designs, that overlook Central Park.


Speaking of which, I am a five minute walk from Central Park, ten minutes from the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center (LC has more arts and culture going on than all but probably five total metro areas in the US), and about 15 minutes to the Hudson River greenway. There are two subway trunk lines passing through the area. Traffic moves very rapidly on the main avenues, which have synchronized lights, and you can often traverse almost the entire length of the UWS on say Columbus without stopping. The streets have very light traffic mostly except a handful of major crosstowns. The grid design makes navigation a snap. Accident rates are low.

Though not everybody is as close to Lincoln Center as I am, all of the UWS has good access to Central Park, subways, and the Hudson River. Other people are closer to other cultural amenities, such as the Natural History Museum.

While not every aspect of the UWS is positive, I feel very grateful to live here. It’s an extremely humane and pleasant place to live, despite the density. In fact, the main knock most people have on the UWS is that it’s so humane it’s boring.

I think the Upper West Side shows the elements you need to make density, even very high densities, work right, namely:

1. The right built form, with a variegated style of low to mid-rise buildings – not high rise – and lots of quiet, tree lined, side streets, with mostly high quality architecture.

2. Infrastructure, notably the subways.

3. Amenities like Central Park, the Hudson River, and Lincoln Center.

4. Well-functioning public services, especially public safety and sanitation.

The last one is of particular note, as the neighborhood was not as nice as it was today with only the first three. John Podhoretz, who grew up in the area in the 1970s, wrote about what it was like before order was restored. The musical West Side Story is actually set in the far south end of the neighborhood. (Lincoln Center, whatever its merits as a cultural district, was built as an urban renewal effort to get rid of the Puerto Ricans in the area). Central Park wasn’t much of an amenity when it wasn’t safe to go into it.

These obviously take wealth to sustain, but not all of it has to come from the neighborhood. Clearly the superior building stock came from neighborhood wealth, but parks, subways, etc. are paid for on a broader basis. Given the vibrant ethnic neighborhoods that exist today in other parts of the city, I’m sure this could have been a successful, safe working class Puerto Rican neighborhood with today’s public services environment. Of course, once safety and services were addressed, the value of the real estate skyrocketed.

There are some high rises in the UWS, particularly to the south, but these are the exception, not the rule. Yet this is still the second most dense neighborhood in the city with a hard to comprehend density of 110,000 per square mile. I can see why it isn’t for everybody, but I think people would agree that a neighborhood built like Paris or Barcelona (and in fact lower rise than those cities in most places) is hardly a concrete nightmare.

Density, done right, can be supremely humane and livable.

I think the UWS also illustrates the fallacy of too much of today’s urbanist thinking which is all about building tall to increase housing supply. If you can get to 110K density with mid and low rise buildings, skyscrapers just aren’t needed to provide any reasonable amount of density in the United States.

There’s also a lot of talk about supply restrictions. I don’t like historic districts all that much, because I think in practice they are abusive. Much of the UWS is in a historic district. There are any number of stink bomb buildings on the UWS I wouldn’t mind seeing replaced with new development, a few new skyscrapers wouldn’t be a disaster. If the population density even went up, I wouldn’t mind – it might even be good. But at the risk of sounding like a NIMBY, there’s just no way a neighborhood like this should see a massive increase in FAR to enable redevelopment with taller buildings. Turning one of the world’s great neighborhoods into Midtown would be a disaster.

Instead going directly to policies like “let’s just remove DCs height limit,” instead people should be taking a look at very high density neighborhoods like the UWS that function amazingly well and figure out how to adopt the lessons of that to other places.

Comments Off on When High Density Is Humane
Topics: Architecture and Design, Transportation
Cities: Chicago, New York

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

The Architecture of Dictatorship

Conveniently, last week’s episode of Monocle 24’s the Urbanist had a theme of the architecture of dictatorship. The very first segment is a piece on Stalinist architecture in Moscow. If the audio player doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

Comments Off on The Architecture of Dictatorship
Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Moscow

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Behind the Facade in St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg - August 2015

St. Petersburg, Peter the Great’s new European style capital for imperial Russia, is the most visited city for tourists in Russia. It has a ton of great buildings, energetic street life in its smallish central core, and world-renowned cultural institutions like the Hermitage Museum and the Mariinsky Theater.

As with Moscow, however, I am not going to attempt to replicate what you can find better elsewhere online or in a guidebook. Rather, I want to show a few things that reflect on something a person there told me, namely that “St. Petersburg is like a facade of a city,” similar to the Hollywood western sets in which the “storefronts” have nothing behind them.

I’m not sure exactly what this guy was trying to communicate about his city, but I did experience a few things that I think relate to it, in which the interior of a space is completely different from what you might expect from the exterior. St. Petersburg would appear to be, like many places, a city where you need a local in the know to really show you around.

Consider, for example, this long, well-maintained, genteel, colonnaded, and I think somewhat dull facade.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

What do you think is behind it? Would you believe this:

St. Petersburg - August 2015

It’s a large and high energy street market in a sort of courtyard space. Here’s another passageway with vendor:

St. Petersburg - August 2015

And this place, which left me speechless:

St. Petersburg - August 2015

Then there’s this building, which the person I was with thought was actually abandoned.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

There was somebody sitting out front on a folding chair who looked like a construction worker because his trousers were covered in plaster. We asked to take a peek and it turns out the whole thing was being used as a studio by several artists.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

I had a much cooler picture of an amazing sculpture someone was working on, but he didn’t want it photographed.

Then there are derelict industrial buildings that are more than what they seem, like this one which is in the very center of town, which you can tell from the cathedral sticking up behind it.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

In addition to being home to several creative firms and software companies, the interior of this space also has clubs and bars, one of which I enjoyed a craft beer at. It was a very cool space but I sadly neglected to take a picture.

Here’s another building that at first look doesn’t appear to have much promise.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

But follow that path to a metal door on the back left corner, walk up the staircase to the roof, and there’s a great cafe with excellent coffee and amazing rooftop views of the city.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

What’s in here, I wonder? Not sure. It’s owned by Roman Abramovich, who did not invite me over for tea.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

I’ll wrap up with a couple of urban planning notes. First, a street sign warning of, well, you get it.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

Both St. Petersburg and Moscow have Uber, by the way. I’m not sure how useful it is for tourists, since the two times I took it in St. Petersburg, extensive phone conversations with the driver needed to take place to physically connect, and my Russian speaking companion took care of that. St. Petersburg, as you might have gathered, has a lot of canals and other bodies of water, and they have rolled out UberBOAT service there as well.

I’ll wrap up with a picture of a newish building.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

The local person who was showing me around noted that there were often disputes over buildings like this, with some architects demanding better designs. You’ll note the ground floor treatment could be improved, and the upper floors are EIFS or some similar product, which urbanists there seem not to like any more than we do here.

You can view more of my iPhone pictures of St. Petersburg on Flickr.

Comments Off on Behind the Facade in St. Petersburg
Topics: Architecture and Design, Historic Preservation, Urban Culture
Cities: St. Petersburg (Russia)

Friday, August 14th, 2015

A Visit to Kazan

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

St. Petersburg and Moscow are typical destinations in Russia, but if you’re looking for other places to visit, where do you go? I can’t claim to answer that question as I have not fully surveyed the realm, but I did visit the city of Kazan for a day, so want to share a few observations and photos.

Kazan is a city of a bit over a million people about 450 miles east of Moscow (a flight of around 1:20). It’s the capital of the Tatar Republic of the Russian Federation. The Tatars were a nomads of Turkish ethnicity who established an independent kingdom in the region before being conquered by Ivan the Terrible. They are very proud of their unique ethnicity and history, and have obtained a great deal of autonomy (at least as much as exists in Russia). Originally the province was called Tatariya, but they renamed it Tataristan. To locals, the “-stan” suffix suggests strength and independence on par with other fully independent republics in the region. While they can certainly choose whatever name makes them feel most proud, names ending in “-stan” certainly don’t inspire confidence in America. I don’t think they fully understand the negative brand equity in that term, but don’t let the name scare you off. It’s a modern and as far as I can tell perfectly safe city.

In fact, it’s extraordinarily modern and new. There’s been a vast amount of infrastructure investment, much of it done in conjunction with international sporting events. They hosted the 2013 Summer Universiade (an Olympics for students, I gather), and the 2015 World Aquatics Championship was underway while I visited. They’ve got a brand new airport, brand new freeway network, numerous new buildings, etc.

Looking at Kazan in fact, you might get the impression it’s a boomtown. But it’s not a boom of the type you’d find in the US based on private sector growth. Though the region boasts oil and gas reserves and several manufacturing operations, most revenues go to the federal treasury in Moscow, so it would appear that Putin has showered the region was cash and that is the reason for the construction boom. The difference vs. St. Petersburg, which appeared to be starved for money, was evident. Everything in Russia is more or less state directed, and this is no exception.

Having said that, the state could have invested in purely megalomaniacal projects as has happened in some other regional -stans. Instead a lot has gone into core infrastructure. Yes, some of it is tourist oriented, but the neighborhoods infrastructure I saw was in pretty good shape, and my cab driver said that the city had done a ton of upgrades to neighborhoods streets and such too. They also built a short metro system, though apparently it is under-patronized.

Putin has been favoring the region with money in part to highlight and reward what Russians described to me as “good Muslims.” The Tatar region is about 55% Muslim and 45% Russian Orthodox. The split is basically along ethnic lines (though there’s a segment of Tatars that converted to Christianity). The Muslims in the area have long been known for their moderate brand of Sunni practice, and religious relations have been good, including a high degree of intermarriage (or so I’m told). Google tells me there were some extremist attacks in 2012, so I’m not sure what the status of that is, but I personally wouldn’t let it stop me from visiting there.

The locals are really pushing the religious co-existence angle, which makes sense in a world that is looking for examples of Christianity and Islam getting along. That’s a shrewd marketing strategy.

They also have gone beyond the modern and have pushed historic preservation. While no one is going to confuse Kazan for St. Petersburg, they have tried to restore what they have and have focused on obtaining UNESCO certifications. They are also pushing the Tatar cultural angle. There are plenty of elements of regional cuisine and I thought the food was excellent. Of course they would send me to their best places, but since I was only there one day, that didn’t matter. Kazan also has an important university, so has some attributes of a college town. Several famous Russians spent time living in Kazan, including Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky.

Is Kazan a must-see? No. But if you’re interested in checking out a Russian city other than the big two, it’s definitely worth a visit.

I’ll share a few photos. The one at the top is the main entrance to the Kazan Kremlin. (The term kremlin is an old word meaning “fortress”). Here’s the Russian Orthodox cathedral there:

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

There was originally a mosque in the kremlin that was destroyed when Russians conquered the area. Recently, a new mosque was built on the site to maintain the symbolic religious balance in the area. I think it’s a very nice building.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

They have their own leaning tower.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

The main street leading to the kremlin.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

The kremlin has nice views. There are several rivers and lakes in the area, including the Volga, and plenty of nice vistas.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Take a nice stroll along the lake.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Renovated buildings in the old Tatar Quarter

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

There’s a bit too much hardscape on that redone street for my taste. But it’s interesting because they took out a streetcar and pedestrianized the street. Apparently the vibrations were causing problems with the old buildings in the area, so they wanted to eliminate all vehicles.

Not sure what this is, but it’s in my Kazan file.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015


Kazan, Russia - August 2015

I’ll wrap up with a bit of transport geekery. Yes, they have a bike share system.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Their new metro system is in the Russian style with lots of marble, etc. The system “M” logo is similar to Moscow but in green (the traditional color of Islam). Instead of Moscow style tap cards they are using plastic tokens.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

A metro station.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Station name signage. I believe the top is Russian and the bottom is the Tatar language, which is also written using the Cyrillic script. Interestingly, for at least while into the Soviet period, Tatar was written using the Latin alphabet, but they were apparently forced to change.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015


Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Here’s a train in the station. These are the exact same trainsets as the new Moscow ones I mentioned by didn’t have a picture of.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

As I said, I was only there a day but was glad I went. It was good to get to see a city further into the Russian interior. Lots of money is being spent there, so I’d expect many further developments in the future.

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Transport in Moscow

Moscow - August 2015

I was in Russia last week and plan to share a few relevant posts from the trip. Since you can easily find better photos of places like the Kremlin than I’ll ever take online, when it comes to Moscow I’m going to focus on more planning and transport items. There’s a lot of other commentary I might make, and if you want to read it, be sure to sign up for my exclusive content by email if you haven’t already, because I may write up further observations on the political scene there.

Writing anything positive about public space and transport in Moscow runs the risk of coming across as seeming to say that “at least Putin makes the trains run on time.” But as he is fully occupied with such critical tasks of state as destroying illicit supplies of Nutella and brie, I doubt he’s bothering himself with such prosaic concerns as transport. Should you be interested, the NYT just ran a good piece on the combination of urban improvement and authoritarianism in Russia’s capital city.

Moscow reminded me a bit of an inverted Buenos Aires. Whereas in BA you get a clear sense that this was once the Paris of South America now well faded, Moscow comes across as a dilapidated city on the rise. You definitely see plenty of run down communist era architecture – the quantity of Corbusian nightmares evident from an aerial view of the city is astonishing – but there are new buildings on the rise and significant evidence of attempts to improve the lived experience of the city.

Moscow is clearly a driving and transit city, not a walking city. Though there is some street life, it’s far lower than comparable high density megacities. But before knocking them too much, keep in mind that Moscow gets bitterly cold in the winter. Even in August the temperature in the afternoon was only the low 70s. Ideal to be sure, but that’s only for a narrow window of the year. Moscow is at 56 degrees north latitude compared to 41 in New York. Moscow is actually further north than every major Canadian city. The sky was already getting light before 4am.

Nevertheless, the outdoor experience there is being enhanced through a number of projects.

Moscow River

The Moscow River flows through the city, passing alongside the Kremlin as you can see in his photograph.

Moscow - August 2015

You see that on both sides it is lined with roads and very narrow sidewalks. It’s not even clear how you would easily get to the riverside on the Kremlin side. A stroll along the bank across from the Kremlin, Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and other landmarks should be amazing, but it is not.

There’s apparently a tender underway that would completely redo this for the better. In the meantime, one section of the river called the Krymskaya Embankment has been redone to a slick, albeit somewhat generic design. This has radically transformed the riverfront for the better, and if the rest of the Moscow River upgrade is similar, this will be a huge transformation for the city.

Moscow - August 2015

People enjoying the waterfront.

Moscow - August 2015

Here’s a closeup of the bike lane.

Moscow - August 2015

The numbers and the text in the background give distances to attractions such as Gorky Park.

Neighborhood Streets

In a way similar to the riverbank, there’s been an effort to upgrade neighborhood streets to improve the pedestrian experience. Traditionally, these have had fairly narrow, basic sidewalks. Here’s a typical example:

Moscow - August 2015

And here’s a street that’s been put on a road diet.

Moscow - August 2015

This program is ongoing, as this sign touting forthcoming improvements shows.

Moscow - August 2015

And a picture of the construction in progress.

Moscow - August 2015

There’s also a bike share system.

Moscow - August 2015

Arterial Streets

While there are plenty of smaller, human scaled side streets in Moscow, the arterial roads are mega-wide thoroughfares (“prospekts” in the local parlance) that function as quasi-freeways. Here’s an example that isn’t a perfect photo, but let’s you get the gist of it.

Moscow - August 2015

You’ll see at least six lanes in a single direction. This building is actually decent, but illustrates what you also see along these high capacity arterials, namely a preponderance of horizontally oriented buildings. Even with broken up facades, these are buildings that are most legible at driving speeds, not walking.

You might wonder how people cross these things, and the answer is that they mostly don’t. For these streets, there’s a heavy reliance on pedestrian underpasses for pedestrian safety. (This also reduces the number of stoplights, which allows for long distances of high speed travel even in the center city). Metro entrances also do double-duty as protected passageways through intersections. Here’s an entrance to one such pedestrian underpass along a one way street that appears to be ten lanes wide.

Moscow - August 2015

This might seem inhumane, and it is. But it also functions well. Though I’m told traffic is much lighter in the summer when many vacate the city, there is nothing like the gridlock of a New York, and these roads tended to move pretty good most of the time I was there.

Where there were crosswalks, they featured countdown timers on both the walk and don’t walk cycle.

Moscow - August 2015

That’s not a misprint. Some of these lights have extremely long cycles.

Some arterials have a nicer design. One is the so-called “boulevard ring,” which is one of the many ring roads in Moscow. I think (though can’t promise), this shot is from it. Even if not, it’s representative of its design.

Moscow - August 2015

Moscow Metro

Moscow is famous for its metro system, which is one of the world’s busiest and has lavish station designs. I saw some of these and they are indeed pretty great, though this system should never be applauded without remembering that it was built with gulag labor. Again, I won’t show many pictures of the stations, since my iPhone isn’t the best at low light underground shots. Google is your friend on this.

The metro fare is about a buck. Tap cards are sold at automated kiosks that have English available. Lines are numbered and color coded. Here’s an example of the system signage.

Moscow - August 2015

It’s one train right after the next more or less. Even at 11:30 pm there were three minute headways. The cars are older but function well, and there is wifi, which I’m told works even between stations.

Moscow - August 2015

There are some newer cars that appear to be married pairs with open gangway between the two linked carriages, but not between pairs.

While you can buy a ticket in English, the bulk of the signage is in Russian only. This isn’t a problem for the most part, but I found the remembering station names in the Cyrillic alphabet was a challenge compared with Latin alphabet stations in other foreign countries. I would suggest that the station name be transliterated into Latin script to make the system more friendly to international users. (The rest of the signage is fine as is). Here’s an example:

Moscow - August 2015

If I translate that right, this station is Kropotkinskaya (Kropotkin was a Russian intellectual of the 19th and early 20th centuries). The name is certainly easier to recognize in Latin script for westerners (and probably most others who use English as their international lingua franca). But even in Russian only, you should be able to figure it out how to navigate the system if you pay close attention.

Here’s an example of some transliterated signage. This probably goes above and beyond the call of duty as the numeric indicators suffice.

Moscow - August 2015

Air Travel

Moscow has two main airports, I believe, both at a significant distance from the city center. I flew using Sheremetyevo, which is serviceable if not overly pleasant. You have to pass through security immediately upon entering the terminal, then again when going to the gate area. Even domestic transfers require re-screening and passport checks. (I was told by a local, “Russians love checking passports.”)

The most depressing part of the trip was flying three domestic segments on Aeroflot. When I was younger they had an extremely bad reputation, and flew of a fleet of dodgy Soviet made jets. Today, the planes I flew on were newish A-320s and the service levels exceeded US domestic standards (though that’s a low hurdle to jump). They even still serve food on short haul flights. Quite a role reversal there. Red is still their flight attendant colors, and their hammer and sickle logo is still in use.

High Speed Rail

There are a number of rail routes throughout the country, and while I didn’t make a comprehensive survey, I did ride the high speed “Sapsan” service from St. Petersburg to Moscow. IIRC, the fare was around $55. Though using Siemens trainsets derived from the rolling stock used on Germany’s ICE trains, the max speed was 220 km/h (135 mph), comparable to the Acela. However, unlike the Acela, the Sapsan cruises at 200 km/h or higher most of the trip. The journey takes a bit less than four hours and is a pleasant way to travel.

Here’s a picture of one of the trains I took in St. Petersburg’s Moscow Station.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

An interior shot.

St. Petersburg - August 2015


I hope this gives a bit of a feel for transport in Moscow. The city is obviously spending to try to upgrade its urban environment. Whether physical improvements in Moscow or elsewhere will survive Putin’s authoritarian turn is to be seen, but as the examples of the Moscow subway and many of the historic ruins we visit around the world show, it’s certainly possible for the cruelest of dictatorships to produce magnificent physical artifacts in select places. The success of these regimes should not be judged by that measure.

In closing, I’ll leave translating the following as an exercise for the reader.

Moscow - August 2015

If you are interested, there’s an album of iPhone photos I took available on my Flickr page.

Comments Off on Transport in Moscow
Topics: Architecture and Design, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Moscow

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

A Manifesto Against Completing Sagrada Família Church

I’ve written before about Sagrada Família Church in Barcelona, an architectural masterwork by Antoni Gaudí. In particular you may remember my essay “Will Sagrada Família Be Mankind’s Last Ever Great Artistic Statement for God?.”

I wrote that piece after reading an article by Oscar Tusquets Blanca in Domus magazine in 2011. In it he talked about being an instigator as a student of the publication of a manifesto (his term) against completion of the church. And how he now believes he and his fellow signatories were very mistaken.

While researching a forthcoming lecture, I wanted to read that manifesto, but I could not find it online anywhere in either Spanish or English. Architect Duncan Stroik helped locate a copy for me via Pablo Álvarez Funes in London, who also kindly translated it into English. I’m reproducing that translation in English below, followed by the Spanish original. If you wish, you can view the original newspaper version as a PDF.

As this was an open letter published in a newspaper, I presume the authors have no objection to sharing this important document. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no other easily accessible English language translation. Thanks to Pablo and Duncan for making this possible.

This letter was originally published on Saturday, January 9, 1965 in La Vanguardia, Barcelona’s leading newspaper.

Letters to “LA VANGUARDIA”

Construction Works at the Church of Sagrada Familia

Mr. Director of LA VANGUARDIA

Dear Sir:

We request to please give place to the following letter within the pages of this newspaper that you worthily direct, for which we express our gratitude in advance.

The Church of Sagrada Familia was commenced in March 19, 1882, and it has remained unfinished for many years, with works developing slowly and practically interrupted. We are periodically reminded on the duty to contribute to its completion and an important part of the public considers Sagrada Familia as a task in we are all committed and whose renounce is a collective shame. A special day has been dedicated to remind it to us and raise funds for the continuation of construction works. This day is close and as many people will take part on the collection being convinced on collaborating on a religious, civic and artistic work; and as we are convinced that this work is not only non-positive, but also counterproductive, we think it is our duty to expose our points of view.

1.- The cathedral had as one of its purposes to gather all the city residents during the great religious celebrations; in the cities of today such a big monumental temple has no sense.

It is not a matter of building a great temple for the whole city, which should allow space for almost two million people, but building multiple parishes. In all fields, urban planning tends to these decentralized neighbourhoods, and the Church who strives to support itself in real urban entities precisely, tends to vitalize parishes as centres of evangelization.

A temple such as Sagrada Familia wouldn’t be either useful or large religious gatherings, as the Eucharistic Congress was. An opened space or a vast covered space with different characteristic from the temple designed by Gaudi should be required. We therefore believe that the continuation of a temple following this line is a social and urban mistake.

2.- Sagrada Familia has to be considered from the point of view of a expiatory monument. In this case, the temple would come to focus and symbolize the expiatory fervour of the whole society. But we don’t believe on such popular sentiment, nor anyone feeling really connected to this collective expiatory task. Today’s generation doesn’t understand that the need of expiation has to be precisely materialized in the construction of a temple that will cost millions.

3.- Even if there was no social, urban or pastoral justification to complete the temple, the could be another reason. Sagrada Familia is a work of Gaudí and has an artistic value. Let’s forget for a moment that the artistic value of a building cannot be separated from its social justification. It is a work of Gaudí, it is a work of art, and some people want to see it finished. But, is it possible to finish a building? Nobody would ever finish a painting or a sculpture, but can a building be completed without the architect who designed it? I might be possible if there were very accurate plans, if all building issues were solved on paper. But Gaudí had such a living concept of architecture that created his work daily following messy impulses, with preliminary drawings which could only be used as a guide. There is an essential pictorial and sculptural side of Gaudi which could only have been done by him. Without it, the work keeps distorted and diminished. But we neither have any model or drawings from Gaudí. This reason is conclusive and makes all previous seem unnecessary. Sagrada Familia cannot be continued because there are no drawings; anything done on this side is improvisation. Nobody really respecting Gaudi’s work can cooperate on this mess.

These are our reasons. The temple is inoperative from an urban and social point of view; the city does not need big temples but parishes to allow pastoral action; a great expiatory temple for the whole society is an idea out of time – today popular fervor is expressed in other ways, otherwise the temple would have been already concluding; finishing a building without the architect who designed it is very difficult; but if it desired to be finished following his designs and those drawings are missing, it is just a fully ambiguous attempt.

What to do, then, with what we have built? This lends itself to a long discussion. There are plenty and varied solutions which should be studied and choose the best. Our only certainty is that what is being done now is wrong, and only urgency is to finish with this error as soon as possible. There will be time to study solutions at a later day; from converting the current esplanade in an outdoor temple, leaving the facade and apse as a monumental altarpiece; to continue building adapting Gaudí principles to modern techniques and needs.

Yours Sincerely:

Antoni de Moragas, Chairman of the Colegio de Arquitectos (Institute of Architects).

Alfons Serrahima, President of FAD (Fomento de las Artes y el Diseño – Promotion of Arts and Design).

Roberto Terradas, Dean of the School of Architecture.

Students of the School of Architecture.

Nikolaus Pevsner, director of “Architectural Review”

Gio Ponti, director oh “Domus”.

Bruno Zevi, director of “L’architettura”,

Ernesto N. Rogers, director oh “Casabella”.

Vittorio Gregotti, director of “Edilizia Moderna”.

M. Capelladas, O. P., director of “Art Sacré”.

Carlos de Miguel, director of “Arquitectura”.

Asís Viladevall, director of “Cuadernos de Arquitectura”.

Le Corbusier, Ludovica Quaroni, Paolo Portoghesi, Ludovico Belgiolso, J. A. Coderch, Manuel Valls, N. Rubio Tudurí, Antoni Bonet, Oriol Bohigas, J. M. Martorell, David Mackay, Federico Correa, Alfonso Milá, Joaquim Gili, Francesc Bassó, Vicens Bonet, Ricardo Bofill, Enric Tous, J. M. Fargas, Xavier Subías, J. M. Sostres, Josep Pratmarsó, A. Fernández Alba, R. V. Molewin, J. A. Corrales, Jesús Bosch, Javier Feduchi, J. L. Pico, C. Ortíz Echagüe, Ignacio Araujo, architects.

Pere M. Busquets, O.SB.; Miguel Estradé, O. S. B.; Evangelista Vilanova, O.S.B.: A. Borras, Ricard Pedrals, presbyter; Frederic Bassó, presbyter; Joan E. Jarque, presbyter; J. Alemany, presbyter; Joan Ferrando, presbyter; Casimir Martí, presbyter; Josep Bigordá, presbyter; M. Prats, presbyter; Jordi Bertrán, presbyter; Josep Hortet, presbyter; Pere Tena, presbyter.

Joan Miró, Antoni Tapies, J. Llorens Artigas, A. Rafols Casamada, Todó, Marcel Martí, Hernández Pijuan, Subirachs, Antoni Cumella, Cesc, Oriol Maspons, Julio Ubiña, Leopold Pomés, Xavier Miserachs, André Ricard, Rafael Marquina, Jordi Fornas, Miguel Milá, Joan Gaspar, Miquel Gaspar, Manuel Dicenta, Román Gubern, Joan Prats, Oriol Martorell, J. M. Mestres Quadreny.

Roberto Pane, Gillo Dorfles, Giullo Carlo Argan, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Alexandre Cirici, Camilo J. Cela, R. Santos Torroella, J. M. Valverde, A. Badia Margarit, Joan Teixidor, Joan Oliver, Joan Perucho, Salvador Espriu, Caries Soldevila, Carlos Barral, J. Gil de Biedma, J. M. Espinas, Joan Brossa, María Martinell, Lluisa Calvet, Pere Vegué, J. Gich.

Remember that the section “Letters to LA VANGUARDIA” is a platform opened to our reader’s opinions, which might not coincide with that of the newspaper, which has its specific sections for that purpose.


La obra del templo de la Sagrada Familia

Sr. Director de LA VANGUARDIA

Muy señor nuestro:

Le rogamos que dé cabida en las páginas del periódico de su digna dirección la siguiente carta, por lo cual le expresamos nuestra gratitud anticipada.

El templo de la Sagrada Familia fue iniciado 19 de marzo de 1882, y desde hace muchos años permanece inacabado, con una obra a un ritmo lentísimo, prácticamente interrumpido. Periódicamente alguien nos recuerda el deber que tenemos de colaborar a su terminación y un sector importante de público considera la Sagrada Familia como una empresa en la que estamos comprometidos todos y cuyo abandono es una vergüenza colectiva. Se ha dedicado un día especial a recordárnoslo y a recaudar fondos para la continuación de las obras. Este día está próximo y como muchas personas participarán en la colecta convencidos de colaborar en una obra religiosa, ciudadana y artística, y como nosotros estamos, convencidos de que esta labor no sólo no es positiva, sino que es contraproducente, creemos un deber exponer nuestros puntos de vista.

1.- La catedral tenía como uno de sus fines agrupar a todos los habitantes da la ciudad en las grandes celebraciones religiosas; en las ciudades de hoy un enorme templo monumental no tiene sentido.

No m trata ya de construir un gran templo para toda la ciudad, que debería tener cabida para casi dos millones de habitantes, sino de construir múltiples parroquias. El urbanismo tiende en todos los campos a esta descentralización en barrios y la Iglesia que, por razones pastorales, se esfuerza en apoyarse precisamente en las entidades urbanas reales, tiende a vitalizar las parroquias como núcleos de evangelización.

Tampoco para las grandes concentraciones religiosas —como lo fue el Congreso Eucarístico— tendría utilidad un templo como la Sagrada Familia; se requeriría un espacio abierto o un vastísimo espacio cubierto de características muy distintas a las del templo ideado por Gaudí. Creemos, por tanto, que la continuación de un templo dentro de esta línea es un error social y urbanístico.

2.- Puede considerarse a la Sagrada Familia, desde el punto de vista de un monumento expiatorio. En este caso el templo vendría a centrar y a simbolizar el fervor expiatorio de todo un pueblo. Pero no creemos que exista este sentimiento popular, ni que nadie se sienta vinculado de veras a esta empresa colectiva de expiación. La generación de hoy no comprende que una necesidad de expiación tenga que concretarse precisamente en la construcción de un templo que costaría millones.

3.- Aunque no hubiera justificaciones sociales ni urbanísticas ni pastorales para terminar el templo, podría haber otra razón. La Sagrada Familia es obra de Gaudí y tiene un valor artístico. Olvidemos por un momento que el valor artístico de un edificio no puede desvincularse de su justificación social. Es una obra de Gaudí, es una obra de arte, y hay quien quiere verla terminada. Ahora bien, ¿es posible terminar un edificio? A nadie se le ocurriría terminar un cuadro o una escultura, pero un edificio ¿se puede terminar sin el arquitecto que lo concibió? Quizá sería posible si existieran planos detalladísimos, si el edificio estuviese resuelto sobre el papel en todos sus puntos. Pero Gaudí tenía de la arquitectura un concepto tan vivo que creaba su obra diariamente a impulsos desordenados, con unos planos previos que servían apenas de pauta. En Gaudí hay un aspecto pictórico y escultórico que es esencial y este aspecto sólo él lo podía realizar. Sin él, la obra queda falseada y disminuida. Pero, además, no disponemos de ningún proyecto, de ningún plano auténtico de Gaudí. Esta razón es concluyente y todas las anteriores parecen innecesarias. No se puede continuar la Sagrada Familia de Gaudí porque no existen planos; todo lo que se haga son improvisaciones. Nadie que respete de veras la obra gaudiniana puede colaborar a esta mixtificación.

Estas son nuestras razones. Urbanística y socialmente el gran templo es inoperante; para la acción pastoral en la ciudad se necesitan parroquias y no grandes templos; un gran templo expiatorio de todo un pueblo es una idea fuera de época —hoy el fervor de un pueblo se expresa en otras formas, y de no ser así, el templo estaría ya terminado—; terminar un edificio sin el arquitecto que lo ideó es muy difícil; pero sí se quiere terminar según su mismo proyecto y de este proyecto no quedan planos, es ya un intento lleno de vaguedades.

¿Qué hay que hacer, pues, con lo que tenemos construido? Esto se presta a una larga discusión. Las soluciones son muchas y muy diversas. Habría que estudiarlas y elegir la mejor. Lo único seguro es que lo que ahora se está haciendo es un error, y lo único urgente es terminar cuanto antes con este error. Tiempo habrá luego para estudiar soluciones, desde convertir la actual explanada en un templo al aire libre, dejando la fachada y el ábside como un monumental retablo, hasta continuar la construcción adaptando los principios gaudinistas a las técnicas y necesidades modernas.

Reciba un atento saludo de

Antoni de Moragas, decano del Colegio de Arquitectos.

Alfons Serrahima, presidente del FAD.

Roberto Terradas, director de la Escuela de Arquitectura.

Estudiantes de la E.T.S. de Arquitectura.

Nikolaus Pevsner, director de “Architectural Review”

Gio Ponti, director de “Domus”.

Bruno Zevi, director de “L’architettura”,

Ernesto N. Rogers, director de “Casabella”.

Vittorio Gregotti, director de “Edilizia Moderna”.

Capelladas, O. P., director de “Art Sacré”.

Carlos de Miguel, director de “Arquitectura”.

Asís Viladevall, director de “Cuadernos de Arquitectura”.

Le Corbusier, Ludovica Quaroni, Paolo Portoghesi, Ludovico Belgiolso, J. A. Coderch, Manuel Valls, N. Rubio Tudurí, Antoni Bonet, Oriol Bohigas, J. M. Martorell, David Mackay, Federico Correa, Alfonso Milá, Joaquim Gili, Francesc Bassó, Vicens Bonet, Ricardo Bofill, Enric Tous, J. M. Fargas, Xavier Subías, J. M. Sostres, Josep Pratmarsó, A. Fernández Alba, R. V. Molewin, J. A. Corrales, Jesús Bosch, Javier Feduchi, J. L. Pico, C. Ortíz Echagüe, Ignacio Araujo, arquitectos.

Pere M. Busquets, O.SB.; Miguel Estradé, O. S. B.; Evangelista Vilanova, O.S.B.: A. Borras, Ricard Pedrals, presbítero; Frederic Bassó, presbítero; Joan E. Jarque, presbítero; J. Alemany, presbítero; Joan Ferrando, presbítero; Casimir Martí, presbítero; Josep Bigordá, presbítero; M. Prats, presbítero; Jordi Bertrán, presbítero; Josep Hortet, presbítero; Pere Tena, presbítero.

Joan Miró, Antoni Tapies, J. Llorens Artigas, A. Rafols Casamada, Todó, Marcel Martí, Hernández Pijuan, Subirachs, Antoni Cumella, Cesc, Oriol Maspons, Julio Ubiña, Leopold Pomés, Xavier Miserachs, André Ricard, Rafael Marquina, Jordi Fornas, Miguel Milá, Joan Gaspar, Miquel Gaspar, Manuel Dicenta, Román Gubern, Joan Prats, Oriol Martorell, J. M. Mestres Quadreny.

Roberto Pane, Gillo Dorfles, Giullo Carlo Argan, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Alexandre Cirici, Camilo J. Cela, R. Santos Torroella, J. M. Valverde, A. Badia Margarit, Joan Teixidor, Joan Oliver, Joan Perucho, Salvador Espriu, Caries Soldevila, Carlos Barral, J. Gil de Biedma, J. M. Espinas, Joan Brossa, María Martinell, Lluisa Calvet, Pere Vegué, J. Gich.

Recordamos que la sección de “Cartas a LA VANGUARDIA” es una tribuna abierta a la opinión de nuestros lectores, la cual puede no coincidir con la del periódico, que tiene ras secciones específicas de manifestación.

Comments Off on A Manifesto Against Completing Sagrada Família Church
Topics: Architecture and Design, Arts and Culture, Historic Preservation, Urban Culture
Cities: Barcelona

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures