Disaster-proofing transit systems

Public transportation systems can be a great source of pride for cities. Places like New York City, London, and Moscow wouldn’t and couldn’t be themselves without their subway systems; their iconic undergrounds help define the identities of these cities. The relatively high ridership of these subway systems (by residents and visitors alike) has undoubtedly contributed to the widespread admiration these systems enjoy.

However, the fact that heavily travelled transit systems have a tendency to develop into their host cities’ central nervous systems overtime can make them pretty vulnerable. And not just vulnerable to your typical service disruptions due to maintenance or construction, but vulnerable to more severe service disruptions as well.

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We only need to look at the extensive disruptions in NYC’s subway service that followed 2012’s Hurricane Sandy to see that vulnerable transit systems, when faced with extraordinarily unfortunate circumstances, can leave a metropolitan area paralyzed.

Another event which exposed the vulnerability of transit systems were the attacks on several commuter trains in Madrid on “3/11” 2004. Leaving over 2,000 commuters wounded and killing 191, these attacks took place on four seperate train carriages during the morning rush hour commute. Whilst people were quick to point out that transit systems are increasingly vulnerable in a post-9/11 world, these kinds of attacks have been around almost for as long as transit systems themselves. In the 1970s, groups of armed Indonesian terrorists have held entire trains hostage in the north of The Netherlands twice, in one case for as long as 20 days (!) and ending in a military operation in which not only the six hostage-takers were killed, but two passengers as well.

Spanish daily El Pais reports about the attacks on the city’s commuter rail system the day after they took place. Source: El Pais.

Spanish daily El Pais reports about the attacks on the city’s commuter rail system the day after they took place. Source: El Pais.

A year after the attacks in Madrid, on 7/7 2005, yet another European capital’s transit system got hit with a series of coordinated suicide attacks which targeted commuters using the transit system during the morning rush hour. Aboard London’s underground trains, three bombs were detonated in quick succession; a fourth went off aboard a double-decker bus later, leaving Europeans convinced that the Madrid-incident of the previous year wasn’t just a one-time thing, and that more structural measures were needed to protect transit systems.

Of course, security measures had already been expanded all around the world after the 9/11 attacks in New York City. Most of these measures were rather simple, such as having expanded police presence in transit stations and aboard trains and buses. Various transit authorities also put more of their own security personnel in their stations.  Almost everywhere, the security measures that have been adopted typically changed how transit stations were used, but not how they were designed. Rather, security measures (like bag checkpoints) have fit within pre-existing stations. Of course, new transit stations and systems only get built so often, maybe that’s why we haven’t seen security concerns reflected in transit station design. That’s about to change though.

In Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, Dutch engineering firm Royal HaskoningDHV is designing a new subway line extension of the city’s “Red Line”, in what will become one of the largest (and priciest) engineering projects in Israel to date. The realization of the Red Line itself symbolizes a longstanding desire –cherished by local inhabitants and commuters alike– to resolve the completely gridlocked traffic situation in and around this expanding metropolitan area. Whilst a comprehensive regional mass transit system is being planned for the Tel Aviv area, the Red Line extension will become the first in a series of underground mass transit connections. Other sections of the Red Line (as well as several other lines) are being planned in conjunction with the underground extension. Most of the system will consist of above-ground light rail, though there are plans to add BRT lines as well. Work on the above-ground sections of the Red Line has started in September 2011, and is projected to be completed in 2017. The underground section is currently scheduled for 2020.

Too many cars, not enough public transportation: a condition that has long characterized Israeli cities. Source: Haaretz.

Too many cars, not enough public transportation: a condition that has long characterized Israeli cities. Source: Haaretz.

The design program is rather unusual for a transit system: next to relieving the  overly congested roads and highways that serve this region of 3 million people, the Red Line’s design will also take possible rocket attacks into account, and double as a series of bomb shelters. When the Tel Aviv region was threatened by rockets fired from the nearby Gaza strip in November of last year, the need to consider future attacks during the design phase of the new subway line became evidently clear. The ten planned underground stations along the Red Line are being designed to offer shelter to 2,000 people each, in case of emergency. As if that wasn’t unusual enough, each station is being designed to allow all these people to survive underground for five days, without any help from the outside world. And so, the Red Line effectively will become a series of interconnected bomb-shelters upon its completion, offering 20,000 people a wartime refuge.

The Red Line in Tel Aviv, as envisioned upon completion. Source: Metropolitan Mass Transit System (www.nta.co.il).

The Red Line in Tel Aviv, as envisioned upon completion. Source: Metropolitan Mass Transit System (www.nta.co.il).

Before long, security concerns had penetrated every aspect of the planning and design of the Red Line extension. For instance, preexisting underground shelters below Tel Aviv will have to make way for the security facilities integrated into the Red Line, which offer upgraded protection against newer threats that the old shelters were not designed for. Speaking about the project, lead designer Jack Sip notes: “We’ve never experienced that such stringent security requirements were asked of a station. I think this is unique in the world”.

Design Manager Tie Ang also observes that “The desired protection against rockets and attacks with chemical and biological weapons results in higher design requirements of all components of the stations. […] We have never experiences anything like this before”. 

The security demands are pushing the designers to come up with creative solutions in order to guarantee the speed at which passengers will eventually be able to use the system (in addition to their safety). Bag checks are a standard procedure for bus, train and plane passengers in Israel; passengers also must go through gates equipped with detectors. How the station design will handle this, is yet unknown, but could significantly alter the way in which transit stations are designed in the future. A key challenge is to keep people moving even though these elaborate security-checks take up time. However they turn out, one thing is clear: Tel Aviv’s Red Line extension has already made a departure from conventional station design by emphasizing concerns that are not immediately related to the primary purpose of the line—to move people around the metropolitan area.

Whilst highly unusual, I personally think that two birds are killed with one stone here. Much like increased density often parallels the construction of new subway or light rail lines in cities that have adopted Transit-Oriented Development policies, in Tel Aviv there are enhanced security provisions that are piggybacking off transit development.

As such, the Red Line serves a purpose beyond just offering alternative travel options.  It’s also unique amongst transit systems today in the sense that it’s the first of its kind where security measures have been elevated to a primary concern in the initial design phase. It remains unclear if cities and transit systems in other countries will follow suit—it is indeed hard to think of a place where security concerns are as pivotal as they are in Israel—but it is an interesting development, and one that could possibly be applied to protect transit systems from being disrupted in the face of emergencies, regardless of whether we’re talking about security issues or natural disasters.

Do you know of any other transit systems whose designs has been influenced by security and safety concerns? Have any ideas how transportation planners and engineers can design transit systems in a way that maximizes the resiliency of these systems in the face of disruptions? Have any thoughts on the design philosophy embraced in Tel Aviv? Please let us know by commenting below.

Schouwburgplein: More than meets the eye

Dutch cities are known for many things, but grand plazas aren’t one of them. Whilst there are many older plazas in the inner cities of Amsterdam, The Hague and Utrecht, one plaza in Rotterdam counters the typical image of the Dutch plaza:  the old-city center point surrounded by mainly low or midrise buildings.

Schouwburgplein (Theatre Square) in downtown Rotterdam was built as a part of the realization of the 1985 Inner City Plan for that city, and is instead defined by the high-rises that surround it, giving it a distinct image that fits well within the city’s center. The square was appointed as a site for cultural and entertainment uses, and was designed by the Dutch landscape architecture firm West 8, led by its founder Adriaan Geuze.

Construction took place between 1991 and 1996, and while the square might appear rather barren, inhospitable and boring at first sight, it is in fact a remarkable urban podium which provides the citizens of Rotterdam with a place to manifest themselves.

It is a very flexible square in terms of programming as it can host a wide array of activities, both large and small. It is this very flexible nature,

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combined with the ease of programming it, that makes it perhaps the most well-designed square in the Netherlands.

Schouwburgplein (red) and vicinity seen on an aerial image. Source: Google Maps (image enhanced by author)

Schouwburgplein (red) and vicinity seen on an aerial image. Source: Google Maps (image enhanced by author)


Although the work of design firm West 8 is anchored in the pragmatic tradition of Dutch landscape architecture, they insisted that new times called for new approaches. Geuze designed the square with proactive individuals in mind. To him, urban dwellers were no longer ”pitiful victims of the city who need looking after and protecting in a gentle, green environment” (quote from Superdutch by Bart Lootsma). Rather, he views them as empowered individuals who pick locations that can best accommodate their chosen recreational activities. His active citizens don’t need respite from the concrete jungle; rather, they deserve a place they can change, tweak and program themselves in order to meet their own recreational needs.

The 1985 Binnenstadsplan (Inner City Plan) of Rotterdam. Source: Netherlands Architecture Institute.

The 1985 Binnenstadsplan (Inner City Plan) of Rotterdam. Source: Netherlands Architecture Institute.


The square was created as part of a larger effort of a culture-led regeneration of the city’s downtown. The 1985 Inner City Plan identified the �?Museum Triangle’ as an area where cultural and recreational activities would be concentrated. Though not located directly within the boundaries of this triangle, the cultural and entertainment uses that Schouwburgplein hosts were programmed as part of the inner-city’s culture-led regeneration.

The square is very minimalist. Hardly any vegetation can be seen, and street furniture has been limited to a discontinuous row of benches on one side of the square. The square was conceived as an urban podium, and consists of a platform, which is slightly elevated from its surroundings. This platform is a lightweight metal structure, placed on the roof of an existing underground parking garage located below the square. At night, the platform is illuminated in blue and green lights from below.

Schouwburgplein (looking North). (Image by author.)

Schouwburgplein (looking North). (Image by author.)

Green and blue lighting, illuminating the square from below, give it a distinct glow at night. Source: West8.

Green and blue lighting, illuminating the square from below, give it a distinct glow at night. Source: West8.


Besides the emptiness that strikes the visitor, coming to this square is also a very humbling experience. There are high rises on every side of the square, with still more being built today. Since the square would become visually contained by the high-rises rising up around it over time, the decision was made not to emphasize the edges of the platform,apart from the slight difference in elevation.

The minimalism that characterizes the square is broken by installations that refer to the city’s reputation as a major harbor and industrial city. The ventilation for the parking garage resembles the chimneys seen in the city’s industrial areas. In turn, the hydraulic masts (with spotlights mounted onto them) refer to the many cranes that dotted the city’s port. They can also be operated by users of the square, by a coin-operated control system. Both installations are a reflection of the city’s identity as a port and industrial center.

Hydraulic masts and chimneys. Source: Flickr.

Hydraulic masts and chimneys. Source: Flickr.


Geuze’s ideas are echoed in the design of the square. It is tailored to the needs of his active citizens, and provides them with a place to express themselves. Given the openness of the square, it is well-suited to host public events. Electrical connections and mechanical anchoring points are embedded in the platform, facilitating large events, markets, festivities, and fairs.

Top and center: public event at Schouwburgplein. Bottom: Art installation “City On Fire/City In Bloom” at Schouwburgplein, consisting of fire-shaped mountains covered with red flowers, commemorating the bombing and subsequent burning down of a large section of Rotterdam in 1940. Source: West8.

Top and center: public event at Schouwburgplein. Bottom: Art installation “City On Fire/City In Bloom” at Schouwburgplein, consisting of fire-shaped mountains covered with red flowers, commemorating the bombing and subsequent burning down of a large section of Rotterdam in 1940. Source: West8.


The adjustable spotlight units mounted onto the cranes, provide users with the ability to adjust lighting to their needs and have been used  to illuminate small nighttime soccer games or a rollerblading demonstrations. The long benches on the side of the square provide people with the opportunity to just sit and watch what is happening on the platform. The square is hugged by three theatres, and the proximity of cafes and an elongated open-air pedestrian mall adds to the vibrancy of the square, and ensures continued use throughout the evenings and weekends.

The original intention to design a square that encourages public assembly has proven itself over time. In the nearly 20 years in which the square has existed in its current form, it has been host to many small informal gatherings and larger festivities alike. In the winter, the square is used for ice-skating, people watching, and as walking route as the square is a major focal point of the inner city’s pedestrian zone. However, the square is also periodically underused during  the winter season; its lack of shelter from the elements make it an inhospitable place during those short, stormy Dutch winter days. (It’s not the only square in The Netherlands which suffers from this condition.)

An informal gathering of Capoeiristas on Schouwburgplein.

An informal gathering of Capoeiristas on Schouwburgplein. Source: Flickr.


Schouwburgplein reaches its full potential during the summer months, when public events like the Latin carnival, dance music parades, the World Harbor Days, the International Film Festival, and other more informal gatherings take place here. The square proves the Placemaking principle that, if you provide people with a place they can adjust for their own use, they will. It also shows that a public space designed by a starchitect (or, rather, landscape architect) isn’t necessarily just used for people-starved architectural photographs, but actually brings a great deal of people together.  It’s no surprise that Simone Shu-Yeng Chung described it as a “fine example of how an elevated square in the middle of the city operates as an interactive and flexible public �?stage’ for both organised and ad-hoc activities.” It is indeed a true urban podium for the active citizen.

Skateboarding demonstration at Schouwburgplein. Source: Flickr.

Skateboarding demonstration at Schouwburgplein. Source: Flickr.

Temporary exhibition "African Village," by Cameroun artist Tayou, featured at Schouwburgplein during the International Film Festival of 2010. Source: Flickr.

Temporary exhibition “African Village,” by Cameroun artist Tayou, featured at Schouwburgplein during the International Film Festival of 2010. Source: Flickr.

The Farnsworth House

This spring I made my first visit to Chicago. And while I did greatly admire the architectural richness of that city, making a visit to the nearby Farnsworth House was irresistible. Built in 1951 near Plano, Illinois, the residence designed by Mies van der Rohe is considered one of the most famous examples of modernist domestic architecture.

In order to get there from Chicago, driving was more or less my only option. So I rented a car and set out to make the 57 mile drive, which took me from The Loop to the very fringe of Chicagoland’s ex-urban orbit. I passed through a distinctively American landscape of seemingly endless expressways, subdivisions and outlet malls, before finally making it to my destination after 75 minutes of driving. The sacrifice was absolutely worth it.

Today, the Farnsworth House is operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a house museum. Not even ten years ago, the house was being auctioned in New York City. Back then, it didn’t yet have landmark status (it only became a National Historic Landmark in 2006). The National Trust, together with Landmark Illinois, feared that the house could be dismantled and moved to another state by any prospective buyer,

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an “architectural disaster of the first order”. After the announcement of the auction, a fundraising campaign was initiated by the two organizations, which successfully were able to outbid other buyers at the auction on December 12, 2003. The house was purchased at a cost of $7.5 million. With that history, it’s understandable that a $20 fee is charged for a guided tour of the house (though you’ll need to pay $30 if you also want to take photos of the interior).

The guided tours of the Farnsworth House start with a walk down a trail adjacent to the Fox River

The guided tours of the Farnsworth House start with a walk down a trail adjacent to the Fox River. (Photo taken in May 2013).

The Farnsworth House was commissioned by Dr. Edith Farnsworth, and was designed as a weekend retreat. As often seen with Mies van der Rohe’s works, the client was one of his personal friends. Specifically requesting that Mies’ would design the retreat, which sits by the Fox River, as if it was for himself, Dr. Farnsworth intended for the building to be an iconic work of modernist architecture.

I visited the Farnsworth House just after noon. At first it was sunny, which made for the ideal circumstances to get a first glimpse of the residence. The way the sunlight fell on the house made it look almost magical.

Approaching the Farnsworth House

Approaching the Farnsworth House. (Photo taken in May 2013).

The House’s setting brings out the best in its design. The open grass, surrounded by woods that populate the floodplain of the Fox River, creates an uplifting synergy of nature and architecture.

The Farnsworth House and its setting, seen head-on.

The Farnsworth House and its setting, seen head-on. (Photo taken in May 2013).

An observation by architecture critic Paul Goldberger, who holds the Joseph Urban Chair in Design and Architecture at The New School, sits in a small exhibition space at the visitor center of the Farnsworth House and neatly captures the experience he had when he visited the house in 2003:

“… a sublime architectural experience of extraordinary power, as exhilarating as a skyscraper and as profound as a cathedral. […] you could think this is nothing but a glass box with a white frame- but this house is about as simple as a Zen Garden: utterly spare, perfectly composed. Some people will never understand it, and others will find it something that can only be described as spiritual.”

Goldberger goes on to say that “the Farnsworth House does not try to imitate nature but rather to coexist with it, its base hovering over the land as if the very point of this building were to show how architecture can tiptoe gently over the earth. The whole notion of a floating building has a kind of magic, as if it were an act of architectural levitation.”

The Farnsworth House, seen from the rear

The Farnsworth House, seen from the rear. (Photo taken in May 2013).

The complete harmony with its surrounding natural setting is indeed one of the things that I experienced during my visit. This is in part achieved through the floor to ceiling glass windows of the house, a feature that also comes back in his earlier work, the Lemke House. And, like in the Lemke House, this has the effect of visually connecting the interior of the house to the landscape outside it. Two horizontal slabs form the roof and the floor of the house. The slabs are extended beyond the edge of the building and the columns, creating a pair of cantilevers. In keeping with the honest modernist tradition of exposing structural elements, the slabs’ edges are characterized by exposed steel, painted white. As said, the house is elevated over the terrain; eight wide, flange steel columns, attached to the sides of the floor and ceiling slabs, lift the house over the floodplain of the nearby river. A third slab forms the transition between the house’s porch and the ground.

View of the house’s interior from the porch

View of the house’s interior from the porch. (Photo taken in May 2013).

Inside, the house essentially seems like a single open room, with freestanding elements suggesting the areas where one sleeps, cooks, dresses, and hosts guests. The interior is very flexible. A small core accommodates a mechanical room, as well as a bath room. Though never realized, Mies allowed separation of the house into three rooms by virtue of ceiling details that could accommodate curtain tracks.

The house has been carefully maintained since its completion. In 1972, the house was restored to its original condition by the  architecture firm of Mies’ grandson, Dirk Lohan. After the house was flooded in 1996, extensive restoration works were needed to undo the damage that was done mostly to the interior. The house was originally built to resist floods in 1951. Since then, development in surrounding areas have led to higher flood levels, placing the house at risk. It would be impossible for us to view the house in its nearly historically accurate condition today if it wasn’t for these two major restorations.

Today we can recognize the design philosophy of the Farnsworth House in a later work of Mies van der Rohe, the S.R. Crown Hall building in Chicago (completed in 1956) which fittingly houses the Illinois Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture. Considered to be one of the crown jewels of Mies’ career, S.R. Crown Hall also features a floating terrace between the building entrance and the ground, mediating the visitor’s entry into the building.

S.R. Crown Hall entrance at the IIT campus in Chicago.

S.R. Crown Hall entrance at the IIT campus in Chicago, October 2013. Photo by Jason Paris.

Its interior also is entirely column-free, despite its vastly larger size. Adding to the similarity is the fact that the primary form-giving elements of the building consists of two horizontal slabs that make up its floor and ceiling. It is rightly considered to be a further refining of the aesthetic he pioneered with the Farnsworth House.

The column-free interior of Mies’ 1956 S.R. Crown Hall

The column-free interior of Mies’ 1956 S.R. Crown Hall, October 2013. Photo by Jason Paris.

Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut is a great residence in and of its own but falls short of the Farnsworth House, from which it borrows its basic concept, in several ways. The most striking of these is that the Johnson House emerges from a brick foundation. This makes it more of a singular object placed in a scenic location.

The Philip Johnson House in New Canaan, Connecticut. Photo by flickr user Melody Kramer

The Philip Johnson House in New Canaan, Connecticut, May 2007. Photo by flickr user Melody Kramer

The fact that Mies places the Farnsworth House on an elevated slab gives it its magic and makes the space around the residence feel like a halo, “as much a part of the house as the space within,” to again borrow the words of Paul Goldberger. The black exterior of the Johnson House realistically aligns with the earth tones around it, whilst the Farnsworth House’s white exterior give it a more celestial appearance. The entrance to the Johnson House is markedly less defined. The terraces which Mies uses to guide visitors into the building, are what makes visiting them a little bit more processional, not unlike visiting a Greek temple.

The Farnsworth House seen from the Fox River’s floodplain

The Farnsworth House seen from the Fox River’s floodplain

Whilst of the Farnsworth House is a very bright expression of the time, it possesses a timeless quality and is perhaps the finest example of modern minimalism. Its importance is reflected by the fascination in the minimalist house shown by a new generation of design professionals and enthusiasts.

All photos are taken by the author, unless noted otherwise.

A Perspective on Neighborhood Change

For the last supper we each ordered our own plate, five sides for $8.50. I ordered double kabocha squash because it’s my very favorite, accompanied with okra, collards, and chickpea stew. He chose a platter of mock meats.

photo (7)

Imhotep’s, a Jamaican vegan spot on Nostrand in Crown Heights. It was our go-to for a hearty meal filled with perfectly spiced vegetable slops and vegan proteins. Usually we shared one plate and were plenty stuffed, but since this would be our last time, we went extreme: They were going to close for good on Christmas Eve.

Afterwards, our stuffed, content, yet sad bellies strolled down Franklin Avenue snarling at the bars and fancy joints stuffed with white hipsters. “

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God, they are so dumb. If only they walked two blocks over to Nostrand where the real food is.
�? Our conversations in this hood generally take this turn, and it’s only because every single day there’s a new cheese shop, yogurt joint, or oyster bar. photo (6)We continue, “ugh, gentrification, race, class, money, hegemony, blah, blah, blah.�? Our over-educated analytical brains can’t stop critiquing and criticizing.

We enter my apartment building and greet the man who lives downstairs on the first floor. He and his family have lived in the building for years. My apartment was above theirs, a recently renovated one where I live with three other 20-somethings. Across the hall the same deal, and up and up, the same deal. Every floor houses two apartments stuffed with four to five 20-somethings.

He went into my room to change and I went into the bathroom to wash up. This is when everything got real.

While I was washing my face I accidentally looked in the mirror and something horribly disturbing, but necessary happened. Provoked by my white skin, I started thinking. I scanned the kitchen looking at the cheaply made appliances.

I’m living in a dorm building made for transient 20-somethings who are easily manipulated by landlords. Is that what I am too? What fool am I to think I have ownership over this space and this neighborhood when I have lived here for four months and likely won’t live here much more than two years! What fool am I to be using pretentious jargon that I learned in my overpriced and overrated education that only equipped me with the skills to criticize everyone who looks and acts like me! And damn it, what right have I to be sad that the neighborhood is changing and that my favorite restaurant is closing even though it has only been my favorite for four months! What about the people who have been going to Imhotep’s for twenty years! Ugh, learning truths about myself blows!


photo (4)And then while I was putting on my jammies something incredibly amazing and necessary happened. Provoked by the taste of kabocha squash, I started thinking.

Wait a doggone minute! Just because I am white, from a middle class family, and “educated�? (ugh, spare me) doesn’t mean I’m a jerk-off. Does it?

And then the vision of a pie chart popped into my brain, one I was forced to look at years ago in a group-think session. It was about social identities and you had to fill in the circles with traits about yourself that were out of your control; race, class, gender, age, etc. We then shared our social identities with the group and I recall feeling ostracized because they all felt more comfortable identifying in these ways than I did.

I don’t wanna identify as a white female from Maryland and have to associate with the same people just because we all were born into the same lot. Uck! I want to identify as other things, personal things. Real things.

And then the vision of the other pie chart I was forced to look at popped into my head. For this one we had to fill out our personal identities; the food we like, the music we listen to, the books we read, the activities we participate in.

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about, why can’t we analyze difference based on those personal identities? As in, I like Miles Davis, you like Miles Davis, a match.

It went on.

And how the heck do I even know what anyone in this neighborhood prefers? I am semi aware of everyone’s social identity, the traits they were born with, maybe their gender and race. But I don’t know what the 20-somethings that live above me think or do or like, and I don’t know what the owners of Imhotep’s who have lived in Crown Heights for decades think or do or like. (Kabocha squash?) And it’s because I exist in my own damn lone brain all the time and what I really need is to get out there and start talking to people! The new, the old, both, all! I need to go beyond their birth given identities, and get to know which slop they would choose double of at Imhotep’s, damn it!

And that’s what I am setting out to do, stepping out of my fantasy brain and onto the streets to understand the entire hood, past and present.

Meredith is a ripe blogger for PlaNYourCity fresh out of a confusing Master’s program. Currently, she’s dabbling in the field of social practice art using design and writing to explore inequities in our systems. She lives in Crown Heights, a neighborhood that is hot in the media due to it’s rich cultural history and sudden infiltration of newcomers. “Gentrification” has been affecting neighborhoods in Brooklyn for years and will continue to, it’s just a matter of when and where. 

photo (5)

Taksim Square

Taksim Square - Istanbul

Taksim Square – Istanbul

Taksim Square is a central public space and transit hub located in the European part of Istanbul, Turkey.  It is a major tourist attraction with hotels, shops, restaurants, and cultural landmarks. It is also a place where public events, parades, and New Year celebrations take place. Also, one of the largest and most visited pedestrian commercial corridors in the world, Istiklal Street, terminates at the Square and connects visitors via a trolley to its international stores, lively restaurants, contemporary galleries and music venues, hostels, and schools.

While today, Taksim is a public congregation area, it ironically means “division” in Arabic:  in 1730, a water reservoir stood here and the main water-lines from north Istanbul were split under this square and branched off to the other parts of the city, hence the name Taksim.

Over the past few days, Taksim Square is in news, with riot police yielding batons and firing tear gas canisters into the crowd, may remind us of Tahrir Square in Cairo. The Turkish protesters have many grievances, but one of the complaints which originally triggered the unrest was the un-checked urban development in and around the Taksim Square area.  In recent years, the

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AKP Government has proposed plans for the development of a mosque for 30,000 people and a shopping center fashioned after an Ottoman Era military barrack for Taksim Square.  Whatever the merits of these proposals, it is apparent that a large number of Turkish residents do not view them as favorably as the government does.  The Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recently said in a speech that:

“Yes, we will also build a mosque. I do not need permission for this; neither from the head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) nor from a few çapulcu. I took permission from the fifty percent of the citizens who elected us as the governing party.”

The proposed Taksim Square Mosque

The proposed Taksim Square Mosque

Now the question is, should the residents of Istanbul have a greater claim and say over the fate of public open spaces in their city?

Before the contemporary democratic era of Turkey, the Kings, Sultans, and other nobility laid exclusive claims to these squares and open spaces (maidani). These spaces were marked by obelisks or other monuments, and had great cathedrals and facades opened onto them.  In these central squares, powerful leaders pranced with pomp and ceremony, ingrates and rebels lost their heads, and occasionally masses riled up to put the authorities in their place.

Today, the general populace has also laid a legitimate claim to these spaces. The residents of Istanbul have gone out in defiance to show their displeasure about the lack of public voice and participation in the development of their neighborhood and public spaces.  This is something that has resonated far across other cities in Turkey, including Izmir and Ankara. Can the government and development community in Istanbul open up the planning approval process to public scrutiny and make it more transparent? Can there be impartial planning councils and neighborhood committees making the planning process more bottom-up than top-down?

Istanbul is an old city joining two continents and multiple great civilizations; perhaps there should be a better way to achieve consensus on how to protect and enhance the city that has been around for more than two thousand years.

Yet Another Chart on Income Inequality

Not to compete with recent information from Mother Jones, Huffington Post, Reuters, the NY Times, and many others, I too pulled some US census data to look at how incomes have changed over the last 45 years.

It was pretty easy to find and the census bureau had already broken the population into easily comparable segments (quintiles).

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I combined the data and standardized the numbers for inflation. To make it even easier to digest, I made a nifty graph. There is a lot of information on it, so let me walk you through it…

change in income limits graph-01

Click to enlarge!


First off, the graph shows how much household incomes have changed between 1967 and 2011. The population is broken into fifths, and includes the lower limit of the top 5% of income earners (in green). The first striking piece of information I found is that Americans don’t make as much as I thought: 80% of all households make less than $100,000 per year and middle-class actually means a household income of around $60,000 per year. These numbers are different than what Americans think and extremely different than what the Government thinks.

The next idea I had was to see the actual amount, in percent as well as dollars, incomes have changed for each of the population segments over the last 45 years. The change is shown on the far left of the graph.

change in income

Change in income since 1967.

The two lowest cohorts (brown and purple on the chart), about 40% of all US households, have seen their incomes rise by only about $3,500 since 1967 (adjusted for inflation). That’s an average increase of about $77 per year. The cohort which saw the lowest percentage growth of income was actually the second fifth (those making around $38,500/year), which should be considered “lower-middle class” households.

The other income cohorts did progressively better over the last 45 years. The top fifth and top 5% (about 25% of all households) saw the greatest increases (+46% and +66%, respectively). In fact, the top fifth’s incomes increased 1.5 times more than the gains of the other 80% of all households combined, and the top 5% saw an increase of 3.5 times more than the gains of the lower 80% of all households combined.  Please excuse the cliché, but the rich (household incomes >$100,000) got much richer than everyone else.

Another piece of information I wanted to show was when the income cohorts peaked, which is symbolized by a gold star on the chart.

income peaked

When I looked for an income peak, I thought all cohorts would have peaked at the same time. Instead, households reacted differently at different times.

  • The best time to have been in the lowest 60% of households was during 1999-2000.
  • The best time to have been in the top 20% was actually during 1997-1998.
  • The best time to have been in the top 5% was actually in 2006.

What this shows is that, while the 2006 recession reduced incomes for all cohorts, the bottom 80% was already in decline by 2001.

The next question I had was how badly did the 2006 recession impact household incomes? Well, the lower the household income, the harder they were hit.

recession impacts

Impacts of the recession.

For the top 5% of income earners, their incomes were brought back to 1998 levels, while the lowest 20% of households were brought back to 1994 levels.

I have also added major US economic events to the graph in order to provide a little bit of context to the bumps and drops in household incomes. I have refrained from adding presidential terms and a party’s control of congress since that would add a whole other unnecessary level of complexity to the chart.

In summary, the US overall had far greater income-equality in 1967. While the lowest 60% of households have remained fairly equal with respect to each other, the top 25% has seen the greatest increases, with the top 5% receiving a disproportionate share of those gains. Whatever your political persuasion may be, the numbers clearly show that the past 45 years of policy and economic growth has disproportionately favored those making more than $100,000 per year.

Urban Design

Whilst a grad student, I learned that the opinions on what urban design is, vary greatly between planners, architects, and landscape architects. It’s only fair to admit that most urban designers in the United States today are trained as architects. Some of them might argue that urban design is essentially a large-scale architectural exercise, where architects not just design buildings, but also neighborhoods and cities as an ensemble of buildings, held together by public space and infrastructure. A planner, on the other hand, might say that urban design sits firmly in the planner’s domain, and that the endeavor is practiced through comprehensive planning,

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zoning and other regulations that deal with form, such as height restrictions, setback regulations, and design guidelines.

Part of the mystique surrounding urban design, is the fact that it isn’t a regulated profession. To become a planner, a landscape architect or an architect, you have to graduate from an accredited professional program at a college or a university. There are established professional associations for all three fields that determine which programs are accredited according to their evaluation of the curricula. Architects have the AIA, planners have the APA and landscape architects have the ASLA. Urban designers have no such association, and by consequence, there is no list of accredited programs in urban design. This leaves the field in a more nascent stage than other professions focusing on the built environment. It also allows anyone, anywhere to call themselves an urban designer (even though it is typically either an architect, landscape architect or a planner who does so). And whilst there are many universities in the US that offer programs in urban design, a quick look at their admission policies reveals a lot about their understanding of urban design. Take my own alma mater for instance, the Pratt Institute. Their masters degree in urban design is exclusively open to architects. And they’re not alone in this, many universities and colleges that offer a master’s degree in this field consider graduating from an accredited architecture program a prerequisite for admission. There are also schools where landscape architects and planners are also admissible to urban design programs. This, I believe, is more fair since urban design incorporates aspects from all three of the built-environment disciplines, whilst none of them covers all aspects of urban design. In that sense, one must truly reach across disciplinary boundaries if one wants to understand urban design.

Given the host of interpretations on what urban design is, who practices it, and what counts as the scope of the field, I decided that the best way to find answers to these questions was by reading up on the subject, since I didn’t have the time to conduct a survey of built-environment professionals on what urban design is (although that would potentially be a really great study). Now, almost three years after I began building my own library of urban design books, I’d like to share with you which books I found particularly helpful as I’ve attempted to organize my understanding of the field:

  • Thadani, D. A. (2010). The language of towns & cities: A visual dictionary. New York: Rizzoli.
  • Krieger, A., & Saunders, W. S. (2009). Urban design. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Lang, J. T. (2005). Urban design: A typology of procedures and products. Oxford: Elsevier/Architectural Press.
  • Carmona, M., & Tiesdell, S. (2007). Urban design reader. Oxford: Architectural.
  • Barnett, J. (2011). City design: Modernist, traditional, green, and systems perspectives. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
  • Bacon, E. N. (1967). Design of cities. New York: Viking Press.
  • Gandelsonas, M. (1999). X-urbanism: Architecture and the American city. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
  • Warner, S. B., & Whittemore, A. H. (2012). American urban form: A representative history. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
  • Ellin, N. (1996). Postmodern urbanism. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell.

Perhaps not surprising, I found that the field of urban design is approached from a variety of perspectives. There are many ways to look at a profession, and urban design is no exception to that, as evidenced by the large number of books out there on urban design. This review is by no means a comprehensive review of the body of literature on urban design, rather, it is just a selection of books that I felt were the most relevant for the purpose of gaining a better understanding of urban design. Overall, I found that there are five different types of books on urban design. The books discussed all fall under one or more of these categories:

  • An overview of the field and scope of urban design
  • A review of spatial conditions and urban design concepts
  • An overview of urban design paradigms and types of urban design
  • An account of the (historic) development of cities and urban form
  • A discussion of the current state of urban design practice

Of course it might be possible to define more categories, but I’ve found these five to just about capture the varying nature of books about urban design. The first category mostly discusses theories of urban design (What is urban design? What do urban designers do? How is urban design practiced?); all the others discuss theories in urban design (the subject matter, the reservoir of knowledge drawn from in urban design). Below, I’ve positioned the nine books I’ve read into these five categories.

An overview of the field and scope of urban design

Urban Design by Alex Krieger et al

Urban Design by Alex Krieger et al

Urban Design by Alex Krieger, et al describes the development of the practice of urban design since the field’s contours were sketched out at a conference at Harvard University in the 1950s. It is mainly focused on the development of urban design practice in the Anglo-Saxon context, and includes accounts of the role various professionals (such as architects, developers, regulators and land use lawyers) have played in the emerging field. According to the authors, the emergent discipline of urban design is still very much done by architects, developers and land use lawyers; the true establishment of urban design as a separate profession is still very much pending. According to this book, a “… landmark conference at Harvard University established urban design as a distinct architectural and planning practice.�? That didn’t resonate with me, the art of designing cities has been practiced for centuries, even though it might not always been consciously conceived as urban design. Still, the book provides insights into the development of the profession in recent decades, and takes a decent stab at defining the scope of the field.


Urban Design: A Typology of Procedures and Products by Jon Lang

Urban Design: A Typology of Procedures and Products by Jon Lang  is the most comprehensive account of the endeavor that is urban design that I’ve read. Lang presents a compelling discussion of what he calls the “core of urban design works,” which are described as the field’s “products.” These include Total Urban Design, which entails large-scale plans for new towns, neighborhoods, housing complexes, campuses, and large building complexes, and All-of-a-piece Urban Design, which entails the complete development of cities and neighborhoods in one fell swoop, and often under the same design regime. Think of Seaside, Florida or Battery Park City in Manhattan as examples. Yet another category is Piece-by-piece Urban Design; which consists primarily of incremental district development. New York’s Theater District is cited as an example of piece-by-piece urban design. The last category is “Plug-in Urban Design” which consists of (linear) elements that are introduced to the existing built environment, such as mass transportation lines, exhibition grounds, and city parks. Numerous case studies are presented to illustrate the various sorts of products each of these categories typically produce. It is definitely a helpful read if you’re interested in the range of urban design works that exist, and how urban design is practiced in (as we now know) four different ways. The book also provides a clear outline of the role each of the three disciplines (which it regards as being the core professions of the field) play in urban design. The argument is made that urban design, rather than being a distinct profession, is an activity that is the collective endeavor of urban planners, architects, and landscape architects. Each contribute to the endeavor with their own expertise, whilst neither “owns�? it completely. To that notion, I subscribe.


The Urban Design Reader, edited by Matthew Carmona and Steve Tiesdell

The Urban Design Reader isn’t a book as much as it is a collection of essays and articles. Which is practical, since it allows the reader to dive in and read loose essays on very specific topics. Edited by Matthew Carmona and Steve Tiesdell, the book dissects urban design into six dimensions, which are in a way six aspects of urban design we need to consider if “good�? urban design is to be reached (however arguable it may be to define “good�? urban design). These dimensions are the morphological dimension, the perceptual dimension, the social dimension, the visual dimension, the functional dimension and the temporal dimension. Each of them is explored in around five essays. The book opens with a chapter on understanding urban design, and ends with a chapter on implementing urban design, making it a fair attempt of defining the scope of the field. I personally prefer reading a book written by one or just a few authors and appreciate singular theses that other authors have unfolded in their books, because there’s something about having an overarching narrative that makes it easier to digest a book.

An overview of spatial conditions and urban design concepts

The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary by Dhiru Tadani

The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary by Dhiru Tadani

The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary by Dhiru Tadani is a highly meticulous account of various spatial conditions. The book is an encyclopedia that discusses the applicability of various urban design concepts, and contains more than 500 subject matter entries. It also contains rich illustrations, maps, and photographs. Entries in the dictionary include “Edge City,�? “Defensible Space,�?  “Garden Elements,�? “Plaza,�? “Terminated Vista,�? and “Water’s Edge.�? At almost 800 pages, it is the ultimate coffee table book for urban design enthusiasts. It’s not as much a book you read cover-to-cover, as it is a reference that can be consulted for information on very specific design concepts.

An overview of urban design paradigms and types of urban design 

City Design: Modernist, Traditional, Green and Systems Perspectives by Jonathan Barnett

City Design: Modernist, Traditional, Green and Systems Perspectives by Jonathan Barnett

City Design: Modernist, Traditional, Green and Systems Perspectives by Jonathan Barnett is a short, 200 page introduction to the subject matter of the field of urban design. Numerous types of city design (as Barnett calls it) are presented. All schools of thought are discussed, focusing on Modernism, (neo) Traditional urban design (i.e., New Urbanism), Green urban design (in which Ian McHarg’s regionalism is discussed, as well as Garden City concepts and landscape urbanism) and systems perspectives (think Archigram). A more concise and contemporary overview than Designing Cities (see below), but containing less illuminating images. A good read if you’re new to the field and are curious about the various design paradigms that exist.

An account of the (historic) development of cities and urban form

Design of Cities by Edmund Bacon

Design of Cities by Edmund Bacon


Design of Cities by Edmund Bacon is an essential read for anyone who appreciates richly illustrated books. Using great graphics and maps, Bacon describes the urban design philosophy behind the urban forms that human civilization has produced since the dawn of western civilization and masterfully guides the reader along the history of urban design, from the growth of ancient Greek cities right up to the mid-century modernism of Stockholm. Bacon also presents his vision for his hometown of Philadelphia in this book, which allows us today to get a glimpse into the thinking of planners and designers in the 1970s. According to Alexander Garvin, Bacon had a greater impact on the planning and development of his hometown than any individual except Robert Moses in New York and Daniel Burnham in Chicago. Design of Cities is one of the most widely read books in urban design, and it probably is the single book on urban design I enjoyed reading the most.

X-Urbanism: Architecture and the American City by Mario Gandelsonas

X-Urbanism: Architecture and the American City by Mario Gandelsonas

X-Urbanism: Architecture and the American City by Mario Gandelsonas has two parts. The first is an overview of the spatial patterns of urbanization that have been characterizing American urbanism since the continent’s settlement by Europeans. The development of Savannah and Washington D.C. are used as examples of the historic application of urban design concepts on the clean slate that was North America. More recent spatial patterns, such as the surge in skyscrapers, suburbanization, and eventually ex-urbanization are discussed subsequently. The second part are all diagrams of seven American cities, in which Gandelsonas dissects the urban fabric of each, and calls out the spatial elements that have influenced the urban form of these cities. The first part is rather short, and slightly abstract, but it might not be the best account of the urbanism of the American city available. For that, see the next book below. It’s also a shame Gandelsonas speaks of “Architecture�? instead of urban design, but name tags aside, he presents a richly illustrated account of the development of American cities in a way that certainly meets the standard that Bacon had set thirty years before him.

American Urban Form: A Representative History by Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore

American Urban Form: A Representative History by Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore

American Urban Form: A Representative History by Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore is, as the title suggests, a historically accurate account of the history and development of American urban form. In 9 chapters, the authors discuss how the urban form of American cities evolved in successive stages of the country’s history. The authors use a hypothetical city (inspired by Boston, New York and Philadelphia) to illustrate the development of American form. This city is presented as the “typical�? American city and draws heavily from historical developments from the three real east coast cities. It’s the only book I’ve read that doesn’t illustrate the history of urban form using real-world cities, though I found their alternative very believable. The authors trace the evolution of this hypothetical city from its humble 17th-century beginnings up to the global city it is in the 2000s, making it pretty much your one-stop shop if you’re just setting out to learn about the history of urban form in America.

A discussion of the current state of urban design practice

Postmodern Urbanism by Nan Ellin

Postmodern Urbanism by Nan Ellin

In Postmodern Urbanism Nan Ellin provides an overview of the various paradigms or schools of urban design in the 20th century, particularly in the second half of the century. The paradigms are viewed in the context of the rapid change in societies’ political-economic framework. The conditions under which urban design emerges are explored, which provides insight in how tightly urban design is related to the political-economic framework of its host society. The book is unique since its emphasis is on the context in which urban design takes place, making it more “extrovert�? than other books which study urban design in a more isolated way.

There are still some books left on my wish list. I still want to read Spiro Kostof’s The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History. It’s also undeniable that the law of diminishing returns applied when I made my way through the above-mentioned books. One won’t gain as many new insights after reading the 9th book on urban design, as one may from reading the first. That wasn’t a big issue for me, as I’ve found it interesting to study various author’s perception of urban design, rather than studying the subject matter itself. What I learned from the books I’ve read, and especially from Urban Design: A Typology of Procedures and Products, is that the field of urban design is not as much a profession of its own as it is a collective endeavor, to which all disciplines concerned with the built environment contribute in their own way.

Lastly, you might notice that I’ve left some well-known books out of my review. Some of the most influential writings on urban design come from exclusive ideologies. I’m referring to Suburban Nation by New Urbanism’s opinion leader Andres Duany, The Landscape Urbanism Reader by Charles Waldheim, or The City of To-Morrow and Its Planning by Le Corbusier and Garden Cities of To-Morrow by Ebenezer Howard. These texts, which are probably included in the curricula of most urban planning and design programs, are perhaps the most widely read text on the subject. They are perhaps not as much in need of a review as the more recent books that are listed above, as most people with an interest in the built environment have probably read them at some point. The authors of these texts also have a strong preference for one kind of design over all others. I think that treating urban design ideas as exclusive ideas is a mistake, and has led to unfortunate conflicts in urban design: people who are in favor of the New Urbanism are annoyed with the ideas of Le Corbusier, and the other way around. Urban Design isn’t waiting on people to anoint one correct design philosophy, whilst others are consigned to oblivion. All urban design paradigms, whether traditional, garden city, or modern, are significant. Urban designers may need to draw from all ideologies, depending on the situation. Improving cities is difficult enough already without taking sides. The books included in this review mostly discuss all schools of thought from an unbiased perspective, which is why I believe that they are a good starting point for anyone interested in studying the field.

Have any favorite books on urban design of your own? Think I should have included other books in this review? Please let us know via the comments!

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The Dutch-Belgian High Speed Rail Debacle

We’ve been talking a lot about high speed rail lately here on PlaNYourCity. That’s not just because we like the subject, it’s also because it’s one of those dynamic topics that often seems to be in the news.

Last week brought us headlines about a high speed rail debacle over in The Netherlands and Belgium. The relatively new high speed rail service that connects these two countries, named Fyra, has been permanently suspended after a series of safety issues that plagued the service ever since it began its operations in 2009. But before we get into that, let’s take a look at the troubled history of Europe’s youngest high speed rail service.

Fyra is Swedish for four, and symbolizes the four cities that the service sought to connect: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp and Brussels. €7 billion has been spent on the Dutch portion of the route, yielding a straight route between Amsterdam Airport and the Dutch-Belgian border, at parts sitting on concrete stilts and hovering above the flat Dutch landscape; at parts sunken into a trench so as to minimize

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the intrusion of the route (and noise from the train traffic) in urban areas. The route was also designed to allow trains to travel at speeds of up to 300 kilometers per hour. The Dutch state picked up the tab of the construction of the new tracks, which were also constructed to service the Thalys high speed rail service to Paris, in addition to the envisioned Fyra service to Brussels.

A Fyra train in The Netherlands, travelling on tracks designed specifically for a high speed rail connection between Amsterdam and Brussels. (Source: Reformatisch Dagblad, rd.nl).

A Fyra train in The Netherlands, travelling on tracks designed specifically for a high speed rail connection between Amsterdam and Brussels. (Source: Reformatisch Dagblad, rd.nl).

The Dutch High Speed Alliance or HSA (a joint venture between Royal Dutch Airlines and Dutch Railways) began to operate (or exploit) the Dutch portion of the route between Amsterdam and the Dutch border in 2009, years after the line was originally scheduled to be completed. (Service on the full route between Amsterdam and Brussels was to follow much later). To operate the high speed rail service on the Dutch portion of the route, the HSA would pay the Dutch government €148 million per year. What is more, the HSA, in which Dutch Railways has a 90% stake, originally offered to pay €178 million per year for the right to operate the route—more than twice the amount offered for the rights by foreign bidders. HSA offered this unjustifiably high amount out of fear that a foreign carrier would soon be providing train service in the Netherlands—a doom scenario that the monopolists at Dutch Railways had to avoid, at any cost.

The exceptionally high payment put HSA on the verge of bankruptcy. Indeed, the operator’s dire financial situation was to be the main reason why the decision was made to economize on the “rolling equipment”, or the trains that would service the route. In order to reduce the operational costs, HSA and the National Society for Belgian Railways opted to use cheaper and slower trains than typically seen on other European high speed rail routes. The Italian manufacturer AnsaldoBreda (an inexperienced newcomer to the industry) won the contract to supply the trains for the new service. After requesting qualifications from a host of train builders, AnsaldoBreda was eventually selected because of their competitive pricing. The price per seat of their trains was about half that of Siemens’ ICE trains, or Alstom’s TGV trains.

Looking back on AnsaldoBreda’s contracting, Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad reported in January that the HSA never had the intention to operate a “true” high speed rail service; a strong piece of investigative journalism stated that a speed of 220 kilometers per hour had been deemed sufficient for the Dutch portion of the route from the git-go by the HSA executives (by comparison, high speed rail service in Germany and France exceeds 300 kilometers per hour). Looking ahead to the opening of the full route between Amsterdam and Brussels, it became clear that the preferred model (AnsaldoBreda’s V220 trains) would not be able to reduce the travel time between these two cities as much as the operators had promised. Hence why a slightly faster model, AnsaldoBreda’s V250, was eventually selected to service the route—but only after the Dutch government pointed out that HSA had a contractual obligation to reduce the travel time by a certain margin, which the V220 model would not meet. And so, in 2004, the HSA placed an order for 19 V250 train sets with the Italian manufacturer.

The equipment was supposed to be delivered to the Dutch in 2007, but the inexperienced manufacturer failed to do so. When the equipment was finally delivered to The Netherlands in September of 2009, train service between Rotterdam and Amsterdam’s central stations could commence, over two years after the envisioned date. Starting with one train per hour on weekdays, service gradually expanded to weekends and holidays. By April 2011 service had increased to one train per 30 minutes, and the route had been extended to run between Amsterdam and the southern Dutch town of Breda. Finally then, on December 9th 2012, the full route between Amsterdam and Brussels was serviced.  Right from that day, the service was plagued by a myriad of technical issues.

In the first week, many runs between the two cities were cancelled; the ones that were not often incurred significant delays. It is estimated that half of all passengers in this first week of international service did not arrive on their destinations on time; two-thirds dealt with a delay of 15 minutes or more, and about 20% of passengers faced delays exceeding 30 minutes. Dutch Railways (and their Belgian counterparts) were flooded with complaints from passengers. The technical issues persisted, and even intensified over the course of the next month. On January 15th, half of all trains were cancelled due to broken equipment, whilst the other half of scheduled trains ran with an average delay of one hour. Due to wintry weather, 85% of all scheduled trains were cancelled two days later on January 17th. Facing security concerns and strong criticism from passengers and politicians alike, the Fyra was suspended indefinitely on January 18th—a little over a month since it first began servicing the originally envisioned route between Amsterdam and Brussels. Dutch Railways held manufacturer AnsaldoBreda responsible for the technical issues; AnsaldoBreda maintained that the issues were minor and would be resolved in a matter of days. However, a day later on January 19th it was announced that the technical issues with AnsaldoBreda’s V250 trains were not going to be addressed any time soon. At this point, 9 trains had already been delivered and the HSA had already paid €100 million euro to AnsaldoBreda, whilst the National Society for Belgian Railways had paid €35 million, ensuring that a lengthy legal battle between the manufacturer and the operators is ahead.

After some contemplation, the National Society for Belgian Railways dissolved their contract with AnsaldoBreda. On May 31st, the company’s CEO presented an impressive list of technical issues that engineering firms Mott McDonald and Concept Risk found with AnsaldoBreda’s V250 trains:

  • Large-scale problems with the infiltration of water in the trains;
  • Erosion and rustiness around the trains’ axels, with rust appearing on one particular axis after just a few kilometers had been traveled;
  • Poor fitting of the hydraulic and electrical cables onto the trains (these were placed on the bottom of the train, allowing it to incur damage due to the weight of the trains)
  • Technical differences between the various train sets, since the mechanics had each manufactured the train sets in their own ways;
  • Problems with the braking system, which was designed for speeds of up to 160 kilometers per hour, and not approved for use at speeds of up to 250 kilometers per hours (moreover, the wintry circumstances required an even lower speed, since the brake path was longer in wintry conditions)
  • The batteries, which are located under the passenger cabs, could ignite. There have been images of damage that occurred after a battery caught fire near the Dutch town of Watergraafsmeer. One image shows a burnt carpet on the floor of a passenger cab.

Rusty spots appeared around some train cabs’ axis after only a few rides. (Soucre: www.treinreiziger.nl).

Rusty spots appeared around some train cabs’ axis after only a few rides. (Soucre: http://www.treinreiziger.nl).

A Fyra train going unused near Rotterdam central station this past winter, due to the trains’ inability to function in wintry conditions. (Source: spitsnieuws.nl)

A Fyra train going unused near Rotterdam central station this past winter, due to the trains’ inability to function in wintry conditions. (Source: spitsnieuws.nl)

At the same time, manufacturer AnsaldoBreda continued to reject the CEO’s criticism, and threatened to sue the National Society for Belgian Railways for dissolving the contract. Days later, on June 3rd, Dutch Railways announced that it too would stop operating the V250 trains. With that decision, the Fyra service had come to a premature end just months after the service commenced. Now, the ads for the service have been removed and investigations into the contracting of AnsaldoBreda are on their way on both sides of the border.


Information panel at Amsterdam Central Station: “No Fyra Amsterdam – Brussels until January 23rd. Mind the announcements. Also see http://www.nshispeed.nl” (Source: eenvandaag.nl)

This story is far from finished and it remains to be seen what consequences the manufacturer and the operators might face once the investigations have wrapped up. And whilst we don’t know much about the future of high speed rail in the Low Countries, we can already conclude that the story of the Fyra service is a textbook example of how not to plan and build a high speed rail system. It also is a poor use of the taxpayers’ euros, especially because the Dutch state had massively invested in a new, direct train route that it had partially built for the Fyra service to Brussels (as stated, the route is also used for the Thalys service to Paris, so the investment thankfully hasn’t been in vain). The Fyra-story also demonstrates that powerful corporate interests (in this case Dutch Railways’ desire to remain the sole rail service provider in The Netherlands) can abuse their position and waste an unbelievable amount of taxpayers’ money. It’s easy to imagine that, if a foreign provider would have been selected, they would have ended up paying the Dutch state less fees to operate train service along the route– leaving more funds available to properly invest in the rolling equipment.  (It’s also unlikely that a foreign operator, paying lower fees to for the rights to use the route, would have needed the financial aid that the HSA needed from the state to avoid going bankrupt.)

Finally, it also shows that, if you are planning on introducing high speed rail to a country or region, you probably don’t want to do so as half-heartedly (or should I say, “as cheap”) as the Dutch and the Belgians did it. Unless serious funds are going to be committed to bring high speed rail to a region, chances are, it will turn into a giant fiasco à la Fyra. (You get what you pay for.)

Sim City through the eyes of a city planner

Ever since the first iteration of the computer game, Sim City has been associated with urban planning, or more precisely, city building. The series’ wide reach make it one of the most successful simulation games of all time. And you know that a city building game has firmly placed itself in popular culture when even Stephen Colbert jokes about it:

“Who can forget, in the wake of SimCity, how children everywhere took up urban planning?”

The American Planning Association even gives the game credit in its publication “Becoming an Urban Planner: What Planners Do”:

Since 1989, scores of children and adults have been introduced to the field of urban planning through the computer game SimCity. Players take on the role of urban planner (though officially designated “mayor” in the game), deciding how much land to devote to housing, industry, and commercial buildings (offices and stores), building roads and rails and heliports, and setting aside land for parks, zoos, and police stations. As the game unfolds, players see how their decisions affect the number of people who want to move to the city, the taxes generated from houses, offices, and factories, the level of traffic congestion, and the amount of pollution .

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When taxes get too high or traffic congestion becomes too intense, people move away, looking for less expensive places to live or places with a higher quality of life. The game also teaches that planners need to expect the unexpected, as a host of natural and human-caused disasters can suddenly descend upon the city. SimCity has done more than dozens of books like this to interest people in the work of planners.

Indeed, many urban planners I know say that they loved the game, and suspect that it might have sparked their initial interest in the profession. It definitely fueled my interest in city building. Perhaps New Yorker writer John Seabrook wasn’t too far off when he said that the Sim City series are  “arguably the single most influential work of urban-design theory ever created.”

Now that the latest installment of the SimCity series is available, I tried it out to see how it performs, from a city planner’s perspective. But before we get to that, a few words on the game’s launch last March.

A troubled launch

This spring saw the much-anticipated release of the newest edition to the series, a whopping ten years after the previous title had been released. Simply titled “SimCity” (though sometimes referred to as Sim City 5), the game is infinitely more complex than previous editions, and took a radical departure from its predecessors. To play the game, players need to have an internet connection and must be signed into their Origin accounts (an online gaming client).  This prompted a lot of protest from the series’ longtime fans, not in the last place because the servers were experiencing outages due to the high volume of players trying to connect. Amazon even pulled the game from its digital shelves because of the constant server outages. Eventually, the game overcame its growing pains, and initial complaints made way for different complains. The maps (plots of land on which you build your city) would be too small in comparison to older editions of the series. And the focus on online gaming—including cooperating with other players who are building their cities within a shared, multiplayer region—hasn’t always pleased the longtime fans of the franchise, who were accustomed to playing it offline.

As the game’s developers rushed to improve the game after being flooded with complaints, it quickly became clear that the game still required some fine-tuning. Within the first six months after the game’s release, 8 patches or updates have been released by the game’s developer, EA games. By the time the Mac-version of the game was released late last month, most of the early bugs have been fixed, and Mac users find themselves playing a more polished version of the game half a year after the horrific launch of the PC-only version.

A break from top-down planning: zooming in on digital citizens (and their well-being)

Going beyond the technicalities, the game offers a very immersive city building experience. Unlike previous editions of the series, the cities you built are full of tiny Sims (the brave digital citizens in your cities). They are the artificial intelligence that drives your city’s development. Homes will only spawn if there are enough Sims looking to move into your city, and offices will only develop if there are enough Sims looking for office space in your town. You can watch Sims leave their homes in the morning, drive to their office or factories for a day’s work, and drive back home again only to leave once more in the evening to catch a movie or dine out. Interesting fact: once Sims arrive at their destination, their cars simply disappear—the lead designer of the game, Stone Librande, decided that if parking was made too realistic in the game, too much of the cities would be dedicated to parking surfaces, making it uninteresting to play. That’s quite a statement on the extent to which parking dominates too much of our cities.


A sim driving home after a long day of work. (Click to enlarge)


Sims will complain if they are faced with issues such as kinds being unable to go to school (because you haven’t built one yet), garbage pilling up (because your garbage trucks are stuck in traffic) or pollution coming from your local coal power plant. They will also move out of your city if they can’t find work, or if they are unhappy. (Sims will become happy if they have money to spent and parks to visit. A modest happiness bonus also incurs when your Sims visit the houses of worship you’ve built in your cities.) As in real cities, the longer you ignore these issues, the more pressing they become—until eventually your city will start to lose inhabitants. And if you’ve built say, a university or a community college in your city, your (now smarter) sims will start to ask for recycling, put solar panels on their rooftops, and the overall crime of your city will go down, as high-tech industrial employers move in. This makes your cities behave much more responsive than was the case with earlier editions of the game.


The sims living in the highlighted building are moving out of town because they can’t find work. (Click to enlarge)


The newest SimCity also takes regional gameplay to a new level. Players can sent electricity, water, or garbage trucks over to their neighbors in the to service their cities, eliminating the need for every city to have its own power plant or garbage dump. Sims will also commute to neighboring cities to work, study, or shop. And there’s even the option to built great works in the region, such as airports, whereby multiple cities sent over funds, workers and resources to a shared great works site. This kind of inter-city cooperation goes beyond anything seen in earlier versions of the game. And since pollution can spill over from neighboring cities, affecting the health of sims in the entire region, cities are forced to consider the impact their growth has outside of the city lines. This encourages regional planning in a way not seen in previous titles.

Taken together, the fate of your city essentially depends on all of your Sim’s well-being. It’s your task to keep your city livable and attractive. Previous editions of the series haven’t featured this kind of detail, as they operated more in a top-down way. The fact that the entire simulation now runs from the bottom up, marks the most fundamental difference between the latest and earlier versions of the game.

The factors influencing the happiness of your city's population are readily available. In this city, Sims are complaining about the poor health care in their city. (Click to enlarge)

The factors influencing the happiness of your city’s population are readily available. In this city, Sims are complaining about the poor health care in their city. (Click to enlarge)


Sim City: inspiring sustainable city building?

Whilst not the main objective of the new SimCity, the gaming experience encourages one think about sustainable city building. In fact, Scientific American reported that the game’s developers have been “…working with an unidentified “green” developer to integrate cutting-edge sustainable design principles into the new game…”. Sim City Creative Director Ocean Quigley also confessed, “I don’t want to enforce sustainable design principles in the game — I want them to emerge as natural consequences of your interaction with the simulation.”

It’s completely possible to create a textbook environmentally-friendly city, complete with clean industry, people recycling and where energy comes from wind or solar power. But the opposite also holds true; players can create industrial wastelands, rife with air and ground pollution, which soon leads to sick Sims. For instance, putting a high-density residential neighborhood down-wind from a coal  power plant will increase mortality rates in that area, so it’s best to stick to clean energy (or, alternatively, place your coal power plant at the very edge of your city). And for those players that decide to exploit the coal and oil reserves beneath their city to produce electricity: these resources will eventually become exhausted, forcing players to build solar or wind energy plants instead. Nuclear plants also are available, but your Sims won’t exactly appreciate their presence in their city, depending on how educated they are. Ultimately, the cities that flourish have at least taken some measures that ensure the health of both the city’s environment and its digital inhabitants—much like Ocean Quigley envisioned.


A Sim City ecotopia featuring wind turbines, a recycling plant and clean high-tech industry. (Click to enlarge)


Sim City takes an apolitical turn

Whilst players are called “Mayors” in Sim City, politics and policy are nearly non-existant in the new Sim City. This wasn’t always the case, as previous titles offered ample social and tax programs that any mayor could establish in their city. These programs included tax incentives for clean industry (and additional taxes for polluting factories), carpool programs for commuters, after-school programs for kids, free CPR training for residents, and more. These programs offered Mayors a way to address complicated social and economic issues in their cities, and I’m sad to see that they are no longer featured. The new title is very design-centric instead, to the extent that the role of Mayor (which really used to be more of a Mayor/Planner role in previous versions) now is relegated to merely a designer of the urban environment.  If new to the field of planning, the new Sim City would make think that planning equates to urban design. This is harmful to the field of planning (and to our cities) in that it brushes aside all of the complicated socio-economic issues of our cities, making them, at best, tertiary to design and architecture. Today’s cities are rife with starchitects, massive redevelopment projects, and streetscape and design guidelines, all of which are important, however the game’s loss of policy and program planning is a symbol of the declining value and esteem that local governance holds in the real-world.

“We want bigger maps!” and other oft-heard complains of the new Sim City

Perhaps the single most-complained about shortcoming of the new Sim City, is the static and rather small size of the maps. Where previous editions of the game featured city plots of various sizes within a single region, ranging from very small to very big, players are forced to build their cities on small maps in the new Sim City. And all maps are of the same small size. This setup denies players the ability to explore the different possibilities of city size, and to discover the impact that city size has on cities’ economy and population. In return, players now have the option to specialize their cities to an extent unseen in previous versions of the game, and can create all sorts of different cities—ranging from quiet bedroom communities to tourist destinations that feature casinos and landmarks, to industrial towns filled with mines and oil fields—which eases some of the pain of not having larger maps.

Another aspect that suddenly vanished in the latest installment of the game, is the terraforming. Formerly, players could modify the environment where they would built their cities. Options such as altering your coastline, raising or lowering the terrain, or creating or removing rivers and lakes are now gone. Instead, there are ten completely pre-made regions for players to build their cities in. All the environments are static and come as the game’s developer made them, leaving the player only with the option to add or remove trees. Whilst not having to worry about altering your city’s terrain might be a relief for some players, it’s a real shortcoming in my eyes— many cities have altered their environments over time, slowly shaping their settings in a way that fits their needs.

When it comes to infrastructure, the new Sim City departs from the old requirement that made players lay out networks of power lines, as well as sewage pipes and water mains (and pay for them!). Where you needed to manually construct these infrastructural networks in previous editions, all utilities are now automatically embedded in roads. This undermines the fact that, when building distant subdivisions, substantial infrastructural costs are imposed on cities. As a consequence, it’s now much easier and cheaper to build leapfrog development in Sim City, where formerly this was effectively discouraged due to the cost of connecting far-flung neighborhoods to utility networks. This feature has consciously been removed in the latest Sim City, in order to relieve players of this tedious (and arguably, not very fun) aspect of the game. Stil, whilst building utility networks was never anybody’s favorite part of the older Sim City, it was an exercise that forced you to think about the real cost of fragmented, sprawling development.

The electrical grid is embedded within the roads, allowing electricity to reach city buildings without requiring Mayors to invest in building power lines.

The electrical grid is embedded within the roads, allowing electricity to reach city buildings without requiring Mayors to invest in building power lines. (Click to enlarge)


Euclidian zoning & the traffic engineer’s mentality: the pillars of Sim City’s urbanism

As with previous versions, players can zone their city’s land as residential, commercial, or industrial. The colors chosen to depict residential, commercial and industrial zones are green, blue and yellow, respectively. Realistically, your city’s population depends on two things—the amount of land zoned as residential, and the type of roads along which you zone your residential areas. The game allows you to place five different types of roads—each accommodating a different amount of density for the buildings along them. For instance, only detached single-family homes can develop along low-density streets, whilst skyscrapers and high-rises will only spawn along high-density streets and avenues. A modest type of density, such as condominiums and mid-rises, can be supported along medium density streets and avenues. At first glance, this seems like a reinforcement of the design guidelines from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ Green Book: the more capacity your roads can accommodate, the more density they will support. As a result, you will pretty much have to put six-lane roads everywhere in your city if you want to have substantial density. Car-free streets? Road diets? Forget it, the asphalt reigns supreme in SimCity.

A low-density street (left), a medium-density street (center) and a high-density avenue (right), all supporting different degrees of density. (Click to enlarge)

A low-density street (left), a medium-density street (center) and a high-density avenue (right), all supporting different degrees of density. (Click to enlarge)


The game’s focus on single-use zoning, whilst very conventional when the first edition of the series appeared in 1989, seems slightly out-of-place today. As many cities have increasingly adopted mixed use zoning, it remains something the game doesn’t allow for. Personally, I think that’s a huge missed chance for the game to break with tradition and align itself with modern-day planning practice. And whilst the colors used for each of the three zoning types seem very intuitive, they actually don’t reflect the standard colors as discussed in the American Planning Association’s list of Land-Based Classification Standards, in which most commercial zoned areas are indicated in red, whilst residential zones are depicted in yellow. In that sense, the game doesn’t do much to teach the standard colors used in North American planning practice.

Another minor drawback is that you can’t repurpose existing buildings. There is no option to convert abandoned factories into residences, for instance. It also would have been neat to have the option to, say, convert my decommissioned coal power plant into a different use. The only way to reuse space it to demolish existing buildings and open up lots for new development.

Personally, I also really missed some of the transportation options that were available in earlier editions of the series. You can’t built subways in the new SimCity, neither can you built elevated rail. These two used to form a continuous rapid transportation system in Sim City 4, where you could connect subways with above-ground elevated rail, much like you see in many cities the world over that have built rapid transit systems. What you get in return is the option to build streetcars. And whilst those are nice, they initially weren’t very effective: you could only place streetcar stops on high-density avenues, which meant that building an elaborate streetcar network automatically forced you to build wide six-lane avenues all throughout your city. Eventually, updates to the game created the option to build streetcar stops on tracks that aren’t on avenues, illustrating how the game continued to be fine-tuned months after its release. Another thing that would have made sense, from a transportation perspective, is to have the option to build bicycle lanes. As with mixed-use zoning, more cities have adopted these in recent years, leaving me wondering why I can’t have them in my city.

Separated streetcar tracks running through a residential neighborhood.

Separated streetcar tracks running through a residential neighborhood. (Click to enlarge)


Towards a Final Verdict

Despite the fact that SimCity is an open-ended game (as any simulation game is), the fun of course is in growing your cities out to the maximum. Population is the single metric that matters the most, closely followed by your city’s finances. I automatically found myself trying to explode my city’s population, mostly because of the hourly tax income that my city’s Sims generated. But as my cities grew, managing it became increasingly complex. And funding all those services that your Sims need –like fire and police coverage, health care, education, transportation, waste management, and parks—costs a lot of money, if you chose to provide them. And don’t even get me started on the congestion issues I’ve had in one of my larger cities.  Overall, I found the game to be very immersive, and there are countless options you have at your disposal as you’re building out your city.

Overall, the game inevitable falls short to portray the complexities of real-world city planning. Players have God-like powers, and are completely free to build whatever type of city they want. There isn’t any compromise in the game. The digital citizens of SimCity can’t vote, and can’t really make their thoughts on your building plans known. But we have to acknowledge that this has never been the mission of the SimCity series, a franchise which was built around the idea of letting players experiment with city building.

Whilst SimCity may not completely incorporate the most cutting-edge concepts in city planning, it still offers a great way to learn the fundamentals of city building. Thanks to its broad appeal, the game will likely continue to offer many people a glimpse at the challenges of city building, confronting them with this topics as they take on creating their own cities in SimCity. The franchise surely has intro many people to these topics in the past. And whilst professional city planners might see some real drawbacks in the game, it’s still a great way to live out some city building fantasies, the likes of which we’re probably not going to see in real life.

Subway Maps

We have found some of the most interesting subway maps from several different cities across the globe for your viewing pleasure.  The term maps is a misnomer because these are diagrams rather than maps devoid of any topographical features or scale.  In the beginning of the 20th Century,  map makers realized that trying to remain true to the scale of the city made maps unwieldy so they ditched  both the scale and the topographical features.  Eventually these maps became

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colorful diagrams which contains the basic information needed to get from point A to point B.

Mexico City

The current map of Mexico’s 11 subway lines is the most dramatic in terms of graphic design. It is simple with bare minimum information.  The entire system is about 100 miles long  and Mexico has plans to add four more lines to the system by 2015.  Like Montreal, Mexico City spent a great deal of time and money to expand their subway system prior to 1968 Olympics.  The work was not completed until after the Olympics, due to technical problems resulting from tunneling under the lake bed on which Mexico city is situated.


New York

New York City’s Transit system is the only one which uses a subway map with topographical information.  In 1972 Massimo Vignelli designed a modern diagrammatic map but New Yorkers found it confusing and complained. So in 1979 a new map was introduced designed by Mike Hertz which brought back the topographical features like major parks and waterways and that map has been in use for more than a quarter of a century.

NY subway map


London’s Underground Map is a cultural icon. It was first designed by Harry Beck in 1931 as a simple line map reminiscence of an electrical diagram.  Subsequently that map has been refined several times and the modern 2007 map includes 110 stations and six additional lines.  One of the distinct features of the map is its  Sans-Serif font and the red circle with a bar across it, it is now identified with London’s tube world over, and is as much a London trade mark as Big Ben Tower.

London Underground


The Metro System of  Moscow is the largest and the busiest system in the world, carrying approximately 7 million people a day.  The earliest maps of the system date back to mid 1930.  The current map (2007) of the Moscow Metro is designed by Artemy Lebdev’s Studio, and is one of the most beautiful maps. It effectively displays a very extensive system of 188 metro stations strung over 200 miles of subway lines.



The Tokyo transit system is one of the largest transit systems in the world, covering an astonishing large area of 5,200 square miles.  It connects to, and incorporates the largest commuter rails system in the world, serving approximately 35 million riders.  In 2004 the Tokyo Metro initiated a new subway map where each station was identified by a number preceded by an alphabet letter denoting the transit line.  This method of identifying stations by a number, and the lines by a letter simplified navigating through a very complex and interconnected transit system.  tokyosubway2008

Washington DC

Washington DC’s Metro map is a marvel of graphic design.  Despite the fact that it includes topographical features like Potomac River, Beltway and city monuments it still feels like a diagram than a map,  unlike New York City’s subway map which still feels more like a map than a diagram.  Washington DC’s Metro is one of the most advanced subway systems in the United States. It has not only air-conditioned trains but also has air-conditioned Stations.  The platform edges light up as the train approaches.  The capital M in white on a black panel has been adopted as the Logo of the system and is effectively used throughout the city to identify the entrances to stations.



Prior to 1976 Olympics, Montreal like Mexico City launched an extensive plan to built an entirely modern metro system, and showcase it during the Olympics.  It was an expensive proposition but Montreal did not cut any corners, as a result Montreal’s Metro is one of the most stylized subway systems in the world.  Montreal’s Metro stations are bright, spacious, architecturally distinct and are filled with art works.  The Montreal Metro map is set on a black background which is not very common.  However, the black background with bold brightly colored lines  makes it a strikingly beautiful map.

plan-metro Montreal

* Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden was used as one of the sources for this article.

Metro and Underground Maps Designs around the World  http://www.noupe.com/inspiration/metro-and-underground-maps-design-around-the-world.html

Recently Atlantic Cities also posted World’s Best Subway Maps on their site: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/design/2011/09/20-subway-maps/227/#slide6