Friday, December 24, 2010

Let's See The City's Ripped Backside

I just watched this older TED Talk on the catastrophe of "community space" in the USA and couldn't help but think that much of it could be applied to Taipei, as compared to some of the older towns and old streets scattered across Taiwan.

I'll cover farther down how this relates to Taipei - at least from my perspective. With photos!

I've always felt that space is a manifestation of the mind: that the spaces we inhabit shine a light on our subconscious, whether individual or collective. An example of the more individual level of this manifestation can be seen in where a person chooses to live: an urban area, the suburbs, a small town, the countryside, and what neighborhood they live in. I don't mean in a "she likes to shop so she lives near the shops" way, but in a "her mind is uncluttered and fairly organized, and so she lives in a more open, cleanly delineated area" or "he tends toward meandering thinking processes so he lives in a building in a spiderweb of small lanes" or "she likes to observe everything going on around her from a detached perspective, so she lives on a hill/on a high floor" or "he likes to know what's happening at each market stall and under each building awning so he lives right at street level".

On a more public level, our public squares - their size, their aesthetic, what they're bordered by (is it a Crate&Barrel, or a 1,000 year old church, or City Hall?), how quiet or chaotic they are - and in the USA, our streets - say a lot about who we are as people in a community.

And James Kuntsler is exactly right: the suburban space we've created in the USA is a catastrophe, because there is no arena for that public consciousness. There is no manifestation of self or of community.

Older "small cities" that are now the size of suburbs and genuine small towns aren't a part of this: my parents' town, though I have no strong desire to live there again, is fairly pleasant with country roads and a Main Street downtown. Bangor, ME is the size of most suburbs and has a lovely old red brick downtown that is extremely inviting (the big box stores down the road not so much, but the two are entirely separate - which most suburbs can't claim). Arlington, VA is more of a city than a suburb, but for the most part it's pleasant, easily walkable and is home to many inviting spaces.

Our lizard brains, the instinctive, primitive and unevolved bit of us that still lurks back there, only to come out to save us from imminent danger, to rob, murder and steal (for a few people), and to comment on the Internet (warning: strong language) are there, too - they're in those desolate edges of suburbia where there are wasted fields, maybe an old warehouse, a few scraggy trees, a broken chain-length fence and a space that makes our conscious selves profoundly uncomfortable. They exist in cities, too (note the Iggy Pop reference in the title about the backside of the city) - think of the unappealing parts of Gotham that superheroes and cops find themselves in: old docks at night, barely-used warehouses, stretches of street with abandoned facades in front and looming buildings far behind. The parts you drive through and never stop to look at.

And yes, I do think the part of our brain that causes some people to think it's OK to point a gun at another person in order to take possession of the $10 and a subway card in their wallet is the same part that helps us intuit danger and prompts us to say horrifically rude things that we'd never say to someone's face. After all, the Internet is a kind of city, too.

These "subconscious" spaces will never be eradicated, because they crop up as the underside to our conscious planning. That said, having better public spaces, Kuntsler implies, will lower depression, anxiety and even crime (especially in children).

This exists in office spaces, as well. Good office spaces generate conversations, relationships and ideas in the way that good public spaces do. So it's a triple travesty: cube farms stultify our creative thought at work. Poorly planned "communities" (in quotes) don't allow relationships to take seed, and Starbucks has not brought cafe culture to America: it's destroyed any chance of it growing. Have you ever gone to a Starbucks to socialize and converse the way one might have done in an old style cafe?

So. What does this have to do with Taipei? Well, crime is not really a problem - of course it happens, but it's hardly the screaming issue it is back home - I can walk down the street at 3am in Taipei and know that I am fairly safe. I can't do that in any American city. Public space, however, is. While Taipei has retained its own unique style of streetscape that fits fairly well into the generally-known mold of Asian streetscapes, it's also clearly been influenced by the American and Canadian chucking in the garbage of old-style urban planning and methodology.

That's not to say that Taipei is unappealing. It is filled with gorgeous, inviting public spaces. Dihua Street - a slender street lined with attractive buildings, first-floor shops, a temple, a market area with an open square that has a coffeeshop and ringed with places to eat. Red House and Ximending - pedestrian lanes filled with mid-size buildings, first-floor shopping and a lot to look at both in terms of people and shopfronts (Ximending could be improved with a few more benches and sitting areas and better food - which is honestly not that good) with a more open space for socializing, strolling or shopping around Red House, which has been restored admirably to a place of public interest.

Red House Theater is a prime example of good community space - look at those citizens congregating and conversing, the umbrella-covered tables, the street level accessibility and the inviting building materials and facade.

The area between Longshan Temple MRT, the temple itself and the newly-restored Japanese shophouses by Guangzhou Street and Huaxi Night Market is inviting - you can sit and play mahjong in the park, wander the temple, go shopping, take a stroll, have a peek (or even sit for awhile) in the old Mackay Clinic which has been converted into a small museum about Mackay and the history of medicine in Taiwan - and it's free! All the area needs is a coffeeshop like the one that was replaced so tragically by a Cafe 85 with no seating. The bike trail that starts on the Jingmei River and winds its way up to Danshui is filled with inviting spots for sitting or general outdoor activity. The Wenzhou-Xinsheng-Heping area between Shi-da and Tai-da is quite lovely.

A totally different view from the Ximending area: more modern, but still inviting.

Notice, though, that every place I've mentioned is in the western part of Taipei - the pre-WWII section of town. Even the Japanese colonists knew a thing or two about good urban planning, and considering the extent to which they imitated Western pre-war architecture, I would guess that they extended their architectural mimicry to the delineation of urban space (I'm curious about that, actually, because I'm not sure: what a great thesis topic if I could afford graduate school!).

A few views of Dihua Street - in general a relaxing place to linger. People come here because they want to - the space makes them feel comfortable.

Now let's train our eye on eastern Taipei - Xinyi was clearly designed with public space in mind and in its own way, it's somewhat inviting. You can sit or stroll in the areas around Shinkong Mitsukoshi and there are comfortable outdoor areas around Taipei 101. The tree-lined Songren Road is pleasant enough, there are a few small parks, and that awesome chess set sculpture.

However, something about it just doesn't capture the loveliness of the western part of town. The buildings are too big, and too sterile. The area around SYS Memorial Hall is the one winner - well-planned trees, smaller shops and inviting (albeit expensive) cafes. The Shinkong Mitsukoshi plaza doesn't have floor-level shops; or rather, it does, but they're all behind glass, inaccessible, and once you enter the department store it's rather cold and antisocial. No great conversations are going to start between the glass doors and the Fendi shop, and the Starbucks is a sad little scar of tables right on the concourse. It doesn't invite you to linger the way the old-school coffee stand right in front of Yongle Market or the benches that line the square do. The "border" is impermeable: you can only go there to walk, or shop. You can't linger; you can't socialize. Nothing meaningful can happen when the walking area and the shopping area are separated by plates of glass.

Same for City Hall: you do see locals out and about, but generally it's about as habitable as Boston City Hall - barren, cemented over, no good for anything but skateboarding. The Hall itself is a Brutalist nightmare, a giant wound on the skyline that sears the eye.

Xinyi really tried, but in the end, let's face it, what was created is a bit hollow, steel-and-glass soulless. It needs, if not smaller buildings made of more attractive materials, at least street-level shops and more open cafes. It needs more permeable boundaries. It needs crossings on Keelung Road so you don't have to walk so far to get farther west.

See, Xinyi's not all bad. While this space doesn't invite one to stay long, it is visually appealing and breaks from the scraggy urban sprawl of central Taipei.

Here's the part where I'm going to get all KMT-blasting. Wanhua and Xinyi both have public areas - one showcasing the old school of urban planning, one displaying its somewhat eyebrow-raising renewal. Let's look now at central Taipei: the part of town bordered on one side by Zhongshan Road, Minzu in the north, Heping or Xinyi in the south and Guangfu Road in the east. This is the part of town that mostly developed post-war, though pre-war buildings do exist. That means it was mostly built up by the KMT, and to an extent in living memory. What do we see?

We see very uncomfortable streetscapes. Is there anything less pleasant than walking down Nanjing Road between Linsen and Fuxing? Forget the MRT construction: that's necessary and temporary. I mean the sidewalks, or lack thereof. If you walk on the flat area, you're likely to get run down by a scooter who is not going to stop for you. If you walk in the "pedestrian" (HA!) area, you're going up and down and up and down and "oh look, I would have to jump to keep going but there are no stairs", "let's pave this one in marble so everyone will slip on it when it rains", you never know when there will be an awning above you or you'll get rained on, and you can't see the shops clearly from the street thanks to the combined mask of parked scooters and awnings. This is due to the fact that the businesses lining these halfhearted sidewalks are individually responsible for building and maintaining them: that means they can decide height, material, awning-or-no, steps or slopes - whatever they want. Gotta love the individualism, but what it leads to is an uneven mishmash that is nearly impossible to deal with in a crowd or in the rain.

If you stand in a relatively open intersection (let's say Nanjing-Songjiang) it's basically a hideous sprawl of 1960s and '70s aesthetic horrors and a long, lonely look down unappealing, wide gray roads lines with unappealing buildings.

In short, there is nothing about this part of town that invites people to linger. You pretty much have to escape into a coffeeshop or restaurant for a comfortable place to sit. Could the government have promoted a worse design for urban space? I'm not sure.

Nobody actually goes to the Taipei Vegetable Market on Minzu Road because the road itself is a travesty - it's hard to get to and deeply unattractive. The only roads worth walking down without instead walking in the lanes, honestly, are Fuxing, Zhongshan at times, Dunhua at times and Heping. Civic Boulevard has to be the least interesting road in the entire city. They say that Core Pacific Mall has bad feng shui: worse than that, it's just poorly planned. There is no appealing or pleasant way to walk there, it's too far from transport hubs, and the surrounding area implies nothing but boredom and disinterest.

No wonder it's "feng shui" is off! What is urban planning, after all, than feng shui that actually works? Or, put another way, urban planning is basically feng shui with concrete (pardon the pun) methodologies behind it, rather than superstitious ones. That's why shoppers go to SOGO at Zhongxiao Fuxing - the two department stores and space around them is inviting. You want to go, even if the actual stores aren't the biggest or the best in the city. That's why the SOGO/Takashimaya/Miramar/Shinkong Mitsukoshi area is popular in Tianmu; the walk between them is pleasant; I don't even like department stores and I find myself there on occasion just because I like the space around them. (International Square is another prime example of good public space).

Truthfully, it's not all bad: Minsheng Community is so nice that every time I take a bus through it, I want to pack up and move there. It's like the good parts of Brooklyn. Guanghua Market and the surrounding area (including Huashan) is pleasant enough, some of the lanes between the major roads are nice to walk down - I rather liked the area where our friend used to live, between Jianguo and Yitong Street, north of Nanjing - the lanes are full of interesting things. Yongkang Street isn't as good for food as people say, but it is a pleasant urban street. Da'an Park is in this area and so is CKS Hall which, while I hate the man, the hall and square are quite nice.

There are things that could improve it, though: Da'an Park needs more picnic tables and better grass. CKS is fine on the inside, but just outside the gate and around the sides is rather dire (except for the hilarious Wedding Shops on Aiguo Road, which are fun to look at). Nothing is less inviting than the buildings outside the CKS Hall main gate. The area around the Presidential Building is similarly uninviting for anyone except protesters, and there are some lovely but inaccessible gates in the area.

Architecturally interesting, but I'd like to see less of the bombast:

And more of the community spaces that have sprung up within it:

I don't think I have to spend time dissecting the far south and far north of Taipei - what I've said above basically covers what I'd say about these areas. I will say that I find my neighborhood (Jingmei, near the MRT) can be quite inviting, as well as quite dissonant. I am friendly with my neighbors because the lanes around my house encourage socialization - the old women who congregate in the comfortable Y-intersection of Wanqing Street make their own social spaces, by dragging beat-up chairs under apartment awnings and making the lanes their own. Certain areas of Muzha, by contrast, are just as difficult to walk down as that blasted heath of central Taipei.

People say that Taipei residents "don't care" or "aren't concerned" about public space, but I don't believe it's true. If the old women make their own social space (and the men too: a good friend of mine famously said that "there are no bars on Nanjing West Road because the folks there, when they want a drink, grab a Taiwan Beer from 7-11 and drink it on their stoop. If their friends want to join them, they grab beers and sit, too."), clearly someone cares about it. If the old parts of Taipei have vestiges of space, and the most popular area in eastern Taipei attempts, in its own way, to create it, clearly people care. What causes them to seem as though they don't care is the space itself - the treacherous sidewalks and scooter-congested roads with no meaningful areas that have porous boundaries. The people didn't make the space, contrary to what usually happens. When the government charged ahead with development and construction in the mid 20th century, it created the space, and the space then created the people. Show them that their spaces can be better, and maybe (just maybe) they'll want to make it better, too. But what they have now? It lends itself to apathy. It creates apathy.

In short, I'd like to see more old-style urban planning return to Taipei, which would mean a return to the city as the Japanese colonists who helped build it would plan it, or at least our best approximation. I'd like to see more of this:

Daxi Old Street

A temple courtyard in Tainan

And far less of this:

Quite possibly the ugliest building in Taipei, on Xinhai Road (Muzha).

The view from my first apartment in Taipei. Super!

It's not that the government is not trying - it's that they're often, but not always, getting it right. The little marble tea-and-picnic tables and newer urban spaces are a step in the right direction for Taipei, but they need to be more open, more plentiful and more accessible. We need fewer Bella Vita shopping centers behind glass and granite, and more community shopping-and-strolling areas. We need more indoor-outdoor spaces, more trees and more places to congregate.

We need more bike trails and paths, too. The riverside bike trail that winds its way up the western part of the city to Danshui is chock full of comfortable spaces for activities, walking or chatting - more food vendors (or easier access to food outside the park) and fewer wild dogs would be nice, though.

I've always been a fan of attractive graffiti - urban outdoor art. This one can be seen on the Jingmei-Danshui bike trail, somewhere in the Jingmei or Wanlong area.

To sum it all up in one sentence: we need to undo what was done by the powers-that-be (ahem) from about 1950 to about 1995 and make Taipei a city that is appealing on a large scale, instead of being pockmarked hither-and-whither with a few appealing spots.

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