At first, it’s hard to imagine what could possibly go wrong with a large-scale urban tree planting program. Greening the streets checks lots of boxes when it comes to environmental amenity and health, and it’s the type of initiative that ranks quite high on many an urban regeneration wish list. But – as a recent article in New York’s City Limits discusses in great depth – you have to think about the long, long life of those trees, not just celebrate when they first go into the ground.
The article provided a crucial reminder that anything you install into the urban environment has to be maintained. Boring perhaps, but true. And if it’s damaged, it will probably need to be removed or repaired. And those things all incur costs often far above the one-off cost of planting the trees. That’s true for anything from benches to pavement stones to street lighting. Sadly, troughs of flowers or plants – lovely in the photos of Britain in Bloom! – are often particular victims of minor vandalism and theft.
Discouraging (especially at these times of budget crunches) – yes. Insurmountable – no. City Limits concluded by highlighting the work of a New York tree charity that deploys teams of citizen pruners and educators. For me, increasing local involvement and taking some form of responsibility for our streets is just as important as anything the city installs or pays for. Getting that idea across to more communities may be a long-term project, but fortunately, so are the trees.
I planned to sit down and write about the news (ok, last week’s news) that Mary Portas – the TV presenter and secret shopper – had been appointed by the government to review the state of the UK’s declining high streets. But then I figured, well, until she delivers her findings, there’s not all that much to say – aside from the fact that David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and Ed Miliband all get extra points from this writer for their unequivocally pro-High Street comments. Yes, prime minister, I agree, “The High Street should be at the very heart of every community, bringing people together, providing essential services and creating jobs and investment; so it is vital that we do all that we can to ensure they thrive.”
So, instead I decided to write about the project The Urban Guide for Alternate Use – partly because there aren’t any politicians or television celebrities involved, and mostly because it profiles creative, sometimes sort of wacky, approaches to making the most of our urban spaces. Some of the examples I like best include street pole dancing in the UK, hanging clothes and personal belongings throughout the town of Bat Yam, Israel and a “DIY” food drive in DC’s Dupont Circle in which bakery* patrons buy an extra pastry and leave it on a neighboring fire hydrant. I’m pretty sure that Mary Portas won’t include any of the above in her final report… but she really should.
* I’m making an informed guess, based on the fire hydrant and the Dupont address, that this is the Firehook Bakery on Q Street.
A tall, grey-ish building, with turreted flourishes, and a chiming clock tower that makes it one of the tallest structures in the city, Washington’s historic Old Post Office occupies a prime location on Pennsylvania Avenue. Built in the 1890s, it has been used for the past three decades as a mixed complex of offices, retail, and restaurants – the latter heavily geared towards tourists making the pilgrimage between the Capitol and the White House. It is also a major loss maker – to the tune of roughly $6 million a year – for its landlord, the US federal government. No surprise, then, that according to recent press reports, it is among the top targets for the disposal of government real estate.
Despite being a DC-area native, I never knew much about the Old Post Office. It was just another monument in a city already brimming with symbols, statues, and heavy granite buildings. Having now brushed up on its history, though, it is difficult not to feel sympathy for a building that seems to have been so continually out of favor. Criticized from the start for its out-dated architectural style, it went on to see only minimal use and frequent threats of demolition.
Moreover, Pennsylvania Avenue itself was long among the less desirable parts of town – nicknamed Murder Bay in the mid-1800s, it was notorious for hosting high-end brothels and was prone to flooding. By the 1960s, the street’s condition was so poor that President Kennedy requested plans for an extensive redevelopment of the area, including new buildings to alleviate the government’s desperate need for new office space, and of course, the demolition of the Old Post Office.
So the question I pose is: what type of buyer might reverse the Old Post Office’s fortunes? And what would benefit its street, which, by its very function as a grand, ceremonial avenue, will always be difficult to populate in a meaningful and cohesive way?