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Urban Planning's Sig Grava Helps Modernize Latvia's Transportation System

By Kristin Sterling


Obsolete buildings and streetcars. Suburban sprawl. Air pollution. Street congestion. These issues are not unique to American cities. After only one decade, the Baltic country of Latvia is facing problems similar to those that have taken 100 years to develop in American cities, according to Sigurd Grava, urban planning professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

Grava has spent the past 50 years living in New York City, yet he retained his ties to his native Latvia, where he has been returning since the mid-1970s. And since Latvia gained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, he has been making more frequent visits. While there, he researches, writes, teaches and works with local officials to help with planning and development challenges.

"Latvia is trying to rejoin Europe after gaining independence," says Grava. "It is my duty to show them the things that are being done in Western countries -- for better or worse -- to aid the process."

He is currently on a three-month trip that involves teaching a seminar at Riga Technical University, where he was a Fulbright Scholar in 1993-94. The seminar explores how city structures are changing. It also describes characteristics of previous periods, encompassing the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, the metropolitanization period of the early 20th century and the emerging urban fields of the 21st century, where dispersed special purpose activity centers, such as shopping malls and campuses, are the focus.

Grava is also lending his technological expertise to officials working to upgrade the transportation system in the capital city of Riga from a basic streetcar system -- that still works rather robustly according to Grava -- to a modern light rail concept.

As in the United States, municipal governments do their own land development controls and transportation planning in Latvia, contributing to a disjointed system, where planners struggle with diverse laws and regulations, he explains.

Grava has dedicated his life to teaching, consulting and accumulating research materials. He has been a full-time professor at Columbia for more than 40 years and has his own 2,000 volume professional library and a collection of 20,000 slides related to planning. His research and writing primarily involve transportation service evaluations, development issues and regional structures, and systemic planning processes.

Just before departing for Latvia this fall, Grava published his second book, "Urban Transportation Systems: Choices for Communities" (McGraw-Hill, 2003) -- a culmination of his life's work to date. Relying on the materials he has collected throughout his career, Grava wrote the nearly 900-page book in a year and a half.

With chapters focusing on urban modes such as paratransit, rapid transit, heavy rail transit and automobiles, the work appears to be a textbook. But Grava hopes to reach a wider, lay audience who has less of a grasp on complex transportation issues.

"Today, any decision on transportation goes through a public review process," says Grava. "People don't always have understandable information available. I made a large effort to gear this book to civilians, non-technical people. Additionally, technical experts are usually only experts in one field -- they may not know much about the other modes."

Grava also geared the book toward public officials who decide on transportation plans. Besides relying on advice of technical staff and lobbyists, Grava hopes his book can serve as a handbook to officials in explaining the various transportation options available.

"All modes of transportation are good," he says. "But not every mode fits every situation."

In addition to teaching and writing, Grava has maintained an active consulting practice. For the last 25 years he has worked as the technical director for planning at Parsons Brinckerhoff, an engineering and planning firm with a large global transportation practice. During the past few years, through this affiliation, Grava has worked on the management of a development plan with growth nodes for Newark, N.J.; served as a technical advisor to the master plan update for Jubail Industrial City in Saudi Arabia; participated in transportation investigations and plans for the central business district of Beirut, Lebanon, and was on a team that developed transport systems for the 2012 Summer Olympics bid by New York City.

He is also participating in the post-9/11 transportation plan for Lower Manhattan. Currently, he reports that the basic transportation options have been defined, and teams of architects are working on various land development options. He expects this to be completed by January 2003, at which time he will be back in New York, and detailed transportation planning will resume.

The fundamental question still on the table, he says, is the resource commitment that the city, the region, and the nation will make toward the reconstruction and revitalization of the entire Lower Manhattan district.

Published: Dec 11, 2002
Last modified: Dec 10, 2002

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