Thursday, June 25, 2009


I went for a walk last night. Normally, that wouldn't merit a post. Plenty of people go for plenty of walks in plenty of cities every day. Why is my experience any different? I suppose it isn't. It is, however, a great opportunity to remind ourselves (1) why walkability matters, and (2) what elements of urban planning and policy can encourage it.

Why does walkability matter?

* Walkability matters because we see things in greater detail when we walk. When we drive past a house, or a park, or a factory, we things in fast motion. Our eyes pick up the big details: dominant color, dominant shape, and so on. But we miss little details. When we walk, we see that the bricks have different shapes. We see that sidewalks are worn to different degrees. We see not just that there is trash in some corner, but that the trash consist of takeout containers from this-or-that restaurant, along with empty bottles of liquor. These artifacts tell us stories about the people with whom we share these spaces. These spaces are no longer simple entertaining backgrounds from behind a window. They are spaces lived in by fellow humans (and animals, too!). Walkability matters because we only slow down to appreciate little details--like the 6 kinds of peace signs in front of one of my favorite houses on Nicollet island--when we are free to stop and look.

* Walkability matters because fresh air matters. Rolling down the window in a moving car is not the same thing as breathing in air at ground level. When you breathe air at walking speed, it doesn't rush past you. You smell everything. Fresh paint, burning rubbers, blooming flowers, river pollution. Wonderful and terrible smells. These are real smells of real things; we would not notice them if we did not walk around and breathe in the air. Too much air conditioning and indoor life stultifies in the long run.

* Walkability matters because we encountering people matters. Most Americans these days seem to live in suburbs. They encounter one another in well-defined social settings--restaurants, churches, workplaces, parks. But they miss encountering the vast majority of people who share their space in the interstices between these well-established gathering places. I walk across the Stone Arch bridge almost every day. I see all kinds of fellow Minneapolitans: kids, teenagers, couples, retirees, families, pets. Not to mention the wide variety of ethnicities we have in the Twin Cities: Liberians, Hmong, central Americans of every type, and (of course) one or two Scandinavians. Walkability matters because without it we would only spend time with our self-selected social circle. We need walkability because it exposes us to all of our fellow residents.

What elements of urban planning and policy can encourage walkability?

* Zoning: We need aggressive zoning policies that encourage (1) small-format ground-floor retail, (2) medium-density housing adjacent to, and above, said retail, and (3) parking policies favorable to multi-modal transit and rapid turnover of parking spots. Small-format ground-floor retail is great because it encourages a multiplicity of uses. Many small shops are better for the economy in the long run than one large shop, because economic diversity breeds long-term stability. Ground-floor retail is essential because people walk--and drive--past at eye level. They need to be able to see, and interact with, the ground-level retail space itself. Medium density housing is necessary in commercial districts because you need a critical mass of people to support dense retail environments and mass transit. Parking policies that encourage rapid turnover of parking spaces are important because a commercial area thrives when customers arrive and depart steadily.

* Pocket parks, benches, and the like: Sidewalks--and streets--are safer when there are more eyes-on-the-street. To encourage people to spend time outside, we need lots of pocket parks. We also need (gasp!) benches. I know it's scary to think that a person might want to sit outdoors, but it is indeed possible. More benches = more people outside = safer streets.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Urban Funnybone

(I'm trying to get back in the habit of writing this blog--more on that to come).

As I'm sure everyone in the urban blogosphere already knows, there were two really hilarious--and insightful--"tourist" videos for Cleveland published on youtube recently. If for some reason you missed them, you can see them both at the following links:

* Video #1
* Video #2

The first video is a little less snarky and a lot more funny. The second one is also hilarious, but its humor is more mean-spirited. The videos generated quite a bit of discussion. Much of the feedback on the subject has focused on (1) whether its a fair depiction of the city, (2) whether the humor is in good/poor taste, and (3) what can Cleveland do to remedy its problems. I think other commenters have addressed these concerns thoroughly, so I'll keep my remarks limited to an analysis of the humor itself. In particular, I'm interested in examining the assumptions of race and poverty that underlie many of the jokes. Consider the following punchlines:

Video 1: A shot of a downtown Cleveland bus stop, where a few dozen people wait for buses. Voiceover: "Watch the poor people all wait for buses."

Video 1: A shot of a guy talking on a pay phone downtown. Voiceover: "Who the fuck still uses a pay phone?"

Video 1: A shot of a downtown sidewalk. A normal-looking guy walks past a drifter-looking guy; the drifter pivots around to follow the normal-looking person, implying that panhandling (or mugging?) is a frame away. Voiceover: "Cleveland leads the nation in drifters."

There are a few common themes to the jokes listed above. Certainly, they're all pretty funny. But they also reflect some serious, depressing elements of life in a depressed city.

Theme #1: Poor people are disproportionately black. Take a closer look at the videos. You'll notice that black people are significantly over-represented in the jokes that poke fun of poor folk. While there are certainly prosperous middle-class black suburbs in Cleveland, there's also a lot of poverty among inner-city black Clevelanders. This is clearly reflected in the videos. Maybe it's a funny punchline, but it's sad too.

Theme #2: Poverty is visible in downtown. Remember, most middle-class Clevelanders do not live in Cleveland. They live in the inner, and now outer, ring suburbs. Their main point of contact with the city itself is downtown, where there are still around 150,000 jobs. While there is plenty of visible poverty in areas outside of downtown, the videos focus on downtown. The depictions of human poverty are very much focused on that portion of the city. Who the fuck still uses a pay phone? Poor people, that's who. At least, that's the implicit point-of-view that makes that line a joke. I'll leave it to you to decide if it's funny.

Theme #3: Poverty implies violence and crime. The Cleveland-leads-the-nation-in-drifters bit shows a drifter trailing after an ordinary resident. The implied message: watch out for those crazy, impoverished drifter folk. They're waiting for any opportunity to mug you. (For more amusement on those lines, go read the lyrics from 'Class' from the Chicago soundtrack).

With all that said, I'm not writing about these particular videos because I dislike them. Quite the contrary: I think they're hilarious. I've watched them many times, and they consistently get a laugh out of me. I lived in Cleveland for long enough to appreciate the dark humor in those videos. But it's worth examining the underlying assumptions and experiences that make those elements of city life into viable jokes. Race and poverty are strong undercurrents in Cleveland's affairs; indeed, in the affairs of many American cities, not just the Rust Belt. The Cleveland tourism videos are a telling example of these unresolved, ongoing issues.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Land of Milk and Honey

(Sorry for the downtime; midterms caught up with me! Without further ado...)

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Well, I just spent a week in California. And let me first say that this is one impressive state! Of course, my reaction to California is largely conditioned by having spent a few months in the Minnesota winter. After single-digit weather, a full week of sun and 65 degrees was exceedingly pleasant.

But enough of this--let's get to the urban planning angle!

I've certainly heard about San Francisco's hills, but it was really amazing to see them for myself. The city fully occupies a peninsula with extremely steep hills. And when I say "fully occupies" I mean it--pretty much every available square foot on this space is used for streets and buildings. I have never before seen houses stacked so precipitously close to each other, up and down unbelievably steep hills.

It's very interesting to compare San Francisco to another hilly city: Pittsburgh. The curious difference between the two is that Pittsburgh is slightly less fully developed. Certainly, there are tens of thousands of Pittsburgh houses clinging to the sides of hills, ready to fall over at any moment. But nevertheless there are still trees and foliage. San Francisco, on the other hand, is almost completely built out (with the exception of dedicated parkland). Why this difference?

Of course, I would have to actually research this a bit to answer. My first guess is: weather. Pittsburgh has moderately heavy winters, which makes travel up and down hills fairly difficult. Northern California, on the other hand, doesn't really freeze over or get snow. I imagine the consequence of this is that it's easier to build there.

Ok, enough for now. More to come.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Urban sprawl

I ran across this excellent photo essay of the far western suburbs of the Twin Cities. It's a very instructive picture of what urban (well, rural) sprawl looks like. Notice the large lots, in particular!

Friday, March 07, 2008

Lifestyle centers

I would like to follow up a bit on my last post. Lifestyle centers are haunting my brain these days. It's worth talking a bit more about them and trying to understand their appeal.

A lifestyle center attempts to recreate the historical urban configuration, albeit in an arguably sterilized way. In pre-car, pre-train civilization, the movement of people and goods was extremely expensive and energy intensive. Consequently, humans tended to cluster together social and economic functions as much as was feasible. Cities evolved as densely concentrated regions of commerce and socialization. City culture evolved, with its attendant diversity (not to mention problems of public health and property crime).

So how does a lifestyle center recreate this world? It lays out retail space in a dense fashion, and encourages the public visibility of those storefronts. It places housing adjacent to retail space, or immediately above it. In rare cases, it incorporates non-retail economic uses, including office, industrial (gasp!), public sector, and education.

The central question, it seems to me, is this: Does the artificial creation of the traditional urban configuration miss the point? Is the organic evolution of traditional urban centers somehow more authentic than its suburban counterpart? Can true diversity of uses (and users) arise from a centrally-planned development?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Suburban wastelands?

A recent article from the Brookings Institution got me thinking about the long-term future of suburbs. Like many reports from said institution, the author posited that because (1) energy costs are rising, (2) the foreclosure crisis is bringing traditionally urban crime problems to the 'burbs, and (3) demographic shifts are bringing more yuppies and empty-nest baby boomers back to city centers, it is likely that (4) cities will once again surge in economic and social importance.

Well, it's a nice thought anyway. Let's unpack this logic.

Energy costs are rising: True. Oil is more expensive, and likely to remain so. Large suburban homes are, consequently, more expensive to heat and cool. It is also more expensive to travel over long commutes to and from those suburbs. Will this lead to more people living in cities? Maybe. I see a lot of press about alternate energy sources which might make it cheaper to heat/cool suburban homes. I also see a lot of press about cars that get better mileage. If these two trends make real progress, it may indeed offset the increases in traditional energy costs, thereby preserving the suburban lifestyle.

The foreclosure crisis is definitely hitting suburbs, some worse than others. It is also hitting cities (see my earlier posts on Cleveland, for instance). A few things to keep in mind, however: 1) The crisis is the of an over-hyped housing market and an over-extended credit market, both of which are likely to correct in the long run; 2) The suburbs that are hardest hit are also the most speculative, in which construction boomed very recently.

Demographic shifts are definitely increasing interest in cities. Keep in mind, however, that there has been a MAJOR condo bust across the country in the past two years. MAJOR. Developers vastly overestimated people's interest in city living. Also, remember that New Urbanist developments are growing, and will take attention away from traditional city centers. If you doubt me, go visit Crocker Park in Westlake, OH. Why move to a city center with all its attendant problems (you know the list!) when you can buy a condo next to an outdoor lifestyle center?

OK, I don't mean to be too cynical. I just think it's too easy to cherry-pick a few economic and social trends and conclude that Americans are giving up on suburban living. Americans have demonstrated their clear devotion to large-lot, large-house, high-energy-consumption suburban lifestyle. It will take more than a few lifestyle centers to convince me otherwise.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Entertainment Districts

Entertainment districts are curious beasts. Cities that don't have them, want them. Cities that do have them often struggle to contain their side effects. Cities with too few of them look for ways to build them up. Cities with too many of them start playing favorites with police presence, infrastructure funding, zoning variances and liquor licenses.

As far as I can tell, Minneapolis has two major such districts. Hennepin Ave & 1st Ave, both of which stretch sort-of north south along the city's downtown, as well as Uptown (a neighborhood a bit south of the city center). Both of these districts are fairly lively, and attract a good-sized crowd at night.

What are the long-term prospects for our entertainment / nightlife districts in the city? St. Anthony Main is an interesting proposition. It offers stunning views of the city, and in good weather is unbelivably well-attended. In the cold weather months, it pretty much shuts down. Why do some districts continue to thrive in winter, whereas a place like St Anthony Main goes into hibernation?

Also: how many consumer dollars are really available for discretionary spending in the metro area? Will New Urbanist outposts in suburbia eventually drain those dollars from the city core?