Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What is crowded?

I had an enlightening conversation with a coworker recently. We were discussing my interest in moving to Uptown. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "I want to move to Uptown! There's lots of energy and diversity and great food and public life!"

Coworker: "Ugh! Why would you want to live there? It's so crowded!"

This got me thinking about what a person means when he says a place is "crowded". In this case, "crowded" is actually a code word for an entirely different worldview. A worldview, I might add, that is decidedly non-urban in orientation.

First, let's back up a bit. Is Uptown really crowded? Is it!?!? If you think Uptown is crowded, go visit NYC's Chinatown on a Saturday afternoon. That is crowded. In NYC, I've been on a sidewalk completely suffused with human beings, fighting my way through the crowds. Crowded is World Cup 1998 Finale on the Champs Elysees, when 1.5 million people flooded the one-mile stretch of road. I was there. Believe you me, that is crowded.

Don't get me wrong--Uptown is a busy, happening place! There are indeed a lot of people there, especially on Friday & Saturday nights. And certainly on festival days there are big-time crowds.

But let's get back to me and my coworker and our respective perspectives on urban life: for me, I associate many positive things with high population density: lots of restaurants, a rich variety of human beings, easy access to mass transit, public life (read more of my previous posts if you want). My coworker, however, associates negative things with high population density: lack of privacy, noise, lower air quality (because of car exhaust), physical danger & crime, lack of space.

Why is it that we have totally different visions of the same space? Am I missing something? Am I failing to sell urban-ness to the suburban set?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Weather and Mass Transit

As warnings of hailstorms over St. Cloud roll in this Wednesday evening, my first reaction is to think: "Be careful driving!". My immediate concern is safety; hence I naturally worry about road safety in inclement conditions.

This worry, however, is a product of the nature of our car-dependent transportation systems. If Minneapolis had a city-wide subway system, for instance, thunderstorms would not be so much of a problem. You might get a little wet walking down the sidewalk to the subway stop, but once underground you wouldn't have to worry about the train hydroplaning into another train at 70mph. Instead, you could relax, get to work (or home) on time, secure in the knowledge that the bad weather above couldn't hurt you, the passenger, below.

This is particularly relevant given that Minneapolis is plowing ahead with a mostly above-ground light rail plan. When you consider how long and bad the winters can be in this part of the country, it is worthwhile to consider the underground option.

A subway system is largely impervious to inclement weather. It will run in rain, sleet, snow, or hail. It is also, incidentally, pretty much free of traffic!

I'll try to write more in the next week or so on what a subway system in the Twin Cities would look like.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

An Office... Downtown?

Good news for Cleveland (though I'm reporting this one a bit late)! Stark Enterprises (the folks who brought you Crocker Park) is
relocating its corporate offices
from Woodmere (an outer-ring suburb) to Cleveland's downtown. That's right, folks: a company is actually moving from the suburbs to the downtown core. Heavens!

Robert Stark (the head of the company) has spoken often about his vision for a vibrant, urban life in downtown Cleveland. As an urbanist myself, I was always glad to see his pro-center-city opinions quoted in the newspaper. Until now, however, it's been all theoretical. In fact, Stark's major accomplishment (Crocker Park) is a decidedly suburban achievement. Even though Crocker Park replicates some elements of the urban lifestyle, its location in the center of West Side Wealth belies any notion that it truly recreates the life of the city.

But by moving his headquarters downtown, Stark demonstrates that he's willing to walk the walk (or is it walk the talk? I forget). Hopefully his company will remain successful and his presence downtown will strengthen and grow. Then again, assuming he follows through with other downtown development plans it's really just a question of a real estate gamble: is there really latent demand for office, retail, and residential space in Cleveland's downtown core?

Big City or Small Town?

Is Minneapolis a big city or a small town? Is it a cosmopolitan, bustling, urban adventure or is it a more relaxed, steady, Midwestern large town? A conversation on MNSpeak got me thinking about what degree of urban-ness is present in this city. At issue is the proposed crackdown on panhandling (read more on the above link if you want to learn all about it). The comments on this post reveal two general trends of thinking about how to respond to panhandlers:

(1) Ignore them. Don't make eye contact. Walk past. Don't be afraid to be firm with strangers. This is a big city. There's poverty. Realize it, and move on.

(2) Give 'em some change once in awhile. Try to be decent. Recognize that there are poor people in this city we share and maybe we should try to help them out.

Ok, so I'm probably over-simplifying the variety of views on MNSpeak. But I do think there's are two distinct worldviews underlying--or should I say informing?--the discussion of how to respond to panhandling. If Minneapolis is truly a "Big City", then we should step outside with our Big City game faces on. When you walk around New York City, you don't make eye contact with strangers, or smile at them, or say hello. You walk on by. If you don't, there are plenty of people who make their living off of unsuspecting visitors.

In a smaller town, the rules are totally different. Strangers aren't the (potential) enemy. It's ok to smile and say hello. You're encouraged to do so, in fact.

Obviously, it's ridiculous to suggest that Minneapolis is one way or the other entirely. Culture is a complex, dynamic thing, always changing. This city is, however, moving towards becoming a more significant regional (and national) player, and with that change comes certain transformations of urban culture.

Or am I just reading too much into it all?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Urban Form

Maybe it's because of all the environmentalists; maybe it's because of skyrocketing refined petroleum (er, gasoline) prices; maybe it's because I'm walk, bike, and drive; but I'm starting to look at the city as one giant mechanism for the distribution of physical resources.

I don't see coffeeshops anymore. I see the retail end of a long supply chain originating somewhere in Central America where farmers raise coffee beans. I don't see sidewalks. I see slabs of concrete stretching on endlessly throughout the metropolitan area. Underneath those slabs of concrete are hollow tubes of metal, bringing in H20 (200 gallons a day per person on average in America), carting away sewage (no stats spring to mind on volume). High above the trees are long-distance power transmission lines, bring energy transformed from kinetic (hydroelectric), nuclear (mine deeper!), coal-fired (gas-powered turbines, essentially) sources into electricity to be turned back into thermal (heating) or kinetic (motors) energy. Not to mention highways for bringing in consumables (as well as shipping them out), FAA-regulated airspace (for shipping people and goods longer distances), humans themselves (consuming oxygen and carbon-based matter, exhaling carbon dioxide and other waste), urban parks (turning that CO2 back into O2), and so on.

Is the city particularly well-suited to the distribution of resources for a population? Indeed it is. Because humans live more densely in a city, the physical distance over which a resource must be transmitted prior to its use is shorter. The overall scale of a city's demands ensures that incoming pipelines for resources are huge (think about those electrical transmission lines again).

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Cleveland: A Suburban City At Last?

For a long time, I've watched the city of Cleveland battle for attention in the public life of the Cleveland metropolitan region. The city center itself, while healthy, is surrounded by a Rust Belt city that has been on the decline since the late 1930's. Bit by bit, the last vestiges of an urbanist population have been eroded. The region's population is now overwhelmingly suburban, both in numbers (the population of the city has declined while that of the suburbs has increased) and in mindset.

The very notion of an urban, bustling, vibrant center city population is a remote one for Cleveland. Efforts to revive it have stalled over the years. Now, I have heard reports that new housing in the city replicates the suburban pattern: large lots, spaced apart. It would seem the city is finally going to become a suburb of itself.

Maybe it makes sense. The city's population has declined from a high of about a million (80 years ago) to around 460,000 as of 2005. With the population density cut in half, there is a heck of a lot of space available for development. Why not build larger homes on larger lots, as long as this is what home buyers want? Clevelanders have solidly demonstrated a persistent desire for suburban homes: large lots, front and back yards, attached garages, privacy, and a car-friendly lifestyle. Now the city of Cleveland is getting on board.

The question Cleveland faces is precisely this: is there any possibility of a real urban lifestyle in the city limits of Cleveland? Or is there simply a relentless march towards the final suburbification of the center city?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Could it be... Independent Retail?!?

Ah, my fellow Minnesotans: you have it so good, but do you realize it? Do you wake up every morning thanking the gods for your good fortune?

Another thing that blows me away all the time about Minneapolis is the huge quantity and variety of local, independent retail stores. If you're from the Twin Cities, you may not realize how rare it is that a huge percentage of the businesses in the cities are independent.

Back in Cleveland, we were continually confounded by the lack of independent retail. Where was the American entrepreneurial spirit? Why was every strip mall an endless parade of Paneras, Cingular (er, AT&T) Wirelesses, Dunkin' Donuts and RadioShacks? What ever happened to that fabled "mom&pop" operation?

I spent huge amounts of time debating whether or not public policy could rebuild independent retail. Did we need more business incubators? More training for entrepreneurs? A tax code that favored small businesses?

And then I moved out here, and wow! Everywhere I look I see independent businesses. Besides the restaurants (big fan of Barbette & Three Fish), I see record stores (Electric Fetus), clothing (Cliche), quirky Asian imports (Robot Love), audio repair (The Good Guys), jewelers (Gerber, Gold'n Treasures), and more. Grand Avenue (with the exception of the Pottery Barn stretch) is a real testament to the strength and vitality of independent retail in the Twin Cities. How did you do it? Is there just an incredible commitment on a cultural level? Are there public policies of which I'm unaware that foster this growth?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Lots of Newspapers!

Another thing that I love about Minneapolis is the huge number of local papers. It's really amazing when you walk into a coffee shop, glance down at the requisite pile o' papers in the foyer, and realize that among the half-dozen weeklies there is usually at least one or two papers local to the neighborhood you're in. It gives you a real sense of place. These journals are generally not paragons of high-minded journalism; rather, they're honest and decently put together snapshots of community activity.

And I guess the real thing that strikes you when you keep running into these locals papers is exactly that: community. It's a much celebrated term. Politicians trot it out when they want to drum up support. Corporations claim to nurture community when it benefits them. But you don't actually see such genuine communal artifacts that often.

I'll close by giving a list of links to a variety of Twin Cities-based neighborhood papers:

Southwest Journal

Downtown Journal

The Bridge (no link available)

I've only listed three, but I'm pretty sure there are at least a dozen. Very impressive!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Road Systems

One thing that continually amazes me out here in Minneapolis is how well-organized the road system is. As you can see above this paragraph, I've given you a fairly good birds-eye view of the Twin Cities' highway system. Given that there are two cities within the metropolitan region, it's particularly interesting to see how planners have, over the years, decided to route traffic.

Let's start by reviewing some of the high points of the system:

  • The region is ringed by a complete beltway. This means that no matter where you are in the inner-ring and middle-ring suburbs, you can count on being within ten or so minutes of interstate access. Contrast this, for example, with Richmond (VA), which last time I checked had only a 75% beltway system (quadrants 2, 3, and 4 I believe). The incomplete beltway is a hassle--if you're at one end of the beltway and you want to get to the other, you have to go all the way around (a trip three times longer than necessary!).

  • Excellent secondary arterials! I've written about this one before. By secondary arterial, I mean roads with at least 35 mph speed limits and little to no traffic lights or stop signs. People often overlook these roads in evaluating the quality of a road system; they instead look to formal highways to assess how easy it is to get around. They miss, however, the fact that even though these secondary quasi-highways are slower (even 35 mph, as I said), the small number of traffic lights makes them very efficient for travel. Some examples include: Route 55, Snelling Ave., and many of the north-south avenues on the southside of Minneapolis (Portland, Nicollet, for example).

  • Controlled highway access: many highway on-ramps feature gated access. If you've never seen this, here's what it looks like: a normal on-ramp, only there are traffic lights halfway down the ramp on either side. Normally, these lights stay on blinking yellow. In rush-hour, they switch to alternating red/green to allow two lanes of on-ramp traffic to take turns merging. It effectively reduces the vehicle load on the actual highway by shifting it to the ramps themselves. While it's not a total solution to under-capacity, it minimizes bumper-to-bumper slowdowns on the highways themselves.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Back From Hiatus

After a week of frantic wedding planning, I'm getting back in gear with this blog. But besides the upcoming nuptials, a second factor has contributed to my... reluctance?... to keep hammering out blog entries. I thought a bit about this second factor, and realized that it itself merits an entry.

The fact is, Minneapolis is really cool. So much of my writing on urban planning has stemmed from my observations of what doesn't work in this or that city. I see something that doesn't work very well, and I ask: How can we make this work better? I've been very much focused on asking how to improve cities.

The problem, of course, is that Minneapolis is a strikingly well-run and well-organized metropolitan region. I do not constantly run into bizarre and annoying quirks of urban planning on a daily basis. Thus, I'm a bit stumped for content, ironically!

But the challenge, then, is to work harder at identifying what elements work so well in this city and why. Great urban planning is often--from the ordinary citizen's perspective--unconscious urban planning. That is, when an urban element works well (such as a neighborhood, park, retail district, etc.), the users of that space find it so easy to use that they don't waste time wondering why it works so well. Great design is unconscious design, from a consumer perspective.

(To be fair, the "unconscious" quality of great design is anything but! Behind all great design is a lot of very conscious reflection on how best to organize space.)

I'll try to address this in more detail this week, focusing on which urban elements of Minneapolis-St. Paul work so well that even a cynic like myself can't help but be impressed.

More soon...