Monday, August 27, 2007


Hi folks! I've got tons of exciting, urban-planning-related stuff to write about, but for today I'm simply posting a photo essay of my recent weekend trip to Chicago. I'm certainly not the first person (nor the last) to discover the great architectural gem that is the 2nd City (or Windy City, if you prefer). Enjoy!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Revolving Doors!

I recently ran across this great article on why revolving doors save so much more energy than normal swing doors. I'll leave the technical details to the cited article, but suffice it to say revolving doors are wayyyyyyyyyy more energy-efficient.

I've noticed that in Chicago many street-facing doors are, in fact, revolving doors. Given how cold (and windy!) it gets in Chicago in the winter, this makes perfect sense to me. Who among us has not sat in a coffee shop near the door during winter, only to be blasted by the frosty cold when someone opens the door!?

All of which makes me wonder why there are so few revolving doors in Minneapolis. Surely the winters are cold enough here to warrant it. Are they very expensive to install? Wouldn't the energy savings in winter offset the additional installation cost? Maybe the city could incentivize such construction...

Alternate Distribution Systems

Pursuant to a discussion-via-comment thread on an affair with urban policy, I'd like to elaborate a bit on my ideas for an alternate goods-distribution system for a city. Before I get started, however, let me review the motivating cause for this idea.

As a transit advocate, I've been endlessly frustrated by Americans' tenacious love of their personal automobiles. This is a common emotion for transit boosters. "Why can't people take a bus!" we cry. Of course, I'm disingenuous--I drive myself to work just like everyone else. But this emphasis on personal transportation made me realize that car-as-people-mover is only one half of the equation. The private automobile is also a goods-mover. That is, people buy things, and then take them home with their cars. Aha! Light bulb moment!

What if there was a distribution system for goods in a metropolitan area? You go to the clothing store (by bus!), buy something, and then leave without it. You leave without it because you paid an extra 1% to have it delivered to your home in the next 24 hours. After you leave, the metro area delivery guys stops by the store for his daily pickup. He picks up perhaps 20 orders, and over the course of the next day delivers those various goods to locations around the area.

The logistics for such a system are not an easy thing. How would package drop-off work securely? How could you ensure that delivered goods weren't stolen?

My apartment building has a rather clever system for package delivery. There are perhaps 100 units in my building. In the mail room, in addition to the 100 mini-mailboxes, there are about a half-dozen fairly large package mailboxes. On any given day, there are perhaps a half-dozen packages delivered to the entire building. Each package is placed in a single large form mailbox. The key to the large form mailbox is placed in the resident's mini-mailbox.

The resident comes home, and opens his mini-mailbox. He takes the "parcel 2" key out of his mini-mailbox and opens the large form mailbox. The key opens the door, but once placed in the lock cannot be removed. The resident takes his package out of the large mailbox and closes it. The mailman swings by later and takes the package keys out of the large mailboxes. Voila! Quite a system!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hennepin at Night

The collapse of I-35W has forced us all to take all kinds of weird, alternate routes through our city. Especially with the Cedar bridge closed, anyone living within the city limits has probably had the (forced) opportunity to explore new neighborhoods. Our detours take us through neighborhoods we would never have visited otherwise. It's a colossal hassle (my trip to Uptown has double to 20 minutes--argh!), but it's been very interesting seeing new bits and pieces of the city.

In my case, I get to spend a lot of time on Hennepin (northbound) and 1st Ave (southbound) these days. These are some of the core north-south spines of the city's downtown, and the heart of the city's nightlife. As I drive back from an evening in Uptown, I'm astounded to see crowds on both sides of the sidewalk at midnight and beyond. The city is indeed alive at that moment.

The picture above, however, is not of the party crowd. It's a great shot of the Hennepin bridge, lit up at night. I'm certainly only one in a long line of people to celebrate the beauty of this bridge. It's particularly neat to see the visual transformation of the bridge at night.

Here's hoping the new I-35W bridge will express some of the beauty of its near-western neighbor...

Monday, August 20, 2007

Office Parks

Boy meets City. Boy and City fall in love. Boy moves to city. Boy thinks: "I'll get a job in the city!" City has huge downtown office market, with millions of square feet. Boy hopes to walk to work. Boy finds great job. Job is located in office park outside of city center. Boy is confused.

Why are so many offices located outside the downtown core? This is a phenomenon not special to Minneapolis--I've seen it in many cities (Cleveland certainly among them). I'm baffled. Cities grew up as (among other things) vast employment centers. Developers have spent millions (and billions even) on million-square-foot skyscrapers. And yet, somehow, businesses open operations in suburban office parks, taking no advantage of the physical concentration of resources that a city would provide.

Ah well. I'm not naive about the market forces driving this phenomenon. Suburbs offer huge tax breaks, proximity to peripheral highway systems, cheap parking, and pretty landscaping. It's hard to fight that kind of economic logic. My main complaint is that it's hard to find lunch options in the 'burbs.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Infrastructure and Politics

I guess I'm just a glutton for democratic politics. For the second day in a row, I attended a public meeting for the discussion of (what else?) the I-35W bridge reconstruction process. Hosted by MPR (yay!), paneled by Rybak, a state senator, an engineer, and a half-dozen policy wonks, attended by seventy or so concerned citizens, it was a great open forum to discuss the state of public infrastructure, funding sources, good (or bad) governance, and public faith in the government's ability to maintain said infrastructure.

The debate revealed an essential problem in the public discussion of infrastructure. On the one hand, discussions of infrastructure are necessarily scientific and dominated by engineers: what kinds of roads can be built at all? what kind of volume can they handle? how long will it take to build a certain bridge according to certain specifications?

But as soon as the discussion turns to funding, the discussion becomes necessarily political. Despite one participant's observation that the state once experimented with requiring a cost-benefit analysis for all expenditures, the fact remains that the process by which a budget is formed is a fundamentally political, not scientific, endeavor. In the best of all worlds, we would have limitless funds to support all the wonderful things we want government to do. But the pie is only so large, and unless we find new revenue sources (er, raise taxes) additional funding for project A must come at the cost of other projects.

What is infrastructure worth to us as citizens? One economist in the audience cited statistics that investment in infrastructure pays back tenfold. Successful economies, he said, are built on strong infrastructure, including roads, sewers, telecom, and human capital.

The bridge collapse goes beyond any normal, understandable kind of governmental failure. When pavement deteriorates and our car suspensions wear out faster, we complain that government is not properly investing in maintaining the roads. When a bridge falls out into the Mississippi, killing a dozen or so people and forcing 140,000 cars to find alternate routes across the river, our reaction is a bit more intense: we are stunned by our government's failure. The initial question at tonight's meeting, as put by our moderator, was this: "What do people expect of government when it comes to our roads?" Perhaps the best answer came at the end, when one gentleman said this:

"People expect not to have to worry about bridges collapsing into the river."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Notes on I-35W Bridge Rebuilding

Hi folks! I had the good fortune to attend a community meeting tonight (Wednesday), in which residents from Marcy-Holmes, St. Anthony, and the University area (as well as a St Paul contingent) got to discuss their concerns regarding the I-35W bridge reconstruction efforts with a host of elected officials and MNDot representatives. Overall, it was a good meeting. The panel of politicians & engineers were clearly interested in getting active community feedback about the reconstruction process.

And feedback they got! The one clearly overwhelming concern that the community expressed was that the reconstruction effort should not go too fast. There are a lot of factors to take into account, and if the state moves too quickly on the issue we risk making lasting mistakes.

The underlying difficulty in discussing bridge reconstruction is that it is essentially two discussions. The first is a micro-level discussion regarding the specifics of the new bridge: how big will it be? how many lanes will it have? will it be pretty? The second question, however, is macro-level in scope: how will the bridge fit into the overall regional transportation needs? will the bridge accommodate mass transit? what's going to happen to the regional commute as the population grows?

Residents in the neighborhoods immediately north (and south) of the bridge have been disproportionately affected by the bridge collapse. Traffic inbound to the city has been rerouted through neighborhood streets. As a city planner pointed out in the meeting, 140,000 drivers who used to take the bridge are now spilling onto neighborhood arteries to get around.

One resident suggested that park-and-ride lots could effectively deal with much of the increased road volume. It's not a bad idea--why not stick as many park-and-ride lots around the city as possible? If it works for the state fair, maybe it'll work for downtown-bound traffic...?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hidden Alleys

The alley pictured above lies between two commercial buildings in Portland, Maine. I snagged a picture of it because it struck me as somehow alien. Certainly there are tosn of alleys between tons of buildings in tons of cities, but I've never seen one so nondescript, clean, and devoid of any inhabitants or stuff. It's totally empty, and has no lighting sources, so it's completely dark at night. It is located in an otherwise well-frequented part of Portland's downtown; the buildings on either side are commercial and house successful stores. But there's nothing in the alley... no detritus... no trash... no graffiti... nothing. Odd.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Zone defense: The lowdown on mixed zoning and downtown living

(Today's post comes from Generalissimo)

An eco-conscious college professor happily moves into a Cleveland downtown apartment from the suburbs. He’s thrilled that he won’t have to drive to work and many favorite attractions are within walking distance. The newly leased luxury apartment meets his needs, for he’s meticulously asked all the right questions and heard the right answers. Well, that is until 4 a.m. rolls around and there’s jackhammering outside his window. This goes on not for a day or a week but for more than two months. Putting it nicely, he hits a breaking point.

Come one more noisy 4 a.m., he loses it and telephones his councilman, who happens to pick up. How can this be, he screams at his councilman, sticking the phone out the window to let him have a sampling of it. The official answers tepidly, that the area has mixed purpose zoning. And, well, the construction in the street is considered commercial so that the hours are not as restrictive as in a residential zone. Furthermore, the city has plans to replace several water pipes, which is anticipated to take two years. The echo and reverberation of heavy construction equipment will certainly reach the professor’s apartment for many, many months. (Not so funny, but in the middle of metal rapidly breaking up asphalt, one could hear a pin drop.)

The moral of the story is to remember to ask about zoning ordinances in before renting that luxury apartment or buying that dream condo. Don’t trust the leasing agent, instead call city hall. Agents and realtors are not likely to tell you about such things. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they don’t know themselves. Securing knowledge is priceless. Ask about noise ordinances, construction ordinances, and pending city projects. These factors could be deal breakers.

Generally speaking commingling businesses and residences makes for good urban policy. The theory being that close proximity stimulates an active local marketplace. Having convenience at one’s doorstep is simply wonderful. There is an intangible quality of being able to walk to a coffeehouse or restaurant. Nothing compares to it, especially for those of us stuck in cars, buses, trains or planes most of the week. We get the chance to socialize, walk around and spend time outside. And jackhammering at 4 a..m.., well there’s nothing like that either.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Stone Arch Night Market?

If you read this blog regularly, you know I'm a big fan of the Stone Arch bridge. It's a beautiful piece of engineering, and has lasted more than 100 years (more than I can say for other bridges in the neighborhood!). On sunny afternoons, it's swamped with people: families, couples, singles, retirees, joggers, runners, bikers, dog-walkers, and so on. Last month, I wandered out for my usual afternoon walk and was stunned to find myself in the middle of a Mississippi river celebration performance, featuring red-garbed dancers scattered all across the area with ethereal music wafting up from under the bridge. Quite an experience!

Anyway, I've been exploring the bridge at night. It's really a different feel: quieter, yet more alive. The crickets chirp. The late-night runners are bathed in surreal light. The downtown buildings are more visible by their window lights and outline lighting than by anything else. The wind blows cooler. It's like being part of some secret society.

I've been thinking that we here in Minneapolis could better capitalize on this resource (the bridge, that is). When I visited Taipei last year, I got to check out their night markets, which were really cool. The basic idea is that they take a stretch of road in the city, line up stalls (mostly food vendors) cheek-by-jowl all along the road, and close off all traffic to cars. The market opens at night and stays open late. How about a night market on the Stone Arch bridge? Perhaps, one evening every month? What kind of vendors could we line up? How could we ensure that it stays lively but safe and not too noisy for the locals? Let me know if you think it's feasible...

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Urban Camping

There's nothing like hunting about for firewood in the middle of a city. Quite a bizarre endeavor, I assure you. A neighbor of mine has the good fortune to have a patio, which she has decorated with a handy outdoor wood-burning fireplace. But alas, we were low on wood! So we foraged into the... er... concrete wilderness in search of wood.

The city is a place of so much plenty: such diversity, such food, such architecture, such variety of experience, such arts, such culture, such lights and darkness, sound (and fury?). It is not, however, a place teeming with spare wood. The one thing that would be unavoidably abundant in a rural setting is impossible to find in an urban one. It makes you realize that cities don't offer everything...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Gathering Spaces

Apartment buildings are strange, contradictory places. You've got dozens, maybe hundreds of human beings living in close proximity with each other. One might imagine that this physical proximity would produce a sense of community, or at the very least encourage the growth and development of relationship between fellow residents.

And yet the design of most apartment buildings discourages such relationships. Fire codes require multiple stairwells, and consequently it is far easier to slip out of a building rather than pass through a centrally located (and more commonly used) passageway. If the building has a garage, residents can zip down to the garage level, hop in their car, and never have to pass through a common area. Sound shielding between apartments reduces the chance that you might hear anything of your neighbor's life.

Some buildings have design elements that encourage community gathering. Laundry rooms, mail rooms, and lounges are chief among them. But do these spaces really help? I wonder. Apartment culture discourages meeting one's neighbors. The transience of residents doesn't help much.

Have you made any friends in an apartment building? Have you seen quality design in a building that encourages meeting fellow residents?

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Invisible Highways

Like most people living near the I-35W bridge, I hustled to the scene of destruction within a few minutes of the collapse. It was still another ten minutes before the cops showed up, so the crowd was able to approach very close to the edge of the north bank of the river. What we saw took our breath away: it looked like someone had dropped a concrete ribbon directly across the river, from bank to bank, and littered it with small toy cars. For me, there was an overwhelming sense of displacement--my brain couldn't seem to process the juxtaposition of chunks of highway and cars in a riverbed. (The Dadaists, and to some extent the Surrealists, were fans of juxtaposition, because they believed it would cut a short-circuit through your brain and tap into a deeper elemental response. Maybe they were right.)

Part of this feeling of displacement, however, emanates from the fact that the bridge in question was designed to be hidden, in a fashion, from pedestrians. Most highways that pass through cities (such as the trenched highway in Cincinnati, pictured above) are designed so that they do not impinge upon pedestrian life. This means shielding them visually by erecting concrete divider walls, "sinking" the highways below grade ("trenching" them), or elevating them well above normal traffic (see Taipei for more). Although I, like most Twin Citians, drove on that bridge several times every week, I was very much unaware of its presence when walking in my neighborhood (even though the bridge passes directly through it).

This unawareness, from a pedestrian perspective, is a testament to good urban planning. Highways are noisy, ugly beasts that, if exposed, can ruin the experience of a city. Planners do a great job of concealing the fact that a 100-foot wide ribbon of concrete, upon which thousands of 3000-pound hunks of metal hurtle at 70 mph all day long, pass through neighborhoods of great population density.

With the I-35W bridge now lying in the Mississippi river, I wonder if its replacement will again embody the principle of concealment of urban highways. Though it will still be visible directly from the riverbank, will engineers again try to hide its existence from the residents of Dinkytown, Marcy-Holmes, and the West Bank of UMinn?

Thursday, August 02, 2007

What Happens When You Damage Infrastructure?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a couple of entries addressing what happens to transportation in an urban area when a segment of the transportation infrastructure is disabled. I was inspired to write about it because I had recently spent time in Pittsburgh, PA. At the time, a major section of I-376 (the major highway connecting downtown Pittsburgh to all points east) was completely shut down. Completely shut down. Not a single lane was available in the eastbound direction. I was astonished to see how paralyzed travel had become.

Well, I guess I have the opportunity to reflect on the situation again, because as you probably have heard the I-35W span over the Mississippi just collapsed into the river yesterday. It happened during rush hour, but since there was active construction on the bridge there were fewer cars than normal. At any rate, it's quite a disaster.

In case you're not from Minnesota and want to understand a bit better how catastrophic this is for our metropolitan transportation, allow me to elaborate. I-35 is the major north-south interstate for the whole damn state. I-35W is the portion of I-35 that passes through Minneapolis (I-35E passes through St. Paul). It is the major north-south connector for the region. While there are other bridges nearby, none of them will be able to handle the load (100k cars per day) that I-35W did. Traffic is going to be a nightmare, especially for anyone wanting to make a crosstown journey.

Government is working very hard here to figure out transportation remedies. One of the most interesting is that they're upgrading a quasi-highway into a full-fledged highway, at least temporarily. This means taking a 55mph road with a few intersections and completely closing off those intersections. It's fascinating to see how existing roads can be adapted for new uses. If you doubt me, you should have seen what MLK Blvd in Cleveland was like when they closed it to all vehicular traffic. The major commute route was instead flooded with walkers and bikers. Quite a site (er, sight) !