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?