Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Decade of the City

Are cities really on the rise? With Richard Florida making $35K a pop to talk to many of the hardest hit cities in America you wouldn't think so. I believe that with a renewed focus on quality of life, the housing bubble/foreclosures, and the bad economy, folks are going to re-evaluate the way they live their lives starting with where they live.

The proof is simple: Philadelphia. I have posted on this blog and numerous stories lately are talking about how Philly's population has gone up, YES, it has gone up. The city that has more nicknames than any other, seems to have reversed the trend that most struggling cities are trying to fight: population loss. Philly still has a lot of work ahead, but it is encouraging to see 20+ years of revitalization efforts have a impact on the city as a whole.

Robert Steuteville over at New Urban News can't agree more:
Now, I know that tough economic times are hurting cities like every other place. But I predict that the official 2010 Census will reveal a reversal of fortune for many cities in the US. I also predict that this trend will carry forward to the coming decades. Not only will cities gain population — but so will walkable towns and neighborhoods outside of cities. As more people choose to live in these places, other things will inevitably change — like the relative quality of schools and infrastructure compared to drivable suburbs. This last decade was the start of a new urban half-century.
I think of the city I live in now as a great example of a thriving place that only has many more good years ahead. Minneapolis seems to have the best of both the urban and suburban. Yes, we have decent schools, public transit, parks, night life, and even culture. Most people are surprised that you can find a good job and a nice house (with a yard and detached garage)that lets you still save some money for the future. I look at Minneapolis as a future model that we should continue to work on. As with all cities we have our share of problems as well, but I believe our future is bright and Mr. Florida might be writing his next book about us.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Architects, what next?

I think we need to create a new line of work of out of work architects. I know that we have gotten plenty of inquiries from candidates that would not have even bothered contacting my organization a few years back. All this talent, we need to find a solution.

This NY Times article hits home for to many architects:

In fact, Mr. Morefield, 29, is no politician, but an architectural designer looking for work. He was seated at a homemade wooden stand under a sign reading “Architecture 5¢,” with a tin can nearby awaiting spare change. For a nickel, he would answer any architectural question.

In 2008, Mr. Morefield lost his job — twice — and thought he could ride out the recession doing design work for friends and family, but when those jobs dried up, he set up his stand. As someone in his 20s without many contacts or an extensive portfolio, he thought he might have an easier time finding clients on his own.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Mr. Morefield said. “I had no other option. The recession was a real kick in the shorts, and I had to make this work.”

I know a few out of work architects, I just wish I had a good plan for how we could work together on projects and get them paid. There has got to be a way.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Portland's at it again

Portland's Mayor Sam Adams has joined forces with others in sending a letter that a new bridge that is going to connect Portland with Vancouver, WA has to be done right or not at all. It is a bit refreshing these days to have elected officials willing, or at least seem willing, to loose billions in federal funds for a project if it will do more harm than good to the communities and constituents they represent.

From an Oregonlive article:

The main source of unity now is a collective opposition to the current plan, a widening of the six-lane bridge to 10 lanes with the ability to widen to 12, a light rail extension, reconstruction of several highway interchanges and tolls that could be higher during rush hour to reduce congestion.

The four officials say they support "a Columbia River Crossing project," but not the solution state highway engineers have said is the only way to solve a major West Coast freight bottleneck.

"We believe that cost, physical and environmental elements of the project as currently proposed impose unacceptable impacts on our communities," the letter says.

Here is more information about the Columbia River Crossing project.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The New "New" Deal

It seems that we are letting a great opportunity slip on by. With the foreclosure crisis, bank bail outs, and knowing the current climate change issues, we have taken to sitting on our couches and watching it as it all unfolds. While I don't want to put blame on the new administration, it seems that many of the ideas and concepts talked about on the campaign trail was just that, on the campaign trail.

I believe right now is the opportunity to engage the American public on ways that we can fundamentally start changing our lives and the way we live them. While we are stuck in this void, we haven't even been able to vision what the future could and should look like. It seems once again we are doomed to inaction, which will result it little fundamental changes to our lifestyles.

Nancy Levinson has this great article that goes in depth about how we can make those changes and that this administration can create a better future for all:

Yes indeed, today in America we know that something is wrong, and we would like things to be better. Certainly the design disciplines have been energetic in engaging the converging crises of energy, housing, infrastructure, environment, climate change. In his recent essay on Urban Omnibus, Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of the Real Estate Development Program at Columbia, argues passionately for legislation that would produce "a country of cities." Chakrabarti expresses his frustration — shared by many in the design community — that Obama and his advisors have failed to grapple with the root causes of the crises, which is the American way of life, "our profligate consumption," the big house and the wide highway and the exurban spread. And he imagines what might have been a "very different first year for the administration," with the creation of a big new program, the "American Smart Infrastructure Act," or ASIA. "After the $700 billion TARP bailout, in which banks were said to be too big to fail," he writes, "we could have been told that the nation and world were, in fact, too big to fail." Chakrabarti describes his ASIA:

"We will build and rebuild infrastructure that lowers greenhouse gas emissions and encourages urban density, emphasizing high-speed rail, transmission grids from alternative energy sources, national internet broadband, and critical roadway maintenance. We will deemphasize all infrastructure that exacerbates emissions, particularly roadway and airport expansion projects. The government will fund approximately $350 billion (about half of TARP) over three years, solving the nation’s mobility needs while lowering automobile use and censuring the energy devoured by McMansions."

Yes, I agree that the general public knows something is wrong, the real question seems to be, what are we going to do about it?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Beyond the Motor City

If the video is not working for you go here to watch.
Blueprint America: Beyond the Motor City examines how Detroit, a symbol of America’s diminishing status in the world, may come to represent the future of transportation and progress in America. The film debuts nationally on PBS on February 8 at 10 pm (check local listings).

Detroit is the crucible in which the nation’s ability to move toward a modern 21st century transportation infrastructure is put to the test. The documentary shows how investments in the past — beginning with the construction of canals in the 18th century — profoundly shaped Detroit’s physical layout, population growth and economic development. Before being dubbed the Motor City, Detroit was once home to the nation’s most extensive streetcar system. In fact, it was that vast network of streetcars that carried workers to the area’s many car factories. And it was the cars made in those factories that would soon displace the streetcars in Detroit — and in every major American city.

Detroit’s engineers went on to design the nation’s first urban freeways and inspired much of America’s 20th century transportation infrastructure system — from traffic signals to gas stations — that became the envy of the word.

But over the last 30 years, much of the world has moved on, choosing faster, cleaner, more modern transportation and leaving America — and Detroit — behind. Viewers are taken on a journey beyond Detroit’s blighted urban landscape to Spain, home to one of the world’s most modern and extensive transit systems; to California, where voters recently said yes to America’s first high speed rail system; and to Washington, where Congress will soon decide whether to finally push America’s transportation into the 21st century.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Stop texting and save lives

Did you all watch the Oprah show on Monday? If not, she is on a mission to get drivers to pay attention to the road and not the incoming text. In usual Oprah fashion, it was a grim show about lives that were lost because drivers were text messaging. Here is a quote from her website and you can join the campaign:

Millions of people text, talk or e-mail on their cell phones while driving—a recent survey finds that 71 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 49 admit they text or talk on the phone while they drive.If you think you can call, text and drive at the same time, you cannot. That message you can't wait to send could kill. Distracted driving is an epidemic that is sweeping through our country, claiming lives and destroying families.

In September 2008, a Los Angeles commuter train conductor missed a red light while sending and receiving more than 40 text messages. His packed train collided head-on with a freight train, injuring 135 people. The conductor and 24 others were killed, making it the second worst commuter train crash in U.S. history.Weeks later, a school bus carrying 21 students was rear-ended by an 18-wheel semitruck. The bus was pushed more than 200 feet before bursting into flames. Twenty students escaped, but 13-year-old Margay Schee was killed. The truck driver admitted he had been texting and hadn't seen that the bus was stopped.These accidents made national headlines, but so many others have been killed in communities just like yours.

Nearly 500,000 people are injured and 6,000 are killed each year because drivers are talking, texting and e-mailing behind the wheel. "It is my prayer that this show, this day will be a seminal day in your life," Oprah says. "Let it be the end, the end of you using a cell phone or sending a text message when you are behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. And until we as a nation decide we're going to change that, those numbers are only going to go up."

I wonder what would happen if Oprah had a show about giving up your car, riding your bike, or walking around your neighborhood.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Best Biking Cities

As usual the only US City to make the list is PDX. did a great job of profiling the ten cities. Here is what they say in regards to our progress:

The United States has a love affair with the car. At least until recently, the internal combustion engine has dominated what it means to commute. The car remains more than a mere form of transportation, it's a status symbol -- but that symbol is a dinosaur.With the cost of fuel skyrocketing and environmental conservation having become fashionable, a well-known 120-year-old invention is making a comeback.

The bike in its well-worn simplicity is quickly becoming a major part of urban community transportation plans.Bicycles have numerous benefits, but it takes a serious commitment to city planning to make those benefits practical. Cities like Paris, while trying to be bicycle-friendly with programs like Velib', remain too large and frenetic to be considered truly bicycle-friendly.While it seems like America is just taking heed of this recent resurgence in bicycle culture, other urban areas the world over have long been ridiculously bicycle-friendly cities through their urban planning.

We need to wake up and smell the Phil Wood grease.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Data Freaks

If you are a geographer or urban planner I am sure you'll love this. You can check out Netflix rental patterns. Most major cities are on the list and my own home of Minneapolis. What are people watching in your city?

Monday, January 18, 2010

NYC: Moving in the wrong direction

Having lived in NYC for 7 years and having 1st and 2nd Avenue be a main route for most of it, this new post over at Streets blog reminds me why I left. What many consider the public transit mecca in the US, NYC, while making some great steps forward, always then takes a few steps back.

1st and 2nd Avenue are begging, yes they weep nightly, for a protected bike and bus lane. In a city where the Avenues have 6 moving lanes of traffic, why does it seem so hard to make this a reality? I have always thought a contra-flow separated bus and bike lane was the way to go on both of these Avenues. It would solve the majority of problems that happen with bus and bike lanes.

I now see that is a pipe dream because the new renderings from NYC DOT can't even carve out a separated bus lane (moving in the direction of traffic). When will NYC make buses a priority? Once the subway system is finished, then don't hold your breath.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Housing as shelter, not investment

If we learned anything from the bubble and crash it should be that your home is your home, first and foremost. It seems clear now that betting on housing prices is risky business and that when you loose, it is more than just your shirt. I am not sure when or how houses became an investment to flip or fund retirements. Hopefully the last decade has demonstrated that your house should be viewed as shelter and treated as such. While this might be a simplistic view, Ed Glaeser agrees:

Americans appropriately cheer when computers and cars get cheaper. We should also see the upside in cheaper homes. Indeed, we should hope that technological improvements in the building industry are passed along to consumers in the form of lower prices.

So stop thinking of your home as an investment that will yield comparable returns to the stock market. Housing is a form of consumption that yields benefits in the form of a more pleasant life, not a bigger balance sheet.

Enjoy your home, the way you should.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Fareless square no more!

One of the things I loved about downtown Portland was fareless square. This is a geographic area within the downtown that buses, street cars, and LRT were free. I can't think of many better ways to get people on public transit in downtown other than making it free. The times I have visited I was always a happy tourist because of fareless square. I even think about the positive impact a fareless Nicollet Mall or downtown LRT line would have on Minneapolis.

I was dissapointed to see this story talking about the confusion it caused so that TriMet has elimated the fairless square on its buses.

Starting Sunday, you won't be able to ride buses for free anymore in downtown Portland. After more than three decades, TriMet voted earlier this year to eliminate free bus service in Fareless Square, which covers downtown, Old Town, the convention center and Lloyd Center. The area, where MAX light rail and the streetcar will still be free, will be called the Free Rail Zone. The square was created in 1975 to reduce emissions and auto traffic in the downtown area.

Though it has attracted transit users, the square has been faulted for encouraging crime and annoyances on buses and trains. It also made it difficult to collect fares from bus riders who may board in Fareless Square but continue on beyond the zone.

This is a huge loss to one of the most progressive transportation planning cities in North America. I am sure some education and a campaign could have fixed the confusion (if it actually existed).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


It seems we have gotten serious about proving the benefits of walking. What a better way to grab people's attention than letting them know that a high walk score could add value to your home (have we learned nothing from the housing bubble). As an advocate for more walkable cities and neighborhoods whatever works to get more people thinking about walkability and then actually walking is a plus in my book. Here is a quote from a NY Times story:

REAL estate agents often chant the mantra “location, location, location,” which essentially means “find a home in a well-kept neighborhood with good schools and a low crime rate.”

Homes with above-average “walkability” had higher values, a study found. Some may cite a fourth factor, “walkability,” a concept supported by self-styled “new urbanists” who advocate denser cities designed for the pedestrian and mass transit as much as for the car. In their ideal neighborhood, you could walk to a bookstore and then to an ice cream shop, and your children could walk to school, probably unescorted. (It sounds like so many movie depictions of America in the 1950s.)

They argue that walkability lowers crime — that good people on the streets drive away the bad guys — and that it generally improves life and sharply raises home values. Whether it helps homes retain their value when the market slumps, however, seems a harder question to answer.

Will higher real estate values actually get people walking more? While I live in a neighborhood with a good walk score, will this trend really have a national impact on getting people our of their cars and on foot? While I wish I could believe it, I think we will need a lot more that a walk score to change our habits.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Foreclosure crisis continues

This article in the NY Times demonstrates how the attempts by the federal government have had little impact on the stemming the foreclosure crisis. While bank bail outs and clash for clunkers seemed to be a hit, the federal plan for banks to work with homeowners to reduce monthly payments hadn't really worked.

It is increasingly clear that the Obama administration’s anti-foreclosure effort — which pressed lenders to reduce interest rates — isn’t doing nearly enough. High unemployment rates also mean that many borrowers who did qualify for aid have been unable to keep up with even reduced monthly payments.

As a result, an estimated 2.4 million foreclosed homes will be added to the existing glut in 2010, driving prices down by another 10 percent or so. That would bring the average decline nationwide to about 40 percent since the peak of the market in 2006.

A renewed price drop could usher in a new grim chapter in the foreclosure crisis. Already an estimated one-third of homeowners with a mortgage — nearly 16 million people — owe more than their homes are worth; in industry parlance, they are “underwater.” If prices drop further, ever more borrowers will sink ever deeper. Research suggests that the greater the loss of home equity, the greater the likelihood that borrowers will decide to turn in the keys and find a cheaper place to rent.

Things didn’t have to get this bad.

The feeling I get doing community development work and seeing the foreclosure crisis first hand in St. Paul is that the feds are not giving this the top priority that it needs. While NSP dollars are coming to the city to buy vacant and foreclosed homes, not much seems to be on the horizon to prevent the foreclosure in the first place. Federal program or not, it will be years before these neighborhoods see any sort of recovery in regards to the housing market and foreclosures.

Friday, January 8, 2010

More Central Corridor Chaos

Will the Twin Cities squash on of the most important transit projects in decades? The way things are looking 2010 might be the year that our next LRT line won't break ground. The Strib has a good article detailing the timeline that needs to be achieves so that the federal faucet can flow.

This is the year for everyone to get on board with the Central Corridor light-rail project, according to many involved with the nearly $1 billion plan to connect the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Important deadlines lie ahead this year, and if squabbles can be squashed, the federal government just might cut a check to pay for half of the project.

But if peace can't be reached, construction gets pushed back and costs rise by millions of dollars. Right now, trains are expected to roll in 2014.

I posted a few weeks ago about how local issues and opposition might kill the project. Let's hope that these issues can be resolved in time to get the federal support the line will need to be completed.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Richard Florida

The "Creative Class" is Richard Florida's theory that can revitalize cities. Do you buy the arguments he presents? Some think he is the leader of what can help bring back our cities. Not everyone is so convinced.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Anatomy of Ruins

Check out this interesting slide show and article over at Canopy.

Detroit and New Orleans are separated by roughly one thousand miles, yet in many ways they occupy the same space. The collapse of Detroit has exposed the boom-bust breakdown of the innumerable American cities on the front lines of racial segregation and mass deindustrialization. Meanwhile, Hurricane Katrina turned New Orleans into the poster child for the toxic relationship between crisis and capitalism. First the city was at the mercy of private military contractors and the government’s inept emergency-response apparatus, then the predacious agents of redevelopment. Both places are rife with scenes of urban desolation: foreclosed homes, abandoned blocks, shuttered factories, graffiti-bombed schools, fenced-off warehouses, deserted infrastructure; haunted spaces that blur the remains of natural and economic catastrophe.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Defining Mobility

I like this post from Michael Lewyn over at Planetizen. Mobility really needs to focus on moving people period. This means giving equal weight to what ever mode is used. Unfortunately the last 50 years has trained us to think mobility is access for private cars.

Here is the post:

Every so often, I read a blog post or an article talking about the trade-off between "mobility" and making places more accessible to nonmotorists. The hidden assumption behind such statmements is that "mobility" means cars going as fast as possible. So if every street is an eight-lane highway with cars going 70 miles per hour, overall social "mobility" is therefore high.

The use of the word "mobility" to describe fast traffic slants public dialogue in favor of such traffic: after all, who could be against people being mobile?

But we need not define mobility this way. According to one online dictionary I found, "mobility" means (among other things) "the movement of people in a population, as from place to place."*

In a sprawling city where most streets are designed for fast traffic, the mobility of some people (fast drivers) is undoubtedly very high. But the mobility of others is not. In such places, streets are dangerous and uncomfortable for pedestrians- which means that in fact, nondrivers cannot easily move from place to place and are thus not so mobile after all. And even the mobility of drivers is limited: they can be mobile as long as they are driving, but if they choose not to drive for some reason, their mobility disappears.

Thus, government construction of wide, automobile-oriented streets does not create mobility for all. Instead, automobile-dependent places actually eliminate mobility for nondrivers. It logically follows that mobility for all is highest in places that accommodate pedestrians, transit users, and bicyclists as well as drivers- in other words, that accessibility is mobility.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Stadiums draining cities

This seems like a lesson that every city needs to learn for itself, stop funding private (sport stadiums) with public money. There seems to be a notion that a stadium is for the good of all and will spur economic development around the surrounding areas. This might be true some times, for the most part stadiums drain the city coffers and produce little economic development. The Metro dome in Minneapolis is a great example. It is an island on the eastern edge of downtown. What economic development has it created? A sea of surface parking lots for game days, that is about it.

The NY Times has this great article that talks about how cities are cutting basic programs and services it provides to it citizens to fill budget gaps for stadiums:

From New Jersey to Ohio to Arizona, the stadiums were sold as a key to redevelopment and as the only way to retain sports franchises. But the deals that were used to persuade taxpayers to finance their construction have in many cases backfired, the result of overly optimistic revenue assumptions and the recession.

Nowhere is the problem more acute than in Cincinnati. In 1996, voters in Hamilton County approved an increase of half of one percent in the sales tax that promised to build and maintain stadiums for the Bengals and the Reds, pay Cincinnati’s public schools and give homeowners an annual property tax rebate. The stadiums were supposed to spur development of the city’s dilapidated riverfront.

But sales tax receipts have fallen so fast in the last year that the county is now scrambling to bridge a $14 million deficit in its sales tax fund. The public schools, which deferred taking their share for years, want their money.

Is this really good business and management? We need leaders that can deal with sports teams, but also make the tough decisions that if they don't get a new stadium they might pick up and leave. In the future that might just be a chance that some cities might need to take to make sure that can maintain the current standard of services. As much as people like to take in a game locally, my day to day quality of life issue are a bigger priority for me.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

High Speed Rail from Twin Cities to Chicago

I must admit that I have mixed feelings about this. Would I love to see a high speed rail from the Twin Cities to Chicago, of course I would. Now living in the Twin Cities and growing up in Chicago this would be a great way to travel between the two (rather than driving, busing, or flying). Is this really the best use of federal and state funds in a metro area that is lacking in a good comprehensive public transportation system?

From the Star Trib:
The plan was ordered last year by the state Legislature, well before a scramble erupted in many states to push their own high-speed rail plans. That was triggered by the infusion of $8 billion in federal stimulus money specifically earmarked for such rail lines nationwide.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, previously not a big advocate of high- speed rail, endorsed the Twin Cities-Chicago route last spring. The plan recommends that both St. Paul and Minneapolis would have stops on the line.

While this would be a great long term investment in transportation for the upper Midwest, I am not sure it is still the most relevant transportation project. I think the Twin City region really needs to worry and work on building a network that connects our current region that connects to local cities and destinations. Are people going to be commuting everyday to Chicago from the Twin Cities via high speed rail? I doubt it.