How Do You Define Your City? And Does Your City Define Itself In the Same Way?

When I go home to Greensboro, this is what’s around the corner. My little edge city. (Image from a YouTube screenshot).

My whole writing existence, at least at this blog and a little bit at my one just before that, has been making sense and defining the cities I’ve lived in, against how they, and they meaning governmental and development and social/media entities, defined the cities I’ve lived in.

Yet, I wanted to sit down and be explicit about how I define cities and how I counteract those definitions and how I want both myself and the places I live to define cities going forward.

My Childhood Vision of A City

My very first definition of a city, which I developed from around age three until age seven or eight included these things:

  1. Tall buildings
  2. Buses and trains
  3. Bicycles
  4. Grocery stores
  5. Playgrounds
  6. Malls
  7. Jams and Jellies
  8. Maps
  9. Lincoln Logs
  10. My school
  11. Trees
  12. The baseball field around the corner
  13. A big airport with big planes
  14. Sandboxes
  15. The mail lady
  16. Street festivals
  17. Muppets in tire swings

In addition to these 17 things that I could think of off the top of my head from the perspective of my six-year-old self, there were two other formative moments of defining city life for me as a child.

First, from the time I was an infant, until my parents bought a second car around 1992, mornings riding in the backseat of my family’s 1976 Kermit-the-Frog green Buick Regal, fastened tightly into my dirt-brown metal with strategic-cloth coverings car seat, the circa-1949 neighborhood of matchbox houses which slowly turned into a warehouse district with small skyscrapers in the horizon, then more 1940s matchbox residences, with a few sprawling 1960s ranches up on small hills, then this great expanse of farm land, with the sun sitting just right and golden on the eastern edge of the land, then turning back into warehouses, with a random set of garden apartments and a school bus lot to boot.

This would all then go in reverse after we dropped off my dad at his work and my mom and I came home for a day full of PBS, playing in the yard and maybe going to Harris Teeter, where I would often get my mom, after talking with her friend behind the deli counter for about 30–45 minutes, to buy me the golden fried potato wedge delights we called “taters”.

This clearly captivated me. This was the first of what I would define as city. What else helped was that both sets of grandparents lived out and away somewhat from those warehouses and skyscrapers. One set more so than the other (and the one closest to the city lived near the airport, which was its own unique fascination).

What spoiled this idea of city for me, for the first time, was actually two things.

One, the destruction of trees and the creation of a stroad that eventually became a freeway that would forever define how I got from downtown to whichever house I called home at the time. The road wasn’t so bothersome as much as the loss of trees and a corner store that my dad used to take me to, that was the color of lemons on the outside and yet had no gas pumps (ok, maybe it had those old school ones, that nobody saw fit to build those lighted shelters over top).

And two, the construction of the tower you see at the top of the post when I was eight, a white triangular travesty in the midst of what is a mall parking lot on what I considered the outskirts of town. It is 32 stories tall. The tallest buildings in Greensboro, the also relatively new Jefferson-PIlot and First Union towers (and yes, they will always bear those names for those of you who know them as something else entirely) were only 28. They were also clustered together in the place that was called and I came to call downtown. It still freaks me out, as someone who’s more of a fan of gothic and art deco skyscrapers and also someone who loved and still loves going to the adjacent mall. (Even though it’s missing several pieces now, but I’m adjusting. It at least has an H&M and a working movie theater now).

If the point wasn’t driven home enough for you, look harder at the photo leading this post, which shows the convention center, the mall and just to the right of the taller tower, the mound of buildings is our actual downtown in Greensboro.

As I got older, the city began to mean something different in other ways. It was a place I imagined would grow up and live, that looked a lot like the one on Sesame Street, yes, Muppets included. Writers like me lived there and there would be trains and buses and bikes and sidewalks to get me around. Houses with brownstone faces or colorful bricks and turrets at their corners, some with front porches. A nice corner store would have lots of fresh fruit pouring out it, and the smells from the prepared foods counter in the back would tantalize me. It would be next to a bookstore with plenty of books to buy or rent. Yes, the best of Borders with library privileges. (R.I.P. Borders).

And there would be people, lots of friendly and unique people ready to have friendships with me and help me see the world. Make the world a better place.

But This Is Not How Others Define Cities

First of all, while we can all agree that masses of population create urbanization, we can’t all agree about how those masses should be governed, housed, fed, transported, educated, entertained, and loved. Especially not loved.

When I started to do the research on this post, I did have the understanding of my hometown (Greensboro) as a municipal corporation, which in North Carolina, is chartered by the state and allowed to tax people. In addition, the county my hometown sits in (Guilford) is also its own taxing jurisdiction. There’s also a state sales tax and counties and cities are allowed to add to those taxing jurisdictions by votes.

Other things that the county does — all court-related things. We have separate police forces and a separate sheriff’s office, but eventually, you go to the Guilford County Courthouse for all things related to records, marriages, crimes and the like. The registrar of deeds keeps your housing deeds and your birth certificates. I just had them mail me a new birth certificate.

Yet, as I began to research, I also looked up and found the deeds for both of the homes my parents have owned over the years. The one that they brought me home from in the hospital, the one where I determined the definitions above of what a city means to me, was once part of a plot of farmland, that was owned by one man and then turned over into a subdivision. The other, which is what I come home to when I come to Greensboro to visit my mom and everyone else (and what I referenced in this post and the beginning of my book) was part of what is called a township, which is another layer of municipal chartering from the state, that isn’t often used today. Other states put more weight on their townships, ours rarely shows up outside of deeds and other county business.

[Greensboro] Location in Guilford County and the state of North Carolina By Rcsprinter123 — Own work, CC BY 3.0,

But anyway, even with this little bit of research, my idea of what a city is and what and how it’s defined by the place I lived in was already in conflict.

You may remember and note that I’ve lived in Raleigh, Durham, Kansas City, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. I’ve visited more cities. All of these cities listed have quirks. Especially the ones outside of North Carolina. Then again, those are probably quirks to you if you’re used to other cities working in a specific way.

So in my research on definitions, I moved on to the U.S. Census Bureau. Surely they have a more defined version of what a city is. Actually, they do. And guess what? Because it’s based on population, 80% of Americans actually live in cities.

It only takes 2,500 people to be an urban cluster according to the U.S. Census Bureau, under the definitions they used for the 2010 Census. Once your population hits 50,000 people, you get to be known as an urbanized area.

See this in action for the D.C. area, which has densities in many “suburban” areas far and above the minimum 2500 people it takes to be considered an urban cluster.

And this Wikipedia entry on municipalities details how urbanized areas outside of the United States classify themselves both on population and also by legal bounds and services in so many diverse ways.

Oh and the U.S. Census itself also takes into account that Alaska and Puerto Rico have different designations for cities and that counties are parishes in Louisana.

I’m willing to bet that many of those urban clusters and urbanized areas are sprawling developments, that may or may not have new urbanist or even just old urbanist principles applied to them.

This brings up the fact that the new urbanist charter has a definition for cities. Because of the supremacy clause in the U.S. Constitution and amendments 9 and 10 of the Bill of Rights, all states get to determine what’s a city and what isn’t for the purposes of taxation and such. Yet, the Census goes by population and doesn’t take into account lack of sidewalks or architecture.

Why This Matters

New urbanists already get pegged as being elitist when we talk about how buildings should look in our ideal city.

However, there are some things that I do feel like all urban clusters, even those who use the excuse of being “in the county” or “we’re a suburb” should be providing.

I feel like when populations start to cluster and then marketplaces and service centers (i.e. town/city halls, parks), start to be developed, residential areas, schools, and shopping areas should be human-scaled. Meaning, it shouldn’t take using a vehicle, including a bicycle, for a fully able-bodied person to get to basic needs. And if does take a bicycle, there’s safe infrastructure for that person to get where they need to go on that bicycle or a bus, train or a ridesharing vehicle to come pick people up.

Additionally, we should examine things that are marketed to us as being urban this or rural that. Maybe the place you live only has 2,500 people there. But all of those 2,500 people are densely packed and you have all your basic services. What makes you a very small city, versus a big town, versus a singular neighborhood next to a rural or natural expanse?

The Urban to Rural Transect is probably my favorite way of defining cities versus towns versus rural areas that incorporates architecture and land use and resources. However, it still doesn’t capture the effects of practices like redlining, which come from both laws and lack of laws prohibiting a particular behavior. Or just the looks you get sometimes in places where you look very different from most of the other people who happen to be there.

So here we are. I’ve given you my ideal city as a child. And it’s safe to say it’s the same as an adult. Only, I don’t have to have the Muppets or even grape jelly, but I do need the friendly people, willing to give me the benefit of a doubt if I’m standing on a street corner waiting for a bus and the human-scale that makes it easy to have a positive life, and the healthy relationship with the rural and natural areas that make that densely-populated life possible.

I’m Kristen. Seven years ago, I started blogging to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website, Support me on Patreon. A version of this post is also on Medium.

On the Second Presidential Debate of 2016 and Knowing Your Truth About Where You Live

I wanted to discuss a comment about cities that came up in the debate/ town hall last night. Note, this is not a post endorsing one or the other, although I’ll say that I’m with her. But the issue brought up is one that trips up a lot of people when it comes to talking about metropolitan policy and how black folks have been allowed to move about and take part in the environments that have been built and paved and provided for us.

First of all, the debate’s mention of urban policy and where black folks tend to live assumes a concentric city model, which looks like those diagrams of the earth where you cut it open and you have a ball in the center and rings around until you get to the crust, which is where we actually live.

This is the Burgess Concentric City Model. He applied it to Chicago first. However, maybe it should have been a rainbow instead…

The actual model goes into even more detail about human pathways, but I’m going to simplify it to three rings: the core, the suburban rings and the crust which is rural farm and natural areas. The core in this globe is the inner city. You have a business district, a city hall, maybe a county hall, the largest school, possibly the high school, a college or university and then you have either old money wealthy whites (or others of color who were able to maintain wealth since the city was first built). You also have the regional sports stadiums and other institutions marketed and intended for the entire region to use. If you have a major public transit system, all the routes lead to this area. When people come to visit your town, this is what they think of and this is where the things geared to them are located. Also, the name of this  inner core city, is often the name the entire region uses to define itself, when defining itself to people from the outside.

However, after World War II, when we had the second wave of suburban development, the department stores started to leave, along with others that catered directly to white folks, who were moving into the suburban areas. A few years later, black folks were allowed to  move out and onward, so essentially, all the people left in the “inner city” were the poor people of color, LGBTQA+ people and others deemed less American and undesirable.

This is where the bulk of the logic of that particular candidate comes from. Also, that candidate has participated in the development of cities for many years and from what I’ve been able to observe, subscribes to a inner core, then suburban rings that just have houses and a few services, and are restricted to certain types of people, then rural crust where all the farms and the things that sustain us (or the corporations that make all of our food, textiles and the like) are. This is probably the idea they have when they want to make the country great again. Basically make us all perfect round balls of metro areas. (Among other things…)

However, this was never quite the case anywhere. Why?

  1. Some cities are built along a riverfront. This automatically rules out having a round ring of neighborhoods in many cities. This is what you see in Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis. The irony is that the model I just mentioned in its original form was applied to Chicago. Maybe it should have been a rainbow instead of a full circle.
  2. Some cities grew in pairs or clusters. So there are multiple metro cores and farmland that became suburban rings and then all grew together to become one mega region. New York is really this, but with water separating the various cores and rings. Also, I grew up in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina. Not to be confused with the Research Triangle Region of North Carolina where I went to undergrad. Both started as triangles and are now adjacent amorphous blobs. Trying to make this a circle will only make your head hurt and you sound stupid.
  3. Economics and family structures have always determined where people choose to live. People need to be close to the things that help them survive, like jobs and food. Wealthier  people get to have more of what they like nearby. Some wealthy people wanted farmland, others wanted cultural institutions. Those others, who are at the mercy of working a job, go wherever the job is. And then those who have chosen to raise children often build and move where they feel their family will get the most of the values they want to institute into their children.
  4. Black families and sometimes Latinx and Asian families, basically anyone who was not considered white when it comes to schooling, real estate and access to public spaces and services, has always had to reckon with where slavery, then Jim (and Juan) Crow, then redlining, then urban renewal and now, mass incarceration and the aftermath of being incarcerated,  affordability or upward mobility allow them to go. For myself, my upward mobility and personal preferences dictate that I want to be near the cultural centers and also in areas where retail is clustered, which is becoming the inner cities again. But I’m a business owner just starting out, so I am on a budget. I’m also car-free, partly because of economics. Other friends, of all races and nationalities, are having children and want them to have their own safe yards, that they can manage and not have to worry about police or even neighbors shooting at their children. Because so many inner core areas closed schools or don’t provide similar public options, smaller towns in the metro regions, that are often written off as suburbs, are a more attractive option. Oh, and Target. It all really boils down to who’s good enough for Target. And who Walmart hasn’t left yet.

So what’s really going on and what should I make of this?

What I invite folks to do in the light of this particular comment and the work here, is to research the history of how your specific metro area was built, governed and developed since its inception. Each metro area, while it shares a few common elements, applies those elements differently. We need to know how our metros are made, because it’s going to take a ground-up effort to make things better. Also, you’ll sleep better knowing that living in the suburbs or inner city or on a farm or even in a shack (tiny house!) may not be a bad or shameful thing.

How Do You Start that Research?

  1. Wikipedia. Seriously, the entries on your metro area will help you find basic information and also help you find primary sources and places to go to learn why your city has its shape and how people have made it have that shape over the years.
  2. Historians and librarians in your metro area, as well as urban planners and others working in community design and governance— Basically anyone working to make sure everyone who lives in an area is accounted for and is part of the story of your city. They will help you make sure what you read is right and give you even more books to read and places to go to find information. They will also be able to point you to other people like…
  3. Long-time community residents, suggested by the professionals above. This is where you get the real stories and the more nuanced stories of why people do what they do. Or, even better, you can talk to your older family members. Record those chats, as they are history. I love what the new podcast Historically Black is doing around black oral histories. StoryCorps, and even shows like This American Life and Stuff Your Mom Never Told You are also doing a great job of uncovering local and social histories as well. (I’m going to shamelessly plug my podcast with Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman here, Third Wave Urbanism as well, where we also talk about how metro areas are really made and average people).

Above all, let those of us who are professionals stress about where people actually live. No matter where you live and what your story is, you have value. Developers and builders and city leaders, remember that the next time you decide what needs to be built or torn down in your city.

Also, please make a wise decision about voting on November 8, 2016  and during other times when elections are called in your city. Especially when other elections are called in your metro area. These folks have the direct keys to your success as a city.

I’m Kristen! Six years ago, I started blogging here to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website,

Let People Lead in Your Cities

Let People Lead in Your Cities

What if the real reason people aren’t staying in your city is that they can’t lead?  Can’t they be themselves?  They can’t make the money that they need or even the money that they want? Won’t you listen to their complaints and make changes? Won’t you treat them like adults? Do you silence them? You doubt them? You act like you don’t care?

I feel like it’s safe enough to blatantly say that I couldn’t stay in Greensboro because I’d never get paid to be my full self. Kansas City has its problems, but allowing me to be 100% my full self isn’t the problem. And that’s saying something for a city that’s very much like the city I left behind.

Read this. If you don’t see Greensboro(or any American city) in parts of this, then I’m not sure what you are seeing. I’m also starting to see a Kansas City that doesn’t want this to be their legacy. Two authors have already written about these failures, one even projecting into a not so distant future what KC could look like if we saw major effects nationwide from climate change. Even the propagator of some of the worst segregation and elitism couldn’t beat cancer. When your time is up, your time is up.

But as recent events have shown, and reminded me, a prophet is not beloved in their homeland. Maybe in the broader nation, but not in a place where one has to pay their bills. Another cliche is that you don’t poop where you eat. Well, that causes dysentery for one and two, being critical about your home can leave you on more of a Thomas Wolfe tip than a James Baldwin tip. Even Baldwin had to get out and get his head straight so he could heal through the art.

And I feel like that’s what I’m doing. I’m working on some literal art. I’m examining my surroundings with an outsider’s eye. Last week, I brought you my fantasy fiefdom. If only you could bet on it like all those fantasy sports teams.

But to reign this back in, leaders of cities and corporate overlords– you will attract employees and entrepreneurs of a certain age and look by letting them be who they are. Especially if they are making it rain for you at the job. As long as they are doing no harm, to themselves and others, what’s it to you. Or are you too busy being harmful to yourself by drowning in greed and hoarding to see that the cities that are growing fast, are letting go of the old guard thinking, the forcing into boxes, the checking off of those boxes?

And when it’s time for you to let your life live its course, you can be proud that your legacy will live on. Because we were allowed to be full humans and we have enough life to keep the planet sustaining.

To Create a Perfect City

All it took in many cities for development in the old days was one man who bought up bunches of land and started building houses on it, which he turned around and put up for sale.

One man. Probably white and already wealthy. 

Several plots of farmland. Land which used to be fields and served that purpose, is now a whole neighborhood. In the early years, these neighborhoods were connected throughout with sidewalks, with access to streetcars, with plots designated for community retail, such as a market. Many of these older style neighborhoods were still bedroom communities, but they were connected. In the case of J.C. Nichols here in KC and others, there was emphasis placed on who could and couldn’t purchase those homes, which unfortunately was codified in the federal mortgage-making code. Oh and the official history of his Country Club Plaza flat out states that he was just one man that changed the city

So to say that other developers and even you milling around and buying (and being sold) properties can’t change the city (or, at least a chunk of it) with your money, ideas and landownings is crazy. It really comes down to money and respect of who holds said money. Eventually, you can change your city with ideas and small investments. Eventually.

This still keeps me up at night, because unfortunately, I feel the only way to enact wholesale change on cities overnight, is to purchase wide swaths of empty land or existing properties and create my own fiefdom. Let’s chat about that fiefdom shall we?

Let’s first assume that I’m in KC and I bought up a chunk of abandoned or less-loved area East of Troost, but still in KCMO.

Restricitve covenants are illegal these days, but often rent and asking prices are such that certain people are excluded. I’d put up a for-sale sign on the residential properties and tell people the amenities and then invite them to propose a price for it. I would take millions from some and I’d hand out some for free. I’d do it lottery style, so the goal would be to get a diverse amount of people, but let Providence handle who was picked and wasn’t picked. No credit checks. Some people would get jobs handling transportation, doing landscaping, teaching at the educational campus or working at the marketplace and they would get homes that I’ll set aside for workers and families. The lottery will be for folks who don’t live in the neighborhood. 

For the transportation, Transportation to and from my fiefdom would be free and would include all types, appropriate to the context.  I’d give the money to get the Linwood streetcar built, and restore older ones. Troost and Prospect would get streetcars too. Remaining bus lines and the streetcars would have every-15-minutes bus service. There would be free car-share vehicles for trips to stores and other neighborhoods (fiefdoms). There would be bikes. And the sidewalks would be clear. If you still insist on bringing a car after I told you all this, you would have a place to park. But only if you make a compelling case to need one (you use it for your business, you are disabled and use it to cover long distances, you’re an Uber driver, you drive to a far-flung place that doesn’t have rail or bus or air service enough for you to go there as often as you need). While not directly in my KC fiefdom, I’d also donate money to get a streetcar or true light-rail (our existing vehicles can actualy do both!) to the airport. You’d start at the River Market stop, then wind your way through the Northland (possibly tunneled, possibly in the highway median), such that it’s only a 30 minute trip each way. Yes, it would go that fast too. Our  existing vehicles can safely run at 35 miles an hour.

There will be one central marketplace, which the community owns and staffs. There will be all kinds of healthy food options, with an eye to conscious omnivores on down to complete vegans. Subtracting staff salaries and real food costs, care will be made to make sure that people eat. You’d be able to get other things there too, either shipped directly to the store, to your home or inside the building. Yes, this is sounding like Walmart, but my Walmart would look like Target and pay like Costco. Actually, it would look like the City Market, because there would be room for both basic needs stores and also some fun stores. Just like homes, there will be different sizes for all. Also, services like doctors, yoga studios, and credit unions will be in this space too. 

There will be many open parks, with playgrounds and racket courts and basketball courts and even a fountain. This is KC. It seems that I must have a fountain to be a legit fiefdom.

There will also be one school, a campus if need be, that provides all that a kid would need as they grow. That includes any kid with a special need. If we can’t provide it, we will make arrangements free-of-charge for the kid to get the education they need, right by their own home. Or, if the kid was game, we’d bus them across town to another campus, which has mastered something we don’t quite have yet and gives them an opportunity to meet people who don’t live and work in their neighborhood.

But there’s a problem here. It should not take people buying up land and creating fiefdoms to provide education, food, education for all ages and all other needed and wanted services. Also, this could turn into separate-but-equal really quick, especially here in KC and in other places that still have very defined lines of where people of certain races and cultures live, exclusive of their actual income. My economics are probably way off, but I wanted to err on the side of providing homes and jobs and basic needs. I’m assuimg that I’m crazy rich already and can make up the difference.

But that’s what we have, fiefdoms, in an alliance under one city. Or in most cases, we have multiple cities, of multiple fiefdoms, doing whatever they feel like doing to provide basic services. Essentially, separate, but unequal, with a wee bit of separate-but-equal.

So what can we do?

I believe that as an alliance of cities and fiefdoms, we can set a goal to provide co-op grocery and markets, centralized and fulfilling K-12 and secondary education, and free and prompt transportation options. We can continue to provide places to gather, for various schools of thought, pending no one emerges from these meetings with the attempt to do real harm.

I think we could do this today, because these are our things that we can drop money on right now and shift the conversation and how we live.

I believe we can start looking at each other as human beings worthy of mutual respect and sympathy. I think we could switch to a system of true rehabilitation and re-training, to help those who truly have criminal minds (and not just those we THINK) do.

And housing. If we are going to spend money to build something, let us ensure our water and sewer systems are clean. Always. That there’s always a place to go when we are sick and going there doesn’t automatically bankrupt us and won’t bankrupt us down the line. We provide basic shelter, maybe communal at first, then small dwellings to people on a sliding scale. Then, because we’ve stopped servicing some of our other social welfare issues as hard or as inadequately as we were doing, we can zero in on the problems with costs and making sure people have adequate roofs, at the privacy level they so desire.

No city is perfect. Yet, we cannot keep going with the inadequate ones we are fielding today. And we cannot end with separate but equal.

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Things That Should Never Be in Driving Distance

Lincoln Park High School in Chicago/Wikimedia

I was a good North Carolinian and went to vote in my recent  election.  As I’ve written about before, the district I sit in for US House is a snake district. As in it looks like a snake. And even worse, my polling place, which should be in walking distance, isn’t. I thought the rules were that polling places needed to be in walking distance of everyone residing in their district.  I could in theory walk to my polling place. If I wanted to cross a dangerous road at rush hour. Or even if I went before work, still, heavy traffic. Lunchtime. Heavy traffic.

My old precinct when I was in undergrad was at an arts center just across the street from my dorm. The road to cross was only two lanes and it was once again RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET. My precinct when I lived at mom’s was also right up the street, at my old elementary school. Where my dad used to vote was a rec center that was a little bit further from his house though. It was walkable in theory, but he still had to cross a very busy street if he were to go on foot. He still managed to vote, even when he had to walk. But seriously, should he have had to risk his life to cross a major street to vote? Unless a person can’t physically walk, we shouldn’t have to drive people to the polls. Yet, one of the things our new voting laws seem quick to create is consolidated districts and precincts.

This also had me thinking about where else no one  should ever have to drive. I came up with this list:

First, grocery. I’ve written recently about how grocery delivery can make the difference with sprawl. Also, I am aware that some neighborhoods do have curb markets. Yet, how many of these markets have the produce and other fresh goods, as well as the selection as the supermarket? However, with modern technology and more room on the roads for service vehicles, we could make supermarkets smaller, more connected and able to provide for people who are in walking distance. Not only would this include food, but there would be a showroom for other consumer products, and those could be ordered in the right size and mailed directly to one’s home. With all these deliveries, maybe the postal service could regain revenue traction or work closer with the other delivery companies for prompter delivery.

Secondly, healthcare. No one should have to pay for an ambulance ride, nor should they have to jump in the car every time they get the sniffles. Some hospitals are doing video checkups, however, I believe that we could provide in person checkups in a reasonable walking distance. In addition, these facilities would be equipped with places to do emergency surgeries or at least a helipad for airlifting to other hospitals that may have more expertise in dealing with whatever situation is going on with a person. This is the hallmark of public health and I think have both the technology and the money pouring into the healthcare industry to support it.

Third, schools. There are so many reasons people give for not being able to have schools in walking distance, except in certain neighborhoods and only for certain grade levels. With technology, we could almost go back to the one room schoolhouse. Only, this schoolhouse would have modern conveniences like science labs, band rooms, cafeterias with healthy food, maker spaces (shop and home ec classes for the 21st century), and video cameras and microphones for Skypeing other students, teachers and community members, close to home and worldwide. Instead of being a specialty school for ______ subject, all of our schools would be equipped for learning all things, even if it’s virtual or if transportation is free and provided readily to a site where the subject is taught better. Teachers who have strengths in one thing could specialize, but students wouldn’t be forced to make that decision at least until the university level. Students would only leave their neighborhoods on their own for speciality sites such as museums, extracurricular activity competitions and just to get to know people from other areas and how they live.

And the interesting part is that all these things I mentioned above could be under one roof, which would make connecting transit easier, as well as for cargo carrying vehicles. We would start with the current network of  streets and existing school buildings, then add on as needed for the health and the market needs. For those who are concerned about one healthcare provider and one grocer and the abuses that can cause, we could set a cap, maybe 10 or 12 on the number of facilities one provider can manage, with minimum standards in place to ensure that the experience only differs by the colors on the walls and not because certain people have only certain skills. In addition, health care providers and markets would be encouraged to refer people or order from other markets, if there were specialists at other facilities, even those not with that provider’s network or more grapes at another provider’s market.

With these functions under one roof, we would be closer to having solid community centers, and closer to better urbanism, even in lower-density neighborhoods. In addition, we would have the precedent set that no one should have to drive themselves or pay to transport themselves, to our basic needs. Lastly, even in a world of door-to-door Amazon delivery, people would still have a social place to go to pick up and touch objects they need.

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What Happens When Nothing Is Done Structurally About Sprawl

Broken Down House- flickr user Derek Bridges

Broken Down House. Derrick Hughes via Flickr.

Despite my life hacks from this post, we have to do something on a structural and legal level about sprawl. Unchecked sprawl is  the urban renewal of today. Instead of providing the services that are needed in the core of the city, there are many cities (mine included) that have chosen to build new facilities outside of the city core.  In addition, many cities have allowed subdivisions to be built and not considered the cost of providing schools, fire protection, streets and other elements that make a city a city, even on the basic suburban level. This is not to say that we should not allow people to go off the grid and be responsible for these services themselves. However, many people buy or rent homes with the expectation that basic services will be taken care of efficiently and competently by the municipality or jurisdiction of which they reside.

Thankfully, I’m not alone in my thoughts. I regularly connect with government leaders, and not just the ones in the planning department, who want to bring more vibrancy back to central cities, but also want to make sure equity is addressed. I believe that the pendulum has shifted towards the idea of density and connectivity, at least among government leaders, developers, planners and others who have a hand in crafting and creating our built environment. Federal funding sources now support reconnecting neighborhoods and many states and local governments have supplemented those funds, either with funds of their own or changes in zoning and building codes to allow different and more efficient types of development. In Cary, a subdivision may not get built, because town leaders recognize the cost of providing services to that subdivision may be too much, even for a town that receives a lot of property tax revenue and is known and loved for its low-density development.

Yet, there are holes. Chuck Marhon, in his latest blog reflecting on having facilitated a series of events on urban development in Menphis had a lot to say about what could result from the reversal of what he has termed “the suburban experiment.” The strongest words he has are below:

Here’s where my greatest fear comes in. When the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised of a prior generation were left behind in our central cities, it was a terrible injustice. Crime and disinvestment followed poverty in a cycle we now too often subconsciously think of as inevitable. But they were left behind in neighborhoods that still functioned. People there could still get around without a car. They could still get groceries. They could walk to school, even if it was a bad school. At least initially, there were still jobs.

When we abandon our exurbs and distant suburbs – something I see as inevitable — if we leave behind the poorest and most disadvantaged, we won’t be leaving them in functioning neighborhoods. We’ll be leaving them in total isolation. Places without grocery stores that can be walked to. Places without transportation. If the 1960’s inner city was inhumane, this will be far, far worse.

We have to get our leaders who are not on board with modern municipal governance in the loop. This is no longer a fringe conversation held by architects at fancy conference halls. Just last week, the New York Times reported that the middle class in the United States is no longer the richest in what are considered “Western” countries. A lot of our prior wealth was predicated by investment into building, which was primarily suburban, and job growth,with adequate salaries available for all skill levels. Now, we have job growth, but if it’s in the service sector the pay does not cover minimum expenses or the jobs are so specialized, they command high salaries, but require expensive training. We have new homes built, but because it’s new construction, the prices are higher. Urban location and connectivity also command a major premium, that is out of reach for those who need it the most, the ones who can’t afford the cars to get to services.

If we don’t work to make the reversal of the suburban experiment sustainable for all, we will have worse slums and less of an economic boost. The seeds for this change have been planted and are already showing up as weeds. Will we pluck out those weeds and prune that garden?

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Serving with Pleasure


So I didn’t make it to the city council meeting last night. Yet, we are one of many cities that sees fit to web stream our meetings, so that people who can’t be at the chamber for some reason (and for those who can’t fit in the chamber) can watch what’s being said and voted on. We also have robust opportunities for public comment, either during a general period, called speakers from the floor, or on select agenda items. Citizens can also call the city and get a real person during business hours to take care of needs, and the city just launched See-Click-Fix (called here Fix-It Greensboro), the popular app to report maintenance and infrastructure issues. We have a bright user-friendly website and elected officials that are social media savvy. We also have a number of boards and commissions that citizens can apply and be appointed, and aid the city staff and our city council with making decisions on city issues. And with that, is my big announcement, that I’ve been appointed to the Greensboro Transit Authority Board by my councilman. I’m excited to have a role shaping our area transit system, as well as continuing to advocate for regional transit through the Bike/Ped Advisory Committee, the Transit Alliance of the Piedmont and the BikeShare Task Force. I’m also the newest member of the Interactive Resource Center board, which is our local homeless day shelter.

I of course see this newsletter/blog and all of my ventures, whether purely volunteer or for purposes of making a livelihood as providing a service. I think we fail as a citizenry if we don’t make our voices heard and help people out when they need help and we have the right tools and skills.  We have to be mindful that our service and business pursuits don’t become self-serving or harmful to the greater community. We also have to be mindful that there’s always something to be spoken about and someone who needs our help. It doesn’t have to be an official office or board either. Sometimes it’s just whipping out that phone and reporting that broken poll or reading to the first graders or taking your parents to the doctor.

This is community. And if you want to know what’s going on in the greater North Carolina community…

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Placebook: Who Doesn’t Pay Their Taxes and Sign Their Checks?


Governments have a lot of financial leeway in this country. So do companies. And so do major nonprofit entities. Nothing illustrates that principle better than observing the latest news out of the City of Greensboro. Governing magazine has a nice synopsis of what the initial financial costs are when cities go bankrupt, which Greensboro is nowhere near. Many citizens, especially those who are in the middle class and are paying lots of income taxes,  do fear that we are not generating enough tax revenue and that their taxes are going to the wrong place. And often  cities that put themselves in bad financial situations, often do so thinking they are helping out taxpayers and other entities that come to them for money.

In the past week, the city of Greensboro has learned that the International Civil Rights Museum and Center, which was lent money after prior financial troubles,failed to sign the checks that were given, yet still received the money that the city promised to them. In addition, the organization has been in constant internal turmoil and is constantly on the wrong side of public opinion when it comes to what our cities should spend money on. There are also other human relations elements that I won’t touch on here, but clearly appear to be issues of rooted in the idea that some things just aren’t worth spending money on, especially if they continue to fail.

Yet, would this really be a problem if the city had other funds besides tax revenue? What if companies paid their fair share of taxes? The News and Record also presented an analysis of where the majority of people in Greensboro and High Point, the two largest cities in Guilford County, work. It also revealed that many of these organizations, while major revenue generators from services and providers of good steady salaries, only pay payroll taxes and don’t pay income, sales or property taxes. And yes, this is legal because they are either government entities themselves (the public K-12 school system,  the public university system, the government administration) independent nonprofit universities,  or other nonprofit service organizations and health care providers, many which are still under a nonprofit structure because they provide public services and goods that at one time were not major income generators.

Yet, these entities, especially the colleges and the hospitals have grown to become multimillion dollar industries that rival the old guard companies of development and manufacturing. Cities tout their eds and meds (along with tourist entities such as the Civil Rights Museum above) as being drivers of economic growth, but they never do so in the form of income, sales and property tax.

This is why so much emphasis has been made of bringing back big corporations that generate massive tax rates. Yet, as we have seen nationwide, that doesn’t always mean they pay taxes. Sometimes we can only hope that city governments take the proper responsibility and correct their mistakes, as the City of Greensboro did in other council votes on Tuesday night, along with allowing the citizen-funded and driven effort to create the Renaissance Co-Op to go forward, by beginning the process of selling the shopping center to Self-Help Ventures, a nonprofit committed to and successful with creating co-op entities throughout the state.

And now our other news:

Other News from North Carolina

Many thanks to Matt Lail for his awesome letter to Raleigh and finding inspiration in the one I wrote to Greensboro a few days ago. 

The first Raleigh comprehensive plan report to the city is live.

What the Dan River looks like now. Thankfully, Duke Energy customers like myself won’t be paying for the spill.

Greensboro is a finalist to host the National Folk Festival.

News and Lessons from Everywhere Else

Common sense ,but worth repeating, all building projects should consider safety first

Spain is considering becoming more of a 9-to-5 country.

While the Washington Post may have backed away from calling him a white man in its headline, Jack Evans is on his second attempt to become DC’s first elected white mayor

A great analysis of how sounds can be racialized and how that was a factor in the recent Jordan Davis case. Another analysis on all the recent killings of black children throughout the country.

A historic home where one of the first black attorneys and judges in the county lived is in danger of demolition and further decay.

While we are critical of large parking lots, they still have major potential as public spaces when emptied of their cars and sometimes with the cars in them.

And finally, a cute baby elephant in India fell into a hole near a railroad track. He was saved.

What Should You Do When Weird Weather Shows Up?


Sometimes, all you can do is make sure you buy enough food at Harris Teeter to get ready for weird weather.

Sometimes, all you can do is make sure you buy enough food at Harris Teeter to get ready for weird weather.

So we’ve had another situation of weather causing bizarre things to happen. Whether it’s snow in Atlanta or a major hurricane in New York, Americans seem to never tire of comparisons to the zombie apocalypse or The Day After Tomorrow. Never mind that in a few weeks we’ll forget this never happened, while those affected may still not have their old house back almost 10 years later.

So this all leads me to what we should and shouldn’t do, at least when it comes to community-building and placemaking and management, when a natural disaster happens.

Take those personal natural disaster plans seriously.

Don’t be the person who giggles when it’s time to stop, drop and roll. You’ll want to roll into a ball if you didn’t remember to pack a blanket, clothes and everything else that goes into a roadside disaster emergency kit. So you’re a bike or subway kid, throw an extra shirt and your meds into your bag. Even planes will let you carry those on. Let your pipes drip. Sprinkle the ice melt. Make sure you can fit in the bathtub. Drink enough water and put on sunscreen.  Drive slow, but not too slow. Sometimes we need to admit that there are some effects of natural disasters we can prevent.

Act as a region or have a plan for regional disaster preparedness

As we saw in Atlanta with #snowgridlock, and of course famously with Katrina in New Orleans, the powers-to-be were not even ready for what they saw. Yes, you may salt the roads. Yes, the weatherman on TV may move the eye of the storm further south. But that doesn’t excuse why you don’t have enough money for the right amount of disaster preparedness.  It doesn’t allow you to blame the municipality next door that you don’t like and claim as a blight on society. Anyone who wants and needs to go to a shelter should be able to. If people want to guard their homes or stay outside, let them (I just warned them about their safety). However, if you as a municipality have no real plan for the weather, then yes, you deserve the shame that you get. Side note to all the issues involved with no transit in Atlanta. Yes having more MARTA trains could have helped.  Still,  the night this was all happening, I saw two trains come into the Greensboro station and sit there for 30 minutes to an hour longer than they should have. Remember when half of Manhattan’s tunnels flooded during Hurricane Sandy? Transportation breaks down sometimes. Sometimes.

Don’t laugh at or perpetrate problematic stereotypes of people in trouble.

We love to use weather events that are abnormal to bring up stereotypes, right? The only exception would probably be with earthquakes and tornadoes. I was quite disturbed with the coverage of the Southern #snowgridlock that was making fun of people sleeping and staying wherever they could for upwards of 24-48 hours, which in some cases meant Whole Foods, Home Depot, The Waffle House  and at worse their car claiming that this is why we as Southerners were so backwards. So all the folks that get stranded at Logan and JFK during northern storms are funny too? Oh and don’t get me started on the “refugees” of New Orléans from Hurricane Katrina.

Keep the Home Depot or _______________(business/school/church) Open To Make Sure People Are Ok

There’s a reason schools are routinely used as disaster shelters when people know that something big and bad is coming. They have room for tons of cots, they have massive cafeterias, many have locker rooms with lots of showers. Hence why the kids that were stuck at them were better off than the rest of us. What I loved about what happened in the 2014 Atlanta and Birmingham situation is that I was that so many of these non-traditional shelters stayed open and did what they could to keep people entertained and fed and the like. Southern hospitality is the one stereotype I love and I love it because that’s community and placemaking at its highest point.

Don’t Share Information That’s Not True

If you don’t listen to anything I say on this post, please listen to this, be careful what you tweet or share on social networks, especially when it comes to a major storm system or something else that is happening in real time. Hence why I shared multiple views of the Atlanta storm and emphasized the ground coverage being done in Atlanta by news outlets and Instagrams and Twitters from actual residents of the cities that were affected. Also, make sure your information on relief efforts is coming from the right area nonprofit. All Red Crosses are not the same and able to do the same things. Also, tweeting something like the name of someone who died before the family can get the phone call is also insensitive.

Feel Guilty When You Can’t Keep Something Bad from Happening

Some of us chatting about the Atlanta storm response were reminded of 2005 in Raleigh. I thought I was going to take the campus Wolfline bus back to my dorm , but instead all the buses stopped running and Hillsborough Street was gridlocked, along with much of the Triangle. All that kept me from doing is getting a ride home versus walking like I normally do. Other people were stranded at schools and offices too. Yet, this time Raleigh closed school early, preventing any surprises as far as weather from affecting the students and parents throughout the county. Yet, the folks who get hit by freakish tornadoes and 100 year floods can’t always be ready for the worst. That’s ok, just do your best as individuals and as a community to be ready.

So this ends my PSA on disaster preparedness and coping. Hopefully this reminder will help us continue to grow stronger communities, especially when we and the weather are at our worst.

Placebook: What Is the State of Greensboro in 2014?


This week, the annual State of Our City Report is out and it’s no surprise to anyone who pays attention and tries to change any of these things. In light of this information, I have a few questions. First, how do we bring jobs and money back on a consistent basis? How do we nurture what we have? And finally how do we keep from being discouraged, resentful, bitter or inadequate in our quest and in light of other cities and industries? Check out the News and Record article here. The full report is here and look for a longer analysis from me in the coming days.

Speaking of city leaders, here’s a really great long form article from Eric Ginsburg in Yes! Weekly on our departing city manager and a nice article from the News and Record on what’s next for Action Greensboro.

And with that, here are a few more news links to get your weekend started:

New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio launching VisionZero plan to eliminate all pedestrian fatalities, which could set a national standard in how we handle this issue.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx addresses the Transportation Review Board this week with a pledge to make bike/ped safety a priority.

Yes, most of the fried chicken restaurant signs in Britain are made by the same man and yes, they all want to look somewhat alike.

Pre-summit thoughts on sustainable cities from the Transforming Transportation Institute, held this week in DC along with the TRB and Transportation Camp.

The Durham Police, in their own words.

Another instance of free speech/congregating turned into trespassing and loitering.

The 11 dollar DC minimum wage is real.

The African American Atllier, one of the city supported art galleries here in Greensboro, celebrates itself in its new exhibit. Uptown Artworks, another emerging gallery, hosts its first major show.Or jet off to this island, which boasts 100 museums.

Next Wednesday: Community Forum on the future of the Renaissance Community Co-op.

If you are running in the city, run in a city park.

I understand why parking isn’t really free, but still, can we not give a break to disabled drivers.

So yeah, this house isn’t real, but what is inside is vital to Raleigh. Meanwhile, Brad Pitt’s “Make It Right” homes in New Orleans need to be made right.

The case for a Chicago-based Obama Presidential Library and the end of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

And finally, take a virtual tour of the new DC Metro Silver Line and get ready for the Capital Wheel.