My Placemaking Wishes for 2017


Happy New Year folks! We did it! It’s 2017. It could be bad or worse and it can be good or better. And in that spirit, I am coming to you with my 7th annual set of wishes. Depending on my mood and the mood of the industry, sometimes I do more personal wishes and sometimes I do wishes that are more general. 2017 is going to blend both. Take a look at wishes from 2011, 2012, 2013, 20142015 and 2016. And now, for 2017, I wish:

That I wasn’t so afraid of the future and neither were so many other people

This is the linchpin to me of the most recent round of elections in the United States, as well as the last few election cycles. We’re afraid to die. We’re afraid of losing control. We’re afraid of never being in control. This is just a portion of the phenomenon that allows evil to raise up through our civic spaces, but it’s worth looking at by itself.

On a more personal level, I’ve been more afraid since the election. Mostly because I was afraid long before the election. I feel safe to say that I left both my hometown and the one I adopted from June 2015-September 2016 because I was afraid of being myself in the spaces I conducted myself in. I feared that I wasn’t square enough to be in elected and appointed politics. I felt super black, and not in a good, fists up, I matter kind of way. I felt smaller and smaller. I felt like I had to be involved in small town nitpicky things. I felt like I was running out of people. And energy. And time. So I’m in the D.C. Metro finally. I can’t say that it’s for good, only because life happens and life happens outside of me.

For our greater populace, we may not like each other. We may feel like people are invading our personal space and messing with our ego, but the world needs some of that. We need all kinds of spaces, safe, and unsafe. We need dense and open spaces. May we continue headfirst to the transect and may we look at everyone first and foremost as worthy of love and worthy of the best. Then stop building bad things, taking away good social programs that work and condemning folks to judgment places that probably don’t look like what you think they do in your head.

That we could shift more of our economy to community ownership and bartering

I like having options just like the next person. I don’t think we need to start wearing uniforms or burlap sacks in the name of unity. We can have different kinds of living situations. Yet, we can improve on our market. Last year brought the opening of the Renaissance Community Co-op in Greensboro and the return of full-service grocery to a side of town that really needed it. Plus, instead of being a profit center, it’s a community center. I do hope they can continue to be successful and that we can continue to share these models, farmers markets, craft fairs, community clinics, community schools and the like so that nice things don’t have to be tied to having lots of income and wealth. Speaking of income and wealth…

That we can become a people who aren’t jealous or greedy

This is the other piece that I feel explains politics in the United States. Those of you reading from other nations who seem to be doing a bit better in this, please share. I think we need to all look in the mirror, be at peace with who we are now and then make decisions based on things we want. I think we also as leaders, need to not hoard resources for ourselves and realize that not everyone has the privilege to navel-gaze. Build things, sell things, but not at the expense of others and not because you need to do it better or bigger. And I want to get to the point where I stop making comparisons to others and how popular they appear and how wealthy they appear. I want to do things because they are good and they are good for me.

That I can buy a house by the end of the year

I live in a metro area where this may continue to be a wish into 2018. However, I know that I’m probably wrong. I’ll keep y’all posted on this one. Revisit my thoughts on buying my dream house in a world of mass gentrification.

That I can cut my consumer debt in half by next year

Same as the prior wish. I feel good about this too. I wrote about the fact that I struggle with not being good money, while I’m yet good with making connections and writing things people like back in the fall.

As usual, tweet, Facebook or just comment about your wishes for this year. And yes, I do believe that many of us will see 2018. And if we don’t, this time on earth has mattered and we will call up your spirit in many ways over the coming years. Likewise, this will live on somewhere even if I’m gone.

I’m Kristen.  I started blogging here to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website, Also, if you want to follow my playlist for 2017, here it is!

Interior view of the basket-like casing of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum was lead by an African-American and British-Ghanian architects.

Building on Theories and Practice of Black Urbanism in Our New World

Interior view of the basket-like casing of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum was lead by an African-American and British-Ghanian architects.

I have always owed a great debt to the work of Sara Zewde, especially the usage of the term black urbanist and talking about black urbanism. Zewde is currently a principal at Asakura Robinson a designer at the Seattle-based firm GGN and in 2010, published her MIT graduate thesis, Theory, place, and opportunity: black urbanism as a design strategy for the potential removal of the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans.

When I started this page, she had the only reference I could find online to the concept of black urbanism, especially as an architectural vernacular (style). Later on, fellow planner and blogger Pete Saunders addressed the term here and here. These authors have provided an African continent-centered focus on black or African urbanism. The most compelling chapter I’ve found in a recent Google search to see if other writers had used the term in recent years. Somehow I missed this chapter in Adam J. Bank’s  2006 book Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground.

I especially want to draw attention to Melvin Mitchell’s theories which are highlighted in the chapter, which I’ve taken a snapshot of below:


With this being said, and with the new political environment that we are facing, what’s next for black urbanism? I’d like to take a stab at naming a few things that need to happen:

Insist Black buildings and Black neighborhoods (and other ethnic and poor and marginalized neighborhoods) are just as deserving of historic preservation as others. While it saddens me that so many of the historic Victorian and Warder row-homes here in DC are so expensive, at least they are still standing in their present form. Additionally, the modern homes in the wealthier Black areas of Chicago are just as worthy as anything Frank Lloyd Wright has built. If we can keep the D.C Chinatown and even enhance it by building the archway, we can also prioritize historic structures even as we densify. Likewise, being mindful  (again)that black urbanism is also an architectural vernacular. This gets back to Mitchell’s ideas. I will say that strategically placed public buildings like the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture can be culturally sensitive and still help the black community, even though they were built for primarily white institutions.

Create and honor homeownership or long-term leases, as well as create shopping centers and service plazas that service all income levels. As much as I’d love a certain bullseye-clad big box store to be a bit closer to my home, I’d like it even better if we had neighborhood businesses that are smaller, more focused sections of the department store, such as a stationary store, or grocery or clothing. Neighborhood businesses that are co-ops or otherwise under less pressure for profit and more pressure to create livelihoods and provide good service. Likewise, continuing to promote and provide home purchasing and renovation services, as well as a wide variety of rental options for multiple budgets.

Push for the restoration of the traditional public school system, and turn the charter system into an alternative educational mechanism. I get it, charters promise parents more control and you can do things in charters that the regular public instruction doesn’t allow (like boarding schools, religious instruction, etc.). However, nothing is stopping a group of parents from creating extracurricular education groups for their children, even in marginalized areas. This is where the new charter apparatus would come in, by providing supplemental funding for programming outside of the classic school day, as well as forming a coalition with other adult and child social service providers. I think we need to push for a strong public education system and we need to focus our own extracurricular activities into ensuring that all children have opportunities for after school art, sports, and extra career and trade education. We need our youth to know they can be creative and they can create a new future out of the ashes.

Acknowledge climate change, especially the kind done by fracking,  regular oil pipelines. mining and even landfills near residential areas. I feel like this will be the one thing that the administration has pushed that will affect everyone and potentially exterminate us. So many black communities have battled living near factories, landfills, and other toxic waste for years and many lives have been lost silently to cancers and other diseases. 

File civil suits for every constitutional amendment or social issue violation that happens. I’ve been kicking money back to the ACLU for years and I’m going to increase that donation to them and the Southern Policy Law Center. Also, not just court cases, but standing up for all kinds of marginalized people and recognizing that there are many successful kinds of lifestyles for adults, children and families and creating communities that allow for diverse lifestyles and cultures, without pushing the supremacy or harm of one or the other.

Being careful that we make it clear online when we are speaking our opinion, being satirical or using facts. Yes, facts still exist, and so does opinion. I want to do my best to only spread ideas as ideas that I think better society and make it clear where facts come from.

Recognizing that activism for black folks and other marginalized people does not disqualify a person from professional or political practice or office. Activism is also a form of tactical urbanism. Recognizing that people of color and marginalized folks are going to be even angrier and oppressed and the microaggressions and outright neoliberalism and the systemic classism, racism, and homophobia are going to be worse. Don’t be that person in your planning or architectural practice, your pursuit for good governance or internally with your friends and colleagues.  Understand fully or try to understand the righteous anger and/or the burden of practice, especially against oppressive systems.  Constantly check yourself. Also, there’s fine line between a practice that is rooted in cultural vernaculars and only being the voice for that culture. Let’s be mindful if and when we choose to token and know that while it can be necessary, it can also be just as harmful. Also, having a culturally-sensitive urbanism doesn’t exclude or excuse anyone, if practiced properly. 

And if you are marginalized, rail against the system, but also tap into your creative side. If we had better, more sustainable systems, we could abandon the old ones causing us harm. I know for many of us, we just want to survive or get a piece of the pie. But what if we knew how to bake our own pies and could share? Forgive yourself and forgive those who are evil. You don’t have to forget, but you will need all that energy for the new creations and new worlds we are walking into. Let go of the shame of the words of the oppressor and remember they are wrong and you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have a purpose.  Don’t do things that turn you into the oppressor. Teach or find someone willing to teach others how to respect cultural tradition and vernacular. Oh, and this is the part where I type SELF-CARE, SELF-CARE, SELF-CARE, SELF CARE…in all caps and repeatedly.

Finally, don’t give up. We will survive someway and somehow, as we always have as a people. Even if that means we are a people in exile.

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

My Placemaking Wishes for 2016

My Placemaking Wishes for 2016

It’s that time again, where I rub my lamp and hope that several things in the world of placemaking come true. I’ve made a set of wishes in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 and I’m honored to share another set of dreams for 2016.

And without further ado, this year’s four wishes.

Truly Safe Streets

It’s my list, I can keep wishing the same things. Especially if those things have yet to come to pass. We need to reconcile the need to reduce traffic incidents, with the greater need for law enforcement to treat citizens like citizens and not enemies of war. Some people are sharing the road with fellow passengers. Others yet are working with their police departments and reducing violent crimes among themselves. Let us continue to wish that our most common public space is the safest. My friend Naomi Doerner makes a great case for combining #visionzero and #campaignzero.

Steady Rents and Mortgages

Every city that has at least a major employer; homes that resemble craftsman bungalows, art deco apartments or colonial row houses;has a college or two or three; and has reasonable diversity in population is seeing some form of gentrification, proportional to  the average median household income. Every city has people who can’t make ends meet and in some places, it’s worse than others, because salaries are holding steady for a lot of industries, especially at the minimum wage and entry levels. But, if the housing market could as a whole lower their costs by maybe 10% on services, rents and the like (as well as themselves start to rely less on bank loans and a bit more on cash), maybe we could fix this. This will be a continuing wish, because I know what I just proposed isn’t practical. What however is practical, is empowering people to create craft and trade guilds and turn neighborhood association funds into a means to fund labor and supplies for these maintenance and building crews. My friend John Anderson has a great argument for continuing to mentor and cultivate tradesmen, especially in underserved communities who need lots of housework done, but may not have what it takes to hire outside workers.

Understanding of How Housing Policy and some Transportation Policy Has Created A Number of Social Ills.

Again, this combines elements of the two wishes above. People need to know the history of their neighborhoods, their states and their country. If you don’t like not having public transit, find out where the stops are and why your system exists. Same with your neighborhood and why you may have seen a restrictive covenant in the deed, even though technically those are illegal. At the very least understand why your Realtor still may have suggested a certain group of neighborhoods and why certain neighborhoods command high values (It’s not just because of proximity to Trader Joe’s). I want to use this space and other forums to help people understand why so many of our urban and suburban racial battles have roots back even further than the greater civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Maybe you weren’t aware of the origins of Oregon, but this post touches on that and how in least one state, capturing the American Dream was completely banned well into the 20th Century. (I’m also aware of the irony of this link in the light of the other link from wish 1.) 

A Commitment By Powerful Interests to Creating Comprehensive Public Transit in More than a Few Cities.

And finally, separating out this wish into its own space, because transportation is easier to change than where houses sit and where people live. Maybe your parents want a huge suburban house and they are willing to pay all the costs to have that house. Namely paying for their own transit service, their sidewalks and bike lanes on their stroads. Even better if we can convince the powers-to-be to increase service frequencies and add weekend and evening services back to commuter routes. I wouldn’t drive into Kansas at all, if I knew I could use the JO commuter service to go to the Target in Mission or Downtown Overland Park at times I have the extra time to do so. I’ve seen the benefits of added MARC service in being able to go more places between DC and Baltimore. This doesn’t excuse new suburbs from popping up and contributing to sprawl. This makes it necessary for municipalities that want to be connected to a greater metro area to be part of said area. I don’t have any specific links for this one, other than read any post that you see from your hometown newspapers, national mainstream magazines and maybe even write an op/ed of your own or a long Facebook post that’s sharable, to tell the world we need better transit.

So here we are, new year, new wishes. Be sure to keep with me via email and on social media to see my progress with the wishes, as well as my commentary on how the world is doing with them. 

Three Lessons I Learned About Place in 2015

Three Lessons I Learned About Place in 2015

I learned a lot about place this year. Yet, those many lessons coalesced into these three big lessons: a progressive, inclusive, tactical charrette process, people over money and the need to legally live in more than one place, to help you guys out there learn more about your own towns and cities. Let’s dig into those lessons.

You Can Have a Progressive, Inclusive, Tactical Charrette Process

I was invited to come to Chattanooga back in April to participate in the Next Big Thing, a design charrette centered on the Glass Street area of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Having grown up and really come up politically in Greensboro, cities like Chattanooga and Greenville, SC are aspirational places to the governments and stakeholders of other smaller cities like Greensboro. In fact, a delegation of Greensboro folks was in town doing a comparison shopping tour, while I was there working on a lesser-loved area of town.

Despite its status as lesser loved and its lack of waterfront view and mountain height, the Glass Street area doesn’t lack for good people and good infrastructure. The group that brought us all together, The Glass House Collective, is embedded and dedicated to the betterment of this community.

On the surface, the Glass Street area seems like your typical predominately black community, that as a result of redlining and legal integration, has a double whammy of having good housing stock, but not being a place that even Blacks of means want to invest in. Well, besides liquor stores, clubs, and various houses of worship, that, unfortunately, don’t work together and have even been the sites of murders and thefts.

Yet, there was this diner, The Glass Street Breakfast and Lunch House, on the corner of Glass and Dodson, across the street from the building where we set up shop. The woman who owns it wasn’t on my team, but I could see and feel her energy and excitement throughout the process. All of our teams had community members, mostly Black property owners and other stakeholders local to the area. What was also key, was that there were a number of other Black American planners and group facilitators. There were white Chattanoogans from the other sides of town, who wanted to see a sustainable development (more on this dynamic later in the post). Yet, it was seeing this Black woman, believe in the power of her building, which outside of the fresh paint job, with the mural of the yummy-looking bowl of something on the outside, was nothing more than an old gas station, which in another context could look like a shack, that inspired me myself to look into the power of taking buildings and spaces, no matter their shape, and infuse value into them.

Even if her venture ultimately fails (as more ventures do, despite the race and energy level of their owners), it’s the intent, the ability to try. Oh and I hear her food was awesome. I was, unfortunately, battling the need to drive back down I-75 to make my flight and return my rental car at the Atlanta airport because flying into Chattanooga’s airport was nothing short of impractical, so I couldn’t try her food out. (Another problem for another day, like the need for someone to help her out with a website).

More on people-power later, on the big scale. At the root of this lesson is that you can have energy in the room and people, especially the people of color and low-wealth that may be in your charrette room, are just as powerful and can add just as much to your charrette process, as you. Even if you have a foot in both the elite, mostly white and wealthy, architecture, planning and development world and another in the mostly black neighborhoods, labeled as slums and ghettos even if there were at one point rich cultural assets, you can be valued and you can be heard in the charrette room. Charrettes, public workshops and other community listening processes have to have this going forward and they have to have a means of action.

In the meantime, I needed to not just see places, but immerse myself in places for longer than just a week…

You Can’t Really Be a Global, or Even Just a National Urbanist, If You’ve Only Lived in One State

Ultimately, I can come into a city and tell people what to do 365 days a year. I could do it on this blog 24 hours a day. It, however, doesn’t compare to actually being a resident and investing in two metro areas, if not three, simultaneously.

This is the first year that I’ve ever lived in two cities. Even when I was younger and going back and forth between the Piedmont Triad and the Research Triangle (they are different, if you click on their names you’ll know why they are different), I was still in the same state. I could get most of the same food (although Biscuitville is a uniquely Greensboro thing and Bojangles only hands out free sweet tea at their Triangle-area locations). I knew the names of the local politicos. I knew my sales tax rate. My license plates were the same (and there was only need for one of them). School districts tend to cover counties, not just a pod of a couple of elementary schools that feed into one middle and high school. Cities tend to only extend to county lines and if they do jump a line, it’s only a few blocks or a few neighborhoods.

Kansas City takes up pieces of four different counties. That’s just on the Missouri side. On the Kansas side, what we refer to as KCK, is also the entirety, save a place called Bonner Springs, of the county of Wyandotte. And then there’s everything wrapped up in Johnson County and the areas around the University of Kansas and the military operations. Having been East Coast-centered my whole life, I only knew of DC’s interesting position of being a bi-state metro area. Likewise with the New York City region. Charlotte’s also rapidly becoming as much a South Carolina major metro, much like Western Kansas propels that state’s entire economy.

To me, being a bi-state, bi-county area isn’t so bad, if you have a completely connected public transit system, so everyone has equal access to jobs. Likewise, when your school curriculums and calendars and resources are in sync. When you have the same tax rates and the same mix of national stores. Your local institutions are empowered and service the area equally. I have yet to see that in many regions and I feel like the communities I know and love back east do this better than the KC metro. It’s one thing to have a frontier/pioneer spirit. It’s another to have it so bad that you can’t be interdependent, much like the folks who were native to the land you built on.

Having lived in a totally different region, I feel like I have more fodder for writing this blog and my planning and development practice than ever before. I can properly compare the effects of how public policy, especially housing, tax and education policy, shape a city’s development. It’s deeper than those city trips where they show you all the pretty things. I was doing a radio pre-show interview and the producers asked me to describe Kansas City for a person hopping off at the airport and going to the convention hall. I think we can all do that, even if our only relationship to a city is going to its airport and convention hall. (Bonus aside, read my case for a new Kansas City Airport). But you have to go deeper than that if you are like me and you are involved in the development and maintenance of your city.

I also re-introduced and fortified the concept this year of the American Expat. Before, it was something I knew about in abstraction, having had several aunts and uncles who’d moved away for work and only came home at major holidays. There are parts of both metros that they love and embrace, so much so that I think my aunt may never move back to North Carolina.

For me, I’m still in the city audition process. Ultimately, I know that wherever I choose to plant my home base, it will have 75% of the values and things I recommend out of the gate. Or, it will have a solid group of people, committed to sustaining it and making it better. I will always come back to North Carolina and rejuvenate, due to this being my homeland and that of so many people I love and who helped me grow in my formative years.  Speaking of the content and concept of people sustaining a place, though…

Money is Magic, People are Sustaining

If we had millions of dollars, everything we want to happen on Glass Street (and your street) could happen tomorrow. However, a lot of the things that were proposed for Glass Street, like the street and sidewalk improvements, as well as the façade improvements and the addition of more than just tax preparers, liquor stores and some solid restaurants, require PEOPLE to patronize the store and bring the money to them.

The Glass Street area was labeled as a food desert, due to the loss of a grocery store, ironically right behind the Glass Street Breakfast and Lunch House. In my group in Chattanooga, I introduced the idea of a co-op grocery, something that’s happening twice in Greensboro, in two very different contexts. Many people are  familiar with our downtown natural food co-op market and deli/bakery, as a natural extension of a community supported agriculture delivery membership and provider of a downtown option, which is still not where developers want it to be to do a traditional supermarket concept. You may also be familiar with our other co-op, founded due to the lack of a major supermarket company, wanting to locate where it had no problems operating 30 years ago, a mostly Black, middle-class community. With some financial help from a local Black church and our city and the usual major foundation nonprofits with mostly white leadership, that community has funded a supermarket that will look more like Harris Teeter or at the very least, restore some of the character that the Winn-Dixie left.

While they are still waiting on the magic of money to come through, they are a determined group of people, a lesson that as we also honor the Kwanzaa week, is relevant in placemaking and all year.

Right now, city leaders and stakeholders are waiting on money to turn a once vibrant, but now vacant lot into our next Broadway-caliber performing arts center. Much money was pledged for this effort and they’ve unfortunately come up short. In turn, they are calling on people and their money, to help get this spot to the end. In the meantime, there were lots of people doing business on this big lot. There were a gas station and hospital and hotel here once upon a time. Then, just before demolition, there was a jazz club and doctors offices and hair salons and the chamber of commerce. I feel those things could have remained on that lot until the last dollar needed was in hand and then the demolition could start and within just a few short months, the new arts building would appear. (Edit on 12/31/15: The chamber is in fact still standing. But just barely. The building almost has no parking lot. Again, an institution that helps us to be capitalist can stand, but some aspects of capital can’t stand and we still don’t have the art we were promised. Hopefully, the money will be raised, but until then, I use caution in talking about this particular project as an economic driver and a value-add to Downtown Greensboro).

This gets me to a major lesson I want us all to learn this year and in coming years, to get back to a simple economy, where we can start paying things in full. Granted, the credit economy is what allowed us to grow as even things we take for granted, such as our rail system and certain shopping malls needed mortgages and loans to get started. Yet, what if even back then, people valued things at whatever could be given at the time? What if we made all houses less than $5,000? There could be variation in the market, but the idea is that things like houses, modes of transportation and education have a basic cost, that is keeping in mind that people need these things to get started as adults. Then, over time, other things could be valued more. While I don’t think we need to eliminate capitalism or financing systems like loans and mortgages, I think we need to become more people-centered with how we spend and loan money and less about creating magic tricks with our money.
Next week, we are in 2016 and I’ll be dropping my wishes for the year and evaluating how some of my 2015 wishes did. Let me know what some of your placemaking lessons were on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn on my pages or at least, share this article with your own commentary on those social networks. Keep up with me on a regular basis through my Tuesday emails.

My Ultimate Urbanist Gift Guide

My Ultimate Urbanist Gift Guide


This year I decided to go ahead and talk about how to buy gifts. I feel this list can be applied to any time a year and any holiday. After all, these things are unique and they’re always greatly appreciated by any urbanist I know. I would ask your urbanist for some guidance because they may want some things more than others. Shall we get started?


Especially textbooks. For the longest time I though like my urbanist practice was dependent on just how much I was able to write and how profound that writing was. Maybe it was because I came from an academic background in studying community and economic development plus having hung around architecture and design departments in the past. I’ve always written books, even before I was writing about urbanism. And so it seems has everybody else that I meet up with at conferences and who actually speaks say conferences. Also textbooks are expensive and if you’re not a student anymore it’s true but not quite starchitect level, you’ll squee anytime you get an actual book.


This can be anything from plane tickets hotel gift certificate/rooms, show tickets, food and restaurant gift certificates, and transit passes. As much as you think we already have all the hip urban stuff, again a free ticket to a hot show like Hamilton in New York is super valuable. Bonus points if it’s something like a house tour or a transit tour that’s not normally open to the public or only happens rarely.

Things to Make or Make With

I know this one is really cliché but still who doesn’t like Lego architecture sets or model train sets. For those who are more realistic in their building and making , gift certificates to home-improvement stores, art and craft stores and home design stores as well as museum stores also work well. Or you can buy specific supplies like nice pens, markers, pencils or paper.

Clothing Actually Made for Commuting

This goes beyond a pair of sneakers that match a formal suit. This gets into rain coats that actually wick off water, shirts and pants and skirts that breathe and come with pockets and undergarments that keep things you don’t want to see out of sight. Also, leisure weekend wear like bike kits is nice too. Again, ask your urbanist, but they’ll be glad you’ve considered their commuting habits in the first place.

Donations to Organizations that Support Urbanism

They are probably getting those notices already to donate to their favorite charities related to these different issues and causes. They may also be the type that has everything that we’ve already listed above. So how about just going ahead and sending all good chunk of money to an organization that they care about, namely the one for whom they work. That way, not only do they benefit but their home city and the causes that they care a lot about do as well.

You may notice that I’ve not actually listed places to get these items. I leave it up to you to choose vendors,books, nonprofits, stores and experiences that speak to the even deeper held values of your individual placemaker. I’ve also listed vague categories of items, again, because I want you to still exercise some creativity. Know that you can and will find the perfect gift for your placemaker.



Why Feelings Matter Most with Citizens and Their Cities

Why Feelings Matter Most When It Comes to Cities and their Citizens

Design can’t be everything. Ask your kid who goes to Disney World and doesn’t like Mickey or Cinderella Castle. All they want to do is ride Space Mountain a bunch of times. That’s right. They’d rather go on a ride that strips away your sense of knowing where you are going and makes you trust your other four senses. Now this ride’s mechanics and even some of the cool spacey stuff are designed well, but it’s really about the feeling.

Your kid throws away their Goofy hat when you get home, but he starts figuring out how to create that feeling that he had in Space Mountain. Which probably means they are playing in their room in the dark. But they are still  happy about their trip to Disney World. And it is more about what they could feel than the actual design of the thing.


Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain via Wikimedia

We can apply the same idea to our cities.

But before we get deep into that conversation, let’s talk about that time Disney made an actual city. Celebration, Florida was conceived as the second effort (EPCOT was the first) to create the ideal 21st Century city. Borrowing some from the new urbanism movement, which had just been chartered, a small town was created on some Disney-owned land. I’ve written about the town before, namely the book written by a family who moved there as one of the first families in the new town. Another book, with a darker, more pedantic tone was written by a single man who moved into an apartment near the town square.

While both sets of people had praise for the community at first, the single man found that he was isolated and that the community didn’t have much to offer for singles. The family and families like them, had issues with the school. It prided itself on being very progressive from grades K-12. One of those progressive tenants was a non-traditional grading system, that didn’t even consider conversions of said grades into the A-F scale sought by most, if not all colleges. This ultimately caused some parents to leave the school. Also dead was the idea of a neighborhood school. The school split into a lower and upper school, with the upper school on a totally different side of the community.

Eventually the family in the book moved back to their New England home and to a traditional school. The other guy moved on too. Others stayed in the community, but not without encountering other struggles. Many moved there hoping that the Disney magical feeling would fall over them. Yet, this was a town, not a theme park. You can’t always create the feeling you want in a place.

Or can you? How do you find a place that has the right feel? How do I determine that feel? This is what I do.

First, I assess the variety of activities, living situations, transportation situations and other tangible places and experiences. Am I forced to live in a house or can I get an apartment. Do I have to drive all the time or can I take the bus, walk or ride a bike? Do people tend to cluster in diverse groups of friends or do people tend to only have friends who look like them? Does the music scene have more than one genre that’s predominant or at least have my favorite style of music? What kinds of things can I eat? Are their cool third places like libraries, parks, arcades and other places where I can go and not just go to work or home or eat? Who can fix my hair the way I like? This also ties into another metric i use, mobility. How easy can I get in, out and around town?


Kansas City’s Historic City Market. One of the great urban markets and examples of variety in cities. Image by Kristen Jeffers

Second, I look at level of respect people have for each other and their differences. Do actual criminals get punished? Do people assume others are automatically criminals because of their skin color, their body type and size or some other arbitrary type? Do people have to join certain groups or churches or have attended certain schools to be able to affect change in the city? Is there a voice for the poor, the downtrodden, the powerless? Could I walk safely without the worry of a person yelling at me, thinking this is the only way he could get my attention? Even in a room of “professional” people, will those guys carry on a conversation with me that doesn’t reek of “I need to take her home with me”? Will the women see me not as a threat, but a potential friend? Will they all have stupid, and in some cases completely offensive ideas about me as a black woman? I’m doing my best to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, will they do that for me?

Third, how resilient is the city? Does it mope and moan when major companies don’t pick it or when those companies shut down?Does it recognize why its young college students are leaving? Does it get stuck in its old ways or think things can only happen one way? When natural disasters show up, is it ready to evacuate or properly house people on better ground? Is it constantly complaining about how much it has to clean up? Is it doing all that it can to help people come back to where they were or is it sitting, ready to gentrify the land that those devastated homes sit on?

As our Disney examples earlier illustrated, you could have the perfectly designed city, both real like Celebration or more fake like EPCOT and the rest of the theme park. Yet, if someone doesn’t feel comfortable there, then all of your efforts are wasted. Or, sometimes people just want a feeling, and don’t need special designs or programs or events. They just want to be put in the right environment and be allowed to fend for themselves.

This doesn’t excuse efforts to help people feel better about needed changes, i.e. our friends who feel bike lanes, while open to everyone, are part of the residential gentrification going on in DC and other places. This again underscores why we need to ask open-ended questions.

Finally, quantitative measures are great, especially when they help us keep our streets clean and our buses coming on time. But if they don’t feel right, then they are doomed to fail too, just like our cities as a whole.

Interested in my thoughts about Kansas City and how I feel about it so far? I’m talking about that live on KCUR’s Central Standard at 1o a.m. Central/11 a.m. Eastern Tuesday November 10 (which is today if you are reading this post within its first 24 hours). You can always catch a replay of it as well. Both can be found at this link. Also, catch me on Twitter and Facebook.

My Placemaking Wishes for 2015

Happy New Year folks! I’m posting this with about 12 hours to go on the East Coast, but I believe we’ll make it just in time. And as always at year’s end, I am here with a few things that I hope all of us placemakers and citizens can see in 2015:

Truly Open Streets


Remember this picture of me? I was playing on a B-cycle demonstration bike on the street that I helped paint, to have an open streets event there. Yet, from then to now, not just in Greensboro, but in many other cities, the streets haven’t been so open. In fact, many have been hostile. My wish is that we can start looking at people on our streets, not as threats, not as people to shake money out of, not as places to speculate our real estate futures and to shoot to kill, but as places where we can celebrate our achievements and what it means to be human. I might be wishing this every year, but I’m going to get us started there. If we block the streets in 2015, I pray that it’s to have a party, be at peace and be better neighbors.

High-Speed Rail

Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 9.06.29 AM

I’ve been on more trains and planes than I can count on my fingers this year. I’m reading Tom Zoellner’s Train. I’ve met  and mingled with so many of my transit nerd herd folks this year. Hold the though of mingling with people to my next wish. I want to put out there that it would be nice for at least the routes outlined in green above to get started this year. Thanks to the US High Speed Rail Association for putting the map above together. (Check out the interactive version). Congrats to the Texas Central Railway and California High Speed Rail Authority for breaking ground in 2014. Kudos to All Aboard Florida for setting a 2015 start date. Yes, high-speed rail is a sticky issue. However, it’s an issue that we need to resolve. Streetcars are nice. But a 90 minute trip between major cities like DC and New York would be even better.

Seeing More of You and Making Better Places Together

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 9.08.17 AM

As I mentioned above, I flew and rode trains more than I’ve ever done in my life this year and it was great! I gave my first solo keynote,which is pictured above and you can watch here.  I’m looking forward to seeing many of you at Transportation Camp  DC and festivities surrounding the Transportation Review Board Annual Meeting in a few weeks. North Carolina folks, namely those in and around Greensboro are invited to join me at Scuppernong Books at 7 p.m. on January 17th for a book event. I will read from A Black Urbanist and will sign any copies you have. A very limited number will be for sale. Go ahead and grab a print copy here. There will be a DC book event on January 11 at 7 p.m. during the TRB festivities. I’ll post more information in the next few days on both events. CNU, CCDA and New Partners for Smart Growth are also on the tentative agenda as well. And if you want to help me make this wish come true contact me here.

Again, Happy New Year! See you in 2015!

Like what you read? Get more from Kristen via The Black Urbanist Weekly Email

* indicates required

Email Format

And Now, My Book, A Black Urbanist, Essays Vol. 1

Cover Image

After several years of writing, two months of editing and final writing and several bouts of fear and confidence, my first blog-related, adult book, A Black Urbanist, is now available for your purchase.

It is available in the following formats:

Print you want me to sign it and hold it in your hand. That privilege will cost more, so keep that in mind. The current link will take you to Blurb to order a non-signed copy. If you would like to order a signed copy, click here.

iBooks–The best of the digital editions, outside of the PDF, will be perfect for my fellow Apple heads, who may be reading on iPads and iPhones.

Kindle— for my folks who are stuck on their Kindles and like the mimicry of the book experience. However, I spent hours trying to get it just so and it still looks a bit wonky. Also, depending on the country, I get less royalties. However, for my international folks, this might be your best bet.

Gumroad—this is a nice protected PDF, with some color, and in a nice 8×10 paper size. You could print this if you wanted. I also get all the proceeds from these sales. Clicking on the photo of the book on my sidebar will always take you here first. Also, Gumroad has an app for iPhone and Android, that allows you to read it there. Search for it, it’s free.

The book is $10 on all digital formats and is $12.83 plus shipping in print and $25 pre-signed. All print prices include shipping and handling.

Once again, you can click here and get it instantly for $10 in a PDF format.

Also, if you are a fellow blogger, member of the traditional press, podcaster, TV person or anybody who is willing to either review or let me come on your blog/podcast/program to talk about the book, please fill out the form below  email me here and I’ll be back to you with a review copy in PDF format.

Thanks to all my family and friends and happy reading!

Like what you read? Get more from Kristen via The Black Urbanist Weekly Email

* indicates required

Email Format

One Week Until A Black Urbanist

Cover Image

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been posting teasers about why I’m writing a book now. However, since we are one( that’s right, one) week from the book release, I wanted to really talk about why now.

There’s a part at the end of the book where I mention that I don’t have all the answers, that I don’t profess solutions, I just want to get a conversation started. In addition, I like telling somewhat serious stories, stories that are real, but have entertainment value. I’m also very concerns about several of the issues I’ve presented in the book.

Finally, so many of you have wanted to have something you could hold of mine! Some of you collect books just like me and would love to have something with my signature on it. Please express your gratitude this week (and every week) for that.

I’d like to thank everyone who’s offered to read and left feedback and shared my posts throughout this month, As I come to the end of my posting experiment, I must say that i’m not looking forward to rolling back and I’ll probably keep up my daily posts. Look for a survey about that soon.

Now, so I can have an awesome book launch day, here are some reasons why you should buy the book and share with as many people as you can.

  • It’s from a millennial perspective: Many people, especially in the real estate, economic development and placemaking sector, want to know what millennials actually want. Why do we want to rent instead of buy? Do we really like bars that much? Do we totally hate the mall? Will we buy all of our stuff on Amazon? Will we stop voting? I answer all these questions in my frame of a black woman millennial. Not the only perspective, but one and sometimes one perspective is all you need to get a sense of what people are doing and what you need to ask.
  • It brings a lot of my thoughts together: Even though it’s billed as  book of essays, a lot of my essays fall under general themes, so you get a better sense and a longer sense of how I feel about things. Also, there are things in the book, that are not on the blog, so you get a few bonus thoughts from me.
  • It’s in plain English: People know about the mall, Amazon, voting, IKEA heart pillows and trains. You won’t find too many mentions of adaptive reuse and I don’t think I use terms like fenestration at all. If you are in any place along the placemaking spectrum and your family has trouble understanding you, give them this book. I’m only one person, but at least they’ll get a dose of what you do daily, without all the heavy language.
  • You want to help me keep writing: If you buy this book on December 1, and if you buy the version here (it’s a simple PDF), then all the proceeds go back to me. If you wait until later get the Kindle/Nook/iBooks or print versions, less money goes to me, but if it’s in print, I can sign it, with a special note for you. Also, if you want to have me come to your local bookstore, or other place where you bring authors to talk, let me know by emailing me here. I can work with your budget and I might even be able to bring books with me.

Hopefully one of those reasons is enough for you to join the folks who’ve already pre-ordered and decided to make my book part of their bookshelf. Once again, here’s the link to the PDF e-book I’ll be back next week with information on pre-orders for print and Kindle/Nook versions. Happy reading!

Inspiring People: Kaid Benfield

I’m breaking my inspiring person rules today, to highlight someone I’ve only met virtually. Yet, when I read their writing, I feel like I already know them. Plus, pretty soon, I plan to fix the fact that we only know each other through our blogs. That person would be Kaid Benfield, currently in transition from the NRDC to Placemakers.

This is Inspiring People and it’s what I do on Sundays here on The Black Urbanist to highlight people in the urbanism/local government/planning/placemaking/add your adjective here space to highlight how they inspire me as a person also in this space. I’m also dropping a book next Monday. A Black Urbanist-Essays Vol. 1 is my first stab at putting these thoughts on literal paper. I’ll be launching an e-edition via a site called Gumroad on December 1, which will present it as a PDF. Look for a print and mainstream e-book edition in the future. Either way, it’s a great way to support what I’m doing here at The Black Urbanist. Check it out here.

In 2009, I was just another blogger who occasionally wrote about smart growth issues. This blog hadn’t quite been thought up yet. Yet, there were a small minority of folks who I followed and occasionally heard feedback from. Kaid’s one of those people. Another reason I find him admirable is that one, he’s a fellow North Carolinian and two he’s a lawyer. Not a planner, architect, government official or anyone else you’d expect to be as well written on placemaking as Kaid is. Plus I’m including this excerpt that I’ve bracketed from his recent book People Habitat. I think it speaks for itself as to why I find him inspiring.


I invite you to take a look at his blogs, pick up his book (and mine too) and take a dive into someone who I can’t wait to have coffee with and discuss learning from our home state what it means to love the place you are born and the environment where you live.