suburbs

Making It After All– On Social Media for Community Design and Minneapolis

I un-ironically wear a raspberry beret sometimes in the winter, and yes, I do throw it up in the air and tell the world that I’m going to make it after all. I was already cliche Minneapolis before I even set foot there the first time.

Two of my favorite speaking opportunities have been in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota. Specifically Minneapolis. Let’s relive some moments from my first visit, in 2014.

I was joined by two of my besties and we ate and saw some cool things. Plus, I remember vividly, that it was one of the first days that I had to wear a sweater and my wool coat in the fall of that year. Which made it pretty easy to stand here and made me pretty mad that it was so cold my regular raspberry beret wasn’t sufficient.

Kristen standing next to TV Land MTM statue when it was on Nicolet Mall in September 2014 . Photo by Graham Sheridan

Kristen standing next to TV Land’s Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards statue when it was on Nicolet Mall in September 2014 . Photo by Graham Sheridan

(Ok, it was still a raspberry headband. And practically every parody of this scene results in the hat falling down on the ground or being picked up and stolen…)

For those of you who still don’t understand this double-reference, here’s the original Mary Tyler Moore title sequence and here’s Oprah imitating it and talking about why the character of Mary Richards as portrayed by Mary Tyler Moore is an icon, especially to feminist media types like myself. And do I really need to link to this. (Most of the originals on YouTube are muted. You can purchase the original here.

The main theme of the Twin Cities for me, through all the things tied to it (MTM, Prince, the loss of Philandro Castile), is resilience and making it after all. Sadly, Castile and Prince did not, but thanks to the spirit of MTM’s character, we have Oprah and in turn we have a bunch of us out here, making content and owning our own things. Teaching people how to be a better community, as I did in this shot below in 2014:

Presenting on being a Strong Citizen at the 2014 Strong Towns Gathering in Minneapolis. Photo by Ed Efurt

Presenting on being a Strong Citizen at the 2014 Strong Towns Gathering in Minneapolis. Photo by Ed Erfurt

and I was about to do this year in this shot. on telling your story and the tools to do so:

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Another theme of the weekend was seriously just woman power. The group I was meeting with, the Association of Community Design, was powered by more than a handful of women and nice supportive men. In the design, development and governance conversation, you just don’t see that too often. Here’s a bit of our group, as we were wrapping up a weekend, that we spent just being present.

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Want to read my presentation? Go here. Stop and listen to it below:

https://soundcloud.com/kristen-jeffers/using-media-to-advance-community-design

And the communication checklist for designers is here.

I also ran into more woman rail fans. That world has been even harder to crack the glass ceiling in, but later this afternoon, I rode these streetcars:

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That middle image shows a woman driver, who took the opportunity to highlight the history of how women in World War II often drove streetcars. That last image is my new Como-Harriet line T-shirt, one of the many clothing bargains I got while in Minneapolis. Speaking of clothing and bargains. Yes, I went to the mothership. The mothership of City Targets:

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And because I’m that urbanist who admits I’m a mall rat and quotes Victor Gruen as a defense we went here.

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As you know, my urbanism was shaped by my dad. My dad and I often went to the Four Seasons Town Centre and the late Carolina Circle Mall in Greensboro. I was raised and grew up in the 1990s, which was the high era of bigger is better suburbia. It was also the best era of Nickelodeon. And I loved Legos as a kid, still do. Especially, when you see awesome creations like this:

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I also went bargain hunting at New York and Company, to the left of this picture, which hands down is still my favorite adult era mall store. I have to give them credit for making a dress I now own in five iterations.

If all other enclosed malls die and this one stays, then we will be ok. It will fulfill it’s role as a tourist attraction. It was disappointing that not all the existing department stores were here, that the IKEA was across the street and that there was a tax on the clothing here, unlike in other parts of Minneapolis, including at that mothership Target. One bonus is its rail accessible. Same with the airport on the same line. This is what you see when you get off at the mall.

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And as we end this time of fangirlling and making it after all, let me leave you with a few recommendations of things and places to do in Minneapolis.

I felt safe, and I felt like this could be a place that I could thrive professionally. But then again, I was staying at the hotel attached to the IDS Center and that probably had something to do with it.

On a more serious note, I have been told that efforts are being made to incorporate more people in the Twin Cities society, especially by the arts community. However, it was noted that residential segregation was still very high and that, along with the issues surrounding the police shootings in the area, this knocks down the Twin Cities.

The high points? Light rail to the airport and a handful of major tourist points,regular bus service to a number of ethnic enclaves (which while have great food, shouldn’t be so segregated), artist resources and those tax breaks on clothing, grocery and other necessities!.

One last picture, as I left town on the Blue Line.

Photo by Malcolm Kenton

Photo by Malcolm Kenton

I’m Kristen. I’ve written here about cities and places and how we can make them better for almost 6 years. You can learn more about me here. And you can follow me here, here and here.

Are You Mad About the Mall?– An Urbanist Holiday Tale

Are You Mad About the Mall?- An Urbanist Holiday Tale

It’s the holiday season. You went to the mall or the mall-like replacement that’s available in your city or town. You left in one of two ways, both of which made you mad about the mall.

The first way, you couldn’t get enough of the mall. You’re enamored with all the presents you were able to get. No person in your household or extended family or friends or office will not get the perfect present. The Christmas decorations were magnificent and the cute pictures your kid took with Santa will satisfy all of those nosy family members, especially the ones who don’t understand why you’re just now having a kid or why you rave about riding your bike everywhere or why more shops should be downtown and not just at this suburban spot.

If you’re in the Toronto area and you were fortunate enough, you took one of your own with this guy. Maybe you went to the Mall of America for the first time in years and rode the roller coaster, because hey, sometimes these mall thingys have cool stuff! You took the light rail back to downtown Minneapolis in prompt order though. You’ll get all your last-minute stuff from Target on Nicollet Mall. Or maybe it’s actually Michigan Ave in Chicago or on the Plaza in KC (wait the Plaza has Sephora now?). In that sense, you’re mad about the mall and can’t wait to go back. Plus, if you’re here in North Carolina this year like me, it might be raining, but it’s warm out and taking a nice stroll through Friendly Center doesn’t seem so bad. Or you’re in LA or Florida or somewhere where’s warm and sunny and Santa wears shorts outside the shopping plaza and you’re laughing at all of us rejoicing over a warm Christmas.

The second way you were mad at the mall is more negative. You were fuming the minute you were doing your normal Halloween candy shopping and you ran into that inflated plastic Santa Target insisted on having in the middle of the aisle. It was bad enough you had to go to Target, try as you must, you can’t give out beer to the kids that seem to multiply every year in your streetcar suburb.

Yet, at the central business district of this area, it seems that beer is the only thing sold, other than rotten fruit at the well-meaning farmer’s market co-op and overpriced, but somehow still fancy vintage dresses and antique chairs. You may have felt all self-righteous the week before Thanksgiving, going around to all the mostly empty parking lots and tagging them #blackfridayparking. What you didn’t tell folks is that you did that while your wife and kids were running through the store, growing more and more irritated at the scene on the inside, and at you making them feel stupid for even going inside, instead of helping them get through as quick as possible and even suggesting a nice day after Thanksgiving recipe idea. Because you didn’t just have one Thanksgiving on one day. You had to have two.

Now, it’s just days before Christmas and since you finally decided to get presents, all the local craft vendors are out of those mugs your wife likes. Your kids have to have that thing that only comes from Toys ‘R Us and nowhere else. Two hours before everything closes on Christmas Eve, you arrive back at your car in the back of the parking lot (or if you’re fortunate, the bike rack in front of the main entrance of the mall). You’re skin’s visibly red or at the very least, your body is very tense. You hit your digital device’s walk goal walking the 2.5 mile radius of the mall, but you could use a nice, leisurely ride or walk to relax.

Clunk. The custom mugs you bought for everybody at that one loud kiosk fell out of the cargo basket. All your Christmas presents broke. You’re plenty mad at the mall.

The Wikipedia definition of a mall is any concentration of stores, connected either by a central holiday or some other connector. The North American malls tend to connect on the inside. Malls in other countries tend to connect on the outside. Either way, there’s one key link, that makes this all urbanist, you’re walking, you’re connected, in theory, you’re exchanging goods and services and you’re making meaningful connections. We’re going to assume for the sake of this article, that the mall is any place you go to do your holiday shopping, whether it’s an old downtown or an insane Super Walmart. Many decisions about placing malls, creating parking lots, even if stores will open or close, are made from this time of year, too. See there, not just touchy-feely urbanism, but some hard numbers too.

Yet, other decisions are made too, ones involving family, friends and colleagues. Maybe you made a new work friend and you have plans to ride bikes more in the new year. You made that decision commiserating at the back of the room at the Maggiano’s Little Italy in the far suburb that you had to Uber too. Thankfully, you now how have an Uber partner back to Midtown. One floor of that empty department store is now a handmade craft fair. You took some of your crafty things out there and now you have a few extra pennies (Insert shameless plug, check out some of my crafty prints here). You’re back in your hometown and there’s a bike-sharing station outside the mall, the old downtown might come back alive thanks to its new cycletrack and there’s that Santa trolley that folks have asked when it’s going to run year-round, as a regular bus. Your grandma really loved being able to take it to her favorite grocery and shoe store without driving or having your mom drive her.

May there be a Christmas miracle in your city or town. At your mall, old or new. May all your presents and your presence be received well. And many wishes that your new year’s resolutions of that mall teardown, bikeshare station, reduced parking minimum and hey, let’s be honest, your prefered professional certification (or job of choice) of choice comes through. May you be happy, wherever this holiday brings you.

 

The Lost Corners of Suburbia

The Lost Corners of Suburbia

Belk at Four Seasons Mall
IHOP on Hillsborough Street
Two Guys Pizza on Hillsborough Street
Wachovia at Spring Valley Plaza

All these things used to be on the corner of something. All these places are places I made memories in. All of these places are gone or soon to be gone in their current forms. Many of these places are examples of bad architecture, shadinesss of patrons and big conglomerate corporations that increasingly only care about the dollars of these patrons, not their feelings.

Yet, these and many other dead malls and outparcels and big boxes and downtown storefronts are now gone.

As I’ve prepared to move halfway across the country, and as my hometown and college town begin to make major changes, I’ve started documenting what some may think are mundane, ugly parts of physical space. After all, when I come back to Greensboro, Gate City Boulevard will be the official address of so many things, not just changed street signs. That corner of Hobbs and Friendly might be clear-cut. I want to remember things as they were, because change is inevitable.

And about that corner of Hobbs and Friendly. People are mourning the change of that corner for different reasons. What was once five homes, homes that held families and memories, could soon be the Trader Joe’s that we’ve been begging for years. The one that I’m still on the fence about wanting to come to town for this very reason. (Let me add that now that I’ve had the goat cheese and sun-dried tomato ravioli and I swear by the Maple Pecan Granola Cereal they make, I’m sold on them for more than just cookies).

Sadly though, it’s a lost corner. Lost in the sense that the use of it is changing and memories of the corner are gone.

Yet, there will be new memories right? Some new homes are going on the property. I’m sure one will be the first home of a baby, who will grow up to recount their childhood days walking across the street to Trader Joes on one side and to see Santa at Christmas and to pick out their first bike at REI.

Much in the same way I’ll tell stories about my first visits to the carousel at  Carolina Circle Mall, Belk at Four Seasons, the map store at Cotton Mill Square, the toy store with the cool trains at Forum IV, the Chic-fil-A at Holly Hill Mall, Marvin’s on Hillsborough Street, the soon to be old IHOP on Hillsborough Street.

This post owes a debt to all the many suburban retail nostalgia blogs and Facebook pages out there. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, for those of us who grew up in suburbia or a Southern city that mimics what those in other regions consider suburbia, these were our places.

Our corners.

The lost corners.

Suburbs of Survival

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What if you didn’t have a house to live in? What if the only house you could live in at the present moment, was not a shack, had running water and electricity and a loving parent to make sure you wake up every morning even though your routine is currently more flexible? Oh, and that house wasn’t in a walkable neighborhood, but in a newish low-density area, with free parking? And the cherry: the fact that your family has possession of it proves that black folks, even in the age of bad mortgages, foreclosures and economic inequality, can in fact own and maintain a house?

This is my suburb, and it’s a suburb of survival.

This is Meat and it’s the Tuesday series on The Black Urbanist. It’s when I take a current news event that’s moderately related to what I talk about here and add a bit of my own commentary. It’s  also the holiday season and I’m sure you are either hosting all your family or you are getting ready to be one of those poor souls invading the airports and train stations and roads that the news always talks about on holidays. Take some stress out of your trip by using Expedia to book a good deal on your flight, rental car, hotel or all three. Click here for more information and know that your purchase will support The Black Urbanist and help me keep writing these meaty posts!

So I’ve said before that I live in the suburbs. I lived downtown, but lately, many downtown apartment complexes are becoming vertical suburbs, with no real service providers, and a bunch of novelty items. Nate Hood warned downtown developers to stop building entertainment districts, but some didn’t listen. Those of us who would like to build wealth or take career chances or be creative, can’t actually do that when rent is at or beyond 30%. I and other Millennials would be amenable to paying a little more in rent to be able to enjoy the benefits of a walkable community with a variety of services close by, but not merely to live in the midst of restaurants, theaters and boutiques.  That’s why so many of the big places are losing out on their creatives. We may still travel there, live there, be there, but for some of us Millennials, of all cultures, we are only able to find the stability of income and wealth building we need in the suburbs.

Anyway, it was this article, by Paul Mullins, that highlighted how much the suburban concept was a survival mechanism for African-Americans of varying means, even in the era of redlining. While some cities did not allow Black Americans to truly own their suburban homes or move into certain areas, others, including my own, redlined neighborhoods that when built out, looked exactly like white neighborhoods and offered the same level of community cohesion and personal space.

And even though some people were forced to pay too much for their homes or the mortgage rates are too high, some people still own their homes. Some have owned them for years. And they, like anybody who has a home, know the power of being able to shelter family, traveling renters and maybe even themselves in their second house on the beach.

Many large older cities boast streetcar suburbs — neighborhoods characterized by detached single-family homes, oriented not around cul-de-sacs but around streets with sidewalks connected in a grid pattern. At the center of these neighborhoods lie what we consider the main roads lined with retail establishments. These roads were once served by streetcar lines radiating from the center city — lines financed and built by private companies that could sell the suburban land around their lines to developers and reap dividends.

This is the kind of suburb that the free market brought into being before a series of policy decisions hobbled streetcar companies and subsidized road building and car ownership. Current car-oriented suburban development patterns, where hardly anything is walking distance from spread-apart homes, are not the result of the free market, but rather of a market distorted by multiple levels of subsidy. Though there is not much that individual developers or local planning departments can do to change this situation in the short term, it is worth keeping in mind when envisioning the future built environment.

And this gets complicated by racial segregation and redlining. Urban renewal also throws a wrench into the old streetcar suburb concept as well. Many proper, predominately African-American streetcar suburbs were demolished or reconfigured to be car-dependent development. Gentrification is taking away a lot of dense, service-rich neighborhoods away from those with lesser means, many which happen to be African-American.

Before I close, this does not let developers and planners who choose to not plan sustainably off the hook. Sustainable place-making concepts must not be limited to downtown areas.There are clear health and economic benefits from building services into suburban neighborhoods. The density I want to start seeing starts with making sure more things are in walking distance, in both urban and suburban places, rather than focusing on putting more luxury high-rises in downtown arts and entertainment districts. We should give everyone a chance to have the home that they need and want, while being able to enjoy walking access to the commercial corridors that define neighborhoods and offer places — be they parks or libraries or coffee shops, casual eateries or corner stores — where communities come together, and that make possible a sense of shared wealth, to accompany the private wealth that suburbs symbolize.

This post is part of my participation in #NaBloPoMo, the time of the year when bloggers come together to pump out daily content and connect. Find out more about that project and how I’m participating, here and here.

Dispatches from Bookcation: As We Lay #Ferguson To Rest

I’ve been thinking about how I would respond to the recent events in Ferguson, MO. And then I realized, I’ve always been thinking about how I would respond to certain events. That this page responds to a lot of the ills that lead to what happened there and what has happened in different forms in other communities throughout the United States.

From a very young age (and that young age occurring throughout the 1990’s), I’ve known that things were always different in certain parts of town. That sometimes people did bad things and those bad things would sometimes lead to being shot. Or, sadly, the bad thing would mean being shot. As I grew older, standing on a field outside of my middle school after another copy-cat Columbine bomb threat, I realized that anybody could get shot, even in the nice places. The night my purse was stolen at my luxury apartment complex. At gunpoint. Many a night where I was surrounded by bad things, but those bad things never happened. Not to me at least.

Some bad things can be prevented though. We can work on trusting each other so we don’t automatically assume someone’s up to no good or could be a crime suspect. We could work on our economy, so that people can make a legitimate living, and not be tempted in a life of crime or bored by “having nothing to do.” We could make it so housing isn’t so expensive. We can fix it so our roads aren’t so un-inviting and allow for more than just speeding cars. So we don’t automatically assume all walkers are criminals. If someone is threatening us, we can use self-defense, but only to stop the perpetration, not take a life.

And finally, we can pray. That’s all I’ve been able to do, because I need my words to go somewhere where they can truly be heard and where massive, society-bending change can be made.

On a less serious note:

–I am switching gears somewhat and working on building up my “how I do it” website, Kristen’s Workshop. For those of you who don’t know, my background and primary work is in media, communication and marketing.  Yes, there will still be a book of the material here on this site. There will still be my daily North Carolina news roundup. With the new site, through some of my words and tips, you too can affect change in your community or at least just throw a good community event. Some of those tools will have a price tag, but there will be flexibility for those of you who need help, but cannot pay.

–I was on Chuck Marohn’s  Strong Towns podcast this past month. Check it out here.

–I’ll be in DC for the Labor Day weekend and I’ll be at the Strong Towns National Gathering September 12-13 in Minneapolis. Expect pictures, commentary and if you get to hang out with me, lots of fun. Instagram is the place to see all that.

 

The Department Store of the Amazon and New Urbanist Age

Coming to the end of the maze that is IKEA. Satisfied and with a full yellow bag. Image by the author.

Coming to the end of the maze that is IKEA. Satisfied and with a full yellow bag. And yes, it’s blurry on purpose. Tell me I’m not wrong for feeling this way at the end of an IKEA trip. Image by the author.

As of this writing, I’ve just learned that the Belk at the Four Seasons Mall, the last remaining enclosed mall in Greensboro, will close at the beginning of 2015. I fully expect two things at that mall. One, it will go the way of the Carolina Circle Mall, our other enclosed mall and be torn down and replaced with a super Walmart. Or two, it will be rebirthed à la North Hills in Raleigh, JC Penney in tact and Target attached.

My theories are leaning towards the later. Walmart Neighborhood Market just arrived in the space of an old Borders (which was doing well until the chain itself went under), that’s just about a half-mile away and it seems to be happy and doing fine. As of this writing, I have investigated this claim in person, and walked out with a large tub of sea salt caramel ice cream. There are benefits to the world domination of Walmart.

Likewise, there are also benefits to the world domination of Amazon. Big box and traditional department stores either step their game up and stay in business or they count their losses and combine forces at one central location, as the Greensboro Belk will do, by going to Friendly Center. I also would like to note here that at one point, Friendly Center was said to be on the rocks. Now, it’s our shining example of that hybrid that I mentioned of the mall and the main street.

Getting back to that hybrid idea for a moment, although I bemoan the new North Hills’s gentrification from a housing standpoint, its efficiency is bar none. All the places I love to shop, save IKEA and the Limited are right on site. The best plain wings in North Carolina are right in-house at the Q Shack.  I get my chicken quesadilla fix at Moe’s and yes, I still have a soft spot for Chic-Fil-A chicken nuggets, which is conveniently located next to the movie theater, giving me more options besides popcorn for movies. Harris Teeter is now across the very busy Six Forks Road, but so is the brand new North Hills amphitheater and several other fun spots. The crosswalks are long and safe enough, it’s not so bad.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the suckling power of the Great Bullseye, the crown jewel of this setup. Just look at this map of how Target has grown over the years. The sad part is that map stops at 2008. I’m sure the map is completely red at this point. What is it really about the store? The Wikipedia entry gives a great nod to the attention to customer experience. When I come to Target, I’m not prompted in-between sad old songs to buy things. (Although, I will interrupt my Target love fest to say that the IKEA’s choice to play disco era jams during my last visit was also spot on. But more on the big blue box in a minute).

Target’s usually a stop after work when I’m tired and I need time to process my day, as well as pick up a few things. I know that most of those things will be there. Plus, I get entertained by a few wants and for the most part they don’t fall into my cart. Even with the card security issues, Target offers an actual happy experience over crowded spaces, extremely overpriced, but of similar quality clothing, and just the right foods to stock up my pantry. Once again, they are committed to being a part of city life too, with stores in mixed use developments, traditional malls, East Harlem and its new CityTarget concept in the Chicago Loop.

That other big box of weakness, IKEA, does its part to be urbanist and hip to the Amazon Prime crowd. You can actually see what everything looks like, in a real room setup. Now granted, I’m used to this, having grown up a stones throw from the furniture capital of the world and the year-round, well-dressed, showrooms of furniture of real wood and already-assembled craftsmanship. However, how many stores show you how cool your studio apartment really is? How many stores have kitchen and bathroom and office planning consultants on site? And seriously, how many have pillows made of hearts with arms ready for hugs. Sure, you’ll probably need lots of hugs after you finish putting together all that furniture, but they’ve also made sure you ate well coming in and out of the door.

Like all for-profit companies, including that Amazon, there have been issues with labor, poor products, poor customer service and once again, that many of these stores are always in driving distance. Yet, they do deliver. This, is what makes IKEA and Target, in my opinion, the department stores that will lead the way as we become more digital and return to the traditional main streets from the malls and the box stores.

All this to say that the Four Seasons Mall will not die from this announcement. It has a major Sheraton hotel and convention operation in its parking lot. It has one of those other hip for the digital age stores, H&M, which just moved in a little less than a year ago. It has lost and regained its movie theater, a major way of bringing traffic in that doesn’t involve the consumption of objects as much as it does the experience. The Greensboro Coliseum is only a mile away and it’s the bookend to the city’s new effort to revitalize and reinvigorate the soon to be Gate City Boulevard corridor. Its formal name is now the Four Seasons Town Centre, which would make it easy for someone like General Growth Properties, who currently owns the mall, to convert and market it in a manner similar to its Durham mall, The Streets of Southpoint, once the demand and demographics change. Even now, with its frontage onto I-40, it can still function as a great regional mall and destination, like it has in the past.

Yet,  all these ideas put revitalization and customer service in the hands of the companies. How does placemaking and tactical urbanism deal with retail and purchasing needs? Stay tuned.

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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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The Internal Urban Sprawl Killer: DIY and Service Delivery

Peapod Delivery Truck on a Single Family Residential Street. Image Credit #MsLoriTV

Peapod Delivery Truck on a Single Family Residential Street. Image Credit #MsLoriTV

I have to always admit, that not all urban sprawl is the fault of the homeowner or apartment renter. Thanks to how our economy and our government is structured, there are a lot of people who would prefer a downtown condo or townhome, but are priced out of the privilege of walking to all the restaurants and theaters. This is even more pronounced in cities like mine where there’s only one or two walkable dense areas. So what is one to do when they are priced out into sprawl? Get to know how to do-it-yourself or have things delivered to make up for lack of restaurants, inability to walk or bike to work, and entertaining yourself and your neighbors.

Conquering the Lack of Restaurants and Nearby Markets

First, there’s meal planning. Most days, one does not need to eat out or go to a restaurant to make sure they eat well. If you write a schedule of what you want to eat, how and when to cook it and make sure you purchase or have delivered storage containers, then you could eat fancy directly from your kitchen, at home or at work.  I recommend the Feast Bootcamp, to help you get started learning how to cook on a budget and in a way that makes sense for you. Once you know what you eat all the time, you can keep your list on your phone and do a monthly trip to the grocery store or find out what stores will deliver the groceries you use the most to your home.

Most moderate sized metro areas have a brick and mortar grocery that will deliver directly to your home for a fee. Here in North Carolina, Harris Teeter and Lowes Foods do. Chicago, New England, NYC DC and Philly have Peapod. Amazon delivers to everyone. Case in point, I used to order three weeks worth of oatmeal from them and I utilized their Subscribe and Save to make sure I kept the box coming . No matter what service you use, you may balk at delivery fees and some of the items may be more than you are used to paying.  However, imagine not having to battle lines and the sheer overwhelm of shopping at the big box close to home. Or, you can always take your reusable bag and walk on the safe paths to get to that store. Walking doesn’t end just because you are in sprawl.

In addition, if where you live has granted you a lot of land space, get to farming! Even if it’s just one squash plant or one tomato stalk, this will go a long way to reducing your household expenses and also allowing extra money for a once or twice a week jaunt into downtown to enjoy the amenities there. In addition, all you have to do is walk out to your backyard for several of your fruits and veggies. No time to farm? Get to a neighbor farmer with livestock who will sell you an animal and process all the meat for you or will deliver you a bag of produce. CSA’s are also helpful in this, but you may luck out and find that your nearest neighbor may be willing to barter with you, if you have some other service to provide.

Dealing with the Inability to Walk or Bike to Work, Amenities or  for Exercise

When I talked about food above, I said that walking doesn’t end. What walking does do, is get harder. You may have to walk on curb cuts or in mud or grass that may or may not be publicly owned. I hope you have good health and can walk fast or run, because you may need to to cross very busy suburban parkways to get to the stores and businesses. Biking is only a little bit better, because you might be able to pedal as fast as  car going less than or at 35 miles an hour. Good luck though with higher speeds. Oh, and some communities may have bike lanes/trails, because they are proven to boost fitness.

As far as commuting, there are some suburban areas served by their greater metro area’s transit system. Your government leaders at least recognize that people who live there have to go to work and they can’t all drive there. Find out when the bus or train comes, how long it will take to get to your job and bring a book or get some good music or podcasts to listen to on the way there and back.

If you don’t have transit options, you may have the option of carpooling with a few of your colleagues. Yes, this all depends on you liking the people you work with and the fact that you work for a big enough company to justifiably have enough people nearby going to the same workplace. This also works if you work in the same building or same office complex. Take turns driving. If you don’t have the car, get a driver’s licence and  consider being the driver and paying for all the gas.

There’s always telecommuting, developing a home-based business, buying in the subdivision closest to the office park or just driving and dealing with the repercussions of gas and maintenance. When I was reading about Celebration, FL over the past few weeks, many of the residents I read about had a home-based business or worked for Disney. Yet one guy, an urban planner for Tampa, sacrificed a cheap and short commute to continue his regular office job, but allow his family and himself on his downtime to experience the benefits that come from a compact community.

Lastly, don’t count out the hills and trails in your community. Thanks to our climate and terrain in Greensboro, many of our low-density neighborhoods actually still have hilly terrain built-in. There’s two very large hills near my mom’s house that were no joke on my bike when I was younger, so much so I gave up on biking. Yet, as an adult, I appreciate what it means to use nature to exercise and will be using those hills for such in the coming months. If you find yourself in unique terrain, then use it to your advantage. In addition, even if where you live is flat asphalt, people tend to not speed in parking lots and on residential streets. Start walking for fitness at least a few times a week and you may have company in your walk, or at the very least cars will slow down for you.

Entertaining Yourself

If you are comfortable with hosting people in your home or organizing parties, open up your home or help your street close down and have gatherings there. One major defense I hear from suburban dwellers is that where they live allows them to do this often, and sometimes without having to consult governing bodies or other neighbors (since they will be at the party too). Those of you who happen to be on a quiet street, consider having one house party or cookout and see if it works for your street. If your street is a party pooper, don’t be afraid to walk over to the next cul-de-sac or reach out to other neighborhood residents at a community meeting and check out what’s going on.

If it’s not the people you miss, but the content of the entertainment, don’t count out Netflix and Amazon and Hulu, as well as set-top boxes like Roku and Apple TV. That hot Broadway show or documentary may have been recorded and may be streaming on these services. It may take a few months or a year to reach you, but there are tons of other programs, documentaries and plays on these channels to entertain you. If you have friends that rave about these movies and plays and you fear missing out, then work with them to be in town (and stay with them) or schedule a weekend vacation while that particular cultural event is showing or first open. Plus, more smaller cities and towns are developing arts and cultural communities of their own. Don’t snub those communities, as they may also provide what you are missing.

Not Off The Hook

None of this gets developers, builders and resistant governments off the hook for not creating affordable, walkable areas that allow for community-level placemaking, as well as wealth generation and relationship building. However, the circumstances of not having an urban block or a nearby movie theater don’t have to keep you locked up inside or wasting money or gas in transit or in eating.

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#AudioThursday: Chilling in the Urbanism Speakeasy

Thursdays at The Black Urbanist are now audio days, where either I share great audio on placemaking topics, or I podcast. In lieu of me podcasting this week, I wanted to share my visit to Andy Boenau’s Urbanism Speakeasy, one of the fun podcasts in our neck of the woods. I talked about why I started The Black Urbanist, as well as several of the theories I’ve presented over the years on the blog. Head here to take a listen.

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Why We May Never Have the Right Words for the Places We Live

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Previously, I’ve written about why words matter. Especially when we talk about what’s a town and what’s a suburb. Once again, people are people and places are places. So how should we talk about places?

First of all, if you have a city, with either two large cities, that are economic powers surrounded by several small towns with less economic power, then you have a metropolitan area. If you have a larger town with economic power, with smaller towns around it, you have a micropolitan area, the Census Bureau’s new word for smaller areas of concentrated economic power. A farm is still a farm.

I know, sounds technical right? And maybe a bit harsh. After all, one of my good urbanist friends reminded me that economically, some larger metros are justifiably suburbs. Yet, we’ve never really been good at this labeling the places we live anyway. Are all our streets streets? Or are they really roads, highways, boulevards, avenues,courts, ways, alleys, etc. Oh and some of those alleys aren’t really alleys. And when do you know when a road is a street? What if the road turns into a freeway after that traffic signal up ahead. Or is it a stoplight.

Anyway, thanks to our nuances in language by region, we don’t all use the same names for the places we live. And that’s ok. As long as you don’t make the racial euphemism mistake, you are ok by me. However, it’s worth checking out the thoughts of Ben Ross, the author of the new book Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. This excerpt published on Greater Greater Washington has a lot to say on the many euphemisms we use in urban planning and other more casual conversations about place.:

In Briarcliff, New York, a spurned builder once wrote, the aim of zoning is to guarantee “that each newcomer must be wealthier than those who came before, but must be of a character to preserve the illusion that their poorer neighbors are as wealthy as they.” 

Such frank talk about land use is rare indeed. If you don’t want something built, an honest statement of objections invites defeat in court. If you do, plain speaking is unlikely to convince the zoning board, and it risks offending any neighbors who might be open to a compromise. 

Each party has an illusion to maintain, so words become tools of purposeful confusion. One side directs its linguistic creativity into salesmanship. Rowhouses turn into townhomes; garden apartments grow parked cars in the gardens; dead ends are translated into French as cul-de-sacs. The other, hiding its aims from the world at large and often from itself, has a weakness for phrases whose meaning slips away when carefully examined.

I couldn’t have written a better paragraph. Check out the rest of that excerpt here for more euphemism fails.

Another great wordsmith of place is my friend and colleague Steve Mouzon. When asked to not write so technically about the urban to rural transect and its effect on how people chose to walk, he went back and crossed out the technical language and added new, more concise and friendly language. Need I mention that this article is about a concept he calls Walk Appeal,  one of his many catchy phrases that help us all learn about how to live in and create better places.

I end with one more reminder for all of us to be literary when it comes to describing people and places. Add as many adverbs and adjectives as you need. Say what you really mean, even if it is slightly mean. It’s better than empty euphemisms, with meanings that come back to haunt you later.

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