tips for urbanist living

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?

Books

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.

Experiences

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.

 

 

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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The Privilege of Urbanism, The Democracy of Placemaking

Privilege.

The one thing I can take from reading this article and reading my words back to myself on what it has been like living as a classical new urbanist over the past year. I cannot think of another way to illustrate how I feel vis-a-vis a young man, only two years younger than me, who’s trying to get his life back on his feet, facing challenges. It also brings me to a hard truth that my design-focused friends and followers will not want to hear.

Design, even new urbanist design, is out of reach or a major stretch for far too many people, including myself.

Prior to speaking with the reporter about the issues and frustrations I have with where I live, prior to the noise ordinance and curfew restrictions, I’d been thinking about a change in living situation.

However, I kept beating myself up with a major what-if: if I leave my apartment and go somewhere cheaper, then many of the theories I’ve put forth on this blog and in other forms would go unproven.

Isn’t that what a theory is though, an idea that hasn’t been proven? Is anything on this blog law?

No, it isn’t, and that’s actually a good thing.

One of the greatest new urbanist writers of our time is actually not quite an urbanist, in the sense that he doesn’t live in an apartment, near transit, by himself or with one or two other people. I would like to think his credibility on the subject is far superior to mine and the marketplace agrees (slowly but surely).

Yet, I still believed for the longest time, that the only way anyone would listen to my words and create a marketplace around them is if I lived the most extreme urbanism I knew how to live.

And it’s urbanism, but it’s not placemaking.

Placemaking does require an address, but it’s not necessarily an address in demand. Place can be made from old-line suburbia, where each neighbor can decide to grow a different vegetable and then teach the community how to clean and cook those vegetables, in order to eat healthier. The streets of that old-line suburbia could become woonerfs, places where cars automatically go slow and people take advantage of the sloping hills and winding curves and dead ends to get in workouts, that shed the pounds earned by sitting in cars commuting to ever further away jobs, or from sitting at home doing a job that no longer requires a specific location. They could carpool to stores. I think my reporter friend said it best in this article, “Even for a staunch new urbanist like myself, the logic is inescapable: If you want two or three bedrooms and you can afford a mortgage of about $100,000, you head for the suburbs.”

While I truly don’t want the center city to yield to the gilded class, I don’t want us to give up on making good places because we don’t live or can’t afford to do so. I also don’t want those of us with massive privilege to forget that it doesn’t take much for anyone to fall on hard times and not all dealing with hard times are lazy and uncommitted.

Whatever happens and whatever I decide to do in the coming months, my goal is to commit myself to a new theory, the democracy of placemaking. To create, to invent, to include, to incorporate, to adapt, to save and to grow. Let me not forget again, what it really means to be a placeist.

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Thoughts on Bringing Our Youth Back Downtown

Between the Trayvon Martin verdict and the recent youth fights resulting in our downtown curfew for the remainder of the summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we can do to make sure downtown is solidly diverse, without sacrificing safety.

I’ve had to think long and hard about what my response would be. I could rail and say that this city is forever racist, that the kids will never amount to anything, that there will never be any chain stores or any other negativity that has been thrown at downtown and even our city lately. However, it is just like I told Sarah Goodyear of Atlantic Cities in this article:

Kristen Jeffers, a Greensboro native who lives downtown, founded the blog The Black Urbanist. She says that anxiety about young black people who flock to the entertainment district masks deeper issues facing the city’s development.

While there’s been a lot of investment in high-end rental housing, and the city is talking about putting in a performing arts center, Jeffers says the area still lacks basic services like pharmacies and a full-scale supermarket.

“For a neighborhood to be a true neighborhood, and not just a vertical suburb, you need those services,” she says.

What the also downtown needs, she says, are amenities that attract more people of a variety of ages, like playgrounds for families and a first-run movie theater. And young people should be supported with more structured programming, rather than marginalized. “Our city needs to bring back a full-on youth program,” says Jeffers, the type of effort that includes job training as well as recreational opportunities.

What my solution look like?

Western Part of Downtown Greensboro

What you see in the left oval is an area that consists of a YMCA to the top right of the oval, a magnet performing arts high school flanking the left side of the oval and school administration building between the two surface lots. The right oval shows how close this area is to Elm Street, the new hotspot for everyone that’s become ground zero for the fights, and also new upscale stores and development. My office is also in that oval and my apartment is just southeast of it’s boundary, along with our central bus depot and Amtrak train station.

We are talking about roughly a square (rectangular) mile here. This area is also owned and managed by either the county school system or the Y. The Y already has programs for youth, even though they are fee-based. The school system has a mandate to educate the teenagers that go through their building. Adults already know this area as a place that is family-friendly. Teens know this area has places they can go and not be pushed out.

The only caveat is that this area is adjacent to the county jail. However, this also means law enforcement is quite close by and can deal with people who fight. Otherwise, one of the surface lots along with the brick school administration building can be upfitted into a family entertainment center, with lazer tag, bowling, a skate park and playground, go-karts, and a movie theater. The administrative functions could move to another building that the school system owns just north of the school building. The center could be closed during school hours except during the summer. A deck could be built next to the Y building to accommodate the increased traffic to both the Y and this entertainment center. It could also accommodate jail parking, which has been a need since it opened last year. The playground area would be a public, free facility, or the Y could open their existing playground area to the public. A private company could operate the entertainment center, and employ students of either the high school or nearby colleges. Students could even build the center, as this high school at one time housed one of the construction trades programs in the county.

In addition to beefing up the existing Greensboro Youth Council, these initiatives would go a long way in serving the growing and in many ways already existing youth population who want a place to go downtown, along with the adults.

This also does not excuse the current curfew, nor let other areas off the hook for being accepting of students and youth. As long as youth don’t fight each other, they have every right to play sports on the lawns and sit on the benches of Center City Park like everyone else. Yet, once that park closes, they could go to the Y or the entertainment center and spend the remainder of their evening in a place that is ready and willing to accept them.

Voting Rights, Civic Duty, and Neighborhoods

Nearly one week ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The part that was struck down, pre-clearance, required state legislatures in several states across the country, including my own in part, to submit any plans to re-district or reform the voting process to the Justice Department. The idea was to make sure any voter suppression or restriction efforts, such as literacy tests, were not reenacted. Also, districts were drawn to ensure minority, namely black voting turnout. The idea of pre-clearance is not dead. However, the formula is and it is up to Congress to make a new one.

So what does this have to do with neighborhoods? Lots. Follow me and you will see why.

For the record, I want to say that the idea of reducing the ability and ease of voting is wrong. I don’t understand why we have not figured out how to make it EASIER to vote for our political leaders. The online universe is littered with polls. Granted, some of those polls allow you to vote multiple times. Yet others don’t and somehow we can’t bring that technology to the polls that matter the most?

Yet, I feel lawmakers want voting restricted because it favors the populace and not them. However, these lawmakers forget a central tenet: they serve at the pleasure of the people. Or do they? As we have found out, there’s no true constitutional right for the common people to vote for their leaders. At any moment, state legislatures and other local governing bodies could decide to start appointing their leaders and disenfranchise the entire populace.

Another issue with the VRA and the current state of voting is that the rules were becoming a restriction for those it sought to help. It was as if it was not worth trying as a black individual running in a non-VRA district. Similar things happen on the local level in other districts and to other marginalized groups where states have drawn districts to ensure an extreme level of compliance with the VRA. Take a look at North Carolina’s map below. Thanks to a very off interpretation of the VRA, that “snake” district is the only thing that guarantees at least one solid, African-American U.S.House member in this state.

North Carolina Congressional District #12. The VRA in action.

Yet, I want to remind everyone that as a citizen of any place you live and a good community steward, voting is essential. See, this is what has to do with neighborhoods. I took a bit of heat for not including it in my list of things that make one a lazy urbanist. However, to me, being a lazy urbanist allows for a representative democracy, as such we have throughout our country at all levels of government. If one has a crop of good leaders, why vote? Some would also say that we are too large to caucus in many areas. However, we are not too large and shouldn’t be too lazy to vote, find people worthy of serving us in our own communities, and even become that person ourselves. True governing requires door-to-door campaigning and town hall meetings. If neighborhood residents can come together on a regular basis and vote on activities, then why not vote on the leaders and issues that matter to them?

However, it comes down to one thing and one thing only: how to be a good neighbor. There is a Christian scripture that commands us to love our neighbor. If you don’t like the use of scripture, then go to the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, which has become a universal ethics code. Being a good neighbor requires that we sometimes lay down our personal differences and the personal mandate we have been given, for the good of others. It requires that we lay down our jealousies, envies, and feelings of being threatened and we allow others the right to exist and live. Sometimes we can’t blast our music loud. Yet, does that mean we can’t paint our house purple? What are we doing that we are allowing residential home values to be what they are such that segregation, competition for home bids, flipping, and other detriments to home values are happening? And back to the main issue at hand, why are we not voting, not allowing potential elected leaders in our homes, or realizing the type of country we are supposed to live in, which allows for liberty AND respect for our fellow people?

I can’t answer that question, but I can say that we have to be better citizens and in turn that creates stronger neighborhoods and communities.

Everything I Learned about Place, I Learned on Campus

During my time on campus, placemaking became more than a fantasy. It was ingrained. Let’s be honest here; if we think about how much we walked, shared things, and did all of our major business within a small set of buildings and blocks, we should all have at least some good nostalgia. In fact, I’ll go ahead and share the major lessons I learned about place being on campus:

I lived in a building with 50 other people and didn’t pull my hair out: If anybody has any complaint about communal living, it’s that the bathroom stinks, their roommate stinks, and the place just flat out stinks. Well, in my dorms, we didn’t have as much of a stench due to housekeeping staff who took pride in their work and RA’s who put wet wipes, air fresheners and other light cleaning supplies in the dorms to fill in the gaps. We also had a maintenance staff that made sure our windows, air conditioners, steps and the like were in good working order at all times. There were individual roommate problems, but some of the troublemakers either got kicked off of campus or had somewhere else to go. I loved being able to go downstairs and have something going on at all times. Even if it was random or not quite my thing, it was still something to do that saved money on entertainment.

I ate at the dining hall, and we had a world-class chef: Well, for the first two years of undergrad at least. The lesson here is that you can run a cheap restaurant. Hire a chef who appreciates the challenge of cooking for diverse college students and sees the place as a nice sit-down restaurant, not a mess hall for students who will eat everything under the sun. However, the challenge we did run into was keeping the good chef (he was promoted) and finding people who could cook all kinds of things. In grad school, I added tasty takeout joints to the mix. Yet, my one visit to the general dining hall was my last visit to the general dining hall, as it clearly began to resemble a mess and not the best.

We shut down for 3.5 months and we still got stuff done: People complain or sympathize with the college student break, but in light of the recent economic troubles of many companies, besides paying their employees, they have no reason to really operate over the Christmas and in some cases any national holiday.  Having so many days off rejuvenated me and helped me to come back ready to work twice as hard. Also, this helps with building energy costs and motivating even the lowest paid employees. (Think of our chef or housekeepers).

I walked everywhere(undergrad): Granted walking from the grocery store was a bit cumbersome.(Reusable bags had not hit the mainstream yet), but I appreciated the fresh air. Also, there were businesses that were close by and students patronized them, especially if they had something students really wanted (not just alcohol). When I didn’t walk, I rode the on campus bus, the Wolfline, which had connections to two grocery stores, a drug store and all the main points of campus I couldn’t easily walk to. The bus even ran a special route to the athletic complex for basketball and football games.

I barely drove (grad school): Having a car and commuting from my mom’s house made me a bit lazy. I complained dearly and daily about parking at the park-and-ride. I scarfed down fast food just so I could run and grab my precious Betsy and park her right outside the door of our building, which was free after five. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, even when I received a better parking permit the following year (all day, every day parking on main campus), all it did was make me rethink my car trips. Could I just be more focused and do my homework at home, then make the trip to campus for classes and serious library time only? Is it worth me swinging around the block for the perfect spot, when I could just park in “the sticks” and get some much needed exercise? I used to love walking in the rain? What happened? I appreciate even more the times in undergrad when I had no choice but to walk, for the sheer fact that my waistline (and my bank account) loved me better.

These lessons are not news to the many college-educated young professionals who chose to make dense, traditionally urban style areas their home. These lessons are also not lost on some who were forced into urban-style development as children, left for the suburbs, but come back for work, or to play on the evenings and weekends. Service workers, namely spa and salon owners, make their business in dense areas and know about the hip cachet. Those without homes know that the best place to be when all you have are the clothes on your back and your two feet is where all the public services are, which tend to still concentrate in the central business district.

At the end of the day, a sense of place is the greatest lesson of all, no matter what level of schooling you have.

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The Case for a Lazy Urbanism

I need to be honest. Sometimes I don’t want to write this blog anymore. Yes, I’m in love with the city and the greater sense of place found in all forms of natural and unnatural terrain. However, we all know that just because we love something, doesn’t mean we want to be with it or them all the time. Sometimes they might even drive us crazy and make us want to either throw it away or cut off the relationship for good.

Honestly though, sometimes we are just lazy. That’s not a bad thing, especially with urbanism. Yes, the urban environment is largely an object of creation and reinvention, but eventually, you want to get to the point where all you NEED to do with it is to provide maintenance. If you want to make something new, great! Here’s to you great urban pioneer!

However, some people just aren’t the pioneering and creative type. They like that there’s sidewalk cafes, but they don’t want to build them. Or maybe they are the lounge singer, but not the painter that owns the art gallery. Just because someone is creative doesn’t mean they can create and engineer everything about a city. Some things are meant to be felt, not made.

With that, I would now like to make my case for a “lazy” urbanism. What does your city need for people who like or have to just “be” in a city and not build a city?

Connected transit with 5-15 minute headways

In plan English, this means that the bus or train is there when I get there, no matter when I decide to walk out my front door, leave my job, or leave the club. I don’t have to worry about downloading the latest transit app. Heck, I don’t even have a cell phone. I’m old and I don’t like them, but I need the bus to be on time. Oh and please don’t break down train. Ain’t nobody got time for that. (Seriously, it fit and it’s true.)

A 50-50 mix of chain and local establishments in the urban core

Sometimes I want my Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate. Sometimes I want my hand-mixed Sprite substitute with the lemon and line syrups and club soda. The coffee shops don’t have to sit side-by-side, but they need to be close by. If we expect people to live a more urban lifestyle, then we need to start building the chains they love back into the central business district.

Everything I need in walking distance

Some folks measure this in a concentric circle, with the inner layer being 5 minutes away and the outermost layer being 15 minutes. Yet, some people walk everywhere  and it’s not because it’s fun and cute. Those folks are walking to the doctors office, the unemployment bureau, maybe even the homeless shelter. The fun and cute folks don’t want to be more than five minutes from your car if you decided to drive to downtown (or the “town center”). Either way, people who are lazy urbanists expect to have things on their doorstep. Or, they can’t help themselves unless the help is only a few doors down.

The right housing at the right mix and price

Housing is bankrupting people across social and economic classes. Much of it built in the last 30-35 years has also been made cheaply. Despite this, many people are paying far more than its worth because the first three principles above are in full effect in some areas, but not all areas. Or, you need more space for kids or you need room for accessibility. It’s really sad that both housing (and food for that matter) are our two largest expenses (if you exclude health care and education, two other major necessities).

No logos, no slogans, no special “make the city better” organizations

The city is just because it is. Having a brand is ok, but at the end of the day, you don’t live in your city because it has a logo that looks suspiciously like Walmart’s. You live there because it provides everything you need (or a job that lets you get to everything you need, there’s a difference). I like having special programs, but if that’s the only thing driving folks to the city, then there’s a deeper problem. Cities work when all forms of economic development, as well as sensible architecture, are employed, not one or two, with haphazard plans.

I need urbanism to mature to a point where I can have a conversation with my family about what I write about and not have to dumb down the language. Where sprawl repair, tactical urbanism, and good governance are just simply

PLACE.

Getting Human Transport Outside Of The Box

A human is not a box. However, we still prefer to transport ourselves as such. Then again, we do live in a world, namely in the United States, where corporations are people and those “people” often make things that come in boxes.

Yet, we are failing ourselves by only making our transportation systems work as if everyone comes in a box. You know I’m anti-hierarchy, but this is one clear place where a hierarchy makes perfect sense. The hierarchy I’m talking about is one of transportation (or transit) oriented development.

Those of you fellow urban planning nerds have heard the words transit oriented development so much, it’s almost like a bad song stuck in your head. Especially those of you who are urban planners and you can’t get your community on your side to plan better. In their minds, if it’s not bringing people or “people” to commercial enterprises, then it’s not doing it’s job or worth the money. Don’t even get me started on the STROAD problem.

Sadly, not everything that people do is worth money. Sometimes it’s worth time or community or love. Therefore, we need to stop yielding to the “people”‘s transportation hierarchy and get back to the human transportation hierarchy.

So what does the “people’s” hierarchy look like?

1. Plane
2. Boat
3.Train
4.Tractor-Trailor Truck
5.Cart/Wheelbarrow/Red Wagon
6.Bike Cart
7. Hands/Back of a person or animal.

As you can see, this list prioritizes space, speed and ability to bear weight. In some iterations, it doesn’t even include human beings. If this transport hierarchy can be worked through without humans, why do some think it’s appropriate for humans without cargo?

In my opinion, this is how a human-based transportation hierarchy would go:

1. Walking
2.Biking
3.Jitney/Bus/Taxi
4.Train
5.Car
6.Plane
7.Boat

I’ve left out animals on purpose. Unless you have no other choice, let’s let our horses, camels and other animals lay at rest. Machines were invented for a good reason here ;). I also went from the most to the least mechanical. We are organic beings after all. At least in the United States we really value our independence from things besides ourselves.

Bringing all these thoughts to a close, quite simply we need to bust out of the box. That box being the one that makes humans a commodity and not a community.

Find me on Facebook or Twitter. I’ll be outside the box.

Image Credit: Flickr user Roland Tanglao under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.

Identity Crisis- When Your Suburb is Really a Town

Sorry Alexandria, you’re really a city, but I think we all knew that deep down(Photo Shot by me in August of 2008)

What makes a suburb a suburb? It’s one of the major questions that is at the center of the battle for how governments or independent communities of people should regulate and create public space.

This issue has been on my mind quite a bit in the last few months. First, it was Emily Badger’s Pseudosuburbanism as a resident of Alexandria, VA. Then it was this article I shared on the social media pages about how diversity is changing the old rules of what constitutes suburbia. Ultimately, some of this debate is the old civic inferiority complex rearing up its head again.

Ultimately, I’ve found a few things make a town an actual town. They are as follows:

-You have an individual or several individuals who govern your affairs as elected officials. This government is recognized in the town charter.

-You have your own post office (However, this one is becoming less prevalent with many rural towns losing their post office)

-Your population is heterogeneous. Diversity is the rule, rather than the exception.

-Organic community creation (non-governmental entities such as fraternal organizations and neighborhood associations) includes and embraces the diversity of the community.

-Your school system services children from birth to the end of college. This is done through Head Start, a vibrant public K-12 system and a community college. Bonus points if your town is a college town.

-You have either a traditional or a created main street apparatus. This apparatus does not count if it’s really just the suburban mall that’s been grafted into the form. Old Town Alexandria is a good example of having national stores, but under multiple owners and with public streets, sidewalks and parks.

-Once again, there are multiple owners, renters and the like. The community wasn’t planned. If it was planned, it has long ceded into having multiple private owners of buildings and public control of infrastructure.

You may note that this list does not address form, outside of having a true main street. I am not excusing places that do not have a good urban or town form. Yet, this post is to highlight that not all main cities have a monopoly on good urban form. Unfortunately, in many cases in the U.S. today, you are either a town or a city.

If you don’t recognize that, it’s time to act like one.

Actually Being Urban #2- Finding Diversity and Cleaning Clothes At the Laundromat

So your clothes are dirty. The hamper is overflowing. No big deal right? The washer and dryer are in the closet. Or maybe you have to lug them downstairs, but nevertheless,  laundry machines are never too far away. Unless you are me and living in Downtown Greensboro, without the rental machines that cost way too much to rent. I tried to put it off, but I knew eventually I’d have to trek out to the laundromat.

Most bonafide urban dwellers either have machines in the basement or they have a nearby (read: walking distance) laundromat that they can use. Yet, here in Greensboro, there are no real downtown laundries. The closest one, near a gas station, with free dryers, just happened to be out of order on Sunday. (After this revelation, I took advantage of being out in the car and got a breakfast biscuit- another only-in- a-car-dependent-place “luxury.”) I then went to the laundry/bar near campus. It looked dreary, so I drove on past it. After circiling through another laundry parking lot where I saw questionable looking men(as a woman, I don’t take too many chances. I hate to label folks on looks, but these men looked like prunes and not in a good way). I finally settled on a place with older machines, but next door to an Ace Hardware store. It was a very diverse crowd, the machines were very clean to be so old and it only cost me $9 to do the bulk of my laundry.

As you can see with this paragraph above, there are a lot of issues and lessons when it comes to doing laundry here in the city of Greensboro. Here are the major ones:

Non-drivers with no laundry machines are really out of luck– Not completely, there’s always loading laundry on the bus. I’m sure folks do it in other places. However, where I live, going to a public laundromat (versus one in the basement of a building) signals even more than the act of being on the bus in the first place that something may be amiss. None of these stereotypes should even be a factor. Going to do laundry should just be going to do laundry. Only, instead of owning machines, you rent them and not for $45 a month.

Assuming that everyone living downtown is affluent enough to have their own machines is a failure in logic.– There should be more chances to share machines at my apartment complex. After all, laundry is for many, not just myself, a bi-monthly or monthly exercise. Also, if enough people have dry cleaning, a managed apartment complex or condo building could either operate it’s own dry cleaners/laundromat or make special arrangements with a nearby one. I think it’s great that we have the option to hook up machines, but the $45 per month rental fee for those who don’t could be better used to provide professional laundry services or self-serve laundry. Or even better, provide dry cleaning and automatically provide laundry machines, like my old apartment in Durham did.

The laundromat is one of the most diverse spaces of commerce– I consider it a space of commerce because I had to pay for the use of my machines. However, this is more of a service than a place that encourages mass consumption such as a Walmart or even a mall/lifestyle center. Anyway, you can meet all types of people from all walks of life. You can also take time away from your busy schedule and dig into a book or writing as you wait for your clothes to wash and dry. It is this part of the experience that turns the laundromat into a great third space and what I enjoyed most about my experience.

Ultimately, I learned that there is no shame in going to the laundromat. I knew that anyway, but being in a place that cultivates that shame makes it tough. I did my laundry in 3 short hours(as compared to 5-10 when using home machines). I caught up on reading. I saw people that I wouldn’t normally see. And I got one step closer to actually being urban.

The picture above is the actual laundromat I patronized. Share your laundromat stories, theories and ideas on my Facebook and Twitter pages.