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To Create a Perfect City

To Create a Perfect City

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

One man. Probably white and already wealthy. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what can we do?

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

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

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

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

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

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If You Are Using this Blog To Justify Displacement–STOP.

If...Stop
As we pass another Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and as I prepare to launch something to help us tell stories better, a small, but necessary rant.
Yes, I’m a card-carrying new urbanist. I love pretty buildings, bike lanes, fancy hipster crafts, and restaurants. Yet, I’m still a black American young woman, who is tenuously in the middle-class. I am straight. I have the means to serve as an advocate, to make trips, to speak out, to write this blog. I can read and write and cook and see and feel and touch and hear and taste.
But privilege or no privilege, there are still people out here suffering. And some of our principles in urbanism and planning aren’t reaching them the way they need to, to empower them to speak with their own voices and to be content with what they have and to create wealth in the way they see fit.
If you’re not familiar with Dr. Mindy Fullilove’s research on both Root Shock and her solutions to fixing it, along with Tom Hanchett’s book that speaks about what happens to those who are displaced, go here.
Now that you’re back and informed, let’s continue.
As much as I hate to hear that even my work on this blog and now in real life with bike/walk justice and equity, as well as other major environmental justice mechanisms, may not be enough, I still speak out with both hope and prophetic fire.
It disappoints me that in my hometown, my city is willing to continue to give up easy access to social services that repair people’s lives for more restaurants that I might go to once because I can, but not go back to again because the food might not be good and in all honesty, I’m giving money to a company that repeatedly creates blight by not completely renting out shopping centers that it owns in certain neighborhoods.
I’m already not a fan of my new city, from its past indiscretions in helping model and create the housing segregation that mutated into being both a class and race problem. (Fixer-uppers are fun, if you know good contractors and have the money to do it) No sooner did I get back in town from a month-long East Coast holiday visit (hey privilege!), I read on our neighborhood news site that the company that I currently rent with wants to tear down places that aren’t so blighted and in the regular paper about black leadership that also thinks tearing down without a clear path to building up is the answer.
I’m willing to let you fact check me on all the issues I’ve listed above, but note I have included articles so you can read about all the plans above yourself and make your judgements. Still, I can tell you this, from a morning when I started writing this post awake way too early and having trouble breathing because I have no central HVAC and no windows that open. I have some options, but they’ll all increase my rent and cause other conveniences. (I know, privilege again. What about the folks who have no options at all?).
So as much as I believe we can do better than this, and that transportation, then better housing will lead the way, I also need to be prophetic and corrective and call out BS when I see it.
We’ve done ourselves a disservice as a developed world by making housing and food commodities. Granted, we would trade some convenience if we didn’t have restaurants and apartment buildings and public transit, but we also don’t need to go to the far extreme of everything healthy and happy being prohibitively expensive.
Let us not forget Flint and Detroit.  Or the DC Metrorail’s decline. This could be any of us because we all have some service or regulation in our city that we cut back on and many of our cities will still give big companies and developers incentives.
Again, I’ve written so much on mutual respect, trust and love. Let’s start with that and let’s work together so that we have a community and not a marketplace masquerading as such.
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Six Things to Do When You Present Your Work

Six Things to Do When You Present Your Work

Conference season is upon us. Or it’s not a conference you have to present at, you need to get something built and you need city approval to do so. Unlike in years past, you’ve been asked by someone (your office, your vision board, your professor), to make a presentation. Don’t worry, you can do it. I’m going to help you rock this out.

If you haven’t already noticed, I’ve done this at least once or twice. And that’s just the two that have full video recordings.

Again, as I mentioned in a prior post, one of my wishes is for people to learn and understand why and what we do. And since I’ve got a spare moment while I’m attending the TRB Annual Meeting in DC, I’m going to share the top six things that I do that help me as well as others that I’ve learned by making presentations over the last five years (and even beforehand that helped me ace my undergraduate public speaking course).

Before we dig in further, for the sake of this post, I’m addressing presentations of work done for architecture, planning, placemaking, engineering, and policy along with advocacy and research of those works.

Read over the guidelines.

Just like that building or street or vehicle you want to build, you need to build the thing that tells the story by the specs that the manufacturer has given you. If you only have 20 minutes, you only have 20 minutes. If you need a scale model, bring a scale model. Creativity in these things comes after you’ve combed over what’s been asked of you and you know exactly what’s NEEDED in your presentation.

If you don’t have clear guidance or it’s not written out, try calling or emailing the event organizer, the project manager or whoever has released the guidelines. Do remember, that if you’ve been told to not call or email, then you have to go with what’s on the paper and work through that challenge.

Sketch out your main points

If you use the scientific method to present your findings, distil them down to the key points. You can always answer questions during and after your presentation. Especially when you go to public meetings. Conciseness and brevity may actually get you the votes you need for your project to proceed to build out. Again, use your main points to frame your presentation and keep you in line with guidelines such as time, content or materials needed for presentation.

Design it well. Or before you start designing, learn how to design it well

Study best practices in graphic design. Your posters, slide shows, photos, websites and models need to be to scale, at the proper resolution and engaging. Google best practices in graphic design. Google how to install or find free fonts. Use sites like Canva to create infographics and quote boxes to stick into your presentations. Hack Microsoft Word and make it look like you did it in Illustrator or InDesign. In our sector, we are all designers of some kind or at the very least we can be creative and learn new skills. Flex that muscle and put it into your presentations. If you have a good grasp of these tools already, this is your time to show out. You are putting on a show. Make sure your set looks great.

Tell a good story

Now that you have your set pieces ready, it’s time for dialogue. Storytelling is vital for presenters who are trying to convince a neighborhood or government body to build something new or revamp something old. Even if you are just presenting theories and findings, seek to inspire. Storytelling puts your work in the context of the community it will serve. Yes, you may want your project to make money, but the ethical high ground here is to make sure people understand why something needs to be done and why you need to be the one to do it.

Consider a handout

When you go to a performance, you generally get a program or playbill, that helps you remember who’s on stage and what the main plot is. Same with your work. For you, a one page handout with the names of your design team, your research questions, a rendering of your building or street and why you want to build, research or present your work is sufficient to help people remember what you want to do. They can also write their own notes and questions on that handout and start the process of learning what you are doing for themselves.

Answer and don’t fear questions

The point of presentation is education, then action. People cannot take action on what you say or show them if you don’t help them understand what you are saying and displaying. While you may feel interrogated, at the end of the session, your thoughts and maybe even your designs will be better formed. Do honor a sense of decorum and don’t let others completely disrupt or discredit your work, especially if they don’t offer real solutions. Also, know that your project may be growing and be ok with letting people know that this is a phase and you’ll be presenting more later or after another revision.

Finally, even if the project isn’t approved or only one person understands your theory, you still look awesome representing your venture. I have written off certain audiences as not worthy or at least not understanding of what I do. Don’t do that in your presentation. Be the person that people want to hear or work with on this and other projects or research.

Good luck and happy presenting! Be sure to keep up with me via email and on social media and feel free to ask me any questions and offer your presentation tips. Watch me present and book me to help you prepare your next presentation

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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. 

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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.

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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.

 

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How Does Your City Do the Holidays?

How Does Your City Do the Holidays?

We are just 10 days from Christmas and we just finished Hanukkah a couple of days ago. Throughout October-January, people will celebrate more than they have all year it seems, at least on a national scale. How has that manifested in different cities? What are some of the holiday traditions you’ve observed. I’ll share a handful and invite you to share yours in the comments and on various social media channels.

The Forever Mall Santa–The Friendly Center Santa, Greensboro, NC

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Santa waves out to greet shoppers at Friendly Center, Greensboro, NC

I couldn’t crank this up without sharing one of the first major public displays of Christmas I grew up with, the Friendly Center Santa. This guy has waved at people for as long as I’ve been alive (30 years) and I know for much longer. He’s also been remarkably standing at that same spot, although what surrounds him has gone through some dramatic changes (in the picture shown, he’s standing next to Belk, but when I was born, he would have been standing in the same spot next to Harris Teeter). Accompanied by some wreaths on the light poles and the tram to cart people around (because re-parking is almost impossible this time a year, here’s to some early transit-related memories for me), this signaled Christmas’s arrival at what has become our premier shopping mall in Greensboro.

The Neighborhood Carol of the Balls–The Sunset Hills Balls,Greensboro, NC

About a mile and some change from Friendly Center, the Sunset Hills neighborhood hangs those Christmas light balls, not just in their smaller, newer trees, but the huge, stories-tall ones that overarches their neighborhood, which dates to the turn of the 20th century. Growing organically over the years, now the neighborhood boasts a 5K run and has been featured in national publications (you know, ones that unlike mine don’t have a personal tie to the city), for its uniqueness.

The Life-sized Hallmark Keepsake Village–The Plaza Lights, Kansas City, MO

Plaza Lights, by Flickr User Franklin D. Thompson

Plaza Lights, by Flickr User Franklin D. Thompson

In my first few weeks here, dead in the middle of the summer, folks were telling me to get ready for the Plaza lights, no sooner than the sun sets on the same day we  gave thanks and ate some form of turkey. Sure enough, despite heavy rains this year, people came out to see them be turned on for the first time and I’ve driven through several times over the last few days. Kansas City is home of Hallmark and you can see where they got the idea of their Christmas villages from when you see this spot. It’s literally a life-size version, with Spanish Revival undertones. The lights stay on each night until 3 a.m. and will be lit nightly until well into January.

The Central Outdoor Ice Rink Made of Synthetic Ice– Greensboro, KC, Your Town Too, Even If It’s 70 Degrees Outside.

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Skating in Downtown Greensboro, December 14, 2011

It used to just be Rockefeller Center. Now, at least for the last 4 years, we’ve skated outside somewhere in the proximity of downtown, the lifestyle center, the corporate redevelopment with the extra mall tacked on, with plastic palm trees in the back ground, etc. For a girl who grew up on her roller skates and adored figure skaters in prior Winter Olympics, it’s fun to pretend to be doing a freestyle skate routine in the middle of town. Of any of the holiday traditions listed above, this is one that’s pretty universal it seems, at least in the past few years.

Centralized Christmas Trees and Major Parades– Everywhere

Who doesn’t have a town, that doesn’t have a town Christmas tree, or if there’s no central major Christmas tree, there’s at least a holiday parade. Not that these things aren’t unique, but I feel they are one of the easiest ways towns and cities honor the winter holidays.

Finally, not to leave Hanukkah out– 2nd Night Plane Drop, Greensboro, NC

Greensboro’s Center City Park held a plane drop of treats for kids and kids at heart on the 2nd night of Hanukkah this year at the Center City Park, in the shadow of the city’s Christmas tree. The two holidays seemed to merge a bit this year, as the city’s tree went with solid golden lights, essentially like the candles on a menorah. Makes sense as both Jewish and Christian businessmen paid an equal part in building many of the companies that have made Greensboro what it is today. I’ve also heard about a number of life-sized menorahs in city squares.

And of course, New Year’s Eve, what do you drop?

The Raleigh Acorn Drop. By Ke4roh (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Raleigh Acorn Drop. By Ke4roh (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In Raleigh, my beloved college hometown, it’s an acorn, in honor of Raleigh being the City of Oaks. That story you heard about the possum drop, that’s true too, although the poor guy sounds like he’s getting a break this year. Another nearby Eastern North Carolina town drops a pickle, to honor its status as a major pickle mill town. And if your town isn’t dropping anything to countdown to midnight, you can always borrow Times’ Square’s ball. Although, now that I live in the Central time zone, I’m not sure how that will work. I will be back east for New Years Eve though.

So again, that’s how the cities I’ve lived in and a handful of others, do the holidays. Let me know how you celebrate?

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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.

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What Should Cities Give Us?

What Should Cities Give Us?

What should cities give us? Safety? Diversity? A place to live? A place to work? Places to eat? Places to learn?

This is the time of year where across the world, we turn our attention to gifts and what we can give people and what we have been given.

While this week marked the beginning of the church year and the season of giving that many Christian churches mark as Advent, representing the gift of the Christ-child, a more secular beginning also happened this weekend, as this weekend’s trifecta of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday marked the beginning of the major buying season. While the origins of why the days after Thanksgiving (plus now Giving Tuesday, which is today) have become THE ABSOLUTE DAYS YOU MUST SHOP AND GIVE OR ELSE are a bit muddy, the ideas of giving and getting are as old as time.

Since this is a city blog (and since I thanked cities last week in honor of the United States celebration of Thanksgiving), I wanted to take the time and mention three things this week that cities should give us, if they want us to think of themselves as cities.

Basic Needs

If you are calling yourself a city or town, legally or for the sake of a marketing brochure and you don’t have a health clinic, a school or system of schools or even just a library that can educate people from 0-100, a place where people can either sell their wares and make a living or make wares for someone else and get a paycheck, then you aren’t a city. Also, I’d add that you need a variety of housing at different sizes and price points. You may be a  community without these things, maybe even a village, but not a city.

Most of the major cities we think about are nation-states, even in a country like the US that also grants a federal and state layer of governance on top of their cities. In regions like the one I currently reside in (and our Nations’s Capital), the city and its suburbs cross multiple state and county lines, yet function together as a symbiotic whole.

Yet, some of these legal cities and towns are just neighborhoods with a civic building or some other bare minimum standard of being a legal entity capable of taxing or not taxing people. Let’s not even start with how many of these places have created school districts, police and fire departments and still legal means of housing discrimination such as only selling homes in a certain price range, to try to control their populations.

While I don’t like what you are doing if that’s the kind of municipality you are, I’ll give you a pass if you stop calling yourself a city. If you want to be a city, open yourself up to providing the basics, plus diversity, which I’ll explain in the next section.

Diversity

While there are plenty of homogenous neighborhoods, especially in countries like the US, Canada, France and Australia that have grown into cities by adding those basic needs I just mentioned above, I think some neighborhoods still lack the capacity to be a city.

A city allows people to come into it with whatever they have and contribute that service or product. Again, it provides the basic needs, so that a person can then contribute their unique contribution. For example, a cupcake baker sets up shop. They know that their kids, if they have them, can go to school. They themselves can get some extra educational help because some sort of adult learning experience exists, even if it’s just a public library or a culinary school.

A city is also not afraid of the variety of people it has. Actual, known criminals are dealt with, in a way that doesn’t strip them of their humanity, but helps them get back to life after learning some lessons. There are housing types at every size and price level. The difference in housing comes in basic, safe, bare minimum functions and high-end, luxury finishes. Far too many developers and cities are trying to build luxury-only and they wonder why we have a housing crisis. Same with groceries, hair salons and sadly hospitals, clinics and schools. Paying extra should be an enrichment and entertainment experience, not a do-or-die thing.

One would say that schools are winning at diversity, at least when you look at a metro area. However, that diversity diminishes when you have different school districts, with different tax rates, yet in a close geographic area. I believe that school systems that incorporate a singular taxing entity and operate on a county level or in partnership with more than one county, especially if the city extends into said county, do better.

Having one pot of money, plus one centralized superintendent, with regional superintendents, lifts up the value of the entire district. Instead of writing off schools in poorer neighborhoods, the school system is seen as a common good and outside of PTA money and other grants that go to schools on a more individual basis, the district as a whole invests the same amount of money and the same level of basic resources such as buildings and textbooks into the system as a whole. But I could digress here. Schools have their own thing going on and I’m planning on writing more about them at a future date. Let’s move on the final city need, mobility.

Mobility

If your citizens can’t navigate on two feet (or in a motorized wheelchair) safely, you’ve failed the first test of city mobility. The second test is if your citizens can cycle safely, on more than residential streets. The third test is if the transportation you provide, connects all major regions and neighborhoods, in a timely manner, for able-bodied people, not just for folks to who you are mandated to provide curb-side service.

Many cities are failing at the mobility piece. It’s part of why I’m in the line of work I’m in, to push the needle forward in having adequate ways to get around.

Plus, on a romantic level, so many cities are associated with their transit and transportation systems. These entities are often stand alone characters in the books and shows and movies that highlight a particular city. One example that comes to the top of my head is the movie Coming to America and how the subway seemed to shut the door on a romance. Getting out of the movies, I’ve heard many stories of people who don’t date people who live on a certain train line because it takes time to get to that part of New York. Yet, at least they can take the train. Think of how many people consider long-distance relationships the inability to drive an hour or two. Think of folks like me who regularly meet a significant other at the other end of a cross-country flight or train ride.

Think of not having anything but the open highway to get us where we need to go. Yet, everybody can’t drive. Every trip, especially those “glass-of-milk-on-the-corner” trips should not be a car trip. Some cities are even seeing property values rise when they put in things like streetcars. Yet, transportation entities should lift all boats, not just the ones in the special district where the cars will run.

But what about governance?

You may notice governance is missing in what cities should give, at least in the bullet points above. Here’s the thing, it doesn’t take much to be governed. Even if you claim to be stateless and off the grid, some entity, even if it’s just the federal government, will eventually show up at your yurt and tell you these are the rules you have to follow. Essentially you don’t have to live in a city to be a citizen.

Yet, if an entity wants to incorporate itself, and tax its residents above and beyond what federal and states are doing, then this is what my tax dollars should go to ensuring. Also, if tax dollars are going to some businesses, there should be a central entity, much like the school board governs schools and the city council handles basic city workings like fire, police and water, maybe power and telecommunications, that governs how much and when any company can ask for tax abatements or unrestricted grant money from the city.

I believe that so many lawsuits and a major cause of political debate and contention could be eliminated if we didn’t give out tax incentives based on what we perceive would be a major investment. Instead, we could support our own companies, so they can make a decent living at places like the City Market shown above.

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So that’s what I think cities should give us. I’d be remiss during this season of giving (and wishes) if I didn’t mention the gifts I have for you. A year ago today, I published my first print volume of essays and blogs A Black Urbanist: Essays Vol. 1. Yet I’ve felt like I need to print more, not just of that book, but more of my writings in general. While I’m still working a major full-length volume, in the meantime, I’m launching The Black Urbanist Monthly. For $25 a month, starting in January of 2016 you’ll get a print magazine edition of the blog, with both stories and images that you can take offline and share with your colleagues. The first five people to sign up will get a free, signed copy of A Black Urbanist: Essays Vol. 1.  Also, your subscription will help me continue to grow my writing, podcasting and in-person speaking and training opportunities. Learn more and sign up here.

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Why I’m Grateful for Cities

Why I'm Grateful for Cities

Just in time for the United States Thanksgiving celebration this week, I want to positively but honestly, give thanks to cities for what they do well and right. So why am I thankful for cities?

Public Libraries

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Big Books by Flickr user Tim Samoff

You may have seen the above picture on some social media site. It’s actually the parking garage of the central branch of the Kansas City (MO) library. There are many other branches. Some of them are open daily. Some aren’t. Some are open late, some aren’t. However, that doesn’t always matter because there are plenty of books, events and even a coffee-house at one branch for me to use. Books have always been a refuge for me. I have fond memories of my mom taking me to our nearest branch, as well as doing summer reading programs. I’ll talk more about my actual education later, but the school library has always been a good friend and in this time of transition in my life, I can’t help but thank my new public library for helping me adjust. And having great architecture, which adds to the greater placemaking value of the city.

Public transit that comes on its own rails 

Looking back at San Francisco from the Rockridge Station in Oakland. Image by Malcolm Kenton

Looking back at San Francisco from the Rockridge Station in Oakland. Image by Malcolm Kenton

I’m aware of every recent DC Metro problem. Really, I am. But I can still plan around most of the lines being on time. They ride on their own rails, therefore other traffic doesn’t hold them up. In the industry, we call this kind of transit fixed-guideway. The idea is that it’s fixed to one clear path and therefore you can plan its movements and know exactly where it is at a certain point. There are buses that simulate this, but often they don’t ride in their own lanes and they move at the speed of the driver. Streetcars are also technically fixed to the ground, but they are in mixed traffic and driven, so they also have this issue. Anyway, transit in theory comes on a schedule, you plan around that schedule and you can propel yourself with your two legs or a bike in combination or in lieu of transit. Still, I don’t have to worry about car maintenance or parking it. Well, I do, but one day I could give it up and lean on public transit, because cities provide that.

Unique cultural experiences 

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Spinning Mothers sign in front of the Contemporary Art Museum in Chicago in November of 2012. Photo by the author.

Someone recently changed the sign on the front of Greensboro’s Elsewhere to whereelse. That’s how I’ve always felt about that place. So much so I made it a key part of my going-away celebration and I looked longingly at pictures from this year’s fundraiser for the arts space. Every city needs to have a quirky space, whether it’s explicitly art or explicitly about bringing together marginalized people or if it’s just fun but unique like that flying pig I saw in Cincy a few weeks ago or this swinging banner that says Mothers in front of Chicago’s Contemporary Art Museum that I saw three years ago this month! Also, Elsewhere has worked really hard thanks to grant monies to improve several vacant lots near its Downtown Greensboro building, many of which despite downtown’s renaissance have not seen their property values rise. Now, they’ve risen in a more organic and people-focused way.

My education 

Image from the 2015 Homecoming on the Free Expression Tunnel on the Campus of N.C. State University. Image via the N..C. State Alumni Association Facebook Page

Image from the 2015 Homecoming on the Free Expression Tunnel on the Campus of N.C. State University. Image via the N..C. State Alumni Association Facebook Page

I’ve said it before that I learned my urbanism in college. This is because both my campuses provided such a great community. There were social issues, much like  many campuses are having now. But I’m proud to say that we have leadership and even fellow students who want our actual campus to be a safe space, a learning space, a growing space. However, I’m thankful the most that I finished school before the mass gentrification around both campuses. I feel like the neighborhoods surrounding our schools are just as important and because it is college after all, let it be a little grungy or at the very least middle-class so professors and service workers can also live nearby like students.  I’m also thankful for my K-12 education in the Guilford County School system. That it was just one system was the cause of concern of many parents over the years, but making the two major city systems and the county system one has created a better funding environment and a sense of unity that all students in the county are worthy. Also, the graduation rates have been climbing for the past six years.

So that’s my gratitude practice for cities for this year. Do you have any things you want to thank cities for? Tag them #thankmycity and I’ll be on the lookout to share them. Also, subscribe to my email list to keep up with me and where I’m at both on an off line.

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