Archive of urbanism

Burning Down My City

A Google Maps panorama at the Third Precinct by Tim McGuire

I tweeted earlier during coronavirus about how the “100-year pandemic” is something that long-term planning is indeed suppose to address. Like the 100-year flood in land use, the decisions we made yesterday are setting the stage as to how well we can cope today and tomorrow. All those zoning rules and planning commission decisions in the past 50 years on unit square footage, amenities, and setbacks, all coalesced into two months of heaven or hell for people living in apartment buildings.

For the Minneapolis riots, my first thought was of course there is going to be a huge turnout because the majority of young people work in the now-decimated service economy. Unlike the Big Coastal Cities which attract talented minds and companies, which then turn the heat on real estate across the city, the Twin Cities is by and large still a working class community with dispersed business centers. Swaths of the urban core are just single-family residential marked by streetcar-era retail buildings.

There is still confusion over who is to blame for the weekend of May 30 when Minnesotans summarily lit ablaze buildings along Lake Street. The official state government narrative was “out of towners” a very typical Midwestern strategy. News media defaulted to “protesters,” “rioters,” and “looters.” It doesn’t matter to me, as an urbanist, for the city belongs to everyone and is the manifestation of everyone’s dreams. These people are the People.

In James Howard Kunstler‘s view, public spaces should be inspired centers of civic life and the physical manifestation of the common good. Instead, he argues, what we have in America is a nation of places not worth caring about.

James Howard Kunstler on
Lake and Minnehaha, a suburban commercial node in Minneapolis.

Lake Street at Minnehaha Avenue is essentially a suburban big box commercial center. The urban grid of Minneapolis unravels into swaths of asphalt next to Hiawatha Ave, a name that doesn’t describe its reality as a massive freeway and concrete wall separating South Minneapolis. The rest of Lake Street stretching east toward the Mississippi is unremarkable. Single-story streetcar and postwar structures that are bland and forgettable.

Are these buildings worth fighting for, worth defending? The panorama of MPD trying to defend the 1985 dingbat-like police station that was suppose to invite the public to walk up to it, is absurd. The Target that was broken into and lit ablaze, was simply a box, as was dozens of other structures along Lake Street.

In a riot, is any structure sacred? People living in the upper stories of streetcar-era retail structures had to write signs pleading not to burn their buildings. A multi-story residential building under construction was decimated in fire. The loss of future housing for hundreds of people gone. Certainly in a riot, the language of the unheard, there are no rules, because the structures are meaningless to the unheard. The pawn shops and liquor stores were there to exploit an underclass. The restaurants and cafes simply opportunistic gentrifiers in a poor neighborhood. This is not to say businesses are not valuable, they are simply not valuable to those lighting the fire.

For planners, we must see that the ground work was laid decades ago. Lake Street was always auto-oriented since the streetcar days, sure, but it was allowed to persist that way. Each new structure added with meaningless design and poor access. A pedestrian environment that unravels constantly. Each curb cut, another slap in the face of people hauling groceries down the street. So much that not only would people want to burn down their neighborhood, but those charged to defend property would not want to stop them.

Living With My COVID Neighbor

Late on Friday my building management emailed us to say that a resident reported they tested positive for COVID-19.

I was shocked.

Then I was like, wait, I have been living the past month as if someone in my building of 300 souls already had it. For weeks when I ventured out to do laundry or fetch mail I don my surgical mask and creep around door handles and railings as if they were coated in coronavirus.

Why suddenly with confirmed news does it seem so much scarier.

The psychology of threats is that we prefer to see relatives than absolutes. The relative threat of coronavirus before confirmation today was knowing that everyone was taking precautions and that we as a community would safeguard each other by doing so. The numbers of confirmed cases were just news. My ward has reported the second lowest cases in the city, less than 1% of the ward’s population!

But now all of that is truly fiction and all I see is one big absolute, the threat is verified to be here and now. I feel compelled to take some kind of action, as many who experience gun violence first hand become the bearers for legislation action.

The reality is the DC government has already given us action. We socially distance, we sanitize surfaces, we wash our hands, we think twice before touching anything. We’ve been prepared from the start to do the things that we would do if coronavirus was already around us.

Without this preparation or heightened awareness weeks earlier, we’d likely already have an outbreak of community transmission here in these brick walls by now. We all have to interact with door pulls and elevator buttons.

For a week now I have been hearing a telltale dry cough echoing into my window. I don’t think it’s on my floor, but even so, I have to act like it is. My next door Italian neighbor had flu and dry cough for at least two weeks (as far as they knew). I interacted with them once even, and could hear them coughing next to my wall. Their symptoms have cleared and they are in good spirits, I didn’t get sick from that.

There is uncertainty over aerosolized coronavirus in public settings. No doubt the confirmed case neighbor will be filling their unit with virus for a few days. Most of it will fall to the ground after a few hours. Even though coronavirus can be aerosolized, it’s not certain if we will have SARS like building outbreaks. We have yet to see these stories in New York City where everybody lives in tight apartment spaces, but time still has yet to pass given the virus incubation period. There certainly would have been such a story out of Wuhan if it had happened, so far we’ve only seen outbreak stories occur in sustained close quarters (ie: churches, choir rehearsals, bus coaches, etc).

With all these unknowns, the day to day for me will be pretty normal. I will still don a mask, carry sanitizer, and use napkins on door handles in my hallways. I might choose to do laundry earlier in the day. But I’ll probably be more vigilant about washing hands AND face when I come back into my unit, just to avoid any “crumbs.”

While those scary SARS outbreak stories are in the back of my head, I feel at this point, we have a working understanding of how to live with and near corona.

TransitScreen Redesign Featured On City Lab

So delighted to see TransitScreen was featured on CityLab!  Our redesign was a year long effort between Isometric Studio in New York and our management team.  As UI Designer, I had to lead the implementation process after delivery and return to them for refinements.

Micro-Units: What’s a Proper Living Space

Micro-units were all the rage in DC this year. About a dozen projects are in the works.

There is nothing too new about this marketing label for what are essentially studios or efficiencies, but I was surprised at the unit floor configurations proposed.  The typical rule of a micro unit is to be below 400 square feet.  In loft speak, this was basically giving you an open room where kitchen appliances would be stacked along the wall with a small bathroom alcove.

But why the elongated unit proportion?  The golden rule for rooms are a comfortable 4:3 rectangle with the entrance on the shorter wall.  This gives orientation into a space, and that seems to be exaggerated much as today’s micro units are best called hallways.   “Activated hallways” perhaps.

Yesterday’s Studio

I currently live in a 1920s version of an efficiency building and my studio is basically a 400 square foot rectangle.  In cities like New York, this is actually the zoning mandated minimum for a residential unit.   My main living area is 23 feet by 12 feet, about 275 square feet, while the remaining rectangle is divided between bathroom, walk-in closet and kitchen.

It already feels pretty narrow but there was intention behind this.  It’s meant to allow easy subdivision between one side and the other, for example a sleeping area and a living room area.  Too open a space and one feels uneasy about the expanse. Although my Midwestern sensibilities say 12 feet already approaches claustrophobic.

Micro units take at most 350 sf space and smashes it down to say 10 feet, leaving one to configure 35 feet into a home abode.    In a way, it’s taking most millennial’s suburban bedroom and just doubling it. As a result most architects end up having to shove all the required sub rooms such as bathroom and closet toward one end of the unit, and having an open kitchen if not combined concept with the living/sleeping area.   A sliver of a hallway connects everything to the entrance.

These dimensions tend to evolve out of pre-fabrication, where units are building blocks to be stacked and configured. In the case of nArchitects for My Micro NY, it feels pretty standard, just alright, about the feeling of a minimalist hotel room with room for storage.

When I moved in to my place, I had this visceral reaction as if I was in the trenches of the Somme.  The living area was basically my mother’s living room, and the kitchen walkway just enough room to open the fridge door completely.  A single thankfully large bay-like window on one end gave just enough light and air to keep my spidey senses aback.

Is This Too Small?

The NY Times asks “How Small is Too Small” and points out a failed 2008 micro-unit building in SF’s FiDi.  But that was almost a decade ago in a weak real estate and job market, and today we are assured that building would be full on day 1.  Housing activists tend to dislike micro units, citing they’re too small to support families, they keep the tech workers here, and that they invite the tenement fears of early industrial cities.

After a year living in essentially an early 20th century micro unit, I’ve fallen in love with my studio.  My ability to keep clutter free has dramatically improved, and maintenance of the space is at a minimum.  I even find it’s easier to “plug in” at night as I’ve efficiently parsed out the space to specific functions like sleeping, reading, TV watching, and eating.  In a way I find I am using a small amount of space more efficiently and enjoying the square feet.   Maybe this sounds rather dystopian, but in a world of limited resources, I still feel good.

Yes I would love a larger space and likely find infinite ways to have my very own personal drawing room, Downton Abbey library, and butcher block island, but for now, this works just fine.

Ok, This is Too Small

For me, anything below 300 square feet is suspect unless it’s just a dorm (sleeping area with sink).  I just can’t love this design proposal for 230 square feet to accommodate a typical New York infill lot.  The use of vertical space over horizontal produces this uneasy canyon feeling.  The relative comfort of the renderings predicate people have built-in organization and are Dwell magazine minimalists.

Also people most likely cloth themselves with a replicator instead of the massive closets I know almost every person has.

Also, fear of heights.

Love Thy Neighbor

A living space is a biological need for security and merely a transitionary period to the outside world.  We do spend at minimum 10 hours outside the home.    A space should allow one’s senses to cool off, recharge, and rejuvenate.  Ultimately the apartment is a retreat that let’s one appreciate their neighborhood.

For my century-old building, this still works and I think we’ve gotten the dimensions right with some variation to go depending on the right architect.  Just don’t squish it any more.

Reflections of the Mission District in the Mid-2010s

Panorama of SF from Twin Peaks (My Photo)

Panorama of SF from Twin Peaks

In honor of Jane Jacob’s 100th birthday, I thought I’d share what I learned from San Francisco’s neighborhoods and what made them great places to be. Lost in the tech gentrification controversy is the fact that the City is indeed an extremely desirable place to live, so much that people sacrifice hard to have a slice of it.

In three years of regularly walking down the Noe Valley slopes or jumping on rickety Muni buses, I saw a textured and varied environment that provided great “delight,” as the Romans say, both architecturally and culturally. Here’s how I personally experienced the “bowl” of neighborhoods in and near the Mission, that helped me understand why millennials are so enticed.

24th Street

Descending from the 1960s terraces of Diamond Heights is Noe Valley. To most Americans, it feels dense with the city’s highest concentration of row houses. Most of these Victorians and Edwardians are restored and immaculately maintained. It’s a sea of white peaks and turrets that looks like a storybook illustration.

24th Street is the Main Street here. This is strollerville now, dominated by families who made it and were able to secure their slice of the former working-class area. It’s very clean and static, with bagel shops meeting high-end clothing stores. The demographic is thoroughly white, and the conversations and eyes on the street reflect a highly upper middle class attitude.

Noe Valley is the epitome of tight urban living but its geographic isolation as a valley high above the sea level insulates it from all the grittiness of typical dense neighborhoods. There’s no major roads that cut through and the steep hills even dissuade nearby locals. And on top of that are expansive views of the Bay.

The street activity drops off at Dolores where the wide palmed boulevard, fortress like gilded architecture, and insane elevation changes prohibit much casual street life. It’s utterly beautiful but this southern part of Dolores is a visual and physical “wall” due to speeding cars, parking soft-stories, and awkwardly graded intersection crossings.


Ritual Roasters Coffee

Ritual Roasters Coffee

Moving east, the grade falls precipitously and the first prominent avenue is Valencia. A fairly low-density commercial corridor, it doesn’t feature any of the Gothic architecture as the real Valencia, but it offers an honest collection of retail and food to call it a complete livable street. Generally, one can buy groceries, peruse clothing, sip coffee, fix a bicycle, get a book, eat a gyro wrap, and grab a drink without needing a tech salary or a car! You can even buy cheap furniture at the community thrift store.

The sidewalks are streetscaped in some areas and the street has bike lanes, so Valencia basically represents that transitionary and youthful urban village. Diverse socioeconomic backgrounds can be on this street and not feel out of place. There’s even a children’s park. Valencia is also a true pedestrian shopping street and many weekends I would walk the entire length of it while the California sun beamed down.

Southern Mission District

24th Street via torbakhopper

24th Street via torbakhopper

There’s many flavors of the Mission but the one that most people associate it with is the Latino part of it. It’s a Little Mexico of taquerias, grocers, and salons, the staples of any immigrant community. 24th Street here is alive, people bustle about to attend to their errands and greet familiar faces. There are few strollers here, these are locals who own and operate — Hispanic immigrants and their descendants. Tourists are seldom seen.

The doubly subdivided blocks and repetitive streets lends this area an active street life all days of the week. The cafes are always busy, my favorite being Taqueria Guadalajara for its salsa bar. There are also Haight-like hippie bookstores and hipster coffeeshops which seem to throw me back into a Midwestern college town.

Perhaps because of the affordability in this area, there is also a regular presence of transients, especially near the BART Station plazas and SF General Hospital. In contrast, this is very rare in Noe.

Mid-Mission District

North of 24th Street in the streets named for states and local pioneers, I call the mid Mission. It’s a tired looking area, there’s less retail, the row houses are of plain working-class design, and remnants of the former industrial railroad peak through. All the streets have controlled stop signs so it’s very quiet save for freeway-like Van Ness and Potrero.

Conversely, Mission Street maintains a broadway feel, with its former streetcar era department store buildings and mostly mainstream chain retail. Between the knick-knack stores are trendy upstart cafes and restaurants avoiding the high rents of the popular retail streets. The constant drum of four lanes of traffic give the street a smoggy Downtown feel.

Northern Mission/16th Street

Musicians in front of Community Thrift Store

Musicians in front of Community Thrift Store

As one moves north toward 16th Street, things change quickly. Around the Muni yards, industrial lots have been converted to upscale condos and lofts. Small boutique food and retail peaks its head around here. This area shares a lot of vibe with Potrero Hill but without the elegance. It reminds me of typical ’90s loft conversion neighborhoods where the street level was deactivated, avoided and barricaded.

On the other hand, Valencia to Mission Streets get grittier and frenetic both visually on the sidewalk and in the storefronts. More security bars on windows and more (delicious) hole-in-the-wall cafes and front patio bars. People on the sidewalk tend to congregate and stop more here. It’s an Uptown of a past era.

16th Street itself is peculiar. Most of it is a fast-moving crosstown road formerly serving industrial sites. But there is a marching line of gastropubs and clubs from Mission west to Market. The area feels young, hip, gritty in a very familiar way to American inner cities. The glorious namesake Mission San Francisco de Asís seems out of place.
Further north to Duboce and the horrid freeway, I feel is still coming into its own identity. This area has mostly 3-story apartment buildings which likely once served as working-class residences for the former industrial SOMA. Retail is a smattering between new and old school.


Dolores Park in 2013 before the major renovation

Dolores Park in 2013 before the major renovation

The northern part of Mission, from Dolores west to Castro Street is very solidly identified with the Castro more than the Mission. Dolores Park may be a crown jewel of the Mission District, but it’s also a magnet for the LGBT community.
The sidewalk cleans up quickly as it moves west. Every inch of real estate is utilized or perfected. The exuberance of activity on 16th Street leads back to a controlled, stately street life similar to Noe. There’s obviously more tourism here but also the retail and cafes are far more polished and marketed.

Known as Eureka Valley, this geographic area of the Castro has a very steep incline from Dolores Heights (the mountain that divides Noe Valley to the south). So activity is ultra-concentrated onto 18th and toward Market Street. Castro as a neighborhood is clearly evaporated of its former working-class underpinnings. However unlike family-oriented Noe, grocery stores are replaced by specialty stores, and the clothing shops seem rather fad than practical.

What Castro may lack as a complete street, it makes up for as a vibrant stage for visitors to entertain themselves. The number of gay bars and clubs in addition to the City’s recent streetscaping with LED lights and commemorative placards, creates a modern Uptown district.

So Is it Happy Hour?

As I reflect on my time in the Mission, I can see where the area affords not just the urban “diversity” millennials seek, but complexity and choice in housing, food and lifestyle. You can get a taste of city life without needing to be Downtown.

The friction and flow of the well-heeled west side and poorer ethnic east side allow millennials to exploit opportunities between both communities. For example grabbing a nice apartment in Noe while eating cheaply (and well) in the Mission. To me, Valencia is the heart of where this drama is playing out with its mix of very expensive exclusive restaurants competing for real estate with modest community business and family-oriented functions.

And of course connectivity. You don’t need a car, one is connected by foot and transit to so many options within a 1 mile radius anywhere you live. If you work or play Downtown, you’re connected instantaneously by BART. If you work a little closer in SOMA or Mid-Market, you can just bike. In this manner, I see the tech controversy as a symptom, not a cause of the Mission’s popularity.

Overall the Mission will continue to remain an ever popular place to live as more storefronts are brought back to life and Muni gets its act together.

Trading Four Wheels For Two, A Follow-Up

First thing I saw upon landing in DCA and Ubering into the city, was a guy riding a bikeshare against the Washington Monument.

First thing I saw upon landing in DCA and Ubering into the city, was a guy riding a bikeshare against the Washington Monument.

In 2008, Minnesota Public Radio interviewed me about bicycling when the idea of being a full-time bicyclist was just starting to gain traction. At the time, bike lanes were only in the planning stage, and bicyclists comprised a hardcore group of locals who lurked in the angsty MPLSBikeLove forum.

I was always curious about how people interpreted the article, whether it had any resonance or impact. Now, Minneapolis is America’s most bike-friendly city and the only world-listed bike city. MPR still has the post up, so I imagine it has some SEO relevance at least. I hope telling my story about this article highlights relevant issues on millennials and urban life.

When T-Paw was Around

It’s been 8 years and my life during that article seems like a distant memory but it’s a time I will never forget. We were riding the economic bubble to it’s greatest heights. Cranes filled the sky and real estate values soared. Minneapolis took this opportunity to pour the investment back into an ambitious bicycling master plan.

Light Rail was in doubt because of a South St. Paul hockey dad turned 5-second Republican Presidential hopeful, former Governor Tim Pawlenty (“T-Paw”). He vetoed the Green Line funding the same month of the article, though it was restored later. Cities could only do their part for sustainable transportation with such a polarized state government, and that meant bicycling.

Fat Kid

I’m very plump in the article, probably 230 lbs. I was working very hard because jobs were scarce and I was given a fantastic opportunity by a real estate firm to do planning analysis on new residential development. My Bachelors degree in Urban Studies clearly did not go far. Bicycling was the only thing that kept my health and sanity somewhat in check.

It was a two mile commute from Prospect Park to Downtown Northeast everyday that took about 20 minutes because roads on University were created for cars, not people. Kids today would be blown away by what kind of hellish carscape Stadium Village was prior to TCF Bank Stadium.

Bike Dumb

In the article I’m very oblivious to my bicycle which was a cheap $300 Raleigh Hybrid from local chain-store Erik’s Bike Shop in Dinkytown. It was criminally slow with cheap parts. I’m confident no bike shop today would ever sell such a poor bicycle, even for light recreational purposes. I wish the seller had steered me to something better, but more on that later.

Fast forward about a year from this article, I put the bike through the wringer including an entire winter where I, in a puffy green parka, traversed snowy icy roads. I learned to be even more “hardened” and also to carry myself in a way I would want others to see. I watched videos of Copenhagen’s magical flow where people stopped at red lights on a dime. I wanted the same and wanted to communicate that through my actions.

Then the hammer hit, the economy disastrously collapsed. I lost my job.

Bike Smart

I decided planning graduate school was my calling instead of the deeply embedded wars my generation was fighting. My bike somehow made it to fall of 2009 as I put off any maintenance on it. Then I walked into The Hub Bike Shop in East Bank and everything changed.

The Hub is an employee owned collective which focused on making bicycling a real form of transportation for people. They hosted classes on bike etiquette and even focused on developing women riders. They sold Giant Bicycles from Taiwan, who was one of the few manufacturers really closing in on this emerging need for modern American bicycling. I believe Giant saw how their $2,000 carbon road bikes were taken seriously by lycranauts, and realized the same could be of normal citizens.

I purchased a Giant Rapid hybrid. It was a sleek, sexy, with higher end Shimano shifters. Yes it cost $700 after tax, but it was light years ahead of the Raleigh. It was a real bike for a real commuter. With a slim rack, semi-racing stance, and rapid-fire shifting assembly, I could keep pace with other cyclists, make it on-time to my destinations, and haul some groceries.

In short, the bike made it easier to bike, but I biked more because it was so easy.

I learned how to fix my own bike too. I took apart the rear cogs often and washed off the miles of accumulated gunk. I strung wires when they broke and replaced tubes when they popped. In the long haul I probably spent up-front $1200 including lights and locks, and $500 a year on maintenance (1 tune up, adjustments, and parts).

Biking Bandwagon

Nice Ride bike-sharing was introduced in 2010 and as a snooty self-described Urban Planner Candidate, I snubbed it initially. How could people on these low-geared upright bikes manage to get anywhere on time and haul dinner. It was at best a tourism gag and for suburbanites to get a safe feel of the gritty city. The Bixi utility bikes evoked nightmares of my Raleigh, trying to bust it through fast-moving traffic.

But I was wrong. I saw how the bikes allowed groups of people to traverse nearby destinations that were unthinkable by walking or even car. For people living in inner neighborhoods, they could get Downtown reasonably. Combined with the city’s emerging bike lane system, Nice Rides actually seemed easier than my hybrid road bike. I was constantly paranoid my bike would be stolen (as is a common problem) and was ever more worried when I had to leave a bike overnight in an unknown area. Nice Ride you use once and done, even if it’s a few minutes slower.

Walking is Cool

After graduate school, I took a 3 year chance at San Francisco and lost quite a bit of weight (phew). There, I learned more about what transportation really is about. In Minneapolis, I spurned the chaos of buses and vehicles crowding my way, why shouldn’t everyone ride a (fancy) bike. But I realized at the end of the day, humans just need to get around.

San Francisco’s bike rush hour was a choatic nightmare. Nobody obeyed red lights, even at the busiest intersections. People did not orderly line up on the bike lane, they constantly and dangerously bumped shoulders. “Downtown” Market Street is only a 2 mile trip at most, but it felt like a 20 mile marathon. High-speed passing on Valencia was compounded by ride-sharing blocking the lane. I actually ended up preferring to take transit and walk. Actually, there was a lot of walking. The synergy of the two was relaxing and energizing. I didn’t want to bother with a bicycle in San Francisco, the city was just too beautiful to pass by.

I bought an older Giant OCR, the predecessor to the Rapid for just $300. But I rarely used it, in fact I mostly lent it out.

The District of Bicycling

My Felt Fixie (set to Single Speed) in front of the Washington Monument

My Felt Fixie (set to Single Speed) in front of the Washington Monument

Today in DC, I actually don’t have a personal bicycle, yet. (Update: I bought one off Craigslist from a cool dude!) My company TransitScreen provides memberships to Capital Bikeshare to promote sustainable choices by our employees. I’ve taken so many convenient trips between stations that it hasn’t been an urgent matter to obtain my own bike.

Since this article, my feelings on being a full-time bicyclist or bike warrior have waned to an idea that we all have to get around in our own ways, and should have options toward that. But we also have to be mindful of the impact our mobility affects fellow citizens and the planet.

I usually walk 20 minutes to work on spacious Massachusetts Avenue. I regularly carry my groceries about 4 blocks from a Safeway. I often take Metro to go to Union Station. I like bikeshare for cross-town movement. I prefer local carshare startup Split to take me north of Columbia Heights. Zipcar vans help me move furniture. Buses are great after a long day from Farragut to Dupont.

It seems I’ve traded my four wheels for one, my role as a member of society.

Geography of Nowhere Remains Relevant for the New Urban Age

A human-scaled side street in DC's Columbia Height's neighborhood. Kunstler loves DC.

A human-scaled side street in DC’s Columbia Height’s neighborhood. Kunstler loves DC.

James Howard Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere was published in 1993 but it’s view of our current urban landscape remains just as relevant today.  Kunstler is a journalist turned urbanist critic, much like Jane Jacob’s, and along with his damning treatise on our car addiction regards him as a popular pundit than expert in the urban planning community.   He’s often on university reading lists but perhaps his observations are not so highly regarded by high brow scholars (he has choice words for bad planning).  Kunstler’s TED2004 Talk on “The ghastly tragedy of the suburbs” has 1.4 million views, so perhaps one day we’ll regard him to Jacob’s pedestal.

Kunstler explores all the quintessential historic iterations of American bedroom “communities” using examples in his native New England from the early 1900s to today.  From Olmsted’s Downton Abbey-like Riverside, Illinois to the nowhere suburban K-mart parking lots of outskirt Anytown USA (hence becoming Nowhere USA).   His example of Woodstock, New York’s co-opting by wealthy outsiders struck me as the modern story of the 2010s.    From an actual town that self-sustained itself through farming and crafts, it is now a hollow reflection of that, propped up by the typical food and boutique service economy.  It’s new role as pseudo-historic well-to-do suburb makes it feel like the Atlantic City boardwalk of an earlier chapter.

A socioeconomic critique of shopping mall’s and their shaky public-private domain predicted exactly something the Black Lives Matter movement exploited recently at the Mall of America.  He harkened to Vietnam and questioned what would happen if towns lacked actual places of public assembly.  Sometimes a democracy needs to express itself, and if that voice is eager it will go wherever that may be.

Kunstler also might not like millennials of today and would see gentrification as the Manhattan executives of his age.  Americans love to move around, it is perhaps built into our genome from Manifest Destiny.  But problematically, we seem to abandon places we deem boring and “nowhere” instead of sitting put and actually improving them into places we care about.   So if young people flock to San Francisco for it’s Pan-Pacific revival and high-density, high-style architecture of a long-gone era, how soon will San Francisco also become like Nowhere USA with Apple stores, Trader Joe’s, and Crate and Barrel (Site Note: I love all of these stores).

My Instagram of a perfect (and intentionally designed) vista at Dolores Park. This shit doesn't happen anymore.

My Instagram of a perfect (and intentionally designed) vista at Dolores Park. This shit doesn’t happen anymore.

So now what Kunstler? How do we get out of where we are.  Even in 1993, the condition of physical America was drab and deteriorating from infrastructure to housing.   He does point out zoning as a major cause and obstacle to restructuring the urban landscape.   From there, he explores neo-traditional architecture such as Duany Plater-Zyberk and celebrates Seaside, Florida.  Though perhaps his true longing are the Gilded Age planned towns and cities of the early 1900s where Irish servant girls ran the house while you took a train to your factory. The book’s main critique is that we’ve lost our vernacular language of how to plan for communities. Unfortunately we can’t revive urban planning as a design practice given the current regulatory, political, and even intellectual structure of Design with a capital D.

For now, planners and developers contend with poor tools of “infill” and “redevelopment” to renew their communities. The Robert Moses’ age is over, but master/small-area plans and zoning overlays are quietly changing the urban fabric toward communities “worth dying for” as Kunstler would say.

I think there’s a silver lining when he laments the loss of connectedness. Today we are far more connected than the 90’s ever imagined. These “cyber” connections are manifesting in the real world. Developers don’t have to try hard to figure out why people want to live in dense urban areas (cities) again. Some architects are actually giving a damn about the street such as Jan Gehl and others are creating inspiring ecology-minded structures like Bjarke Ingels. Through social media, we’re seeing the world’s transit rich cities on a daily basis, and so grows our eagerness to bring that infrastructure here. While Kunstler may still grumble about the socioeconomic realities of an entire country drunk on a service economy, there is at least consensus that we will need to move to sustainable place-based industries soon.

Carless Cities and City Isolation

Manarola, Cinque Terre

A friend of mine suggested to look into Cinque Terre, a car inaccessible city on Italy’s western coast.  The hillside village consists of terraced homes created over the centuries on rugged terrain overlooking the Ligurian Sea.  There are no roads leading there, only a train brings you close enough.  For Americans, it’s strange today to think of modern humans settling in the middle of nowhere, but in reality most of America began as grids laid out next to agricultural train stops.  Some of these towns prospered only because of railroads ferrying the locals to work in industrial centers, and vacationers back on the weekends. When I think of current housing preferences, I wonder why isolated cities no longer work for Americans.  We are strange creatures, for we seemingly despise close proximity and yet yearn for community.  All bets are placed in the old downtowns of boom and bust, and yet people move in droves to Garreau’s edge city.  You can’t live in the city neighborhoods, but you must choose the far-flung suburb with the best schools.

Red Wing, Minnesota

In my head, Barb from Minnesota waxes and wanes about Red Wing and it’s beautiful (rust-belt) downtown overlooking the Mississippi.  The hilly streets of picturesque homes sit tidy and neat.  But practicality trumps these notions of town living.  How close is the nearest Target (outside of town), where’s the shopping mall (a Minnesota pastime), can I get to the Twin Cities in less than an hour (good luck).   Overtime, isolation is also a problem, and many small town friends will admit the charm of living in a beautiful place where everyone knows your name and business wears quickly.

Isolated living in low-resource low-asset cities may seem perfect for retirees and high-income households where they can mastermind their own lives.  Middle America isn’t going to rely on this lifestyle pattern in order to have a fulfilling life.  Access to amenities and its car-dependent infrastructure both rejects urban living and country living.

The carless city can’t happen under the current planning and societal paradigm.  Even Masdar City scaled back its ambitious PRT.   The best model we have are university cities which emphasize highly connected pedestrian-bicycle activity centers, periphery parking, and transit linkages.  The Iowa Cities and Ithacas of America’s hinterland provides a lens into carless isolation.  For major cities, we eagerly wait European tests in Paris and Stockholm and domestically the Open Streets Project to see if carlessness will take hold.

San Francisco Crosswalks

You immediately realize living in San Francisco how the pedestrian is valued above all modes of transportation. Not only is the city adept at taking down freeways and making parking impossible, it enjoys pitting pedestrians against at-grade Muni trains and streetcars. Watching enormous Google buses agonizingly wait to turn against hordes of pedestrians is another fun sight. But a particular piece of infrastructure that has always caught my eye has been crosswalk markings. Public Works calls them “decorative crosswalks” and they pop up all over the city, some designed by community vote. We can attribute today’s streetscapes to Gavin Newsom’s push for Great Streets.

The crosswalks are certainly beautiful, but let’s be real this isn’t Italy with terrazzo and marble. American crosswalks are enhanced as a vestige of the safe routes movement and the public works maintenance mantra ensures the lowest-cost method is used. This interesting DOT survey of crosswalk markings indicates thermoplastic is the preferred method with a whopping lifespan of 7 years. I personally would prefer to see more material-based crosswalks with brick or formed concrete with contrasting colors. I’d love to see someone try a Kasota stone crossing.

Alas, San Francisco roads are heavily used by big buses daily, and add-in that post-earthquake, such materials would present more hazardous conditions than asphalt. So onto the parade of crosswalks.

Market and 9th

Market and 9th. This is the prototypical crosswalk marking, with simple 2 feet wide white stripes on either end of the walkway.  Most places in the city, this stuff is just paint and badly faded.   While simple and utilitarian, it provides merely a marker for vehicles to stop, but very poorly seen.  They’re prevalent Downtown.  This looks alright for Market since market uses colored concrete but elsewhere it’s plain asphalt and the bars look dated.


Guerrero and 24th Street.  I would call these yellow stripes crosswalk 1.1-beta release.  This style of walk became prevalent in the ’90s as a result of safe routes, because it screams to drivers: walkway, don’t hit anyone.  Most major intersections have them.  The vertical lines are easily identifiable, but for a pedestrian, the feeling of being inside these paths is disorienting because the eye is drawn to follow the lines.  It’s sort of like playing frogger on yellow lily pads.   Also the design lacks a prominent stop bar and the hollow spacing suggest ambiguity (like maybe somewhere here there will be people moving about).  This means drivers typically stop sort of where they think the walk begins.   This design is typically combined with the white stripes, creating a Warhol-esque playground.


Noe and Church. This is a Great Streets evolution of painted crosswalks.  Here they’re sealing thermoplastic to create a brick pattern upon newly laid asphalt.  It’s fun and whimsical!  The color choice of red is a little bizarre to my eyes, since science has proven red isn’t actually a really good color for stopping.   But the Noe businesses wanted it.   I’ve crossed these plenty of times as car and person, and the inverted brick colors feel like Tron.   Also the stop bar is a good four feet, creating a weird separate pseudo-crossing.   It doesn’t help that this four-way stop intersection is such a cluster.


Castro and 18th.  The internet was a rave last year when these rainbow walks debuted.   These actually seem the most successful of all decorative walks in the city.  The design and spacing promote the intersection as a destination, not simply a place to get from A to B.   It’s art, it’s bold, it’s not a compromise, this is what Great Streets really is about.  Also the stop bar is perfectly spaced for clear and concise instructions.   Nothing screams “people live and move through here” than this.

A Planner’s Personal Statement

I believe every planner needs to periodically do self-assessments in regards to their approach and reasons for pursuing the profession.  As a “non-traditional” planner myself in the tech field, I find it ever important to ground and focus oneself in the tech industry’s sharknado of change.  I recently found my graduate school application essay buried in my document folders.

My pursuit (of planning)… critically addresses livability issues in the present and future and brings opportunities for creative solutions to society’s needs. Geography and civic-service have been essential qualities of mine since childhood.

– An idealistic me.

Pretty standard mission statement for a 20-something.  I’ve actually come to dislike the term “livability” because it has been rather abused by community development departments across the country.  Everything relates to making things livable–no need to point to it. Many livability issues are merely conflicts between opposing parties.  And with greater emphasis on climate change, the term now seems more equated with survivability than mere inconvenience.

I grew up on roads that were faux-rural but actually serving a suburban region of 350,000 people.

I grew up on roads that were faux-rural but actually serving a suburban region of 350,000 people.

I can’t put my finger on what I’d replace it with, maybe a general term like “urban issues.” What is still emphasized for me, is the who and when of planning.  Make it better for people now and for tomorrow.  How can I use my hands to fix those wicked problems.  The way I’ll go about it is to seek creative solutions.   Young planners constantly complain that the current bureaucracy of planning is not serving the people effectively nor timely.  We have to work around this, and be persistent about the changes we want to see.

The rest of my essay is pretty basic, but I noticed an interesting sentence that related to my high school years:

Concepts of human relationships with nature entered my ethos and the desire to address these relationships grew stronger.

I attended an environmental studies magnet school which drilled on the relationship between humans and their environment.  To me, the term nature relates to more than birds and bees, but to complicated ecosystems on our planet, which include our human inventions.   Our technology is creating new layers of movement and interaction in cities.  There’s hybridization, friction, and sometimes new seamlessness.  I think I can affirm that my personal statement is to continue helping humans cope and better utilize their surroundings.

From San Francisco to Washington D.C.

Shrink-wrapped Capitol

Shrink-wrapped Capitol

It’s been a week here in the beautiful, sunny, and humid District of Columbia (slash Arlington, Virginia). In all my years I have never been to the nation’s capital and it’s odd to finally see it all in real life. Washington D.C. is often cited in foundational urban planning and geography courses given that it was one of the earliest grand endeavors to fully plan an American city. L’Enfant’s plan introduced French sensibilities and diagonal avenues into our austere grid system.

The internet is full of delicious historical tales on the controversy of D.C.’s city plan so I won’t try to pretend I’m an expert on this.  For the most part, the city still maintains the Baroque underpinnings of ornate architecture, spacious gaudy plazas, and grand wide avenues punctuated by scenic vistas. (“Dresden: Making of a Baroque City” by @ralphharrington). Turning a corner, I’m awestruck by the rising Capitol (covered in scaffolding), neatly centered on spacious Pennsylvania Ave. Even small statues like Dupont Circle bring about a sense of wonder and folly. I thought I’d be giddy about the traffic circles (roundabouts in MN lingo), but they’re very wide and thus well integrated so they don’t seem so unusual or revolutionary anymore.

McPherson Square and Mr. McPherson himself. The square is a transit hub terminus for buses.

McPherson Square and Mr. McPherson himself. The square is a transit hub terminus for buses.

I can understand why the West Coast’s Pan-Pacific heritage draw upon Baroque styles and philosophy. The Hogwarts-esque Old Post Office with its Romanesque Revival entryway and clock tower is like many early 20th century towers in San Francisco or Berkeley. The Capitol vista especially reminds me of the Ferry Building. However, as appropriate a design for a federal city, it certainly does not do well for street life.  The streets are perhaps too grand and wide for the pedestrian, and the revival architecture has a foreboding fortress feel.  The closer you move to the National Mall, the more the rising building scale seems to isolate a person.

So I split my days between these granite symbols of our country’s permanence, for the green, tight-knit neighborhoods of D.C.  Interestingly, the row houses here are about as wide (or shall I say squished) as those in San Francisco. A single-family walk-up is a door and four windows.  What’s interestingly absent in D.C.  are vernacular architectural styles that yielded colorful Alamo Square Victorians and Italianate apartment buildings.  Perhaps the 1906 Earthquake had something to do with it, a need for San Francisco to prove itself after literally being leveled. D.C.’s housing on the other hand reflects its relatively early working class upbringing, with the good stuff focused in only particular neighborhoods that served the powerful (“Struggling over history in a gentrifying D.C.”).

Adams Morgan. A Haight Ashbury with actually interesting businesses and unique food. Also the freshest empanadas I've ever had.

Adams Morgan. A Haight Ashbury with actually interesting businesses and unique food. Also the freshest empanadas I’ve ever had.

The neighborhoods have impressed me. They’re sort of a goldylocks between Portlandish and Los Angeles attitudes. The affordable streetcar-era retail spaces allow for gentrifying small bites, coffee, and dessert shops.  Plentiful trees and parks highlight well done streetscapes and sidewalk designs.   There’s also plenty of mid to high-end restaurants with well-crafted concepts situated amongst all this.   And not so surprisingly, these neighborhood centers completely ignore L’Enfant’s plan, situating themselves arms reach out of main drags and transit hubs.  I don’t really see a San Francisco effect in the near future, so hopefully there will remain something refreshing here for everyone.

The glowing red orbs of the Eye of Transit keep those government workers complacent.

The glowing red orbs of the Eye of Transit keep those government workers complacent.

As for transit, I was very impressed. Everyone likes to talk sh*t about their own transit system. I’m amused by unsuckdcmetro because compared to BART, their system is light-years ahead in terms of capacity and service.  DC Metro is ridiculously convenient (stations every 2-3 blocks) and goes about just everywhere relevant.  It’s stations are immaculately clean and people orderly move about.  BART may win the award for frequency and on-time service, but after riding Metro for the first day, I realized I’d rather have a built-out subway system over a single packed line.

On Being a Transit User

Interior of a Muni Orion VII, the workhorse for lower density routes. Not particularly powerful.

Interior of a Muni Orion VII, the workhorse for lower density routes. Spartan, austere, practical.

During my Masters program, I pondered the life of a transit user, specifically someone who uses transit as an exclusive mode of transportation. If cities are on this push to reimagine themselves as transit-oriented communities, then why is it so much of its eventual design and implementation never concerns people.

We know the demographics of the current transit “community” has users that are mostly poor, below median earnings. (see Governing’s Public Transportation’s Demographic Divide by @mmaciag). A point missed is that transit users are actually working, they’re employed, and so it seems under-emphasized that transit users use transit to get somewhere.

Transit as Utility

Transit design is typically utilitarian and lowest-bidder, yet the systems themselves lack utilitas or expediency, and add unnecessary costs. A great example is Metro Transit METRO Green Line. The current running time between Downtown Minneapolis and Saint Paul is 46 minutes, but typically more, given badly timed stop lights. The concept of the line succeeding the former streetcar line was bizarre, because the streetcar’s actual successor is the 16 bus. Streetcars are meant to stop frequently, maneuver with traffic, and are subject to obstacles. Light rail, the low-cost subway alternative for underfunded metropolitan transit agencies, is better categorized as “medium” rail for its ability to provide capacity movement on long distances. It shouldn’t be running with traffic and yet Green Line not only constantly pits it against traffic for most of its travel length, but succumbed to community (lawsuit) pressure to add unnecessary stations (cost in time and money).

On the other hand, the route 94 bus (named for I-94) brings one from 6th and Hennepin to Union Station in less than 30 minutes. My colleagues who (force themselves) to ride Green Line love it but hate it. It’s still very eerily empty all hours, when in the past, the 16 bus was known to be full throughout the day. Mode shift has shifted people away.

To consider the life of a transit user then is to imagine someone who is subjected to constant struggle to move about in a timely and efficient manner. And at times, to have one’s needs ignored by policymakers.

Transit as Hauler

Another element of using transit is the ability to carry possessions around. I imagine backpack and bag makers crunch each day how to design bags to be sturdy yet light weight, and what environmental issues will luggers encounter. So when one is faced with filthy transit stations and vehicles, one wonders what risk to health if they place their bag on the ground. The alternative is to place the bag upon one’s lap, sometimes taking up maneuverable space for others. And standing in a packed car with a hefty load, it’s only polite to place it on the ground. In some cities with “dirty” climates, this is unavoidable like in Chicago (Gripes about dirty rail cars rise as mercury drops by @jhilkevitch).

Transit as Your Home

A colleague of mine who works transit operations indicates most agencies, at minimum, do one cleaning a day with only emergency mid-day cleanups. The quality of this clean is most definitely not sufficient — to save costs, it was one mop bucket for the entire bus. This is even if they mop at all, the FTA has a report Transit Bus Service Line and Cleaning Functions that indicates 64 percent of responding agencies still use hand sweeping to clean buses for dust. Light rail systems tend to fare better, being given larger operational budgets since stations must also be maintained. But with old school light rail agencies like Muni, its almost impossible to keep up with the grime embedded into its 1997 Breda LRV floors.

Yet we see systems like New York’s subway, Hong Kong’s MTR, and London’s underground which carry substantially more passengers, able to keep up. People often say underfunded agencies simply cannot fund cleaning budgets, but cleanliness didn’t happen with a mop, it happens on a multi-level organizational level which builds these costs into the lifetime of the cars.

Still the lonely transit user doesn’t have much a say, other than some days to think if they had a mop or spray bottle, they’d simply wipe up that bit of grime missed by the cleaners.

The feeling is, if we are to embark on this transit first initiative, we have to consider riders as ordinary people who have needs. We also have to consider that current paradigms failing transit planning and operation are still there and will be there in the future. Now’s the time to break them to make people first.

The Fifth Era of Transportation

A Minneapolis-St. Paul Twin City Lines historic streetcar on Market Street.  This era is often fondly recalled by planners and policymakers.

A Minneapolis-St. Paul Twin City Lines historic streetcar on Market Street. This era is often fondly recalled by planners and policymakers.

I had the distinct pleasure of taking one of John S. Adams final course on American Cities in 2002.  He is one of the pioneer urban planners in academia who in 1970 proposed four distinct eras of transportation which shaped and defined American housing, infrastructure, and life. His energetic and sometimes enigmatic lessons left me empowered on understanding and perhaps influencing the course of American cities.

  • First Era: Walking-Horsecar Era 1800-1890 – When cities established on railways and river landings, people only moved as far as they could walk.  The horsecar, a re-appropriation of a typical horse buggy was the most the commoner could dream of for public transit.
  • Second Era: Recreational Automobile Era 1925-1950 – Cars were just coming into fashion but like Lord Grantham remarked, soon every Tom, Dick, and Harry would soon have one.  Any freeway that seems especially beautiful, windy, or picturesque in your city came from this era.  It probably took an hour to go a few miles due to congestion on city/county roads.
  • Third Era: Electric Streetcar Era 1890-1920 – This was the golden age of public transit, when those tracks started moving people at fast and efficient clip.  Planners and officials today who yearn for a transit-orientated culture typically are referencing this period.
  • Fourth and Present Era: Freeway Era 1950-present – Urban renewal criss-crossed our cities and created the suburban development patterns we see today. This era marked a major expanse into the “hinterlands” around formerly dense built cities.

The four eras remind me of other scales like the human civilization type that astronomer’s use.  It’s an exponential curve and we barely rate a Type I because we have absolutely no harnessing technological power when it comes to the galaxy.   In a way I feel the same could be said of the Freeway Era which he lamented we are sadly still stuck in.  Even the advent of the jet airplane has exacerbated reliance on freeways, forcing us to build out and around servicing airports.   It was originally thought that airplanes would allow us to be globe trotters, less reliant on home bases.  The opposite is true, airplanes deliver thousands of people to settle in attractive cities.

ARTIC - Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center - Designed by HOK, this is a sports stadium for transit centers, serving Amtrak and regional buses. The interior resembles an airport in delivering information seamlessly to users.

ARTIC – Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center – Designed by HOK, this is a sports stadium for transit centers, serving Amtrak and regional buses. The interior resembles an airport in delivering information seamlessly to users.

If we are to look into the future, it’s my hope the Freeway Era can give way to a fifth era.  Perhaps this new era is the Technological Transportation Era.   Adams’ uses housing development patterns as evidence for his eras.  For this new era, we see early evidence that suburban housing demand has slowed and urban redevelopment has increased.   I say these are attributed to technological improvements, hence the name.

  • Changing Land Use Patterns. Technology is continuing to blur the need for location-based live, work, and play.  In turn cultural preferences are being influenced by lifting of this picket-fence illusion.  It’s clear the next generation of Americans will halt sprawl.
  • New Infrastructure. Technology in regards to transit infrastructure is also accelerating, with offering of multiple attractive transit modes and methods not present before.  Modern streetcar, light rail, and bus rapid transit make fixed transit seamless to implement and use.   Bicycling facilities are also evolving with protected bikeways, regional bike freeways, and bike sharing systems.
  • Improved Access to Information. Technology on the user side enables all information all the time.  In addition to a plethora of public transit apps, users can now instantly hail for private taxis (“rideshare”), find private transit, rent hourly cars, rent scooters, and arrange for carpools.

The soon to be reality driverless cars may likely represent the final and lasting impact of this Technological Transportation Era.  In a way I feel the driverless car could not have happened without the prior advents above, because for example without ubiquitous smartphones providing us hand-held information, it would be difficult to access such services.

However I will say knowing Adams and his current work on regional governance and policy, this fifth era cannot happen in a void.  It requires cooperation both on public and private interests to further infrastructure and policy that allows for these new technologies to flourish and adapt.  I’m sure he wouldn’t throw in the towel yet over the current era.

Nicollet Mall is Not the Destination

The announcement of architect James Corner to work on the Nicollet Mall redesign finally signals the city’s movement on upgrading the aging city centerpiece.  Minneapolis has discussed replacing Nicollet Mall for quite some time mostly due to its crumbling condition.  The rectangular fountains which I once enjoyed as a child are no longer.  The colorful sidewalk pavers are coming apart, and it’s configuration is generally outdated, outmoded given the changes in many of the storefronts which now focus on bar patios than affordable interesting retail.  The Mall isn’t really a mall anymore, it’s a fancy zone of transition, to get from the bus to the office, the train to the hotel, or a bar hopping corridor.

Once upon a time: Nicollet Ave after the Norse-American Centennial Parade in 1925

Once upon a time: Nicollet Ave after the Norse-American Centennial Parade in 1925

Corner has thankfully listened to the actual needs of how people actually use the Mall, as a pathway to the river and importantly as access to the skyway.  Nicollet Mall is really just Nicollet Avenue, a central thoroughfare that serves critical commerce and business in the State, if not region.  However, the vision presented by the final design candidates overall is not exactly fitting with Minneapolis, let alone the Twin Cities or Minnesota.  There will never be hordes of people congregating in a square block, lest the government has been overthrown. Street events are few and far between, and preferred in neighborhood settings anyway.  It’s not even really wide enough to put a full parade down it (Holidazzle doesn’t count).  The fact is, Nicollet Mall has never been the destination, it’s the uses around it that are the penultimate arrival.

In cities like New York, you can build an urban public space anywhere and people will flock en masse because there is such a craving and need for it.  Corner’s Highline is simple and unobtrusive, it needed no special flair.  On the other hand the context of the Twin Cities is that it was planned with leisurely standards of wide public roads, lush tree canopy, and plentiful parkland.  Fly overhead during warm months and all you see is a sea of green with skyscrapers mulling about. So for Nicollet Mall, there is really no reason to overemphasize nature or congregating, Minneapolitans are adept at finding green places to loiter in the City and need no special proof of it.  Take a failing example of the Minneapolis Federal Courthouse plaza where grassy nature mounds are ridiculous and unused.  It hasn’t made that public space any more appealing or grand.

The direction of Corner to move with thematic areas of “live, work and play” is a right direction, as homages to Portland’s transit mall “rooms.”  The difference is, Tri-Met built those public spaces, not the City of Portland, and so their purpose is ultimately movement and flow.  Simply creating arbitrary urban spaces on Nicollet Mall after some kind of theoretical theme, does not create a good design.  The heyday of the Mall as a retail cathedral reflects the shopper’s feeling of being there for what is around there, what abuts it.  The street emphasizes the buildings, not the other way around.  To focus on revitalizing Nicollet Mall, is inherently to revitalize the business and activity that relates to it.  Bricks and mortar are stepping stones, those post-modern art sculptures and curved architectural seats simply serve to move you to the next stop.  Misunderstanding Nicollet Mall’s redesign as purely civic destination will ultimately destine it to a future redesign and not effectively serve Minneapolitans now.

Corner should focus on connectivity as an overarching theme because that is what has made the Mall ignored and confusing today. Even long-time Twin Citians strolling along will invariably become annoyed at how the street “gives up” at either ends. The Washington Ave terminus is a sea of empty lots, as if it were a wasteland of Greek ruins punctuated by Minoru Yamasaki’s ING temple. The southern transition to Steven’s Square and Loring Park is tepidly marked with faceless modernist fortresses, as if one were not meant to step beyond Grant Street. The many numbered Streets of Minneapolis sharply cut into Nicollet Mall without looking back. It is a pity city planners never enforced building corner setbacks. Improving these interfaces to the great Main Street will ensure in the long-term whatever Corner produces for the next generation will continue to be admired and used.

Hong Kong’s Hyperdensity

Dizzying heights of density in Hong Kong's prestigious mid-levels.

Dizzying heights of density in Hong Kong’s prestigious mid-levels.

Having returned from a month-long stay with family in Hong Kong, I was intrigued to find Proto City writing about the city. Writer Adam Nowek praises Hong Kong’s dense urban infrastructure in Hyperdense: High-Density Architecture in Hong Kong. From a Western outsider view, Hong Kong seems to be the pinnacle of urbanist pursuits of lively, dense development, fully utilized efficient transit, pedestrian-orientated streets, and more dessert shops than one could hope for. Owing to the plexus of Asia’s finances, trade, logistics, and tourism, the city-state has for a long time been an international player of Western capitalist growth. It dares steal many world livability rankings.

There was a commenter in Nowek’s article who wondered why “China” is pursuing modernist development well-knowing it has failed in the United States, Europe, and even South America. Certainly modernism failed in terms of it’s implementation, with design sharing only some of the blame. No one expected crack cocaine to destroy Le Cobusier’s dreams overnight. I felt compelled to address this question because it touches to the heart of what makes urban form possible. Hong Kong certainly lives out Western modernism ideals with helipads and all, but underneath, its current state is uniquely Asian. There are two quite important differences that come to my mind between the redevelopment environment of U.S. city-regions and this particular city-state.

1) A homogenous population in many ways.

About 95% of Hong Kong identifies as ethnically Cantonese (of the Han Chinese which makeup China). Culturally, nearly the same amount have grown up in a completely urban environment and in about the same school systems. There exists the typical class divisions of wealth and prestige, but otherwise, all inhabitants co-exist physically on the same level in terms of interactions. All must live in residential towers because there is no land for single-family housing. White-collar workers and their custodians ride the same transit lines. Elite bankers patron karaoke clubs as much as the next 20-something barista. In a way, Hong Kong reflects early industrial cities where laborers brushed shoulders with the well to do, and all were governed by a societal structure of conformity, hierarchy and order. The pursuit of wealth and fun could be the people’s motto.

Planners will agree, a homogenous population allows easy policy and planning. It doesn’t necessarily mean planners can pursue any agenda for passage, but it means they can reasonably know what to expect in response from civic engagement. The transformation of Hong Kong colony into world class city was a vision that could be sold, because the benefit applied to all people. New MTR rail lines can focus on spatial density problems with less influence from minority voices. New rail planning in U.S. cities are fraught with dissident alternatives because the routes contend with racial tensions and business interests. As such final routings might not even serve particularly needy areas in favor of wealthier less dense areas, or be contorted to serve outside business districts.

2) Strong central government, no civic engagement.

The city also has the distinguished irony of having a homogenous population but with little to no input on policy decisions. Though it is correct that Hong Kong is more democratic with a parliamentary legislature given its British colonial past, the same colonial powers also left behind a legacy of top-down 1950s style planning. Private developers have always been an influence in the government, resulting in the push for the many towers that dot the skyline regardless of any local citizen or environmental consideration. Land reclamation has been so rampant, citizens have held massive protests to the harbor damage.

However, this very strong and influenced government is the very reason for the capitalistic urbanism which exists in Hong Kong. Many beautiful colonial era buildings and natural creeks were obliterated for the concrete fortress that Hong Kong has literally become. Such change is unprecedented in the U.S. and was just briefly seen in the urban renewal era where hundreds of city blocks were obliterated overnight. The history of that era and its civic activism legacy show us such drastic urbanism will forever be impossible here. Hong Kong’s hyperdense towers exist in an environment where there is no zoning, no limits to where and what you can build. Glass office towers live wall to wall with apartments. This has created the “messy vitality” that is adored.

Suburban Transit Orientated Development in Hong Kong's Shatin District

Suburban Transit Orientated Development in Hong Kong’s Shatin District

These two points, of a unified citizenry and a powerful government, essentially say to me that the relationship between the state and its people are pivotal to the future of urbanism in the U.S. What is happening today in China is that they are building hyperdensity for the people who live there now, not for projected figures of influx. They are changing the landscape because it is changing for them. There is an appropriate policy to the current housing crisis. For American urbanists, I think we erroneously assume this policy is universally applicable. Even if regional plans warn of a handful millions entering a city region within 20 some years, this does not necessarily dictate the dire housing requirements of regional governments. Additionally, Hong Kong plans for not just residential expansion for the broad range of services, retail, and transit required to support that expansion. These considerations are oft ignored by regional projections. As such Hong Kong livability lessons should not be seen in the physical structures, but in the policies, conditions and responses of government.

Lastly, Hong Kong’s powerful transformation results from being a city that controls all of its 426 square miles with little national intervention. If it wants to build a new airport, it will negotiate with itself and acquire right of ways accordingly. If it wants to equitably distribute population growth, it can at will. European cities like Sweden understand the relationship between land use and transportation and so accordingly annex any land in which a rail line extension is serving. That way the municipality captures economic development at large (property tax) rather than depend on recouping its investment via users. Discussions of VMT tax would be unnecessary if municipalities had more annexation powers.