Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Investing in Place

Millennium Park, Chicago
An urban oasis: For those who live with it every day, it may be just as important that Millennium Park has begun to fulfill its social promise, evolving into a widely used public space. Visited by Loop workers and tourists alike, it seems to even be gaining in popularity. (Chicago Tribune photo by E. Jason Wambsgans) June 26, 2005

Lisa Rochon of the Toronto Globe & Mail has two articles, "Penny-wise, cityscape foolish," and "Stuck At The Corner Of Graceless And Blah" about how Toronto investments in public space and placemaking are too often valued engineered and end up yielding little to long term quality of life. (Christopher Hume of the Toronto Star has a similar piece, "The boulevard of bespoke dreams," although he is more hopeful about Bremner Boulevard and the opportunity presented by the critical mass of civic assets and improvements in the public realm, at least in that part of the city.)

From the first article:

But unless there’s a radical shift within the city bureaucracy, where administrators keep to their isolated silos rather than aligning across departments for a common, city-building vision, the fight for enlightened streetscapes in Toronto will remain a futile battle. In other cities, even dreary Edmonton, urban designers are mobilizing to soften the hard edges of the postwar city – with funky park pavilions in sports fields – to build the new urban visions of their ambitious political leaders. That’s an uphill battle in Toronto, where graceful, enlivening public space is being sidelined by Mayor Rob Ford, and his disciples, as frivolous and wasteful. ...

The irony is that poetic visions – the fancy ideas – are why people become emotionally attached to great cities. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who retires next week after 22 years in office, believed in bold and exuberant interventions – in making a great American city look even more handsome through the planting of 600,000 trees and the building of more than seven million square feet of planted roofs.

When you lie on the epic green grass of Chicago’s 25-acre Millennium Park, completed in 2004, or gaze at Frank Gehry’s brazen band shell there and photograph the weird, stretched faces being reflected in the mirrored cladding of Anish Kapoor’s public sculpture, Cloud Gate, you are not remembering that the park cost $450-million (three times its original estimate, and worth every penny for its magnetic appeal to people around the world). You’re thinking: “Why can’t this be Toronto?”

The short, sad answer is that it should be.

Although Toronto has a decent and engaged civil society (even if the new mayor just eliminated 22 citizen commissions). Toronto's Coalition for Active Transportation sponsored a Complete Streets Forum. All 11 of the presentations are online. I've looked at a few so far and they are quite good. (Previous TCAT conferences are also online: Complete Streets Forum 2010; Bike Summit 2009; Bike Summit 2008.)

I mentioned that WGN-TV, the Chicago television station, had a special on the legacy of Mayor Richard Daley, who was known for infrastructure projects focused on the quality of place, including Millennium Park and a renewed focus on bicycling. The tv special, "Make no little plans" is online.

Note that while I lament that DC doesn't have a "millennium park" in the center of the city a--it could have gone onto the old convention center city--and while I rail about the fact that DC has neither a master transportation plan nor a parks and recreation master plan, parks developed on the Georgetown Waterfront and in the vicinity of the Washington Nationals Stadium have the potential to be quite great.

The Anacostia Riverwalk Trail and the Metropolitan Branch Trail will be great assets when they are fully built out, as is a developing network of cycletrack bikeways, such as on 15th Street NW (at the Dutch ThinkBike workshop last fall, we figured out serendipitously that cycletracks on L and M Streets from the Metropolitan Branch Trail in northeast to the Key Bridge in Georgetown could provide links to 6 multi-use trails). There is bike sharing. The various streetscape improvement programs by the DC Department of Transportation. Etc.

Witold Rybczynski had a piece in the New York Times over the weekend, "Bringing the High Line Back to Earth," about how cities shouldn't just "wildly adopt" (my words) the sexy infrastructure projects pioneered by others, such as New York City's High Line park in-the-air, because they won't necessarily have the kind of impact they are seeking.

In some respects, I agree. In North America, New York City can try just about anything and succeed, because the density of population and building stock is so high. Years ago on an e-list, in a discussion on pedestrian malls (everyone still seems to want them, even though they don't work in most places, with some key exceptions, usually in college towns), a person pointed out that plants don't activate spaces, people do. When you have lots of people, your opportunities are greater.

The biggest thing center cities need to do is figure out how to attract new residents vis-a-vis their competition with communities in metropolitan regions ("the suburbs"). Recently, the Post ran the story, "Census: Washington is getting younger ," about how DC has added a lot of young adults, demographically speaking, even though the nation is aging.
Mass Court Apartments, 300 H Street NW, Washington, DC
Mass Court Apartments, 300 H Street NW, Washington, DC. Photo by BeyondDC.

I don't think the reason should be surprising. Most communities have a relatively narrow range of housing options, mostly single family homes. DC is no exception, although it does have old apartment and condominium buildings along various avenues such as Connecticut and Wisconsin Avenues, and 16th Street NW.

In the last 10 years, DC has added thousands of housing units through the addition of multiunit residential buildings, both rental and condominium, in and around the central business district especially, but also at subway stations in other parts of the city such as Ward 1 (Columbia Heights, U Street), Ward 2 (along 14th Street and in the central business district), Ward 4 (Petworth, some housing at Takoma Metro), Ward 5 (Fort Totten--a location with limited place value, but with projects coming to Brookland and Rhode Island Metro), and Ward 6 (near Union Station, NoMA and the New York Avenue station, in the M Street SE area--the being created Capitol Riverfront district, and on Pennsylvania Avenue SE). That's where the new and younger population is likely living.

Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces has a piece in the PPS blog, "Michigan Leads the Way: Placemaking and Place-Based Governance is New, State-Wide Economic Development Strategy." The piece claims that Michigan is refocusing state policies towards investments in placemaking, recognizing that place improvement is an economic development strategy as well as a quality of life strategy.

On Sunday, the Post had an article, "As Civil War anniversary nears, Manassas sees a historic opportunity," about how the Manassas region is looking to reposition around leveraging its Civil War-related historical assets, using the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the war as a starting off point. The article contrasts the experience of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and how the community's image and local tourism efforts key on the battlefield where the Civil War ended, and Manassas today.

When we do planning, too often we think of plans as end points, when they really are beginning points.

More and more, I believe that when we plan for conferences such as the Toronto Complete Streets conference or last weekend's Bike Summit in Montgomery County, that we have to already have next steps in place, to leverage the efforts that come out of such events, and focus the energy towards further achievements in the overall agenda.

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