Great Urban Planning Content From Around the Web

Purple House 001

Photo by Kaylynn Deveney

There’s mountains of writing on cities, planning, and transportation written everyday. I’ve collected links to some of my favorites, feel free to add yours in the comments below.


Going from Nowhere to Nowhere

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis phrase comes from Alastair Bonnett’s Unruly Places. He uses it to describe train trips in suburban London where he lives. Bonnett is talking about the way in which so many places have become completely interchangeable, even in a country with much older structures than we have in the States, as well as an infrastructure that predates the car. The sameness of franchises, the many prefab objects of our world and the way zoning creates uniformity is oppressive.  And Nowhere is expanding.

In Who’s Your City Richard Florida makes a powerful critique of the “flat world” idea of Thomas Friedman’s. He talks about how, though technology has made some things possible to do from anywhere, the world has, if anything, become less flat. The world’s economy and innovation is increasingly localized to key places. Cities become specialized powerhouses. The world of finance is rooted in cities like New York and London, Silicon Valley is a magnet for technology companies and innovation, Boston and Philadelphia specialize in medical research and pharma. What we learn, discover, and the work we do depends heavily on where we are located. Read more

Where We Want to Live – Review

Where we want to liveRyan Gravel’s Where We Want to Live takes a measured approach to explaining the modern metropolis. He looks at cities through the lens of large-scale infrastructure projects like the New York High Line, the Los Angeles River Project, and especially the Atlanta BeltLine which he has been closely involved with since its inception. Gravel isn’t a fiery preacher of new urbanism, he’s a dedicated student of the city. It’s not enough for him to diagnose what’s wrong with Atlanta (and the book is more concerned with Atlanta than any other city) Gravel needs to get to the root cause. He’s tireless in his investigations of cities’ histories, pulling from the great events of a city’s past as well as his own anecdotal experiences. But Gravel is not writing history for its own sake, he wrings useful information out of the pasts of these cities. The projects he describes are informed by the history of the particular place in which they originate.

The project he explores most deeply is Atlanta’s BeltLine project, envisioned to take abandoned railroad lines that encircle the city of Atlanta and turn them into a 22-mile ring of parks and green space around the city’s center. Gravel knows the project well because it was born out of his own master’s thesis written decades ago where the idea was first proposed.  The history of the BeltLine, built to serve the growing 1900s Atlanta is key to the project. The pride in the city’s past and the diverse communities that have grown up around those train lines (including Martin Luther King’s own church) fuel the reasons for and the rationale behind the project. Read more

Where People Walk and Bike to Work

I was surprised by this table from an article in Fast Coexist, listing the top cities for walk and bike commuting. It would have been impossible for me to guess that Boston would top the list, and I’m surprised to see Baltimore above more trendy cities like the rapidly growing Austin TX.

Overall, it’s striking to see how little weather seems to effect the walk/bike commuting percentage. The statistics seem like further proof of the power of design and infrastructure to get people on their bikes. I’m glad Chicago made the list but it’s a little embarrassing to be so far behind frigid 400,000 person city of Minneapolis.


Granny Flats and the Struggle to Build Additional Low-cost Housing

ADU“Granny Flats” or ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) inspire a lot of excited talk right now. These are small carriage houses built in the backs of homes on land that would traditionally be a garage or a yard. They can contribute to making a more walkable, healthy, and affordable city, but they’re having trouble getting off the ground in the U.S., even in cities that allegedly love them.

The reason for this is regulation: limitations around who can live in the home, aesthetic concerns or (and this is the most onerous and counterproductive one) parking. Growing cities that pay lip service to remaining affordable are unwilling to serve the citizens who aren’t drivers and this keeps them from continuing to attract young, talented people. Read more

Picking Winners in The Walkable City

Cabrini Green High Rise

Cabrini Green High Rise

Resources don’t distribute evenly in cities. Public schools are funded by property taxes, so places with expensive property get better-funded schools.  Only so many houses can sit by the beach or near a public transit line. Neighborhoods will, by necessity, sort themselves into rich and poor based on the cost of property. People sort themselves by ethnicity, and the poorer less enfranchised people will have less power to influence the city governments to spend resources on them. City governments have to decide what they want to do about this. Do they want to put wind in the sales of the neighborhoods that are sailing upward or do they want to try and make the distribution more equitable?

Modern Urbanism has a lot to say about how to make cities and communities more viable. One strong conviction is that making places more walkable can break up segregation, bring wealth into communities, buoy local businesses and make the people in those communities healthier, but it’s not free. Read more

Walkable City – Review

Walkable-Cities-CoverKanye West first became famous for his music, but now his outrageous statements raise him to a level of notoriety far beyond his musicianship. The Kanye proclamation that sticks in my head comes from an impromptu speech to Harvard students. “I believe design can save the world.” I don’t know exactly what ills was looking to save the world from, but after reading Jeff Speck’s Walkable City, you quickly get the sense of many of the things wrong with this world that could be solved by applying the lesson from this direct and entertaining book.

Walkable City moves quickly. The structure makes sense. The reader understands the gravity of the stakes. The author delivers well-reasoned prescriptive solutions to the problems he calls attention to. Walkable City has the courage of its convictions and rather than simply pointing out problems it prescribes solutions. How wide should lanes be in streets?  Ten feet.  And the book is quick to explain why. How much is all the parking in Chicago worth? A lot more than the 1.2 billion Morgan Stanley paid for it. It’s a book that picks fights* and wins them. Read more

Asthma in Atlanta

Atlanta OlympicsJeff Speck’s Walkable City entertains and terrifies by turns. I will review it when I’m finished reading it, but I couldn’t wait to share this fascinating anecdote about the Atlanta Olympics.

“During the 1996 Olympics, nearly 2 million people descended on the city of Atlanta effectively increasing the city’s population by 50%. Most of the visitors – I was among them – spent many hours huffing around the hot, crowded sports venues. Yet, during that time, asthma hospitalizations surprisingly declined by 30%.”

The cause of this drop was not a freak chance or magic, it was a drop in auto traffic. Atlanta had warned its residents against trying to drive through the ultra-crowded city center, and this temporary increase in public transit created an immediate public health benefit. It’s a striking example of the negative externalities of building for car travel rather than walkability or public transit.

Abandoned Corporate Headquarters, Spurned Suburbs, and The End of Sprawl

GE Headquarters

GE Headquarters

The Wall Street Journal ran a story today that highlights the fallout from building sprawl. It explores US suburbs’ struggle to deal with abandoned corporate headquarters.

“Companies from General Electric to Weyerhaeuser are pulling their headquarters out of leafy* suburban campuses and moving downtown.”

The small communities that host these headquarters make huge infrastructure investments to accommodate these employers. They’re also asked to grant tax breaks to woo these companies. Even dinosaurs like Sears, a few years from extinction, can extract this type of benefit by playing one suburb or state against another. Unfortunately for towns like Upper Saddle River, outside of New York, which recently lost Pearson Education, these companies can’t extort the talent they need in the same way they extort the communities they occupy. Read more

Against the Streetcar

Street carsStreetcars are a bad idea. They embody the worst of the two classic kinds of public transit. They aren’t flexible like buses, which can move between routes and have their routes altered with relatively little cost. They don’t avoid traffic like trains do because they use the streets. To make matters worse, street cars that don’t have dedicated lanes cannot change lanes if there’s something obstructing their path. In this case, streetcars move slower and cost more than busses, without delivering any benefit.

Yet cities are constructing or planning to build streetcars in Detroit, Grand RapidsMilwaukee, and Cincinnati, and
this list is limited to cities in the Midwest. It’s my firm hope that the notion of a streetcar never becomes popular in Chicago. Public transit funds are precious and we need to use them as best we can to make a system that serves the people the best. Bad transit can kill economic opportunity especially for the poor. Read more

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