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

10,000 Single Women in Chicago

Single women in Chicago outnumber single men by about 10,000. According to census data, and a fascinating map from Richard Florida’s, the odds are very much in the favor of single hetero/male Chicagoans. Cities with more single men than women include Minneapolis-St. Paul and Dallas-Ft. Worth which both have approximately 40,000 more single men than women.

Single Ladies

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.


Gentrification, Density and a New Logan Square High-Rise


Rendering from Wheeler Kearns

Neighborhoods change, it’s inevitable. The area that was once Cabrini-Green housing project is now populated with big box stores and cookie-cutter yuppie fortresses, while other, once prosperous, (or at least working class) neighborhoods on the west and south side, are losing people and money. UIC has defined 14 Chicago neighborhoods in South and West Chicago as in “severe decline” these neighborhoods “have populations that are, on average, two-thirds African American.” These are the same neighborhoods that have put Chicago in the national news for having high rates of homicide.

For some, gentrification carries benefits, landowners see their properties increase in value and small business may stand to benefit if their customers are more comfortable being out and about in the neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that are richer or more densely populated are often more walkable, and foot traffic on the streets correlates with safety. For other people, gentrification can be devastating. A person learns a neighborhood. Our lives get built around where we shop, send children to school and live from day to day. If your neighborhood gets a rapid infusion of new people from a different background, if the neighborhood businesses no longer cater to you and, most importantly, if it becomes unaffordable in terms of services, parking and rent, that’s going to have a huge impact on your life. Read more

The Black Market Heritage of Les Bouquinistes

Bouquinistes_in_Paris,_11_October_2012The tempting green bookstalls that sit on the banks of Paris’ Seine started life as unsanctioned sellers of pamphlets, many of which were illegal to distribute. If you’ve visited Paris, you’ve probably seen these lovely little shops. They are an important part of a city whose citizens are known for being cultured and captivated by the arts. So important, in fact, are “Les Bouquinistes,” as they are called, that they have earned the UNESCO designation of World Heritage Site.

This account comes from Tactical Urbanism by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia. It’s a perfect example of what the authors are looking to encourage.

Many of the things that make cities great don’t come from a huge bureaucratic system or the decree of a powerful mayor but by the will of the people that live in the city.  Projects like the book stalls on the Seine were not city-sponsored or even encouraged by the city, but the people wanted them, supported them and kept coming back to them, and that was enough.

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

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.

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