Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Is Indianapolis still lame?

Monument Circle. Photo: author

As the national media turns its attention to Indianapolis in the run-up to Superbowl XLVI, I thought it would be fun to re-examine a city that holds an important place in my life. A city where my Nana still lives, in a two-story suburban ranch that she bought with her husband in 1967. A city I visited before I learned to walk, then later frequented as a Hoosier for eight years in high school and college. A city where I attended my first concert without parents (Rush at Market Square Arena!), played a drum kit in front of thousands (IU basketball at the Fieldhouse!), and attempted to woo women (ice skating at Pan Am Plaza!)

Despite these fond memories, Indy is a city that, once I turned 17 or so, I found to be kind of lame. But many rationally-minded, fun-loving friends and family members continue to live in the Circle City. Perhaps things are less lame now. Or maybe urban lameness is of little concern when you can earn a steady paycheck and raise a family in one of the most affordable cities in America. Perhaps a little bit of both. And so I ask the good people of Indy: You may be hosting the Superbowl this weekend, but is Indianapolis still lame?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Got Alleys?

Alleys are underrated. Along with much of urbanity, alleys fell out of favor in the post-war era, becoming associated with phrases like, “I wouldn’t want to run into that guy in a dark alley.” But in the late 20th century, as we began returning to cities and urban design, we rediscovered why we built them in the first place. New Urbanist town planners have been particularly keen on reintroducing alleys into the development vernacular. Peter Calthorpe writes:
In areas where walking is to be encouraged, streets lined with garages are undesirable. Alleys provide an opportunity to put the garage in the rear, allowing the more “social” aspects of the home to front the street. Streets lined with porches, entries and living spaces are safer because of this visual surveillance.
But how did we get to this point, when alleys are still sort of taboo and must be defended? Why did alleys pop up in the first place? And why do some cities have alleys and others don’t? The answer is, of course, history.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Plant Hardiness Zones Updated

The USDA has released an updated plant hardiness zone map, based on climate data from the past 30 years. The map, based on average minimum winter temperatures, is used by gardeners and growers to determine which plants will thrive at a given location. It was last updated in 1990. In addition to better representing our current climate, the new zones are also more precise, accounting for subtle elevation changes, urban heat islands and effects from bodies of water. Not surprisingly, warmer zones are creeping northward.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Downtown Groceries

At roughly the turn of the millennium, people began returning in earnest to live in American city centers, after 50 years of urban flight (and urban blight). Young adults and baby boomers have been particularly attracted to the amenities, lifestyle and lower-maintenance dwellings that city centers have to offer. Living downtown means being steps from great restaurants, nightlife, public plazas, and cultural offerings like museums and concerts. Developers responded in the last real estate boom, augmenting downtown skylines with shiny condo towers. But one staple of modern living has been slow to join the downtown migration: the full-service grocery store.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

US Secessionist Movements

In grade school history class, we all learned about the Confederacy seceding from the US during the Civil War. But did you know about the Absaroka secessionist movement of 1939? How about Forgottonia, where western Illinoisans were upset about not getting an interstate highway? Or the latest movement, Baja Arizona?

Urban Mapping has assembled an interactive map of 29 American secessionist movements that have bubbled up since colonial times.

In addition to the Confederacy and Forgottonia, I had only heard of the Jefferson and South Jersey secessionist movements. My father was a card-carrying member of the latter movement in the early 1980's. I think he still has the t-shirt.

Cool map, except for one glaring omission...Where's Cascadia?!

Check it out:


Monday, January 16, 2012

World Subways at Scale

Here's a great link referred by friend and planning compatriot Emily Picha: Simple line maps of 44 of the world's rapid transit systems, all shown at the same scale. It's interesting to see both the area covered, and the geo-spatial strategy employed. Some have hub-and-spoke arrangements (Chicago), others add circular routes (Berlin, Moscow), and yet others are veritable spaghetti bowls (London, Paris).

The scale of the Paris network looks a little off (too small), but I have no supporting evidence. Either way, one thing's for sure: North American rapid transit networks pale in comparison to many in Europe and Asia.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Urban Form of Mining Towns

Jim Thorpe, PA. Photo: author

19th century mining was rough. The earth was split apart with pick axes and dynamite with little regard to the aftereffects. Workers died daily, or died later from toxins lodged in their lungs. Immigrant groups were treated poorly, especially Chinese.
But somehow, 19th century mining left a legacy of beautiful towns with some of the best urban form and architecture in America, from the Appalachians to the Sierras. How did this come about? My theory: It was the convergence of three things: money, necessary compactness, and architectural trends of the time.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Carbon In, Carbon Out: A Tale of Two Maps

Two different federal agencies released fascinating and consequential maps this week. Together, they tell the story of how we spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, then get the help of trees to soak them up. Unfortunately, this process is not a closed loop, and carbon emissions continue to outpace our planet’s ability to compensate for them. It’s one of the most troubling, complex and controversial issues we face. But for now, let’s just look at the maps!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Tall Place to Call Home

Trivia question: In what US city will you find the tallest residential building west of the Mississippi River? (And this can include mixed-use buildings that are mostly residential.)
Is it in Los Angeles, our nation’s second largest city, and home of the tallest building of any kind west of the Mississippi?
Is it in San Francisco, courtesy of the fairly new One Rincon Hill South Tower that juts 641 feet above the Bay Bridge approach?
Is it in Seattle, located on the isthmus that squeezes available land for new homes?
Is it in Portland, where regional land use policies encourage dense infill development, and naysayers fret about all of us living in condo towers?
Is it in mile-high Denver?
In Dallas or Houston, where Texans like it big?

Kafoury and Rall on the Federal Transportation Bill

Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury and Transportation for America organizer Chris Rall teamed up for a thoughtful editorial in The Oregonian about the upcoming federal transportation bill reauthorization. While lawmakers will likely just kick the can down the road a year, it will be interesting to see how an eventual new transportation bill shapes up. Some in Congress want to get rid of bike/ped and transit funding, or even do away with federal transportation funding entirely. Can you guess which party they belong to?


An Ode to the Townhouse

town house  1 a city residence, esp. as distinguished from a country residence of the same owner  2 a dwelling, typically two-story or three-story, that is one of a planned complex of such, often contiguous, dwellings: also town’house or town’home’  n.
While my usually-trusty Webster’s New World College Dictionary offers woefully inept definitions of the townhouse (#1 harks back to 17th century England; #2 reminds one of suburban Maryland), you get the picture. Or if you don't, here's an actual picture:

Townhouses in Old City Philadelphia. Photo: author

Friday, January 6, 2012

Pictures of parking lots

Here's an interesting photo series from the New York Times. Thanks to Terra!


At some point, I will expound upon parking on this blog.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Seasons coming to N Williams Ave

KGW reports that a New Seasons grocery store is coming to the vacant, three-acre lot bounded by North Vancouver Avenue, Williams Avenue, Fremont Street and Cook Street in Portland's Eliot neighborhood. This is big news. The site has been a gash in the fabric of this historic neighborhood for years, especially after the early-20th-century Wonder Bread bakery was demolished in 2007. Mayor Sam Adams says the store will be part of a larger redevelopment that includes affordable housing. I haven't been able to track down any site plans or other related information.

It will be interesting to see if gentrification concerns arise as they often do in this historically African-American neighborhood. Feelings are still a little raw over the traffic safety project that unintentionally pitted mostly-white, mostly-younger cyclists against mostly-black, mostly-older residents that lived through decades of urban renewal demolition. I'm hoping that, in this case, everyone in the neighborhood, regardless of their background, can agree that New Seasons will be a tremendous improvement over the existing hole in the ground. Even if they sell soy, coconut, rice, almond and hemp milk to vegan hipsters. (For the record, New Seasons is my store of choice - there's one a block from my house - and as a lactose intolerant, I am a consumer of said milks. I am a walking Portlandia episode.)

Does anybody have more details on the project?

Google should move some city centers

Google’s advances in online mapping are virtually unmatched, from being the first to provide easily accessible color aerial photography, to the amazing utility of StreetView. As Google continues to fine-tune its maps, here’s an idea that planner geeks would love: Google should make sure that their city center locations - the pushpin symbol that shows up when you type in a location like “New York, NY” - are truly at the hearts of those cities.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Bolder Vision for the Tacoma Light Rail Station Area

Preface for non-Portlanders: The 7.3-mile Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail will connect Downtown Portland with the southern suburb of Milwaukie. Construction began last summer, with an opening slated for 2015. It is the region’s sixth light rail project in the modern era. The line will have two stations in Portland’s Sellwood neighborhood, home of Yours Truly. A station at SE Tacoma Street will be the southernmost in the neighborhood, and also the southernmost in the City of Portland. Portland’s light rail lines are also called MAX, for Metropolitan Area eXpress.

The coming of the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail to Sellwood brings the opportunity to revitalize, and perhaps completely redefine, an underutilized portion of the neighborhood: the McLoughlin Boulevard (Highway 99E) corridor between Westmoreland Park and the Springwater Trail. The current prescription - a park-and-ride lot and continued commercial zoning - does not do justice to the possibilities for this favorable location in close-in Portland. Worse, it will force MAX riders to walk a quarter mile through a no-man’s land to access the station. I think we can do better, in the form of transit-oriented development that (a) revitalizes and adds value to an underperforming section of Sellwood, (b) supports the billion-dollar investment of the PMLR, (c) fits our regional goals of saving farmland and open space while promoting infill development, and (d) creates a safer, more comfortable experience when accessing the station.

MAX is slow. And other findings from a comparison of 15 rail transit lines.

One of my major takeaways from Public Transportation class in grad school was this: A successful transit system provides a careful balance of accessibility, speed, frequency, reliability and quality. Which factors are most important depends on who you ask. For someone with mobility challenges, having a short distance to a transit stop is obviously critical. For a harried downtown worker, super-quick travel times might be just the thing. For a free-wheeling teenager allergic to planning ahead, it may be the ability to hop on frequent transit without checking a schedule.

Welcome to CityRegionNationWorld!

Hello, friends, family and other residents of cities, regions, nations and worlds. Welcome to the first blog post of CityRegionNationWorld, a forum dedicated to thoughts on urban and regional planning, transportation, land use, economic development, architecture, urban design, the environment, and other tangentially related topics, including, occasionally, politics. And if I'm hungry, maybe food.

Prior to this post, I've enjoyed sharing my thoughts and fostering discussions about these issues through Facebook "notes", and by commenting on other blogs. I will continue to do both, while using this blog to reach a potentially wider audience.

I chose the name CityRegionNationWorld not just because cool words like Planosaurus and Urbivore were already taken, but also because we are all residents of each of these four geographic constructs. Even if you live on a distant, pastoral farm, you still have a town listed on your mailing address (even if the USPS shuts down your post office). You most definitely live in a region. The Corn Belt, perhaps. Or maybe the Pine Barrens. Or the Willamette Valley. We reside in, are originally from, or identify ourselves by a nation (sometimes multiple nations for more interesting folks). And until we build Biosphere 3 on the Moon or Mars, all 7 billion of us are stuck on this beautiful blue planet with all its wonders and problems. The cities, regions and nations of our world are increasingly interconnected through technology and trade. I hope that we can learn from one another, especially in how we accommodate, feed and provide economic opportunity for an ever-ballooning population.

You may have already read my next post, on transit travel times. But I spent a darned lot of time on it, so I'm sharing it again! Beyond that, I look forward to sharing more thoughts and observations, and more importantly, getting yours. Enjoy!