The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


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Why Sameness Scares Me

This is a video of a sub-division in an exurb of a major metropolitan city. I won’t name the location because it doesn’t really matter. You could film this video in almost every state in the nation: Row after row of identical houses, up against a tree-lined strip along a busy road. The occasional car. Not a soul in sight.

This is suburbia, or the ghost-town that many suburbs have become as a result of the great suburban experiment and the too-quick expansion that created sprawl as we know it, a pre-fab pattern that developers glommed onto and reproduced at far too rapid a rate for any appropriate feedback mechanism or checks and balances.

It was a way to get quick money using cheap land and cheap materials. It gave the people what they wanted. Or so we thought.

Sameness scares me. Sameness is only one of many reasons why the suburbs are bankrupting America (literally and spiritually) but it’s one of the central issues from which stem all the other issues that caused this suburban disaster. Continue reading


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How to Live Small and Still be Happy

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Suppose you’ve been reading all these ideas on this blog about mixed use developments and public transportation and inner city living, and you finally feel like giving it a shot. I bet the first thing that stops you is the cost. You think you couldn’t possibly afford to live in one of those fancy downtown condos, and that’s the only way to live in the city. Plus, you couldn’t fit your whole life—kids, dog, etc.—in one of those anyway, even if you could afford the cost. Well I think you’re wrong. In fact, I know you’re wrong.

What follows are a series of questions to ask yourself before you say that city living is not for you. They’re also a great set of questions to ask yourself if you’re just trying to save some money, no matter where you live. This is about downsizing without losing your sanity or your happiness. I know it’s possible because I’m living it right now.

I currently live in a small (I would guess between 400-600 sq ft) apartment near downtown Milwaukee with my partner. It’s a 1 bedroom with a tiny bathroom, a tiny kitchen, a tiny dining room, and a tiny living room. Inside that apartment, we fit two peoples’ stuff, a cat, and plenty of fun gatherings with friends and family. We love it. And it is 100% within the price range of two young people not making very much money.

Here are some questions we asked ourselves to help us find our current downtown apartment in an affordable way (and the photos to prove it). I hope that considering them helps you recognize that you can live small and still be happy. Continue reading


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A Life Update

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It’s been too many weeks since I published something on this blog and I miss it. My life has been caught up in work, side projects, planning for the future, and a new kitty. (See above.) Plus I’ve been feeling a tad uninspired, and I’ve been spending more time reading other peoples’ work than writing my own, which is an okay space to fall in sometimes. But since a lot of what I do is relevant to cities, here’s a brief overview of my life right now.

Work

I am extremely fortunate to be working in a field that is basically exactly what I’ve been wanting to do for a long time—helping to end homelessness. I get some direct service interaction with clients, which I truly value, but I also get to do a lot of behind-the-scenes work, which is where I really thrive. I am helping to run a rapid rehousing program (read all about that type of homelessness intervention here, in one of my first ever posts on the blog) in Milwaukee, WI. That means that every day, I help homeless families find apartments, and connect them with funding from the federal and local governments to help them afford to live in those apartments. The goal is that by the end of 12 months in the program, with the help of our case managers,  they will have increased their income enough to afford the apartment on their own.

Thus far, we have put more than 40 families in housing, just in the span of 3 months. So naturally, that’s been keeping me pretty busy, especially since the program started from scratch on January 1 of this year. It’s been incredible to see the transformations that a family experiences when they go from living in a homeless shelter to living in their own home. The stability that a home brings is an essential foundation for helping parents to create a better life for their children, not to mention addressing mental health issues, financial struggles and more. In the short span of time that I’ve been working with this program, I’ve had many reflections and new ideas about how to combat homelessness in the future. One of the realizations that has definitely risen to the top is the need for more affordable housing, which I wrote about in a Strong Towns post on Wednesday. More on this topic soon.

 

Writing Elsewhere

I am now posting once a month on Strong Towns, as well as putting together some new columns for Urban Milwaukee. I love these opportunities to write in other places and reach new audiences, especially because of the communities that exist there. I truly believe in Strong Towns and its mission to improve this nation, so I’m glad I get to be a part of that body of knowledge. However, all this writing does mean less time to spend on this blog, so that’s an unfortunate side effect. I’m trying to get my schedule more aligned with my writing needs.

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Making Plans

The Jay-Z tune, “On to the Next One,” is sometimes my theme song, and now is one of those times. I’m currently deciding whether to apply to graduate school for urban planning and if so, where. I’m also balancing my partner’s newest venture, along with our decision to stay in Milwaukee a little longer than we had originally planned. It all means figuring out how to make this life work and figuring out how to be a part of this city in a way that makes sense for us.

 

New Kitty

Finally, I have achieved one of my biggest goals for 2015! I know it sounds silly but getting a cat is something I’ve wanted to do for ages and it was finally the right time to make that happen. A few weeks ago, we drove over to the Humane Society (in my mom’s car) and met Theo. Although he wasn’t getting a lot of love from the other visitors who passed through, nor was he particularly outgoing according to the label on his door, as soon as we got to know him, we knew he was perfect. He has made himself right at home here and we love him lots. Although his presence makes our space feel a little smaller, it also makes our apartment that much more joyous. Usually I come home to an empty apartment because my boyfriend and I work very different hours, but now I come home to Theo. Life is good.

Back to your regularly scheduled programming soon.

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A Recipe for Success

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Milwaukee, WI has made more frequent appearances on this blog, now that I live here, but usually I write about it in something of a critical light. I walk its streets every day, so I see the good and bad that goes on here, and it’s usually more productive to write about the bad, and constructively brainstorm ways to make it better. However, today I want to talk about Milwaukee in a wholly positive light.

Brady Street Milwaukee

I’m going to talk about one specific street here—Brady Street—because I think it is a fantastic model for a thriving, positive neighborhood street. Brady Street is one block from my house and it serves as a commercial anchor for the East Side of Milwaukee. The businesses here range from a hardware store to an STD clinic, from a Waldorf school to a Catholic church, from a Mediterranean nightclub to a popular sushi café, and from a dingy sports bar to one of the best wine bars in the city. It would take days to explore every storefront on this lively avenue. The street runs parallel to the river and it’s tucked in something of a residential area, yet it’s a busy, bustling thoroughfare with so much to offer. This is due to several important factors that I hope to see in more neighborhoods around the country: Continue reading


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What Happens to Small Businesses During Light Rail Construction

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It’s always exciting when I get to post on the Strong Towns blog. This week, I wrote about an issue I tackled a couple years ago on this blog: Summer Construction and Small Business Struggles. I expanded on it and dealt specifically with light rail construction on the Strong Towns blog, asking the question: How should we handle situations where the long-term goals of one entity–in this case the government and the city–clash with the short-term, day-to-day existence of another–small businesses? There’s already a lot of good ideas shared in the comments section. Here’s how it starts:

Four years ago, I sat in a small Caribbean restaurant called Caribe, in St. Paul, MN enjoying some phenomenal tostones and cuban sandwiches with an old friend and thinking to myself, “How did I not know about this place before? I’m definitely coming back soon.” A couple months later, I learned that the business had been forced to shutter its doors. What happened so suddenly that this beloved cafe had to close? If you’ve been following the public transit scene in the Twin Cities for the last few years, you know the answer: a light rail line was built in front of this business and hundreds of others on University Avenue. Getting to these diverse small businesses by car–and even on foot–became a serious challenge during the construction phase, thus many businesses saw a severe downturn in profits…

Read on for the rest.


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4 Truths You Need to Know About Homelessness Now

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Nearly every city in America is faced with an entrenched problem of homelessness. Whether you see homeless people on your streets or on our televisions, their plight exists at an appalling rate. And yet, our country has also made strides in addressing this issue. Here are 4 truths you should know about homelessness right now, gleaned from my own experiences working in the field, as well as relevant research.

1.  Homelessness affects people in all demographics. The stereotypical picture of a homeless person is an old, scruffy-looking, alcoholic man begging for change by the side of the road. This is simply not the whole picture. The U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) most recent Point in Time Count estimates that across the nation, 1/4 of all homeless people are under the age of 18, and 10% are between the ages of 18-24. In addition, families make up nearly 40% of all homeless people in the United States. People of any race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and age can and have been homeless in our country.

2.  Homelessness impacts every aspect of a person’s life. Homelessness is not just a problem because it means that individuals and families are without a place to go at night. It is also a problem because it prevents people from thriving in numerous areas of their lives: professional, mental, relational, people. When you’re homeless, your ability to apply for and find jobs is severely diminished because you lack access to showers, reliable transportation, nice clothing, a computer (unless you go to the library)–all these building blocks that are important to making a good impression on a potential employer. That’s an automatic setback as a homeless person tries to gain economic stability.

Homeless people also suffer mental health issues at a higher rate than the rest of the population. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 20-25% of homeless people have at least one mental health problem, as compared with 7% of the general population. Mental health issues can be both a cause and an effect of homelessness. These can also lead to relational conflicts with family members and friends.  In addition, homeless people often encounter relational conflicts due to their need to rely on family members for support in tough situations. On the flip side, homelessness can also result in transience–meaning that close friends and family may be cut off from the homeless individual. And tragically, many homeless men, women and children are fleeing domestic violence. These are all ways in which homelessness accompanies family break up and relational conflict. Finally, homelessness affects the physical wellbeing of a person making it challenging to find doctors and access medical services, while also taking a physical toll on a person’s body due to the need to wander and even sleep outside. Overall, it’s clear that homelessness does not just mean “without a home,” but rather, it brings with it a slew of other concerns.

3.  Homelessness is getting better in some places, but worse in others. The next truth you should know about homelessness is that there is hope. New Orleans recently announced its accomplishment of one of the nation’s major homelessness goals: ending veteran homelessness by 2015. They are part of a large pool of cities and states who have made enormous strides in the direction of this goal.  Some other recent successes include an overall decrease in homelessness nationally from 2012 to 2013 (the most recent data available). Family homelessness is down 7% and 31 states saw a decrease in homelessness. However, 20 states saw an increase. Emergency shelters across the nation have consistently been at almost 100% capacity from 2007 to 2013.  I urge you to read up on your own state to see where it fits into this picture, and what policies it has implemented to help end homelessness.

4.  Different solutions work for different people. I wrote last year about how shelters are not a long-term solution to homelessness, yet they are often used as such, with individuals and families bouncing from shelter to shelter for months. Indeed, emergency shelters are really only suited for people who have exhausted all other options and need a temporary place to stay while they figure out their next move. Many individuals who are homeless, particularly those who are chronically homeless (meaning they have been without a home for 1 year or more, or have had several episodes of homelessness) need affordable housing more than they need emergency shelter. They need a permanent solution to a persistent problem. For individuals like this with addiction issues, disabilities or mental health programs, permanent supportive housing is the best option. Supportive housing usually entails affordable apartment-style living with counselors, doctors, and/or case managers readily available to help people work through their challenges.

On the other hand, for a homeless family who is merely low-income and doesn’t have as many health issues, independent affordable housing is the best solution to homelessness. This housing can be provided by a public housing authority, a local nonprofit or for-profit company committed to providing affordable units, or through vouchers that subsidize living in normal market-rate apartments. Affordable housing can also be accessed through rapid rehousing programs like the one I work with, which gives homeless families a rental subsidy and case management for up to a year. Rapid rehousing is a temporary solution to homelessness, and rapid rehousing programs aim to have their clients paying for their own housing within a period of months or years. I detailed some other affordable housing options in this post on Strong Towns.

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The best way to learn about homeless people is by speaking with them, working or volunteering with agencies that support them, and reading relevant research from organizations like the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. I urge you to explore the stakeholders in your community who are working to end homelessness and familiarize yourself with their tactics to understand what works and what doesn’t. Finally, you can also check out previous posts I’ve written on the topic here.

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The Mysterious Building Down the Block

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This photograph was taken a block from my apartment in Milwaukee, WI. It contains a mysterious, abandoned building that I have been wondering about since the day I moved in. Last weekend, I decided to do some digging and find out the story behind 1640 N Franklin Place. Continue reading


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The Other Problem With Walmart

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Today, my next post is up on the Strong Towns blog. It’s about Walmart’s effect on our towns and cities. (Spoiler alert: That’s a negative effect.) Here’s how it starts:

Whether you are stumbling on this website for the first time today, or whether you’ve been a Strong Towns advocate for years, you’re probably not a fan of Walmart. Big box stores are not really our thing here. We know that they create a far smaller tax base than your average mom and pop shop, that they take economic value out of our communities, and that they dominate town landscapes with their unnecessarily massive parking lots and ugly buildings. But there’s another problem with Walmart, and it matters because it hits the most vulnerable people hardest: The problem is that Walmart systematically depends on the poverty of communities. 

Read the rest on the Strong Towns blog. Thank you for your interest in these topics and for your support of organizations on the front lines of this movement.

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The College Campus: A Pedestrian Paradise

Pedestrian Bridge University of MN

Last weekend I went home to Minneapolis to visit my parents and also meet with a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Urban & Regional Planning department (where I’m exploring potential graduate school options). Stepping onto the University’s campus (which I admittedly, didn’t spend any time on growing up, despite the fact that it’s in my hometown), I was immediately struck by how wonderfully pedestrian friendly it is. This is true for most college campuses, but it’s been a while since I’ve had reason to go to one, and my own alma mater was so tiny that it didn’t feel particularly remarkable that it was walkable. It was basically one big square block. But this, the University of Minnesota, home to 40,000 students, is a mini-metropolis completely accessible on foot. I’ve heard other urbanists talk about what a great model college campuses are for walkability and good city design, and seeing it in person really brought that point home. Here are a few photos and observations to showcase this.

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I walked across an entire bridge devoted only to foot traffic. It even had a covered area for when it’s snowy or extremely cold. I moved from building to building on pedestrian-only sidewalks and through courtyards, in addition to skyways that connect many of the buildings too. Due to a combination of cold weather and my visit being during a time when there weren’t too many classes in session, these pictures don’t show very many people, but you can clearly see the wide, plowed sidewalks and the bridge open to pedestrians and bikers, including demarcated lanes for each mode of transportation.

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When most of us look back on our college years, there’s a certain fondness felt toward that experience. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a relatively carefree, enjoyable time in our lives. I have to think that some of that is due to walkability. When many people talk about why they loved college, it was their proximity to their friends, their opportunities to play a quick game of football or watch a late night movie or grab snacks in the cafeteria on a whim. It was the fact that they didn’t have to wake up at 5am to endure a 1 hour commute to class but could instead just roll out of bed, gulp down coffee and stroll over to their classroom in a matter of minutes. That walkability contributes to an overall sense of community and closeness.

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It’s also important to note that this pedestrian-friendliness almost always means wheelchair-friendliness. In a car-centric environment, someone in a wheelchair often needs to charter a ride service in order to get anywhere, or rely on the public bus. However, in a walk-friendly area, a wheelchair user can seamlessly travel from place to place, via safe, accommodating sidewalks and accessible building entrances. There is less segregation between able-bodied and disabled individuals. I love that this is an aspect of many college campuses. Certainly many old buildings at universities have catching up to do when it comes to accessibility, but the paths in between the buildings are a good start.

This walkability makes me even more excited to be back in school. And even if academia is not in your plans for the future, you can take advantage of the walking paths and public squares at any university near your home. Our cities could stand to take a page out of their books.


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A Change in Perspective

Rockwell Automation Headquarters

Last Friday evening I was able to step out of the office around 4:45pm, a little earlier than I usually do. It had been an exhausting, full week—the phone constantly ringing, coworkers needing me for this and that, new projects starting and old ones wrapping up. My job ebbs and flows with one day feeling very relaxed and the next feeling off-the-walls hectic. An issue will arise and in my line of work—where good people are faced with impossible circumstances compounded by a lack of housing—that issue usually needs to be handled immediately. So it was a week of immediate needs.

But when I finally got to lock the door of my office and step outside to the bus stop, I was met with a glorious sight: sunlight. Up here in the north, 95% of my workdays end in darkness, the sun having set by 5 or 5:10. On Friday, this was not the case. As I shuffled my feet fighting off the cold while I waited for the bus, I looked across the street at the hard concrete façade of the grand Rockwell Automation Headquarters and caught the sun gracing its corners at the most gorgeous angle. They don’t call it the “magic hour” for no reason. A layer of golden light seemed to have settled on the glass windows in a perfect, cascading arc. The neighborhood where I work, Walkers Point, is mostly industrial buildings and Rockwell is king of them all, so this massive representation of industry and mechanics looking beautiful was quite a sight to behold.

It reminded me that a change in perspective is sometimes exactly what we need in order to help us think about improving our cities.

One of the most basic examples of this is taking a walk. If you’ve never, for instance, walked to get your groceries, walked to work, or walked to drop your child off at school, it can be an utterly eye opening activity. Please try it. I guarantee you will find at least one building or view you’ve never noticed before. You might even run into a friend coming down the sidewalk. The differences between traveling from point A to point B in a car and walking to get from one place to another are numerous and significant. Biggest of all, you’re forced to interact with your city instead of viewing it from behind glass at high speeds (plus you get exercise and fresh air). You start to understand the delineations of neighborhoods, the need for green space and the history of the architecture around you. You start to comprehend what many of your neighbors go through every day if they cannot afford a car or choose not to use one for whatever reason. That change in perspective is invaluable.

Rockwell Automation Headquarters sunlight

For me, seeing that view of the sun hitting the Rockwell Automation building gave me a new perspective on all these hulking buildings, chain link fences and billowing smoke I am surrounded by in my office. They are, after all, a part of the city too, just as much as the trendy coffee shops in other neighborhoods. Historically, in towns across the country, residents and governments have tried to exile industrial buildings to the edge of their towns or put them outside the city limits altogether. That’s certainly why Rockwell is in this particular location on the south side of Milwaukee. However, this city has since grown up around the industrial zone so that now there are houses and schools just blocks away from auto-part factories and machine manufacturers.

Last week, that moment of sunlight made me I realize I kind of like this about Milwaukee. It’s not every city where you can actually see the industry that is helping your city run, the companies that your livelihood was built on—that generations of people have worked in to support their families. Most cities separate usage so strictly that you might never know where the factories in your town are, or if they exist at all. Now, obviously it’s no good to have toxic fumes wafting into schoolyards, but those fumes shouldn’t be permitted in any area of a city—no matter who’s is hanging around there. Ideally, parents who work in these factories can walk over and pick their kids up after school in a matter of minutes. How great is that?

Walkers Point has always been a solidly working class neighborhood, meaning that it is a neighborhood with jobs to do and affordable houses to live in. It is changing, no doubt; employment has moved overseas and upscale restaurants have begun to take advantage of the cheap, empty buildings in the neighborhood. Nonetheless, I am hopeful that the neighborhood can grow without losing its history. Clearly, the Rockwell Automation Building isn’t going anywhere.

That’s a bit of a rambling way to say that a little sunlight can do a world of good in opening our eyes to the possibilities around us. And, as winter slowly fades, I know there’s more sunlight on the way.

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