The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


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Exploring Bus and Train Options in the US

Exploring Bus and Train Options in the US

Depending on where you live, you may have encountered any number of intercity transit options—that is, buses or trains that can take you from one city to another, all across the country—and wondered which was best. With the rise of Bolt and Megabus, non-automobile modes of travel are more available than ever and it’s important to understand your options. There’s also the trusty standbys: Greyhound and Amtral. Over the last several years, living carless in cities in the West, on the East Coast, and in the Midwest, I’ve explored these options and have a few insights to share from my experience. Of course, like plane travel, trips can vary wildly, but some general characteristics prevail for each of these modes. I’ll explore some of the most widespread intercity travel options and rate them (one to five stars) based on affordability, availability, speed, reliability comfort, and enjoyment. Let’s roll.

Megabus Route Map

Megabus

Affordability: *****

While their supposed $1 fares are a rarity in reality, you can pretty much guarantee yourself a roundtrip ride for under $60, and usually more in the range of $40. My most recent megabus trip cost me only $13 for a one-way ride from Milwaukee to Minneapolis.

Availability: * * * *

Megabus is fairly well-connected between cities from the East Coast to the Midwest (and in Europe and Canada!). Its main untouched territory is the West and Pacific Northwest.

Speed: * * *

When they show up on time, these buses can get you to your destination with relative ease—at least as fast as a car would.

Comfort: * * *

Megabus has one main cool factor, which is that it’s double-decker. This not only means nice views out your window but also a higher likelihood that you might have a seat to yourself. That being said, I’ve been on some pretty uncomfortable Megabus rides in which the air conditioning was blasting way too cold, my seat-mate smelled bad and the bathroom light was out (to name a few complaints). Don’t expect any form of comfort in the way of a bus station either; Megabus usually picks up and drops off on a random, sometimes desolate road. You get what you pay for here. Continue reading


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Glorioso’s Italian Market

Glorioso's Italian Market

The specialty market is a dying breed. With the exception of bakeries, which will always have a home in the land of cakes, cookies and bread items, most specialty food stores—carrying just one category of foods—have given way to the one-stop supermarket. I’m not arguing with the logic of it because most of us don’t have the luxury of several hours to hop from store to store every time we need to go grocery shopping. Nonetheless, cheese shops, butchers, and green markets are a rare treat when I do have the time to visit them.

Glorioso's Italian Market

That’s why I was particularly thrilled to learn that my new apartment was a quick seven minute walk away from a specialty Italian market called Glorioso’s. Now, this is more than just a cheese shop or a butcher, but it’s a definitely not your typical grocery store. First of all, it’s arranged in an inviting manner, with an entrance that brings you down a few stairs, so you feel as if you’re stepping into another place, perhaps the cellar of an old Italian restaurant (although the windows on the edges prevent it from feeling dark or dusty). To your right is a small assortment of produce—just the bare essentials you might need to accompany one meal or so. To your left is a pleasant seating area where you can get right down to eating whatever it is you’ve just purchased (additional seating outside is also a nice touch during the warmer months).

Glorioso's Italian Market

In front of you is the butcher and cheesemonger section, with easily a hundred different types of cured meats and cheeses from around the world. You can either browse the coolers and grab whatever you’d like yourself, or you can step up to the deli counter and order the precise amount that you need, watching the butcher carefully slice it to your desired thickness for sandwiches, Sunday dinners or hor d’eourves trays. At one end of the deli counter, you’ll find the prepared food section, which offers pasta salads, calzones, lasagnas and more, for reasonable prices. Behind the counter there’s also a full kitchen where you can get any number of pasta dishes made to order. As if that weren’t enough, there’s another counter that provides housemade meatballs, sauces and pizza doughs, so that you can take them home and prepare them as you wish. This is food I’d be comfortable serving at a dinner party, but just as comfortable throwing together for a quick weeknight dinner.

Glorioso's Italian MarketThe center of the store is full of various goods including bread from a local bakery, coffee from several local roasters, and fancy imported canned fish. The second room of Glorioso’s is half-filled with a wine shop and half-filled with every item you could possibly need for Italian cooking. Homemade raviolis, fresh pastas, gourmet sauces and olive oils, salts, baking supplies and even cooking utensils. As a cook, I love just walking through the aisles and examining all these interesting products. I almost feel like I’m back in New York, meandering through the narrow aisles, surprised to find all manner of imported items crammed into a modest space.

Glorioso’s has made life easy for me in so many ways. For one, it’s the closest grocery store whenever I need to grab one or two items that I’ve run out of for a recipe—say milk or an onion. For another, it’s my go-to place for prepared food because it’s practically homemade, and it gives me the ability to put as much or as little effort into cooking as I want. If I felt like making my own ravioli (which I’ve done with my mother several times), I’d get my ingredients at Glorioso’s, but if I felt like just plopping a few frozen ravioli in a pot of water and topping it off with some jarred sauce once it was finished, I’d also get those items at Glorioso’s.

One might expect this place to have disappeared years ago, what with the competition of nearby chain grocery stores and sandwich shops. Yet, at nearly seventy years old, Glorioso’s is a piece of Milwaukee heritage still going strong today. It’s a testament to the Italian immigrants who helped to make this city great, and it continues to feed residents of all cultural backgrounds with delicious, affordable food. I feel blessed to have landed an apartment so near to such a rich amenity, and I plan to sample as much of this tasty food as I can over the next several months. If you’re ever in the area, you must make a stop here.


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Who is my Neighbor?

Who is my neighbor?

“Who is my neighbor?” This question, posed by a crafty lawyer in the Gospel of Luke invites Jesus to launch into one of his most famous parables of the Good Samaritan. (For those unfamiliar with the story: A Jewish man is walking along a road when he is suddenly robbed and beaten up by thieves. While he is lying in the ditch, two people whom we would assume to be helpful simply pass him by. In the end, a Samaritan—a person of a different race, with whom the Jews had very poor relations—comes to the injured man’s aid, binding his wounds and giving him money to stay at a nearby inn while he recuperates.) When he has finished telling this parable, Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer and asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” to which the lawyer replies, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” (NRSV).

I tell you this, not because I want to preach to you, or even because I want to talk about religion at all. Rather, I bring this up because that repeated question, “Who is my neighbor?” bears relevance for cities and neighborhoods.

Is a neighbor the person next door and across the street? That would be simple.

Does my entire neighborhood contain my “neighbors”? Linguistically, that would make sense.

Can I consider everyone living in my city a potential neighbor? This would mean a whole lot of neighbors.

Are business owners, cops and teachers my neighbors too, or just the people who live in the houses nearby? If they’re all neighbors, how do I get to know them in different ways?

After the Strong Towns National Gathering in which many of the participants challenged and encouraged one another to get to know their neighbors better, I realized I needed to first figure out “Who is my neighbor?” The passage from Luke helps me broadly define the term. If we were to follow the invitation of the Gospel passage, and the invitation of my fellow Strong Citizens last weekend—which is truly the invitation of any neighborhood that lacks community—we should show compassion, friendliness and warmth toward those around us. That means whomever we encounter in our daily lives. The aid pushing the elderly man at the senior center across from your office, the rambunctious children running around your grocery store with their tired mother, the fast-walking business man in a suit who passes by your house on his way to the bus every the morning, the immigrant couple that runs your laundromat, the teenager who makes your sandwich at the deli counter. These are the people around us and they deserve our kindness. One by one, person by person, block by block, these small acts add up to more pleasant neighborhoods and towns.

This week, as I have been intentional about saying hello to my neighbors on my way to work, in the grocery store, at my volunteering shift, and in the hallways of my apartment, I’ve discovered a few things:

  1. It’s harder than it looks. (And we already know this because we don’t do it very often.) First, it’s hard to be the one initiating. Most of the time when we’re walking outside on our own, we close ourselves off to the elements, process thoughts within our heads, and keep to our own business. So, it’s challenging for me to step out of that every single time I see someone (especially because I’m somewhat introverted) and say “Hello.” It’s also hard because the response from others is not always positive. I don’t know about your neighborhood, but in mine, people tend to keep their heads down. They don’t expect a stranger to speak to them, so when it happens, they sometimes take so long to process the occurrence that they can barely muster a reply before I’ve walked past. None of my neighbors have replied rudely to me—they just haven’t always replied with a cheery “Hello” right back. The two instances of pleasant greetings that stand out to me from the last week were from a young boy coming out of school, and an older man smoking a cigar on his front stoop. Unfortunately, most of the young people in my demographic are plugged into their iPhones or generally aloof. I’m trying my best to move against that stereotype.
  2. It helps to have a buddy. I’m not the most outgoing person, but I have plenty of friends who are. I like to be intentional when I’m with them about taking those leaps to talk to strangers, which I might not otherwise take alone, knowing that I have a friend at my side to join in the conversation.
  3. This is the beginning. Once I get my hello’s down and start recognizing faces, then I should move on to asking names. Saying hi to people doesn’t feel like it’s doing much, unless it encourages others to say hi too. I’m hoping to contribute to a community that feels warm and welcoming. Last week, without my doing anything, a nice woman struck up a conversation while we waited together at the bus stop. Her first comment was the simplest, “How about this warm weather we’re having?” but it led us to discuss our jobs, recent events in the city and the wild antics of the football fans  here. Later that evening, I caught a glimpse of the same woman standing in the check cashing spot near my apartment, confirming that she’s a resident of the neighborhood. Next time I see her (for all I know, it might happen today while I’m waiting for the bus again), I’ll definitely find out her name.
  4. We have nothing to lose. Being friendly is the simplest way to make our neighborhoods better. Once you get past the initial hurtle of opening your mouth, it’s smooth sailing. Only good can come of this.

 
Does knowing your neighbors come naturally to you? If you live in a neighborhood like that, I’d love to hear about it. I’d also love to hear about your experiences talking to your own neighbors. Will you take the challenge?


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Around the Block – Links from the Week 9/19/14

Around the Block - Links from the Week

I think it’s time for some links. On my radar this week:

  • First, a simple article about new businesses who moved in and didn’t gentrify, but did improve their neighborhood. Glad to see that it’s possible to do that.
  • Next, a quick rundown of “6 Cities Taking a Lead on Solving Homelessness.” Lots of creative, constructive ideas here.
  • From my hometown of Minneapolis, some exciting news that the city council in a nearby suburb of Edina approved the transformation of an old building into apartments for homeless youth! This is a huge step in the right direction, and I hope something we will see more of in other places, because youth homelessness is a major issue in our nation.
  • For a longer read: This New Yorker article, “Paper Palaces,” came out last month but my mom just showed it to me. It’s a breathtaking delve into a unique architect who builds functional, often portable shelters, schools, museums and more, around the world.
  • This one’s also from last month, but it may not have reached you yet: The United Sweets of America, a dessert for every state in the country. Find yours and tell me if you think it makes sense. All the ones I investigated seemed pretty spot-on. (For instance: Wisconsin’s dessert is “kringle” And that reminds me, I haven’t had any since I moved here yet!)
  • Finally, I recently added some new links to my Favorite Sites page, gleaned from the Strong Towns National Gathering last weekend. Some seriously top-notch people doing good work around the country.

Alright folks, don’t forget to follow the action on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Have a phenomenal weekend!


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The Strong Towns National Gathering

Strong Towns National Gathering 14

Small group brainstorming session at the National Gathering

Could a child in your city safely walk or bike to her friend’s house?
Does your town have any public spaces besides streets and sidewalks?
Are the businesses in your city owned by national corporations or local residents?
Do you know your neighbors? 

I first learned about Strong Towns —an organization that asks all these questions— in 2012 while undergoing a crash course in urban development after starting work at the Housing and Urban Development Agency. My boss at the time pointed me in the direction of this bounty of urban education and critical thinking on the Strong Towns blog and podcast, and I’ve been invested ever since.

Strong Towns began in 2008 with a civil engineer named Chuck Marohn, just blogging about his ideas for improving his small town of Brainerd, MN. A couple years later, he was joined by Jim Kumon, who turned the blog into a nonprofit and became its director. Then the two them began giving simple talks called “Curbside Chats” in nearby towns, where they asked questions like the ones I mentioned above, provided ideas for diversifying transportation, and helped citizens and town leaders think about fiscally sound ways to use their towns’ money. At the beginning of the Curbside Chat, only 2 or 3 people would show up. Chuck and Jim slept on peoples’ couches. But slowly it grew. They have now completed over 180 chats, added many volunteers and contributors, and gained over 400 committed Strong Towns members across the country. This is a national movement, and I am proud to be part of it.

This past weekend, I had the chance to attend the first ever Strong Towns National Gathering in my hometown, Minneapolis, MN. Continue reading


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Proud of This Place

The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, MN

Downtown Minneapolis icons: the Guthrie Theater, and the Gold Medal Flour building.

Maybe it’s something in the water here (or the beer) but Milwaukeens are fiercely loyal to their neighborhoods—it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. In the city where I grew up, I barely knew the name of my neighborhood, let alone cared to assert any sort of pride toward it. It contained my house and my friends and a few nice places to go, but I viewed it as part of a whole—the city of Minneapolis—rather than anything special unto itself. Suddenly, though, everywhere I go in Milwaukee it’s “Bayview-this” and “Riverwest-that”. Have you ever lived in a place like this? Upon hearing that my boyfriend was moving from a neighborhood on the south side to a neighborhood just a couple miles north, multiple people asked him whether he was going to miss his old area—as if he might never see it again! This pride for mere city blocks can turn neighbors out to support local causes, but it can also turn citizens against one another. Let’s unpack the positives and negatives of neighborhood pride, and consider why it exists in the first place.

The most productive aspect of neighborhood pride is that it gets people fired up and supportive of local things that could, frankly, use defending. Who else is going to hold a bake-sale when the high school theater program gets cut besides the neighborhood folks? Who else is going to stand up at a town hall meeting and demand that the speed limit be lowered near the playground besides proud residents who take their kids to that playground every weekend? Without pride, we are left with apathy. Pride gives people the feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves.

Neighborhood pride is also a testament to the diversity of the city. Instead of a town with only one identity (a “mining town” or a “college town,” for instance), we have a city that means different things to different people and holds the potential to succeed in diverse industries, or at least to draw diverse populations to its attractions.

Finally, neighborhood pride tells outsiders what to expect when they enter that neighborhood. This can devolve into negative stereotyping, but in its ideal form, it is fairly objective. For instance, if a particular area of the city is known for its baseball stadium (and accompanying sports bars, jersey shops, etc.) you’d probably benefit from knowing that before you tried to take a quiet stroll through there on game day. By the same token, if you were looking for a fun Sunday afternoon activity, you might remember that neighborhood’s reputation for baseball games and head over there.

National Bohemian Beer

National Bohemian or “Natty Bo,” Baltimore’s signature beer

So, each neighborhood has its positive aspects that outsiders and residents praise, such as “Oh I love walking down Main Street on a Friday night” or “Your district has that great park with the farmers market!” On the other hand, each neighborhood also has negative stereotypes associated with it. For instance, “That’s where all the yuppies live,” or “Gosh, that place is stuck in 1955.” Or worse. Unfortunately, I think about half of all neighborhood pride is built up through distaste for other neighborhoods, as common enemies usually unite. For instance, residents might rally around their favorite local supermarket claiming it’s the best in the city; but only at the expense of every other grocery store, especially “those grungy stores on the south side,” or “the east side,” or whatever the case may be. A more severe example: Residents will demand funding for their local school and claim that other schools are not worthy of it in a statement of thinly veiled racism and classism.

I’m not sure how productive it is to spend so much of your time putting down other neighborhoods with name-calling and avoidance. Then again, it happens internationally, interculturally, interreligiously. Why should we expect anything different from our microcosmic neighborhoods?

My concluding question is, why does this neighborhood pride exist in certain places more than others? Do some cities just lack emotion and passion? I have a couple guesses. One is that perhaps certain cities maintain more ties to the industries that exist in their neighborhoods. For example, in some cities, the factories have long ago moved out of town, but in others, they’re still churning out washers or paper or whatever the product might be. Thus, neighborhoods in the latter category keep their reputations for whatever they produce. In still other cities, neighborhoods may have lost their factory jobs, but kept their factory buildings, so the reputation of an industrial feeling remains. The same follows for other niche areas of town that may have kept up their historic roots (for banking, fishing, etc.) or shed them over the years.

Another possible explanation for the existence of neighborhood pride in some places has a darker origination — in racism, classism and segregation of the past. Calling a neighborhood “the ghetto,” for instance, is a nod to the days of redlining when minorities would literally be confined to properties in a small area of town, removed from white people. While some cities may still be operating under these pretenses (and thus keep up their neighborhood name-calling), others have, thankfully, moved on.

Chinatown, NYC

Chinatown, New York City

Another answer for where neighborhood pride comes from is diversity. While some towns may be fairly homogenous (ethnically, religiously, etc.) and maintain a singular identity as “Pleasantville,” other towns have built up diverse populations over the years. This can create distinct neighborhoods where different languages are spoken, different food is prepared, even the architecture looks unique. A classic example of this is the Chinatowns that exist in cities all over the country.

Finally, perhaps neighborhood pride is simply the result of a convergence of circumstances—industry, diversity, and something else intangible, that spark that makes people congregant around a place to sing its praises. Wherever it’s coming from, neighborhood pride is something to be on the lookout because, for better or for worse, the attitudes of the people around us shape our experience of each place we visit. (I touched on that concept in this blog post last year too.) For my part, I’m already working hard to memorize neighborhood names and identities so I can start sounding like a local in Milwaukee. My next task will be figuring out whether each neighborhood actually lives up to its reputation. Until then.


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Interview: Christina Talks Richmond, Race and the Southern Life

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Christina Mastroianni lived on the East Coast for many years, but now she lives with her husband and children in Richmond, VA. I spoke with her about her experiences in this Southern city—a juxtaposition of beauty, history, and inequality—as well as her thoughts on a way forward that educates children equally and lifts up neighborhoods no matter who lives in them. 

Q: What’s it like to live in Richmond, VA?

A: Richmond is a beautiful city. It’s steeped in enormous amounts of history, some of which is painful. […] But I think they’re doing great things to be very frank and honest about what happened here and how it fits into our history as a nation and as a whole.

In terms of livability, the taxes are low, the cost of living is fairly low. The river, which cuts right through the city is just spectacularly beautiful and used by everyone. We swim in the river. We watch the eagles and hawks there. You can access it anywhere. It’s such a gem.

Before I moved here, I had this perception of [Richmond] being a city just lost in time. You know how people joke about how in some parts of the south, people still haven’t accepted the fact that they lost the war? Well, that’s not true here.

The one unfortunate part about Richmond is that in the ‘60s the city essentially placed all of the public housing developments in two main parts of the city, completely isolating folks from the downtown. The public transportation is abysmal; it’s not accessible, it’s not convenient. It makes it very hard for folks to get to jobs.

Recent census data shows the disparity in terms of income and race in the city. The east end of the city is where most of the people of color live. It’s the poorest part of Richmond. The western side of the city is the wealthiest and has the largest percentage of whites. We live on the east side. It’s beautiful; the east end is the historic district. But just north of us, the houses are crumbling and people are seriously poverty stricken. Our schools on the east end are horrendous compared to other parts of the city. There’s some real institutional barriers to success. Those are compounded by the fact that folks are isolated.

The east end is also one of the largest urban food deserts in the US.

Q: Is anything being done to address the food desert situation?

A: There’s some really cool stuff happening on the east end. Our councilwoman has been working with the health system, Bon Secours, and another nonprofit called Tricycle Gardens. They have established these refrigerators in many of the corner stores that sell subsidized fresh vegetables and fruit. Bon Secours also provides seed grants for businesses to start up on the east end […] We now have this blossoming commercial corridor on the east end.

Q: Do you think Richmond is a typical Southern city?

A: I recently heard on NPR that southern cities are the fastest growing in the nation. There is such a huge influx of folks from the northeast that Richmond is really creating its own identity. I don’t think that it’s a typical southern city. We have incredibly rich culture and art and music and dance in Richmond that I don’t think is typical of a southern city. But then you look at places like Atlanta and Charlotte and they too are creating their own identities. Its not until you go to the lower-tier cities that you see that old-guard, lost in the past, serious racial tension.

Q: How does Richmond compare to your previous home, Philadelphia, PA?

A: I lived in Philly for 20 years. First of all, the city of Richmond is 200,000 people. The city of Philadelphia is 1.2 million, so Philly was massive. There were parts of the city that I didn’t even know how to get to. There’s much more ethnic diversity in Philadelphia. You’d walk down the street and see Cambodians and Africans and Hispanics and Eastern Europeans. In Richmond, it’s pretty much just black and white. The ethnic diversity is, surprisingly, in the suburbs.

The other difference—it’s kind of hard to put your finger on—there was a frankness and gruffness to the people in Philadelphia. They were honest to a fault, which I loved. Some people took it to be mean or rude, but to me it was just a refreshing, frank honesty. Down here [in Richmond], there’s much more of a dance that goes on. You can’t appear to be too pushy or aggressive. You have to take that time to talk to people about their family and the weather and what’s going on. It’s almost like a courting ritual. In a way, I kind of like it because you kind of get to know people, but it’s definitely different.

Every time we go back to Philadelphia, we notice the tension. It’s dirty. The traffic is out of control. There’s very little trash in Richmond and you don’t feel like you’re being closed in on. But you don’t really realize that until you leave.

Q: Living with a biracial family, what is your experience of diversity and/or racism in Richmond?

A: We have not experienced any outright aggression. There has been some raising of the eyebrows, the second glances. You walk by some people and their mouths are open. There are definitely less biracial couples than there were in Philadelphia, but we’re seeing more and more of them. We’re definitely not the only ones.

I think the thing that we noticed more here than we did in Philadelphia—and it might just be where we lived—is the resentment around socioeconomic differences. I think that had to do with the school [my kids] were going to previously. Some enormously large percentage of students in the school system in Richmond are at or below the poverty level and predominantly black. There are two or three schools on the west end where predominately white, upper middle class families really wanted to turn the public school into the local school. They invested money and resources and enrolled their kids. They now have resources that schools on the east end couldn’t even dream of having. They are all predominantly white. Meanwhile, there were some teachers and parents at my kids’ old school that felt like “What are you doing here? This isn’t your place.” My kids were seen as the rich kids, even though we’re far from that.

Now they’re at this independent school that’s 99% white, and while they’re among their peer group in terms of academic interests and grade level performance, they’re definitely not the rich kids any more. It’s a little bittersweet to have to make that choice. The school district has got to deal with this. They’ve got to find a way to convince middle class families to invest in school. All the research shows that kids succeed in diverse socioeconomic environments.

Thanks to Christina for sharing her thoughts on Richmond, VA!


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The City That’s Best for Everyone

union_square_nyc

I worry sometimes that urbanism, and specifically New Urbanism (if you are familiar with that movement) comes across as mostly thought-up by and crafted for wealthy young people. There are so many images of trendy warehouse lofts and pop-up jewelry stores floating around that you might get the idea that urban development is just another hipster scheme that we should file away as only applicable for those people. But let me tell you why that’s not the case.

The urbanist movement, which advocates for things like improving walkability, encouraging small business growth, and developing downtown residences aims to make life better for everyone in the city. Young, old, male, female, white, black, brown, able-bodied and disabled.

For instance, walkability is not just a buzzword tossed around by white twenty-somethings who want to be able to stroll home after a night at the craft-beer bar. No, walkability is an urban asset that benefits children, seniors, disabled people and low-income people by providing them with access to amenities around town that don’t require them to drive or pay for an automobile. The same goes for public transportation. When walking and taking the bus are more common forms of movement, that movement is no longer a commodity hoarded by the rich and the able-bodied. 

How about the urbanists advocating for new cafes and local food eateries in their neighborhood? Do these new restaurants merely provide the wealthy with one more food option to choose from on date night? I hope not. Rather, a variety of new local restaurants can meet the need for everything from quick food to celebratory meals at a wide range of price points. Better still, local restaurants provide jobs for neighborhood residents. That’s the ideal toward which urbanists are striving.

Another example of urbanist activism is parklets and sidewalk expansions (read this post for background on those). But these are not just trendy, summer hang-out spots for young people with time on their hands. Instead, they are traffic-calming mechanisms that reclaim the streets for pedestrians and decrease car accidents and deaths.

What about those repurposed warehouses that are converted into mixed-use residences and stores? In fact, many of them come with designated affordable living units in addition to market-rate apartments. A condo building with residences on the top floors and businesses on the bottom floors can also create opportunity to live and work in close proximity, and it makes room for new businesses to flourish.

I think the best city for everyone is a city where each resident accomplishes what he or she needs to accomplish—whether that’s getting groceries, going to work or attending school—and feels at home in that environment—whether it’s an apartment, public housing, a senior center or a single-family house. The best city for everyone is also a city where all who wish to can afford to live—not necessarily in the biggest, fanciest home, but at least in a comfortable, safe abode. Urbanist ideas are furthering all these goals. You only need to look past the hipster façade in order to recognize the powerful transformations that are happening for all residents in cities across the country.

Here’s another fantastic article by The Black Urbanist responding to similar criticisms of the new urbanist movement.


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Toilet Talk

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Diving right into a decidedly unglamorous topic today, but one that matters to everyone on a daily basis, the bathroom. Who hasn’t had the experience of strolling around a city really needing to use the bathroom and being unable to find anywhere to go? It’s more than just an inconvenience. The unavailability of bathrooms can make people less interested in visiting and walking around cities, preferring to stay at home or stick to the malls and stores they know well where a bathroom is always within reach. They’re not enjoying their cities, interacting with their neighbors or contributing to local economic growth.

In particular, a lack of bathrooms limits pregnant women, parents with babies, people with certain medical conditions and children who aren’t always the best at holding it. And let’s be frank; for all of us it’s an annoyance and frustration when our afternoon plans are derailed by the hunt for a bathroom. We’re stuck feeling uncomfortable or being forced to pay for some beverage we don’t want, just to entitle us to use the coffee-shop bathroom. Besides the need to actually use the toilet, there are also a number of other reasons one might desire a bathroom—for instance, washing your hands for hygiene or religious practice or grabbing a tissue to blow your nose. So, truly, this is a universal problem.

If you’re stealthy like me, you handle the bathroom issue by mentally cataloging all the free restrooms you know of, or the ones you’re comfortable sneaking into: inside libraries, supermarkets, hotels, fast food joints and parks. But this only works if you know the city well. If you’re visiting a new city for the first time and your four-year-old suddenly asks for the restroom, you’ll most likely be faced with a row of restaurants whose hostile signs reading, “Bathrooms for paying customers only,” leave you with few options. As it currently stands, restrooms are largely the purvey of private businesses like cafes and bars, for which the use of the facilities is directly related to your purchase of goods at the business in question. However, as human beings, regardless of whether we eat lunch at the pizza joint or grab a pint at the pub, we will need to use the bathroom at some point during our day, even if all we’re doing is walking around. Thus, if cities want to encourage more use of their public spaces and their unique amenities, they ought to equip them with the appropriate restrooms.

Now, while a few cities do a top-notch job of providing commodes at easily accessible locations, most fail us. New York is particularly notorious for this—so much so that many restaurants don’t even offer bathrooms due to their small quarters. On the other hand, Washington DC—another popular tourist destination—provides more than enough restroom opportunities in highly trafficked areas through its free Smithsonian Museums, and other bathrooms at the national monuments. These options make it easy to take a quick pit-stop, maybe even see a famous statue while you’re at it, then be on your way.

Another alternative is the European angle—“50p to pee”—as we liked to say when I lived in Ireland (“p” meaning “pence,” the Irish equivalent of cents). For Americans who are used to free bathroom access, it can seem absurd to pay money to use the toilet in a mall or public square, but at least it’s available when you need it. I bet we can all remember a time when we would have gladly paid someone 50 cents for the use of their restroom.

I think any city that wants to get serious about welcoming tourists into its walkable areas and encouraging its residents to spend more of their time downtown, needs to implement a public restroom strategy, examining highly trafficked areas and equipping them with the proper facilities. If the city needs to charge 50 cents for each restroom visit, that’s fine by me, but however they manage it, bathrooms should be a priority as much as clean streets or garbage cans. They don’t have to be fancy, or large, or perfectly clean — they just have to be there when you need them.


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3 Half-Assed Attempts at Walkability

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I made it to Milwaukee, WI, my new home! (Although that photo is not what it looks like now. Not for a couple months at least.) During my first few days here I saw the apartment we’re moving into soon, cooked and baked more than I have in weeks, and adjusted to a new freelance schedule. So far the biggest shocks to my system after moving from NYC have not been the lack of skyscrapers, the Midwestern accents, or the quiet atmosphere (praise the Lord for this). No, the biggest change has been the drastic shift in my transportation options.

Milwaukee is definitely a car-centric city, but I do not have a car (nor do I have plans to procure one)—just my feet and a bus pass. I was prepared for this, but it’s still a huge change coming from New York, which is the land of quick, cheap and easy public transit.

One thing I noticed upon my preliminary attempts at traveling by foot was the half-assed nature of walkability in this place. The city is chipping away at it’s auto-oriented streets with sidewalks, crosswalks and more, but none of these are quite accomplishing what they’re supposed to because they weren’t invested with the proper amount of forethought and intention in the beginning. This is not unique to Milwaukee by any means. It’s also not a bad thing at face value: better to have some sidewalks than none at all, right? However, as someone who is always looking for ways to improve cities, I have to take them to task when they half-ass their walkable places. Here are three of those half-assed attempts, and ideas for how to make them better:

1.  The sidewalk that suddenly terminates. Here’s what it looks like: You’ve charted your course to the grocery store and you’re making good time on the sidewalk. You can see the store two blocks ahead of you when all of a sudden, you realize that the sidewalk is about to end and only way forward is in the road. We usually encounter these interruptions near busy, multilane streets where the focus is obviously on the driver, so much so that it appears the engineers forgot that there might be pedestrians around.

Solution: It’s probably not doable for most towns to interconnect every one of their sidewalks, but at the very least, Continue reading

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