The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


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New on Strong Towns

First day at my new job (in my living room, because I work from home now!)

First day at my new job (in my living room, because I work from home now!)

It has been far too long since I last posted. That’s because I just started a new job at Strong Towns, where I’m working as a Communications Specialist. I’ve only been there 2 weeks and I already know it’s the best job I’ve ever had. I get to contribute to a movement that I believe in during a time of growth and change at the organization. And, as one of my friends recently pointed out, I am getting paid to write! I feel like I’ve made it in many ways. Your support of this blog is part of that success.

Transitioning to a new job has left me with little time to write here, but I’ll try to remedy that soon. For now, here is some of what I’ve recently written on Strong Towns:

In addition to writing myself, I’ve also gotten to bring in new contributors and highlight the work of others, one of my favorite things about this job. Here are some of those recent pieces:

Strong Towns is a transformative and important organization that is changing the conversation about financial resilience and urban vitality in America. (And I’m not just a fan because they gave me a job. I promise.)

Check out this list to see if we’re coming to a town near you.

Be back soon.


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Respect the Renter

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Over the last decade, the percentage of renters in America has fluctuated between 33 and 36%. Yet, in spite of the fact that ⅓ of all Americans are renting their housing, there seems to be a notion in many neighborhoods and towns that owners are the main people who matter and the only ones who are going to be valuable members of their communities.

Indeed, I have encountered many community development organizations whose entire focus is increasing the amount of homeowners in a given neighborhoods and connecting them with grants, loans and classes to help them keep their houses looking nice and safe. This is an admirable mission and clearly has a positive impact on the people and communities that it serves. However, I have also encountered the opposite end of this owner-centered sentiment: an utter dismissal of renters as merely “transient” and “disengaged” in their communities, which sometimes becomes outright anger and prejudice towards them…

Read the rest on the Strong Towns blog.


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Old is New: Inside a Brewery Turned Office Park

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Few urban features make my heart beat faster than a really well-done repurposement project. It’s not so much because I like old-style buildings (although I do), but because I value the positive environmental, cultural and social impact that repurposement has on cities. By transforming a former factory, church, or even gas station* into a new space you cut down on the amount of materials that you would normally need to create a completely new building and you often also undergo the important process of getting an old, potentially dangerous or toxic building up to health and safety codes. Renovation can also preserve iconic spaces and the designs of generations past. This is particularly valuable since historic methods of building often create more lasting, resilient structures which can still benefit us today. Finally, renovation is an important method for creating value and vibrance in an area that might previously have been empty or abandoned.

Thankfully, warehouses transformed into condos or offices are practically a normal feature in most American cities nowadays. Drive through any historic downtown and you’ll find trendy lofts built inside old printing presses or granaries. But there’s so much more you can do with an old building no longer being used for its original purpose. I shared some ideas in this post regarding an empty community center/church down the block from my apartment. The sky (or ceiling) is really the limit when it comes to transforming historic spaces. I’ve seen homes inside old churches, accordion shops inside old White Castles, and elementary schools inside old strip malls.

I want to share a particularly beautiful and well executed repurposement project today. Milwaukee has been the “Brew City” for more than 150 years. Many famous, global beers like Miller, Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon got their start here, paving the way for many more craft breweries to dominate the scene today (including Lakefront, Milwaukee Brewing Company and more). While a few of the large beer producers still have their headquarters here, most have moved on to bigger facilities or transferred ownership, leaving large factories behind. In other cities, perhaps these factories would be knocked down or left to become gigantic racoon palaces, but not here.

When the Schlitz factory closed its doors in 1982 after being sold to the Stroh Brewing Company, a decision had to be made. Wanting to preserve this historic structure but undoubtedly struggling with how to convert such a massive space (40 acres) into something functional, developers eventually settled on an office park to fill the campus anew. 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.   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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A Strong Towns Response to Homelessness

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I’m immensely honored to begin writing for the Strong Towns blog today. Strong Towns is an organization that I have learned so much from over the last few years. In fact, I would say they are the main vehicle through which I have grown my knowledge of and passion for making cities better. Naturally, I chose to write about an issue very close to my heart: homelessness, in my first post. Here’s an excerpt:

Last year, on a given night in January, more than 600,000 Americans were homeless. That means they were sleeping in their car or under a bridge or in a temporary shelter in cities across America. Most of the time when we see disabled veterans asking for change or single mothers waiting in line at church food pantries, we turn away and ignore their presence in our towns. We even design our public spaces to try and prevent homeless people from being in them. But homeless people have the potential to be Strong Citizens too, and, no matter how much we might try to zone them out of certain areas, they are still our neighbors, deserving of the same respect we try to extend to the family who moves in next door. With that in mind, we should strive to more fully include the homeless in the activities of our towns, valuing their unique perspectives and working to create better places that serve all our citizens.

Read the rest on the Strong Towns website.


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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

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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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Calculating the Perfect City w/BreakThru Radio

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BreakThru Radio, a hub for independent music and journalism, recently interviewed me for a piece entitled “Calculating the Perfect City” as part of their theme for the week “Algorithms.” I was incredibly flattered and had a delightful time talking to the writer, Maggie Ward. I was also pleased to see that Maggie interviewed Chuck Marohn for the same piece. It’s an honor to be quoted alongside an urban development all star who has taught me so much about building strong towns.

If you’re interested, you can read the article here.