Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Clearing the air on the Liz Hair Greenway


Liz Hair Greenway, near Carolinas Medical Center. Photo courtesy Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Department
The cloud of cigarette smoke on the Liz Hair Greenway just below Carolinas Medical Center should be clearing up shortly. If you've walked or biked the narrow pavement of that greenway between Morehead Street and East Boulevard, you've probably gone past the smokers. They're mostly visitors or staff from the hospital, which forbids smoking on its property. The greenway is handy, and sometimes the hospital security guards even point it out to smokers.

But Tuesday, Mecklenburg County commissioners passed a new ordinance that makes most government buildings and most parks in Charlotte and Mecklenburg smoke-free. (In Charlotte, the Park and Recreation Department is a county, not a city, agency.)

As a compromise from the original proposal, six county-run golf courses and 18 parks that are considered "regional parks" are exempted. So you'll still have to choke on second-hand smoke in Freedom Park, Reedy Creek Park and other regional parks.  (A list of those parks is at the end of this post.)

The problem on the Liz Hair greenway stems from both the location of the hospital and the narrowness of the greenway between Morehead Street and East Boulevard. That section was built in 1988, back when many people here considered greenways risky spending. Today, it's one of the most popular greenways as it connects Freedom Park to the new, wider and more generously landscaped Little Sugar Creek Greenway near the Metropolitan development. It's narrow and crowded, and that means greenway pedestrians and cyclists are pretty much eyeball to eyeball, and lung to lung, with smokers.

An October 2012 article in the Charlotte Observer, by Michael Gordon, described the scene this way:

"For about 20 paces of shade beneath Medical Center Drive, Charlotte's health-conscious and not-so-muches squeeze into the same county-owned space. Neither is particularly happy with the arrangement. 'Generally, I hold my breath when I come through there,' says Collette Nagy, a Charlotte writer who biked under the bridge late Sunday morning, her dog Pepper riding in a knapsack on her back. 'But I feel sorry for them. I wish they'd get unhooked. I don't think verbal abuse will help.' "

Here's how Gordon described the scene: “At times, there's very little room for all the humanity to squeeze through. Around noon, about 10 smokers and their children were sitting or standing around the bridge, as a surge of greenway users – many with their children – dodged and weaved around them. There were near-collisions and some frowns. Even in the open air, the smoke under the bridge can be thick.”

The problem of smokers even drew a mention from a Portland, Ore., visitor, on the website Trip Advisor: “Hold your breath if you cruise past Carolina Medical Center at lunch time - the staff is out smoking on the greenway.”

Regional parks where smoking will still be allowed:





Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Detroit: 'Failed city' or urban upswing?

A lush urban garden in downtown Detroit.
DETROIT—Since I've been thinking of things in dualities (see "Two North Carolinas"), this trip to Detroit fits neatly into that pattern. As I was heading out of the office about 8 p.m. Monday, I ran into a high-ranking academic and civic leader returning from a reception on campus. (No, I'm not naming him because he had no idea I'd be writing about what he said.)

"What are you up to so late?" he asked. "I had things to finish 'cause I'm going out of town." "Where you going?" "Don't laugh cause I think it will be really interesting. I'm going to Detroit." "Wow, what a failed city."

But.

That's one way to look at it, for sure. But there's another Detroit, the one where 50,000 residents took part in creating the Detroit Future City plan. The one where young entrepreneurs are creating a network of nonprofit and business startups and art projects. The one where a local foundation has brought 60 talented young innovators to town to work solving problems. Of the first class of 30, Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson told us, 28 are staying in Detroit.

Rapson was the kick-off speaker at the Meeting of the Minds conference. While part of his talk was about the way Kresge and other foundations have stepped in to get Detroit on the path to survival, he was also clear that financially the city is a mess. And the problems can't be solved simply by smarter city budgeting. There are insurmountable structural problems, having to do with the tax base and some specific-to-Michigan-state-constitution realities.

(Warning, myth-busting paragraph ahead.) In case you're thinking, right about now, well it's those lavish pensions, think again. Rapson said the average pension for city police and firefighters is $31,000 and the average pension for other city employees is $19,000. Drastic cuts to those were not an option, he said.

The hotel for the conference is just around the corner from the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit. And a federal bankruptcy trial is going on this week, to determine the future of Detroit's finances.

Is Detroit a failed city? Or is it a city on the rebound? It'll take years, decades really, to learn the answer. My bet is on the rebound.  (More posts to come from Detroit, as I get time.)

Few sunbathers on a cool, cloudy September day at Detroit's Campus Martius park.


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Two North Carolinas

You hear not so infrequently that there are two North Carolinas. What those two North Carolinas are, though, is not necessarily precise. Is it Republican / Democrat? Rural / urban? Prosperity / poverty? Newcomer / old-timer?

Last Sunday I drove up to Pilot Mountain State Park for a day hike with a friend. I zipped north on Interstate 77 in my new blue Prius, exiting at N.C. 268 near Elkin and heading east. As I drove through a rural area of Yadkin and Surry counties, I was listening to WFAE, the Charlotte NPR station, particularly to a report on the fiscal problems of the Atlanta Symphony – you know, standard public radio fare.

But as I drove down into some low-lying areas, the signal faded and instead my radio was picking up a Sunday morning religious broadcast, quoting Bible scripture and urging prayer. Then I'd drive up a hill and NPR and its learned, muted voices would re-emerge from the radio. Religion. NPR. Religion. NPR.

As I looked out the car window, I could see the standard views of foothills Appalachia - some well-tended brick ranch

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The kind of problem a city is

This new piece by the Atlantic's CityLab.com writer Michael Mehaffy looks at the newest thinking about cities, and concludes, in essence, that Jane Jacobs was right. (see“5 Key Themes Emerging From the 'New Science of Cities.”)

Mehaffy writes: "In the past few years, a remarkable body of scientific research has begun to shed new light on the dynamic behavior of cities, carrying important implications for city-makers. Researchers at cutting-edge hubs of urban theory like the University College London and the Santa Fe Institute have been homing in on some key properties of urban systems—and contradicting much of today's orthodoxy."

The researchers, Mehaffy says, are finding that they're essentially proving the value of much of what urban writer Jane Jacobs (not a planner, not an architect, not an academician) explored in the 1950s 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A fish tale from the 'Wish I'd taken a photo' file



I spent a bit of time on Wednesday editing an article for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute website about a unique fish that’s been around since the Jurassic Period and swims in North Carolina waters and throughout the eastern United States. It’s called a bowfin.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation website calls it the “disrespected living fossil.” It’s the lone survivor of a group of fish dating to the dinosaur era.

In the article I was editing, nature writer Crystal Cockman gives plenty of interesting info. Such as: The fish can – I am not making this up – breathe air, as it has both gills and a sort of lung.

My fish story is this: I caught one of these weird fish in south Arkansas when I was 12. We were visiting my grandparents in Smackover, Ark. – no I am not making up the name of that town, either – and were fishing in Smackover Creek.  We were using worms for bait, because that’s all we ever used, and bobbers and cane poles. I thought I must have hooked a large catfish, but a very feisty one. It fought like crazy and was fun to catch. When I

Thursday, August 28, 2014

'Do not try to design neighborhoods through a computer screen'



The photo at right arrived about 10 days ago from Davidson-based transportation planner John Cock.
Cock and I were among a group of fans of the late Warren Burgess, who died at age 56 in May 2005.

The plaque was installed a few weeks ago beside a bald cypress tree that had been planted in his honor in Davidson’s Roosevelt Wilson Park shortly after Burgess died.

Burgess – or Warren, as I’m more comfortable saying – was for more than 20 years an urban designer on the staff of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission. He was Davidson town planner from 2000 to 2003. To this day, he has a fan club of sorts, people like Cock and former Davidson planner Meredith Judy whom Warren mentored, as well as other urban designers and planners in the area, like David Walters, the just-retired head of UNC Charlotte’s Master of Urban Design program.

You may have noticed over the years that there are some occupations that lend themselves to memorial plaques,

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Here's one list Charlotte isn't on - and ought to be


Syracuse is yet another city where advocates are pushing to tear down a section of elevated interstate highway (in this case I-81) and turn it into a boulevard. “What we’ve done is take an incredibly important piece of this city off of the development map,” developer Robert Doucette tells Governing magazine. “This highway runs through the part of the city that should be some of the highest-producing parcels of land in the region.”  (See Why Would You Have a Highway Run Through a City?)

The article lists New Orleans, which got federal funds to study removing the Claiborne Expressway, Cleveland, New Haven and Detroit as either moving toward or studying urban highway removal. Among the comments, one mentions Buffalo as also discussing the fate of its skyway, which cuts through a waterfront area. (The whole comments section itself is an interesting pro-con discussion.)

The article notes that one factor in the teardown trend – or more accurately, the teardown wannabe trend – is the age of the highways. Most were built in the 1950s and 1960s and are aging out.  Charlotte’s uptown freeway loop