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."


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 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

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Can a place progress from Dead-End-Ville to Connectivity City? It's tough reports that the town of Cornelius in north Mecklenburg is proposing connecting a neighborhood street, Floral Lane, to Statesville Road (U.S. 21).

One of the most politically fraught decisions any elected or government staff officials can make is to connect streets that used to be dead-ends. It's easy to understand why residents protest, as the Floral Lane residents are doing.

The first house I bought was on a dead-end block in Charlotte's Chantilly neighborhood, where my street ended at Briar Creek. I liked the lack of traffic on the street, with only residents and their guests traveling in front of the house. I felt my cats were safe to go outside there. People who live on cul-de-sacs have the same welcome lack of cars going past.

But when a whole city is overloaded with dead-ends and cul-de-sacs, that sends huge numbers of cars onto the few streets that do connect. The result: far more congestion than you'd otherwise have.

Consider Providence Road in south Charlotte. It's horrifically congested, especially the farther you get from uptown. One reason is that all the vehicles heading from south Charlotte towards uptown have to travel on comparatively few thoroughfares, because south of Myers Park and Eastover, the neighborhood streets don't connect to any other neighborhoods. If the same number of vehicles that clog Providence Road daily were spread through dozens of interconnected streets, rather than all jamming Providence Road, the congestion problem would ease considerably.

But how does a town or city progress from Dead-End-Ville to Connectivity City? That's the hard part. If you simply open one new street connection, that street will absorb far more than its share of the traffic. What to do?

I've said for years that Charlotte (and I'd add Cornelius and other cul-de-sac landscapes to this statement) needs to connect dozens and dozens more streets to each other. But whenever the city does that, it owes the residents of those streets the ability to co-exist with more traffic. That means building sidewalks, crosswalks - signalized if necessary - and installing traffic calming devices like humps or roundabouts.

Connect the streets, but build the necessary infrastructure so that people can live with the cars. It's not rocket science. It's just more expensive.