Retail: When it bends the rules and breaks the law.

Getting ready for a TEDx talk in a few weeks, I’ve once again been noticing how the places that I love the most usually break the law. The contemporary development codes and bylaws, that is, which are geared to the car, not to the pedestrian and cyclist.

Then last week’s urban retail SmartCode tweetchat with Bob Gibbs sparked a debate about the rules of thumb that govern the success or failure of the most risky development of all: retail. And when those rules might be bent by certain special circumstances.

Ready to geek out with me for a moment?

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Resilience: It’s who ya know.

If there’s one thing the 20th century gave us, it’s the luxury of not needing each other. It so defines our culture that it’s physically embodied in our sprawling, disconnected landscapes.

That alone begs a classic, chicken-n-egg question: Did the leisurely lure of the suburbs kill our sense of community? Were our social ties unwittingly severed by the meandering disconnection of subdivisions and strip malls or was sprawl just a symptom of something larger? After all, for all their rewards, meaningful relationships take a lot of work. Perhaps, once the modern world elevated our prospects for personal independence, we cut those ties ourselves, willingly, lest our happy motoring be weighted down with excess baggage.

Sprawl: form following function.

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Poggibonsi and other Tuscan Lessons

With all the angst over Italy this week, I’m in the mood to count some blessings. To elaborate on some assets. To look at the local marketplace. And to debunk a couple of frequent idealist notions about European urbanism often heard from North Americans.

Last month, I was traveling in the Tuscan countryside, which is the most beautiful land I’ve ever seen. Staying in a vineyard outside of Poggibonsi, waking up to the resident rooster, and walking medieval streets was cleansing for the mind and spirit. Even the parking lots are frequently overseen by amazing art, like this copy of Michelangelo’s David on the hill overlooking Florence.

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Resources + Connections = Jobs

Jobs come up in every community-building conversation these days. It’s making me go back to the start, to think it through. What created jobs in the first place?

Division of Labor. Access to natural resources. Human settlement patterns: cross roads, rivers, oceans, eventually railroads and highways.

In the last few decades, many cities have been racing to the economic bottom trying to incentivize jobs. It’s led to jobs being all about giving away resources, and not so much about the value of connections.

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Can Preservationists Let Love Rule?

Call me naive.

When I was first exposed to the New Urbanism in the 1990s, it was as a 9 to 5 ad-man with an appreciation for music and art. Killing time one day in my dentist’s waiting room, I stumbled upon “Bye-Bye Suburban Dream,” the cover story of the latest Newsweek magazine.

I still remember the feeling I had as I read it. Unbelievable, I thought. This is a movement creating places where people, community, beauty and culture are once again prioritized. Where the interconnected everyday human experiences that color our lives are valued. Where commerce and art can both thrive.

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The Allure of Food: It’s not just a lifestyle. It’s a life.

All the recent talk of Agrarian Urbanism has sent me down a tangential thought process. The difference between life and lifestyle. Lifestyle has come to mean how we spend our money on the weekends – or maybe squeeze in after work – before we get back to the grind. Things that often have more to do with entertainment than community. Over the last 50 years or so, shopping and golf have become central national pastimes.

What if, instead, life became a little more organic again?

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Form-Based Codes? A picture’s worth a thousand words.

If the attendees list of Placemaking@Work, my monthly webinar series, is any indicator, we’re increasingly united in our desire to improve the places we call home, wherever those places might be. Last month, I had participants from Hawaii to Russia, from British Columbia to Saudi Arabia, and many points in between.

The common thread among these seekers is their search for tools and tactics that have proven effective. And increasingly dominating these conversations are form-based codes.

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“Sustainability” is so ten years ago — Let’s talk “Resilience”

Deep in an April 14 New York Times story on the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami was mention of an iPhone app called Yurekuru that gives warning of an impending quake. The name, said the Times, translates into English roughly as, “the shaking is coming.”

Before the March 11 quake, the app attracted 100,000 users. Now: 1.5 million.

In a sense, living organisms could always be fairly certain that a shaking of some kind was on the way. Life on earth has been shaped by violence, by sudden upheavals and reversals of fortune for one hapless population or another. Foreboding is written into the human psyche. It’s only recently that we’ve felt entitled to be spared.

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