Ignorance was Bliss: How my urban learnin’ almost ruined everyday places

It strikes me that in the time since I originally wrote this piece a whole new slew of young urbanists have come of age, many now having similar experiences. It’s my hope that they too will find a comfortable balance between the ideal and the workable — not to excuse incompetence but to encourage and develop excellence. Urbanism is, after all, a long game.

For more than 15 years I’ve been hanging around with a pretty interesting collection of traditional architects, planners and urban designers. That’s my job. Taking their inherent disciplinary wonkdom and simplifying it for wider appreciation. Doing so means I’m frequently on the sidelines as they work, and a consistent witness to their application of accumulated wisdom to all manner of challenges currently ill served by modern solutions.

That’s put me on the receiving end of something of great professional value. And equally great personal annoyance:

An understanding of what makes great places great.

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Retail: Walkable urban primer with southwest inspiration

A couple weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of working with Bob Gibbs in Las Cruces, New Mexico, looking at ways to help downtown outperform the suburbs, helping Main Street be more profitable than strip malls. The top lessons were to nurture unique historic character in walkable formats and don’t build leasable space that you can’t lease. For downtown to have a critical mass, the goal is to capture 20% of the retail market share. That’s 10 times the current average of the 2% that most downtowns in the U.S. capture today.

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Lessons Learned from Berlin Shopfronts

Like many European cities, Berlin teaches us myriad lessons in building successful shopfronts. While the exclusive international shops along Kurfürstendamm and Friedrichstrasse are elegant and effective, the more creative successes are found in neighborhoods and courtyards. Kaid Benfield’s People Habitat describes in detail the reasons Hackeschen Höfe is so successful at the holistic level, and last week Hazel Borys discussed the diversity of uses, so here we’ll just explore the interesting shopfront contributions. There are some very successful shopfront examples in the Prenzlaur Berg neighborhood as well.

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Retail on My Mind

Seems I’ve got retail on my mind. It all started in December, with Bob Gibb’s Placemaking@Work webinar, whose tweetchat sparked a Neighbourhood Retail BlogOff led by Steve Mouzon. Then last week Victor Dover’s PM@W webinar followed up with ideas about tactical retail, where he talked about the next version of mixed use being smaller, quicker, and more organic.

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Punk Rock and the New Urbanism: Getting back to basics

By the early to mid 1970s, something was wrong with rock and roll.

It no longer fought the system. Worse than that, it had become the system. Bloated. Detached. Pretentious.

Performer and audience, once fused in a mutual quest to stick it to the man, now existed on separate planes –  an increasingly complacent generation sucked into the service of pomp and circumstance. And the shared experience of joyful rebellion? Replaced by pompous, weed-soaked, middle-earth mysticism.

Rock and roll needed to get back to basics. What country pioneer Harlan Howard characterized as “three chords and the truth.” Enter punk rock.

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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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Ignorance was Bliss: How my urban learnin’ almost ruined everyday places

For ten years I’ve been hanging around with a pretty interesting collection of traditional architects, planners and urban designers. That’s my job. Taking their inherent disciplinary wonkdom and simplifying it for wider appreciation. Doing so means I’m frequently on the sidelines as they work, and a consistent witness to their application of accumulated wisdom to all manner of challenges currently ill served by modern solutions.

That’s put me on the receiving end of something of great professional value. And equally great personal annoyance:

An understanding of what makes great places great.

Continue Reading

Monkey See, Monkey Don’t: Economic Development as a Whole New Animal

In the economic development world, we’re always trying to grow our economic base. And by that we mean goods and services that we export, not just what we use in our local markets. That might include university services, tourism, and any products that we pack and ship, or regional retail that we steal from our neighbors.

We see economic development in conventional terms, and we seek only to perpetuate the model, adding more of the same to the end of the chain. Another monkey from the barrel, so to speak. Continue Reading

ReTales: How Trying Too Hard Messes Up Main Street

In taking on the foibles of our built environment, author James Howard Kunstler makes a point of noting that he’s neither an architect nor planner. Instead, he’s the everyman, and his profession is dutifully pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

I’m in a similar position. I’m not an architect or planner either (or a retail consultant, for that matter). I’m an interpreter of such folks, taking the wonky banter that characterizes their various disciplines and making it accessible to the concerns and interests of regular, everyday people. Continue Reading