In Chuck Wolfe’s absorbing new book, Seeing the Better City, he encourages readers to think with our eyes and communicate with visual imagery in order to improve our cities. With the proliferation of smartphone cameras and an endless array of easily accessible, web-based platforms on which to display them, virtually everyone is now a photographer. And, with cities on the ascendance, many of them confronting both excitement and worries about growth and development, more people than ever want to make them as hospitable as possible. It’s time to put those trends together, argues Wolfe, and use our eyes and our cameras “to explore, observe, and improve urban space,” to quote the book’s subtitle.
The other day while walking my dog, I was trying to count the ways nature makes us healthier, as a means of distracting myself from the fact that the temperature was -40, with wind chill. That’s the point where Celsius and Fahrenheit converge. However, since this is my 9th winter in my beloved Winnipeg – one of the three coldest big cities on earth – I was dressed for the occasion and was keeping to the sidewalks in the active core. Here tight setbacks and street trees provide shelter from the wind, neighbourhood shops and cafés offer places to stop in and warm up, and short blocks provide plenty of places to turn around when the time is right.
Shortly before this essay’s original posting, I participated in a terrific conference called From Main Street to Eco-Districts: Greening Our Communities, hosted by a chapter of the American Institute for Architects in Corning, New York. Held a block off of Corning’s own, magnificent “Main Street” (actually named Market Street), and including many of the people who have helped make that street so successful, the conference started me thinking about the whole idea of Main Streets and what makes the best of them such delights to experience.
Scientists are learning more and more about how where we live affects the amount of exercise we get, and thus how fit and healthy we are likely to be. In general, city dwellers are particularly well placed to get regular exercise if they can take care of some or all of their daily errands without getting into a car: walking is good for us, and so is taking public transportation, because almost every transit trip begins and ends with a walking trip.
I spend virtually all my professional time thinking about the intersection of human settlement and environmental sustainability. I am particularly interested in the built environment of American cities, towns, and suburbs – what I like to call our “people habitat” – and how it relates to the natural world. How can we make these two realms – people habitat and natural habitat – more harmonious?
These issues are acutely on my mind today because I am preparing a talk I have been invited to deliver early next month on “Urbanism and Sustainability.” (For those who are interested, it will be at the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, in Detroit, at 10.15 am on June 8.)
While on my way to a dental appointment last week — not my favorite activity, truth be told — I had the distinct pleasure of walking through Georgetown, Washington’s oldest neighborhood and one of its most lovely. As I ambled through the historic, tree-lined streets, I was reminded of how our older neighborhoods so often embody the characteristics that we now ascribe to “smart growth.”
In particular, Georgetown has a walkable urban density; well-connected streets and sidewalks that make it notably pedestrian-friendly; a central, convenient location just a mile or so from the heart of downtown; good transit service; many shops, restaurants and civic amenities mixed in with, or a ridiculously easy walk from, the neighborhood’s homes.
As I reported earlier this year, more and more businesses are choosing to locate in downtowns and walkable suburban locations, in part to attract younger workers who prefer a less car-dependent, more urban lifestyle.
In some cases, as with hospitality giant Marriott, the preference is being expressed in planned moves from sprawling suburbs to transit-accessible places with city amenities. In others, such as with several major corporations in the wealthy Columbus suburb of Dublin, Ohio, the businesses are staying put while, at the companies’ behest, the suburb itself is being remade into a more walkable and urban place – a place with a “there,” to borrow Gertrude Stein’s famous phrase. In still other instances, entrepreneurs are choosing to set up shop in previously disinvested in-town neighborhoods.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife Sharon and I were out for a long neighborhood walk. This is not unusual for us, but on this particular day we took a route we hadn’t walked in quite some time. I was pleased to notice that one of the traditional, colonial-style houses we encountered was sporting solar panels on its roof. And then we noticed another. And another. And yet more, so many that we lost count. Not every house, certainly, but enough in this particular section of northwest D.C. to make a strong impression.
The National Arbor Day Foundation has a simple app on its website that allows visitors to see how a city changes as it adds tree cover and other vegetation. Using a little sliding tool, one can gradually change the illustration from one with few trees to one with abundant trees. The difference is striking: everyone I know would prefer to live in the greener city.
I love the Arbor Day app, but this is not a new subject for me. I have long maintained that the fates of nature and cities are intricately related: Nature needs cities, a truth still not sufficiently appreciated in the world of environmental advocacy, because compact urban and suburban communities reduce development pressure on the natural and rural landscape.
Last week we resurrected a look at the preservation movement — asking if, rather than strict adherence to ideology, love of place could ultimately rule the day — so that, this week, we could put a spotlight on Kaid Benfield, the latest addition to the PlaceMakers team, and his thoughts on the issue’s flip-side.
In short, do we in the placemaking game — New Urbanists, Smart Growthers and the like — also fail to let love rule, getting so lost in particular baseline goals that we miss the finer-grain details that connect most deeply with the human condition?
Here’s Kaid’s take below, originally featured on the NRDC Switchboard. And for more of his perspective on urban challenges and opportunities, check out his thoughts on poverty and gentrification just posted over on the HuffPo.