The Perils of Whimsy: Bookshelf reveals community dysfunction

Spoiler alert: This is not breaking news. The story’s actually been at least temporarily resolved. Think of it more as a post-game analysis.

Little Free Libraries — resident-initiated community bookshelves — are an increasingly popular tactic for bringing neighbors together through their shared love of browsing and reading books. Unless you live in Leawood, Kansas, that is, where the front-yard kiosk of 9 year old resident Spencer Collins was the subject of a citation for being what the city considered an illegal accessory structure.

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Urbanists Soak Up Buffalo: PlaceMakers empty their notebooks

The 22nd annual gathering of the CNU wrapped up Saturday night, June 7, in Buffalo. We’re looking forward to the recordings at cnu.org over the next few weeks to fill the inevitable gaps, since the competing sessions and hallway conversations presented the usual embarrassment of riches.

Rather than go for a tidy narrative, let’s just share some random observations and sound bites from the four days.

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Aggravated 15 Year Olds as a Measure of Place

I’m always on the lookout for simpler ways to make important points about how we grow. Ways that people intuitively understand, and can easily share with others.

Regular readers here may recall the last time I talked about this, when my mention of the neighborhood-measuring popsicle test — the ability of an 8 year old to safely get somewhere to buy a popsicle, then make it home before it melts — experienced a healthy does of viral replication across the interwebs.

It made for a good lesson, and I’ve continued to look for similar hooks in the time since.

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Placemaking Gets Freaky

I’m a freak magnet.

For reasons unknown, the more, err, colorful characters of the public realm seem to find my personal space especially attractive.

If I go to a midday matinée and another patron — let’s say an agitated mumbler in a trench coat with shoes crudely fashioned out of car wash sponges — joins me in an otherwise empty theater, that person will sit in the seat directly behind mine. Which he’ll then begin kicking.

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“People Habitat”: Kaid Benfield takes Smart Growth to a higher level

For several weeks now I’ve intended to write up my thoughts on “People Habitat,” the recently-released book from NRDC smart growth sensei — and friend — Kaid Benfield. Not that it’s anything he needs, mind you. A quick look at his reviews over on Amazon reveals a diverse collection of accolades, consistent only in their five-star assessments, and I suppose my hesitation has stemmed from a desire to not just heap on a little more well-deserved praise but to add something fresh to the discussion.

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CNU 22 Buffalo: Gearing up for another Stern talkin’ to

Urban circles echoed with the sound of jaws collectively hitting the floor recently, as the Congress for the New Urbanism made the unexpected announcement that famed architect Robert A.M. Stern would be dropping by CNU 22 in Buffalo to make the case for how the lessons of garden suburbs — which he explores in his new book, “Paradise Planned” — can guide both exurban and inner-city (re)development moving forward.

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Stayin’ Alive: The life and death prospects of community ties

“We had better get together on this or we’re going to die.”

People talk a lot about community these days. How we’ve lost whatever sense of it we might have once had. How we don’t really know each other much anymore. How we yearn for more intimacy, with connection that transcends the typically weak ties of social media.

We talk about it in the abstract, not fully understanding the whole of what it really means, as though we were recalling some endearing product feature lost to time. Like we’re asking, “Remember that little bongk sound from Pong, the original home video game? Boy. You just don’t experience sounds like that anymore.

Oh, well. Back to life in the now.”

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13 Ways to Kill Your Community

Not so long ago, fellow urban scribe and recently elected mayor of Concrete, Washington, Jason Miller, recommended the book, “13 Ways to Kill Your Community.” The timing was fortuitous. For a while, in an ongoing series of internal conversations, I’d been wrestling with a fundamental question of human nature: Are people basically good, with periodic displays of malice and pettiness or, are we born broken and then distinguish ourselves through virtuous acts that transcend our inherent limitations?

“13 Ways” would seem to suggest the latter, though I’ve likely drawn a conclusion unintended by its author, Doug Griffiths, who co-wrote the book with journalist Kelly Clemmer.

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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 begets 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, and embraced the types of places that reinforce those inclinations, lest our happy motoring be weighted down with excess emotional baggage.

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