An excerpt from HOW CITIES WORK: SUBURBS, SPRAWL, AND THE ROADS NOT TAKEN by Alex Marshall. See if you agree (more excerpts here):
It's a Saturday night and my house is filling with people. Some carry
musical instruments. Some have sheets of poetry or fiction by their
sides. Some carry nothing, but are prepared to stand up before a crowd
of people and dance, perform theater, or tell a story.
We call it the Coffeehouse. We've been doing it now for seven years.
The first Saturday of every month, friends and friends of friends come
to our house to entertain and be entertained. Usually about fifty
people show up. It's a great time.
This coffeehouse is the highlight of the month, both for me and many of
the people who attend. It's not just the music, poetry, and other acts
that bring people back, although these are good. It's the chance to
meet, connect, and talk with other people during the breaks. Through
it, my wife and I have met many of our now good friends, and other
people have made similar friendships and bonds. In a city where people
come and go, it provides us a mechanism to make new friends as older
ones leave town.
Why do I mention it? Because our coffeehouse is a replacement for what
does not exist in the outer world. And the fact that it does not exist
says a lot about our society at this stage in its history. I would
prefer that a corner tavern or bar be down the street, where I could
magically meet my friends and make new ones. I would prefer to be held
up in a naturally emerging web of friends and family, growing out of
the physical place where I live and the work that goes on there.
Our situation is ironic, because if anyone should have community
"naturally," it's my wife and I. We live in Norfolk, Virginia, a port
city on the Elizabeth River, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic
Ocean. Huge carriers make their home here, as do huge cargo ships that
freight millions of tons of coal all over the world.
It's been the home of my family on my father's side for five
generations. My great-grandfather came here before the Civil War. He
was the first publisher of the newspaper where I started my career in
journalism, The Virginian-Pilot. My father grew up one block from where
I write this. My wife is a native of the area as well. My newest niece
lives down the street.
Looking at my background, one might think that I live a life rich in
contacts with the past and the world that molded me, a place where an
intricate and perhaps suffocating web of family and friends who have
centuries of combined experience support, argue with, and love each
other. Which is not the case. I have no close friends from my childhood
or high school years that still live in this town, or even the state.
Most of my siblings have scattered themselves around the country, as is
the wont of professional people these days. Various relatives--second
cousins once removed and so forth--do live near me. I know none of them
well. As one commentator remarked about Europeans in contrast to
Americans, "They still have cousins." Americans do not.
Various forces operating in the country and world today have pulled
apart my "natural" community and scattered it to the winds. My own more
cosmopolitan bent figures into this. I lived in Europe for a few years,
attended college and graduate school in Pittsburgh and New York City. I
am not able, nor do I desire, to sink back into the old-boy culture
that does still exist here to a degree. I have a community around me,
but it is one that I created or sought out, more than one I was born
into. My community is in my coffeehouse, in the arts organizations I
belong to, and in the civic work I do.
Community--the network of formal and informal relationships that binds
people together--is a thin, tepid brew in this country. It has declined
to the point where improving it, saving it, nurturing it have become
slogans of a variety of movements in different, seemingly unrelated
fields. In urban planning, New Urbanism promises to revive community
through building subdivisions more cohesively. In political theory,
Amiti Etzioni hopes to reduce crime and improve social health through
his philosophy of Communitarianism. In journalism, the philosophy of
Public Journalism, sometimes labeled Community Journalism, promises to
rebuild community and a newspaper's circulation base by having the
press foster public dialogue and political participation. Our politics,
our places, our press--all of these things run across power lines that
jolt us with the message that something is missing in too many of our
lives, some sense of cohesion and togetherness.
This desire many people have for richer, more connected lives is a
valid one. I believe that a society grows out of its social, religious,
and political compacts, on which ultimately even market relationships
depend. But like the construction of coherent physical places, the
construction of coherent communities is not something to be attempted
directly. Rather, one has to understand what produces both places and
communities, and what weakens them, and address those forces.
Most of what we call community in the past has been produced as a
byproduct of other things: making a living, shopping for food, keeping
ourselves and our families well, protecting them and our society from
physical harm, educating them. We shopped for groceries, served in the
military, and went to a doctor and along the way got to know the
butcher, the fellow soldier, and the local doctor. All of these actions
have become less communal, and so our society has become less
community-minded. We buy our food at the warehouse-style supermarket,
do not serve in the military unless we volunteer, and go to the
impersonal HMO to get our cholesterol checked. If we want to revive
community, then we should look at the trade-offs involved in making
some of our decisions more communal again.
Place has something to do with all this as well. Walking to a
neighborhood cafe for breakfast is a more communal thing than using the
drive-through at a McDonald's for an Egg McMuffin, although
relationships can occur at either place. Driving on the freeway is less
likely to generate relationships than riding a streetcar. Living in an
older neighborhood fashioned around the foot is more communal than
living in a contemporary one fashioned around the car. But the physical
makeup of our places is just one factor in this trend.
John Perry Barlow, computer sage and former Grateful Dead lyricist,
commented once that community is largely generated by shared adversity.
This gets at the notion, true I believe, that our social ties, while
beneficial, are not necessarily produced by situations we would choose.
Although many of us miss community, we don't miss poverty, disease, and
war, things that produce community with some regularity. The problem
for contemporary Americans is that enhancing social cohesion may mean
giving up some things we really like, like personal mobility, low
taxes, and a footloose economic structure. We have not figured out yet
that creating wealth is not the same as creating community.
I speak without any sentimentality or nostalgia for the past. I
believe, however, that the generally fragmented lives so many of us
lead break up marriages, disturb childhoods, isolate people when they
most need help, and make life not as much fun. We live, to speak
frankly, in one of the loneliest societies on earth. If we are to
change that, then we should look more closely at the various
relationships in our society--political, social, economic, and
others--and attempt to construct them in more communal ways. Deciding
how to structure these relationships comes back to what I increasingly
believe is our most fundamental relationship--politics.
Yesterday, a beautiful Sunday (low humidity, mid-seventies), I traveled to Franklin's Shoppes at Wyndham Village to see how this relatively new component of the local "social ecosystem" was being utilized on such a perfect day.
The answer? Let's just say that all that were missing were tumbleweeds.
ABOVE: Ferch's in Franklin.
Blame the economy? The fact is, at that very hour (about 5pm), while the Shoppes at Wyndham Village version of Ferch's Malt Shoppe was completely customer-free, the original Ferch's in Greendale (see photo below, taken 45 minutes later) was bustling with people - as is typical - inside and out.
Two Ferch's on the same sunny afternoon. What's the difference?
I saw vehicles come and go from Target at the Franklin Shoppes complex on a fairly regular basis. From the looks of it, these were all fairly joyless excursions; single-purpose errands for practical necessities (though one guy came out with a flat-screen TV and a huge smile). Everyone took straight-line courses from their vehicle to the Target entrance and back again. Occasionally you would see someone emerge with a coffee cup, having stopped at Target's in-store Starbucks.
ABOVE: Ferch's in Greendale.
A different story at the original Greendale Ferch's. There is a shaded, building-enveloped courtyard; on this afternoon, every table save one or two were occupied. Young
families, elderly couples, groups of teens, etc., all shared this comfortable
space and casually interacted. People walked between the courtyard tables and the adjacent park and coffee shop (the small neighboring stores were mostly closed for the day), stopping periodically to greet neighbors and acquaintances. And almost everyone I passed said hi to me as well.
An adjacent park, welcoming "outdoor room" courtyard environment, pedestrian- and bike-friendly
local streets, and attached neighborhood make Ferch's of Greendale a vibrant public space. And commercially lucrative.
Back at Wyndham Village, I noticed a couple of random benches on islands in the asphalt sea. I sat on one for a while -- long enough to contemplate exactly where I was. Why would anyone want to sit right here, in the middle of... nothing? What would bring a person to this particular bench in a strip mall like this, so obscenely out of synch with any sense of human scale?
Judging by the quizzical looks emanating from the windows of vehicles whizzing past me, I was not the only one wondering what I was doing there.
ABOVE: Ghost town.
I walked the entire Shoppes complex via the exposed strip of sidewalk; no enclosing "street wall" of mature trees and/or buildings to create a comfortable walking environment. I was the lone person on foot in the entire area for the entire period of my visit; again, cars passed me and looked me over as though I was dressed at the lead guitarist for KISS (which I was not). Needless to say, no one said "hi." After all, what the heck was I doing there?!?!
No, the people of Greendale are not inherently friendlier than the people in Franklin. This is an example of how our built environment creates us as much as we create it. Build formless, uninspiring, unwelcoming commercial spaces and you create single-purpose destinations that discourage the sorts of interaction and "lingering" that is crucial to the success of local (i.e. non-big box) businesses -- and, by extension, you strangle local economic livelihood. Who's in a hurry to lease space here as opposed to any other anonymous strip mall?
By contrast, Greendale offers a superior physical environment that attracts people whether or not they need to shop. The small, locally-owned businesses benefit, and a real community is maintained.
At last night's Common Council meeting I presented a short description of my coffeeshop/co-working plan for the city civic center, and the council voted unanimously to allow myself and fellow Economic Development Commissioners to make queries in the city's name. It's a tiny step, but a vote of confidence for exploring this sort of nonstandard approach to encouraging economic development and active community space.
It was not without potholes. Not even an hour before the meeting, the mayor emailed me to note that he now recalled that the fire chief did indeed have possible plans to expand the fire department building and may desire the plot of land under discussion. Also, alderman Tim Solomon made it known at a meeting the night before that he was 100% against non-park, non-fire department usage of the land. Fortunately, there is quite a bit of open space in the area pictured above in which the concept could work; the building doesn't have to sit exactly where I initially planned. I was gratified by the unanimous affirmative vote and the supportive comments made from the council dais.
So, at this stage we question and query the "tentpoles"; MATC, Franklin High School, the Library (I met and enjoyed a long conversation with a library trustee last night; I'll speak at their next meeting), fire department, etc.
The idea is to gather the needed elements and put a "situation" in place so a Kinkos/FedEx or local-owned/franchise coffee shop can come in and feel comfortable with a nonstandard setup; one that enlivens community life, has an excellent educational and vocational training component, engages the "creative class," and stirs further walkable "commercial amenity" development in the area.
ABOVE: A rather ambitious vision of co-working space
To move mountains, start with a scoopful of sand.
Here is the admittedly low-ball request for council action (hard to say "no" to something that costs nothing and obligates no one) related to my community co-venture coffee shop/co-working space scheme:
At their regular meeting on 4/26/09, the Economic Development Commission discussed an item that proposes the City encourage a community-based development on the site of the former Schleutter residence adjacent to Fire Station 1, the Library and Lions Legend Park. The discussion centered around development of a coffee shop with facilities for “co-working” space, with a patio area. The presentation suggested that the development act as a community incubator and involve various educational and private commercial entities—including possible philanthropic grants—to co-fund and operate the facilities; thus, it is an economic development project with educational and community-building elements.
The Commission now requests that the Common Council permit members of the EDC to enter into discussions with numerous groups regarding the concept and development of such a project, and hold these discussions as representatives of the city.
It is important to remember that the idea is at the conceptual level and many issues must be dealt with prior to returning to the Common Council for formal approval of a plan and commitments being made.
Motion to authorize various members of the Economic Development Commission to discuss the possibility of a mixed-use community-based “coffee shop/co-working space” with interested parties and develop a plan for possible implementations.
In truth, the only real -- and well-used, by the way -- public space in Franklin is the Public Library. It’s next to a public park, which in turn is next to a subdivision that has paths connecting it to the large play areas, tennis courts and shelters. Rental housing and apartment buildings stand on the other park border, and City Hall is in the same area. Senior apartments are only a few yards south. It’s a unique multi-purpose area in town. I’ve blogged before about the incredible amount of available space in this area -- the library is surrounded by a huge lawn, for instance.
So what’s missing? Despite the presence of residential (owners and renters, young and old), municipal (library, city hall, police station) and park zones, a piece is badly needed.
As it happens, the city recently bought a house that sits between the library and the firehouse. The property is on a corner, separated from the library by a street and the residential areas by the park. Because of asbestos contamination, the whole structure will be removed, leaving an empty parcel of land.
Click to embiggen
Here is a short sketch of the proposal/challenge/Quixotic quest I described to the EDC:
The city of Franklin, along with partners that will become apparent, builds on the site where the residence once was a COFFEE SHOP and CO-WORKING SPACE. Two stories, built right up to the sidewalk (no setback) on two sides (no drive-thru), with a courtyard in back that segues into the park - a beautiful public space that sits at the intersection of the library and the park that residential neighborhoods can easily access on foot.
The missing piece!
Following a model established at the Blatz building in Milwaukee, where Milwaukee School of Engineering students run the building’s cafe, the city partners with Milwaukee Area Technical College; the students, as part of MATC curriculum, run the coffee shop, handling everything from accounting to grinding beans. Franklin High School can also be involved, as students can work there for credit.
Want to learn business? Run a business!
Want to encourage wonderful public space around a commercial amenity? Build an example for others to follow!
Corporate sponsorship is not at all out of the question: OfficeMax, FedEx/Kinkos, Starbucks, Dunn Bros., Starbucks, Northwestern Mutual Foundation, etc. A community/educational/economic development effort like this is something great to be associated with.
The project acts as a "development laboratory," wherein the city can show by example what sort of development we'd like to see. Along the way, we'll also learn a lot about flaws in the developer-city process and relationship that we can address as they appear.
In tough economic times, planning and building a community asset like this acts as a potent symbol of our confidence in Franklin. Why should we expect business to take root here if we're not willing to do it ourselves as well?
At long last, a vibrant, multi-use city center will begin to emerge.
The facility is an educational asset to MATC and Franklin High School.
The project will bring together the talents and passions of the community: local craftsmen and contractors pitching in; creative minds devising site plans and architecture; business leaders donating assets and money; etc.
Open space adjacent to the cafe can be used for, among other events, monthly or bi-monthly Farmers' Markets coordinated with market events held in St. Martins.
Franklin will at last have a "third place" for people to lounge, work, surf the net, read and meet. No more driving to Borders and Barnes & Noble in Greenfield.
The co-working facilities -- both paid-by-the-month space and free work areas -- will be desirable to the growing corps of "free agents," newly freelance, and mobile workers.
It'll be a great stop for residents of Waterford and Burlington on their way to and from the freeway.
As they advise in vaudeville, go out on a high note.
After facing blank stares (and worse) earlier in meeting while talking about complete streets, smart growth, and preparing for transit (see part 1 and part 2), this idea seemed to resonate with everyone in the room.
So it's off to the Common Council to get authorization for a subcommittee to pursue the idea.
"That ribbon of highway..." In a residential area.
The Common Council meets tonight at 6:30 at the monumental Franklin Law Enforcement Center.
On February 27th, the Wisconsin DOT sent a memo to Franklin outlining new deadlines for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus fund applications.
There were no emergency meetings of committees and boards of which I'm aware. (The Economic Development Commission, in fact, canceled our 2/23/09 meeting for reasons to which I'm not privy).
On March 2nd, one of the city's construction consultants, R.A. Smith, sent an email to Franklin's city engineers:
John & Ron,
On behalf of the Village of Greendale, we would like to know if the City of Franklin has interest in pursuing Round 2 stimulus funding for the S. 51st St. project both municipalities discussed last year?
We have attached a map of the segment and the WDOT round 2 stimulus letter for your review.
Please let us know your thoughts on the project very soon due to the tight funding application timeframes.
That was all we needed, apparently. On March 10th the Board of Public Works recommended pursuing the project. It does not specify a four-lane urban highway, but that is the only cross-section available at this point - - reason enough to be concerned.
So the list of possible stimulus funded projects now reads like this:
a) W. Puetz Road (S. Street to St. Martins Road) b) S. Street (Puetz Road to Drexel Avenue) c) S. 51st Street (North of Rawson Avenue to College Avenue in Greendale) d) Additional Project
Did I miss the brainstorming session that came up with these projects? Or, do we determine projects based on the recommendation of contractors who can bill us for the project they suggest?
We are on the cusp of another missed opportunity to rise above mediocrity and more "entropy made visible."
Franklin's streets and roads - both the pavement AND the network - are in desperate need of rehabilitation
There are neighborhoods close enough to Franklin High School to be illuminated by the sports field's lights - yet the residents of those houses have no way to walk or bike to the high school! Is it any wonder that so many vehicles are on the road at the beginning and end of school days? That's an embarrassment.
When did this become acceptable?
Pleasant View Elementary remains accessible by a single thin road with not so much as a shoulder to retreat to if you should attempt to walk or bike to the school. Another embarrassment.
Subdivisions that get to hear the trucks loading and unloading at the Sendik's on 51st and Rawson have no access to it via foot or bicycle, which would make their proximity a pretty spectacular amenity.
And that's all right with us? We're not going to bother to address any of that with stimulus funds?
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding should not be used to expand a system of roads that do not provide safe travel for people who are walking or bicycling. Too many Franklin streets are designed to be wide and fast, without sufficient sidewalks, crosswalks or bicycle lanes. We, in fact, CREATE traffic with huge roads and no alternative.
Little or no consideration has been given for the safety of older people, children, or people with disabilities. These incomplete streets are dangerous and create barriers for people to get to jobs, school, the doctor, and fully participate in civic life.
This is not an environment that encourages businesses to move in and take root. It is not an environment friendly to commercial enterprises that benefit from the ability to linger (book store, coffee shops, etc.).
So, tonight, the Common Council will vote on a hastily thrown-together package of road projects - - unless they dare to rise above and call for further discussion IMMEDIATELY to better maximize the opportunity presented by stimulus funds.
And I mean meetings that start TOMORROW and incorporate input from various interested parties and persons who have expertise beyond TRAFFIC ENGINEERING.
Ah, "traffic engineering." Evidently, the pure basis for all growth in Franklin.
Keep the following excerpt from the book SUBURBAN NATION in mind at tonight's meeting when engineers cite "traffic analysis" and "throughput forecasting":
Those who are skeptical of the need for a fundamental
reconsideration of transportation planning should take note
of something we experienced a few years ago. In a large
working session on the design of Playa Vista, an urban
infill project in Los Angeles, the traffic engineer was
presenting a report of current and projected congestion
around the development. From our seat by the window, we had
an unobstructed rush-hour view of a street he had diagnosed
as highly congested and in need of widening. Why, then, was
traffic flowing smoothly, with hardly any stacking at the
traffic light? When we asked, the traffic engineer offered
an answer that should be recorded permanently in the annals
of the profession: "The computer model that we use does not
necessarily bear any relationship to reality."
So, let us hope they spare us their "projected traffic" studies. (More on concepts like INDUCED TRAFFIC and LATENT DEMAND in later postings.)