We Built This City… Well, Not Really

Two interests tend to consume my mind. One is history, of course. The other, oddly, is urban planning. I’m by no means an expert on this topic, and I tend to focus on theory rather than action. Recently, I read “Geography of Nowhere” by James Howard Kunstler. He’s a bit of a whiner, but overall, he made some good (if obvious) observations that reaffirmed my opinion that there should be a growing movement to change the nature of our cities.

Specifically, I’m thinking of the cities within the Red River Valley… naturally.

fort worth stockyards downtown trinity best

(That’s the Trinity River, but still).

The “Old Southwest” was built by roads. Only in the southern parts (Louisiana, Arkansas) did rivers serve as a transportation route; otherwise, people traveled by foot, horse, stagecoach, buggy, railroads, streetcars, and automobiles. Naturally, our cities grew to accommodate these modes. Kunstler posits that this is the reason many American cities are built horizontally, with wide swaths of vacant land and acres of parking lots. While he has a point, I think the real culprits are the politicians who run the cities. It seems that the primary goal for council meetings is not to advocate for ideas that would create better communities, but rather what will make the most money. I once sat at a council meeting in my hometown and I swear, there were more “developers” in the meeting than there were media, citizens, and city employees. Not that construction is necessarily bad; it’s just that the kind of construction that tends to get the “go-ahead” by elected officials, many of whom don’t have any backgrounds in planning, repeats itself in every town. The big box stores made of pre-fabricated cement walls, large steel sheds, low roofed stripmalls, and bland suburban tracts that are approved by councils do not appeal to the aesthetics or the needs of those who have to live and work in the spaces. Literally, they create pockets of space that only suit their purposes but have no real connection to the city that surrounds them. The developers mostly don’t even live in the cities that they are developing, and without having a stake in the community, they have little interest in boosting the city’s appeal. While the council people do live in the cities, they usually have no way to not approve projects that meet the city code without protracted fights. And then we have to live in places that are depressing, ugly, and unwalkable.

Downtown Ardmore is really nice.

Downtown Ardmore is really nice.

One prime example is Texarkana. Up until the 1940s, this city had a vibrant downtown, filled with street cars, theaters, and home-grown businesses.For the majority of city-dwellers, department stores, grocers, and hardware stores were either a simple walk or a short trolley ride away. But then the interstate was built. The city approved new projects along this behemoth, neglecting its core in favor of  cheap land, hastily-imagined building codes, and the promise of future tax revenue (usually an unlikely source of potential revenue, as abatements often outlived the businesses they were supposed to help). The very leaders who were charged with advocating  for citizens’ welfare instead sold off the future of the city, and didn’t give themselves any recourse to stop this strangulation of its core.

The interstate put a damper on downtown Texarkana.

The interstate put a damper on downtown Texarkana.

I love to daydream about how to re-imagine our cities. I wish I could push for the end of strip malls in the middle of nowhere, and instead have businesses line the streets around downtowns. I’d make front lawns obsolete – seriously, what are they good for? – and make homes and businesses vertical to compact the space. I’d maintain all sidewalks and bike lanes, and rid cities of one way streets.

The nerd has spoken.

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Published in: on April 17, 2013 at 4:31 am  Leave a Comment  
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Walking and Discovering

I am usually on-the-go on weekends, but this Saturday found me in a somber kind of mood. While I’ve been enjoying the mild winter and am really excited about the signs of spring that have blossomed around me, I kind of felt out of sorts. To cheer up, I decided to go for a walk.

Always fun to find history.

Walking is a great spirit-lifter, of course. But I wasn’t looking forward to taking a walk around my own neighborhood. Not that it’s a bore, but frankly, I walk the mile-radius around my house all the time and what I really needed was a change of scenery. So, I picked out an older neighborhood in Denton and strolled my way through quaint gardens, rock fences, and bungalows with deep porches. I even found a few petrified wood pieces inside herb and flower beds. I saw a few cats and lots of squirrels, a couple of grinning garden gnomes, dog foot prints forever encased in concrete, and dodged lots of mosquito hawks.

I’ve done this a few times before – picked out a cute place in a different town and went for a stroll. It’s simply fun to blend in with the environment and experience the place as a resident would. And it’s a great way to get ideas for how to spruce up my own yard and front porch. I also like that I’m left alone with my thoughts, and that I can pace myself without worrying too much about traffic or other people. The discoveries made on these walks tend to make me feel as if I uncovered secrets, too, like when I noticed the WPA stamp on a broken sidewalk when I strolled through Mineral Wells, or the old toys strewn along an alley behind a garage apartment in Durant.

If it wasn’t for walking around and being nosy, I’d never have found these trolley tracks in Mineral Wells, either.

Yes, my entertainment runs on the cheap and boring side. I’m never going to be the life of the party when my idea of fun involves walking through the city streets of some strange town. Guess what, though?  I realized today that I need to do it more often.

Published in: on March 4, 2012 at 5:00 am  Comments (3)  
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