Town Beautiful

Is there such a thing as an “urban planning nerd?” Because if there is, then that’s what I am. I have not formally studied this kind of endeavor, so all of the information and conjecture I postulate is strictly founded on the predicate that “your mileage may vary.” But that won’t stop me from telling you exactly what I think. Lucky you.

When I drive around – which I do a lot, to a lot of different places, in hopes of discovering the history of the Red River Valley – I tend to notice what towns work, and which ones do not. By work, I don’t necessarily mean that I count how many manufacturing plants or how many businesses are located inside a town, though good urban planning will definitely help a town have both. I look to see if there are people walking, and under what circumstances. Are they having to use the street to get from point A to point B, or can they use sidewalks? Are the sidewalks actually maintained, or are they pitted by ruts and dirt? Is the grocery store far away from neighborhoods, or is it close by? Are houses well maintained, or do they look like perpetual yard sales? Are the town’s parks and other respite places in walking distance, or is a car to ferry the kids around mandatory?

shreveport peytons us 80 small

Before Texas Street ( US 80) in Shreveport was superseded by Interstate 20, this neighborhood epitomized compact and good urban design.

More than anything else, the environment in which we live has a profound impact on how we see and interact with the world. Neighborhoods that are walled and gated, for example, give the impression of fear and distrust. Strip malls that are half-empty and moated by huge parking lots (and sometimes, surrounded by ill-maintained car washes) look depressing and dangerous. Places with few or no sidewalks seem very discouraging, even suspicious, of normal human activity, such as walking and biking. This kind of atmosphere doesn’t lend itself well to enticing new enterprises to open shop, people taking success and schooling seriously, or citizens having confidence in their elected officials. While all of this may sound like common sense, I have to wonder, why is it that many towns and cities ignore these fairly basic tenets?

irving big state sign

Businesses should be at the street – not in the middle of a sea of empty parking lots – and neighborhoods should be compact. Well, I think so, anyway.

One reason I can deduce is that Southerners pretend not to like too much government interference. The opinion goes that no one – no neighbors, code enforcer, or some arbitrary rule – should preclude one from the enjoyment of one’s own property. And I can appreciate this, of course. But communally owned property, such as city sidewalks, business districts, parks, and streets, should be viewed not simply as necessities, but rather calling cards: “We live here and we love it here.” Compact streets in interconnected neighborhoods that are walkable, maintained, and close to what makes a place livable – such as parks, grocery stores, and libraries – give the impression of a working town. Not just working in the sense of people having jobs, but also in the ways that make life pleasant and beautiful.

Is beauty and harmony in the world a concept we should all strive for?  My little, unimportant opinion is that they’re the only things that make life worth living, and the most immediate way to achieve them starts in our own neighborhoods.

Published in: on June 8, 2015 at 7:58 pm  Comments (4)  
Tags: , ,

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.

Published in: on April 17, 2013 at 4:31 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Musing while on Amtrak

I took the Texas Eagle from Dallas to Chicago the other week, and had a great time doing so. There’s nothing like falling asleep to the clickity-clack of the rails, and waking up to see the mighty Mississippi River sparkling under the morning sun.

I’ve been to Chicago many times before. I’ve flown and driven, but nothing beats entering this grand city on the train. While it’s not the most scenic route – I saw plenty of hobo camps and abandoned car parts (and a whole car or two!) – I got a real sense of the city just by looking at its industrial and residential landscapes roll by. Chicago’s a compact city, with high urban density and a fantastic public infrastructure. It’s what a city SHOULD be like.

Fabulous downtown Chicago

And then, sigh, the Eagle and I glided back down through the Dallas. Dallas is the very opposite of Chicago in terms of its architecture and infrastructure – it’s a sprawling, meandering urban conglomeration with housing that looks like warehouses and vast stretches of empty, abused, and misused land. Watching the weed-strewn lots and urban blight roll by, I became almost obsessed with the questions that have bogged my mind for a long time: why does Dallas planning not seem to have any rhyme or reason? Why are the suburbs competing with, rather than enhancing, the city?

In terms of development, Dallas is about 50 years younger than Chicago – not so far apart at all. But they’re worlds apart when you look at how their growth has been managed. Chicago built up – Dallas built out. Chicago made room for trains and cars. Dallas forgot trains and relied too much on cars. Chicago didn’t allow its sports stadiums to leave the city. Dallas lets sports owners move to suburbs where public transportation is nonexistent. Chicago built around its river, which meanders through the heart of the city. Dallas turned its back on the Trinity River, and straightened it out so much that it has now become a lonely creek. Chicago has culture with world-class museums, art exhibits, and sculptures on public squares. Dallas neglects its cultural gem, Fair Park, in favor of shiny new developments that are devoid of life – like Victory Park.

Oh, and Chicago allows visitors to go up the Sears/Willis Tower. Dallas’ number one tourist attraction, Reunion Tower, has been closed for three years now, and no one has been able to go up to enjoy the view except customers of a restaurant now owned by celebrity chef, Wolfgang Puck.

Fabulous downtown Dallas (why's the tower still closed, Wolfgang Puck?)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I think Dallas is awesome. Maybe that’s why I get so worked up over what I think Dallas COULD be.

Published in: on August 31, 2010 at 8:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,