The walking tour as sights, sounds, and memory

On the walking tour of South Colton, underneath a huge jacaranda tree
On the walking tour of South Colton, underneath a huge jacaranda tree (Prairieform’s John Kamp pointing out the effect of the canopy on the space)

There’s no better way to intimately familiarize oneself with an environment than through walking. You notice so many more details – both physical, such as the width of a sidewalk, and sensory, such as volumes and kinds of sounds, the amount of sunlight along a particular street, and smells (good and bad). Yet of utmost importance to any walking tour is ensuring that it includes local residents who live and breathe and feel the neighborhood every day.

In our walking tour of South Colton this past Saturday, we didn’t simply focus on pointing out flaws or improvement areas in infrastructure; a large part of the tour consisted of listening to residents about their stories and memories and what has made the place meaningful to them. Seventh Street, said one resident, used to be the “Broadway of South Colton.” Yet, once the 10 Freeway was built and cut the city in half, Seventh Street essentially became a dead-end street, and slowly the vibrant commercial and cultural life that existed on the street died away. Absent this resident’s story and this history, one would have no sense of just how integral the street was to the neighborhood, as today many of the lots along it stand vacant, with the remaining commercial buildings abandoned or locked up. Given the existing conditions now and the memories these residents all hold within them, how could Seventh Street become a new kind of bustling corridor for the neighborhood in which these memories and experiences are woven into its newest incarnation?

These are the kinds of questions and the kind of inquiry that planners and designers need to begin taking on if there is to be any hope of creating meaningful places that are truly unique, place-based, and for all residents and visitors to experience and enjoy.

To see more photos of the tour, click HERE.

John Kamp

Walkable American cities: narrative vs. reality

There has been much hubub of late in these parts over some recent “most/est” tags Minneapolis has received: best night’s sleep; most well read; fittest; gayest; most bicycle-friendly. To add to the proverbial -est-list is now walkable. While not considered the most walkable, Minneapolis is thought of as quite walkable, with Walk Score ranking it as the ninth most walkable city in the country (for the updated Walk Score for 2018, click HERE). And it is true that through certain lenses Minneapolis is walkable: good network of continuous sidewalks, relatively few mega-streets that are impossible to cross, extensive boulevard tree canopy. However, too much of the discussion of walkability centers around the sidewalk itself and whether they are clean, uninterrupted, well-lit, and within a well-connected network. While these are indeed building blocks of a walkable city, they alone don’t induce people to walk. As a result of this limited discussion, we are stuck in a narrative of a city being great and fabulous and walkable because it appears so (i.e. those sidewalks look pretty and nice, and I would walk down them if I felt like it and wasn’t driving to the store right now), not because it actually is. This is particularly problematic when it comes to the real work of crafting policy to genuinely improve walkability in the city, as an examination of the true elements that encourage walking are never explored, and the result is much wishful thinking, self-congratulatory rhetoric, and policy efforts that may not at all increase the number of people walking as a means of transportation.

Minneapolis, like so many American cities, suffers from the simple fact that it is relatively spread out in comparison to cities in other parts of the world. As a result, trips one must make to accomplish everyday tasks – grocery store, hair salon, etc. – are by and large simply too time-consuming for most residents to consider making on foot. And herein lies the problem: it does not matter how clean and uninterrupted the sidewalks are; if the door-to-door time and level of convenience cannot approximate what one could accomplish by car, many people, when given the choice, will simply drive. And this simple fact of distance needs to be discussed and tackled, otherwise we are simply never going to be able to move policy in a meaningful direction towards real and genuine walkability.

Discussion to be continued. For more on the topic, see this article.

John Kamp

The great sell-off

There is growing talk and conjecture over the future of the American suburb, and, in particular, over the very large suburban home sometimes not-so-affectionately referred to as the McMansion. As baby-boomers begin to retire in increasing numbers and age past the point of being able to physically maintain large homes and accompanying grounds, planners are beginning to wonder whether some of these homes might not become subdivided into multifamily housing, and whether some will remain vacant, contributing to an ongoing glut of single-family homes. Rather than see this trend as unavoidable sad fate, we would like to see it as a golden opportunity to rethink and reimagine the suburban landscapes these homes sit within. If these dwellings are to become multi-family housing, this will mean increased density and thereby increased concentrations of spending power. If these areas were physically retrofitted to encourage the development of amenities within walking distance – meaning concentrating that spending power in particular areas – that spending power could translate into new suburban hubs of commercial and pedestrian activity. Think of it as the new Victorian Mansion surrounded by the 2010 version of San Francisco.

For more on the future of the McMansion, click here

For more on the baby-boomer-spurned housing glut, click here