Transit + Design workshops @ SPUR SF

Prairieform’s John Kamp co-leading an interactive workshop with Alta Planning’s Beth Martin on rethinking the Bay Area’s transportation system at SF SPUR

For this year’s annual Transit + Design workshops at SPUR in San Francisco, we will be leading an interactive, model-building workshop on rethinking the Bay Area’s transit system so that it is efficient, comfortable, and easy to navigate for all users, regardless of gender, cultural background, or sexual orientation. All are welcome to attend. For more info, click HERE.

John Kamp

Density, diversity, and markets

minneapolis, density, markets, urban design, transit

A new streetcar line in Minneapolis looks well on its way toward approval, and construction has begun on a new central station where five rail lines (some completed, some underway, some planned) will converge. And controversy over the preferred route for the Southwest Light Rail continues to bubble and boil over. Discussion and debate have naturally flowed forth. At the core of the debate is the recurring urban theme of the 21st century: How do you make the city competitive on both a national and a global scale? And how do you attract and keep new residents? A recent argument was made that transit and a more urban environment were what young people sought as amenities and incentives to live somewhere, and thus they could help make the city competitive. While true, we must argue that the diversity and robustness of markets play an equal if not greater role in helping the city maintain its competitive edge and attracting a broad cross-section of people who are in it for the long haul. And that market diversity can only come with increased population density.

Dense, diverse concentrations of people in urban areas translate into diverse constituencies of buying power. Manhattan is a logical example of this phenomenon. Despite high commercial rents and an increasing presence of chain retail, the island is still populated with large numbers of smaller independent businesses, oftentimes highly specialized, highly niche-oriented businesses. The only way that this is possible is that the island’s density and diversity allow for critical masses of specific, niche-oriented consumer groups. So, for example, there are enough people both within access to and who have a fondness for a Hungarian bakery on the Upper West Side that the bakery can manage to compete with the numerous other bakeries – including chain bakeries – in the city. Likewise there are enough people within access to and who have a fondness for Japanese baked goods to keep a small Japanese bakery in the East Village going strong. Bolstering these businesses even further are influxes of capital from both foreign investors, foreign consumers, and in some cases those who divide their time between New York and another city abroad. These extra boosts of capital can only emerge within cities that attract a broad cross-section of people at high densities.

In the case of Minneapolis, the city is, save its downtown core, by and large a low-density city. It has also been heretofore a relatively inexpensive city as compared with other cities it is often compared to – Seattle, and Portland, to name a couple. While the relatively inexpensive nature of the city can allow businesses to set up shop with low overhead, it cannot solve the problem of small, relatively un-diverse markets. As such, low overhead means little to a niche-oriented business if the necessary revenue from niche consumer markets is not there. And this is the conundrum that Minneapolis currently faces. Yes, we can hope that people will move to MInneapolis for its high quality of life, for its expanding rail system, for its unbelievable amounts of greenspace, but they will not all be able stay in Minneapolis if the population density and the corresponding diverse markets to support them are not there.

We could be content to argue that niche-market businesses are not needed in Minneapolis and thus who cares? We’ve got our nice concentration of white-collar employers, and this is enough. This attitude would be a mistake. The city is fast falling behind when it comes to supporting and fostering innovation, in large part because of small, limited markets. Innovators and entrepreneurs seek out cities with actual markets for their innovations, and markets that are robust enough to allow their businesses to flourish for the long haul, not simply those that provide a dose of cash here and there for a flash-in-the-pan one-off product. We can speak directly from our own experience in this case, having had to expand our reach to Los Angeles to capture a larger market for our work, a market that would otherwise be too small if we only worked in Minneapolis, despite the city being a lovely place to live, ride your bike, and so on.

In a day and age when American cities are no longer all the same and when cities are actually competing with each other for residents, capital, and jobs, Minneapolis needs to get serious about density and markets and understand that its hope that young people will move here and stay for the long haul will only be a pipe dream if the markets aren’t there to sustain their employment and entrepreneurial endeavors on a long-term, enduring level.

John Kamp

Creating a true urban playground

In the city of Utrect, Netherlands, the Dutch railway maintenance company ProRail has installed a slide at one of the city’s subway stations. For those who are in a hurry to catch the train, you can opt to take the slide down rather than pokily walk down the stairs. We’re wondering why it has taken so long for this kind of urban amenity to be put into practice. It’s a small investment that ultimately offers the promise of infusing into what could otherwise be a routine, monotonous commute, something just a bit zippier, a nice tonic to the stresses, work-induced overseriousness, and occasional doldrums of the modern world.

The Road-widening fallacy

Mega-right-hand turn lane on Grand Avenue, Downtown Los Angeles

Los Angeles is perhaps one of the only major cities left in the US that continues to practice road-widening with aplomb. While other cities begin to move away from the faulty logic that new, multi-family housing in the inner city equates more traffic which necessitates a wider road and a narrower sidewalk, Los Angeles has shown itself to think this logic perfectly sound and uncontestable. On the one hand, the city has, by virtue of many of the projects it has recently approved, been encouraging more people to move back to the city and to live in multi-family housing, from which they can presumably walk to various amenities and services, and take transit to work. However, in the same breath, the city will proceed to narrow the sidewalk in front of the new multi-family project, cut down any existing street trees, and widen the road. This is the physical manifestation of a thoroughly mixed-message: Give up your yard and space outside the city so that you can come live in the city in a smaller space with no yard that overlooks a freeway-style street, on whose sidewalks no one is encouraged to walk.

Temporarily narrow street noticeably devoid of traffic, Downtown Los Angeles

There are many assumptions to uncover in the faulty reasoning behind this approach. Perhaps more egregious than the assumption that new multi-family housing suddenly induces traffic congestion is the assumption that we should be planning for minimizing traffic in the first place. As we recently reported in a post on New Orleans’ famed neutral grounds, there is little correlation between traffic congestion and a slow economy; in fact, quite the opposite is proving to be true: the world’s most successful cities also contain horrible traffic congestion. These same cities have also begun realizing that their strength and allure lie in the quality of life they can offer to their citizens, not to their vehicles. In Los Angeles, we still have a vehicle-pampering problem, and given the ongoing track record of road-widenings, this penchant for pampering isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

Grand Avenue south of 11 Street, with widened sidewalk and street trees

Nonetheless, some glimmers of modern intelligence have begun working their way up through the asphalt. The city has recently revised its downtown street standards, so as to prevent the kind of inane road-widenings shown in the top photo of Grand Avenue and its mega-right-hand turn lane, and so as to favor the more pedestrian-friendly streets, such as this small stretch of Grand Avenue in South Park, shown above. Let us hope that this trend continues and spills out beyond the boundaries of Downtown and into the vast swath of contrete, and asphalt that is greater Los Angeles.

Neutral grounds

Huntington Drive in El Sereno

Many of Los Angeles’s boulevards measure in at over 100 feet from side to side. Some, such as Huntington Drive, stretch out to almost 200 feet – which is, quite simply, huge. The vast majority of these 200 feet comprise traffic lanes, while a small portion of the width is devoted to planted median strips. As a city, Los Angeles has historically shown great hesitation in relinquishing carpspace and transforming it into generously sized medians and wider sidewalks. Quite the opposite, the prevailing modus operandi has been to widen roads early and often, including widening those streets and roads adjacent to rail stations, the very places where pedestrians travel most.

To learn about the wide, wide world of varying uses for streetspace, many an Angeleno (and American, for that matter) could benefit from a trip down south to New Orleans – both the birthplace of Jazz, and home to the famed neutral grounds. Neutral grounds are what New Orleans residents refer to their medians as. Originally developed for drainage purposes, the neutral grounds have become the city’s emerald jewels, bisecting streets with swaths of greenery, wildlife, and calm.

Neutral ground in New Orleans spanning some 30 feet

The neutral grounds range in size, with some measuring a miniature three feet, and some spanning over thirty feet. Some of the larger neutral grounds have become home to playgrounds, impromptu games of volleyball, fountains, and public gathering areas. Others double as space for streetcars. Whatever the case, they are a reminder of what many of our streets once were: public spaces for a whole host of activities, only one of which being vehicular traffic.

One of the narrower neutral grounds

There has been growing talk of late of bicycle lanes, transit, and walkable streets, all of which are integral components to 21st Century city, but none of which can be realized if municipalities simply cannot get serious about relinquising some carspace to other uses. Merely painting a bicycle lane along the side of Sunset Boulevard while not redesigning the street so that motorists do not drive at 45 mph is insufficient. The push-back within the conversation has come from those who claim that constructing medians, bike lanes, wider sidewalks will lead to worsening traffic, which will lead to economic decline. This line of reasoning sounds mildly convincing until one considers New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong – all cities with horrendous traffic, and all major financial centers of the world, not to mention some of the most-visited cities of the world.

Saint Charles Streetcar within neutral ground

-Written by PRAIRIEFORM’s John Kamp, and James Rojas of Place It!