If every city looks alike, then we are failing as a profession

Source: andysinger.com

Source: andysinger.com

In response to a cartoon I posted yesterday on panethos.wordpress.com, (see above) a comment was made that planners are one of the reasons why so many cities look-alike. That was a very thought-provoking and rather disconcerting response.

With reflection, I would have to partially agree with the respondent. In too many instances, we as planners fail to fight the good fight and stand up for sound planning practices. Sure, we can be overruled by boards and commissions, but when one scans multitudes of master plans, long-range plans, comprehensive plans, and zoning codes from across the land, there are numerous similarities. What happened to context? What happened to most appropriate? What happened to all the criteria we should be (and were taught to be) using in our daily responsibilities as planners?

Certainly, some similarities between cities are to be expected. But if Boston looks like Birmingham, if you think you are in Scranton when you are really in Peoria, or if Tucson overly resembles Boise, then that is not a good thing. Variety is the spice of life and our communities should be as diverse, unique, and vibrant as each of us. Otherwise, what’s the point of having individually tailored plans and codes? We might as well have a national set of regulations that are applied uniformly across the nation to every village, town, township, city, or county.

Perhaps this is all simple case of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” or of, “if the ordinance survived a challenge elsewhere, it should be good to use here.” Needless to say, these are both somewhat lackadaisical approaches, but they could go a long way towards explaining the conundrum of sameness.

As professional planners, it is our job, no, it is our duty, to develop plans and codes that are best suited to the locality. Planners are not supposed to become one-size fits all land-use fashion designers. Some of you may recall the humorous (and perhaps a tad politically incorrect) Wendy’s commercial from the 1980s mocking a Soviet fashion show. In the advertisement, a model wears the exact same outfit for every purpose. Hopefully, as planners we are not mimicking that commercial in the application of our profession. To do so would be a great disservice to ourselves, our communities, and our profession.

 

 

 

Beware of the weekend sign gremlins

Even notice how a plethora of yard signs suddenly pop-up like dandelions at street intersections on Friday evenings, only to disappear by Monday morning? Those are the result of gremlins putting up signs when they know full well that building or zoning enforcement offices are closed over weekends.

Source: everywheresignsusa.com

Source: everywheresignsusa.com

The same often holds true for portable signs, a-frame signs, banners, flags, streamers, and other sorts of gaudy advertising. Fortunately, when Monday morning rolls around these signs have slithered back into the dark recesses, only for the whole process to repeat itself the following Friday.

Unfortunately, while they are in place, these often illegal signs are quite unsightly and can be a danger to visibility at intersections if improper placed or over-sized.

Short of having enforcement officers working overtime on weekends, policing such activities isn’t an easy task. Perhaps a good civics lesson is one option, but it is doubtful that will have a major impact in the long haul. The legal process may have a far greater impact, if those injured in accidents as a result of visibility constraints from these illegal signs were to take the gremlins and/or the firms who advertise on the signs to court. Not the most efficient way to regulate bad behavior, when all it may lead to is the signs being moved away from street corners.

Any other ideas/suggestions on how to handle the weekend sign gremlins would be welcome.

Utility infrastructure does not have to be ugly

This electrical substation in suburban Chicago (Elk Grove Village) is an excellent example of how, with a little effort, utility infrastructure can be designed to be aesthetically pleasing and blend well with its surroundings. Well done!

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Going sky-high and energy wise in Jakarta

Source: asce.org

Source: asce.org

The impressive 99 story Pertamina Tower in Jakarta, Indonesia will not only be super tall at 530 meters (or 1,744 feet) when it is completed in 2020, but it is designed to be a net-zero energy user. Wind turbines in the V-shaped pistachio-shaped void between the building facades at the top quarter of the tower will supply energy to the skyscraper.

 

 

 

 

Leading “Tree Campus USA” states

Source: unl.edu

Source: unl.edu

In honour of Arbor Day 2014 (tomorrow, Friday, April 25th), I thought it would be interesting to highlight the Tree Campus USA program conducted by the Arbor Day Foundation. Started in 2008 and similar to Tree City USA, this program recognizes those collegiate campuses who protect, maintain, and grow their tree infrastructure. The University of Michigan was the first designated Tree Campus in the United States. Six years later, more than 190 schools participate in this worthwhile program.

There are five standards required for being designated a Tree Campus:

  1. Campus Tree Advisory Committee
  2. Campus Tree Care Plan
  3. Campus Tree Program with Dedicated Annual Expenditures
  4. Arbor Day Observance
  5. Service Learning Project

The list below shows the states with at least four college campuses participating in the program. Congratulations to Illinois, New York, Ohio for leading the pack. Sadly, while home to the first university to be designated as a Tree Campus, Michigan only has three participating schools – Calvin College, University of Michigan, and Western Michigan University.

  • Illinois = 14
  • New York = 13
  • Ohio =11
  • Georgia = 9
  • Pennsylvania = 9
  • Texas = 9
  • Florida = 8
  • Indiana = 8
  • California = 7
  • Nebraska = 7
  • Minnesota = 6
  • North Carolina = 6
  • Oklahoma = 6
  • South Carolina = 6
  • Iowa = 5
  • Kentucky =5
  • Louisiana = 5
  • Missouri = 5
  • Colorado = 4
  • Washington = 4
  • Wisconsin = 4

Source: www.arborday.org

Book review of “Pedaling Revolution”

en.wikipedia.org

en.wikipedia.org

I have just wrapped up reading the fine book, Pedaling Revolution, by author Jeff Mapes. The subtitle of How Cyclists are Changing American Cities best describes the premise of his book, as Mr. Mapes thoughtfully explores the promises and pitfalls cycling advocacy in America. As an avid cycling proponent myself, I can certainly relate to many of the issues he describes. Even though the book was published approximately five years ago, it is largely up to date on the state of affairs in cycling and presents an interesting history of cycling and the bike culture; cycling advocacy in Europe (Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and London); cycling advocacy efforts in the United States; as well as specific advocacy efforts in iconic cycling cities like Davis, Madison, Portland, New York City, Boulder, Eugene, and Chicago.

I greatly enjoyed reading Pedaling Revolution and it will certainly be an important part of my bicycling advocate library. Here are a few dandy quotes gleaned from the book for your enjoyment:

  • “…very little is said about the huge subsides received by motorists that far outweigh any freebies received by cyclists. The largest is free–or cheap—parking.” (page 19)
  • “For all the ire directed at urban cyclists, most people do have a fondness for bikes themselves.” (page 20)
  • “We were, it seems, the last generation of children who headed out into the neighborhood with no more guidance than to be home by dinner.” (page 31)
  • “…just as war is too important to be left to generals, so highways are too important to be left to highway engineers.” (page 48)
  • “…suburban sit-coms like ‘The Brady Bunch’ were replaced by shows like ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends,’ which celebrated city living.” (page 50)
  • “If you’re the kind of cyclist used to riding in American cities, it doesn’t take long for Amsterdam’s bike magic to wash over you. Here you feel like part of the majority, not an oddball.” ( page 63)
  • “Amsterdam had to be the quietest big city I’d ever visited.” ( page 76)
  • “Critical Mass is kind of an anarchical ride for all.” (page 104)
  • “One of the spiels I give is about slowing down. We think we have to cram our lives full, 24-7, but there’s something about giving yourself some extra time. I realized that nobody would think it remarkable if he went to a gym for forty-five minutes every morning and then rushed downtown in a car. Yet doing an eighteen-mile commute through suburbia is weird.” (page 113)
  • “Somehow, in Portland at least, bicyclists have become part of that great American melting pot.” (page 168)
  • “Sometimes we have to use cars, but that does not mean they have to dominate our lives. Instead it should be dominated by human interactions…” (page 179)
  • In America, we spend more on dental research than traffic safety research.” (page 208)

The last quote is quite shocking and should stand as a clear wake-up call that our priorities are bass ackwards.

  • “Unfortunately, walking to the far end of a shopping center is about as much exercise as too many people are getting in modern America, which seems to be on an extended “Super Size Me” experiment.” (page 229)
  • “She has decidely moved from the sedentary majority to the active minority.” (page 241)
  • “…sometimes I feel like the hardest part about using my bike to get around town is the comments I get from people who think I’m just plain weird for doing so.” (page 244)

Amen to that last quote, brother.

Roadside Americana – discount department stores

en.wikipeia.org

Source: en.wikipeia.org

The discount department stores listed below represent memories of the golden age of sprawl (if there is such a thing as a golden age for sprawl). Many of these were local and/or regional chains that grew out of a full-line department store in order to compete with the national discounters. For example, in my hometown of Indianapolis, Ayr-Way was started by L.S. Ayres. They eventually had stores all over Indiana and much of Kentucky.

Source: eastwashingtonstreet.org

Source: eastwashingtonstreet.org

Personally, I recall many trips with my parents to the Ayr-Way stores in Nora or Augusta, which are both on the far northside of Indianapolis. These two stores, as with the entire Ayr-Way chain, were later absorbed and converted into Target. Due to heavy competition from Walmart, Target, and Meijer, many of these chains are long gone and the only reminder are sad, shuttered/abandoned units along an old commercial highway. Others are now occupied by flea markets or second-hand stores.

Source: beatricedailysu.com

Source: beatricedailysu.com

See how many you many of these stores you remember and please feel free to forward any others that I might have missed. The list does NOT include five and dime stores like Ben Franklin, McCrory, G.C. Murphy, Kresge, Kress, or Woolworth, as those were a different retail niche, though some of those chains did start successful discount department stores like Kmart, Murphy Mart and Woolco.

Source: writtenward.com

Source: writtenward.com

Here’s the list with links to their history and the year they were closed or taken over. The ones I have shopped at are shown in italics.